Mind and mountain meet during a hop around Tibet’s holy Mount Kailash
In Asia, no mountain is more venerated than 6,638 meter Mount Kailash, an isolated peak in far western Tibet, part of the Trans-Himalayas, which run parallel to, and north of, the Himalayas. Four religions make it the mythological center of their theology. For Hindus, it’s the home of Shiva and his wife Parvati, who enjoyed a 10,000 year sexual union here. Buddhists see the earthly reflection of Meru, a mountain that reaches underground to the lowest of hells and ascends to the highest heaven. To followers of Bonpo, Tibet’s animist, pre-Buddhist faith, the mountain was the earthly arrival point of their primeval god Tonpa Shenrab. The Jains, meanwhile, believe that this is the place Rishabha, the first of 24 founding tirtankharas, achieved enlightenment.
Although it only takes three days to make the 52 km circumambulation (though many Tibetans do it all in one go), Kailash remains one of the most demanding pilgrimages in the world. Even in the relatively mild May-through-October open season, a hard weather front adds hypothermia to the list of risks.
Within hours of landing in Lhasa, I feel lightheaded and short of breath. At 3,600 meters, the atmosphere here contains 68 percent as much oxygen as I’m used to breathing at sea level, and at the kora’s highest point, nearly 6,000 meters, the oxygen will drop to 40 percent of normal intake.
Like all foreign visitors to Tibet who wish to travel outside Lhasa, I’ve joined a guided tour. In a small bus that becomes our 13-member group’s second home over the next two weeks, we leave Lhasa and roll southwest through a patchwork of jagged rock hills, sand dunes, rivers, pastures and lakes, under a striking, blue sky. The road counts hundreds of extreme hairpin turns—and views of five glacier-encrusted peaks that, at over 8,000 meters, are among the top 10 highest in the world.
From the one-street Tibetan town of Tingri, the bus climbs the steep road through the Rongbuk Valley to the 5,200 meter Everest Base Camp, only four km from the Nepal border. Along the way we can see the top of mighty Everest playing hide and seek with passing clouds.
After a brief tea break in one of the permanent camp tents, we set off on a four km hike to the staging point for Everest climbers, beyond which no vehicles are permitted. Our Tibetan guide, a Jackie Chan-lookalike named Lotse, takes us on an off-road shortcut through rocky chasms and gravelly slopes. At lower elevations, the route would be only moderately challenging. But here the added altitude makes four km feel like 15.
The surrounding Himalayan beauties, the occasional rustic chorten (stupa), and profound silence divert attention away from my over-taxed lungs. I spot a small herd of wild Tibetan antelope, an animal threatened with extinction by hunters who sell its gossamer-thin undercoat to shahtoosh weavers in Pakistan and India.
We continue the long ride to Kailash along China National Highway 219, the highest roadway in the world and one that climbs over five mountains taller than 5,000 meters and passes 44 glaciers. It was completely paved only in 2013.
Darchen is our last overnight stop before the kora. Over yak curry in a Tibetan tea house, Lotse explains that we need to pack everything we won’t need on the trail into bags to be carried by yaks that will follow behind us. Any supplies we need while trekking we must carry ourselves.
Day one begins well, as we start up the kora path across the sandy Barkha plain with views of high peaks in Nepal and India to the south and southwest. The weather is sunny and crisp, and soon the path is winding along Lha-chu River past meadows shorn short by grazing yaks. Around four km in, the trail climbs a ridge for an inspiring first view of Kailash’s southern flank. As the valley opens below we come to Tarboche, a lofty prayer-flag pole first erected in 1681 and still renovated annually.
We settle into walking rhythms that serendipitously divide our group into clusters of two or three. I find myself walking alongside Sonja, from Utrecht, on the first day because our respective paces are similar. Halfway along the trail, my left knee decides it’s had enough hiking for the day and begins to throb. Unfortunately, we have four hours left. After an 11 km day we reach Dirapuk Monastery and a primitive guesthouse where we spend the night.
