Tuesday 13th September 2011 - The afternoon's sun hung in the deep blue sky and low clouds framed the distant mountain peaks. Located 20 km south of Mt Kailash was our overnight stop, lake Manasarovar. It is only when you drive up to the shores of the world’s highest fresh-water lake laying before you that you appreciate the majesty of this major pilgrimage destination for Buddhists, Hindus and followers of the indigenous Tibetan religion of Bön
At a height of 15,000 feet ( 4,583 meters) it is certainly breathtaking. It covers 412 square kilometers. and at it's deepest point over 70 meters. In the distance were Tibetan pilgrims, their weathered faces lined with hardship, walking clockwise round its circumference of 110 kms, (we were later informed achievable in a single day,)
Buddhists consider Lake Manasarovar to be associated with the legendary lake Anavatapta, which is where the mother of Buddha (Maya) is believed to have conceived Buddha. Another version is that Queen Maya was bathed in Lake Manasarovar by divine beings before she gave birth to Buddha. Either way, Manasarovar is the holiest lake to Tibetan people and a leisurely drive to westerners. Our motorised pilgrimage lasted for three hours, an air-conditioned drive along its dirt road. Passing the five Buddhist monasteries along its shores with the most well-known being Chiu, located on the northwest shore of the lake. then past Gossul, Trugo, Yerngo and Seralung monasteries. These once ornately decorated structures enlivened by high Buddhist dignitaries are now in disuse.
Hindu pilgrims have been going to the lake for well over 1500 years as they believe the lake was created by the god Brahma. The well-known Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa in the 4th century wrote that the water from the lake was “like pearls and that to drink them erases the sins of a hundred lifetimes”.In the distance Hindus waded into the lake drinking its water perhaps oblivious that in 1948, some of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were scattered in the lake. However Tibetans and certainly this Englishman considered the lake too sacred to drink from. Can you imagine the bottling label - may contain xxxxx
There are fleeting images that define a moment in time. We had stopped off at Chieu monastery, our walk from the lakes shore line to this remote place had left me exhausted. A elderly Tibetan monk dressed in rags greeted us. Panden exchanged pleasantries and without fuss, fumbling with his keys, the weather beaten door was opened to reveal in the gloom an enchanted scene of manuscripts, statues of the Buddha, butter lamps and deities whose arms and demonic faces divided and multiplied in the dark. An overwhelming flood of emotion enveloped me as I gazed on this devoted caretaker who was now lighting butter lamps for us. We had left behind our modern technological existence and we had now entered a solitary forgotten world, of myths and dreams, an ethereal place devoted to a belief.
Leaving the chamber I walked a few steps and sat on the roof of Chiu monastery, perched high on its rocky hill, a surreal presence enveloped me as I gazed out on the cobalt water of Lake Manasarovar that lay below me, and the surrounding hills a rich ochre, luminous in the sunlight of this late autumn afternoon. Our caretaker had locked up and was now shuffling down the dusty path stopping briefly to turn once again with devotion the prayer wheels
My memories of my mother came flooding back, material ghosts of the past, she threw nothing away. Documents, photographs, receipts, telegrams from my father, all memories of a bygone age waiting for this boy to pluck up the courage and decide what is to survive. For six months the papers lay in her cold empty house, wardrobes of clothes, waiting for me to decide their fate. Cost or beauty are not important only memories have value. You sift and cling to trivia, unable to let it go, preserve it for who? Like prayer flags fading with age and blowing away with the wind until there is nothing left, but memories.
Margery was never rich, she lived alone on her Widows Pension, living a frugal life, her pleasures were few and far between; seeing me briefly, agitated and stressed and to my shame rare visits with my children. Only now do you truly value time, those brief moments, now gone, the sound of the ticking clock. the kettle boiling on the gas stove and the rattling of the best china tea cups. Home for a brief moment. Then the closing of the door as you depart to your busy life and distorted values. The house is now cold and empty, I sit in her chair, that seems small. The television screen is blank, its images now insignificant. All is silent.
