Right outside the monastery…

SYNOPSIS:  About two days of sightseeing.  First, a Chinese “Resort Town”.  About village architecture and a legend that goes with it.  About superstitions and predigests.  About the oldest temple in Tibet, and a Nyingmapa monastery in which monks and nuns co-habit. 

Sometimes, I lose track of the itinerary.  I am at the mercy of the Great Tibet Tour travel agency and their idea of “culture”.  I had specified that I am interested in all aspects of Tibetan culture and I had listed a few “must see” monasteries.  But a few things appeared on my itinerary which seem to be standard offerings for the typical Chinese tourist who frequents the eastern part of Tibet a lot more than any Westerner. 

Today, we drove through lush scenery, wound our way up yet another pass (the Sikkim Pass of 4700+ meters), an occasion at which Pootse our driver, stops his recantation of mantras, rolls down his window, and shouts out something that sounded like this:   XXX

It means as much as: to all the good spirits that sit on every man’s shoulder! Yeah, these guys here believe that only men have good spirits sitting on their shoulders.  What do they know?!

We wound our way down the other side of the pass, no less gorgeous, passing some crazy dedicated bikers, and soon Pootse stopped, and Tenzin declared that we had arrived at our destination: Lunang.  I am not getting out here, I said. What is this supposed to be?  Disneyland? 

Souvenir stalls, guys with horses which you could ride across a meadow, a few show-yak, and a make-belief Tibetan Village full of fancy restaurants and hotels looking like Tibetan farm houses, in which one chicken dinner would cost between $80-100 since Chinese tourists believed (or were made to believe) that they had some special herbs stuffed into the bird, that had magic healing powers.  Good grief!  Is that, what the (hundreds and thousands, by the way!) Chinese tourists do for fun?

I felt sorry for the 2 hours, the driver had been working hard, and inquired if there was anything else on the program on this side of the pass.  I also assured Pootse that I really had enjoyed the scenery.  Yes, there was one more thing:  A few houses; actual Tibetan farm houses, that had survived the onslaught of the Chinese tourism industry.  The old, nearby village was called Namai.  Now that was right up my alley.  I love villages and this village architecture was distinctly different from the Lhasa region, and from other parts in the East.  A legend explained it all:

Once upon a time, a king called for help to build a monastery (was it Samye?).  Every village had to send a few loads of soil.  Namai and other villages in this Kongpo Region refused.  In retaliation, the king cursed their soil and it is no longer suitable to be used in their homes.  Farm houses in other regions are either flat, or top off their slanted brick walls with a layer of adobe, onto which layers of wood are piled; now, more likely you will see corrugated sheets of metal.  Because of this ancient refusal, the villages in this region are forever doomed to have an open-air attic!  Funny enough, they do; and that despite rain and snow.  Quite counter-intuitive.  Usually, architecture is optimized to adapt to various weather conditions.  Here, they really are putting up with some hardship because of this “history”.   I had a good time in this village, making this long drive all worthwhile.

People from the Kongpo region mainly practice the native, pre-Buddhist Bon Religion.  Tenzin (as a typical representative of a follower of Buddhism, and people in the rest of the country) is highly suspicious of these folks, and ascribes all kinds of evil to them:  they are capable of poisoning somebody with food — people affected will die within 2-3 years.  They are not trustworthy — don’t take a friend from the Kongpo region if you expect a long-term friendship; they act friendly but mean harm, and so on.  Wow!

We had a hard time getting away from those infamous chicken dinners, but finally located a small Tibetan eatery; the usual hole in the wall with benches and a central stove on which the tea was brewing — and had our noodle soup with yak meat, the standard dish around here which I have been eating for a month now.  It really does not get old.  It’s tasty, and a little bit of cilantro and chili always does the trick.

And back we went across the pass, calling it a day.

The next day, we visited the oldest monastery in all of Tibet, dating back to the 7th century:  Buchu Lakhang or Bujiu Si.  Well, soon that date will have to be amended to:  renovated and restored in 2017.   The main temple of this Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) monastery was all ripped up, workers were busy sawing wood, mixing cement, forming bricks in the courtyard.  The treasures of the place were piled up warehouse style in a small side building.  The most auspicious objects are a huge stone that supposedly floated up from a sacred lake, and the footprints of…  who could it have been, I forgot…  A small protector chapel was accessible.  Those are always fun, usually filled with wrathful images such as Hayagriva, Yamantaka, or Mahakala.

But the highlight of the day was the 19th century Nyingmapa (Red Hat) monastery of Lamaling.  With an octagonal, three-tiered floor plan, it looked very Chinese to me.  It was destroyed once by fire, once by the Red Guard…  Dedicated to Padmasambhava, Avalokitesvara, and Amitabha, it rounded out some of the usual favorites. 

What was most unusual is that in this monastery about 37 nuns and 40 monks live together.  The do have separate dormitories, but they pray, walk, work, and eat together.     And don’t you get any ideas!  Only Lamas in the Gelugpa sect can marry or have a worldly life.  Monks and nuns in both major sects have vowed celibacy as part of their religious commitment.    And I am sure that (for the most part) they take this seriously.

And just in case they don’t…  I came across two really unusual sculptures right outside the monastery:  Two fully erect penises wrapped in votive shawls!  And just in case you were wondering what this is all about (as I was), a faded sign explains it:

Against bad dreams!


The Rainbow from Heaven

SYNOPSIS:  About “my guys”, traffic rules, and about being denied access to a tourist site.  About the dramatic changes in scenery, and about a rainbow.

This was the second Holy Lake (after my disastrous tour to Lake Namtso), which would not let me near it.  Karma, would have been Sergej’s answer.  Damn those vodka drinking Russians! would be my reply. 

Today, my Eastern Tibet Tour started.  Now I am all alone with “the guys”.  That is hard-working Pootse in his late 30’s, the ever singing and mantra-mumbling, high-spirited driver, never short of advice to distribute to anyone who will listen — that includes anyone at our lunch restaurants, or any hitchhiker we pick up, or even Tenzin.  I gave Pootse carte blanche to load up the car with locals, who often hitch a ride, and I observed Pootse starting his lectures within about two minutes.  He once managed to talk for over 20 minutes without a break, reducing the young student who had joined our team to the single word “ore”, or as much as “you are right”.   Pootse’s favorite past time (in the car at least), is to curse the many traffic cameras, installed to make him slow down.  One day on our tour going west, he got a ticket of nearly $100!  Both Sergej and I chipped in to ease that pain.  But ever since that, he has been extra careful.  Mind you, that does not mean that he is slowing down on these ever-serpentining ways.  I fly from right to left and up and down in the back seat of the car for hours every day testing every limit since the Kailash Kora!  It means however, that he has timed to the minute how long it should have taken him in between one and the next camera break.  And so he decides when there has to be a “picture take” break and if there really is nothing to photograph, then we just have to sit out the 3, 7, or 12 minutes until he can go again.  I begged him to just slow down.  It would make my life so much easier there in the back row of the van.  But he claims that he would fall asleep if he had to go 20, 30 , or 40 miles per hour all the time.  And who can argue that?

