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.

2 comments so far

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  1. Bravo to both of you!

  2. Very interesting and well written. Another perspective is always welcome. Glad you both made it!