Kora Around Mt. Kailas, 1995
My dear friend, Jonathan Wright, who instilled the fascination and love of mountains and exotic, out-of-the-way places in me, died in an avalanche on a mountain called Minya Konka in 1980. He practiced Tibetan Buddhist and had a lifelong dream of going to Tibet. Minya Konka is in an area that is culturally Tibetan and geographically has always been in China. He came very close to his dream and didn’t quite reach it.
When my friend and mentor Skip Horner announced he was leading a trip to do a kora (circumambulation) around Mt. Kailas, the most sacred mountain in Tibet, I realized I had a chance to live out both my own and Jonathan’s dream of being in Tibet.
Mt Kailas, at 22,028 feet, stands in spectacular isolation in western Tibet. The mountain has the unique distinction of being one of the world’s most venerated holy place and its least visited. The supremely sacred site of four religions and billions of people, Kailas is seen by no more than a few thousand pilgrims each year. Its location is remote and difficult to reach, even by rugged overland vehicle. It has four sheer walls oriented to the four compass points, and juts up far above any surrounding features; it is an imposing monolith, naturally drawing one to wonder what it is doing out on the plain all by itself.
This is the “belly button of the world” where four sacred rivers, the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Sutlej, flow out into the plains. Scholars of the region’s four major religions, Buddhism, Bonism, Hinduism, and Jainism, variously attribute the mountain and its flanks as the gods’ landing place, birthplace, or site of emancipation. Our three-and-a-half-day circumnavigation around the mountain is referred to as a kora by Buddhists and a Parikama by Hindus, and is the lifelong dream of those who practice the 4 religions.
Most koras originate with a long vehicle journey from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Ours would begin in Nepal with a very rugged trek through the Humla region, among Bhotia people whose roots are Tibetan, and up over the Tibetan border. We would then do the kora, the 4-day circumambulation, and trek back into Nepal. For me, it was the chance of a lifetime.
For further information about Mt. Kailas visit http://www.sacredsites.com/asia/tibet/mt_kailash.html
8:20 am Denver Airport I am on my way to Tibet! For real. It’s here and now. My soul is full and expectant and calm and excited all at the same time. After 22 years! (The first time time I heard about Tibet was from Jonathan in 1973.) This trip is not only about Tibet. It is about sharing special times with special friends. A dream coming true. Another one. Because I choose to stay sober and abstinent and show up for life one day at a time. It is extraordinary.
10 pm Colorado time. En route Seoul. Earlier there were little puffs of clouds far below us, and with their dark shadows, they made wonderful patterns on the shiny water below. It brought me very much into the present and reminded me that that is one of my goals for this trip: to stay in the present. With whatever is happening. To give myself quiet time each day. To feed my soul each day. We’re on our 3rd movie. Needlepoint, reading, writing, watching, feeling, being. Not a bad way to spend hours in an airplane. I am content.
Mon 9/11 Bangkok – Kathmandu
Walking the corridor from the Amari to the Airport in Bangkok, I looked at the flowers outside, so different from home and felt the tickle of excitement at once again being in an exotic place, once again living a special dream. And with these people. It is like a party. Comfortable, stimulating, amusing, old friends reuniting for a great adventure. Trip members are Skip Horner and his wife, Elizabeth, Bob Matthews (Aconcagua, Denali), Dick Mersch (Patagonia (check this) and Skip gatherings), Dede Pickering (Grand Canyon), Craig (friend of Bob’s),Tom Rubin, Tom Walker. Hooked up with Bob at the ticket counter. So great to see him!
I am going again to the Himal. For the 5th time! How extraordinary. Hello, Jonathan. A hug of spirits. I am filled.
Tues 9/12 Kathmandu – Nepalganj
7 am Drinking coffee with Dede. Marvelous walk through town yesterday – Thamel, Durbar Marg, Durbar Square. So foreign and yet so familiar. That continues to blow me away. Wonderful colors, faces, temples, activity. I enjoyed watching Tom’s enthusiasm in this, his first time in Nepal. Dinner at the Nepalese Kitchen. Low tables, pillows on the floor, fixed menu, lots of giggles. Tapestries on the ceiling, cozy. 20 minute walk home chatting with Skip. Lovely yard in the back of the hotel with beautiful flowers, many birds. Peaceful. My body is not at its best, and my insides are quiet and excited. We fly to Nepalganj this afternoon. A new place! My heart is smiling.
En route Nepalganj. Big feelings of not belonging here. Know they’re not reality. Left journal at the hotel, left embarkation card at the hotel, almost left pack in the restaurant. Feel like my brain is not working. Jet lag, not enough sleep. I know that’s it, and it’s easy to go to “what’s wrong with me?” Nothing, Margo. Big water bottle is leaking. What’s wrong with me that I have f—ed up so badly.? Nothing. Nothing is a disaster. The water bottle is inconvenient, this journal works fine, the embarkation card has been replaced. I am only overtired.
Flying by the Annapurnas, Macchupucchare touches me very strongly. Jonathan very present. Skip pointing out which peaks are which, and the last, farthest west, all by itself, Dhauligiri. My throat closed. Tears. Gary is there. (Gary Ball, partner of Rob Hall, and good friend and climbing guide died on Dhauligiri in the fall of 1993.) Kathy and the boys. Their spirits are clearly content, and my heart grieves for them (see Everest Base Camp journal).