Week after week I would visit this empty house and walk into all of its small rooms and sit in silence, knowing that I must let my past finally go. One dark winter evening I sat on the faded chair in her bedroom and summoning what little amount of courage I had, I pulled open the drawer under her bed. There at the back, hidden by garments was a small wooden box filled with faded bygone letters and notes, Mothers Day, birthday and Christmas cards all neatly stacked. I sat alone on her bed surrounded by decades of cards with my hastily written words of - Hi happy birthday, you're the best, have a great day, love and best wishes, all now so empty, so unbearable.
And there on top a small insignificant white envelope with the words written in her shaky handwriting a simple message from beyond her grave " I hope this will help." I opened the envelope stuck with hard brittle gum and there inside in twenty pound notes was £2,000..........years of savings, tucked away week after week, money put aside to pay for her funeral. Her way of easing the burden of her death upon me.
There are no words of comfort, no cups of tea to make your isolation tolerable, only grief.
All pilgrims coming to Tibet regard circling and drinking from the lake as their greatest fortune. We did neither, instead we headed for our lakeside accommodation
Exhausted from lack of sleep, the effect of altitude, and the prospect of walking around Mt Kailash, I could not stand another sleepless night with Philip, so seizing the opportunity I asked for my own room. My wish was granted. My bedroom, (well more like a cell,) a ten foot by eight foot mud hut complete with my own plastic bowl and a single light bulb connected to a car battery, or in my case no battery. Before you ask how were the batteries charged, obviously from solar panels, after all this is the 21st century! But some things never change, the toilet, another gut wrenching hole in the ground, thankfully without any lights or roof.
After unpacking I descended to the quiet shores of the lake, birds so tame they barely budged finally waded into the inky black water. Black-headed gulls and redshanks paced along the sands; sandpipers waded the shallows, and Brahminy ducks floated in pairs through the strands of bleached prayer flags that hung from skeletal fingers protruding from the icy water
This land sanctified by others. my night filled with portents for those who lie awake consisted of shooting stars, Hindu sky gods descending to bathe in the nearby icy waters, I was oblivious, a week without a full nights sleep had taken its toll, the silence of the moonlit night wrapped its cloak around me, I drifted into wild dreams.
The images of the runes and carved Yak skulls viewed that morning entered my night. The words, formed in my mind were repeating over and over, dreaming in metaphors.
"Come Sir, look and see. These are my words and deeds cast into stone for the world to see. For they are my soul and await your touch. Be gentle for this is all that is left of me."
Wednesday 14th September 2011 - After ten hours of sleep, dawn had broken and I awoke to a cloudy sky, and before you ask my cells walls were not padded.
This is Mt Kailash
It is said that "to depart for Mt Kailash is a metaphor for death"
Mt Kailash is to a fifth of humanity the centre of the universe, sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bons and resting place of the god Shiva. The highest goal of every believer is to cleanse themselves of earthly misdemeanours by walking around the mountain. The more often that one completes the extremely difficult 53km path – which leads over the 5648m high Dolma La pass – the closer one becomes to enlightenment. . Four great rivers see their inceptions within 50 kms radius, and in four distinctive directions:
Through the west flows the great river Sutlej. Towards the east flows river Brahmaputra (locally known as Yarlang Sangpo) the south flows river Karnali and towards the north flows river Indus.
In 1926, Hugh Ruttledge, an English civil servant and mountaineer, along with Colonel R. C. Wilson had made an attempt to climb the legendary mountain. Accompanying them was a Sherpa called Satan the three adventurers spent a considerable amount of time around the mountain. Ruttledge considered the north face of Kailash to be 6,000 ft high and called it ‘utterly unclimbable’. Colonel Wilson claimed that “just when I discovered an easy walk to the summit of the mountain, heavy snow began to fall, making the ascent impossible.”
Another mountaineer, a Russian climber, Sergei Cistiakov, said, “When we approached the foot of the mountain, my heart was pounding. I was in front of the sacred mountain, this cannot be beaten. I felt extremely emaciated and suddenly I became captivated by the thought that I do not belong on this mountain, it must necessarily come back! As soon as we started the descent, I felt liberated.”
