Prologue: Travel in Tibet

The bureaucratic logistics of traveling in Tibet are notoriously complicated. From Heinrich Herrer in 1939, to current day backpackers, many a traveler has been turned back at a checkpoint. Independent travel is actively discouraged by obfuscation of the rules steering daunted visitors into easily controlled package tours. I've now been to Tibet, done a bunch of things, and I still don't understand the system.

Stuart and I's main objective was Mt. Kailash in the remote western part of the country. The mountain is the center of the universe for Tibetan Buddhists, and a circuit, or kora, of its base is the most scared pilgrimage in Tibet.

The roads into the region are quite bad, but closely monitored by army and police. When we went, truck drivers were being heavily penalized for picking up tourists, so renting a Land Cruiser was the most common way of getting there. Typical trips take about six people in a Land Cruiser with an accompanying support truck. Facilities in the region are very limited so often times these trips are set up as "luxury camping" expeditions with a cook, etc...

Stuart and I opted for a more minimalist approach. For our price we got a Land Cruiser, driver, guide, permits, and nothing else. We were on our own to arrange food and accommodation throughout the trip, although the tour company people helped us to get reasonable deals.

We arranged our trip in Kathmandu, but this was a mistake. It would have been easier and cheaper to do it in Lhasa. For flexibility, it's important to have an individual, non-group, Chinese visa. Despite guidebook warnings that it might not be possible, we easily obtained these in Kathmandu. The plane tickets on China Southwest Air, must be purchased through a travel agent. What usually happens is that you buy a one-way group tour to Lhasa that includes the flight, a night's lodging and transport from the airport. Once in Lhasa you are on your own, and it's easy to find like-minded travel partners in the guesthouses.

None of this is nearly as difficult as many people think (these days at least), but remember, this is Tibet. Most roads are bad to begin with and subject to flooding, avalanches, landslides, etc... Like the weather, the politics and regulations are unstable. Our trip was very late in the season and we traveled under the constant threat of being stranded by a storm until who-knows-when. It's a place where anything can happen, and often does.

14 Oct 1999
The flight from Kathmandu to Kathmandu is one of the most spectacular regularly scheduled flights in the world. Once free of Kathmandu's smog, there are tremendous views out the left side of the plane as it flies East up the South side of the Himalayas. At Mt. Everest, the pilot practically plants the left wing tip on the summit as he or she executes a sweeping turn leaving behind Nepal and entering Tibet, the roof of the world.

Tibetan travel is infamous for being fraught with bureaucratic snarls and we get our first taste at the airport. Technically, we are part of a group, as you must be in order to purchase the plane tickets. Our "group" is 20 or so people we've never met before, and the only thing we have in common is that all our names are on a piece of paper proudly proclaiming our grouphood. All our names that is except for two unfortunate Swiss. It seems they'd added on only yesterday, and somehow their names are not on the magic list. This is a major problem.

We all bake in the bus while the Swiss couple tries to work things out with the Chinese immigration officials. As time went on, our group talked of forming a pool to raise funds for the bribe that surely seemed our only way out of the airport parking lot. In the end though, the Swiss, being Swiss, would have none of that. They agreed to surrender their passports and come back the next day for another round of "why our names aren't on the list." A serious inconvenience, with the airport being nearly a two-hour drive from town, but with the errant Swiss liberated, we started down the road for...     Lhasa, the forbidden city.

Tibetans getting some shade under the wing of a Chinese MiG parked in front of the Potala Palace, one of Lhasa's most sacred landmarks.

These days the forbidden city is replete with traffic lights and cell phones, and on first impression, it's hard not to be disappointed. Few travel destinations conjure up such images of mystique and remoteness as does Lhasa, but in our ever shrinking world it at first seems just another Asian city, maybe bit dirtier than most. Walking the streets, it takes a while for Tibet's magic to hit Stuart and I.

