The bureaucratic logistics of traveling in Tibet are notoriously
complicated. From Heinrich Herrer in 1939, to current day backpackers,
many a traveler has been turned back at a checkpoint. Independent
travel is actively discouraged by obfuscation of the rules steering daunted
visitors into easily controlled package tours. I've now been to Tibet, done
a bunch of things, and I still don't understand the system.
Stuart and I's main objective was Mt. Kailash in the remote western part of the
country. The mountain is the center of the universe for Tibetan Buddhists, and
a circuit, or kora, of its base is the most scared pilgrimage in Tibet.
The roads into the region are quite bad, but closely monitored by army
and police. When we went, truck drivers were being heavily penalized for
picking up tourists, so renting a Land Cruiser was the most common way of
getting there. Typical trips take about six people in a Land Cruiser with
an accompanying support truck. Facilities in the region are very limited
so often times these trips are set up as "luxury camping" expeditions
with a cook, etc...
Stuart and I opted for a more minimalist approach. For our price we
got a Land Cruiser, driver, guide, permits, and nothing else. We
were on our own to arrange food and accommodation throughout the trip,
although the tour company people helped us to get reasonable deals.
We arranged our trip in Kathmandu, but this was a mistake. It
would have been easier and cheaper to do it in Lhasa. For flexibility,
it's important to have an individual, non-group, Chinese visa. Despite
guidebook warnings that it might not be possible, we easily obtained these
in Kathmandu. The plane tickets on China Southwest Air, must be purchased
through a travel agent. What usually happens is that you buy a one-way group
tour to Lhasa that includes the flight, a night's lodging and transport
from the airport. Once in Lhasa you are on your own, and it's easy to
find like-minded travel partners in the guesthouses.
None of this is nearly as difficult as many people think (these
days at least), but remember, this is Tibet. Most roads are bad to begin with
and subject to flooding, avalanches, landslides, etc... Like the
weather, the politics and regulations are unstable. Our trip was very
late in the season and we traveled under the constant threat of being
stranded by a storm until who-knows-when. It's a place where anything can
happen, and often does.
- 14 Oct 1999
- The flight from Kathmandu to Kathmandu is one of the most spectacular
regularly scheduled flights in the world. Once free of Kathmandu's
smog, there are tremendous views out the left side of the plane as it
flies East up the South side of the Himalayas. At Mt. Everest, the pilot
practically plants the left wing tip on the summit as he or she executes a
sweeping turn leaving behind Nepal and entering Tibet, the roof of
Tibetan travel is infamous for being fraught with bureaucratic snarls
and we get our first taste at the airport. Technically, we are part of a
group, as you must be in order to purchase the plane tickets. Our
"group" is 20 or so people we've never met before, and the only thing we
have in common is that all our names are on a piece of paper proudly
proclaiming our grouphood. All our names that is except for two
unfortunate Swiss. It seems they'd added on only yesterday, and somehow
their names are not on the magic list. This is a major problem.
We all bake in the bus while the Swiss couple tries to work things out with the
Chinese immigration officials. As time went on, our group talked of
forming a pool to raise funds for the bribe that surely seemed our only way
out of the airport parking lot. In the end though, the Swiss, being
Swiss, would have none of that. They agreed to surrender their passports
and come back the next day for another round of "why our names aren't on
the list." A serious inconvenience, with the airport being nearly a
two-hour drive from town, but with the errant Swiss liberated, we started
down the road for... Lhasa, the forbidden city.
Tibetans getting some shade under the wing of a Chinese MiG
parked in front of the Potala Palace, one of Lhasa's most sacred
These days the forbidden city is replete with traffic lights and cell
phones, and on first impression, it's hard not to be disappointed.
Few travel destinations conjure up such images of mystique and remoteness
as does Lhasa, but in our ever shrinking world it at first seems just
another Asian city, maybe bit dirtier than most. Walking the streets, it
takes a while for Tibet's magic to hit Stuart and I.
After a year on the road, I'm used to being stared at, but the stares
in Tibet are different. The eyes don't call out, "hey, look at the
stranger" Instead, they seem to pour out a universal greeting, "Hello my
long lost friend, welcome to my home." On the streets of Lhasa these
wild eyes are accompanied by affectionate hugs and stuck-out tongues.
It would be days before we would learn that sticking out the tongue is a
traditional Tibetan way of showing that you are not a devil (they say the
devil can change all his appearance except his tongue).
I come back from our short stroll feeling refreshed and invigorated.
Tibetan's are people the way people are meant to be. Warm, welcoming and
always willing to laugh at a secret joke. I couldn't even make eye contact
without my new friends bursting out in laughter and running over to share
it with me. The laughter and good nature are contagious and I soon
found my cheeks cramped from smiling so much. Not a bad problem, as
At 3,500m (12,480 ft), Lhasa is 2,250m (7,380 ft) higher than Kathmandu
and Stuart was feeling the effects of the change. So, with him
napping, I set out on my own for a longer walk around the Barkhor
The Barkhor is the name for the neighborhood that surrounds the Jokhang,
Tibet's holiest religious temple. This is the heart of old Lhasa and
epicenter of Tibetan spirituality. The circuit around the alleys just
outside the Jokhang is Tibet's most popular kora, and many foreign
visitors first Tibetan experience.
Before reaching the kora though I have to run the gauntlet of antique, souvenir, and religious
paraphernalia shops that clog the Barkhor square.
This square has been the site for many of the demonstrations and
uprisings against the Chinese occupation, and it is now continuously
monitored by video cameras discretely perched on nearby rooftops.
Today all the cameras would record is the desperate struggle of a newly
arrived tourist to extract himself from the hugs, and overly friendly
grasps of jewelry merchants, their smiles redolent, their only words of
English, "I love you."
Through the blockade I join the human tide flowing around the Barkhor
kora. It's a mélange of Tibetan society, businesspeople on their lunch
hours, ragamuffin street urchins, and the sun-dried pilgrims who look as
if they've been doing this walk for thousands of years.
Everybody fondles beads or spins a handheld prayer wheel as they walk the
circuit intent on their own devotion, seemingly ignorant of the
surrounding shops selling everything from knockoff fur hats to industrial
hardware. The shop venders call out, the marchers mutter prayers and
from within Jokhang cymbals crash. The cloying scent of incense rides
heavy over the rotting garbage and the odor of dedication from the
It's Tibet as I thought it might be, mystical, powerful, incongruously
profound amidst the discordant sights, sounds and smells. Feeling oddly
content I take up the chant that murmurs everywhere, Om Mani Padme Hum.
"Om Mani Padme Hum," it is the national mantra of Tibet, it fills prayer
wheels and flies on prayer flags, it's inscribed on rocks throughout the
country, and fills the heart of every Tibetan.
The simplest explanation I've found for it is that wisdom and compassion,
the jewels we should be seeking, are only to be found within us. Really
though, the mantra is meant to encompass the entire Buddhist spirit.
Tibetans believe that by reciting or invoking the mantra, you bring merit
and peace to the world. Circuits in temples are often lined with prayer
wheels. These are cylinders mounted on a spindle that can be spun by
hand. They range in size from a small coffee can to behemoths,
taller than a person, that require several devotees to set
in motion. Within the prayer wheels are long scrolls of paper inscribed with
the mantra and each clockwise revolution is said to invoke those
Similarly, Tibetans adorn mountain passes, holy places, and even their
homes with prayer flags-- strings of brightly colored pieces of cloth
imprinted with scriptures. Each flutter of the flag releases the
blessing into the world.
Om Mani Padme Hum is the voice of Tibet. The low drone of its chanting
fills temples and echoes off high peaks while they as a people invoke
its power to calm the world.
Maybe we should all help a bit, chant it now, wherever you are, just for
a few minutes.
Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum...
For dinner Stuart and I chose the guidebook recommended Tashi-I.
Through a door on the street that seemed as likely to lead to a carpet factory
as a restaurant we climbed a decrepit flight of stairs, mercifully dark,
and found ourselves in the midst of a continual celebration over the joy of
being in Tibet.