The last recorded attempt at climbing Mt Kailash was when the Chinese government had given permission to a Spanish team to climb the peak in 2001. However, it was followed by an instant outrage among people across the world whose faiths believe that Kailash is the holiest.
The same incident is the reason why the mountain sees an all-out ban from the Government now.
For Hindus, Mount Kailash is the abode of Lord Shiva. Buddhists, the place is an embodiment of Lord Buddha. The first Jain saint, Adinath received his emancipation at this place. and for the Bons, their saint Shenrad is said to have descended on its peak. To me, my personal pilgrimage to my mother.
The Cultural Revolution and the proclamation of Tibet as an autonomous region by the People’s Republic of China in the 1960s has led to the suppression of the Tibetan people and has resulted in a massive restriction in their freedom of belief and expression. The region we are in was difficult to access until relatively recently, but the tourist industry has impacted even this remote area
As we approached the town of "Darchen“, the starting point of the "Kora“ – as the circular tour of the holy mountain is known. our faces dropped Darchen does not resemble a mystical pilgrimage site. A century ago Kawaguchi found Darchen to be a cluster of thirty stone houses. A curious treaty assigned its administration to the Maharaja of Bhutan, along with many local monasteries. When a visiting British trade commissioner arrived in 1905 he found everyone drunk. Twenty-one years later his successor found everybody still drunk and in the wake of the Cultural Revolution Darchen was all but abandoned
The streets are now scattered with tourist shops with cheap imitations of Tibetan culture, restaurants, and run down hotels modelled on Chinese standards to master the steadily growing influx of tourists from China and abroad. The millennia-old pilgrimage trail, charged by a wealth of inestimable humility in the form of prayers and prostrations, desecrated by red flags and army checkpoints.
A partially asphalted gravel track already leads to Drira Phuk, the first resting place on the Kora. This was just the beginning of a crazy plan to allow the Kora to be circumnavigated by car by building a road around Mount Kailash – a project bordering on madness
Bowing to international pressure, the Chinese government finally called a halt to the construction project. Many Tibetans only dare to walk the Kora under cover of darkness. For the majority of Tibetan exiles, Mt Kailash remains a dream, a longing towards their past.
Our overnight stay in Darchen made Sage seem homely. Philip had again spoken to his wife and was resigned to spending three days in Darchen the risk of accompanying Bebe and me to Kailash to great a risk to consider. The previous year thirty pilgrims had perished on its slopes a grim reminder of the dangers of walking the kora at 17,500 feet. My bedroom was next to a diesel generator and my single bulb doesn't work. Its cold, there is no heating and Im in bed fully clothed with two duvets. Hardly Shangri La.
Thursday 15th September 2011 - In Darchen Bebe had set off at 6am in the dark, on his own, walking towards the entrance. This was the morning of my 57th birthday. At 8am we had packed the vehicle and our guide Panden, Philip and I drove to meet Bebe. At the entrance to the kora, at Darpoche, we met our lone American, regrouped we bade farewell to Philip, who would turn back to Darchen, as dark ominous low clouds encircled its mouth, we entered the kora, ahead of us a six-hour trek and our first glimpse of Kailash, but immediately ahead of us Drachom Ngagye Durtro - the sky burial plateau set against the valley wall at the base of Mt Kailash, a gentle reminder not to fail.
Sky burials are still carried out up to present day. With no timber for cremations and little earth how do you dispose of the dead ?. To understand the sky burial plateau I have set out the detailed account of Ekai Kawaguchi who's book Three Years in Tibet based on his time in Lhasa in 1901 described in detail how to deal with the dead ......see below
It was just previous to the grand monthly catechising contest that I returned to the Sera monastery. While I was busy with preparation, and in eager expectation of taking part in this important function, one of my acquaintances died and I had to attend his funeral. Incidentally therefore I took part in a ceremony which is perhaps unique in the world. I may observe here that in Tibetan funerals neither a coffin nor urn is used in which to deposit the corpse. It is simply laid on a frame made of two wooden poles, with a proper space between and two cross pieces tied to them. The rectangular space thus described is filled in with a rough sort of network of ropes, and over the netting is spread a sheet of cloth for the reception of the corpse. Another piece of cloth, pure white in color, is thrown over the corpse, and that completes the arrangement. The whole burden is then carried on the shoulders of two men, who insert their heads between the projecting ends of the two longer poles.