Tibetan stares.
After a year on the road, I'm used to being stared at, but the stares in Tibet are different. The eyes don't call out, "hey, look at the stranger" Instead, they seem to pour out a universal greeting, "Hello my long lost friend, welcome to my home." On the streets of Lhasa these wild eyes are accompanied by affectionate hugs and stuck-out tongues. It would be days before we would learn that sticking out the tongue is a traditional Tibetan way of showing that you are not a devil (they say the devil can change all his appearance except his tongue).

I come back from our short stroll feeling refreshed and invigorated. Tibetan's are people the way people are meant to be. Warm, welcoming and always willing to laugh at a secret joke. I couldn't even make eye contact without my new friends bursting out in laughter and running over to share it with me. The laughter and good nature are contagious and I soon found my cheeks cramped from smiling so much. Not a bad problem, as problems go.

At 3,500m (12,480 ft), Lhasa is 2,250m (7,380 ft) higher than Kathmandu and Stuart was feeling the effects of the change. So, with him napping, I set out on my own for a longer walk around the Barkhor circuit.

The Barkhor is the name for the neighborhood that surrounds the Jokhang, Tibet's holiest religious temple. This is the heart of old Lhasa and epicenter of Tibetan spirituality. The circuit around the alleys just outside the Jokhang is Tibet's most popular kora, and many foreign visitors first Tibetan experience.

Before reaching the kora though I have to run the gauntlet of antique, souvenir, and religious paraphernalia shops that clog the Barkhor square. This square has been the site for many of the demonstrations and uprisings against the Chinese occupation, and it is now continuously monitored by video cameras discretely perched on nearby rooftops.

Today all the cameras would record is the desperate struggle of a newly arrived tourist to extract himself from the hugs, and overly friendly grasps of jewelry merchants, their smiles redolent, their only words of English, "I love you."

Through the blockade I join the human tide flowing around the Barkhor kora. It's a mélange of Tibetan society, businesspeople on their lunch hours, ragamuffin street urchins, and the sun-dried pilgrims who look as if they've been doing this walk for thousands of years.

Everybody fondles beads or spins a handheld prayer wheel as they walk the circuit intent on their own devotion, seemingly ignorant of the surrounding shops selling everything from knockoff fur hats to industrial hardware. The shop venders call out, the marchers mutter prayers and from within Jokhang cymbals crash. The cloying scent of incense rides heavy over the rotting garbage and the odor of dedication from the pilgrims.

It's Tibet as I thought it might be, mystical, powerful, incongruously profound amidst the discordant sights, sounds and smells. Feeling oddly content I take up the chant that murmurs everywhere, Om Mani Padme Hum.

"Om Mani Padme Hum," it is the national mantra of Tibet, it fills prayer wheels and flies on prayer flags, it's inscribed on rocks throughout the country, and fills the heart of every Tibetan.

The simplest explanation I've found for it is that wisdom and compassion, the jewels we should be seeking, are only to be found within us. Really though, the mantra is meant to encompass the entire Buddhist spirit.

Tibetans believe that by reciting or invoking the mantra, you bring merit and peace to the world. Circuits in temples are often lined with prayer wheels. These are cylinders mounted on a spindle that can be spun by hand. They range in size from a small coffee can to behemoths, taller than a person, that require several devotees to set in motion. Within the prayer wheels are long scrolls of paper inscribed with the mantra and each clockwise revolution is said to invoke those prayers.

Similarly, Tibetans adorn mountain passes, holy places, and even their homes with prayer flags-- strings of brightly colored pieces of cloth imprinted with scriptures. Each flutter of the flag releases the blessing into the world.

Om Mani Padme Hum is the voice of Tibet. The low drone of its chanting fills temples and echoes off high peaks while they as a people invoke its power to calm the world.

Maybe we should all help a bit, chant it now, wherever you are, just for a few minutes.

Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum...

For dinner Stuart and I chose the guidebook recommended Tashi-I. Through a door on the street that seemed as likely to lead to a carpet factory as a restaurant we climbed a decrepit flight of stairs, mercifully dark, and found ourselves in the midst of a continual celebration over the joy of being in Tibet.

