First published in the Sun-Herald
It was early April when I took a jeep north from Kathmandu across the Friendship Bridge and into the kingdom of Tibet, still deep in the grip of winter. When people ask how my journey was I struggle to find the right answer. It was nothing like I thought it would be. It was the most difficult thing I ever did and the greatest teacher.
The Tibetan people live, with great trust in the forces of nature and dharma, lives of enormous hardship, in a land that has been stolen. A sacred land, scarred with army compounds and mines and dams and roads and power pylons and peopled with the spillage of the most populous nation on earth, that remains, despite all of this, their own. Something that cannot be broken by exile, imprisonment and genocide, connects them like an umbilical cord to this harsh place at the roof of the world.
The thing I never imagined is its emptiness. The land is worn down to its bones, which poke from beneath the earth. There is nothing to soften the vastness of space. Nowhere to hide. I am stripped bare – flayed by the void, both exhilarating and terrifying. For three days we climb dizzying passes and skirt the ruffled hems of glaciers and steely lakes. Village children swaddled in greasy layers of wool chase us down muddy streets. And always it snows. I lean my head against the window and marvel at this empty world, stripped even of colour.
We arrive in Lhasa on the evening of the fourth day. The city is a sprawl of Chinese modernity surrounding the ramshackle heart of old Tibet, known as the Barkhor – a pedestrian square that encloses Tibet’s oldest and most sacred temple, the Jokhang.
The square is a shuffling, murmuring river of bodies, flanked with stalls selling prayer wheels, tiny brass bowls for votive yak butter candles, false teeth, yak wool robes and vintage 1971 desert goggles. Pilgrims prostrate themselves before the Jokhang and Americans haggle over ‘antiques’ with nomad women in rainbow chubas and skins, their hair braided into 108 plaits and tied up with lumps of turquoise and coral.
I spend several weeks in and around Lhasa, exploring the surviving monasteries and walking the Barkhor, but the mountain is calling. In the far western reaches of Tibet near the Indian border, is the mystical Mount Kailash, sacred to Hindus as the abode of Shiva the god of destruction, and to Buddhists as the lodestone at the centre of the universe. Tibetans revere the mountain as Kang Rinpoche – the Precious Jewel of Snows.
No one has ever climbed Kailash – a German-led team attempting the summit during the 1990s turned back in deference to the mountain’s sanctity. But pilgrims have come, throughout time, to circle the mountain and be washed clean of a lifetime’s sin. Until recently a three-month journey from Lhasa by yak caravan, today Kailash can be reached by four-wheel-drive in a three-week round trip, rubber-stamped by the government travel agency FIT, holders of the keys to the myriad locked doors between Lhasa and the remote and politically sensitive border region.
With many of the high passes still deep in snow, rides west are hard to come by at this early stage of the season. But in the end there are eleven of us, including two drivers and a government guide, in two jeeps. We leave before dawn and drive all day west, through a tainted landscape of low cloud and mud-spattered snow.
The next morning I’m up early for the ritual kora – the circular, clockwise route that Buddhists walk, as a form of prayer, around holy places, both natural and man-made. Shigatse’s Tashilumpo monastery is one of the few Buddhist complexes that escaped, relatively unscathed, the frenzy of destruction that was the Cultural Revolution, in which more than 6,000 Tibetan monasteries and nunneries were looted and razed.
Elderly Tibetans bent almost double, strain up the kora’s steep incline under a bruised sky. The smoke from the incense burners wreathes the faces of the pilgrims as they pile fragrant leaves and branches onto the smouldering pyres.
At the monastic fortress of Sakya, the air vibrates with the chanting of the monks, seated in rows before an enormous, benevolently smiling Sakyamuni Buddha. Draped in heavy yellow wool cloaks, they read from stacks of bound parchment, pausing now and then for a mouthful of butter tea from their wooden bowls, then droning on. Outside in the yard, above the doorway of a chapel dedicated to the wrathful deity Demchog, the mummified corpses of wolves, wildcats and owls knock stiffly together in the cold wind.
