Paryang: Day 19 (Elevation 4540M / 14895FT)
August 28, 2010, 4:15 pm
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With our goodbye to Lake Manasarovar we began our long drive toward Lhasa.  We actually decided to cut a day or two off of the journey so that we could spend a little less time in tents and more time in the capital.  We found that we wouldn’t really be able to explore the destinations at the end of each day’s drive because of high winds and more dust than one could really ever imagine possible.  I think I may still be carrying a few ounces of Tibetan dust around Asia with me.  So instead of being able to play, we were stuck in our tents on a few occasions just to get out of the wind.  The western part of Tibet is incredibly dry and bare without a lot of vegetation to pin the soil down.  From this time onward, each day’s drive would move us from what is strictly nomad land to the more arable farming country. 

A rough map of the spots visited and the route to come (click for a more legible version):

Dan, Tim, Simon and I were car partners throughout the journey, which of course kept it lively:

The somewhat major spot on the map that we passed through today was Paryang.  We had a quick wander through the grimy town square and loaded up on sugary chinese snacks for the remainder of the drive to come.  We also came upon this little gem of a storefront with its bizarre English name– a perfect photo opp for our troop of kiwi men that hadn’t touched a razor in weeks: 

And I mingled with a local nomad family (who were unfortunately in town to beg):

Have a good look at this photo, there are some seriously great accessories in the mix:

(15 points to those who spotted the princess crown)

We then continued along to join the path of the mighty Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Tsangpo, one of Asia’s great rivers.  From its Tibetan origin it continues down through India and then Bangladesh where it merges with the Ganges.

The river is just beyond the dunes, it seemed so wide it almost appeared to be a lake:


We set up camp that evening on a magnificent stretch of the river’s shore:

And I danced around in the fading sunlight for a while.  Wild to think that these photos were taken after 9pm.  (All of China is on a single time zone).

A little side note: Because this blog is not actually being written in real-time, I’ve been asked to divulge my current location once in a while until the blog catches up with me. At the moment I’m writing from Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province, and just spent a balmy Saturday afternoon scouring the mall (several, in fact) with Chinese and Brazilian girlfriends. Good times. I hope that doesn’t break the mystique or become disorienting. But I’m bound for the Plateau again shortly!   


Kailash Kora, Part III: Day 17 – 18 (Elevation 4556M / 14947FT)
August 24, 2010, 3:35 pm
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Our final day of kora continued along a wide river valley floor.  It was an absolutely spectacular day, one made for ambling along the path without the intimidation of a monstrous pass lurking ahead.  This shot looks back towards our campsite and the distance covered:

Up ahead we stopped at Zutulpuk, a cave where Milarepa stayed and meditated in the 11th century leaving imprints of his head and hands embedded in rock. 

Milarepa is a fantastic character: he was an eccentric sorcerer who went from dabbling in black magic to become one of Tibet’s most beloved poets and saints.  He’s often depicted looking a little green-blue due to the diet of nettles he subsisted on while in meditation. 

Below is the site of Mila’s cave now housed in a small temple with the monk caretaker coming our way:

After a little time visiting the temple and having a quiet moment in the cave, a few of us climbed up to the small meditation dwellings in the cliffs above.  We were on the hunt for an elusive self-arising OM symbol that was rumored to have appeared on a rock above one of the meditation caves.  But alas, we did not find it.  We explored the caves a bit, which are active but currently empty, then climbed down and continued on the final stretch of kora:

As we came around to the end of the pilgrimage route (or beginning, depending on your perspective) we traded in our yaks for Land Cruisers and were reunited with our full crew.  We then head back toward Lake Manasarovar where we set up camp on the shore.  

Chloe and I then ran off for a soak in the local hot springs.  Such gooood medicine.  The hot springs below Chiu Gompa were, until very recently, undeveloped and out in the open.  But now they have been channeled into two buildings and flow on-demand into a series of private rooms with wooden tubs.  Not my favorite, as you may recall from a recent post.  But unlike our experience in Tirthapuri, these hot springs were HOT and glorious and I squealed and sighed in delight throughout most of the hour or more that we soaked.  Sadly, no pictures were taken of this baptism.  But we were clean and happy girls afterwards. 

I then took a short hike on my own up a small peak above the lake and watched the sun set on Kailash in one direction, and Manasarovar on the other.  This would be the last I would see of Kailash for this trip, she was clouded over the next morning.

After the sunset I head over to join the group at a lakeside guest house where they were having a congratulatory beer or two.  The guest house owners were a warm and welcoming couple, and we sat around their cast-iron stove chatting for a long time.  Trinley, the man of the house, turned out to be an incredible source of local history, knowing a story for any/every question I threw at him.  He talked to me about everything from local legend to the impact of climate change on the region.  I did my very best to follow along and he kept his local dialect to the minimum so that I could have the best chance of really getting it all. 