Generally a funeral is performed on the third or fourth day after death, the interval being spent in observances peculiar to Tibet. First of all a properly qualified Lama is consulted as to the auspicious day for performing the ceremony; then as to the special mode of funeral and the final disposal of the corpse. The Lama consulted gives his instructions on all these points after referring to his books, and bids the relatives of the deceased read such and such passages in the Sacred Texts, conduct the funeral ceremony on such and such day, and take the bier from the house at such and such an hour of the day. The priest also advises on the mode of burial, of which there are four in vogue; the four modes being distinguishable from each other by the agencies to be brought into service, namely: water, flame, earth, and birds of the air. This last corresponds to the “air-burial” of Buḍḍhism.
Of the four kinds of burial, or more properly modes of disposing of corpses, the one generally regarded as the best is to leave the corpse to the vultures, known under the name of Cha-goppo in Tibet; then comes cremation; then water-burial, and last land-burial. This last method of interment is never adopted except when a person dies from small-pox. In this particular case alone the Tibetans observe some sanitary principles, though probably by mere accident and not from any conviction, for they think that this dreadful epidemic is likely to spread if the corpse of a person stricken down by small-pox is left for birds or consigned to a river. Though cremation is considered as a superior way of disposing of dead bodies, the process is by no means easy in a country where faggots are scarce, for the dried dung of the yak is hardly thought proper for the purpose. Hence cremation is confined to the wealthier class only. Water-burial generally takes place near a large stream; but, in consigning a dead body to the water, it is first thoroughly dismembered, and thrown into the water piece by piece. This troublesome course is adopted from the idea that a dead body thrown in whole will not speedily disappear from sight.
These four processes of disposing of corpses originate from Hinḍū philosophy, according to which human bodies are believed to consist of four elements, earth, water, fire and air, and it is thought that on death they should return to these original elements. Land-burial corresponds to the returning to earth, cremation to fire, water-burial to water, and the bird-devouring to the air, of which birds are the denizens. The bodies of Lamas are mostly disposed of by this last process, while those of a few privileged persons only, such as the Dalai Lama, sub-Dalai Lama and other venerable Lamas, believed to be incarnations of Boḍhisaṭṭvas, are given a special mode of burial.
‘Air-burial’ was chosen for the friend whose funeral I attended, and I shall briefly describe how this ‘burial’ was performed. Leaving the college at Sera, the cortège proceeded eastward till it reached the bank of a river near which, in a small valley formed between two contiguous hills, stood a big boulder about twelve yards high. The top of this stone was level and measured about fifteen feet square. This was the ‘burial-ground’ for this particular kind of interment. On the summits of the surrounding hills, and even on the inaccessible parts of the rock itself, were perched a large number of vultures, with their eyes glistening with greed. They are always waiting there for ‘burials’. When the bier was placed upon this rock, the white sheet was taken off, and the priest who had come, with the rest of the mourners and sympathisers, began to chant their texts to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals. At the same time one man approached the corpse with a broadsword, with which to ‘dress’ it. In ‘dressing’ the abdomen was first cut open and the entrails removed. Next all the various members of the body were severed, after which some other men, including a few priests, undertook the finishing work of final ‘dressing’, which consisted in separating the flesh and bones, just as butchers do with slaughtered cattle. By this time the vultures had gathered in a flock round the place, and big pieces, such as the flesh of the thighs, were thrown to them and most voraciously did they devour them. Then the bones had to be disposed of, and this was done by first throwing them into one of the ten cavities on the rock, and pounding the heap with big stones. When the bones had been fairly well pulverised a quantity of baked flour was added to the mass, and this dainty mixture was also given to the birds. The only thing that remained of the dead body was the hair.