And there is Tenzin, the more introverted of the two, the local guide, who resorts to smoking a cigarette, when the lectures start coming his way.  He is a kind young man in his late 20’s with quite a history.  When he was only 8 years old, he and his younger sister, with a distant relative escaped to India, brought over there by two Nepalese smugglers.  He spent 13 years in Darussalam, the place of the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama.  He received his schooling and Buddhist training there and has seen the Dalai Lama in person on numerous occasions.  When he was 21, he decided to go back to Tibet — a decision which seemed rational to him at the time — after all, he had not seen his parents in all of those years.  His sister returned with him.  They snuck back into the country and months later applied for an ID card, at which point who knows how (one of those many spies, eyes or ears the Chinese government has installed everywhere) turned him in and revealed that he had been “over there”.  Both siblings spent several months in prison…  He will not talk politics, but I think he has a unique and much more informed perspective on life, politics, and the world, that sharply differs from the naive and uninformed outlook of the “fill-in guide” Sonam, from yesterday.

What was most stunning to observe was the change in scenery.  Lhasa is a valley with dry mountains, but there is greenery and trees can be found in the valleys.  Farmers here have wood to burn and hay to feed the animals; and during the monsoon season all of this will likely sprout and green even more.  When we turned west, the land became more and more barren, an already sparsely populated land, thinned out to even fewer people.  We often would only see one or two small villages in several hours along with a few nomad families dotting the land in between.  This country is vast!

Going east, the population density increased.  There were more rivers, and the trees began, first sparsely, then fully, to take over entire mountains in lush greens ranging from the light spring greens to the dark forest greens.  Were these virgin forests?  The cedar trees reached far up into the sky.  The yaks here actually had something to eat and there was a notable presence of pigs, which are completely absent in the west.  Just like their goat-, sheep- and yak-counterparts, they feared none of the traffic, and often sprawled out with all of their kin right in the middle of the road.  Pootse had his work cut out for him!

After all this sparseness in the west, this was a feast for the eyes.  Enjoy it!

The only site on our schedule before reaching Nyingtri, was Batsomtso Lake.  It was a sacred lake, but it had completely been taken over and turned into a Disneyland Chinese circus, as far as I could tell.  Tour buses arrived by the minute.  A big welcome center with multiple ticket counters and a hefty entrance fee, go carts and souvenir stalls were fit for an amusement park, more than a sacred lake.  Tenzin, who wanted to purchase our tickets, was sent away “to obtain a permit”.  Something was wrong with this picture; we had all the permits we needed.

15 minutes later, he returned; defeated.  No permit, no entry.  He had tried everything, even offered his and the driver’s license as collateral if I was let in.  All he could find out:  Last week a (vodka-drinking) Russian had misbehaved.  A governor had lost his job over the incident, and from then on and for the unforeseeable future, no foreigners would be allowed in.

I had hung out at the visitor center long enough to have spotted a “complaint counter”.  At least, I would leave my mark there.  I pulled the “I am a professor, came a long way, and spend a lot of money” card, and left a lengthy complaint entry.  No, I don’t expect an answer.  I don’t even expect anyone to feel bad for “profiling” and for making everyone innocent, from an entire, arbitrarily defined group, pay for the mistakes of one single person.  Why not just ban all Russians?  Or all Men?  Or all vodka drinking people?  Why ban anyone?  It’s a discussion we have world-wide and it is not an easy one with easy answers.  But I felt deeply wronged.

If Sergej would be right, and I just did not have enough good karma to get near this lake, how then would he explain that absolutely gorgeous full-swooping rainbow, that rolled out over our road shortly after we departed?  I think it was a sign from heaven, saying: 

Don’t mind those stupid bureaucrats!


300 year Manuscript with Bullet Hole

SYNOPSIS:  Blessed four times in a day!  About monks and monasteries in Tibet.  About the wounds of the cultural revolution and the effects of 60 years of Chinese liberation (that’s what the period since 1959 is called, officially).

You can always pay to receive a blessing from any of the monks at any of the monasteries.  You can also pay for having things blessed.  Somehow, that goes against my grain, especially since I do not see monasteries in Tibet taking on any of the charity functions that I am so used to associating with religious institutions, at least in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Monasteries here, exist by the grace of the Chinese government, which restricts the number of monks each monastery is allowed to have.  The number of monks nationwide used to be much, much higher than it currently is.  During the Cultural Revolution most of the monasteries and monastic institutions were destroyed and outlawed.  That changed, about 20 years later.  Now, there is a high degree of Chinese government oversight of monasteries.  Under the watchful Chinese eyes and ears, monastic schools have reopened, and monks can once again receive degrees in their traditional fields of studies (Buddhist theology, tantrism, philosophy and medicine). 

Monasteries cover a lot of their day-to-day expenditure through a devout population that deposits thousands of RMG or Yuan at important images and shrines daily.  Only  the monastery in Shigatse operates differently; entirely government sponsored (and government dependent, I would assume).  Some of the most important monasteries have been rebuilt in part or in their entirety, with government subsidies.

Nowhere was that more obvious as at Ganden Monastery.  I have a historical photograph, from the late 1990’s that shows a forest of ruined “stumps” and broken adobe walls, amidst approximately ten intact buildings.  When we approached Ganden, a site that is perched high upon a mountain rim, I exclaimed:  Oh, it has been rebuilt!

Tenzin, my local guide, had a day of altitude training today.  He had sent his friend Sonam instead, to fill in for him.  No, nothing has been rebuilt, he responded.  This is an old monastery.  I knew better, but kept my mouth shut.  I would look for more evidence, but except for one broken wall, there was nothing to point to that would indicate the horrors, or the extent of the destruction, the Red Guard caused while rampaging and pillaging the entire country in the late 1950’s.  About 50 buildings made up the monastery and all of them were there.

Ganden is one of the most important monasteries, as it was founded by “the master” himself.  That would be Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa Sect in the 14th century, who died at Ganden, in 1419.   The throne on which he died (or didn’t) has been rebuilt.  Devotees line up to enter a shrine in which his hat, as well as the shoes of the 13th Dalai Lama, are kept.  A monk had just taken them out and blessed each person with a slap of these objects on the head and the back.  Since I was in line, I bowed, and received my double blessing, too. 

Shortly thereafter, Sonam and I entered a chapel dedicated to a variety of deities, among them, my favorite:  Manjusri, the Buddha of wisdom, teaching, and cutting through ignorance.  Sonam pointed him out to me as the Wisdom Buddha, and I added:  Yes, it’s Manjusri.  No, it’s not Manjusri, Sonam replied.  But it is, I countered.  An older, dwarfed monk stood nearby with a big smile, pointed to me and said:  Manjusri, yes!   He thought it was so funny that I knew this deity, that on the spot he blessed me and wrapped one of the white, votive scarfs around my neck.  That was three blessings in one day and all free!

We continued to the burial stupa of Tsongkhapa, the most venerated object of the monastery.  It is attached to the dining room for the monks, and to a small room with sacred objects.  Three 500+ year old, beautifully illustrated Buddhist manuscripts were on display, written with gold-on-black paper.  I had not seen anything comparable at any other place so far.  I examined them for a long time and came back to them three times.  At that point, the attendant monk gave me permission to take a picture (not worth much since it is so very dark!), but he also pulled out another manuscript, about 300 years old, that had a bullet hole in it!   That’s what they did to our books, he pointed out. 