The clouds are spectacular, lit from the sun as we fly toward it in the west. Big, puffy, wonderfully shaped. We are now past where I have been. New territory. Forest thick, with scattered clearings of cultivated fields look like green carpet dotted with the brown spots of houses. A much bigger expanse of fields now, rice paddies, I imagine, as we drop down to land. Nepalganj is very close to the Indian border, so very far south and, I’ve been told, very, very hot. We shall see.
Wed 9/13 Day 1 Nepalganj – Simikot
7:30 am On the plane to Simikot. Glad to be out of Nepalganj. We stayed at the Sneha Hotel. It was, indeed, very, very hot. Electricity on and off. Swamp coolers not working until right before bed. Very tired. The heat turned out to be bearable, and I slept about 6 hours. An improvement and still less than needed. Hard to join in the verbal play at dinner. I’m finding it requires alot of energy to do and am more often content to stay an observer. Nepalganj is very low, about 340 feet, surrounded by flatness and rice paddies. Very hot and humid. Very poor though a big trading center as it’s only 13 kilometers from the Indian border, and the main road runs right through it. As we fly North, we’re getting into hill country with valleys filled with low lying clouds and hills dotted with houses. Many high ridges have well-used paths along them, and small terraced plots make their way up the hills.
I am feeling like a beginner at this trekking business: awkward, unorganized, new. And I hold the Zen-ness of that. The openness to learn, to not shut out any of the experience, to not think I know it all because I have traveled as much as I have. That was then. This is now.
The hills grow higher, more rugged, the houses and terraces sparser. Simikot is 10,000 feet. I am once again in the mountains of Nepal. I can let go of all the rest and feel the peace in my heart. Very high narrow waterfalls, big river with very white water. Snow-covered mountains ahead. My heart is smiling. We all are smiling.
5:40 Gorgeous camp above the Karnali River so we get all that nice noise from the water. About a 3-hour walk once we left Simikot. 1,000 feet up and over a ridge then steep 2,500 down and a flat bit to camp. Really gorgeous. Huge variety of flowers and herbs, very green. The one problem is the flies. Small black ones which fortunately don’t bite. They are ever-present, however, and seem to have a special liking for my sweat. Very annoying. Long pants tomorrow! They sneak in the small gap in the tent fly, and I do find them aggravating. And it is minor in the grand scheme of things.
Day 2 Humla Valley
11:30 Very welcome lunch break. Long hot morning of walking. Too long.
8:15 Very long day. 7 full hours of walking in extremely rugged country. Much up and down. Very, very hot. Tired when I got here, washed, had some cocoa and dinner, and now feel surprisingly well. Reveling, once again, in the amazingly luxurious treatment and food by our Nepalese crew. Cocoa out here in the middle of nowhere is just such a treat! Quads are sore. I worked on Tom Walker’s legs after dinner and my own need it as well. He had a tough day of it. This valley is gorgeous, and much more rugged than I imagined western Nepal would be. Many, many different flowers; oodles of butterflies: white, almost fluorescent yellow and orange, the lovely periwinkle that is also in the Khumbu, just fantastic. Lots more, and I am tired and need to sleep.
Day 3 Humla Valley
3:30 In my chair with Mary Chapin Carpenter on the Walkman, just above the river. It is breezy and whatever plant covers the ground here smells wonderful. There’s a lovely little beach where Skip and Elizabeth and Dede’s tents are. The burros and horses which carry our gear rolled in it as soon as their loads were taken off. Such pure joy!
As I described last night, it was a long, long day yesterday. and my body did real well. Ankle only sore the last 15 minutes (I had arthroscopic surgery on my right ankle in May ’95 to clean out a bunch of crunchiness in the joint.) So much steep, rocky up and even steeper rocky down. Very little flat walking. And so very hot, especially after lunch. The beauty of the valley was a fitting reward for the effort.
I so love being out like this even when the work is hard. I haven’t been trekking in a long time, only walking to get to a mountain. This is wonderful. Slept well last night, first time. Well earned and needed. Breakfast al fresco. Ate only a single pancake, and I paid for that later with a major bonk. Struck once again by the irony of being a compulsive overeater and having to force myself to eat on the vast majority of my trips.
Stopped a couple hours into the walk to visit a monastery. So beautiful. The sculptor who had done the Buddha there had also done the one for the new Thyangboche. Impressive. The Rinpoche here died not too long ago, and the new one is only about 4. Cute little curious guy with a western jacket on. He will become the head lama.
I bonked pretty hard around 11:30 and got pretty grumpy about how far we were going before lunch and how the Sherpa’s time estimates were so far off. Ate some gorp, then we all took a rest stop, and Elizabeth arrived saying Bob was angry cuz the day was harder than we thought. it was a mirror for me, and I was able to let go of the anger. This is, after all, why they call it adventure travel!
Day 4 Humla Valley
1:30 pm What a fabulous day! Slept all night, and that has made all the difference. Long, steep up after our 9 am lunch, and I felt great. The pattern of the days is up at around 5:30, breakfast often al fresco as the crew tear camp down around us, on the trail by 6:30 and then an early “lunch.” Found my go mode on all levels, inside and out. We’ve had everything from chilly rain to hot sun, steep ups, a little down, same flat. Gorgeous scenery, lovely flowers – cosmos and calendula – streams to cross. Just a marvelous day. I’m almost embarrassed to tell anyone how good I feel. I am grateful to be here – who I am, how I am, willing to grow, willing to learn. The conscious goal of staying in the present greatly enhances how I experience the beauty of this place. This is a day whose memory can see me through dark times. And we grow ever closer to Tibet.
