Waterfalls cascading from impossible heights into rivers of crystal-clear water. Reflections from the water’s surface like thousands of dancing Tinkerbells.
Little nomad girls wearing pigtails or dirty taffeta skirts, the front stoop of their mother’s tea house their only playground.
Chorten Kangnyi, a stupa that marks the beginning of the kora and the Lha Chu (river) valley, on the west (ruby) side of Kailash. We circambulate the chorten clockwise, then walk through it and exit the far side, toward the mountain. When we do, it is a symbolic act of leaving behind our past and outer existence and entering into a new one. It reminds me of the ceremonies we did on the vision quest.
The inner chorten is strewn with dead goat and sheep skulls and a bell hangs from the ceiling that we toll as we walk through. In keeping with tradition, we leave behind something of ourselves: a lock of Caroline’s hair and a chunk of my beard.
Hardworking ponies dressed up like they’re going to a parade.
Mt Kailash. People of the west are attracted to superlatives and put great stock in a mountain’s elevation. (hence, the crowds every climbing season on Mt Everest). But altitude is not of supreme importance to people of the the eastern cultures and would not, by itself, make a mountain sacred. Kailash doesn’t have that going for it, anyway, at a mere 22,000ft (Everest 29,000).
Kailash is special by a different standard. It is referred to in the grandest of terms: the Axis Mundi, center and birthplace of the entire world, already legendary before the great Hindu epics, the center of the cosmic mandala. It is the physical manifestation of the mythical Mt Meru and for that reason cannot be climbed. There are stairways on Kailash that lead to heaven, yet to set foot on its slopes is a dire sin. It is not even possible to draw too near because anyone who attempts to approach Kailash too closely is repelled like the positive ends of two magnets.
I’m not discounting any of that but, to me, Mt Kailash is also just a really cool looking mountain—not like any other. Take away all the legends and spiritual significance and it would still impress. I could gaze at it a long time and not look away. It definitely has charisma.
This part I like: They say that the north side of Mt Kailash (the north is the emerald face) is a vantage point from which beings might glimpse enlightenment and steer their lives more accurately toward it. This spot is the peak of the spiritual world accessible to humans and the place where we should dedicate all our merit and virtue to the transformation of the whole world for the sake of all beings.
That’s a tall order, but it is also said to be where we can plant our supreme wish for ourselves and for our world, a place where that wish will come true. Caroline and I do that.
Sleeping in a tea house consisting of one large room filled with many Tibetans (and us). Many bunks on the perimeter lined up so tightly that it’s hard to climb in from the side. Lobsang puts Caroline between himself and me. A cast-iron stove in the center, fueled with Yak dung, cooking dal bhat. Lobsang warning us it might be a noisy place to sleep and it is. He said, “Sometimes people cry, sometimes they cough, sometimes they chant.”
Pilgrims, armored in leather aprons and mittens, inching their way around the thirty-two mile circuit one prostration at a time; an act of devotion that is hard to imagine.
Eating fresh, homemade curd (yoghurt) with chopsticks.
Deep valleys with towering walls of stone, littered with countless small meditation caves that were the legendary haunts of past lamas. Jagged rock formations that supposedly resemble the visages of various deities and celestial beings. I read about these formations before I came and try to see the figures for myself but can’t make many of them out. It’s like seeing figures in clouds (which I can do) or the man-in- the-moon (which I can’t). I do, however, see one rock outcrop that looks like Abraham Lincoln.
Herds of yaks, bells hanging from their necks and red tassels from their ears, wandering across the rocky slopes or the trail right in front of us.
Designated sites for sky-burial, the Tibetan rite for the dead. The body of the deceased is ceremoniously dismembered and the parts left on a high place where a fire is lit to call down the vultures that will consume them. The Tibetan Buddhists believe this is the last compassionate act they can perform for another sentient being.
We were not allowed to visit but, from below, watch the large black birds form circles in the sky.
Stones on stones on stones. Mountain people have always constructed rock cairns. They mark the way, both physically and spiritually. The cairns (Tib. laptses) here are too numerous to count. Caroline and I construct a family cairn.
Mani (prayer) stones are everywhere I look, accumulated over centuries. Carved on the stones is the mantra “Om Mani Padma Hum.” I will leave the translation to scholars but a mantra is not for the thinking mind anyway.
