Within the league of mountains, Everest and K2 are renown solely for their size; their sheer height above the distant seas. On a more spiritual level, many mountains are seen as sacred, bridging the gap between earth and heaven, even providing a suitable earthly abode for the gods. Modern Turkey abounds in peaks sacred to the pre-Turkish inhabitants: Olympus, home to the Hellenic gods, & Mount Arrat, sacred to the Armenians.
Further east, beyond the Himalaya, Gan Rinpoch or – to use the more popular Indian name – Mount Kailas, is a contemporary pilgrimage site to Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bön-Po. Pilgrims make the sacred yet arduous journey from across South and East Asia, to a mountainous region enduring in its isolation. A region devoid of airports, roads, hotels and most modern conveniences. A region beyond reach of the twentieth century.
Twelve dusty hours south of Ali, capital of the Ngari region of Western Tibet, the peak of Kailas rises from the plateau. Anticipating our approach, the more experiences pilgrims – many were returning from other pilgrimages nearby – had climbed atop the back of the truck, awaiting their first glimpse through the foothills and swirling cloud of the snow clad peak. The two dozen Tibetan sharing the truck with us, were all Buddhist save for a couple of Bön-po. Traces of the ancient rivalries between the animist Bön-po and the upstart Buddhists were nowhere among the pilgrims, but the dramatic Himalayan landscape bore the scars of the mythological battles for dominance between the incumbent Bön-po priest, Narn Bön-chung, and the Buddhist saint Milarepa. Though Buddhism won both the battle for devotees and – at least in the legend of Tibet – the battle for Kailas, the two religions practice perfect tolerance between each other.
Beyond its significance to Buddhist and Bön-po, Kailas is revered by both Hindus and Jains. To Hindus, Kailas is the earthly throne of Shiva. This stems from an association between Kailas and the mythological Mt. Meru, and separating one from the other is often difficult. To Jains Kailas – or Astapada – is reputedly the place where Rishabha was the first being to attain Liberation.
For most pilgrims, their reason for making so arduous and expensive a pilgrimage is to perform one – though more usually more – circambulations of the mountain. Traditionally the circuit, or Kora, starts and finishes in Darchen, a small village of mud-brick buildings recently supplemented by two crude guesthouses for foreign visitors: one for Indian pilgrims, and one for the rest of the world.
The Kora follows a series of river valleys around the base of Kailas, leading from Darchen & the Plain of Barkha in the South. The valleys present generally easy walking, though do obscure much of the west and east faces of the peak. To the Northeast, the Drolma La (pass) at 5600m is both physically the most challenging, and spiritually the most significant point of the trek. The ground below the pass is steep and rocky, making good shoes or walking boots advisable.
Around the track are three monasteries offering accommodation rooms to official Indian Pilgrim groups. Space permitting they’ll rent a bed to all comers. A more interesting but even less private option is to stay with one of the many nomad families living around the Kora, though their tents can be smoky, damp and flea-ridden! Finally, there’s no shortage of camping space for anyone with a reasonable tent.
Timewise most organised groups following the Kora take three or four days, constrained in part by the leisurely pace of their pack animals. Two days (one short followed by one longer) is quite a manageable pace, but most pilgrims go around in a single (though long) day. Each morning in the summer, a large body of Tibetans leave Darchen around 3am, arriving back early evening. This kind of pressured pace would leave little time for side-journeys or photographs; though of course few pilgrims think of such earthly things!
The devout pilgrim will aim to perform an auspicious 3, 13 or 108 circambulations, the 108th of which is rumoured to lead to instant Nirvana! For the real die-hard (wish there was no pun intended), prostrations are the way to go! Gaining maximum merit, pilgrims bring their body into contact with the entire surface of the Kora – stretching themselves flat on the path with each pace taken, and pushing a stone along with their outstretched fingertips to mark the start of the next prostration. If interested, the 50km Kora takes around 25 days, and a yak hide ‘apron’ can be hired in Darchen to provide protection from the terrain!
Buddhists, Hindus and Jains follow the Kora in a clockwise direction, keeping the mountain to their right. Bön-po are instantly distinguishable as they follow the identical path, but in an anticlockwise direction!
The Kora starts in Darchen and initially follows the foothills at the fringe of the Plain of Barkha. An expanse of dust, sparsely scattered with gorse-like foliage, the plain stretches beneath the twin lakes of Manasarovar and Rakas Tal across to the Greater Himalaya, which mark the border with Nepal and India.
After skirting the foothills due west of Darchen for the first hour, the track rises in it’s south-westernmost corner, and enters the Lha Chu Valley. The broad mouth of the Lha Chu valley – far greener than the plain we are leaving – is one of the spiritual ‘hotspots’ of the Kora.
Weather permitting, this offering the first good views of Kailas on the Kora. A Chorten and Tarboche (ritual flagpole) are surrounded by a large number of carved mani stones left by pilgrims over the ages.
This natural theatre of the Lha Chu mouth is site of the Saga Dawa festival during the full moon of the fourth lunar month – currently around June.
The festival attracts both Buddhist and Bön-po pilgrims from across Tibet. Its culmination involves replacing prayerflags on the Tarboche ceremonially and jointly by both groups, though as ever with Buddhist pilgrims circling clockwise and Bön-po anticlockwise! Again, there are no signs of friction between the followers.
The festival marks the summer opening of Kailas season, and the ballooning of the regional population caused by the influx of pilgrims.