He’s one of those people who will never stop learning, with his back rooms full of books and even a small painting area where he is practicing the art of thanka painting.  I was wishing that we could abduct him and take him along with us so that he could fill our heads with knowledge about everything that we would pass from this moment onward.  But since that would be a little extreme, we decided to just invite him to accompany us to Chiu Gompa, the monastery on the mountain just above his guest house, the next morning.  He agreed.  We then departed from his hospitality for our campsite by the lake.  That night’s sleep was a particularly deep one after the big effort of kora. 

Morning at Manasarovar:

Chiu Gompa from below:


The view from the top:

Me & my intellectual crush:


We then hit the road heading slowly toward Lhasa!

Kailash Kora, Part II: Day 16 (Ultimate Elevation 5600M / 18373FT)
August 19, 2010, 2:53 pm
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Today was THE big day: the stretch of path around Mount Kailash that probably burns away the most sin because you really have to work for this one.  It was the day of kora that took us over the 18,000+ foot Dolma La pass. 

We woke up an hour before sunrise, had a quick breakfast, and then began our walk across a landscape frozen underneath a layer of snow.  It was wonderful hiking in the fresh powder and near darkness; absolutely frigid but gorgeous.  The blue and silver hillsides then warmed to shades of pink as the sun moved over the horizon:

The sun didn’t actually touch our bodies for several more hours though so our slow ascent was a particularly cold one.  I’m thinking about how incredibly icy my toes are here:

Soon after sunrise we came to the kora’s burial grounds.  It’s said that people who die along the pilgrimage route are brought here (and Kailash is known to take several lives each year).  But it seems more commonly to be a place to undergo a symbolic death.  One source of background reading says that some pilgrims take time to imagine their own deaths here and contemplate the nature of impermanence.  

There is a tradition of leaving something behind before you depart from this holy site and pilgrims most often offer clothes, though they are also known to leave hair, teeth and even blood.  Below, amongst the rocks and prayer flags, you can see a few of the less gruesome items that have been left behind (mostly hats & jackets):

Members of our group offered such things as beloved pieces of clothing and a dreadlock or two.  I left an amulet I’ve been carrying with me for the past decade or so, it’s nice thinking of it up there.  Beyond the symbolic death concept, I’ve also heard that you are able to form a bond with the sacred places where you leave personal offerings, and your consciousness will then return to these sites when navigating the bardo between death and rebirth.  (Another nice thought.) 

And up the trail to the Dolma La we continued.  My camera did not make it out of my pocket until reaching the top, I was far too busy breathing.  Along the way I came upon the odd lone pilgrim in the process of prostrating the entire way around the mountain, which can take three weeks.  I also found myself doing the final stretch with a merry group of a half-dozen Tibetan pilgrims who, not more than a few hours past sunrise and at over 17,000 feet, were tucking into a bottle of homemade barley beer.  They were navigating the rocky path at an incredibly fast pace but would then pause every 15 minutes or so for a beer break and some snacks.  I declined the shot of alcohol they offered (prude) but was thoroughly grateful for the petite whole dried apricot I was handed for those last steps to the top. 

And finally we reached the Dolma La (!!!), a pass named after the goddess of compassion.  We all made it to 18,000-plus feet in great spirits, such an amazing feeling to be that ridiculously high:


We offered lungta to this sacred site (small paper prayer flags that are thrown up in the air to be carried off by the wind), as well as some khata (traditional offering scarves).  After maybe an hour or so we made our way downward, though time moves a little differently when you’re oxygen deprived so who knows how long we were actually up there.  Personally, I know I spent a lot of time feeling quietly joyful and staring into space, as well as being fixated on taking pictures of snow-encrusted prayer flags:

We then began to descend from our extreme height, passing a small lake called Gauri Kund.  I believe it’s a particularly sacred site for Hindu pilgrims and I’ve read that the devout are supposed to break the ice that usually covers its surface to bathe in its waters.  Luckily we didn’t know this at the time so we walked past without any sense of spiritual duty (those waters clearly look as if they should remain sealed under a layer of ice, no?):

The way down from the Dolma La moves through a long boulder/scree field, across snow and half-frozen streams, then drops into a wide river valley:

We then trekked along the wonderfully flat valley floor for several hours to our eventual campsite in a meadow near the small temple at Zutulpuk.  Not too many pictures were taken by me along the way (actually none).  It was a bright, sunny day by this point and I got into a nice rhythm hiking on my own.  We finally joined our yaks at camp and settled in for a much needed meal at a more gentle 15,715 feet above sea level.


Kailash Kora, Part I: Day 14 – 15 (Ultimate Elevation 4890M / 16043FT)
August 11, 2010, 6:52 pm
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After Guge, the time had finally come for us to make our long-awaited kora of Kailash, our 52k pilgrimage around the sacred mountain.  It would take two and a half days, the roughest of which would be our second day when we’d trek up and over an 18,000+ foot pass, the famous Dolma La.  Most Tibetans complete the full kora in a single day (show-offs), but we were in no rush.  So from Guge we returned to the mountain, this time spending the night in the little town of Darchen that marks the beginning and end of the pilgrimage route.  Darchen (4600m / 15,100ft) is unfortunately a trash-filled, wind-swept mess of a settlement.  For me, our night there was pretty restless as altitude can do funny things to your body and sleep.  I made a few trips to the bathroom (aka the hotel parking lot) that night and each time found a poor skeleton of an old Chinese woman vomitting away under the stars.  Very sad.  I luckily only had an overactive bladder this time (and wicked dreams throughout the night). 