6 pm My family of spirit guides has a new member. He’s not a guide, he says, he’s a part of me. The part who connected so strongly with Jonathan all those years ago. He’s who can teach me unconditional love. I met him up above camp.
I went hiking after I wrote earlier: steep, steep up behind camp with exquisite views of the hills and valleys and mountains of this rugged part of Nepal. First stop was a big table rock, just looking at the view with tears of gratitude. And he popped in. With so much love. He is very peaceful and quiets my mind He’s a little like Yoda. He sounds like Jonathan used to when he smilingly put on an Indian accent. They met on my way down. I had gone up another 40 minutes and reveled in his company and his guidance on the way down. I had to stop at the image of their meeting. Bowing to each other with hands together, the tall blond westerner and the short dark lama. It was as if they had always known one another.
Tea was on when I returned to camp, and I have cleaned up and washed my hair and even put makeup on. Watching a baby goat, who we have christened Charlie after Dede’s Springer Spaniel, cavort on the rocks below me, bounding and bouncing and jumping for the sheer joy of it. The few puffy clouds are golden with the reflection of the setting sun. It has been a special day.
2:30 A gorgeous walk – again. And another gorgeous camp. The valley broadened as we walked, climbing 2,500 feet. I felt leg wear and still good. A little slower than yesterday, uphill a little more work. And my insides feel great. Calm, quiet, present. My new “friend” checked in, then walked ahead with Jonathan.
The burros and horses are grazing on a hillside above us in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Dede, Tom, and I are sitting in our loungers underneath drying laundry. The Sherpa are relaxing and laughing. Clouds – big, beautiful, white ones – are forming in the valley below while the sun shines brightly here. I feel very at home.
11 Lunch break just below the border checkpoint. Steep up from camp and not long to the top of the Nara La. Pile of stones and pole with old tattered prayer flags at the top. I added a stone, as is the custom, walked around the corner and cried at the sight of mountains in Tibet. So full of feelings. Jonathan, my new friends, my own very big heart. Put a hand on Skip’s knee as I walked past him. “You do seem to be a part of my fondest dreams,” I said to him. I found out shortly thereafter, when we really could see Tibet, that the first peaks had still been in Nepal. A tad bit of an anticlimax — the first ones were more spectacular.
At the top of the La, we were passed, once again, by a large herd of goats carrying bags of salt south from Tibet. I gather they carry grain north. I find them quite cute. The route we have walked through the Humla Valley is a very ancient trading route, and I like thinking that the goats I saw today are descendants of those who have done this journey for so many centuries.
The route down to the river which forms the border between Nepal and Tibet was very steep and dry, in 3 sections: steep down, traverse around a huge bowl, then another steep down. The bowl is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen. An eagle cried several times as I walked around. Hauntingly beautiful. Desolate, dry, rugged, barren. Very Tibetan somehow, even though not yet officially. We will spend the night on this side of the border, crossing into Tibet in the morning. Tomorrow I will be in Tibet. Celebrate, Jonathan!
Day 7 Tibetan border – Taklakot (Purang) – Darchen
3 pm China time Taklakot What an extraordinary drive. Up at 6, as usual, packed up and off up the hill shortly after 7 to meet the vehicles which were due at 7:45 which is 10:15 China time. A very weird thing to take one step over a border and have it be 2 1/2 hours later. And then we waited, of course. I stopped and prayed and talked to Jonathan before I crossed the bridge. It was a marvelous moment for me. To finally be here. About an hour’s drive to here, and I know my words cannot do it justice. Rocky, barren, desolate, beautiful, sky so very blue, snow caps appearing as we go higher, jagged, one resembling a small Ama Dablam, rocks everywhere, everywhere. All sizes and shapes.
Taklakot is where the Chinese officials do their thing with all who cross the border from Nepal, kind of like customs guys on steroids. It was a bit disconcerting to experience what felt like strong animosity from these military folk. The town itself has little atmosphere, feeling mostly new, without the ancient energy I associate with Tibet. Lots of waiting while soldiers and officials milled around talking amongst themselves not doing much of anything. They eventually went through all our gear in great detail, leafing through any and all books they found, to ensure we brought no photos of the Dalai Lama into Tibet. I had been told that is what Tibetan people wanted most: photographs of the Dalai Lama. Clearly the Chinese do not want them to have the photos. I believe it’s even illegal for Tibetans to have one. Each of us had managed to hide a couple and were happy to not have them found.
This action so exemplified to me the continuing actions of the Chinese to destroy the Tibetan culture and Dharma, and perhaps the people themselves. The first experience with the genocidal mindset that exists here. I don’t like it at all. Taklakot is, for me, a town of minor bureaucrats playing at being important, in a way that negates an entire culture. I’m glad we are not here for long.
The high point of the town was a wonderful Chinese lunch. We all sat at a big round table with a huge lazy susan built into the middle and were served with soup and rice and a different entree for each of us, all yummy, with some kind of orange soda and tea to go along. I admit the meal did a good bit to lighten my opinion of Taklakot, at least somewhat.