Beyond the Tarboche, the steep sided Lha Chu or Dronglung valley leads further north, stepped in deep green vegetation. Foothills and morning mist conspire to obscure Kailas from the pilgrim, but from the elevation of Chuku Monastery, high on the outside ridge of the valley, the peak is more visible.
Toward its northernmost extreme, the valley curves east. Ahead lies the Dira Phuk Monastery. Two recent bridges cross the glacial rivers, the former elevated on the hillside south of the monastery.
Before the unobstructed north face of Kailas the Dira Phuk monastery sits dramatically on the landscape. A small Karma Kagu order, the monastery buildings house only a couple of monks, but provides a local focus for nomads, and operates an Indian Pilgrim dormitory.
Leaving Dira Phuk Gompa around eight in the morning catches the rising sun, and that mornings early pilgrims, already five hours walk out of Darchen. It was this stretch up to the Drolma La that presented the best scenery, the best photos, the best weather, and the hardest walking.
The climb commences, initially gradually, through the broad green valleys. A thin line of pilgrims snakes behind, gaining relentlessly on us, impervious to the altitude. A fellow traveller – perhaps betraying his North American roots – called this a spiritual Disney, a fair description. Pilgrims of four distinct religions walked these valleys, more in the spirit of a bank-holiday escapade than a serious or arduous pligrimage. Bunyan it was not! The pilgrims curiosity and concern for our wellbeing was evident. Tibetans offered Tsampa, yak cheese or other indeterminate foods, thick with dirt. Indian pilgrims called from behind their stoves to offer sweet Indian chai from the precariously balanced aluminum kettle. Food was shared, offers of help made, clothes and bags tried, group photos taken, and friendships sworn.
Back on the serious business of pilgrimage, the path climbed ever higher toward the 5600 metre Drolma-la. Upward out of the green, we climed into the rocky, exposed moraine of a glacier. As we ascended, the landscape became ever more alien, and the rock formations assumed ever greater significance. Pilgrims tested their karma, conviction or honour by putting their finger blind into an age-old hole in the rock, or by trying to crawl through an improbably small gap between boulders. Prayerflags and personal objects surround the path, left by pilgrims eager to gain merit long after they’ve departed.
The Drolma La forms the high point of the Kora both spiritually and physically. The final stretch was hard going at the high (5600m) altitude, and even locals seemed to be having a hard time of it. Of course, there’s always the yak-back tour, which makes things a little easier!
A huge glacier overlooks pilgrims making the final ascent, struggling up the path it hew over the centuries. In the midst of its moraine, a huge cubic rock known as Phawang Mebar is festooned with prayer flags. Pilgrims let out cries and whoops of delight as they come into sight of it. Passing through the flags is believed – by Buddhist pilgrims – to mark the transition from this life to the next, erasing the sins of this life, and leaving the pilgrim unblemished by their past – though still unfortunately susceptible to their future.
As we arrived, the pass was basking in midday sun, though the weather is always unpredictable and often bitter. Everywhere were pilgrims: monks reading mantras at the sacred point; lay-pilgrims gathering stones to take back, and leaving items as offerings – hair, shoes, a lost tooth; others just celebrating their achievement. Paper-printed Windhorses cast into the air by pilgrims upwind fluttered past on the breeze, taking the benefits of the prayer into the air, and scattering it on the land below. Groups of people gathered for group photographs, food was shared, addresses given, languages overcome, promises made. Seemingly every rock, every stone had been carved with a mantra. The views off the pass were equally spectacular – from 5636m, the landscape both below and above was awesome.
From the Drolma La, the path drops steeply, falling into a barren, glaciated valley. Shattered black rock filled the base, save for a few shimmering green lakes, brilliant against the ragged severity of their shores. Little lives in these valleys, the voices of people carrying far and wide.
As the path dropped, around 600m in a couple of kilometres, it was joined by ever more rivers, racing into the increasingly hospitable valleys below.
With various paths zigzagging back and forth, pilgrims seemed to be flowing from the heights, all hurrying down the precarious sides of the pass, all into the valley below.
Eventually – after a rocky scramble at the foot of the pass – the path came into the Lham Chukir valley.
A sea-change from the pass of the previous few hours, this was a valley resplendent in green, bisected along its length by a vivaciously flowing river, and abundant in flowers.
The valley ran south west for about 15 easygoing kilometres. Groups of pilgrims wandered along, some hurrying, others pausing for tea at the nomads tents once again beside the track.
Most of the tents here were to supply pilgrims with essential pilgrimage gear – an eclectic array of tsampa, tea, noodles and pepsi were available (a caffeine & sugar boost was exactly what I needed here!). The availability of many of these things did leave a mark on the environment – the Dira Phuk monastery had suffered particularly from litter, though to blame litter exclusively on foreign tourists or pilgrims would be to overlook a key character of the Tibetan people.
Toward the end of the valley, the third Kailas Gompa sits distinctly on the right hand side of the track. Zutrul Phuk is perched among many religious buildings and edifices, destroyed by time and more deliberate forces. The Gompa is used by most groups for the second or third night stop, but being two or three hours outside Darchen, its not usually necessary to stop here.
Further south still, the path enters a narrow ravine, and starts once more to climb. The river below becomes faster flowing, and the land regains its brown dusty colour. Crossing the crest of an outcrop, the rusty plain of Barkha once again rears into view. From here, the path drops onto the plain, then follows the foothills west once again, back toward Darchen. At the southernmost point, an distinctive tent sits, issuing tickets to all Chinese and foreigners (Tibetans get through free). They’re not too insistent, and don’t give chase if you don’t stop!
So is my new life already tainted by sin.