The place is run by two ebullient young Tibetan girls and their weary but warm mother. The girls would flit about, pulling each other's hair, cavorting with customers and occasionally bringing out a dish or two. Their mother vainly tried to maintain order, making sure food eventually did arrive and dealing with the more vexatious language problems.

Submitting our orders, we came to the attention of the girls. They were immediately taken by the thick blond hair on my arms, pawing it as if grooming an errant pet. Caught up in their mischievous mood I pulled up my shirt and showed them how far the fur extends. I was instantly dubbed "yak boy" and the name would stay with me throughout the country as Tibetans kept discovering a fascination with blond body hair. Stuart was labeled "chicken boy" after the dish he ordered, and in the nights we returned it would always greeted, "Ahh, Yak-boy, Chicken-boy, welcome!"

The food here was the best we had in Tibet, yak and veggie momos (dumplings) served with a hot sauce followed by Tibetan spiced chicken stir fried and served with thin pancakes. To my palate the Tibetan flavors seemed a mix of about 70% Indian tastes and 30% Chinese. Richly spiced, but not that hot. As the food choices dwindled on the road to Kailash, we would greatly miss Tashi-I.

We kept coming back though, not just for the food, but for the atmosphere. The place has a welcoming spirit fueled by the family's frenetic energy. After only a few days we felt like old friends even though our conversations were mostly food items and gestures.

Each night as the crowd thinned, they'd sit down with us and a Tibetan phrase book and we'd all try to learn a few new words as Stuart entertained them with his tongue piercing and magic tricks.

Who is Stuart?

Stuart Wild: aka Wild Stu and known throughout Tibet as Chicken Boy.

Helicopter pilot, yacht crew, ski pro, scuba instructor, prestidigitator, and 50-year-old Indian movie star look-alike Stuart knows how to get out there, and was a perfect partner for the trip to Mt. Kailash.

We met in a karmic moment as we were both sat in the Bahrain airport waiting for a flight and I overheard him talking about Western Tibet. We spent a few days raising a ruckus in Kathmandu, and then were off together for three weeks in Tibet.

My only regret about doing this trip with Stuart is that we never found a Chinese helicopter for him to steal. Rats!

15 Oct 1999
Stuart was still feeling down from the effects of altitude, so I again went out on my own to explore more of Lhasa.

First stop was the local Internet cafe! While painfully slow, I did manage to read all my new messages, and the irony of sending email from the forbidden city was not lost on me. It may not be quite as good as it sounds though. Rumors here abound about the Chinese government monitoring e-mail and arresting people based on it's content. I'm familiar enough with the workings of the web (my old resume) to know what a difficult task that would be, but as a believer pointed out, the Chinese are not short on either motivation or human resources.

Dwelling on the old and new, I went for a walk searching for the Lhasa of yore, but instead found only a modern bustling Chinese city. The Tibetan district is small, focused around the Barkhor and seeming only to be about 20% of the city. The rest could as easily be Chengdu or any other small ratty Chinese city. Across the main street from Dalai Lama's old palace, the Potala, is an open, "People's Square" with Chinese military hardware on display. Alongside that is a used car lot. Disheartened I returned to the Barkhor to explore it's interior temple, the Jokhang. Inside, were pleasant surprises, a puja (prayer service) in progress and two friendly Spanish women I'd met on the plane.

A puja underway in the Jokhang.

Together we took in the dissonance of a Tibetan prayer ceremony. Groups of monks chanted prayers from ancient books. Their voices seemed to roll like waves, each group rising to a different crescendo and then occasionally all coming together and breaking with crash. They chanted in a deep, low, monotone and to my untrained ear the result was more like that of a gentle percussion instrument than of the human voice. At points they'd be joined -- or interrupted, it was hard to tell -- by the real drums. Double sided drums the size of car tires, set on poles and beaten with crazily curved mallets.

Hrum, rmm, rmm, dra, ya', yum. Hrum, rmm, rmm, dra, ya', yum. The monks voices would murmur at a rushed tempo and Bromm, Bromm the drums would intervene at an unhurried pace.

