Lake Namtso, meaning “Heaven Lake” in the Tibetan language, is often described as being next to Heaven because of its lofty altitude, stunning beauty, pure blue water, and spiritual associations.
Snow-capped mountains and open grassland, dotted with yak herds and local nomads, surround the crystal clear waters of Lake Namtso, making it one of the most beautiful places in Tibet.
Located northwest of Lhasa in Nagqu Prefecture, Lake Namtso is the highest salt lake in the world, with an elevation of almost three miles, or 4,718 meters. The lake also ranks the second largest salt lake in China, covering a vast area of over 1,900 square kilometers, or about 757 square miles. It is over 70 kilometers long, reaches a width of 30 kilometers and is 35 meters at its deepest point.
Abundant with fish, such as golden trout, the lake’s water level results from rains, melted ice and snow from the Nyenchen Tanglha (Nianqing Tangula) Mountains.
The lake’s natural resources offer a haven for many migrating birds as well as wild animals, such as black bears, hares, and roe deer. Medicinal plants also grow around the lake, such as Chinese caterpillar fungus.
Namtso has five uninhabited islands, of which Liangduo is the largest, and Zhaxibandao is the most famous for its interesting caves and strange rock formations resembling the shapes of animals, trees, and even humans.
Regarded as one of the three holy lakes of Tibet, along with Lake Yamdrok and Lake Manasarovar, it is believed that in the 12th century, Buddhists began the practice of worshiping on Lake Namtso during the Tibetan Year of the Sheep.
During the Year of the Sheep, believers would come in large numbers at the end of winter, walking over the lake's frozen surface and carrying their food with them. They would spend the summer at Lake Namtso unable to return again until the water froze the following winter. Worshipers believed that if one walked around the lake once during the Year of the Sheep, he and his family would be blessed with good health, safety, knowledge and other virtues.
Though the practice of walking across the frozen lake is no longer permitted by the Chinese government, modern believers can worship at the Tashi Dor temple, which is built on the southeast corner of Lake Namtso.
The best season for visiting Lake Namtso is summer, from May to September. However, visitors should come prepared at all times for wet weather, snow, and cold winds. October often brings heavy snowstorms and treacherous road conditions.
There are tours available to Namtso from Lhasa or tourists can hire a taxi or mini bus from Lhasa, which is about a four-hour drive.
Travelers planning a trip through Tibet should be advised that the Chinese government forbids independent tourism and requires all foreign travelers to have a guide, tour company, and Tibet travel permit.
A day trip is often recommended as the weather at night can be harsh and cold. There is scarce hotel accommodation at Namtso, but there is a tent compound available with limited electricity and running water. Visitors can also find accommodation in the nearby town of Damxung.
Traveling to Lake Namtso may require visitors to endure rough weather and high altitude but once they arrive there and take in its pristine beauty, the trip is a worthy and unforgettable experience.