The place is run by two ebullient young Tibetan girls and their weary but warm
mother. The girls would flit about, pulling each other's hair, cavorting with
customers and occasionally bringing out a dish or two. Their mother vainly
tried to maintain order, making sure food eventually did arrive and
dealing with the more vexatious language problems.
Submitting our orders, we came to the attention of the girls. They were
immediately taken by the thick blond hair on my arms, pawing it as if
grooming an errant pet. Caught up in their mischievous mood I pulled up
my shirt and showed them how far the fur extends. I was instantly
dubbed "yak boy" and the name would stay with me throughout the country
as Tibetans kept discovering a fascination with blond body hair. Stuart
was labeled "chicken boy" after the dish he ordered, and in the nights
we returned it would always greeted, "Ahh, Yak-boy, Chicken-boy, welcome!"
The food here was the best we had in Tibet, yak and veggie momos
(dumplings) served with a hot sauce followed by Tibetan spiced chicken
stir fried and served with thin pancakes. To my palate the Tibetan
flavors seemed a mix of about 70% Indian tastes and 30% Chinese. Richly
spiced, but not that hot. As the food choices dwindled on the road to
Kailash, we would greatly miss Tashi-I.
We kept coming back though, not just for the food, but for the
atmosphere. The place has a welcoming spirit fueled by the family's
frenetic energy. After only a few days we felt like old friends even
though our conversations were mostly food items and gestures.
Each night as the crowd thinned, they'd sit down with us and a Tibetan phrase
book and we'd all try to learn a few new words as Stuart entertained them with
his tongue piercing and magic tricks.
Who is Stuart?
Stuart Wild: aka Wild Stu and known throughout Tibet as Chicken Boy.
Helicopter pilot, yacht crew, ski pro, scuba instructor, prestidigitator, and
50-year-old Indian movie star look-alike Stuart knows how to get out there, and
was a perfect partner for the trip to Mt. Kailash.
We met in a karmic moment as we were both sat in the Bahrain airport
waiting for a flight and I overheard him talking about Western Tibet.
We spent a few days raising a ruckus in Kathmandu, and then were off
together for three weeks in Tibet.
My only regret about doing this trip with Stuart is that we never found a
Chinese helicopter for him to steal. Rats!
- 15 Oct 1999
- Stuart was still feeling down from the effects of altitude, so I again went
out on my own to explore more of Lhasa.
First stop was the local Internet cafe! While painfully slow, I did manage to
read all my new messages, and the irony of sending email from the
forbidden city was not lost on me. It may not be quite as good as it
sounds though. Rumors here abound about the Chinese government
monitoring e-mail and arresting people based on it's content. I'm
familiar enough with the workings of the web (my old resume) to know what a difficult task
that would be, but as a believer pointed out, the Chinese are not short
on either motivation or human resources.
Dwelling on the old and new, I went for a walk searching for the Lhasa of yore,
but instead found only a modern bustling Chinese city. The Tibetan district is
small, focused around the Barkhor and seeming only to be about 20% of the city.
The rest could as easily be Chengdu or any other small ratty Chinese
city. Across the main street from Dalai Lama's old palace,
is an open, "People's Square" with Chinese military hardware on
display. Alongside that is a used car lot. Disheartened I returned to the
Barkhor to explore it's interior temple, the Jokhang. Inside, were
pleasant surprises, a puja (prayer service) in progress and two
friendly Spanish women I'd met on the plane.
A puja underway in the Jokhang.
Together we took in the dissonance of a Tibetan prayer ceremony. Groups
of monks chanted prayers from ancient books. Their voices seemed to roll
like waves, each group rising to a different crescendo and then
occasionally all coming together and breaking with crash. They chanted
in a deep, low, monotone and to my untrained ear the result was more like
that of a gentle percussion instrument than of the human voice.
At points they'd be joined -- or interrupted, it was hard to tell -- by the
real drums. Double sided drums the size of car tires, set on poles and beaten
with crazily curved mallets.
Hrum, rmm, rmm, dra, ya', yum. Hrum, rmm, rmm, dra, ya', yum. The monks
voices would murmur at a rushed tempo and Bromm, Bromm the drums would
intervene at an unhurried pace.
The trumpets were the final voice in this cacophony. Thin slender
trumpets half again longer then a person and with sound like a wounded
animal, a very large, very angry and mortally wounded animal.
Braamfffff they'd shrill to the delight of the Tibetans and
drowning out any other sound.
A puja doesn't have the solemnity of a western religious service. Young
monks tell jokes, pinch each other and occasionally deliver a whack with
their prayer books. Tibetans wandered through the monks to make
offerings with seemingly little care to decorum.
For we, the uninitiated, it was difficult to make sense of, and there was
no one around to ask. I think the focus of this ceremony was monks
in the background making tormas, barley flour cakes decorated with
colored yak butter, and all the rituals were to consecrate them for
But even blind to the meaning, there was a sense of energy in the
gathering. Wizened old pilgrims drifted in, faces browned and deeply
creased by years in Tibet's harsh climate, they looked as if they just
as easily be a 1,000 years old as the 50. They probably were. Poised
before the rows monks and performing ritual prostrations and I saw tears
in the eyes of at least one as she turned and made her way out.
- 16 Oct 1999
While the Barkhor is truly Lhasa's heart, the Potala is surely its crown.
No other landmark is as indelibly associated with Tibet and its plight
as is the Potala Palace, rightful home of the Dalai Lama.
Historians say that 7th century Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo was the first to
build a palace on this site, but it was the great fifth Dalai Lama in 1654 who
began work on the Potala we see today.
With 13 stories providing 130,000 sq. meters of floor space it is a massive
structure that captures the imagination. Visible from all over the city the
Potala dominates Lhasa and is a constant reminder of what is, and what might
Traditionally the home of the Dalai Lamas, the Potala is now a tourist
attraction, and today Stuart and I went on the tour. Inside it seems more
a temple than a palace. Chapel after chapel filled to overflowing with Buddhist
scrolls, paintings, statues and altars. It even contains tombs for the Dalai
Lamas, the most impressive being that of the great fifth. His funerary stupa is
over 12m (40 ft) tall, is gilded with 3,721kg (8,223 lbs) of gold and decorated
with 15,000 pearls and gems.
Each twist and turn through the three-dimensional maze of the Potala reveals
similar treasures, but for me the most profound sight was also one of the
Turning from the roof into a set of small chambers you find the private
quarters of the 14th and current Dalai Lama. His personal effects are laid out
at his bedside as if he might return at any moment.
Although it was really from
Norbulingka, the summer palace, that he escaped in 1959, his presence in this
room is strong. I got the sense that some aspect of time has stood still here
as if even that immutable force awaits His Holiness's return.
After our tour through the Potala, Stuart and I went by our travel agency
to get a guide to help us with our shopping. With his assistance,
provisioning for the trip was easy. No haggling, no rip-offs, our guide
took care of the negotiations and we just walked through stores,
pointing at cases of Coke, cookies, and instant noodles. These would be
our staples on the long road to Kailash.
For dinner we returned once again to Tashi-I, this time with Catherine, a
Chinese born woman residing in New York, but on a trip through Russia,
China, Bhutan, and Tibet.
Dinner with Catherine was fascinating. As well as planting the seeds for
eventual trips to Bhutan and Mongolia, she challenged my pat Western notions
of China's villainy in Tibet by providing the Chinese taught version of
--Guru Rinpoche, 8th century establisher of Buddhism in Tibet.
When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels,|
the Tibetan people will be scattered throughout he world
and the Dharma will come to the land of red men.
Chinese claims to Tibetan sovereignty stem from an expedition by
Emperor Kang in 1720. He entered Lhasa with a military force and drove out the
Mongols who'd been occupying Tibet for three years. Kang Xi brought with
7th Dalai Lama, who'd been held by the Chinese for years. Between driving out
the Mongols and returning the Dalai Lama, Kang Xi was greeted as a hero even as
he declared Tibet a Chinese protectorate.
The Manchus ruled Tibet for nearly 200 years, responding with an iron fist to
any insurrection. The rest of the world snuck up on their isolationism though
and in 1903, the British, led by Sir Francis Younghusband, invaded. The
British were concerned about Russian expansionism and wanted to secure
Tibet as a buffer to their colony, India.
