Climb Mount Gonga, Sichuan Mountains (蜀山之王): Minya Konka West Route
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Added by Kyle Obermann
Spend five days circling the western side of the highest peak east of the Himalaya, the 7556m giant known as Mount Gonga in Chinese (贡嘎山) or Minya Konka in Tibetan (མི་ཉག་གངས་དཀར་). Traverse glacial valleys, emerge from the tent surrounded by grazing yaks, spend a night in a 13th century monastery, and experience local Tibetan culture.
Mount Gonga is located on the western side of Sichuan Province, approximately 330km from Chengdu. The trek around its western face follows major river valleys and traverses one pass over 4900m (highest point). In its entirety, the trek takes five to six days to complete and is entirely above 3000m. The closest major town and best access point to the route is Kangding (康定). Kangding is a bustling mountain town at 2700m with at least one friendly English-speaking hostel, Zhilam Hostel, where one can purportedly buy camp-fuel and even rent gear. The rainy season starts in mid-summer and ends early-fall.
Starting from Chengdu, you can take an early bus to Kangding starting at 7am from the Chengdu New South Station (新南门汽车站) (there are buses leaving until the early afternoon) which takes about 7-9 hours depending on traffic. A one way ticket is around 120RMB. The bus will only stop once for lunch and a bathroom break. Once in Kangding, you have the option of staying the night in a hostel, or hiring a driver for a bumpy 1.15 hour ride to the trailhead which starts at an old dam/power station (电站). There should be plenty of drivers for hire hanging around outside the bus station that will approach you. One driver’s number is: 13440185070. Expect to pay around 150RMB total.
At the power station the trail starts directly from the road at around 3500m and is only a 2-3 hour easy hike up to the first campsite located in an open, grassy swath of land that is quite obvious. This is about 3600m and located next to the river.
Follow the trail as it rises and falls along the valley river in a steady climb. Expect to pass and see local, friendly Tibetan herders as well as their huts. The valley will eventually split into a Y with a large peak in front of you, follow the path and stay in the valley to the left, continuing on the right of the peak. You have two main, optional sites to camp: the Lower Riwuqie (下日鸟且) or Upper Riwuqie (上日鸟且) valleys at approximately 4090m and 4330m respectively and around 4km apart. Both valleys are distinguishable as large, flat, grassy plains with a river cutting through them. During April of 2014, the river section of the Lower Riwuqie was completely dry. The ascent to the Upper Riwuqie is aggressive and gains elevation quickly up a large rocky moraine. The scenery of the upper valley is fantastic and much better than the lower, however. Also, in April there was still fresh flowing water cutting through the Upper Riwuqie coming directly from the glacial lake above. Alternatively, past the lower valley and before the steep ascent to the upper valley there is a rocky river plain filled with low shrubs that still had a small stream flowing in April 2014 on the far left side. With a small group it is no problem to camp here. In total this is about a 7-9 hour day.
The majority of this day will be spent climbing and traversing the Riwuqie Pass (日鸟且垭口) at 4900m. It is about 4km from the Upper Riwuqie. The climb up to the pass is fairly straightforward with snow cover lasting through spring. There is also the option to detour and view the glacial lake (4,600m) which will be clearly visible as you gain elevation. Near the lake there is a flat, dry, gravel patch at least big enough for one tent, and we found a tent stake there indicating others had done so before. Approaching the pass there is a steep incline and faint trail – the path however is not obvious from afar and is merely a notch in a sharp, steep, scree ridge. For some reason there is barbed wire near the notch, which will clearly tell you if you are in the right location. The path going down the other side is also very obvious. In poor visibility finding the right spot to cross may be very difficult, try to cross early in the day as clouds often roll in during the afternoon.
The trail on the backside of the pass leading to the Moxigou Valley (莫溪沟) is a steep descent down a scree slope, flattening out as you approach the river below (here it is important to note that the last place for reliable running water until this point was the stream in the Upper Riwuqie or the glacial lake). As you approach the river, the path again grows faint, and is especially hard to follow in poor visibility. Do not go all the way down to the river and instead follow along it on the slopes to the right, where spaced out rock cairns should mark the faint path. Following the path above the river you will eventually run into an old, stone horse shed on the bank of the river. You can camp here (depending on group size there are also suitable places before, but with worse water access). This is easily a 15km day, and depending whether you detour to the glacier and how far along the Moxigou Valley you go may take 10hrs or more. Chinese maps list the official Moxigou camping site at 4250m.