The Tibetans may practically be considered as a kind of cannibals. I was struck with this notion while witnessing the burial ceremony. All the cloths used in the burial go as a matter of course to the grave-diggers, though they hardly deserve this name, as their duty consists not in digging the grave but in chopping the flesh of the corpse and pounding the bones. Even priests give them help, for the pounding business is necessarily tedious and tiresome. Meanwhile the pounders have to take refreshment, and tea is drunk almost incessantly, for Tibetans are great tea-drinkers. The grave-diggers, or priests, prepare tea, or help themselves to baked flour, with their hands splashed over with a mash of human flesh and bones, for they never wash their hands before they prepare tea or take food, the most they do being to clap their hands, so as to get rid of the coarser fragments. And thus they take a good deal of minced human flesh, bones or brain, mixed with their tea or flour. They do so with perfect nonchalance; in fact, they have no idea whatever how really abominable and horrible their practice is, for they are accustomed to it. When I suggested that they might wash their hands before taking refreshment, they looked at me with an air of surprise. They scoffed at my suggestion, and even observed that eating with unwashed hands really added relish to food; besides, the spirit of the dead man would be satisfied when he saw them take fragments of his mortal remains with their food without aversion. It has been stated that the Tibetans are descendants of the Rākshasa tribe—a tribe of fiendish cannibals who used to feed on human flesh; and what I witnessed at the burial convinced me that, even at the present day, they retained the horrible habit of their ancestors.
The first outsiders to complete the kora was the Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi who disguised himself as a Chinese Lama ( See chapter 5 ) followed several years later by the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin who in 1907 was the first werstern explorer.
Death of a bold and most Ambitious Explorer
Sven Anders Hedin, born in 1865, Swedish by birth, part-German by extraction, died in Stockholm on 26th November 1952. Once honoured as the man who had more single-handed than any other coloured the blank spaces of the map of the world the 87-year-old Swedish explorer ended his days friendless and neglected.
Among the newspapers that noted his death was The Times. It recalled how Dr Hedin had supported Kaiser Wilhelm II in the First World War and Adolf Hitler in the Second World War. As to his achievement it recalled that Dr Hedin was apt to dismiss the geographical fruits of all discoveries other than his own. There were two irreconcilable elements in his character: his single-minded ruthlessness in the pursuit of his goals and his craving for recognition and adoration.
But these criticisms were mild by comparison with the obituary notice that was published three months later in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. For his contributions to geography and exploration the Society had awarded him its founders medal in 1898 and it's Victoria medal in 1903. Half a century later it took about a different view
And of Hedin’s greatest journey (1906-1908) he crossed Persia and Afghanistan, entered Tibet, and identified the true sources of the Indus, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra rivers. He discovered and mapped the Transhimalayan Mountains, crossing the range eight times and overcoming formidable obstacles of winter weather, mountain passes never crossed before, and hostile local tribesmen, who kept Hedin prisoner for a time.
In late 1907 Hedin crossed from Chemayungdung Chhu water shed into the Manasarovar basin. At last he caught sight of the blue waters of the lake, his presence by the lake was the consummation of years of single-minded devotion. No European had approached Kailash- Manasarovar with a better understanding of its religious significance. When he reached the lake Hedin reassembled his cockleshell boat and went for a row in the moonlight. The next day he again launched his boat and was nearly drowned by a fierce squall that drove him across the lake.He beached his boat near the Gossul Gompa and spent the night with the monks. Early next morning Hedin walked out onto the monastery roof.
"The Holy Lake which yesterday had done everything to drown us, was now smooth as a mirror. The air was slightly hazy. One could not see whether the eastern shore was mountains or sky, The lake and sky had the same values. Objects swam before my eyes. The whole temple swayed under me and I felt as if hurtled into infinite space. But beneath lay the Holy Lake, along the shores which innumerable pilgrims had walked themselves weary to secure peaceful their souls. The Manasoaovar- the hub of the wheel which is a symbol of life! I could have stayed there for years
In the event, Hedin spent a month by the lake taking several trips on its waters. Next was Kailash and Hedin set out with four Buddhists to circumnavigate the mountain. Like Kawaguchi he rode most of the way but nevertheless he later professed to be deeply moved by the experience and the new insight it gave him into the religious life of the Tibetans.