Younghousband's force of 1,000 well-armed men met the Tibetan army of 1,500 near
Gyantse. The Tibetan's were equipped primarily with swords and their secret
weapon: charms bearing the seal of the Dalai Lama that the monks assured
them would be protection against British bullets. As the British
attempted negotiations, a false alarm was raised and 700 Tibetans were
killed in four minutes.
Younghusband advanced on Lhasa only to find the Dalai Lama had fled to
Mongolia. He negotiated a treaty with the regent, but the Manchus
objected and in 1906 the British, in a move to block Russian advances,
signed a treaty with the Manchus acknowledging the Chinese right to rule
Tibet. In 1910 the Manchus decided to make good on the promises of this
treaty and invaded Tibet, sending the Dalai Lama fleeing again, this time
A 1911 revolution toppled the Qing dynasty in China, and in 1914 the 13th
Dalai Lama returned to a liberated Tibet and enjoyed almost 40 years of
self-rule. The 13th Dalai Lama traveled to the west and realized that
Tibet must modernize its infrastructure and social systems to survive in
a modern world. His reforms were met with great resistance in
traditionally isolationist Tibet.
His efforts mattered little though because in 1948 Mao Tse-tung took control of
China and on October 7, 1950 30,000 Chinese troops invaded Tibet and
quickly overwhelmed the Tibetan army of 4,000.
In Lhasa, the 15-year-old 14th and current Dalai Lama was quickly enthroned so
that he could assume command of the county. Knowing that Tibet could not stand
against Chinese aggression he dispatched a delegation to Beijing to negotiate.
As it turned out, no negotiations were required, as the Chinese had already
drafted the 17 point, Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful
Liberation of Tibet, and even forged the Dalai Lama's seal for it's
The document ceded control of Tibet to China in exchange for
unenforceable guarantees about the Tibetan way of life. The Dalai Lama's
delegation acknowledged they had no authority to sign such a document,
and the Dalai Lama himself opposed it when he finally got a chance to see
it. But, the Chinese touted it as the peaceful liberation of the Tibetan
people from years of serfdom to the monks and religious state.
Tensions built between the Chinese invaders and the Tibetans until things came
to a boil in 1959. The Dalai Lama was commanded to attend a New Years dance
without his usual contingent of bodyguards. Word of this leaked and 100s of
Tibetans surrounded the Norbulingka palace promising to protect the Dalai Lama
with their lives.
On the streets, Tibetan Soldiers shed their PLA uniforms and the strain
finally reached a breaking point as shells began falling on the palace
grounds. It became clear that no peaceful solution was in the offing
and on March 17, the Dalai Lama fled to exile in India. On March 20,
more violence broke out and estimates are that in 3 days, 10,000 to
15,000 Tibetans were killed.
With the Dalai Lama in exile the Chinese began the wholesale destruction of the
Tibetan way of life. Buddhism was banned with monks and nuns tortured and
brainwashed. By the end of the 1966-1976 excuse for genocidal insanity in
China, the so-called Cultural Revolution, only eight monasteries had
escaped destruction (out of literally thousands).
Amnesty International and other organizations estimate the Chinese have killed
over 1.2 million Tibetans (1/6th the population) in the course of the
occupation. But almost worse is the policy of relocating (sometimes forcibly)
Han Chinese to Tibet. There is no reliable census data, but simple observation
shows that the Tibetans are close to becoming a minority in their own country.
In 1972 the restrictions on worship were lifted, and even some Chinese
officials now acknowledge the excess. But it is an absolutely tragic
situation and an ancient and mystical way of life is on the verge of
Many have written far more passionately and eloquently than I ever could, I
encourage you to visit these web sites to learn what *you* can do to help:
- Tibet Online
- Lots of information, find your local Tibet Support Group!
- Government of Tibet In Exile
- Official site of the Dalai Lama.
- Tibetan centre for Human Rights and Democracy
- Investigating human rights abuses in Tibet.
- 17 Oct 1999
At 8 a.m. our guide, Pasang, and driver, Lakbha, picked us up in the Land
Cruiser and we made first acquaintances with our family and home for the
next 2 1/2 weeks. After loading it full of our supplies we piled in
and headed down the road out of Lhasa.
Left to right: Lakbha, Stuart, Pasang and myself.|
Front to back: Us, the Land Cruiser and Kailash.
We drove out down the Brahmaputra River, and then as the pavement ended,
we began the long series of switchbacks to the 4,997m (16,390 ft)
Kamba-La pass. From the pass we looked down on the "scorpion shaped"
Yamdrok-tso lake 500m (1,500 ft) below. To my eyes, the lake, one of four
holy lakes in Tibet, looked more like a vine, with beautiful turquoise
and jade tendrils reaching up into the mountain valleys.
The road descended to the lake and then hugged its north and west shores
before rising again to cross the Karo-la pass. At 5,045m (16,547 ft) we are
more than 200m higher than Mt Blanc in Europe and more than 2,300 ft
above Mt. Whitney in the United States, but still on the main
highway in Tibet.
Our destination today is Gyantse, a town our guidebook advertises as one of the
least Chinese influenced in Tibet. Sad if true, because to us it appeared at
least a third if not half Chinese. The town sits nestled between a
monastery complex and a ruined dzong (fort).
The Gyantse Dzong is an imposing structure built into the summit of a hill
looming above the town. It has a thick, heavy, medievally impenetrable look
to it and even today in it's dilapidated state it seems able to repel any
invaders. In point of fact though, in 1903 it took just one day to succumb to
an attack of British soldiers led by
Sir Francis Younghusband.
Things were quieter the day we were there though. A pack of dogs, a
few cows and some Tibetan children playing ball were all I found on the
streets as I took an evening walk getting my first feel for life in Tibet
outside of Lhasa.
- 18 Oct 1999
- This morning we visited Pelkor Chode Monastery complex at the back of
Gyantse town. The highlight of the compound is the magnificent Gyantse
Kumbum. The Kumbum is a multi-tiered, wedding cake like structure that
is topped by a gold dome. It's visited by ascending it in a spiral. You
climb the steps to a new floor, walk around clockwise studying the murals
in the temples, and then ascend to the next floor. Each floor has
several chapels, each with several murals and an alter. There is a lot
to see, but to the untrained eye it all quickly seems the same.
Much more interesting for me was to watch the pilgrims. In town, they
buy slabs of butter for their visits to the Kumbum. At each alter they'd
spoon a chunk of their butter out into a tub as an offering. The monks
then collect the butter and use it to fuel the hundreds of devotional
candles that adorn each chapel. The steps joining the floors in
Kumbum are really ladders. Steep, rickety affairs rough hewn from logs
and poorly lit. The pilgrims, many old folks past their best climbing
days, would struggle up these ladders carrying their butter packets.
They often seemed ready to fall, but hands from above and below would
steady them and pull them through to the next floor.
You see this sort of devotion all over Tibet, people with little to eat
making offerings of rice and taking what seems like their last tired
steps in acts of pilgrimage. The practice and rituals of Buddhism are
an indelible part of the Tibetan culture.
Finished in the Kumbum we made the short drive to Shigatse, the second largest
town in Tibet. Shigatse is also a major stop on the tourist trail from
Lhasa to the Nepal border on the so called, Friendship Highway. The hotel was
chock full of travelers in the midst of various programs. Some were doing
standard package tours and others, more adventurous mountain bike trips.
Relaxing on our sun-deck and later eating dinner with the other
foreigners I felt very "in here" and not, "out there."
In the afternoon, Pasang took us on a tour of Tashilhunpo Monastery.
The largest functioning monastery in Tibet today and historically a very
important one, Tashilhunpo is an interesting place. But, word of mouth
and guidebooks both say that all seen here must be treated with caution.
The monastery is also the seat of the Chinese effort to subvert Buddhism,
and rumors abound of monks asking tourists for Dalai Lama pictures (both
prized and illegal in Tibet), and the generous/foolish tourists then
receiving a police visit that night. Some even go so far as to say that
all the monks here are in the pay of the Chinese and that the entire
complex is a sham left in place just to entertain tourists.