10:50 Darchen This is a pit of a place. We are required to stay within the walls of the “guest house.” The rooms are dreary with plaster falling off the walls, a musty smell, squeaky bedsprings. Close to unbearable. And better inside than out where there is garbage and broken glass and shit. Dede and Elizabeth just went outside to pee and did it on a truck tire. Elizabeth says, “This place just makes you want to make it worse.” it is such a clear example of what the Chinese have done and continue to do to this beautiful country. We saw two monasteries high up that were once quite large and re now destroyed.
There used to be 6,000 monasteries in Tibet. Now there are 60 left undamaged. I am so incensed that the Chinese have replaced so much that is light and spiritual and beautiful with things that are lifeless and without beauty. They have no respect for the land or the people. And I experience an almost physical punch in the belly as I realize this is exactly what we did to the Native Americans of the US. Ugh, that makes me feel smarmy.
The first sight of Kailas was breathtaking, and got better later. The lakes are an extraordinary blue – clear, clear. 3 hours of a very bumpy ride with Parnelli Chin at the wheel, zooming around and through potholes and bumps and soft spots in the direct road that is so very much in the middle of nowhere. So much majesty. Many more people and livestock than between the border and Taklakot. It is threshing season, and we saw many platforms with stone walls and a center stake around which marched yaks and ponies, tramping on the wheat. Kids waving, little villages with mud brick houses, bricks drying in the sun in stacks, prayers flags everywhere. I am awed and grateful to be in Tibet after all these years.
This is a “town” of filth and squalor that cannot be avoided if you want to do a Kora around Kailas. The Chinese force us to stay here. We will all be glad to leave in the morning. I am grateful for the camaraderie of Dede and Elizabeth in this place that makes me so sad.
Day 8 Kora Day 1 – 16,000 feet
We are camped by the Lah Chu (Lah River) at 16,000 feet; approximately 12 miles from Darchen, looking up at the spectacular West Face of Kailas. It was a pretty long day and also a blessed one. We were all delighted to leave Darchen which truly is a pit though we had fun trying to make it more livable. We walked due west, following our shadows which I love. Walking to Om Mani Padme Hum, staying very present, feeling strong. Maybe an hour out we crested a small hill, and the trail turned north to follow the Lah Chu.
At the crest was a huge mound of stones topped with a pole from which hung many, many prayer flags. We were told this is the first chaktsal-gang or “prostration station” of the kora. Clothes scattered on the ground, left as offerings, prayer cards, bits of cloth, incredible view of the southwest side of the south face of Kailas. We stopped for a fair while, drinking it in, shooting photos, watching the pilgrims go by in colorful Tibetan dress, old, young, brand new babies on their moms’ backs. Tashi Delek is the Tibetan greeting. Jonathan very present, and my new lama friend as well, his message so clear all day long, that it is love not power that allows me to give to others, that allows me to be strong.
Tossed a stone on the pile and headed north. From a long way I could see a place with a huge pole and countless prayer flags, old, new and everywhere in between. Pilgrims walking around it, aways clockwise, spinning prayer wheels, chanting. It was the Tarbochhe pole, replaced each year during the Saga Dawa Festival. Saga Dawa, which falls on the full moon of the fourth month in the Tibetan calendar, is considered the holiest period in the year and celebrates the Birth of the Buddha, and this place is visited by thousand of pilgrims during the festival. A major challenge to raise a 75+ foot pole with only manual labor. They have no machinery of any kind. Apparently if the newly-placed flagpole stands vertical, all is well for the year to come.
There was a plateau above, up a steep trail, that is a sky burial site where bodies are cremated and fed to the lammergeiers. A truck pulled up to the trail which made us all furious but then some pilgrims got out and lifted an old lama, who clearly could not walk, out of the truck and onto one of their backs and proceeded to carry him up to the plateau. We started up not long afterwards, and the familiarly steep climb was well worth the effort. The whole plateau was dotted with cairns like the ones at the op the Dugla Hill in the Khumbu – memorials to people who have died. There were probably 40 pilgrims, some standing, some praying, some walking clockwise in a large circle around a circle of stones about 5 feet high and 12 feet in diameter. It was where the bodies are burned, and the ground around it was covered with clothes that had been left there.
The lama was half-crawling, half-dragging himself to a position several yards to the left of the stone circle. Clearly his legs were either paralyzed or badly damaged in some way. He had to rest several times, and the effort it cost him was painfully evident. As we shot photos of the plateau and walked around, he settled himself in a lotus-type position and chatted with some of the people who gathered around him. Then he began to chant, swaying a little, with his eyes closed. He picked up a two-sided temple drum and twisted it rhythmically so the beads on the ends of the two cords hit the drum faces in time to his chanting. Occasionally he blew a small horn and rang a temple bell, all rhythmic and soulful. His eyes would close and eyebrows raise at certain times, and his facial expression made it clear that he was totally involved in his process. It was simply wonderful. We were unable to learn the purpose of the lama’s visit to this sky burial place. We were told only that he was a very high lama performing a very sacred ritual and that we were very fortunate to experienced it.
We stopped for lunch about a half hour from the plateau, below Chuku Gompa (a gompa is a monastery), that had been destroyed during the cultural revolution and was the first to be rebuilt. Again a steep climb up that was well worth it. We walked in under a very low threshold, and there was a continuous line of pilgrims seemingly coming from nowhere and disappearing into nowhere. Spinning prayer wheels inset into the wall, chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, doing koras through the gompa. A continuous line. Amazing to watch and be a part of.
