The Guge Kingdom: Day 11 – 13 (Elevation 3800M / 12467FT)
July 30, 2010, 2:51 am
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As mentioned in the last post, the incubation of something nasty had begun in my stomach by the time we reached Tirthapuri.  It was that evening, as the rest of the camp slept (and snored) sweetly, that the process of becoming ill began in earnest.  I stumbled through our little meadow in the moonlight, with gangs of mean dogs prowling the close vicinity, to make hurried trips to the latrine tent.  As we’ve probably all experienced at one time or another, being sick (especially stomach sick) anywhere but home, sucks.  I assumed it would pass but it just took a greater hold as the next day went on.

And that day had been much anticipated as we were on our way to the remote ruins of the Guge Kingdom (pronounced gooo-gay).  For those few moments I was able to keep it together and enjoy myself, I can say that it was a gorgeous drive through country that resembles a montage of the American Badlands and the Grand Canyon.  But I’m afraid I don’t have a single photo!  It was here too that we had our third and final wolf sighting, but as I mentioned, I was down in a ditch at the time having a private moment with myself. 

The road to Guge is long, unpaved and courses through deep ruts and inches of powdery dust.  The area is currently still remote but a new road is under construction and will be sealed and ready to deliver tourists in throngs within the next few months.  But for now we battled across some very bumpy territory and took many rest stops at my prompting.  Simon, Tim, Dan, and Pema (my most excellent carmates) took good care of me, so I remained well-hydrated and giggling when I could.  The big effort of the day was just keeping my eyes on the prize (a hotel bed and toilet) from the front seat.

We reached Tholing, one of the former capitals of the Guge Kingdom, a few hours before sunset.  I spent the next 20 hours in bed.  Craig, the all-compassionate wizard of antibiotics that he is, gave me a wonder drug of some persuasion that was able to kick the bug from my system almost immediately.  Whatever that miraculous drug was, it came to the aid of nearly half of the group at one point or another.  Anyway, I was up by late afternoon the next day and ready to limp around the ruins a few pounds lighter.

The Guge Kingdom was founded in the 10th century and stood as a major regional power until its fall in the 17th century.  It’s power extended into much of northern India, including Ladakh.  Guge’s rulers were devout Buddhists and ushered in a new major diffusion of Buddhism to western Tibet.  Its capitals were established at Tholing and Tsaparang and the religious artwork that remains in these ruins is magnificent, especially when you contemplate their age. 

The murals above taken at Tholing are in poor shape, but many of those in the interior of the remaining temples appear almost pristine and are absolutely breathtaking (as is the statuary). Unfortunately, no photos allowed indoors!  Though I did manage to snap this one of Tholing’s kitchen stove:

It was the old capital at Tsaparang, a 20-some kilometer drive up from Tholing, that proved the most incredible.  The fortress, temples and cave dwellings had been dug into a pyramid-shaped mountain that rises out of the valley.  Exploring the ruins, you could imagine the thriving community of thousands of people who lived within the soft sandstone(esque) rock:  

Somebody’s home-sweet-home for several hundred years:

I managed to slowly hobble up to the top in my weak state.  Here’s a particularly heinous shot of me hanging out in the royal quarters:

And two of our favorite crew members, Choempel & Pema, who were in charge of driving us safely across the country:

Guge eventually fell due to regional power struggles and there are some interesting stories about the role that a few Jesuit missionaries may have played in its downfall.  I believe that it was the Ladakhis that eventually laid seige to Tsaparang, so most of its treasures were actually pillaged long before the upheaval of the middle of the last century.  Still, so much remains!


Tirthapuri: Day 10 (Elevation 4330M / 14206FT)
July 23, 2010, 6:09 am
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After the Saka Dawa celebrations we left Kailash for a few days to further explore the surroundings.  We head northwest to the sacred hot springs and meditation caves of Tirthapuri and set up camp in a little meadow on the bank of the Sutlej river.  Tirthapuri is the third holiest place in Ngari and traditionally the next destination after completing the Kailash kora; pilgrims stop here to soak their muscles in the purifying, medicinal hot spring pools after the walk. 

But being wild and crazy as we are, we mixed it up a bit for fun.  Actually, quite a number of us were still ailing from the altitude and/or stomach issues so a few more days to gather strength before the big walk around Kailash was the best choice.  And little did I know, stomach issues for me were just getting started.  I was carrying around a baby bug that was rapidly growing into a full-grown monster.  But for now I walked around blissfully ignorant to it, falling in love with Tirthapuri’s striking red, white and yellow landscape. 