Nonetheless, Tashilhunpo was mostly undamaged in the Cultural Revolution and
it's temples make fascinating viewing. Pasang accompanied us to
explain the imagery and despite his not really being fluent in English,
we soon had a crowd of hangers-on listening to his explanations.
Tashilhunpo is a big place and Buddhist iconography is a long and complicated
topic, but I'll include here one popular example. According to
Pasang, the multi-headed, thousand armed image that seems so popular in comic
representations of Buddhist art is Avakokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of
Compassion from whom the Dalai Lama is said to be reincarnated. He has
so many heads because his is said to have exploded when he contemplated
all the ills in the world, and he has a thousand arms because that is
what it will take to cure those ills.
Our tour ended at the tomb of the 10th Panchen Lama.
- 19 Oct 1999
- While I was in Kathmandu, an e-mail friend from Scotland had sent me
the book, Walking to the Mountain. Written by Wendy Teasdill, it is her account of
how in 1988, with the area officially closed, she had rode, hitched, and finally
walked this route from Shigatse to Kailash.
As we pulled out of town I sat in the back of our comfy Land Cruiser and
read how Chinese officials foiled her attempts to buy a horse in
Shigatse, so she had stocked up as many supplies as she could just barely
carry and staggered down the road we were then cruising at a comfortable
clip. About 20k outside of Shigatse my place in the book and physical
location intersected, but the connection was tenuous. As I read about her
begging matches off pilgrims and struggling across swollen rivers I'm
overcome by a sense of normalcy and being "on the beaten path." I pondered
this for a long while and begin hatching schemes to banish those feelings.
Tonight's town, Lhatse, typifies the Chinese presence in Tibet. A long row
of sterile, box-like buildings faced with white tile and blue glass. The town
looks more like the inside of an airport bathroom than a Tibetan village.
The restaurants are all Chinese so we dine on fried noodles and go to bed
ignoring the lure of the flashing lights at the Karaoke/disco place across the
- 20 Oct 1999
As we rolled out of Lhatse, the "road" turned quite literally into a
streambed, and for the first time I began to feel a bit off the beaten
track. Lakbha turned out to be a fabulous driver and he deftly maneuvered
the Land Cruiser around boulders and through innumerable river
crossings. They are building a new road here, on the banks above the
river, and I wondered what the journey will be like in a few years.
As a traveler, I am both a victim of and a participant in this
process. Each time down a road it shifts just a little bit from "less
traveled" to "more traveled" and will never quite be the same for those
who follow. Sad in a way, that it is impossible to share those perfect
moments in both time and place.
My sense of contentment with our own level of adventure was short lived though.
As the day wore on dark clouds gathered and it finally began to snow.
As we finally left the stream bed and began climbing for a pass we met a jeep
full of Chinese police and a parade of trucks that all had been turned
back. It had been snowing hard higher up and the road was treacherous.
Just as our trip had been getting interesting, it seemed it might be over.
The guys don't want to risk a try at the pass, and for the first time we
heard what would become their stock excuse, a concern over fuel, in
convincing us to return to the previous town and spend the night.
And so, midday found us in Sangsang without much to do. In our
frustration we hiked up a peak just outside of town and dubbed it
Footbridge near Mt. Disappointment.
- 21 Oct 1999
We had been hoping for news of someone crossing the pass from the other
direction, but with no signs of any successes we (and everyone else) set out to
give it a go.
The usual means of transport in Western Tibet.|
The Swastika was an ancient symbol for good luck long before Hitler took and
interest in it.
As we drove, we passed more bad omens, several trucks still stuck where
they had obviously stopped and spent the night. There really wasn't that
much snow, less than a foot, and both Stuart and I were incredulous that
here in the "Land of Snows" they'd never heard of tire chains.
As the road steepened we lost traction and went skidding back down.
Lakbha sent Pasang out to lock the hubs into 4wd as Stuart and I again
slapped our foreheads. We had assumed we'd been in 4wd for days now.
With the hubs locked we managed that and came to the scariest bit.
The one lane road there was built precariously into the side of the cliff
and the ice-choked river roared several jeep lengths below us. As the
tires began to slip and we slid closer and closer to the precipice I saw
Lakbha take one hand off the wheel in a Buddhist prayer gesture just as
the wheels regripped and we lurched over the hill.
A bit later we came across the Chinese police walking, afraid to ride in
their jeep. Obviously not enough prayer...
Over the pass things got easier and we soon pulled onto the high Tibetan
plateau, the dry barren wasteland that makes up most of Western Tibet.
We stopped in the town of Saga, ostensibly for gas, but the guys
disappeared so I went for a walk.
Sirens sounded and a voice began to blare through a loudspeaker. It seemed for
all the world like a town-wide fire drill as people began to line up and march
down the main street. At the end of the street was a large official building
flying a large Chinese flag from a tall pole, On the building's steps a podium
had been set up and before it stood a Tibetan man with his hands cuffed behind
his back. For 15 minutes at the podium, an official ranted at the gathered
crowd and then the man was taken away.
To this day I have no idea what it was all about, and it may not have been
nearly as sinister as it looked. The experience shook me though, and I was
embarrassed that my camera remained in its bag and I didn't even ask any
Stuart and I eventually discovered the guys tucked in a video room behind a
restaurant. They had been watching a kung-fu movie and thought it was now too
late in the day to go on. We were having none of it though, and anxious to
make up for the lost day forced them out into the sun and back on the road.
After another few hours of driving we stopped in Zhongba, our smallest town yet.
This town is typical of many in the region, a few traditional Tibetan homes
and a guesthouse nestled in a bend of the road. The buildings all have walled
courtyards, and these courtyards are the de facto toilets. When
asked where we should properly do that sort of business, Pasang responded
with a sweep of his arm and joyfully pronounced, "anywhere."
The buildings are whitewashed, and then topped with a band of
Burgundy. Atop the walls are drying stacks of yak dung, the ubiquitous
fuel in this region. For dinner, we step over a knee-high doorsill and
join our hosts in their living quarters.
There is no electricity, and kerosene lamps dimly light the room. Smoke
from the yak dung stove blends with smoke from the endless cigarettes and
swirls about the low roof. The roof is supported by rough-hewn beams, painted
in the Tibetan style of intricate swirls and filigree done in bright primary
Lying in the corner on the dirt floor is a days-old sheep carcass. Our host
walks over and using the dagger from his belt hacks off a few pieces of
raw meat -- Tibetan snacks. Their staple is tsampa, barley flour mixed
with yak butter and water to make a doughy paste. We tried a bit and
found it tasted a lot like sand so instead of raw sheep and tsampa
we opt for thukba, Tibetan noodle soup.
The woman of the house mixes flour and water, then rolls out our noodles by
hand, taking breaks to add more yak dung to the stove, also by hand. A pot of
water is brought to a boil and the noodle chunks are tossed in along with some
wilted cabbage and a dash of soy sauce. This is thukba, our staple for
the time we were in Western Tibet. While it boiled our cook picked up a
bottomless toddler and spread his legs for him to pee on the dirt
floor of the kitchen cum living room cum bedroom. Dust control?
Our thukba is served with bö cha, Tibetan yak butter tea.
The tea comes from a churn where hot water, rancid yak butter, and a
handful of spices have been blended. Note the decided lack of tea in
"Tibetan yak butter tea." The potion isn't really as vile as it sounds,
especially here where the people are poor and skimp on the butter. It
tastes mostly like fatty salt water with lingering flavor of old leather
The biggest problem with bö cha is the never-ending supply of
it. The tea is a mainstay of Tibetan hospitality, and a cup is instantly
poured for anyone who enters a home. It's not really possible to refuse
or to avoid drinking. Every few minutes the host makes a round of the
room proffering each guest his or her cup and a sip must be taken.
Finishing a cup is an impossibility as when even a fraction of millimeter
is sipped off, the cup is immediately refilled from a seemingly endless
supply. Keeping the cup full is a matter of pride for the host.
The game becomes one of drinking just enough that the refills keep our cups
warm (perish even the thought of drinking cold bö cha!), but not so
much as to turn our western stomachs. A difficult balance.