The trumpets were the final voice in this cacophony. Thin slender trumpets half again longer then a person and with sound like a wounded animal, a very large, very angry and mortally wounded animal. Braamfffff they'd shrill to the delight of the Tibetans and drowning out any other sound.

A puja doesn't have the solemnity of a western religious service. Young monks tell jokes, pinch each other and occasionally deliver a whack with their prayer books. Tibetans wandered through the monks to make offerings with seemingly little care to decorum.

For we, the uninitiated, it was difficult to make sense of, and there was no one around to ask. I think the focus of this ceremony was monks in the background making tormas, barley flour cakes decorated with colored yak butter, and all the rituals were to consecrate them for future offerings.

But even blind to the meaning, there was a sense of energy in the gathering. Wizened old pilgrims drifted in, faces browned and deeply creased by years in Tibet's harsh climate, they looked as if they just as easily be a 1,000 years old as the 50. They probably were. Poised before the rows monks and performing ritual prostrations and I saw tears in the eyes of at least one as she turned and made her way out.

16 Oct 1999
While the Barkhor is truly Lhasa's heart, the Potala is surely its crown. No other landmark is as indelibly associated with Tibet and its plight as is the Potala Palace, rightful home of the Dalai Lama.

Historians say that 7th century Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo was the first to build a palace on this site, but it was the great fifth Dalai Lama in 1654 who began work on the Potala we see today.

With 13 stories providing 130,000 sq. meters of floor space it is a massive structure that captures the imagination. Visible from all over the city the Potala dominates Lhasa and is a constant reminder of what is, and what might be.

The Potala Palace.

Traditionally the home of the Dalai Lamas, the Potala is now a tourist attraction, and today Stuart and I went on the tour. Inside it seems more a temple than a palace. Chapel after chapel filled to overflowing with Buddhist scrolls, paintings, statues and altars. It even contains tombs for the Dalai Lamas, the most impressive being that of the great fifth. His funerary stupa is over 12m (40 ft) tall, is gilded with 3,721kg (8,223 lbs) of gold and decorated with 15,000 pearls and gems.

Each twist and turn through the three-dimensional maze of the Potala reveals similar treasures, but for me the most profound sight was also one of the most unassuming.

Turning from the roof into a set of small chambers you find the private quarters of the 14th and current Dalai Lama. His personal effects are laid out at his bedside as if he might return at any moment.

Although it was really from Norbulingka, the summer palace, that he escaped in 1959, his presence in this room is strong. I got the sense that some aspect of time has stood still here as if even that immutable force awaits His Holiness's return.

After our tour through the Potala, Stuart and I went by our travel agency to get a guide to help us with our shopping. With his assistance, provisioning for the trip was easy. No haggling, no rip-offs, our guide took care of the negotiations and we just walked through stores, pointing at cases of Coke, cookies, and instant noodles. These would be our staples on the long road to Kailash.

For dinner we returned once again to Tashi-I, this time with Catherine, a Chinese born woman residing in New York, but on a trip through Russia, China, Bhutan, and Tibet.

Dinner with Catherine was fascinating. As well as planting the seeds for eventual trips to Bhutan and Mongolia, she challenged my pat Western notions of China's villainy in Tibet by providing the Chinese taught version of things.

Tibet China
When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels,
the Tibetan people will be scattered throughout he world
and the Dharma will come to the land of red men.
--Guru Rinpoche, 8th century establisher of Buddhism in Tibet.

Chinese claims to Tibetan sovereignty stem from an expedition by Emperor Kang in 1720. He entered Lhasa with a military force and drove out the Mongols who'd been occupying Tibet for three years. Kang Xi brought with him the 7th Dalai Lama, who'd been held by the Chinese for years. Between driving out the Mongols and returning the Dalai Lama, Kang Xi was greeted as a hero even as he declared Tibet a Chinese protectorate.