Objects like these are sacred to the locals, and three Tibetan visitors asked for a blessing with the book.  They knelt and the monk lifted the not unsubstantial book and touched their heads with it.  Since I had come that far with blessings today, I asked for one of those, too.  Four blessings — more than I could ask for and more than I had received in nearly a month — all in one day!   But even more interesting for me was to be able to see and touch a book with a bullet hole.  That said it all…

Drak Yerpa was our next stop for the day.  It is a small monastery only a few kilometers outside of Lhasa that has developed around a few ancient and famous meditation caves.  It has fallen victim to destruction several times, and finally, I could point out some ruins to Sonam that surely were caused by the Cultural Revolution.  He did not believe me.  In fact, when he complained to me about the current state of affairs in Tibet, I pointed out that under the Cultural Revolution it had been much worse.  His response:  I don’t know that much history.  I was absolutely stunned.  His response was a kudos to the now 60-year-long Chinese presence in Tibet, during which nothing is taught about the Cultural Revolution, its goals, the destruction, or the mistakes that were made.  Talking about it is illegal.  Sonam was a fine product of this whitewashing tactic. 

I finally approached a monk in residence, pointed to some of the ruins, and asked what happened.  He pulled out his smartphone and showed us dozens of pre-revolution photos.  Finally, Sonam had some sort of an awakening.  He was most puzzled over how I knew this by just looking at the ruins.  I hope he understands how much there is to learn for him unless he is content to be a product of the liberation period as he knows it.

Ignorance is bliss!  Or is it?



SYNOPSIS:  About manifesting a hot bath.  About another horrible hotel, night intrusions, and a cute little monastery with yet another meditation cave.

For six days we hadn’t seen a shower or even as much as running water.  And two more days without decent accommodations were ahead of us.   When Tenzin took off his boots in the car, we all had to hold our noses…  Well, if anyone else had done that, it could hardly have been better; the difference was that neither Sergej nor I dared!

I longingly remembered the little shop in Darchen, one of the first sites you see after finishing Kora:  Shampooing, it had said, in bright red letters…  If there were not three guys waiting for me in town, I would have succumbed to the temptation. 

We had left Darchen soon after I (finally) made it to town.  The driver Pootse was beside himself that the two guys, Sergej and Tenzin, had left me walking by myself.  Of course, that’s how I had wanted and requested it.  Still, his protective instincts just got the better of him.  He was visibly relieved when I turned the corner in Darchen all in one piece.

Our next stop was Lake Mansarovar.  Sergej was determined to jump in.  He even had carried a wet suit all this way!  But it was cold and stormy out here.  Was he going to do it?  To Buddhists, Mansarovar is holy because just like Mount Kailash is considered to be the symbolic axis of the universe, Mansarovar is seen as the symbolic equivalence of the cosmic ocean.  Hindus see in it a representation, or a mirror image of Brahma’s mind.  Hindus who finish the Kailash Kora, often embark on a trip circumambulating the lake right afterwards.  Another 3-4 days totaling a 100 km walk at 4500 m altitude was the farthest thing on my mind, no matter how much bad karma this lake might wash away.  But Sergej was quite serious about this karma business.  Would he dare?

Suddenly, Tenzin announced that we were going to stop at a hot spring on the way to Mansarovar!  We perked up!  Could we jump in?  Could we soap ourselves down?  Nothing of that sort, was the answer.  The last time Tenzin had been out here, there was a division for males and females in which each sex would strip down and could take a quick walk under a pipe spewing hot water, fed by a natural hot spring; holy, of course.  Was I up to stripping down naked in my stinky condition if I could not even use soap to clean myself?  I could not picture this operation.  But things had changed!

A Tibetan couple now ran a full-fledged bath house.  Mainly, that boiled down to the fact that you had to pay a hefty fee now to gain access to the water.  But you had your own little cubicle equipped with a grimy wooden tub, lined with a plastic sheet for sanitary purposes, and you had to bring soap, shampoo, and towel yourself.  Well, now they were talking!   I scrambled for soap and a change of clothes, and off into the steamy world of the hot spring we went.  A plastic sheet covering the open air cubicle heated up the place like a sauna.  A bus load of Russians — the ones who had finished kora with us — had just completed their spa treatment, and you could see them glowing red from heat and joy, with their towels wrapped around their heads. 

You have no idea what it feels like to have hot water (not a given in Tibet at all!) after living the wild and cold life for 6 days.  I am such a water freak.  I could have spent an hour in that cubicle and an hour under a hot shower every day.  But knowing that the guys would be done in no time, I hurried up.  This was holy water, I swear!

After this wonderful hot soak, Sergej chickened out of throwing himself into the ice cold holiness of Mansarovar.  It was just too much to bear.  And you never know if you offend the locals — who typically only rinse their faces, mouths and hands with the water — if you just jump into this like a big fish.  Just for the record, I want to mention that another crystal clear lake nearby — separated from Mansarovar only by a small land bridge, is considered its counterpart, Lake Rakshas.  Interestingly, it is “dead”.  There are no fish in it.  It is therefore considered female and evil and will be avoided at all costs by the locals.  You don’t drink from it, you don’t go near it, you ignore it.  Thank you very much!  But that is strange, isn’t it?

Our guesthouse was only 500 meters from the shores of Mansarovar.  It was laid out in an L-shape.  Across a vast parking lot, there was one of those notorious open-air stalls that claimed to function as a toilet.  Picture my night:  I was the only occupant in a 6-bed dorm room.  For once, they had given Sergej his own room.  There was no electricity and the door did not lock.  I had a large stone that I rolled in front of the door from the inside to barricade myself in.  Its noise would wake me up, if I had intruders.  And twice that night, I did!  A bunch of men barged in, then realizing that they had gotten the wrong door — now I had to get up in the cold and move my rock back…  And around 10 PM, suddenly the single dangling lightbulb in the room, was radiating bright and obnoxious neon light.  For a few hours, electricity had come about, but there was no switch in the room to turn off the light!  For an hour, I endured.  Then I gave up.  I had to build myself a device tall enough to stand on (in the rattling cold of the night), to unscrew the darn thing.  And finally, just picture the need for a bathroom around 2 AM.  Would you have walked in the pitch dark, ice cold, windy night 100 meters across an abandoned parking lot?   That’s when hard decisions have to be made.  Extreme situations call for extreme measures… 

The next morning was calm and warm and we headed up for a visit of the monastery.  Sergej is quite the sucker for meditation caves.  And I don’t mind them, exactly.  So, both of us sat in the dark meditating in a cave that sported the hand print of some lama, founder, or holy man.  I am sure the hand print indicates the spot where the saint pushed up the rock to give himself a bit more room or some such thing.  Oh… do I sound cynical.  I am sorry.  I am in awe of a lot of elements in Tibetan Buddhism.  But there is just a dose too much magic for my taste in it all, and when it comes to all those foot prints and hand prints and magic images, I am at a loss.  Just like Indonesia is full of “folk Islam” Tibet is full of “folk Buddhism”.  Charming, but often quite removed from scripture or original intent (I think).

We were only one day away now from Shigatse, where our wonderful 3-star hotel would await us to celebrate Sergej’s birthday, and where we could celebrate the return to civilization.  He surely had timed this well and quite deliberately.  He even chose the right moon to do kora.  And I?  I stumbled on it all only after my Iran trip fell apart.  At this point, I have fully reconciled with that.  Iran, I will return someday.  But Tibet — I came at the right time, and was thrown together with the right people, doing a wonderful trip. 