The afternoon walk was not difficult and harder in the thin air. We came up 4,000 feet yesterday and another 1,000 today. We were all weary when we arrived at camp. I am pleased with how my body is doing. Lungs are great, strength good. The weather has been near-perfection, and I am in a place I have wanted to visit for more than 20 years, circling the most sacred mountain in the world. Life is good!
Day 9 Kora Day 2 – 17,000 feet
A very up and down day. Slept cold and felt okay when I got up, and my lungs quickly started complaining, and I was very off emotionally. Just kind of one step left of center. Spoke with Dede at lunch, and she said she felt the same way. I had a tickly cough when I breathed normally, achy chest. I think the cold triggered the lung stuff more than the altitude. We stopped at a gompa with a very sacred cave where one of Milarepa’s disciples, who was the first to do a kora, meditated for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. There was a lama chanting in a dark room with butter lamps burning and people praying and a very dark cave off to the right. Jonathan and my yoda friend were definitely present, and the coughing and lung discomfort kept me from fully enjoying the experience. Hard to stay spiritually grounded.
Extraordinary views of the west and north faces of Kailas, and times when it was hidden by intermediate hills. I had a harder time when the mountain was not visible. Seeing it seemed to energize me somehow. Lunch stop was long as we had gotten ahead of the yaks and wanted to let them catch up. Rested in the sun and was much improved both lung and attitude wise during the short afternoon walk.
We arrived at camp quite early and have been enjoying the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the site ever since. There is a small stream babbling through the middle of camp, the north face towers above us, as does a closer much lower, evil-looking hill dotted with spires that seem somehow sinister. There has been a steady stream of pilgrims around, past and by us all day. It is wonderful to watch and even more wonderful to be a part of. Buddhists believe that one Kora washes away the sins of one life and 108 koras guarantees Nirvana in this life. My focus is more self-knowledge and right action. My Yoda keeps telling me my power is in my love rather than in my strength. I hear him and feel the rightness of what he says, and it feels frightening and unclear. I trust the wisdom anyway.
10 pm It is gorgeous outside: zillions of stars and the North Face visible in the reflected starlight. A spirit hug from Jonathan, a smile from My Yoda, and a “hold yourself tight” from Ray (my friend and co-author).
Day 10 Kora Day 3 – 16,400
So much experience today on many different levels. I want to do it justice and am also tired. I will do what I can and finish the rest later.
It was cold and crisp and clear when we got up. I slept well and felt great. No sign of yesterday’s lung stuff or emotional fear. Present, strong, a part of rather than apart from. It was only a short walk to Shiva-tsal where people sort of practice death to come out cleansed, leaving their past life behind them. Dorje told us it was appropriate to leave a piece of clothing there. Also a place to honor those who have died, pray for them to ensure a better life in their next incarnation. I sat on a rock by myself and looked out at the mountains and thought of the spirits in my life: Jonathan, Kathy, Tanner and Shea, Mother, Julie Culberson, Mark Beebe, Gary, Lobsang, John Knowles, Chantal. Wept for them all and prayed for their next lives. It was a soul-filling process. I was aware of Tomas leaving the photo of his parents who died 4 months apart, at one point sobbing, and I was touched by the level of emotion behind his rough exterior.
Walked much of the way from there to the top of the Drolma La with Skip and Elizabeth. Skip had the pages from The Pilgrim’s Guide so we were able to identify several sacred places. One of them was a series of rocks that formed 3 tunnels of different widths. To make it through the smallest one indicated you have a minimum of sins, and you were supposed to focus on what Hell was like as you went through. The 3 of us and Lakpa all squeaked through amidst giggles and grunts. Not very spiritual about the whole thing!
All during the climb to the La there was an almost constant stream of pilgrims with marvelous faces and costumes that ate up film. Many asking for photos of the Dalai Lama. Slow, companionable walk with Elizabeth toward the top, then on my own as she walked with Skip.
The Drolma La, at 18,000+ feet, is the high point of the kora, both physically and spiritually. We could hear the joyful shouts of celebration from people at the summit echoing from the surrounding rock walls. Then all of a sudden, there it was, the tallest pole yet and a huge cube-shaped boulder, both draped and covered in thousands of prayer flags, prayer cards, and even money. Buddhist pilgrims believe that making 3 koras around the pole and rock marks the transition from this life to the next, erasing the sins of this life. Pilgrims prostrated, sticking prayer cards on the boulder known as Phawang Mebar, calling what sounded like, “So, so, so,” as they tossed prayer cards into the air.
We spent a good amount of time up there, each of us making our requisite 3 koras around the pole and rock, celebrating amongst ourselves and with other pilgrims, reveling in the joyful, reborn energy that abounded. It is okay to take something if you leave something as well. I took a string of 5 prayer flags and left the barley seeds blessed by the Dalai Lama that I was given at Base Camp last spring. I know now why the string had lasted so long. This is where it belongs.
A steep walk down to the valley floor took us to a welcome lunch break in the warm sun. Then a 2+ hour stroll down the valley to camp. Late in that walk we came upon a marvelous old man, near blind, almost toothless, with red sneakers, who asked Nawang to help him walk around a rock that has healing powers. He told us he was 70 and was on the 4th day of his kora. He had ridden 7 days in a truck to reach Darchen and paid 550 Yuan, about $55, an enormous amount of money for him, to get there.