We first head to the temple that enshrines the meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal, and their footprints embedded in stone.  People of great realization are able to place body parts (usually feet, hands, or the crown of their heads) on rock and leave impressions behind.  Most sacred sites in Tibet have one or two of these from famous saints, or even their horses who have left hoof prints.  Pilgrims leave offerings to these stones or touch their heads to them for blessing.  Anyway, a nice example of this is housed in the temple below (unfortunately, not photographed):  

The earth at Tirthapuri is valued as having great medicinal properties.  Below, Chloe is having a little taste of a place said to be rich in a substance that heals stomach ailments.   I should have done more taste-testing in this particular spot in retrospect…

The temple’s mortar & pestle where medicine is ground:

Next we visited the karma-testing hole.  You are supposed to reach into the narrow hole and grab a stone: if the stone you choose is white, it means you have an accumulation of mainly good karma; if black, not so good.  I think you are actually meant to pull out two stones at a time: two white stones indicates good karma, one black and one white means there is still some work to be done, and two black stones indicate bad karma.  I guess we went straight for the definitive decision by only grabbing one at a time.  Below, Bernie is giving it a shot:

Black! Sorry, Bern:

Daniel and I then head off to explore a portion of Tirthapuri’s kora:

The hillsides are riddled with meditation dwellings.  I’m peeking out of one that had been well lived in but was currently vacant:

Back at camp, Chloe and I then spent the afternoon playing with this raucous little sheepherdess:

Then we walked over to the hot springs, of which I shamefully don’t have a single photo!  I am obsessed with hot springs.  I have fantasies of being a Himalayan hot spring developer/preservationist, keeping the hot springs of the Plateau as natural, trash free, ethereal, and accessible to pilgrims as possible.  Our experience of these hot springs were a let down.  The surroundings are gorgeous but the naturally formed pools weren’t really big enough to put our bodies in at the time.  I’ve recently read that the hot springs at Tirthapuri are “losing strength” and that seemed to be the case.  They were so small that people were only stopping to wash clothes in them. 

A development has been constructed below the springs that funnels the flow into tubs and a big, kind of disgusting, tiled swimming pool.  The water wasn’t warm or plentiful enough to fill the big pool for our intended group soak session so Chloe and I opted to try the individual wooden tubs.  We waited there, feeling filthy and full of anticipation, as they filled.  But as we stripped off and got into our tubs, we found them to be luke warm.  And despite the promises of the caretaker, they didn’t appear to be getting any hotter.  Nevertheless, Chloe and I jumped in and washed ourselves, shreeking and splashing the whole way.  It was a purifying experience, possibly; but not a relaxing one. 

All I have is this photo of the caretaker and his daughter taken outside of the horrid bathing complex (a construction that would have never been built had I followed my ultimate calling in life):

Wildlife along the way…
July 21, 2010, 3:53 am
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So just a quick detour from our day-by-day recount of the trek to share some of Simon’s photos of the wildlife we encountered in the Kailash area.  Hardly a few hours would pass between sightings of some gorgeous wild herd or flock.

Black-necked cranes:

Wild ass (or Kyang in Tibetan):

Our enchanted wolf sighting beside Lake Rakshastal:

And it was the height of spring aftertall:

We also came upon herd after herd of goa, or Tibetan gazelle.  Their populations appear to be in a good way in western Tibet!  Any good shots to share, Si?

Saka Dawa Celebrations: Day 9 (Elevation 4750M / 15583FT)
July 18, 2010, 3:59 pm
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Festivities for Saga Dawa, the commemoration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing away, began early on the morning of May 27th.  We climbed up to the main prayer flag offering area just as things were coming to a climax.  Each year, on the full moon of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, pilgrims from all over Tibet gather here to take down the old darboche, an 80 foot pole strung with prayer flags.  They then replace the old flags with new, and raise it again for the coming year. 

Here is a short video of the final moments of the darboche being hoisted up to its new position with pilgrims throwing lungta (small pieces of paper printed with prayers), and shouting “so-so-so-so!” and “lha gya lo!” or, in translation, “victory to the gods!”.  I’m having a bit of a hard time embedding, just click on the little image below and it should take you to Vimeo:

Raising the Darboche

As they raise the pole, people pay attention to its position: if it stands perfectly straight, it signals the coming of a prosperous year.  Though if it leans, it is an omen for suffering and may signal the coming of obstacles, disease and famine.  I’m sad to say that it’s leaning a bit this year.