As for a little background before we start circling the mountain, Kailash is considered one of the most (if not THE most) sacred sites of Buddhism, Bön (the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet), Hinduism and Jainism.  In Tibetan language Mount Kailash is called Gang Rinpoche, or Precious Jewel of Snow, and its four faces (which are aligned with the cardinal directions) are said to be made of crystal, ruby, gold, and lapis lazuli.  For Tibetan Buddhists, Gang Rinpoche is Mt. Meru, the center of the universe.  Hindus believe Kailash to be the abode of Lord Shiva.  He spends his time atop the mountain in a state of meditation and/or blissful union with his consort Parvati.

The most prominent saints of these four religions and millions of pilgrims have been making the incredibly arduous journey to Kailash for literally thousands of years.  The walk around the mountain (clockwise for Buddhists, counter-clockwise for Bön practitioners) is lined with sites of historical and spiritual significance: places where saints have fought battles, had moments of realization, or performed magic.  

Each kora completed has a karma purifying effect and so pilgrims aim for the auspicious numbers: 3 is good, 13 is better, and 108 can possibly ensure enlightenment.  We completed only one kora but it was made during Saka Dawa so our merit was multiplied!  Once you have completed 13 koras you are eligible to embark on the “inner kora”, perhaps containing sacred sites that those veterans of 12 kora or fewer couldn’t handle. 

No one has ever been allowed to summit Kailash, it would be an act of great disrespect to all those that consider the mountain holy.  Though Milarepa and his Bönpo opponent, Naro Bön-chung, are said to have flown to its peak (in some accounts Naro flew on a magic drum, Mila on the rays of the sun) in a famous battle in the late 11th century.  There may still be some footprints up there. 

As for our journey– after loading our down-sized packs of gear onto a team of yaks, we set off for the first day of kora:

The first part of the route follows the Lha Chu (God or Divine River) up an expansive glacial valley:

Meanwhile, the mountain was in full, glorious view to our right and getting closer with each step.  This intimate perspective of the mountain blew me away:

And then we came upon a vantage point that I had dreamed of seeing in person for quite a long time:

I kind of wish I had one of those triumphant photos with the mountain framed between my outstretched arms, but I was humbled (and didn’t think of it at the time):

I was enamoured with this small Hindu shrine created by Indian pilgrims just a few dozen feet below where I was standing:

We stopped at a teahouse for a rest and a cozy place to eat our lunch.  The friendly shopkeeper stays at this site for all but the harshest months of winter:

I wasn’t totally surprised to see consumer goods still available at 16,000 ft (20 points if you can guess where each spent container will wind up…):

After getting camp situated in a meadow across from Dirapuk Gompa Chloe and I spent the rest of the late afternoon chatting and sipping tea with our yakpa (or yak herders).  I decided to take some shots specifically to provide you with a visual Tibetan tea tutorial.  The thought of large globs of gamey yak butter floating in salted black tea inspires most foreign taste buds to recoil in disgust.  But I think Tibetan butter tea can be quite nice as long as you think of it as more of a soup before you have that initial sip.  Also discreetly blowing the butter to the edge of the cup, feigning the appearance of cooling the liquid down before sipping, can make for a less intense mouthful of butter. 

So the first thing to know is that yak do not produce milk (or consequently, butter) because the word “yak” is Tibetan for the male of the species.  Females are called “dre”.  The popular misnomer of “yak butter tea” (or “yak milk” or “yak cheese”) elicits a good giggle and nudge among Tibetans (which is always fun).

Yakpa don’t carry much with them; just a blanket, a bag of roasted barley flour, maybe some bread, a cup and pot, and the slim makings for tea (oh, and of course cigarettes as they are the Tibetan Marlborough men).  The twiggy bundle below is loose black tea and to the left side, wrapped in red and yellow plastic, is salt:

They carry butter from home base (these yakpa are all from the Kailash area) where their wives produce it fresh.  It looks gorgeous to me:

They boil Kailash stream water on a dung fire and leave the tea steeping:

And voila, it’s tea time!  Note that what this yakpa has floating in his tea below is bread, not chunks of butter:

During our tea session the yakpa had been observing the seemingly calm sky and forecasted that it would snow soon.  Within the next hour a thick cloud closed in and covered us with a layer of fluffy white snow.  The yakpa, proving to be as truly rugged as they seemed, slept the night in the snow, some with little more than their jackets to cover them:

The snow made for an enchanted early start to our second day of kora, the big one…