I can only assume he saved his whole life to make this pilgrimage before he died. He, too, asked for photos of the Dalai Lama. Tomas thought he might have one in his guidebook, and I thought I might also. We told him, through Nawang, that we would look when we reached camp. We each had one which we presented to him, again using Nawang as interpreter. He placed one very carefully in the metal box he used as a kind of purse and put the other under his hat to keep it close. He was full of smiles and thank you’s. It was wonderful to be part of that. Another very special day, ending with a companionable dinner.
Day 11 Kora Day 4 Kailas – Lake Manasarovar
6 pm 15,400 feet. It has been an extraordinary, magical afternoon. We are camped about 30 yards from the lake and have had pilgrims streaming through camp ever since we arrived. My understanding is that to Hindus washing/bathing in Manasarovar is even more important than doing a kora around Kailas. Many pilgrims who walk around Kailas also circumambulate Manasarovar. This is a magnificent setting.
We had an uneventful walk down the valley toward Darchen speculating whether the cars would come out or we’d have to walk all the way to “town.” None of us wanted to go even near the place. We stopped at a gompa on the way down where Milarepa and Naro Bon Chong, a Bon-Po magician, started their race to the top of Kailas to see if the mountain would be a Bon place or a Buddhist place. Very very sacred. Wonderful mani stones all around. The story of the “fight” over Kailas is more intriguing to me than the building itself.
Walked about 3 hours, had just turned the corner moving west toward Darchen when, much to our dreading-Darchen hearts, over the hill came 2 Land Rovers. Then they turned and drove away. We were totally baffled. Then the truck came and took the Sherpa’s gear, but the yaks weren’t offloaded and kept right on walking toward town as Skip got in the truck to find out what was going on. It all worked out in the end, and the vehicles came back. They had expected us to walk a certain mani wall where the kora is considered to end. With a different Chinese Parnelli at the wheel, we raced and bounced a little over an hour to our campsite on the shore of Lake Manasarovar.
I can’t do it justice with my words. We could see Kailas to the left of the tents, the incredible Chiu Gompa behind us, and this huge magnificent lake in front of us. Pilgrims circumambulating the lake passed through camp continually, often stopping to peer into open tent doors with smiling, innocent curiosity, sometimes accompanied by giggling conversations about the strange “artifacts” inside.
Skip, Tomas, Dick, Dede, and I walked up to the gompa which was fabulous. It seems to grow naturally out of the huge rock fin on which it sits and houses the cave where Padmasambhava, founder of Tibetan Buddhism, lived for the last 7 years of his life. Wild yaks walking below, beautiful main room, scrambling up to the highest nook amongst the prayer flags, great light, heart connection with Jonathan and Yoda.
We walked down to the hot spring below the gompa, changed into bathing suits and soaked our feet, it was too hot to do much else, and washed our hair with the help of a young girl who got a huge charge out of pouring basins of water over our heads. It was very fun and a lovely chance to have clean hair, always a luxury out here. She asked about Dorje, one of our Sherpa crew, and followed us back to camp. (Found out back in Nepal that she was the same girl who had joined Dorje the first night of the kora, and Dorje wanted us to take her to Simikot with us. His story didn’t make sense, and we declined vehemently, not knowing what the real story was or what would happen at the border. It was an odd kind of thing.) The light just got better and better and added to the already special events of the gompa and the hot spring, giving the evening a truly magical quality.
Day 12 Manasarovar – Nepal
An exquisite sunrise over the lake. It’s quite cloudy and Kailas is hidden. Our timing has been perfect. It is chilly, with a breeze that bites so we are sitting in the vehicles waiting for Skip and Tomas to return from their ice cold, sin-cleansing swim in the lake.
11:30 Taklakot We just missed the 10:45 deadline so are here for several hours until the customs people come back to work. They were sitting outside one of the “dining rooms” as we walked in. It would be all too easy to say Skip and Tomas’s swim is the reason we have to wait. I choose to acknowledge the perfection of things instead. It requires much less energy.
8 pm Back in Nepal The delay in Taklakot did allow us to have another wonderful meal there, and the customs guys were ready when we had finished, an hour and a half earlier than expected, a pleasant surprise. On the way to the border, we stopped at a gompa that turned out to be 1,000 years old. The building, that is. Everything inside, silver Buddha, Tantric texts, etc., was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The building was fortunately used as a storage for food for the Chinese army and so was not itself destroyed. We were shown the main room with restoration work in progress on the silver statue and also a special room which contained, hanging from the ceiling, stuffed animals: yak, wolves, tiger, and snow leopard, several with mask-like faces painted on.
The experience was way beyond my words. It touched my heart with great joy and equally great sadness. Joy at experiencing some of what Jonathan talked about so many years ago, and sadness and anger at the concrete reality of the destruction the Chinese have brought to this country. The uglification of Taklakot, now known as Purang, is awful itself, and to see the ruins of monasteries, many only piles of stones, and to know that all the monasteries we visited were destroyed in the 60’s and rebuilt in the 80’s, weighs heavily. There is an odd part of me that is more outraged by this wanton erasure of all traces of the religion and culture that binds this country together, even today, despite the efforts of the Chinese, than by the genocidal killing of the people. It all goes beyond words. And yet it is no different than what happened to the Native Americans in my own country. Ugh!
I am tucked in my little green tent with a breeze blowing and an occasional rain drop bouncing on the fly. Beer was served at lunch and dinner, and the group has gotten entertainingly raunchy. Elizabeth found a rock that is definitely penis-like and presented it to Dede. It has been dubbed Pierre, and the cracks around it have been nonstop. A fun temporary regression to teenagehood!