Depending on where you set up camp the night before, this is around a 30km day to the Gonga Monastery (贡嘎寺). The trail is relatively flat, gradually losing elevation, but also climbs up again quite a bit before the monastery at 3750m. The trail here is clear, continuing on the right side of the river and eventually crossing log bridges over the rocky river valley to enter in the eventual forest on the left side of the river. At this point you are about 15km away from the monastery. On the left side of the river water access is limited to intermittent streams flowing down ravines towards the river now in a gorge below. As you approach the monastery these streams become much fewer so it is advised to frequently fill up on water whenever you get the chance. 1.5km from the monastery you will run into a very well-marked fork in the trail (lots of prayer flags and sings). The left leads to the monastery and should say such (albeit in Chinese), and the right leads down to the upper and lower Tibetan Zimei villages (上子梅村 and 下子梅村), 7km and 10km away respectively (though the sign says 5km and 6km). At the monastery you can stay in a very comfortable two bed room with free hot water for 50RMB/person. Depending on your pace, this can be another long, 10+ hour day. It is also the last difficult day.
The monastery will probably be the first place you will get a view of Mt. Minya Konka – and it is unparalleled. Use the morning and early afternoon to continue on the trail past the monastery to either choose the trail going down towards the river valley and massive glacial moraine below or upwards towards the ridge above. If heading down, the path along the moraine will be marked with stone cairns and prayer flags. Stay close to the river and hug to it as it plummets down the moraine on the left to avoid losing the path in the boulder field. This is also the same path that leads to the base camp of Minya Konka. If the weather is good, either the path up towards the ridge or the river valley/moraine below will yield more spectacular views of the mountain. Later in the day hike back up to the monastery and take the path back to the fork where you were the previous day, this time heading straight down passing through the upper Zimei village at 3470m and into the lower Zimei village at 3310m. Once at the lower Zimei, there are a variety of places to stay/drivers to hire for the drive out. You can also camp in one of the villager’s yards/yak fields if they let you. My personal recommendation is to inquire after and stay with a man named Gongbu (pronounced “Gongboo,” 贡布 in Chinese), phone number: 13568291372 or 13684462083.
Hire a driver (the local you are staying with) to drive you out of the village and to the Zimei Pass at sunrise so you can get one more beautiful glimpse of Mt. Minya Konka if the weather is nice. Then, continue over the pass and head back towards Kangding. The drive is 5-6 hours, but a beautiful trip through local Tibetan villages and the rural high plains. Your driver may arrange for you to stop and switch drivers at another village (like Shade 沙德 for example) so he doesn’t have to drive so far himself. The total cost to Kangding should be around 800RMB. The last bus leaving from Kangding back to Chengdu is at 2pm so it is possible to get back to Chengdu in a day.
In Chengdu go chill out at a tea house and make your mouth burn as much as your legs by having celebratory a hot pot (火锅).
1) From the Riwuqie Pass it seems possible to instead of descending into the Moxigou Valley below, head right towards the ridge on the right side. This ridge appears broad and rolls up and down staying around 4500m with a very gradual drop in elevation. Carrying ample water, or if there is snow cover, it appears possible to follow this ridge for the rest of the day and set up camp, getting excellent views of Mt. Minya Konka. The next day you can descent back into the Moxigou Valley below and rejoin the trail.
2) Take an extra day and follow the trail leading down from the monastery to the river below. Continue on it following the flags and cairns along the river, and take it to the base camp and spend a night there before heading back up to the monastery and villages the next day.
- 3-season tent
- Below freezing sleeping bag and pad
- Food for 6 days
- Cell phone and cash for driver etc. (water protected)
- Bilingual maps (contact me)
- Rain/Snow gear
- Water filtration
- Camping stove with high-altitude fuel and something to light fires with (cheap lighters work poorly this high up)
- Ibuprofen (at least) for the altitude
- Know how to say hello in Tibetan: TA-SHEE-DAY-LAY
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