A majestic mountain called Kailash towers above the high point of the Tibetan plateau, a three-day drive west from the capital of Lhasa. Until mid-20th Century it had been seen by only a handful of Westerners, but it has always been sacred to millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Tibetan Bonpo. Today, hundreds visit between June and September, most to attempt what one lyrical author has called “the greatest and hardest of all earthly pilgrimages” – a 52-kilometre “kora” or circumambulation of the mountain at altitudes ranging from 4,600 metres (15,000 feet) to over 5.600 metres (18,500) where the available oxygen is only half that at sea level.
Early sacred literature of south Asia had speculated on a mysterious mountain somewhere beyond the great barrier of the Himalayas, said to be the axis of the universe, abode of gods or saints, rising above a sacred lake, and source of the great rivers flowing from the Himalayas. It turns out that the ancients weren’t far off. Mount Kailash is a striking, remarkably pyramid-like peak with its four sides aligned to the cardinal points of the compass. It does indeed overlook a great lake known by its Sanskrit name, Manasarovar. Four of the subcontinent’s great rivers do rise within 100 kilometres of it – the Brahmaputra flowing through Bangladesh to the east; the sacred Ganges traversing northern India to the Bay of Bengal, and the Indus through what is now Pakistan to the west, along with its largest tributary, the Sutlej.
Kailash has never been climbed, not because of technical difficulty but because of its sacredness. When re-opening Tibet to outsiders in 1985 the Chinese government did invite Reinhold Messner, arguably the greatest mountaineer of the day, to make the climb but he declined. Sixteen years later, a Spanish expedition cancelled in the face of international protests, including Messner’s. The Chinese government then denied having given permission, announced that it “strictly prohibits any climbing activities on Mt. Kailash” and focused thereafter on the less contentious and more diplomatically useful business of pilgrimage, particularly from India. Today, access to Tibet is granted only to organized groups, and getting to Kailash requires not only a Chinese visa and Tibet Travel Permit, but also an Alien Travel Permit, Foreign Affairs Permit and Military Permit. Fortunately, a good adventure travel company can arrange all that.
Significance of the kora varies between religious traditions, but the common thread is that completing it cleanses the sins of a lifetime. Our little group began in late September from the town of Darchen at 4,670 metres (15,300 feet). The 20 kilometre trek up the rugged Lha-chu valley was relatively straightforward, but at that altitude “breathtaking scenery” is more than just a colourful metaphor. This first day ends at a spartan guest house with a spectacular view of Kailash’s north face, across the valley from the monastery of Dirapuk, rebuilt in 1985 after destruction during the “Cultural Revolution”.
I can honestly describe the second day as the hardest physical challenge of my life. Setting out before daybreak, we made the steady climb to the pass called Dölma La at 5,630 metres (18,500 feet). To call that gruelling would be an understatement. Even without altitude sickness, sheer breathlessness made every step an effort. No wonder so many summer pilgrims ride horses or yaks or, judging by all the discarded canisters along the way, make liberal use of oxygen boosters. But reaching the top is not the end of it – there remains another four hour descent down a rough and rocky slope, across a small ice-field, past a lovely little sacred turquoise lake, and then, mercifully, a gentle downward plod through the increasingly green Lham-chu valley to a guest house near the monastery of Zutulpuk.
The next morning’s return to Darchen makes a welcome opportunity to reflect on the experience, as well as on the humbling memory of Tibetan fellow pilgrims; some walking the entire kora in a single day, while others spend weeks prostrating themselves all the way: making a prayerful gesture, dropping face down on the trail, sweeping their arms backward, pushing themselves back onto their feet, advancing a few steps and then repeating over, and over, and over again. I couldn’t bring myself to intrude on their devotion by taking photographs and felt moved to make a gesture of respect to each as I passed.
Two life lessons reinforced on that memorable second day are simple enough, but profoundly empowering when the going gets tough. The first, familiar to most pilgrims, is that no matter how exhausted you may feel, chances are that just one more time you can muster enough strength to put one foot in front of another. And then once more. And once more …. The second came from my father, who had survived almost thirty bombing missions in World War Two before being shot down and spending five long years in a prison camp. Sometimes, he said, it’s best not to look at how far you still have to go, but rather look back and see how far you’ve come. Never has that advice felt more relevant than halfway up to Dölma La.
May the pilgrimage of the coming year be light on challenges and rich in blessings. Merry Christmas!