After the darboche was raised, groups of pilgrims made offerings in unison.  This merry line is from central Tibet; I believe they travelled over from Shigatse.  They are making offerings of tsampa, the roasted barley flour that is a staple of their diet (same thing, give the image a tap):

Offerings at Darboche

Now that the prayer flags from the previous year had been taken down, it was time to join the masses in offering fresh ones.  Thanks to Simon’s bravery, we left this site with a long strand of flags imprinted with prayers to Drolma.

A little background on prayer flags, as we’ll be seeing a lot of them.  Prayer flags are believed to benefit all beings by spreading blessings on the wind.  Their colors represent the five elements: blue symbolizes sky/space; white symbolizes air/wind; red symbolizes fire; green symbolizes water;  and yellow symbolizes earth.  Traditional Tibetan medicine holds that health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements.

Since the merit of good deeds done on this day is believed to be multiplied, pilgrims were busy not only hanging prayer flags but also making offerings, reciting prayers, burning incense, circumambulating the darboche and setting off for the larger kora around Kailash.  As our spin around the mountain was still a few days ahead, we spent the rest of the day enjoying our place below Kailash and wandering off to do some practice on our own.

We later reconvened for a birthday celebration for Patrick whose big day just happened to coincide with the holiest day of the year!  (The 27th is also my Dad’s b-day so lots of love was being sent out to him as well).  And yet again, we marvelled at the wonder of our trail cook’s ability to bake a cake on a camping stove:



Meeting Mount Kailash: Day 8 (Ultimate Elevation 4750M / 15583FT)
July 16, 2010, 5:20 pm
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Today was made up of so many glorious firsts.  We spent the morning driving several thousand feet further up the Plateau to reach Lakes Manasarovar and Rakshastal, and the area that is the source of four of Asia’s major rivers. 

Pictured from above, Lake Rakshastal is on the left and Lake Manasarovar on the right.  We followed the road up the strip of land that separates the two:

It was just before reaching the shore of Rakshastal that we caught our first sight of Mount Kailash.  An incredible moment.  I couldn’t keep my eyes off her for the next week that we spent in the area.  We then stopped our caravan beside Rakshastal; so serene and untouched– mostly because it’s considered EVIL:

Known as “demon” or “poison” lake, a web of mythology has been spun around this gorgeous place by both Hindus and Buddhist throughout the past few millennia.  By Hindus, it’s considered to be the residence of Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Ceylon (not good).  I didn’t get to the bottom of what Buddhists see as so dark and evil about this lake.  The main issue for Tibetans seemed to revolve around its saline content.  Nevertheless, this “poison” lake is the source of the mighty Sutlej River that feeds parts of northern India and Pakistan.  Its waters also flow into its much favored sister, Lake Manasarovar, via a narrow, umbilical cord-like canal called the Ganga Chu.   Anyway, I see the mythology surrounding Rakshastal as an ironically lucky conservation strategy for this “evil” lake. 

Below our group member (and beloved Kiwi photographer) Craig Potten sets up for his first shots of Kailash and the Rakshastal:

And on our way out he found something to take along with us.  Stones from the Kailash area also have their own mythology.  As physical pieces of this holy region, they are sacred.  I’ve heard stories of such stones having the ability to bestow blessings, help cure illness, and have a magnetic charge that can make a compass spin out of control. 

We then drove toward our next most important meeting of the day, that with Lake Manasarovar.  But on our way we stopped for an unplanned encounter with two gorgeous wolves:

I’ve never seen wolves in Tibet before, but on this journey we seemed to be followed by them.  Our guide, Tashi, saw two wolves on her way to pick us up from the border just the day before.  And we had one more encounter just a few days later as we were en route to Guge.  Unfortunately, I was down in a ditch at the time losing my stomach and wasn’t able to give them a proper hello.

The view from our Cruiser with Lake Rakshastal to the left:

We also passed the holy mountain of Gurla Mandhata (25,242ft) on our way.  (I love the name of that mountain, go ahead and say it a few times to yourself).  Its peak has been ascended by several expedition teams from abroad since the area was opened in the 1980s.  Tibetans don’t bother with the peak, they focus on the long pilgrimage route that circumambulates its base:

We then made it to the western shore of Lake Manasarovar (or Mapam Yum Tso in Tibetan), the highest body of fresh water in the world.  It’s also among the most important sacred sites in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology.  For Hindus, it’s customary to strip down and jump in as it is believed to cleanse all sins.  Chloe and I had all intentions set on doing just that but this particularly muddy and dank part of the shoreline coupled with the cold at that altitude kept us clothed.  Most of us did touch the water though, so at least our hands are now sin free!  We also drank quite a bit of it (once boiled) and that is also said to do the job.

