Kailash Kora, Part I: Day 14 – 15 (Ultimate Elevation 4890M / 16043FT)
August 11, 2010, 6:52 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

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…

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hey Britt,
Just reading Alexandra David-Neel’s account of her journey to Lhasa in the early 20th century. Are there still a lot of robbers on these pilgrimage routes? She stated that she and the lama she traveled with always carried revolvers. Also, are there still arjopas who beg for survival the entire way? About how many people were doing the pilgrimage when you were? Also, have you been to Pol yul?

Much love,
Kiki

Comment by Kiki

Wow– good questions! And so many (were you drinking multiple espressos during your last read?)… okay, here goes:
– By and large, no robbers on the pilgrimage route now.
– No more lamas packing heat these days either.
– Full-time pilgrims passivley beg, but other pilgrims (usually those who are not full-time) usually offer them money or food without them asking.
– The pilgrimage route probably had a few hundred other people at the time we were there, though well dispersed so it felt like very few. Some days had also passed since the full moon so we set off just after the rush.
– “Pol Yul”? That might be a funky transliteration for the Tibetan word for Nepal, so yes. But there are some other place names that sound similar so I’m not sure…

Enjoy the book!

Comment by wayuphigh




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