It’s all good!


Sergej and the Mountain

As always, when I have a travel companion, I ask them to write a guest blog.  Nicola has written some wonderful blogs, Celibeth wrote one in Cuba, and Sergej, after some hesitation, agreed, to write this one.

He is writing about his Kailash Kora.  Just like when you climb Mount Fuji, when you do Kailash Kora, there is no one single story, no one single experience.  Everyone comes with different goals, different physical abilities, different ideas, different religious inclinations.

Neither one of us knew what the other one was writing.   There are differences, but there are also similarities in our descriptions.  I hope you will enjoy Sergej’s perspective of this profound journey, which by chance we both embarked on together.


Where do I begin? For me, this journey started about two and half years ago and culminated in a once, or hopefully twice in a lifetime adventure, that I am living through right now.

This is not a vacation, this a self-discovery trip.

The historic sites that will leave you in awe, the wide open valleys ornamented by colorful hills and snow covered peaks that will make you realize how small you are compared to this beautiful vastness, the wide sky that is so close that it feels like you are walking with the clouds, the local people that seem to come from the distant past, all of these are but small touches compared to the experience of the Kora and the mysterious energies of the holy places.

The Kora is a three day track around the holy Mount Kailash. It has been walked by thousands of people for hundreds of years in order to cleanse one’s sins away, in order to earn a better future, and/or to get closer to the Absolute.  Mount Kailash is the holiest place for four major local religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Bon.

But Kailash is not just a simple mountain.  It is a living entity with a distinct personality. One needs to earn his favor in order to get near it, not to mention, to complete the Kora.

I’ve experienced it first hand on day one of the track. Right from the start I was determined to reach and touch the face of the mountain.  The four hundred and fifty vertical yard walk to touch the mountain, take about an hour and a half of hard walking off the main Kora path.  The sun was shining, the light breeze was pleasant and cooling, and with each step the Holy Mountain seemed to occupy more and more of the sky above. On the way up I met a couple of guys on their way down.  They warned me about the danger of caverns in the glacier which were on the way towards the mountain wall. 

This glacier claims a number of lives every year. I thanked the guys for the warning and got back on my way.  But when my goal was in sight, about a hundred yards away, I felt a snow flake on my face. A dark cloud was rising from the back of the mountain, the wind picked up rapidly, and it began to get dark. I had a hard decision to make: should I push through the last hundred yards across the glacier and risk falling through, getting snowed in, and spending the night on the mountain without any of the necessary equipment?   Or should I turn around and track back as fast as possible before the sun went down and the snow made it impossible to get back to camp?  I chose the latter. This time, Kailash kept me away or maybe, he saved me from myself. Regardless of what it was, the experience made me respect the Holy Mountain even more.

The second day of the Kora is the hardest one. The walk across the pass represents death and rebirth. It sure felt like death close to the top of the pass.  It had snowed all night. We started the trek early. The snow had stopped a few hours prior, and the entire place looked pristine, covered with fresh powder and highlighted by almost a full moon. It was very quiet, surprisingly quiet.  At our back, Kailash looked majestic basking in the cool, blue moonlight. The first mile or so continues at the same elevation as the day before and gives one a false sense of security.  But as soon as the climb starts the mood changes.  At first it feels like it’s very doable, no big deal; but as elevation and angle of the path increases the questions start to creep up: Why am I here?  Maybe I should have gone to the beach somewhere in a warm place?  Will my body be able to take this beating, or will  I pass out from the lack of oxygen?  What idiot put all this heavy crap in my backpack?

After the second summit, which was not even close to the top, people separated into two groups: the one that realized that this is impossibly hard;  they thought they had gone on a vacation, and started to look for a way out.  Ultimately, they returned.  And the rest, that pushed through the pain, cold, and burning lungs, to reach the top of the pass, in order to learn something new about themselves and cleanse their souls in the process. This is how Kailash separates the false seekers from the true ones.

For me the last eighty yards of the climb were the most intense. During the entire trek, anytime I would get a shortness of breath, as my heart rushed uncontrollably, I would sip some water, which I’ve carried in a bladder in my backpack. Well, at about the 5600 meter line, the water froze leaving me without any relief.  It was very uncomfortable, to say the least. The last few yards were the most surreal, my body was doing the motions and I was near it chanting rhythmic mantras to keep the pace.

The top rewards one with a bliss-like sensation.  Some people cry, some laugh but all have an aura of joy about themselves.

The trek down felt much easier, but was no less difficult. The path was steep, slippery and narrow.  I passed under Shivas’s axe which cuts one’s bad karma, and sat under the Medicine Buddha’s rock, which has the power to heal oneself and anyone who one is thinking of.  At the last descent I met an American girl who was stuck at the top, not knowing which path to take. Thankfully, as we were debating, a group of locals passed us and we followed them. She stopped at the tea house while I pressed on.

After reaching the valley I’ve found myself separated from everyone. It seemed I walked for a couple of hours without seeing any familiar face, only groups of locals kept me company.  Within the next hour I started to question whether I was on the right track. I  asked a couple of passing Tibetans and they affirmed that I was still on the Kora path.

But, after another hour of walking, when I asked a group of young local guys they shook their heads and said “No Kora”. That was unexpected. I stopped and debated weather I should trace my steps back.  The possibility of getting lost in Tibet was exciting, but I was hoping to avoid that adventure. While I stopped, I noticed a person wearing a red tracking suit coming around the band. It was a woman from a parallel group. We joined forces and kept on our way, but after another couple of hours of walking the doubt overtook both of us.  Fortunately, another couple caught up with us shortly and again reassured us that we were heading the right way.

We almost turned around when we were a ten minutes walk away from the camp. Just like the saying goes “The temptation to quit is strongest when you are a couple of steps away from the goal”.  That was certainly true that day.

That night we spent in a monastery guest house. It was the first good-night sleep I’ve had in a quite a while. It seemed the Holy Mountain had its mercy on me and burned at least some of my bad karma off.

The third day of the Kora was the easiest. I floated along the way.  I truly felt renewed.  The only out of the ordinary thing that happened was that my phone, which weathered two previous grueling days, started to act up, turning itself on and off at will.  As I’m writing this I haven’t had similar issues with it since. I believe it was the final show of power by the Holy Mountain.

The Kora was over. Did it cleanse my karma?  Only time will tell.  But what is certain, I learned a few things about myself, met many interesting people, some of whom will become my friends for life, and I enjoyed the raw beauty of Tibet.

P.S. The day after we’ve finished the Kora the pass was closed, for at least four days, due to heavy snow. Once more Kailash showed its will to deny anyone access to this most sacred place.


Getting our Supplies

SYNOPSIS:  Between life and death.  Circumambulation of Mount Kailash.  A three-day journey reaching the end of the physical rope.  Three days in one long blog. 

At some point on day two, near the top of the pass, everything had been drained out of me:  Every thought, every bit of desire, pride, or want.  There was no past, no future, no sense of self.  There was nothing left but to breathe and to step.  If I let go of that, it would be the end. I was at 5600 meters above sea level.  It had snowed the night before.  The rocky path was treacherous.  Sharp inhale, walking stick ahead, right foot forward; slow exhale, walking stick ahead, left foot forward.  Inhale, step; exhale, step; inhale, step; exhale step.  Don’t falter.  Don’t let that rhythm go.  It is all there is left. 