The greatest mistake that Seven Hedin ever made was his decision in November 1907 to make yet another great sweep through to Tibet. The delay of more than a year between sending news of his discoveries from Tibet and arriving in London to substantiate them proved fatal to his reputation. Hedin never gave any plausible explanation as to why after paying off all the members of his caravan crew he suddenly headed back into Tibet
Driven by some compulsion to submit himself to further hardship to complete a final circuit of the unknown areas of Western Tibet he later wrote that
"He simply had to go there. It was on thinkable that I should return home without carrying out my plans or reaching my goal".
Running out of time and plagued with eye trouble for over a decade he was already all but blind in one eye, he finally reached Stockholm in mid January 1909, after an absence of nearly three and a half years. On his arrival he was shown press reports of an article in the Royal Geographical Society's journal that were said to reduce his discoveries to a minimum.
In London at the Queen's Hall on the evening of 8 February 1909 Dr Hedin declared that he had brought back from the wastelands of Tibet an answer to the most important magnificent geographical problem still left to solve on earth
He offered nothing less than the final solution to a geographical mystery that had captured and held man's imagination for some 3000 years, this mystery was centred on the belief shared by a large slice of humanity that somewhere between China and India there stood a sacred mountain an Asian Olympus of cosmic promotions. This mountain was said to be the naval of the Earth and the axis of the universe
Not a whisper of this belief so ancient and powerful in Asia reached the West before the 17th century.
Hedin was later on trial but it was not just his claims it was also the argument about his style, his determination to treat others who had gone before him, his lack of modesty, in success cowering over others, and his stress on triumph gained through suffering.
All this grated on the British public he may not have cheated but he had let the side down, not played the game. British geography could still applaud his romantic fighting spirit but never the man himself.
Hedin left England for Germany and continued his bitter correspondence. His support for Kaiser Willhelm II and the German war effort later led him to be stripped of his fellowship of the Royal geographical Society, he was never reinstated.
The great explorer found himself in a dire financial situation at the end of the expedition in 1935. Having accumulated considerable debts, he gave more than a hundred lectures in 91 German cities as well as 19 lectures in neighbouring countries to earn money to repay his debts.
His support for Germany during the Second World War again grated on Sweden and Britain. Hitler bestowed many honours on Hedin in the 1930s and asked him to make a pro-Nazi address at the Olympic Games in 1936. For his 75th birthday, they bestowed the Order of the German Eagle on him.
During World War II, Hedin was one of few prominent Swedes who urged Sweden to abandon its neutrality and support Nazi Germany. Even when Germany lost the war, Hedin pressed for America to join forces with a resurrected Germany in a third world war against Russia.
After the war, Hedin became an aged embarrassment to the Nobel Committee but he never regretted his pro-Nazi stand. He claimed that his direct line to Hitler and Himmler enabled him to free many Jewish intellectuals and their families from the Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.
Shunned by his own countrymen for his enthusiastic support for Adolf Hitler and his course in the Second World War Hedin died a lonely death, not at all fitting for this bold and most ambitious explorer.
Our trek to our first stop was arduous the gentle slope of the valley rising, the path flanked by cairns of stones adorned with prayer flags, and pilgrims of all nationalities French, German, British, American, Indian and the local Tibetans. Approaching the first chaksal gang of the kora, a platform for ritual prostration facing the mountain we came across several Tibetans prostrating themselves. This incredible feat consists of body length prostrations right the way around the mountain. These devotees lay down with arms outstretched hands clasped then rise take two steps forward then repeat this motion all day, through mud, snow, hail, rain until the kora is completed taking anything between 15 to 20 days. At the end of each day they place a marker indicating the point they have reached and in the morning off they set. They were dressed in rudimentary protection to perform this Herculean task, a leather apron, rubber kneepads, and mittens cut out of old tyres. By comparison our task was simple a walk of two and a half days: Tibetans and sturdy grandmothers complete it in one day.