- 22 Oct 1999
- The drive along the high plateau is nothing like what I expected.
Vegetation and signs of life fade as we encounter sand dunes blocking the road
and it feels more like
The only sign of snow is atop the 7,000+ meter peaks of the Annapurna range that
tower off the plateau to the South. Walking barefoot in the sand it almost
feels like a beach and it's a surreal juxtaposition to be staring
out at some of the tallest and most famous mountains in the world.
Stuart walking on sand dunes in Western Tibet. Just out of view to the left is
the Annapurna range of mountains.
Temple entrance adorned with yak skulls.
The day's drive brought us to Paryang, a squalid little place whose primary
feature was a huge trash pile in the middle of town. Like most towns in Western
Tibet this one is inhabited by a pack of wild dogs. At the sound of something
new being tossed onto the garbage pile they'd come running from every corner
and viciously battle for the title, "king of the mountain."
The town's other point of interest was a Buddhist temple containing a huge prayer
wheel. As we watched, wizened old women dressed in Traditional Tibetan garb and
mountaineering goggles would stagger into the temple and spin the wheel. Twice
as tall as them and far heavier they'd grab it together and throw their backs
into it setting it in motion for a few minutes and releasing more prayers to
Outside the temple entrance was large pile of decorated yak skulls. Throughout
Tibet, I would have difficulty coming to grips with the differences between the
beliefs of Buddhism and the Tibetan practice of Buddhism. How do you reconcile
all the idol worship, the killing of animals, and the amassing of wealth all for
a way of living that decries such practices?
Really, I never worked it out, and I emerged from my time in Tibet disappointed
in my ability to connect with Tibetans on a spiritual level. Part of it was
the language difficulties and part of it was the long repression of Buddhism by
the Chinese, but there is a more fundamental issue as well. The lay people of
Tibet live and experience Buddhism on a different level. Pilgrims walking
deserted roads and circumambulating chörtens don't see their actions
in an intellectual, western way. The only know that it is right, and
they throw every fiber of their existence into living as meritoriously as
Buddhism in a Nutshell
Warning: I'm not a Buddhist scholar, and I don't intend to play one on the web.
But, Buddhism is such an inherent part of Tibet and the reasons I was there that
I want to try and at least give an impression of the belief system. For a real
please see any of the many available books on Buddhism. I can heartily recommend
Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das, from which I borrow heavily
--Quoted by Surya Das.
May all beings everywhere, with whom we are inseparably interconnected, be
fulfilled, awakened, and free. May there be peace in this world and thought the
entire universe, and may we all together complete the spiritual journey.
Buddhists believe we all have the capability for Buddahhood, or enlightenment,
within us. In fact, they say that we are all doomed to being reborn an infinite
number of times in different states until we work our way into enlightenment.
"The Buddha," was an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama born
during the 5th century BC. In midlife, he gave up his wife and family to begin a
rigorous ascetic practice. He came to realize this was too extreme a path
and turned to meditation. Eventually realized enlightenment while meditating
under a bodhi tree.
He took the name Sakyamuni, and set himself to showing others how to achieve
this perfect state. His teachings, the so called, "Middle Path," form the core of
Buddhism today. The two central elements are the "Four Nobel Truths" and "The
The Four Nobel Truths
- Life is difficult.
- Life is difficult because we crave inherently unsatisfying things.
- The possibility of liberation exists for everyone.
- The way to liberation is by following the Eight-Fold path.
The Eight-fold path
- Right View
This first step on the Eight-fold path encourages us to see the world as
it really is, without delusions about ourselves. With both our
eyes and our inner sight, The Buddha wanted us to shed expectation and
fantasy to experience what really is around us, be it good or bad.
- Right Intention
The second step on the Eight-fold path is to fill our hearts with empathy and
compassion for all living things, to be completely free from negativity.
Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma, that our actions in this life
determine how we are reborn in the next. If we conduct ourselves well we will
be reborn in a higher state and eventually work our way into enlightenment, or
In this endless cycle of rebirths, you have been both my mother and my child.
Right intentions teaches us to treat all living things with respect for
this relationship. The mosquito on your arm as been your mother, your father,
your lover, and will be again. Treat it gently, as you yourself would wish to be
- Right Speech
The Buddha recognized the power of speech, that words can have incredible power
for good or evil. In the third step he directed us to speak only the truth. To
tell things simply and honestly.
- Right Action
Do not do anything harmful, do only what is good, purify and train your own
mind. This is the teaching of The Buddha, this is the path to enlightenment.
This step on the path commands us to always live consistently with our beliefs.
In all things, to act honestly and well-- not to kill, steal, or bring
disharmony into the world.
- Right Livelihood
Do no harm, act only to improve the world. Right Livelihood encourages us to
think about our relationship with the world and to make sure that it is
healthy and wholesome.
- Right Effort
Living well isn't easy, it's hard and takes continual vigilance. This step on
the path implores us to make the effort in everything we do.
- Right Mindfulness
At this point in the path we need to develop a sense of "nowness," an awareness
of the present. We need to live in this moment, not the past or the future,
and be cognitive of both ourselves and the world around us.
- Right Concentration
Following the path isn't easy, it takes effort and focus. This step on the path
acknowledges that it isn't an easy road and encourages us to meditate and
summon the requisite energy. We need to unify our spiritual aims and then
diligently pursue them.
- 23 Oct 1999
- Another long day of driving.
Yesterday's environment had been bleak, but we still occasionally saw a band of
nomads herding their yaks and eking an existence out of the barren earth.
Watching closely, we'd sometimes see large rabbits, bigger than the foxes
that occasionally revealed themselves with a shake of a bushy tail.
Wheeling through the high thin air, eagles soared, majestic symbols for this
harsh land. And just as proud, we even saw a herd of wild asses thunder across
the open plain. They kept pace with the Land Cruiser for a while, before
wheeling away and beating out a frothy path towards the northern hills.
Today there was nothing. Just out of Paryang, we made some of the fabled river
crossings, now sedately bridged by modern constructions. But soon there
were no more rivers and no more lakes, and not even the Nomads ply that
At lunch I tried to joke with Pasang about the possibilities of stopping
at a drive-in, but couldn't make him understand. Probing further I found
that even though he knew all the words to "Hotel California" he had never
even herd of McDonalds! Maybe there is hope for the world after all...
After a full days drive, the first traces of water also brought signs of life.
Eagles and hares, then even people seemed to reemerge as if from hiding.
And finally, coming over a rise like all the rest, the still, cobalt waters of
Lake Manasarovar spilled out across the plain. We knew it must be near, but it
was a surprise even so. Another pile of stones and jumble of prayer flags,
the sort of cairns that seem to mark every obscure corner of Tibet, but
this one marks the spot where holy Mt. Kailash first pokes it's icy head
above the horizon.
It's hard to know just where or when my journey to this point began
but resting in the high mountain air, gazing at the long sought jewel I
contemplate all the circumstances that brought me to this moment and
wonder how this new experience will shape my ever-changing road.
A short drive from Manasarovar is the frontier town of Darchen.
Darchen raises the bar on squalor. The entire town is a minefield of
broken beer bottles, human excrement and unhappy people. It's the
antithesis of all that is Tibet. Pasang has sharp words with some
shopkeepers just trying to get them to boil water for instant noodles,
and then we had a run-in with the hotel managers.
Both hoteliers wanted 120 Yuan for a room not even as nice as the places we'd
been staying. Given that we are the only two tourists in town and the
most we'd previously paid was 40 Yuan, this seemed like outright thievery
to me. I said as much to Stuart and suggested we just start the kora and
sleep on the trail. This incensed the hotel guy and he went scurrying
off to inform the police that we weren't going to pay what we were
quickly coming to see as an informal tax on the kora.
I was all for a confrontation in the name of principle, but Stuart and Pasang
talked some sense into me, and we finally succumbed to this banditry. Welcome
to the holiest place on Earth.
- 24-26 Oct 1999
"Kailash," the western name for the mountain, is so abrupt and jarring.