Once in a while there was not enough oxygen to inhale, and I had to stop, bend over on my walking sticks head down, and gasp for air, until I could resume my pattern:  inhale-step, exhale-step.  Keep it up.  Life depends on it!

ET Struggling (Day 2)

Even though I knew that there were about 30 tourist-pilgrims on this trek that day, for much of the time, there was nobody in sight in front of me, nor could I see anyone following me.  Occasionally, I would be passed by somebody, or spot another person in the distance.  If it was one of the Tibetan guides passing, he usually asked if all was OK.  If it was a Tibetan pilgrim, I would muster all my energy to send a “Deishe Delai”, or as much as a “hello” their way, accompanied by a smile.   And I would marvel at their physical constitution which would allow them to walk at twice the speed with no walking sticks, and breathe normally.  If it was another tourist-pilgrim, we would nod at each other, knowing that each and every one of us had to get through this on our own.   Some people had decided to walk in groups.  I had specifically asked, to be left to my own speed, and my own devices.  I was slow.  And I needed no distraction.

At some distinct corners, the guides would gather, waiting for their flock to arrive.  To them, this trek posed different challenges than to us. They worried about us getting sick.  Many of us were coughing.  Some of us fell, some of us needed oxygen treatment,  some needed help carrying luggage.  For others, a few words of encouragement would suffice.  Some of us gave up and returned to camp one.  We never saw them again.

Wanting to give up (a tourist from another group)

At these guide-gathering places, there would be some chit-chat, some sharing of food, some picture taking. Usually, I would not linger much.  Sitting down made it that much harder to get up, and there was the temptation to just keel over, sleep, forget it all, and give up.  What could be worse than this torture?  One guide complimented me on my “body language”.  I guess, he meant that rhythm I had going.   Another would let me know that I was doing well.  And when I apologized for being so slow, he pointed out that several girls much younger, were even slower than I was.  That was nice to know, but in the end, it didn’t matter.  Each and every one of us had to get to the next camp before dark, one way or another.

What am I doing here?!  Whose dumb idea was this?! 

When I bent over gasping for air, that was the only thought that crossed my mind.  Like a mantra, it was humming through my mind.  “Dumb idea.  Dumb!”  I am not sure I could have formulated a real thought though, or come up with even some of my best friends’ names. My mind was numb.

The kora of all koras for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Bons alike, is the circumambulation of Mount Kailash.  It is considered a symbolic passage through the Bardo from which the pilgrim emerges spiritually reborn, and cleansed of the sins of this life time.  Bardo is to the Tibetans a state of being between life and death, between birth and rebirth.  Circumambulating Kailash thirteen times is believed to erase the sins of all previous lives and practically guarantee enlightenment; what an incentive! 

Kora Map

To Hindus, this mountain is the physical abode of Lord Siva. To be in the presence of Siva has a similar effect of spiritual cleansing as it has to Buddhists; but for different reasons.  According to our guide, Hindus, when they reach a certain age, desire to come here so much, that some of them sell all their belongings in order to afford this trip.  They are physically not ready for these conditions.  Many of the deaths that are claimed by this kora, are Hindus from India.  Every year there are deaths.  To a devotee, however, death during kora is the most honorable and most desirable death of all.  Every year, people have to be evacuated from the high pass by horses or yaks.  The Indians who make the circle and return to India with nothing left other than spiritual gains, often end up in servitude for the rest of their lives.  Is this what Lord Siva wants?

Of the 30 or so tourists who were embarking on this trip on the same day as we, most were in their 30’s and 40’s.  About two men were my age; of the women, I seemed to be the oldest.  My travel partner Sergej was one of those 42-year-olds, athletic and ready for this trip.  He most likely could have finished it in 2 days.  Younger Tibetans strive to complete this trip in one 24 hour day, walking through the night!  It is absolutely beyond me how that is even possible! 

The three-day trip is typical, and for us tourists, the only option.  Day one is a 22 km walk at 5200 meter elevation on relatively flat ground.  You pass stupas and flagpoles, and have gorgeous view of the Holy Mountain.  Most people manage that.  I finished that distance at a leisurely 6 1/2 hours.  Of course, Sergej and our guide had arrived hours before me.  Those of you who know me, know very well that I am not the athletic type.  I barely get my bike out.  I swim a little in the summer, but that is all.  What I have is endurance. For some reason, I easily out-walk most of my students, even those half my age, on field trips.  But that says more about the lack of physical activities of American students, than about my physical fitness.  I also lacked the professional equipment many of the younger people had brought with them.  But I had hiking shoes and layers of clothes and upon the urging of our guide, recently bought walking sticks. 

Day two is the one that is getting you the Bardo experience.  The first 6 km include several “hills” which at 5200+ meters make you huff and puff.  Then you have to ascend a pass up to 5765 meters over 2 km, and descend it over another 2 km passing a holy (this time of the year, frozen) lake.  The weather had been on our heels since day one.  For days before our arrival, it had been snowing.  We had heard that many pilgrims had gotten seriously ill.  Our first glimpse of Mount Kailash as we drove up to it, was a hazy one.  The mountain was covered in clouds, and snow fell.  When we reached Darchen, the base camp from where the kora starts, Kailash presented itself in bright sun light.  Karma, Sergej said.

Indeed, the following day, day one of our pilgrimage, the weather was clear, the sky blue.  All signs were promising.  A big weight lifted off my shoulders.  I was in no mood, nor properly equipped, to do this kora in an ice storm. 

Mount Kailash is not visible at all times.  You walk the kora at quite a distance from it through a valley, over a pass, and through a valley again.  The mountain reveals itself from three sides on three different days.  Gorgeous mountain ranges soar left and right of the path.  But you are not supposed to look, you are supposed to walk and look inward.  For the most part, I did.

Kailash hiding behind a Mountain Range (Day 1)

This kora is meant to lead all pilgrims to the edge of life, to the brink of death, to the end of everyone’s physical abilities.  But you also have to figure out the purpose of this trip on a very personal and more spiritual level.  For some it is the remorse over past deeds, for others, resolutions for the future, realizations of shortcomings, or yet the wrestling with personal demons.  Why was I here?  Was it chance?  Was it just because this journey was part of the tour I joined, or did I join this tour because I was meant to do this kora?  The physical demands of day one are moderate and for hours you can follow your thoughts, or if you have figured it all out already, you can meditate or chant.

When I reached the camp at the end of day one, the snow had started again.  Throughout the night on and off, there was snow fall…  My heart sank when I realized that we had to manage day two under these conditions.   Mind you, the conditions of the camp are anything but comfortable.  In a dorm room with hard beds, you sleep as if mummified, motionless under thick blankets to preserve every bit of body heat.  There is no electricity, no heat, no running water.  If you need to use the bathroom, you will have to face the below-freezing cold, the snow, the dark, and unspeakable conditions in an open-air stall.  And I mean unspeakable!

The Weather is on our Heels

In the morning, you realize that your clothes (unless you slept in all of them), were cold and even wet!  Thankfully, I woke up early enough to stuff them all into my sleeping bag and to warm them up so I could wear them.  I wore seven layers waist up, and four layers waist down.  I wore everything I had packed for this trip and I needed every last piece in these sub-freezing early morning temperatures.