Day 13 to Yari
Camped in a field above the river in Yari, a lunch spot on the way in. Simply a great day. 2,600 feet up over the Nara La (a La is a mountain pass). I felt strong and at peace and happy. John Denver on the Walkman; singing out loud to his music that I so love. Ever windier as we got higher. Stopped for lunch about 500 feet below the summit where there is a building of sorts. Windiest place on the pass, I think. I had been walking in shorts and capilene and was a little cold when I arrived not too long after Tomas. Put on everything I had with me and got real chilled anyway.
When Dede and Dick arrived, we 4 spooned together and Craig gave me a pair of wind pants. Just couldn’t get warm. Waited 45 minutes before Skip and Elizabeth arrived and they served lunch. That helped some, and my fork shook so that Dick held my arm to help get it to my mouth without chipping my teeth. We were able to laugh at that. It took my 10 minutes of uphill walking before I began to feel anything other than chilled. Again threw a stone on the pile at the top of the La and turned and bid a very fond farewell to Tibet.
Then ran down the hill to Sip Sip where the wind was less, and the air warmer. You could feel the difference the minute we started down. Also more moisture in the air and green things growing. It was like night and day. It is impossible to describe the desolation of Tibet. So dry, dusty, rocky, barren, rugged, isolated. And beautiful. We all gathered at Sip Sip and Dick, Dede, Skip and Elizabeth, and I stayed there for quite a while, chatting, watching birds, telling stories, Very comfortably companionable.
Dede headed out, with the rest of us 10 minutes or so behind. About 20 minutes down we found her and Tom by a big rock with a gorgeous Om Mani Padme Hum carved into it, and we all settled in for a bit of an afternoon nap. Warm, out of the wind, 2 falcons and a lammergeier soaring on the currents above us. Just plain lovely, as was the whole afternoon. We gathered ourselves after the horses and Sherpa went by and walked the last 20 minutes into camp. Just a great day. This may be the best Skip trip ever. And I think that if I go back into my journals, it’s quite possible I have said that almost every trip!
Day 14 Lovely camp with beach, same as Day 3
An off day on the whole, with moments of enjoyment. My knees were stiff and sore and ankle sore and feeling unstable a while before lunch – a 3 1/2 hour walk this morning. Tears quite present. Feeling alone and yet knowing nothing is different from when I felt so centered and content last night. I am off center emotionally with no reason. I choose to accept that rather than try to figure it out or judge myself for it. Pleasant conversation with Skip and Elizabeth after lunch on the way to Muchu. Not a long afternoon, and I love this camp.
I am soul hungry and skin hungry. When the horses arrived, the colt was with them and not his Mom. He walked back and forth, looking for her, whinnying in a way that spoke for me in some way. He wanted his Mom! I want… what? Connection. And I remember that I need only breathe in Spirit to feel connected. No it isn’t a physical hug or someone waiting when I get home, and it is the deepest connection I have: to mySelf, to Spirit, to my guides. It is where I feel the most home.
An hour later a guy brought his mom part way down the hill. He saw her, whinnied in a different way that made me look outside the tent, and trotted up to meet her. He nursed for a minute, and the guy drove them up the hill. Hooray for the colt. He found his mom, and I have found my connectedness. Hooray for us both.
I so appreciate the beauty and wildness of this place. The river running not far away reminds me that this, too, shall pass, both the sadness and the beauty. I’m grateful for the willingness to stay here and now and experience all the different pieces of it. I trust the process, even when I don’t much like it.
Day 15 Lovely Camp by the New Bridge, same as Day 2
3 pm Relatively early day. Same walk as Day 3 in reverse. Much more lovely than I had remembered it. Reading back on that day, we were hot and tired. And the light was different. At any rate, for whatever reason, it was a different walk. Through the river gorge most of the day. Water in the river milky pale turquoise, hillsides of infinite shades of green, bright orange berries, blue, blue sky, great white puffy clouds, maroon buckwheat fields, soaring birds. A day full of senses: colors, sounds of birds and locusts, warmth of the sun, coolness of the breeze. Yummy.
7:20 Composing birthday limerick for Skip with Dede. I am humming to myself, just basically happy and content.
Day 16 Skip’s Birthday
Day 2 in reverse and although mostly downhill rather than up, it felt as long. Much better weather, cloudy much of the day and not as devastatingly hot. The steep, narrow section where they had to off-load the horses offered magnificent photographic opportunities ending in a waterfall which, following Skip and Tomas’ lead, I walked under. Water was almost warm, and I shouted with the simple joy of being there.
We were going to stop an hour or so before our original Camp 1 and were all disheartened to see a French group there before us and we had to continue on to the terraces. The last village we walked through, although dirty and more Hindi than Buddhist, was fun because of the preparation for the festival beginning today. I got mixed information about it being the Hindu New Year or the celebration of the gods killing the devil. It is definitely a fun one, and the girls of the village were all decked out with yellow flowers hanging from their ears. Much activity in general. It turned out to be only 30 minutes to the terraces, and we all ended up being glad we didn’t have to do it tomorrow – after we got there! Flies still active, and we all seem less bothered by them than on the way in. Amazing what a few weeks of camping make tolerable!