Om, the cosmic syllable, invokes the vibration of the universe and is used to help achieve concentration and to quiet the mind prior to meditation. This single syllable is said to contain the same creative energy that was present at the origin of the universe when the utterance of certain sounds helped bring forth the world. Said in another way, “In the beginning was the word and the Word was God.”
When I utter Om, I declare that everything is perfect at every instant, that compassion and wisdom are present everywhere, that love is present, that there is nothing to fear. It is like saying, “All is well, all is well, all is well.”
Lobsang. I am not including his full name or any close-up pictures of him in this blog. As a Tibetan, he lives under many restrictions. He is not allowed to leave Tibet without special permission, nor China at all—an expatriate in his own country. He wants the world to know about Tibet and what it’s like here and tells us we should share what we know.
Lobsang was raised a nomad by parents who do not read or write but are wise and strong. He reveres them. His grandfather was a monk and taught him most of what he learned as a child. He does not have any formal education but you would not suspect that from talking with him for even five minutes. An uncle was killed in the cultural revolution. He is very smart and thirsts for information about anything and everything. Much of what he knows about current events is gleaned from clients like us, some from his limited access to the internet. He fell in love and married a Chinese woman who then became subjected to the same restrictions as her Tibetan husband. That’s a lot to do for love and her own story could fill a blog post of its own. They have a sweet two-year-old girl.
I’ve already written about Lobsangs strength of character and his heart, which is big, like his native land. He calls me “Doctor Jeff”, which feels like home. He calls any mountain with snow on its summit a “snow mountain” and refers to the Bible as “your book.” He has both an intellectual part of his personality and a practical one. Carol asked him if people ever died attempting to walk the kora. He flatly said, “Yes, lots.” Soon after that we stopped at a store to buy oxygen tanks ( we didn’t use them). He and our driver, Kelsang la, took a long time in the store and Carol asked, “What else are they buying in there, body bags?”
Lobsang’s spirituality runs deep but would be hard to categorize. He is a Buddhist but a questioning one, testing everything with direct experience, as Buddhists are taught to do. He said that, “I am not comfortable with this karma thing. It seems so harsh and lonely. There is nobody to appeal to. I don’t know much about Christianity, but I like to think of a God with open arms.” He keeps notes and quotes on his mobile phone, same as Caroline and me, and tries not to frame his world in terms of “black vs white”, or “us vs them.”
Lobsang does not know a stranger and anyone he meets he engages in conversation. It must be the nomad culture, where your survival out on the steppe might depend on the hospitality and kindness of strangers. We run across a horse with its lead tangled up in some rocks so that it can’t move. A woman pilgrim is having trouble getting things untangled but Labsang, the nomad and master horseman, does the job in no time— another sentient being set free. A family is walking the kora, a young couple with an infant in a papoose strapped to the father’s back. It is obviously a daunting challenge, so Lobsang falls is step with them for a while and offers words of encouragement.
Lobsang has a dream. It is to be allowed to leave China long enough to take some classes and learn more about all that he has missed up till now. Even more than for himself, he dreams that for his daughter. A chance to learn and to grow—doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.
Gompas (monasteries) clinging to the sides of valley walls. The structures are ancient to the pilgrims walking below but recent in the history of the kora itself.
Drolma la (Tara Pass): 18,600 feet elevation.
We leave the tea house in a steady drizzle, headlamps lighting our way across a muddy path strewn with slippery boulders. The torches of other pilgrims who left before us are flickering in the heights above. Lobsang leads as I struggle to keep up in the rear. We brought too much gear on this trek and I am laden with two packs, one front and back. Lobzang loves to chat and I enjoy talking to him, but not now. Carol is great at carrying the conversation when I feel like going silent.
At the moment, all I can think about is oxygen. There’s not enough of it. So many times I have listened to my patients say they felt their heart beating out of their chest. I nod and say I understand, but never did until now.
The ascent is both physical and metaphorical, passing by sites meant for ritual and reflection. There is a sin-testing place that pilgrims crawl through and the important Silvatsal (Cool Grove), a place to contemplate my own death, then a section meant to symbolize the Bardo, a Tibetan version of Purgatory. We pass a cave and huge boulder with mani carvings on it. This is the place to honor one’s parents. I place two stones on the boulder. Caroline is quiet and tearful as she remembers her mom and dad. Lobsang respectfully keeps back.