As Lotse and the yak driver prepare noodles for our evening meal, I compare notes on the day’s hike with my fellow trekkers. Spirits are high, but everyone knows the next day’s 22-kilometer trek up and over the highest point on the kora will be the real test. I fall asleep hoping that the good weather will last, and that my knee won’t get any worse.
At 6 am, after a breakfast of boiled egg and Tibetan flatbread, we set off on day two in total darkness. Almost immediately the stony trail begins its steep ascent towards Dolma-la Pass. We zigzag among rocks and boulders that seem to increase in size the higher we climb. By 8 am the sun is up, and we’re nearing the top of the pass. Luckily the pain in my knee subsided overnight, but the exertion at this altitude is so intense that I have to stop to catch my breath every 10 or 20 meters.
In the Demchog Tantra, Kailash manifests the Mandala of Highest Bliss, but at this point it feels more like the Mandala of Lowest Hell. On cue, I come upon Shiva-tsal, a 5,330 meter rock mass where true pilgrims suffer symbolic death as they enter the realm of Yama, Lord of the Dead. Here pilgrims leave a lock of hair, a drop of blood, a piece of jewelry or other vestige of their everyday lives to represent leaving this life behind. I spot packs of Chinese cigarettes and discarded clothing among the karmic debris, to which I add a Dunlop Big Stubby guitar pick.
A stiff wind is whipping down the mountain into my face and, just to drive the point home, it begins to snow. It comes down in tiny dense balls that bounce off my parka and off the rock face under my boots. The snow is so icy it refuses to stick to anything. Maybe it’s hail; I’m not sure.
Twice I think I’ve made the top of the pass, only to realize it’s a false summit. After another hour of laboured climbing, I’m finally standing at the top of Dolma-la Pass, where the goddess Tara (Dolma in Tibetan) opens her merciful arms and the snow stops whirling around me. I feel tired and exuberant at the same time. In Hindu-Buddhist terms, I’ve been reborn in the same life with a clean karmic bill.
As I stagger over the 5,636 meter glacial ridge forming the pass, I’m tempted to take a break. But the 600 meter ascent is enough to induce acute mountain sickness if I stick around. I have to keep moving. Now and then a small group of Tibetan pilgrims pass me in either direction, smiling and intoning “tashidelek”, the all-purpose Tibetan greeting and farewell. Even little grannies in sandals negotiate the rough trails faster than I do.
The further I get from the pass, the more welcoming Aksobhya Valley becomes. Vast herds of yak nibble on lichen fields alongside the river. A large raven flies parallel to my route for a while. The valley is so quiet that I can hear the raven’s wings rustle like silk as it soars overhead. Later I read that Tibetans believe the bird to be a manifestation of Mahakala, ‘Great Black One’, a protector deity in Vajrayana Buddhism. Looking down at me as it flies past, the raven seems so at home in this beautifully bleak environment. I feel like a lonely spaceman on an alien planet.
After nine and a half hours, I spot a small monastery clinging to a slope. A hundred meters below the monastery stands a cluster of stone and mud-brick buildings. I detour from the trail to investigate, and almost immediately run into Don. He’s the first member of our group I’ve seen since early morning, and I’m overjoyed to learn that this is the end of today’s long trek. The slower members of the group straggle in after 11 or 12 hours on the trail.
The best part of day three’s 11 km hike is a gentle climb through a cobalt- and rust-streaked canyon high above the river. Another hour through comparatively tame countryside, and we’re back in Darchen. My fellow trekkers and I toast the completion of the kora over a Nepali curry dinner in a Tibetan tea house. To help prevent altitude sickness, I haven’t had a drink in nearly 20 days, but tonight I’m delighted to pop a tall bottle of Lhasa beer.
Lhasa can be reached by air via daily nonstop flights from Chengdu and Kunming on China Eastern Airlines (www.flychinaeastern.com). Both China Eastern and Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) fly between Bangkok and Kunming daily.
Tibet Vista Travel (www.tibettravel.org), an agency based in Chengdu, is adept at arranging Tibet Travel Permits, Kailash permits and trekking packages online or in Chengdu.