The birthday was very fun. Everyone did something, and Dick was the consummate MC. I think the prize has to go to Bob and Craig: TWA – Trekkers with Attitude, a birthday rap. Laugh out loud funny. Katherine’s pouch, Tomas’ Barron’s shirt, Dede’s and my limerick. It was a fun celebration. Skip was genuinely touched and talked about this being the “A Team” and more friends than clients. It’s true. This is not a typical group. It doesn’t come easily yet. All in all, we created a wonderful birthday party out here in the Humla, cake and all. What an incredible thing to have a cake out here. The crew blows me away in so many ways: quality of food, smiles, helpfulness, friendliness; they add enormously to the trip. Lots of laughter and companionship.
Skip’s Birthday Limerick
There once was a guide name of Skip
Who turned 48 on a trip.
I think he’s quite clever,
Controls even the weather,
And so I created this quip.
Tho you think we don’t hear what you say,
You’ll notice we’re never far away.
Who else could convince us
To scramble round Kailas
In order to cleanse all our sins away.
I showed up in Nairobi in ’88
To climb up 2 mountains, I’d made a date.
Little did I expect
That this guide, who I met,
Would irrevocably alter my lifelong fate.
We gripe and we moan and we grumble,
And sometimes it feels like we crumble,
But you know what to say
To keep us on our way
til we fall in our tents in a jumble.
And so on this special occasion
Our glasses we all will be raisin’.
In this fine mountain scene,
Happy Birthday, Eugene.
To Skip Horner, the King of Circumambulation.
Day 17 to Simikot
The walk started uphill almost immediately and shortly cranked up, very steeply, about 2,600 feet. Just trudging, one foot in front of the other, by myself. Dick and Tomas made a wrong turn into a village, and I got in front of them and just kept trudging. Dick slowly caught up, and we just kept going up. And up. We saw the porters stopped at one point with the sky behind them, and our hopes were high that it was the top. But no. I muttered a resounding “F—” as we continued to climb.
Both of us were afraid that if we stopped it would be hell to get going again. So on we trudged. 3+ hours to the top. Hot, sticky, soaking wet, fortunately cloudy, saying my mantra, impressed by Dick’s fitness, legs strong, proud of my strength. Hard work and satisfying. We didn’t wait long at the top as it was breezy, and we were getting chilled so headed down to our rooftop camp in Simikot. Kind of fun. A busy place as we became the main attraction in town. Lots of gawking and peering and curiosity. I am glad to be done walking.
8 pm God, I hate all this up and down. I feel like my presence was almost totally unnoticed at dinner I felt forgotten and extraneous. Like no one cared that I was leaving tomorrow. I cannot compete with Dede or Elizabeth, and I feel unnoticed and unimportant and small. And irrelevant. I know this is about me and not them, I know these are feelings and not reality, and I feel alone and uncared for. Like my questions were a bother to Skip. Like I was a bother or not noticed at all. F—, I hate feeling like this, and I seem unable to let it go. I don’t like ending this trip like this. It has been such a good one in so many ways. And very hard in others.
This is a strong-egoed group, and there have been more than a few times when I have felt like this, like I am not like them. Once again I am on a wonderful trip and am soul hungry and skin hungry. There’s been hardly any touching, hugs few and far between. No talk about feelings. I feel like an alien for wanting that. These are pals, fellow travelers, not soulmates. We share a love of adventure, not necessarily life philosophies. God help me let this go. I didn’t feel like this 2 hours ago. I don’t yet know how to embrace this shadow side of me. And I can breathe in Spirit and trust the process. Sleep, Margo.
Day 18 Simikot – Nepalganj – Kathmandu
Emotionally hung over and off from the powerful feelings of last night. And it’s a beautiful morning. Much of the village of Simikot gathers to watch the plane arrive and leave. So much character in the faces. We left about 8:30, with Ramesh, our Indian- looking-law-student-Sherpa accompanying us, all hoping we can get on a plane from Nepalganj to Kathmandu today. Our scheduled flight is tomorrow, and none of us want to spend a day and night in the heat of Nepalganj. Ramesh has inquired and was told the plane was full, and we probably wouldn’t get on, and to come back at 1:30 to try. It sounded discouraging, and we learned our original seats were reserved for the 2nd rather than tomorrow. It didn’t look good.
We piled us and our duffles into a tuk-tuk truck and putt-putted through town to the Sneha – the so-called “Love Hotel.” Dede, Tom W, and I kept the vehicle and took a tour around town. Fascinating. It is the third day of the festival, and the town is full of tinsels and decorated altars and people dressed in their finest clothes. There are beautiful, big pink flowers growing on either side of the main road, in vivid contrast to the poverty and dirt and open sewers that fill the lives of these people. The few westerners who come here go only to the airport or the hotel, so we were as much a curiosity to them as they were to us.
A lovely Nepali lunch at the Sneha and then back to the airport. Still talk that the plane was full, and Ramesh took out his best negotiating skills – and bribery rupees, I suspect! – and got 4 of us and 3 bags on the flight. We had all pretty much given up hope, and were delightfully astounded when he came back with the news. We tipped him about $50 US, and he beamed. Off we went to Kathmandu, with marvelous views of the highest peaks above the clouds. Miraculous!
Arrived at the Malla and went straight to Malla Trekking to pick up my passport. Not sure if Thai is open tomorrow, Sunday, so when I leave is in God’s hands. Then to the shower. Ah, sweet mystery of life! There’s nothing in the world like that first shower!