Day two started on a somber note.  A beautiful, almost full moon shone over our camp.  But the snow scared many of us.  Our guides had delayed departure by 1.5 hours.  We huddled in the tent called “restaurant” and sipped hot water and tea — amazingly revitalizing substances under the circumstances.  I nibbled on some of my German bread.  Some Russians offered me an apple.  That was breakfast. 

It was still dark when we departed.  Even though we left camp in chunks, we soon spread out.  Everyone found their own pace.  Some people walked in groups.  Others, like myself, walked alone.  24 grueling km and the dreaded pass were ahead of us.

The most cruel feature of day two is that it took everything out of me to make it over the pass and down.  This part of the kora is so draining, that when I came down from the pass, I just wanted to fall onto the floor or just anywhere and crash, when I finally reached the tea house in the valley.  But no!  You have about 15 minutes for a cup of tea and some hot noodles and then you have to move on for another 14 km if you want to reach the next camp before nightfall.  And if you want to live, you have to.  I felt like a donkey without any will of my own, with no resistance left, when my guide chased me out of the tea house.  He had waited there for me, probably well aware of the temptation not to continue.   I had no choice.  Mechanically, I put one foot before the other, regardless of the blisters that had developed on the down-slope of the pass; hour after hour, until the monastery, our camp for the night, was in sight.

Sergej and other fit people managed this day in 8 hours.  Even Sergej admitted, that he was pushed to his physical limits wondering at times how I (the much older and less fit one) would ever make it through.  I did reach the camp before night fall.  But it took me a full 12 hours with that 15-minute break at the tea house and a few short stops to drink water.  Frankly, I have no idea how I did it.  When I finally sat down for a dinner of fried vegetable rice, my legs were wobbling, and my mind could not grasp much of anything.  Is that how people in concentration and labor camps would feel at the end of the day?  Is that how refugees manage to walk across half of Europe? 

Monastery Day Camp Day 2

Sergej at Monastery Dormitory Day 3

Day three spoiled us again.  Behind us, we could still see the clouds and the haze — the snowfall continued and as we heard later, the pass had been closed to oncoming pilgrims for several days.  It was now beyond strenuous; it was dangerous.  How had we managed to get through on just about the only three possible days?  Karma, Sergej would say. 

The last day, just like the first day, covers even ground.  A few beautiful hills  and a winding road lead through a valley of indescribable beauty with astonishing geological formations.  I did what pilgrims are not supposed to do:  I looked, I marveled, I reveled, I sat, and I photographed.  There was a river to the left that had carved this beautiful valley.  There were rock formations that looked like stupas or monasteries, marked by piles of mani stones and cairns.  There were herds of yak precariously climbing over steep inclines and nomads resting by the side of the roads.  There was the bluest of skies, there were the whitest of clouds, and the air was as fresh as it could be. 

I could think again!  My mind was coming to life again.  Walking and breathing felt naturally again.  Instead of clutching my walking sticks in search of solid ground, or leaning on them gasping for air, I swung them back and forth clapping a new rhythm.  Step-step-click, step-step-clack.  Step-step-step-step clicke-di-clack.  I was practically dancing.  Just like Scrooge on Christmas Day, I was humming: I like life, life likes me!  I was on top of the world;  I was in Tibet.  I had finished kora!

Just as I was about to pat myself on the shoulder for a job well done, I came upon two Tibetan women.  They were doing kora prostrating.  To get this far on the kora, they would have been on their way nearly 30 days.  They had gone through ice and snow, heat and hail, rain and cold.  It may have taken them months, even years to reach Kailash!  Many Tibetan pilgrims come from far way.   And all of this on their hands and knees! 

Looking at them, I realized that I had nothing to brag about.  Nothing.

But I have something that I will take with me for the rest of my life:  I had a glimpse of Bardo, the twilight zone between life and death.


Our Driver Pootse

SYNOPSIS:  1200 KM.  From Lhasa to Gyantse to Shigatse, to Sera to Darchen.  Tales from the road.  Lots of images are embedded.  Keep scrolling down.

Shigatse felt like the last of everything:  the last warm shower, the last wonderful breakfast buffet, the last time I would put on clean clothes.  We were delayed by two hours because of the trouble with the permit office.  Every minute of delay felt a bit of a relief.  From here on out, it would be rough.  For eight days we would be on the road, covering the 2400 km between Lhasa and Mount Kailash and back.   On the winding roads around here, that means often 8 hours a day in the car.  For the first three days we were in the car, covering distances, and seeing some of the sites that I described in my previous blogs.  The culmination would be the three days spent on the most sacred pilgrimage path for Buddhists, Hindus, and Bon alike:  doing the 56 km kora (circumambulation) of Mount Kailash on foot.  And then we would have two full days retour before reaching civilized Shikatse, and a day later, eventually Lhasa again.

It is hard for me to describe scenery of all those days, but what we saw ranged from wild herds of ponies, deer and gazelles, to domesticated flocks of mountain-sheep and yak.  We saw turquoise-colored sacred lakes nestled within rocky mountains or floating next to yellow sand dunes, sacred springs gushing down from the rocks and small streams meandering through the dry lands.

We passed ancient mountain villages far away from anything, and newly constructed “reparation” towns set up by the Chinese government for the nomads in winter time lined with solar-powered street lines topped with Chinese flags.  We spotted the nomads in their tents, no longer made of yak wool, but canvas and often with a big truck parked next to it. 

We made it through numerous police check points.  Some officers were too busy on their cell phones and barely bothered to look up.  Others spent a seemingly endless time sifting through every piece of paper in the stack of permits Tenzin carried for the both of us.   We also passed a lot of fake police cars, solar-powered decoys and police mannequins presumably placed along the road to keep people in check and to prevent speeding.

 We marveled at rows and rows of snow-capped mountains and glaciers.  And we could hardly comprehend the variety of hills we passed:  some yellow, sandy ones; gray, blue, and reddish colored stone formations, heaps of gravel with sparse grass bushels; or stretches of land filled with gleaming white, smooth rocks that would make any landscaper’s heart beat faster. 

We had blue skies with white fluffy clouds, experienced, rain, snow, and sunshine.   Seasons around here change within minutes and at times you can observe multiple weather zones from one location:   rain behind you, snow to the side, sunshine ahead.

We passed the low stables set up by loose rocks for the herds out there, and we spotted numerous mysterious tall-towered ruins.  Tenzin when asked, called them “transfer villages” by which he meant that these were abandoned villages which had been rebuilt elsewhere.  But the more I paid attention to the prominent locations of these ruins and the unusually high and stable tower formations, the likelihood that these were villages, was slim.  My guess is that these are some of the thousands of monasteries that were pillaged during the Cultural Revolution.  Those monasteries were stripped of all of their riches, their monks killed, or imprisoned, or displaced.  Leave any of those adobe constructions to the elements and in a few years time, the rainy season will have washed away the colors.  Only monasteries have tall temple structures and tangkha walls…  I have no proof, just saying.

We serpentined up enormous hills on brand-new asphalted roads.  We bumped along roads that could use some TLC, and our guts were wrenched on some of the gravel paths that were probably in the next five or ten year master plan of Chinese road construction.  One of the worst roads we survived could have entirely been avoided, but our lovely and lively driver Pootse had it in his mind that he was going for a short-cut.