The solidity and massiveness of Mount Kailash strikes you hard, it has four clearly defined walls that match the points of the compass, and on its southern face is the mark that has earned Kailash the title of the swastica mountain. It is this southern face emblazoned with its talisman of spiritual strength, the swastika, that the pilgrim first sees as he climbs out of India. The swastika is an ancient Indian symbol of immutable good luck. “Swastika” is an Anglicization of the Sanskrit word svastika, which means well-being or good luck. Used by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains for thousands of years, it became widespread in Tibet as well.
The swastika has also appeared in most other ancient cultures of the world. For example, the counterclockwise variant of it, adopted by the Nazis, is also the letter “G” in the medieval Northern European Runic Script. The Freemasons took the letter as an important symbol, since “G” could stand for God, the Great Architect of the Universe, or Geometry.
Our viewing platform was strewn with stones, carved yak skulls and horns, old and new prayer flags and articles of clothing. Walking was now laboured, Bebe was ahead by 50 metres striking a steady ambling stride, I'm aware of the shortage of oxygen, the air is too thin I'm inhaling in panicky gasps, stumbling, shaking my head looking for warning signs. There is no hospital, no brain scans. An elderly white haired Frenchman passed me by and smiled, "only another 3000 feet to climb" he muttered. I don't know who was comforting who, I nodded and stared down at my feet in despair. I had undertaken this with no training, nothing, failure was not an option. I had cheated death all my life this was not my time. If Bebe at 78 can do it, so can I.
Our arrival late afternoon at our first stop was greeted by hot tea and a bench to sit at. Bebe and I hugged each other. We had made the first leg. That evening in our tented accommodation I spent hours staring at the changing forms of Kailash. I saw the clouds come and cover it in the evening, the moonshine reflecting on its surface, and in the middle of the night, visions in my dreams of my mother's frail hands clasping her oxygen mask, her thin fingers holding her invisible cigarette, her dull eyes scared sensing, through me, her end. Best wishes, see you tomorrow, lots of love. There was no tomorrow, death was close.
Friday 16th September - On our second day, I saw the snow cap of Kailash turn hues of pink as the sun rose and I saw the vapour like wispy clouds form a skirt midway up its sheer sides. I walked close to its base and craned my head upwards to record every detail of the magnificent sight before me. Tea and noodles and a day to climb 3000 feet, what a treat. My travel journal dedicated to my two children was up to date, my close friend was aware of my last wishes, the sun was shining and life was exhilarating.
In the meeting tent I sat and bent down to check the laces on my boots, even this act of raising my head left me reeling like a drunkard, I looked up the there before me was a small Tibetan girl, her sleeves rolled up, hands in her pockets, her wind beaten cheeks shining red, her eyes gazed through me. I nodded, my shutter clicked and I smiled, her face imprinted on my mind, a departing gift from the base of Kailash.
As the morning progressed my exhilaration along with the skies darkened, I stood and faced the slight breeze my mouth open gasping again for oxygen with consciously deepening inhalations my senses regained I continued my trek upwards. Other than Tibetans, all around me were struggling.
Teams of horses led by local nomads travelling down the mountain passed me by, their mounts looked utterly spent, ashen-faced and unspeaking. Swathed against the cold, their deathly grey faces disappeared in coils of scarves. Some of them cradled little canisters of oxygen, all were clinging in desperation to their saddles, eye contact even for a brief second says it all. Fear and death are universal.
My Frenchman from the previous day passed me by on a horse, but travelling not down but up the mountain, "That's cheating" I croaked, he smiled and waved back to me, in a French way you understand. Followed by, you guessed it, not one but three grandmothers.
When at 18,500 feet on a narrow pass and a one ton black Yak with big pointy horns passes you by, you have to take a photograph. When a team of horses obviously spooked, with sick passengers mounted on them come down the same narrow pass towards the big black Yak its not the time to take a photograph. Mayhem ensured, the leading three horses reared up and bolted towards the yaks their mounts thrown off and dragged along trapped by their boots in the stirrups. There was screaming and crying, all hell broke loose, not from me you understand, I was sitting on a rock, too exhausted, too inert to move, or even care. "I shall miss myself so much when I die."