I prefer the more melodic Tibetan: "Gang Rinpoche" (say: gang
rin-poe-shay). But, the mountain is known by any number of names and
superlatives, mythical Mt. Meru, home of Shiva, "the center of the
universe," "the navel of the world," or, as many westerners know it,
"that holy mountain in Tibet."
With all these labels, the only surprise is how well it fits them all.
Kailash bears an uncanny resemblance to mythical mountains from several
different faiths. It sits alone on the remote Tibetan plateau not the
tallest mountain in this land of giants, but one of the most distinctive.
Its four faces match the cardinal directions and it presides over the
sources of four of the subcontinents major rivers.
The Kailash kora is considered the most holy in all of Tibet. One walk around
the mountain is said to wash away the accumulated sins of a lifetime providing
a clean karmic slate. Serious pilgrims though, will do at least three
laps, or better yet, a more auspicious 13. For the truly devout, 108
koras is supposed to grant instant access to nirvana.
The Tibetan pilgrims usually do the 53km (32 mi) circumambulation in one long
day. Stuart and I will take a more leisure three days, stopping to see
the many sights along the way.
For me, The mountain's initial appeal, was its remoteness and the
difficulty in getting here. As with so many other things in my life, I'd
heard it was hard, so I put it on my list, just another thing to bang my
But, this journey has been different than most. It's tied to the
transformation of my life and a spiritual exploration. I've come here
looking for something, even if I'm not sure what it is.
The day begins with us trying to extract ourselves from the pungent
secularity of Darchen. The hotel people don't recognize a 100-Yuan note,
even though that's what they charge for a room. For a moment, it looks
like we will finally be arrested in Tibet, but finally a more rational
manager is woken to accept our money.
Free at last, we walk past the monastery just outside town, give the prayer
wheels a final spin and head out on the kora.
Less than an hour out of Darchen we get to the first of the four prostration
points that mark the initial views of each of the mountain's faces. Following
the ritual, I prostrate myself here. Facing the mountain, I place my hands palm
together in a prayer gesture, then touch my forehead, mouth, and heart, before
finally stretching myself full length in the dirt with my arms extended.
I feel a bit silly, and I'm nervous about the difference between following a
ritual and mocking it. But in my mind, I too have come as a pilgrim and
this is the smallest gesture of devotion. Hardcore pilgrims will
prostrate themselves the entire way around the kora, making their way one
body length at a time and marking their place each night with a stone.
For the extreme pilgrim, we heard talk of doing the kora while
continually prostrating towards the mountain! That's 53 km through rivers
and over high mountain passes all done by making a prostration then
taking a half step the left and prostrating again. In comparison, my
simple four seem the token gesture that they in fact are.
Our next landmark on the kora trail is the Tarboche flagpole. The tall
slender pole is erected in an elaborate ceremony each spring. The way it
leans is said to foretell the state of things for the year to come.
Perfectly vertical and all is well, towards Kailash and there is trouble,
but not too bad, away from Kailash and it's time to take cover. To our
eyes it seems tipped slightly towards the mountain, and that would seem
to match the general state of things.
Stuart relaxed here while I went to look at the Kangnyi chörten,
just over a small rise. As I approached this rough-hewn arch I flushed
two eagles and watched them pinwheel through the air. As I got closer to
the chörten I saw what had had the eagles attention, fresh goat
heads adorned the arch. I avoided their eyeless stares as I ducked under
the arch to score my Buddhist merit points and again tried to reconcile
my Western notions of Buddhism with its practice in Tibet.
From the gruesome to the macabre Stuart and I then climbed to a sky burial
site. In Tibet, for those who can afford it, the traditional method for
disposing of bodies is sky burial. The corpse is taken to high crag
where it is hacked into pieces and left for scavenger birds. Once the
lammergeyers have carried away the flesh the bones are ground to dust
and thrown in a river.
As we walk through the site I have to choke down an unbearable sense of being
somewhere I don't belong. The cairn dotted knoll is strewn with discarded
clothes, locks of hair and fragments of bone. I picked my way through as
if in a minefield and wonder if I've already stepped on a karmic
antipersonnel device. In the center we come to the rock walled altar and
its collection of well-worn cleavers. Stuart stopped for some pictures
while I quickly retreated to place where the spirits didn't scream quite
Descending from the sky burial site we rejoin the kora trail as it turns down a
beautiful canyon and works its way upstream beneath the west face of Kailash.
The trail is set just above the river and we try to make sense of the waters
murmur as it cascades over the white stones of the riverbed. The walls of the
canyon are painted in shades of red, like something out of the American West.
It's hard to imagine that we are really in Tibet.
The second prostration point is a more meager affair than the first, just a
large cairn marking the first view of the north face. We've settled into
a hiking rhythm, so I take only a moment to make my obeisance, before
The air is thin here and breathing is difficult, but it feels wonderful to
be out in the world after a week imprisoned in the back of the Land
Cruiser. We plod down the trail, with my body on autopilot and my mind is
free to wander.
So, here I am at Holy Kailash, performing one of the most important
rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. I try to meditate and marshal my thoughts
to the task of just being here, in this moment.
In this moment though, my brain is filled with lascivious thoughts of an
ex-girlfriend long gone from my life. I'm horrified, but there is little that
can be done. The harder I push and try to force the direction of my
concentration the deeper it wanders into a wholly inappropriate lurid realm.
I'm hopelessly distraught by the time we get to Dira-Puk monastery, our
home for the night. In this life and others, I've wandered so far and
worked so hard to be here, and this is the best I can manage? I think
dark thoughts and wonder, am I Buddhist? does the question even mean
We wake tired and cranky. It had been a full moon last night, and according to
my readings, we get double-bonus merit points for seeing it here on the
Kora. We kept waking during the night to bundle into all our warm clothes
and brave the bitter night air to check the moon's progress as it slowly rose
over Kailash and ponderously arced over the river canyon.
We'll need that accumulated merit and all our patience though to deal with the
guesthouse caretakers this morning. We had bargained hard with them last night
bringing the price of our bug invested beds and yak dung pillows down from
ridiculous to merely insulting. This morning they are back on ridiculous.
We refuse to pay more than what was agreed to and things start to get very
tense. Voices are raised and angry shouts echo off the holy mountain. In the
end we walk off with them still berating us and we carry large rocks in case
they come after us with drawn daggers.
Trying to shed that negative tension I throw my energies into the hiking as the
trail begins to climb steeply. Stuart and I have chosen different lines so I
trudge through the crisp clear air with only the company of my bodhisattva.
|My bodhisattva on duty at the Drölma-la.
Bodhisattvas are beings who have achieved enlightenment but instead of entering
Nirvana they have taken a lower rebirth in order to assist the rest of us.
I didn't recognize mine yesterday, at first she had seemed just another of the
mongrel dogs that followed us out of Darchen, but today it seems
obvious that she is to be my guide.
Slowly picking my way up the steep hillside she trots ahead finding the route
and freeing me to explore my thoughts. I resolve to escape yesterday's mental
debauchery and lose myself in the chant of
Om Mani Padme Hum.
Om Mani, as I inhale, and Padme Hum, as I exhale, over and over again, in
and out I make each breath full, swelling my lungs and trying to draw
into myself a bit of the energy I feel about me. I exhale forcefully and
with conscious thought, trying to expel all the emotional ballast that I
want to leave behind here.
I am feeling good as Stuart and I's paths cross and we stop to regroup.
This is the mental state I'd wanted to bring to Kailash. From our rest
point we look down the "shortcut valley." That route is closed to all
who have less than 13 koras so we must continue our climb up towards the
Our next stop is Shiva-tsal, a spot on the kora where pilgrims are
supposed to undergo a symbolic death by sacrificing something to
represent what they want to leave behind in this life. I make the
traditional offering by snipping off a lock of hair. Stuart decides to
innovate and leaves behind his boxers to do the rest of the kora commando
It's only a short ways before we start searching for the Bardo Trang sin
testing stone. Tibetan lore has it, that if you can wriggle through the
narrow passage you are not burdened with too many sins as to be completely
cleansed by one Kora. We find the stone and both of us manage to
squeeze through. I wonder if I should try it with my pack though, maybe
some of my sins are in there?