In order to save 50 km, he embarked on a dirt road that took us through virgin lands but almost cost us an axle…  At one of our photo stops, Pootse threw his arms up and exclaimed:  This is what all of Tibet was like, 30 years ago.  And he turned to me:  And you were 30 years younger then!  That statement came in the context of declaring that he liked me on the first day of our trip and would like to marry me.  When I pointed out that I was way too old for him, he is 37, he pointed to his heart and said that all that matters was the heart and not the age.  So I showed him my little family album and explained, that my heart was with my husband, my son, his wife, and my two grand-children.  He gave me two thumbs up but put me on a mission:  find him a wife in America.  Well, I am passing on his request.

But back to our short cut.  For once, there was no trace of Chinese presence or interference.  There were no electric poles, no river embankments, no concrete rain channels.  There were ancient iron bridges that made you wonder if even a motorbike would reach the other side, not to mention a car.  But when you saw an even rougher make-shift road swirling off to one or the other side just before a bridge, you knew you would be better served going that way, than taking a chance with one of those bridges. We were in an area of those beautiful white rocks; big and small.  As picturesque as they are, they are deadly for a car to try to go over as they serve as road blocks more than anything.  All out!  The men were moving rocks, I was photographing.  The men were pushing, I was identifying obstacle rocks.  After 10 minutes of hard work, a precariously inward bent back tire, we got loose and back of the detour of the shortcut.  That was a close call!  For the two of us, Sergej and me, the breathtaking scenery was all worth it.  What Pootse had in mind, saving 50 km, adding an hour to the trip and putting his truck in harms way is beyond me.  But I am not here to question.  I am here to enjoy.

Many places in the Tibetans’ minds are inhabited by local spirits and you are never short of prayer flag poles, kerns or small stupas, marking and honoring the spirits’ abodes.  And indeed, the vastness of the scenery of Western Tibet is nothing short of awesome and endless; infinite and mysterious, and no doubt filled with spirits and gods. 

Way to go!

And just for fun, here is what happened at one of our rest stops when I minded my business, munching on some cookies:  I got company!



ET at Everest

SYNOPSIS: About Mount Everest, the Base Camp, a Fortune Teller, and Karma.

It’s all about Karma, Sergej believes. Some people have to wait for days before they see the famous North side of Everest, we don’t have the time to wait. Others get lucky. The first chance we had to see Everest was from a viewpoint along the road. We saw the lower mountain range, but Everest itself was shrouded in clouds. Did we drive all this way, to see nothing? Did we have enough Karma, or as I would say, luck?

We had gotten a 2-hour late start in the morning. We arrived in Shigatse after 4 PM on a Saturday and the permit office closed at 2 PM. I could tell by the look in Tenzin’s face that he did not know about this, and that he worried that we had to wait until Monday. But at 10 AM on Sunday, the permit office opened for those who had missed the boat; for people just like us… By 11 AM we were on the road but the anticipated 7 km evening walk listed on our program was out of the question. We would arrive too late for that. The best we could hope for was a good, clear, evening view of the holy mountain. Our chances for that did not look promising judging by the viewpoint.

At 8848 meters, Everest is among the highest mountains in the world. Only experienced mountain climbers, and among those, only the ones who can cough up $50,000 for the hike (sherpas, equipment, insurance, etc) will even think about climbing Everest. Still, an astonishing number of people are doing just that. Ordinary people like us only reach the base camp, a two-lane row of about 50 tents made of black yak wool. Each tent is owned privately. Tea, food, and blankets are provided. Wooden benches line the square of the tent. In the middle, there is a burner that is fueled by little pebbles of goat poop and doubles up as heater and cooking stove. Beautiful textiles decorate the benches and the walls. It is comfortable and warm in there. Up to ten people can sleep in each tent. The four of us were assigned tent #52. But when we arrived, we hardly wasted a moment as the unexpected had happened: Everest shone in all of its beauty in the evening sun. We had about 1/2 hour before dark and we were running for our photo ops.

A field of stones with some cairns that had been built by previous visitors provided an unobstructed view of this beautiful cone. Luck or karma? Hard to tell. We just could not believe that we actually stood there. It is one of those “wow” moments in life, of which there are not too many. Something chokes up in you and it is hard to tell what it is: The beauty of the site? The fact that it took so much to get here and that you actually made it? Or is it after all the holiness ascribed to this place that gets the better of you? Perhaps, it is a bit of all three. A near full moon hung over the cliffs to the right of the mountain and made it all even more wonderful. The 1/2 hour passed fast. It was cold up here! We now were at 5200 meters and at temperatures below freezing.

Our tent provided a most welcome haven of warmth. By around 10 PM I rolled up in my sleeping bag and the added heavy blanket. Once the stove would go out, it would be nearly as cold inside this tent as it was outside. I am on my altitude pills now and so far, I am doing well. When I rush, even a hundred yards (as I did to reach the end of the camp), I can tell that I don’t have enough air to breathe. But if I take it slowly, all is well.

I was told that the guys were up until 2 AM partying and talking religion and politics. I am sorry I missed it, but I have to take it easy if I don’t want to tempt fate. I feel very vulnerable “up here”.

The morning came fast. If the weather was clear, we would do the 7 km towards the mountain via shuttle bus rather than walking. And it was! A clear blue sky and the sun still hidden behind the flanking mountains, Everest glowed in the early morning light.

We got as far as non-climbers are allowed. A hill covered with prayer flags and more cairns mark the spot. In the distance we could see the camp of the climbers, a bunch of small yellow tents. How did these people stay warm?! Yaks were resting nearby. They are used as pack animals.

Half way back, Tenzin, our guide stopped the van to get out with us. Sergej had mentioned a couple of days ago, that he wanted to consult a fortune teller about his future. Perched up on the hill was a small monastery and a meditation cave ascribed to Padmasambhava with just one monk in residence, who also was known as a fortune teller. We hiked up the 50 or so steps (Tenzin and Sergej went up like gazelles, with me following like a turtle). In a tiny dark room equipped with a stove on which the ever-present milk tea was boiling, there was a middle-aged monk who welcomed us. He would take your question(s) and then roll the dice in a cup which he would hold on his forehead. Depending on the roll of the dice he would consult scripture or formulate an answer on his own. Sergej heard what he had expected all along. It looks like he is on the right path with the turns he took in his recent life. Tenzin also had questions. At age 27 he does not seem to find a wife that is right for him and he was contemplating to become a monk. There was an affirmative “no” to that idea. The monk instead advised him to be patient. I contemplated a question but then decided against it. I have had my fortune read by a shaman in Peru using coco leaves, and once in America, I consulted a psychic. That’s enough for now.

But for Sergej, the place could not have been more auspicious. At the foothills of Everest, his life’s choices had been confirmed. He had come one step closer in his quest for answers.

We packed up and got back on the road. We had a long way to go before we would reach Mount Kailash, the ultimate destination on this journey. A few kilometers down the road, a spring comes down from the mountains. Its presence is marked by prayer flags and cairns. It is crystal clear and the locals ascribe all kinds of powers to it. Water from this spring is considered holy. We all rinsed our faces and hands, filled up our bottles, and went on our way, blessed by the powers of the water.