Not I'm afraid to say very Buddhist, but certainly for a brief moment enlightening. Death always gets the best lines. "Everybody's death diminishes somebody's address book."
This second leg crossing over the Dolma - La pass was sheer Hell. At this altitude I was torn between staying and reflecting in the majesty of this forbidding place or making a rapid descent to keep the demands of altitude at bay The twin lakes were ahead the lack of oxygen was gathering in my brain. I stopped to take two painkillers. I stumbled on now finally moving down hill, the ache in my knees fighting the ache in my head. Down and down I stumbled. In my haste, and now panic, I forgot my reason for being there. The thought of performing this task in a serene setting had long gone.
Reaching inside my jacket exhausted and gasping for oxygen I stopped and swayed in the cold breeze. Floods of tears were now down my cold cheeks. With my fingers shaking I tore up my mother's photograph, a small 3 x 5 inch portrait with my eulogy written on the back, and with raised arms cast these fragile segments amongst the wind torn bleached prayer flags and jagged peaks of my mountain........I slumped down on a large rock a stared ahead, in a dream like state, I was not alone!
I continued sitting watching the line of pilgrims striding past me, muttering mantras, spinning their prayer wheels, oblivious to my solitary performance.
A TIbetan Sage, Milarepa, born in Western Tibet in 1052 his original name Mila Thopaga, is credited with the words " All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow; acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births in death. Knowing this, one should, from the very first, renounce acquisitions and storing-up, and building, and meeting; and, faithful to the commands of an eminent Guru, set about realizing the Truth. That alone is the best of religious observances".
This was easy for Milarepa to say: he dined on nettle soup, lived in caves, sat on an antelope skin and composed songs all day. And in the 12th century possessions were few and far between but there are resonances to his philosophy: in the West mindless consumerism is a distraction from living, from seeking real experiences. The Kailash kora is certainly a raw experience, a pilgrimage to find your inner strength. and hopefully to gain merit and I was certainly experiencing it.
And my merit, late afternoon, to walk unaided into our second camp having successfully completed the most difficult stage. My American Buddhist who at 74 was there tearful that his final attempt had ended in success. We sat across from each other drinking our tea, smiling, huge smiles of joy, friendship and acquired merit. The hard hiking was over.
Our last night under the shadow of this mountain was in a dormitory, a larger cell this time that housed six single timber slatted beds each with a pillow and sleeping blanket. Two huge rugged bearded Russians had joined us, as if extras from a gangster movie, and our final companion ......our Frenchman a little saddle sore but he had made it. Grandmothers were excluded, they were probably home cooking the family evening meal . As darkness fell, we lay in our beds, the Englishman, American, Russians and Frenchman, light from our head torches bouncing off the ceiling, all smiling and talking about worldly pursuits and other manly nonsense until the early hours.
Saturday 17th September - The final 5km leg I was awake at dawn 7am Bebe had done his usual and had left at 6am in the dark. Panden our guide was packing our ruck sacks, you certainly feel feeble when your guide is half your age and carrying all three rucksacks on his back. My load, a small water bottle. The clouds had disappeared, the sky was blue and the dusty path ahead was downhill all of the way. I ambled along happy and content. A lone Tibetan wild dog was now following me, I had read that these dogs survived by feeding on Yak meat and human remains and had been known to attack travellers.
One dog is company, I now had eight dogs following me, and I'm trying to act brave after all they can smell fear, I could smell fear, mine. In my right hand a large stone, in my left hand a half full plastic water bottle, and in my pocket my tooth brush hardly a lethal weapon. Maybe they could line up and I could clean their teeth. I sighed in visible relief as my pack of dogs wandered off in the distance the morning was fresh with the waining moon still visible. In the distance ahead of me was Bebe still ambling along, I smiled, content my trek was nearing completion our driver and our vehicle lay less than a kilometre ahead. The stream swollen by the earlier rains raced downhill I filled my bottle and tasted its cold nectar. Life was good, I was homeward bound.