The handsome Le Gros men:

We then moved on to our ultimate destination, Mount Kailash.  It was the night before the full moon of Saga Dawa, the holiest day of the Buddhist calendar.  We camped near hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims (and a fair amount of domestic & foreign tourists) in a meadow below the south face of the mountain awaiting the festivities of the next day.

The prayer flags at Darboche, the focal point for the Saga Dawa ceremonies:

Sunset and moonrise:

The altitude gain made it hard to sleep, but much of what kept me up that night was the constant desire to look out at the mountain and see what she was doing.  Was she completely aglow in the light of the nearly full moon?  Was she now accompanied by even more stars?  What would sunrise look like?  Was she doing anything particularly magical?  Our tent was unfortunately facing the wrong way so I couldn’t unzip the fly and have a sneaky peek at her between dozes, so I just lay there and let my imagination whirl away…

Purang: Day 7 (elevation 3930M / 12893FT)
July 9, 2010, 8:28 am
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We spent our first night in Tibet in Purang (also known as Taklakot), just a short drive from the Nepal-Tibet border.  It was a stop to indulge in the delights of a hot shower, laundry service, and a hotel bed (wonderful even if the sheets hadn’t been changed in recent memory). 

We did take a brief trip out of the city to Kochernath Monastery.  Though I couldn’t take any pictures of the beautiful statues inside the temple (the most wonderful of which was a very old, self-arising image of Manjushri), here are a few from my wanderings around the perimeter:

Here are two nice young ladies that were doing some repair work on the roof.  Conversation with them was a bit muffled as you can see:

And the monastery complex was guarded by tiny armed children:

Tumkot & Sipsip: Day 5-6 (ultimate elevation 4330M / 14206FT)
July 6, 2010, 4:37 am
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From Yalbang the trail took us to through the last we’d see of arable land for the next couple of weeks.  The terrain quickly became more rugged and the villages more adept at eking out a livelihood from mostly rocks:

Here are the last shots of us enjoying tree cover on the hike from Yalbang to Tumkot:

As for the pace of our days on the Nepal side of the trek, we usually didn’t walk for much more than 5 hours.  We would sometimes make it to camp by lunch or the crew would hike ahead of us and have lunch waiting for us at a trailside spot.  Here’s our cook making us a meal en route to Sipsip, a particularly long day in which his work was much appreciated (well at least by those few of us that weren’t yet hit by tummy troubles):

And somehow our fantastic kitchen crew was able to present us with a good-bye cake on our last evening together in Sipsip.  I have got to learn how to bake a cake on a camping stove:

Unfortunately, much of the group didn’t get the opportunity to taste this creation.  At this point, I think 7 out of the 10 of us were down with serious tummy troubles and taking turns in the latrine tent.  The 1,000 meter / 3,000-some feet jump from Tumkot to Sipsip didn’t help matters.  For one of our group members, altitude-enduced vomiting began shortly after we reached camp.  And just after sunset we had to make moves to take him down in elevation.  I accompanied our wonderful guide Kumar in taking him to a local family’s home for the night just down the trail an hour or so.  We slept with 3 generations of  that sweet family in their kitchen.  They were incredibly tolerant of us and the sleepless night we had amongst them.  They too had their own drama with the baby of the family waking up to pee all over their bed in the middle of the kitchen floor.  Lots of scolding and wailing ensued in the darkness. 

Though our brave patient was a little better the next day after some Diamox, he was still not well and we had a 15,000+ foot pass to climb.  The judgement call was made that morning to get him over the pass and into Tibet where we would have access to hospitals, helicopters and cars.  Going back the way we came would be close to a week of walking.  So with the help of some horses, Pat and his father Bernie, who was also feeling the altitude, made it over the pass; a climb that did a good job of kicking most of our arses:

Our guide Kumar with the trail leading to the pass behind.  Again, the climb here is not well captured.  It was seriously steep, with the last stretch appearing vertical with goats and donkeys scrambling to keep their footing:

And victory at the wind-swept top (that little figure with the pink scarf is me):

We then hiked slowly down a long, beautiful path that delivered us to the Nepal-Tibet border:

And crossed the bridge to Chinese immigration:

We then met our Tibetan team, hopped into our convoy of Land Cruisers and head toward hot showers and hotel beds in Purang.