Long days of driving over spine-jarring ruts, breathing dust. We tie scarves over our faces like armed robbers and eat instant noodles in dirt-floored restaurants, beneath posters of Mao. The new moon and Venus hang swollen and low in the velvet black sky, cluttered with constellations. We are five days’ drive from the nearest city and closer to the stars than I have ever been.
Our first glimpse of the mountain comes out of the blue. Drugged by the morning sun and the rolling motion of the jeep, we are startled from a slack-jawed stupor with the single quiet utterance of Denchu, our driver – ‘Kang Rinpoche’. And there on the horizon is the unmistakeable form of Kailash – an immaculate snow-topped pyramid, striated with deep clefts, both horizontal and vertical, forming a highly auspicious Buddhist swastika.
We leave Darchen, the seasonal village near the base of the mountain from which the kora begins, that same afternoon, keen to take advantage of the good weather. The joy of being here at last after my long journey buoys my step and I stop at the first chaktsal gang – one of many such ‘power places’ on the Kailash kora, to offer prostrations to the guardians of the mountain. I feel the profound peace of the earth as I lay my body out and touch my forehead to the ground, as pilgrims ever have in this place, and am humbled.
But the weather doesn’t hold. The second day is marred by gusts of freezing wind and snow. The only sounds are the distant trickle of streams beneath the ice and the brave calls of small round birds as they hop over the snow looking for food. For a while, my heart is lightened by the beauty of it all but mostly it is struggle. My hip bones are bruised with the weight of my pack, my neck is strained with thrusting forward and the flesh at my hip sockets and buttocks is frozen purplish and numb.
I walk alone in this white world into the afternoon, finally arriving at the pilgrim’s guesthouse – a bare concrete room with a row of narrow beds and chinks in the windows where the snow rushes in. The high pass of Drolma-la rises steeply above us, wearing her wrathful face.
Our third day on the mountain dawns a complete white-out. The mood is despondent as we huddle in the tea tent. In the freezing wind, my mind turns often to the sweltering plains of India, just across the mountains and yet as distant as the moon. In a tiny room attached to the guesthouse, the caretaker lives on his own with his few books of scriptures; the concrete walls papered with pictures of bodhisattvas and lamas. He speaks little as he tends the fire with its array of kettles, crooning in that deep singsong tone that seems to be innate to all Tibetans. A tape of traditional music plays on an old cassette player. A pressure cooker hisses on the fire. We wait.
As the day ends I begin to see I may not circle the mountain at all – that fulfilling this dream is perhaps not the point in the end. As I lie shivering in wait of sleep I ask the guardian deities of Kang Rinpoche, with all humbleness, may we pass?
I wake often that night, hearing the quiet like a whispered ‘yes’. And before dawn, crawl from my frozen bier to see the Sapphire face of Kailash, glowing as if with its own internal light against a dark blue velvet sky embroidered with the night’s last stars. The air is thin and cold as a scream. I am filled with anticipation and gratitude. I prostrate myself and the earth is hard as iron.
We climb all morning, passing each other as we stop for breath and to calm our wildly beating hearts and soon bands of monks and nuns begin to appear, having left Darchen at around 3am. Most will complete the kora in a single day. Powered with a joyous zeal, they stride in single file through the knee-deep snow, whistling or singing, bags of tsampa and dried yak meat tied to their backs, wearing dark sunglasses or goggles, balaclavas and canvas plimsolls.
The last steep incline is marked with cairns and prayer flags There is no energy left for jokes or small talk, only a single-minded determination and the struggle for breath. A glacier appears, mint-green and white, like a rolling wave, frozen in its tumble from the snow peak above. We crawl up beside it, brief as ants in our hasty lives. Snatches of despair jostle with exultation, until at last I am there.
The pass is strangely empty – those who arrived before me have already descended, and I am alone for a few moments on a cairn among the snow-drenched wads of prayer flags, laughing, panting, beneath the dome of Kailash – face to face at last.