After Bardo Trang, the trail steepens in its assault on the kora's highpoint,
the 5,630m (18,466 ft) Drölma-la pass. All my readings have described the
kora as swarming with pilgrims, but Stuart and I have been mostly alone. It is
after all October, and the weather could turn dramatically bad at any
moment. As we make the long slog up to the pass, I look down to see a
kora-in-a-day pilgrim rapidly gaining on us. The fact that he is
Tibetan, and unladen, doesn't matter to me, my Y-chromosome goes off,
and I crank up the pace.
In the thin air I struggle to breathe and it becomes more difficult to maintain
my Padme Hums. As my breathing breaks, so does my concentration. The pilgrim
is gaining on me, and I curse myself for being slow. Then I curse myself for
caring and finally another curse for caring that I care. I'm well cursed, and
wallowing in a pool of self-condemnation when the pilgrim passes me with a
cheery Tashi Delay. Stuart is far behind, and the pilgrim quickly
ahead. I am left alone to lament my pride and competitiveness, the days
rapture is gone.
It is clear and sunny on the summit of the Drölma-la and the wind is
crisp but gentle as it sends aflutter the thousands of accumulated prayer
flags. I add a string of my own, but not before inscribing them with
the names of my friends and family. If you received a postcard from me
before I left for Tibet, chances are good that your name now flies on the
Drölma-la in endless motion and endless blessing.
As I wait for Stuart, I make a few circuits around the summit stone
chanting the Tibetan pass crossing mantra, Ki Ki so so, La gyalo
(long life and happiness, the gods are victorious).
When Stuart arrives we take a break for lunch and share the tube of
cookies with our ever-present canine Bodhisattvas. The descent is
difficult on my ankle, but
otherwise uneventful. At the bottom of the pass we get to the only one
of the "Buddha footprints" we are able to find on the Kora. These foot
shaped indentations found throughout the region are ascribed to the
travels of Sakyamuni and other saints. This one is atop a large boulder,
so we scramble up to run our hands through the impression of The Buddha's
The trail is gentler here as it winds down another river valley. Stuart and I
opt for different sides of the river and I again find myself embroiled in a
spurious race. His side begins flatter, and I race up and down the knolls I
find on my shore to match his pace. I'm sure he is oblivious, as I should be,
but I can't free myself from this compulsive competitiveness. I pause only for
a brief prostration at the cairn marking the one glimpse of Kailash's
I'm frustrated with my own pettiness, but the irritation just spurs me on.
Eventually I wait for Stuart as he has to pick his way back across the river,
and we finish this long day together, making the last easy walk to Zutul-Puk
Here as well, two incredibly annoying caretakers staff the guesthouse.
I'm all for camping in the open, just to spite their extortionate
demands, but Stuart is finally able to knock them down a few Yuan, and we
settle into our hovel for the night.
We boil up some instant noodles for ourselves and the dogs, as they take
up a position on guard just outside the door. Any person or beast
approaching has to withstand a fusillade of barking and it gives us an
odd sense of security in a place where there really is nothing to be
afraid of anyway.
Zutul-Puk Monastery is built over a cave formed during a contest between
Milarepa and the Bön saint Naro Böchung. The story goes that
Milarepa finished the ceiling before Naro Böchung could erect the
walls. At first the ceiling was too high though, so he stamped it down
with his feet, but then it was too low so he pushed it up with his hands.
Famous for achieving enlightenment in just a single lifetime, Milarepa is
one of Tibet's (and my) most beloved Yogi's, sort of a spiritual
Once a powerful sorcerer who used black magic to cause several deaths,
under the tutelage of Marpa, Milarepa renounced his evil ways and fled to
the high mountains to contemplate the Dharma.
Living in stark solitude, subsisting only on nettle soup that turned his
skin green, it is said that after years of intense meditation,
he was able to change his body into any shape and to fly.
The fear of death and infernal rebirths due to my evil actions has led me
to practice in solitude in the snowcapped mountains.
On the uncertainty of life's duration and the moment of death I have
Thus I have reached the deathless, unshakable citadel of realization of
the absolute essence.
My fear and doubts have vanished like mist into the distance, never to disturb me again.
I will die content and free from regrets.|
This is the fruit of Dharma practice.
--One hundred thousand songs of Milarepa|
(As found in, Awakening The Buddha Within)
In the stories about Milarepa, I find what I expected of Tibetan
Buddhism, a tangle of good and evil, mystical and profane; simple
statements with endlessly tangled meanings.
Surya Das, recounts that when it came time for Gampopa, Milarepa's main
student, to leave, he begged his master for one final lesson. At first
Milarepa refused saying that what was required after all the years of
study was more effort, not more instruction.
But, as the dejected student turned to walk away, Milarepa called out to him.
When Gampopa looked back the master bent over and lifted his robe
to display his weather worn buttocks, callused from years spent
meditating on hard rock. "This is my final teaching, my heart-son," he
called, "Just do it!"
Leaving one's homeland is accomplishing half the Dharma
The monks here are warm and friendly, nothing like the caretakers, and
they are quite willing to show us the cave. It's a thought filled moment
to crouch in the cave and place my hands in Milarepa's prints. He has
long been my favorite Buddhist saint and I can feel the connection grow
as I ponder his hours of mediation in this very spot.
We are quickly back on the trail, anxious to complete our way
around the mountain. Inspired by Milarepa's cave I vow to be a saintly
model of contemplation today, but it is again not to be.
Over the course of the trip Stuart has adopted the charming Tibetan trait
of spitting, and today it appears he is going to get serious about it.
Step, step, step, hraaawk thpwut!, repeated continuously. I'm yet again
challenged to comprehend the depths of my pettiness, but the fact is, the
spitting is driving me crazy. It just isn't a pleasant sound and each
thpwut! brings me crashing out of my meditation.
I resolve to take this on as a challenge though, to let the jarring wash
over me with no effect. I won't complain, I wont ask him to stop, and I
won't avoid the situation by intentionally rushing ahead. It doesn't
work, I'm seething as I work to focus on my mantras. Thankfully, I'm
saved from my weakness as we develop a natural separation on the rolling
hills, and I again reach for the calm I'd hoped to carry with me all
through the kora.
I miss the official 4th prostration point, and so pick a likely looking
cairn draped with prayer flags. As I rise and turn back to the trail I
see my spiritual guide being sexually assaulted.
What are the lessons in all this? I do not know. I thought I would do the
kora and feel bigger, more powerful, but instead, I feel naked with all
my blemishes revealed.
- 26 Oct 1999 (contd.)
Back in town I made one last circuit around the monastery, spinning the
prayer wheels and trying to sort through my thoughts. The kora
completed, we made all due haste to escape the highly insalubrious environs
While Lakbha napped Stuart and I got to take turns driving the Land
Cruiser on the way over to Lake Manasarovar.
Manasarovar is one of the holiest lakes in the world, but even in the sun
it was chilly in October at 4,560m (14,950ft) and the slow drop off made
bathing tricky. I waded further and further out before finally giving up
and plunging into the knee-deep water.
Me, about to wash all my sins away in the holy, but chilly, Lake
That's Kailash in the upper right.
Back on the marshy shore I bottled up some of the water for future sin
cleansing before we headed back to get Lakbha.
While we'd been gone he'd met a friend of his who needed a ride to Lhasa,
and they wondered if we'd mind helping him out. In our newly sin-free
state, how could we have refused? We crammed his bedroll, stuffed full of
his belongings, into the back of the Land Cruiser and returned to the road.
As well as our new passenger we seemed to have picked up a funky odor and at
lunch we discovered what it was. While we waited for our thukba he rooted
through the back of the truck and produced... a sheep carcass. Ahh, I see,
lunch was to be his treat.
- 27 Oct 1999
We were up early, and back on the lonely road. We quickly left behind the
pleasant lake region and recrossed the barren valleys. With the high
Himalayans on our right and the rolling hills of Tibet on our left, the
road snaked its way down valley after valley. Each climb to a low pass
revealing another valley and an identical stretch of road.
