A 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur offered a perfect opportunity to visit the famous Batu Caves, a half-hour from city centre by commuter train. For tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists the main attraction is a profusion of flamboyant shrines and statues, particularly those inside the vast Temple (or Cathedral) Cave, 272 steps above the imposing guardian statue. Near the top, a gate on a side-path caught my eye, its sign welcoming passers-by to a “Dark Cave”. Checking that out after visiting the main feature turned out to be the best decision of my day.
Five years ago, lingering over a last glass of wine and aftertaste of delicious Basque cooking, I was savouring the ambience of a little courtyard restaurant tucked under the medieval walls of St. Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the French Pyrenees. Calling for the bill, I jotted a few final notes in a little pocket notebook before returning to my lodgings for the night. It proved to be an unexpected life-changing moment.
In the historic town of Carrión de los Condes in northern Spain, a diverse group of weary guests gathered in the vestibule of the albergue (pilgrim hostel) at the convent of Santa María to join some of the nuns for an evening sing-along before the nightly Pilgrim Mass. Most of us were strangers, united only by walking the Way of Saint James, the Camino de Santiago, to the great cathedral at Santiago de Compostella, still more than 400 kilometres ahead. Song sheets were distributed, a guitar produced, a few well known songs sung, and introductions made around the circle as we each described where we were from and why we were walking the Camino. We were invited to sing songs from our own countries, so a South African pilgrim and I offered a brief rendition of “Senzeni Na”, a protest song from apartheid days. And therein lies a musical tale spanning continents and cultures.
A geographer friend has been encouraging me for a long time to try making story-maps, so herewith my first attempt – to begin, click here.
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.
For more than 3,000 years (with the possible exception of the iconoclastic upheaval of the Cultural Revolution), China’s Tai Shan (Peaceful Mountain) (泰山) has been a pilgrimage destination for emperors, politicians, scholars, common folk, and even the occasional visiting Canadian. It’s a memorable climb up the 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) of path and reputed 6,660 steps to spend the night in a lodge at the top, then join the pre-dawn crowd to watch sunrise over the eastern sea, just as Confucius did 2,500 years ago.
“When the fresh showers of April have pierced the drought of March to the root…then folk long to go on pilgrimages.” (Geoffrey Chaucer in his Prologue to “Canterbury Tales” – loosely translated from the Middle English)
Six and a half centuries after Chaucer led a diplomatic mission to the kingdom of Navarre, I passed the same way – an April pilgrim celebrating my 70th birthday with forty reflective days walking the legendary Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) along the popular route from southern France, across the Pyrenees and northern Spain to the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. An important Christian pilgrimage for over a thousand years, it’s now popular with people of all faiths or none at all, whether for reflection or just a physical challenge or safe adventure. That makes for some interesting conversation along the way. A couple of weeks into the 800 kilometre journey, a Muslim fellow pilgrim shared her difficulty in reconciling this pilgrimage to the alleged tomb of a disciple of Jesus, whose core teaching was about love, with the recurrent image in churches and cathedrals along the way celebrating “Santiago Matamoros” – Saint James, Killer of Moors – mounted on a white horse and lopping the heads off hapless Muslims. Whatever happened to “love your enemies”?
Our Nepali sirdar (expedition team leader and guide) moved quietly from tent to tent, waking us in turn. In the cold pre-dawn darkness we dressed quickly and followed him up to a small plateau above the town of Namche Bazaar, 3,500 metres (11.500 feet) above sea level in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. There we stood as the sky lightened slowly until, finally, a golden glow illuminated the summit of Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Nepalese), topped with a halo of cloud, jutting coyly above the massive Lhotse-Nuptse mountain wall, 28 kilometres away. After some time utterly absorbed in the moment I turned to thank our Nepali friend but no words came. Choking back unexpected tears, all I could manage was a soundlessly mouthed “thank you”.