The Manchus ruled Tibet for nearly 200 years, responding with an iron fist to any insurrection. The rest of the world snuck up on their isolationism though and in 1903, the British, led by Sir Francis Younghusband, invaded. The British were concerned about Russian expansionism and wanted to secure Tibet as a buffer to their colony, India.

Younghousband's force of 1,000 well-armed men met the Tibetan army of 1,500 near Gyantse. The Tibetan's were equipped primarily with swords and their secret weapon: charms bearing the seal of the Dalai Lama that the monks assured them would be protection against British bullets. As the British attempted negotiations, a false alarm was raised and 700 Tibetans were killed in four minutes.

Younghusband advanced on Lhasa only to find the Dalai Lama had fled to Mongolia. He negotiated a treaty with the regent, but the Manchus objected and in 1906 the British, in a move to block Russian advances, signed a treaty with the Manchus acknowledging the Chinese right to rule Tibet. In 1910 the Manchus decided to make good on the promises of this treaty and invaded Tibet, sending the Dalai Lama fleeing again, this time to India.

A 1911 revolution toppled the Qing dynasty in China, and in 1914 the 13th Dalai Lama returned to a liberated Tibet and enjoyed almost 40 years of self-rule. The 13th Dalai Lama traveled to the west and realized that Tibet must modernize its infrastructure and social systems to survive in a modern world. His reforms were met with great resistance in traditionally isolationist Tibet.

His efforts mattered little though because in 1948 Mao Tse-tung took control of China and on October 7, 1950 30,000 Chinese troops invaded Tibet and quickly overwhelmed the Tibetan army of 4,000.

In Lhasa, the 15-year-old 14th and current Dalai Lama was quickly enthroned so that he could assume command of the county. Knowing that Tibet could not stand against Chinese aggression he dispatched a delegation to Beijing to negotiate. As it turned out, no negotiations were required, as the Chinese had already drafted the 17 point, Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, and even forged the Dalai Lama's seal for it's ratification.

The document ceded control of Tibet to China in exchange for unenforceable guarantees about the Tibetan way of life. The Dalai Lama's delegation acknowledged they had no authority to sign such a document, and the Dalai Lama himself opposed it when he finally got a chance to see it. But, the Chinese touted it as the peaceful liberation of the Tibetan people from years of serfdom to the monks and religious state.

Tensions built between the Chinese invaders and the Tibetans until things came to a boil in 1959. The Dalai Lama was commanded to attend a New Years dance without his usual contingent of bodyguards. Word of this leaked and 100s of Tibetans surrounded the Norbulingka palace promising to protect the Dalai Lama with their lives.

On the streets, Tibetan Soldiers shed their PLA uniforms and the strain finally reached a breaking point as shells began falling on the palace grounds. It became clear that no peaceful solution was in the offing and on March 17, the Dalai Lama fled to exile in India. On March 20, more violence broke out and estimates are that in 3 days, 10,000 to 15,000 Tibetans were killed.

With the Dalai Lama in exile the Chinese began the wholesale destruction of the Tibetan way of life. Buddhism was banned with monks and nuns tortured and brainwashed. By the end of the 1966-1976 excuse for genocidal insanity in China, the so-called Cultural Revolution, only eight monasteries had escaped destruction (out of literally thousands).

Amnesty International and other organizations estimate the Chinese have killed over 1.2 million Tibetans (1/6th the population) in the course of the occupation. But almost worse is the policy of relocating (sometimes forcibly) Han Chinese to Tibet. There is no reliable census data, but simple observation shows that the Tibetans are close to becoming a minority in their own country.

In 1972 the restrictions on worship were lifted, and even some Chinese officials now acknowledge the excess. But it is an absolutely tragic situation and an ancient and mystical way of life is on the verge of extinction.

Many have written far more passionately and eloquently than I ever could, I encourage you to visit these web sites to learn what *you* can do to help:

Tibet Online
Lots of information, find your local Tibet Support Group!
Government of Tibet In Exile
Official site of the Dalai Lama.
Tibetan centre for Human Rights and Democracy
Investigating human rights abuses in Tibet.