We made it back to Paryang, and as I went for an evening walk I discovered
our previous footsteps on the sand dunes. The seemed fresh, as if made minutes
ago, not days. And already, I could feel the kora fading into that funny
space between memories and dreams.
- 28 Oct 1999
- Another lonely day of driving, endless valleys and barren hills
dappled with the occasional green bit of scrub. Out of the monotony,
appeared the dust plume of another Land Cruiser. We stopped to chat with
them, another group of tourists on their way to Kailash. We were sad to
lose our title of last in to Kailash that year, but it was a welcome
break and strange really to chat with new people after so long on the
road with Stuart.
One of their group was a woman named Tina. As we talked I discovered she was
from California, in fact she lived in a small mountain town where I have
friends and it didn't take long to come up with a common friend.
Amazing, to be the only two groups of foreigners in Western Tibet and to
discover ourselves friend-of-friends.
- 29 Oct 1999
- Drive, drive, drive!
Back over the pass where our adventure had almost been halted before even
begun, back down the brutal streambed aspiring to be a road and finally back
into Lhatse, a "real" town in our newly skewed perspective.
We celebrated our return to civilization with a meal that, "wasn't noodle
soup," and then went out on the town. The nightlife in Lhatse consists
of one Karaoke place that, as we were to discover, is also a Chinese
As with a cup of butter tea, it seems impossible to empty a beer glass in
Tibet. Round after round of 500cc beers was brought to the table despite the
fact that only Stuart and I seemed to be drinking. Every few minutes, one
of the elegantly dressed hostesses would come to our table to lift our
glasses that we were then expected to down.
After a few hours of this, the whole idea of Karaoke didn't seem quite so bad
as when we arrived. Stuart was cautious, because when we'd tried this in Lhasa
they didn't have any English disks and he found himself on stage,
microphone in hand, before a large crowd expecting something a capella.
With Pasang to negotiate they managed to find, "My Heart Will Go On" from
The Titanic. So as Stuart crooned his love song, I got the attention of
one of the hookers and took her out on the floor with the chaste dancing
that seems to be the expected behavior in this sort of establishment.
Hand in hand, but with ample space between us we tread about the floor like
something out of a grade-school dance. But, as Pasang assured me, for
500 Yuan she would go home with us for the night. Not quite ready to
part with my sin-free status I politely declined.
After Stuart's standing ovation of all 8 hookers the cry of "disco" broke
out. This seems to roughly translate as, "please play some real dance
music and not nauseating love songs for pot bellied Chinese businessmen
to serenade prostitutes with." For the record, I'm not a very good
dancer, and this isn't helped by 47 small glasses of beer. It was sad
then to watch these beautiful but unfortunate women stare at the aimless
wanderings of my feet as if the meaning of life might there be suddenly
revealed. If a craze of arrhythmic staggering breaks out across rural
China, I may be personally to blame.
- 30 Oct 1999
- Back in the Land Cruiser, we at least got to drive a new road, this
time towards Mt. Everest base camp. After paying the entrance fee we
climb to the 5,100m (16,728 ft) Pang-la pass. The summit of this pass
looks out on the roof of the world. Dominating the view is Mt. Everest,
but this is the most spectacular point in the most spectacular mountain
range on our planet. Makalu, Lhotse, Everest, and Cho Oyu are lined up
like teeth ready to take a bite out of any adventurer daring to try them.
At 8,848m (29,020 ft), Mt. Everest, the world's highest mountain, sits
right on the Tibet/Nepal border. While I haven't been, I've heard the
views from the Nepal side are disappointing. From base camp you can't
see the summit, only the Khumbu icefall, the first challenging section
of the climbing route. In Nepal, views of the summit can be had from a
nearby trekking peak, but a bit of the magic is lost from that
perspective, Lhotse, Everest's sister peak, looks taller.
There are no such issues on the Tibetan side. Everest, or Qomolangma as it is
known in Tibetan, is clearly monarch in this kingdom of mountain gods and the
entirety of it's 3,000m (10,000 ft) North face springs from the valley
into the heavens, every inch is visible.
From a climber's perspective, Everest isn't really a difficult mountain.
The challenges are posed only by logistics and altitude, the actual
climbing is quite straightforward. Compare this to the 8,611m (28,244ft)
K2 in Pakistan. While 237m (776ft) below Everest, it may be only the,
second highest mountain, but it has extremely difficult and technical
mountaineering it's entire length and a mortality rate that makes a trip
to Everest look like a Sunday outing to the art museum.
Knowing all this, I, like many armchair mountaineers, had always
considered Everest to be a "tourist mountain" that I really couldn't be
bothered to climb even if the permits weren't so ridiculously expensive.
Standing in Tibet though, looking out at the north face, all that
changed. It's a beautiful mountain and the northeast ridge is a
spectacular and aesthetic line. Qomolangma captured my heart and my
imagination, and the wheels began to turn in the back of my mind.
n.b. In Nepal, my camera containing all my film from this
region was stolen. You, like me, will need to make due with just my memories of
On the other side of Pang-la pass we found the worst road yet. It was poorly
graded, badly rutted and full of boulders. It took all of Lakbah's
concentration to just creep along at a walking pace. Beyond the painful decent
though, we found a pretty little valley full of interesting Tibetan towns.
As we wound through the villages we got glimpses of rural Tibetan life.
We watched as they tilled fields with yak-drawn wooden plows and threshed
wheat by hand letting the wind carry the chaff away. A hard, simple
life, but always lived with the ubiquitous Tibetan smile. And as we
watched them, they always took a moment to watch us back, and we traded
friendly waves across the language barrier.
The road began to climb again, and as the sun finally set we rounded a final
corner to arrive at Rongphu monastery, at 4,980m (16,300 ft) one of the
- 31 Oct 1999
We had troubles with the guys last night. They are worried about the
weather and the high passes that lay between us and the Nepal border. A storm
is forecast and they fear getting stranded at the border for the weeks it
could take to clear the road.
Things have generally gone well between us, but there has been friction
when Lakbha and Pasang have wanted to rush and we to relax. This time,
Stuart and I insist we spend the day here. He goes to hike a 6,000m peak
and I set off in the direction of Qomolangma with the intent of getting
as high as I can.
As I walk towards base camp I fantasize about doing the mountain today,
climbing it and being back at the monastery for dinner. In these
mountains, all so large, it's impossible to get a sense of scale, the
mountain is right there, and my fantasy seems so possible.
But, as reach base camp and continue beyond the mountain is no nearer.
I end up wallowing in deep snow and progress is tortuously snow. When my
midday turnaround point arrives I haven't even made it to advanced base
camp and the glacier where the proper climbing begins. So goes my first
defeat by the mountain.
That evening we drove back up the valley and stayed at a friendly
guesthouse in the town of Peruche. Our guests laughed and joked with us
Pasang tried to arrange food and explain the western palate. The result
was fine and we drank chang (Tibetan barley beer) as we all tried
out the few words we knew of each other's languages. To me, it was a
moment that captured all that is great about Tibet. Incredibly warm,
friendly people offering whatever little they had in hospitality. We
laughed wantonly as Pasang translated jokes and stories, but really we
laughed just because laughing is good and fun. In Tibet that just seems
so obvious to everyone, and maybe that is the key.
- 1 Nov 1999
- We drove back over the Pang-la pass down the friendship highway towards
Nepal. This area is what I thought all of Tibet would be like, a thick blanket
of snow covering a riotous mountain range. We pass Shishapangma the
mountain where Alex Lowe, one of America's best climbers, died not even a
month ago. It is an overt and violent landscape, so different than the
quiet desolation of Western Tibet.
We crossed one more high pass, the 5,124m (16,800 ft) La Lung-la,
and then plunge off the Tibetan plateau. The road drops down a steep
canyon growing more lush and verdant with every mile. It feels like
African jungle as monkeys scream and we drive beneath waterfalls that
plunge hundreds of feet.
Just past the town of Zhangmu, where the "Freedom Bridge" crosses the
canyon and the border, we said goodbye to Lakbha, Pasang, and Tibet. We
shouldered our packs, crossed the bridge on foot and began the process of
trying to make sense of it all.