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Yamdrok Tso Lake – Largest Amongst Four Holy Lakes in Tibet


Yamdrok Tso Lake, also known as Yamdrok Yumtso, is one of the four largest holy lakes in Tibet, besides Nam Tso Lake and Lake Manasarovar. The lake is situated at the south of Yarlung Tsangpo river within Langkazi county in Shannan region of Tibet. Perched at an altitude of 14, 570 ft (4,440 m), the holy jaded lake in Tibet stretches over 72 km with an average depth of 20-40 m, the most in-depth point being 60 m, and comprises of dozen of tiny islands. Without an outlet, it seems like a natural reservoir with a perfect balance between the melted snow water and the evaporated lake water. Surrounded by many snow-capped mountains and fed by numerous small streams, this sacred lake is an interesting place to visit due to the mythological belief of being a transformation of a goddess.

Engaging the spiritual essence of Tibet, the coral colored lake and its surrounding areas are closely associated with Padmasambhava, who is believed to have brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. Today, both pilgrims and tourists can be seen walking along the lake’s perimeter. One of the lake’s islands contains an old fort or castle called Pede Dzong.

Standing to the south of Lake Yamdrok Tso is the famous Samding Monastery, which is the only Tibetan monastery to be headed by a female incarnate. It is believed that it was in this monastery the third-highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism had been reincarnated for hundreds of years. A visit to Yamdrok Tso Lake is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So come and try your hand at drinking hot-buttered tea astride a colorfully bedecked yak while overlooking the beautiful emerald lake.

Reaching Yamdrok Tso Lake

If you visit Yamdrok Tso Lake from Lhasa, it is 120 km drive towards the southwest, where you have to climb over Kampala Pass, from where you can have a bird’s eye view of the incredible turquoise lake. However, if you begin from Gyantse, the lake lies 140 km eastwards, where you have to climb over Karola Pass. The drive, however, is very scenic and adventurous. Travelers will need to hire a car and driver or take a bus tour on to Yamdrok Tso. Alternatively, if embarking on an overland tour to Everest Base Camp from Lhasa, you can visit the holy lake en route.

Religious Beliefs

There are several spiritual as well as mythological beliefs regarding the holy lake as mentioned below:

  • Tibetans believe that lakes are the dwelling places of protective deities and therefore, revered and invested with special spiritual powers.
  • The lake is said to be a manifestation of a natural force, the one that gives power in life.
  • Yamdrok Tso Lake is said to be able to help Tibetans find the reincarnated soul of the Dalai Lama. After a Dalai Lama passes away, the senior monks are responsible for finding the boy in whom the reincarnated soul of the Dalai Lama has gone to abide. They come to this lake to chant and pray, thereby getting a reflection of the specific location of the Dalai Lama’s soul.
  • According to folklore, a fairy maiden left heaven and transformed into Yamdrok Tso Lake. The lake is said to be the female guardian of Buddhism in Tibet, guarded by the goddess Dorje Gegkyi Tso.
  • It is believed that if the lake dries up, Tibet will become an inhabitable place.
  • Tibetans believe that circumambulating around the lake in seven days will wash away their sins and earn merit.
  • The Mongolian people believe that Yamdrok is the Tibetan female Dharmapala with multiple functions or divine power.

Significant Highlights

  • There are many small islands in the lake, which support many migratory birds. The lake is the most abundant habitat for migratory birds in southern Tibet. During autumn and winter, the lake bank and the islands are a spectacular view of thousands of white birds flying above the lake.
  • The lake serves as an immense reserve of fishes, thus also called the ‘fish stock of Tibet.’ Local fishermen catch native varieties of fish in the lake for sale in local villages and markets.
  • Yamdrok Tso is revered as a talisman and is said to be a part of the life-spirit of the Tibetan nation.
  • A significant variety of birds, goats, yaks, wild plants, plains, and pasture provides unique natural scenery with few villages hugging the rocky lake shores.
  • Devout Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, traditionally make pilgrimages to the lake.

Fooding and Accommodation

There are no real lodgings available at Yamdrok Tso till now, and no boating, fishing or swimming beaches. Small establishments in local villages sell some prepared food. Most travelers arrive here as a part of some tour itinerary, usually focused on the capital city of Lhasa. Nagarze is the nearest town to the lake. Some small guest houses, restaurants and shops here serve both tourists and pilgrims who come here to walk around the lake in honor of the resident goddess.

Why visit Yamdrok Tso Lake?

Yamdrok Tso Lake looks like a holy sapphire. Under the bright azure sky, the clean water of the lake is as smooth as the surface of beautiful blue jade. Every year, many local Tibetans, visitors from Lhasa and foreign tourists come here for pilgrimage or sightseeing. Various reasons to visit Yamdrok Tso Lake are:

  • It is the largest freshwater lake at the north foot of the Himalayas in southern Tibet.
  • The lake freezes up in winter. However, melting of snow and glaciers feed the lake throughout the year.
  • The lake is located in a fantastic environment and is a beautiful spiritual retreat.
  • A trip to Yamdrok Yumtso consists of a glimpse of all that Tibet has to offer to a curious eye. A visit to the lake immerses you in the world of Tibet’s extraordinary landscapes, with fantastic options for excursions and walks.
  • In the distance, you will have spectacular views of the holy mountain Mt. Nyenchen Khangsar (7,191 m).
  • Yamdrok Tso is turquoise when the sun shines on it. With the change in the angle of the sun’s rays, the lake reflects different degrees of blue, light blue and sapphire, making it incredibly attractive.

 Best time to visit

The winters are usually mild. However, the lake will freeze during winter seasons. The best months to visit Yamdrok Tso are from May to July with relatively mild temperature and have clear sky across the country. With unpredictable weather and temperature, it is always advisable to take your rain gear and warm clothing along with you.

Other interesting facts

  • The lake offers yak rides to the tourists.
  • The vast lake lies in what is called the Trans-Himalayas, a poorly defined mountainous region of Tibet.
  • Local villagers here have begun developing cottage industries to create crafts to sell to the tourists.
  • The world’s highest hydroelectric power is located nearby the lake.
  • By standing on the hilltop around, one can have a far view of the fresh water under the sunshine reflecting different colors of blue, and the diverse lakeside grass and plants dotted with yaks and birds.
  • The name of the lake roughly translates to the ‘jade lake in the upper pastureland,’ but some other translations also call it ‘Swan Lake.’

Tibet is one of the world’s most spiritually appealing places where everything seems pious in this time-wrapped enclave of purity. Set against the backdrop of perpetually snow-covered peaks, Yamdrok Tso lies among rolling hills with nearly the climate of a desert. The deep bluish-green of the lake adds a mass of welcome color to the often brown slopes. Colorful prayer flags placed by the religious people on pilgrimage add spots of riotous color to overlook the shores of the lake.

Owing to its growing popularity, the mystical Yamdrok Tso Lake, in recent days, has been incorporated in many tour itineraries which focuses around Lhasa. A distinctive Kathmandu to Lhasa overland tour via Everest Base Camp will let you explore the spiritual lake, conquering high passes and driving through exotic Tibetan towns.

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