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.

17 comments so far

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  1. Grahame & I have been planning a trip to Lake Mansarovar / Mt Kailash for three years now and, even without any intention of taking the long pilgrimage trek, we have a very good idea of the risks that it involves.

    Congratulations on completing it safely. I must admit that this part of your Tibetan challenge has been on my mind for the last few weeks and I’m very relieved that it is over now.

    much love


  2. Congratulations, I’m glad you made the decision to go for this experience !

  3. I really worried about you through this journey but you kept going a step at a time – finding strength within your should not to give up. Yellow Mountain in China will be a snap for you and hopefully is on your agenda.

  4. Unglaublich. Beeindruckend. Inspirierend.

    Wunderbar, liebe Elisabeth.

    • Kim, diese Kora musst Du unbedingt auf Deine Liste setzen. Right up your alley!

  5. WOW! Cheri and I once drove our car up to just over 14,000 feet in Colorado. We got out, walked a bit, and had to get back in the car and go to a lower elevation because of the nausea. I was in my early 30s at the time. Now it would be impossible. I admire your perseverance.

    • Helmut, the trick is proper acclimatization. The young ones (30,40’s and younger) they seem to be able to do this in a day or two. It took me a full week and medication. The other trick is to do this slowly and if possible, trek high and sleep low (the the pros say).

  6. Oy Vey, Elisabeth. Did you see flashing lights or cracks in the very fabric of reality. Seriously!

    • No. I saw the beauty around me, when I stopped and took time out from just walking and breathing. Nothing supernatural. 🙂 Perhaps, I am too pragmatic, or just not suited for those vibes. And don’t worry, the sins of my life time are still with me, too.

  7. I am flabbergasted! What a grueling experience, hiking more than 13 miles in the bitter cold at more than 18,000 feet altitude on the first day! How do you manage to look so vibrant and strong in the pictures?

    • Carl, when I was down and out, there was just nobody there, to take my picture. 🙂 And when I had enough time to get back in shape (breathe, stop, regain composure), and asked somebody to snap a picture, I do look quite OK. I was amazed myself when I looked at them later. I guess, I have a very robust nature. What else could it be?

      • P.S. Also, day 1 was quite sunny (as ultimately were day 2 and 3). The sun could make you feel so hot that you were tempted to take off all those extra layers. Beware! A minute and a cloud later, it could get cold so fast, that it was better, to keep most layers on at all times. But I managed day 1 and 3 with only 5 top layers.

  8. You are amazing! You accomplished your goal! A wonderful feeling!

  9. Wow! Thank you for sharing. This is powerful. I am amazed and humbled by the pilgrimages of you and many.

  10. Amazing, my friend.

  11. Wow! That is one amazing story!

    • Amazing! Absolutely incredible!