From Chusul Bridge, on the western outskirts of Lhasa, the southern road climbs steeply up to the Kampa La Pass (4794m); at the top, a car park offers stunning views of the turquoise waters of the sacred Yamdrok Tso (羊卓雍错, yángzhuóyōngcuò), the third largest lake in Tibet. It’s a good place to take a picture, and there are plenty of Tibetans armed with baby goats, yaks and Tibetan Mastiffs – dogs traditionally used by nomads to fend off wolves – who will be only too happy to pose with you, for a small fee. It is said that if the lake ever dries up then Tibet itself will no longer support life – a tale of heightened importance now that Yamdrok Tso, which has no inflowing rivers to help keep it topped up, is powering a controversial hydroelectric scheme. From the pass, the road descends to Yamtso village before skirting the northern and western shores amid wild scenery dotted with a few tiny hamlets, yaks by the lakeside and small boats on the water.
On the western side of the lake, 57km beyond the Kampa La Pass, the dusty village of Nakartse (4500m) is the birthplace of the mother of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. There is basic accommodation in the village, but few tours overnight here, preferring to push on to Gyantse or Shigatse – though most do stop for lunch. There are several Chinese restaurants, but the favourite with visitors is the Tibetan restaurant with tables in a tiny courtyard, hidden away in the middle of the village, where you can eat rice with potato and meat curry (they fish out the meat for vegetarians) under the watchful eyes of local dogs. Jeep drivers usually come here; otherwise, look for the tourist vehicles parked outside.
Yamdrok Tso has many picturesque islands and inlets visible from the road, and there’s a seven-day circular trek from Nakartse exploring the major promontory into the lake. The climb up from Nakartse to the glacier-topped Karo La Pass (5045m) is long and dramatic, with towering peaks on either side as the road heads south and then west toward apparently impenetrable rock faces. From the pass, the road descends gradually, via the mineral mines at Chewang, and the stunning reservoir at the Simila Pass (4717m) to the broad, fertile and densely farmed Nyang Chu Valley leading to Gyantse.