Bon Voyage!


Architectural Detail

SYNOPSIS:   Transit Shigatse.  Shigatse Monastery and Fort — a new ball game invented by the Chinese government. 

Shigatse is a big town.  80,000 in this nick of the woods seems huge, compared to the small villages we passed along the way from Gyantse.

Some settlements can’t even be called towns.  They are no more than a cluster of homes, or even single small estates by themselves.  One of those was a water mill, in operation for generations.  Millet and barley are ground to flour, and bags of flour are sold right here, along the road side.  The mill owner figured that tourists might like to have a look a this low-tech 19th century-type operation and he charges $1 now for that look.  Entrepreneurship has to be rewarded.  I loved that water-powered wheel, which operated a grindstone positioned below a big sack full of kernels.  Hours later, the sack was empty, the kernels had been turned into powder and could be bagged into sacks ready for sale.  Not very hard work for the miller in charge.  His wife was selling a few knickknacks for tourists and as everywhere was quick to point out the “real Tibetan” stuff versus the “cheap Chinese fakes”.  I am not convinced of this distinction but I bought a couple of things nonetheless.  Fake or not, these things are fun. 

Shigatse is home to one of the big Gelugpa monasteries.  This one is home to the Panchen Lama, second in rank only to the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai Lama is not recognized by the Chinese government and currently lives in exile.  He has made it very clear that he will not be reincarnated in Chinese occupied Tibet and may well be the final Dalai Lama.  The Chinese resorted to the next best in line.  They installed and groomed the current 11th Panchen Lama, who for the most part, resides in Beijing.  This monastery in Shigatse has become their “project”.  Millions of RMB flow into this monastery.  Instead of the “stick” of destruction, a different kind of cultural revolution, is in full swing: a corruption of the system through the “carrot”.  Monks at this monastery get a salary from the government!  Their living conditions are comfortable.  Several lavishly-decorated temples have been built for this monastery in the 1980’s and 1990’s by the government.  What is wrong with this picture?!

The monastery is beautiful, and houses in addition to the usual assembly hall, the multiple shrines filled with images, several burial stupas of Panchen Lamas of the past.  Only the 10th one’s tomb is real, as he only died recently.  Remains of the 5th to the 9the ones remain at large, so the government built a huge stupa honoring them all symbolically. 

The coolest thing for me was a huge plain concrete wall which is there for the once per year public display of the largest canvas the monastery owns.  During an annual festival, every monastery in Tibet puts up their largest tangkha.  Some of them measure 30 meters wide and 50 meters tall and have to be carried by a whole row of monks!  Boy, would I love to see one of those on display, once.  Now the large tangkhas I saw at the art gallery in Lhasa seem like miniatures.  They were barely 6 by 10. 

There is another castle in Shigatse that only can be seen from afar.  In many ways, it resembles the Potala palace, and from afar it looks good.  Reportedly, it was trashed during the cultural revolution.  The restored façades belie its fate.  What is up there now?  Nobody knows.  The military, perhaps?  It would give them a good viewpoint.

Our hotel is upscale and caters to tourists.  That is fine with me.  This is the last day for laundry and I am grateful that there is warm water not only in the evenings (as in my guest houses in Lhasa as they are using solar power without backup; the tanks cool down overnight), but also in the morning.

Tenzin, our guide, took us to a supply store where we rented sleeping bags for the next week and a small oxygen tank.  We stocked up with water, a few snacks, and packed the essentials into our day packs.  It’s getting real now. 

I sent one last text message to my loved ones — here is to my mother and my brothers too, whom I cannot reach via text!  I love you dearly.  I am an urban traveler and what is ahead of me is completely out of my comfort zone!  I am getting more and more anxious…

But it has been done before!  And there must have been people in much less good health conditions who survived this trip.  I just have to put my mind in the right place.

I CAN DO IT!  Good night. 


School children with Sergej and ET

SYNOPSIS:  About a fortress and a monastery — yeah, another one, but a good one.  About traditional Tibetan houses.

Thousands of temples and cultural institutions fell victim to the fervor of the Red Guard during the infamous Cultural Revolution, not just in Tibet but in all over China.  But some sites, miraculously, and for different reasons, were spared.  The Buddhist Grottos at Binglingsi were one example.  They were too remote.  The Fortress of Gyantse is another — it had been appropriated by the Chinese Government as an example of heroic resistance against the British invasion of Tibet, and so no longer was seen as a symbol of the evil past, but a symbol of Chinese superiority. 

Three Tibetans had flung themselves from the heights of the fortress to their death and were declared martyrs.  Had they done so to protest Chinese occupation, that of course, would be a different story.  Thanks to them, the 13th century castle survived and now is the only castle, surviving intact in all of Tibet.  To date, it seems to serve as a teaching tool of nationalism, heroism, and anti-imperialism — at least five classes of 5th graders accompanied by their teachers, waving Chinese flags, were ascending and descending the steep staircase to the memorial stone commemorating the martyrs.  We were greeted with never ending hellos and had to shake a few dozen hands and of course, pose for one class picture, before we finally had the top to ourselves.

The castle interior is not open for visits, but it is worth the climb for the view of the old part of town and the monastery in one direction, the neatly plowed fields in another direction and the ever expanding Chinese town in the other two directions.  Here, the 19th and the 21st century butt heads; the contrast is stark. 

Earlier, we had visited the Gyantse Monastery which is known for its unique sculptures in the Nepalese/Newari style, and its Kumbum, literally translated 1000 images.  The Kumbum is the largest stupa in Tibet.  It has several tiers that can be circumambulated,  With its zigzag floor plan, it provides enough wall space for a whopping 108 niches filled with images and paintings.  For the sake of visiting the castle, we had to give up a full circumambulation of the stupa, but got a good sense of its layout from the first floor.

Most noticeable and typically Nepalese are the eyes on the pinnacle of the stupa that look in all four directions.  The principle of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni, or in a burial stupa that of a particular person, has been replaced by the principle of the universal Buddha Vairocana, who radiates his powers in all directions. 

Between the monastery and the castle a small portion of the old town have been preserved.  Houses are built very close to each other and often two or three in a row.  Narrow alleys allow access.  Only two wider streets cut through the tight clusters of homes.  Tibetan houses are often two-storied.  The main floor is common space: living room, kitchen, family areas.  The upstairs is reserved for the various bedrooms.  Typical window and door designs emphasize the bottom width through paint or wooden ornamentation.  That way, each wall opening appears to be narrower on the top.  Each house has four small turrets on each corner of the flat roof that serves as a flag pole.  Colorful prayer flags are fastened to each pole and flutter in the wind, emanating good karma.  Each year, during the New Year Festival, these flags will be renewed.  It is also not uncommon to have a small juniper oven either on the roof or next to the home on the street level.   

After we made it back down from the top of the castle, the castle keepers, two local women, invited us for tea.  In the former overlord’s room, where they live, we huddled around the usual fireplace/stove sipping delicious sweet milk tea.  In a different room taxes used to be collected which was vividly recreated by a number of mannequins; serving as an example of the exploitation of the commoners during the feudal era.

Refreshed by the tea and energized by all the new things we had experienced, we were ready for many hours today in the car, on the way to Mount Everest and Mount Kailash.

It’s going to be a long journey.