Monday, December 10, 2012

The Call of Kailash...

Rock cairns (called "doubeng" in Tibetan) set against the landscape
At altitudes of 15000 feet any spot of color, however plain and humble, is a cheerful sight
Western Tibet - 2001
The individual who defined adventure as "gross discomfort seen in retrospect" sure knew what he/she was talking about.

Our 2001 trip to western Tibet, following the time honored pilgrimage route to Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash, was full of discomfort. We were a bit of a rag tag group - three physicians, two architects, one retired school teacher, one scientist, one Vedanta priest, two teenagers, an eleven year old and a six year old (who would turn seven on our trip). Most of us had never hiked above 10,000 feet and admittedly, not all of us had been disciplined about getting in our hiking training, as our everyday lives were just too busy. Though some were in better physical condition than others, none of us were thrill-seekers or experienced adventurers. We weren't sure we would actually complete the 3 day, 32 mile clockwise circumambulation of Mount Kailash (called a "kora" in Tibetan and "parikrama" in Sanskrit") successfully, but we were determined to give it our best effort. And just to be on the safe side, we had all stocked up on diamox and were traveling with a hyberbaric bag and oxygen...

It was a truly amazing "adventure." And it gets more and more amazing with each passing much so that I am seriously thinking of doing it again.

Yes! But why?

Well, mainly because I KNOW that this time, it will be even better. Because this time, despite the fact that my physical body is older and weaker, I know that mentally, I am more capable. I meet life with more intention. I live more fully. And I have to admit - now I also have a really cool DSLR....

Oh, what a difference a decade makes!

The lush view from the Friendship Highway between Nepal and Tibet
Southern Tibet - 2001
Mount Kailash (21,778 feet, also called Gang Rinpoche in Tibetan) lies near the source of four of Asia's most important rivers: the Indus, the Sutlej, the Brahmaputra and the Karnali. The mountain is revered by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and followers of Bon. For Hindus it is the symbolic home of Shiva, god of destruction and regeneration. Shiva is sometimes personified as an all powerful, all knowing yogi - an acetic - who can be roused from his deep meditations by humans who have endured sacrifice and performed prolonged meditation (years and years of meditation) in his name. It is believed that making the pilgrimage and completing a single kora will essentially neutralize the karma acquired in this lifetime, and completing 108 will lead to nirvana - the release from the cycle of birth and re-birth).

The pilgrims who come to Mount Kailash from regions closer to sea level usually complete the 32 mile kora in three days. However, just getting to the base of the holy mountain is an arduous journey and many are unable to recover sufficiently to even attempt the kora. For those native to high altitudes, it can be completed, astoundingly, in a single day - starting before sunrise and ending after sunset. A select few, like the nuns we met on our first day, will happily complete the kora by performing full body-length prostrations the entire way.

For modern day travelers whose beliefs are not as deeply rooted in the traditions of the area, the trip to Mount Kailash can be a pilgrimage of a different kind - a challenge to mind and body - a promise of walking in the footsteps of a select few on a path that has endured through the centuries.

After making it down from Dolma-la, the highest pass on the kora, I was completely drained, happy to have survived, and convinced it was not something I'd ever do again. But distance makes the heart grow fonder. And dims the aches and pains and somehow amplifies the joy...just as it should.

View into the valley from Milarepa's Cave
Near Nyalam (12,300 ft), Tibet - 2001
Meandering stone paths and rustic village homes against a brillant blue sky
Near Nyalam, Tibet - 2001
The mighty Brahmaputra (also known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan)
We crossed the river on a raft, along our three Land Cruisers and the truck carrying our crew, cargo, tent  and supplies
Tibet - 2001

"Tashi Delek!" - Nomadic Tibetans greet us at every stop
They often drop everything and run over to meet us as soon as they spot our Land Cruisers  approaching
Western Tibet - 2001
Seralung Monastery on the banks of Lake Manasarovar (elevation 14,950 feet)
Western Tibet - 2001
Hiking the desolate landscape of Lake Manasarovar
Western Tibet - 2001
Tarboche, where you begin the kora by passing through the quaint rock temple surrounded by mani stones
Mount Kailash, Western Tibet - 2001
Prayer Flags and Mani Stones at Tarboche
Mount Kailash, Western Tibet - 2001
Buddhist Nuns, Kora Day 1
 A cheerful duo, these nuns planned to complete the kora by prostrating themselves over its entire 32 miles
Mount Kailash, Tibet - 2001
Red Tara
Beautifully barren with a delightful waterfall
Base of Mount Kailash, Tibet - 2001
Walking in silence and beauty - except for the sound of running water
Mount Kailash, Tibet - 2001
The South Face
Mount Kailash, Tibet - 2001
Drolma-La (18,465 ft)
Mount Kailash, Tibet - 2001
(Photo by RPMalla)

Day 2 is the most strenuous; the altitude takes its toll and all thoughts of taking photographs is replaced by the singular need to just put one foot in front of the next and breathe. We reached the highest point on the kora - Dolma-La at mid-day and stayed there for half an hour and had lunch. From there it was downhill, then across a glacier before  finally getting getting to camp around sunset.


  1. Awesome! The BEST place in the world! Once visited, it haunts you forever!

  2. You are so right, Sadhana! Thanks so much for visiting and sharing your thoughts...

  3. What beautiful pictures. I started to read about the Kora and I am shure that i want to do it.