The pass itself is enveloped with prayer flags. A thick pile of them covers the trail and we have no choice but to walk on them. Five colors for the five elements, and on each a mantra and a wind horse to carry the prayers up and away. The summit is the place of rebirth. At 18k ft, it is a physical culmination as well as a spiritual one. Never have I breathed air so thin or so pure.
On Drolma La summit there is a place to light incense and a place we find for photos. I leave behind the Barred Owl feather I found on my “day walk” last January and carried with me on my vision quest. Caroline scatters fragrant lavender seeds from our home garden. One last look, then we start down.
On the first day we meet a pilgrim woman in her seventies, stooped and using a cane as she walked, dressed in the familiar, multicolored stripes of Tibetan women. She has done the kora before and is determined to do it again, much to the alarm of her daughter. The mamma was not to be dissuaded, so there was nothing for the daughter to do but walk the kora with her.
We fall into stride with them for a while and Lobzang, as is his nature, starts a conversation. After awhile we walk on ahead. The next morning we start our ascent of Drolma La Pass two hours before daybreak and have descended the other side, nearly to the valley floor, when we come upon the same momma and daughter— they have gotten that far ahead of us again. It is an amazing testament to what they say about age being a function of the mind and of one’s attitude rather than the body alone. It also puts in perspective the American ideal of living in a house where everything is on one floor.
Hiking trails that want to be stream beds.
Two rainbows. One that spans a valley and one that forms a halo around the sun. A pilgrim walking the the kora in the opposite direction nudges Caroline and points up to the sky. It was a moment of enchantment.
I don’t know what it signifies—when a rainbow circles the sun—but I figure it must be something good.
We sit down next a woman who lost her daughter to cancer. She tells Lobsang that she is still very sad and walking the kora is a way of seeking solace. She and Carol exchange smiles and they are able to communicate without language that they are both tired and sore. They reach out their hands to each other and Carol helps the woman stand up. They start walking down the trail but the woman doesn’t let go of Carol’s hand until they come to another woman who is prostrating around Kailash. The grieving woman with bad knees offers the prostrating woman a snack out of our pack we gave her earlier, which she accepts, and also some money of her own, which she refuses.
We share our kora with many other people, hundreds of them stretched out over the thirty-two miles, like a giant strand of prayer beads or, at night, a string of tiny white Christmas tree lights encircling the mountain. They are mostly Tibetan, with a few Indians. We don’t encounter a single other person from the west. The trek, in some ways, is a solitary pursuit—nobody but myself can get me to the top of Drolma La pass— but at the same time we are a community of pilgrims, separated by wide disparities in background, culture and economic status, but united in a common endeavor, a goal, a dream. The usual boundaries break down, replaced by the universal sign of human connection, a smile, and a hearty “Tashi Delak”, the Tibetan version of “Namaste.”
There are many myths and legends that surround Mt Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. They stretch back as far as prehistory and encompasses every nook and cranny of the landscape. There is magic in the caves and waters, spirts in the rock outcroppings, energy centers and places for spiritual awakening.
I’m interested in all that stuff but, in the end, the kora for me wasn’t a metaphysical experience. I witnessed the grandeur of God’s creation and the awe inspiring beauty of the earth, our home, and it makes me realize that what makes me fully human is not just other humans. I am also reminded that the real magic is not up there on the mountain, but rather in how I order my life so that I can be in authentic, life-affirming relationships with the good earth and with good people everywhere.
One of the themes of the vision quest and kora is that I am to awaken to a more authentic self and let go of whatever old stuff is holding me back, to have a rebirth. I haven’t felt a desire for a metamorphosis of my life, but I know there are parts that could use some fine tuning. The external exercises of a fast in the wilderness or trek around a mountain are exercises that serve to focus and help me to “loosen my hold on myself.” In the going out I am also going in.
That is what a pilgrim to Mt Kailash is supposed to do and I did. But, for me, it wasn’t the best part. In Tibet, I loved the awe-inspiring landscape, the physical challenge of the kora and the spiritual journey that is as much a part as the physical one. But I have found that, wherever I go, it comes down to the people. What I will miss the most is Lobsang, our guide, and Kelsang la, our driver. Lobsang and Kelsang la—our friends.
Caroline taught Lobsang the hymn, Pilgrim Song, as we sat trailside and watched the procession of pilgrims. Here are the lyrics of the first verse:
“We are travelers on a journey,
We are pilgrims on a road.
We are here to help each other,
Walk the mile and share the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you,
In the nighttime of your fears.
We will hold our hands together,
Speak the peace you long to hear.”