17 Oct 1999
At 8 a.m. our guide, Pasang, and driver, Lakbha, picked us up in the Land Cruiser and we made first acquaintances with our family and home for the next 2 1/2 weeks. After loading it full of our supplies we piled in and headed down the road out of Lhasa.

Left to right: Lakbha, Stuart, Pasang and myself.
Front to back: Us, the Land Cruiser and Kailash.

We drove out down the Brahmaputra River, and then as the pavement ended, we began the long series of switchbacks to the 4,997m (16,390 ft) Kamba-La pass. From the pass we looked down on the "scorpion shaped" Yamdrok-tso lake 500m (1,500 ft) below. To my eyes, the lake, one of four holy lakes in Tibet, looked more like a vine, with beautiful turquoise and jade tendrils reaching up into the mountain valleys.

The road descended to the lake and then hugged its north and west shores before rising again to cross the Karo-la pass. At 5,045m (16,547 ft) we are more than 200m higher than Mt Blanc in Europe and more than 2,300 ft above Mt. Whitney in the United States, but still on the main highway in Tibet.

Our destination today is Gyantse, a town our guidebook advertises as one of the least Chinese influenced in Tibet. Sad if true, because to us it appeared at least a third if not half Chinese. The town sits nestled between a monastery complex and a ruined dzong (fort).

The Gyantse Dzong is an imposing structure built into the summit of a hill looming above the town. It has a thick, heavy, medievally impenetrable look to it and even today in it's dilapidated state it seems able to repel any invaders. In point of fact though, in 1903 it took just one day to succumb to an attack of British soldiers led by Sir Francis Younghusband.

Things were quieter the day we were there though. A pack of dogs, a few cows and some Tibetan children playing ball were all I found on the streets as I took an evening walk getting my first feel for life in Tibet outside of Lhasa.

18 Oct 1999
This morning we visited Pelkor Chode Monastery complex at the back of Gyantse town. The highlight of the compound is the magnificent Gyantse Kumbum. The Kumbum is a multi-tiered, wedding cake like structure that is topped by a gold dome. It's visited by ascending it in a spiral. You climb the steps to a new floor, walk around clockwise studying the murals in the temples, and then ascend to the next floor. Each floor has several chapels, each with several murals and an alter. There is a lot to see, but to the untrained eye it all quickly seems the same.

Much more interesting for me was to watch the pilgrims. In town, they buy slabs of butter for their visits to the Kumbum. At each alter they'd spoon a chunk of their butter out into a tub as an offering. The monks then collect the butter and use it to fuel the hundreds of devotional candles that adorn each chapel. The steps joining the floors in Kumbum are really ladders. Steep, rickety affairs rough hewn from logs and poorly lit. The pilgrims, many old folks past their best climbing days, would struggle up these ladders carrying their butter packets. They often seemed ready to fall, but hands from above and below would steady them and pull them through to the next floor.

You see this sort of devotion all over Tibet, people with little to eat making offerings of rice and taking what seems like their last tired steps in acts of pilgrimage. The practice and rituals of Buddhism are an indelible part of the Tibetan culture.

Finished in the Kumbum we made the short drive to Shigatse, the second largest town in Tibet. Shigatse is also a major stop on the tourist trail from Lhasa to the Nepal border on the so called, Friendship Highway. The hotel was chock full of travelers in the midst of various programs. Some were doing standard package tours and others, more adventurous mountain bike trips. Relaxing on our sun-deck and later eating dinner with the other foreigners I felt very "in here" and not, "out there."

In the afternoon, Pasang took us on a tour of Tashilhunpo Monastery.

The largest functioning monastery in Tibet today and historically a very important one, Tashilhunpo is an interesting place. But, word of mouth and guidebooks both say that all seen here must be treated with caution. The monastery is also the seat of the Chinese effort to subvert Buddhism, and rumors abound of monks asking tourists for Dalai Lama pictures (both prized and illegal in Tibet), and the generous/foolish tourists then receiving a police visit that night. Some even go so far as to say that all the monks here are in the pay of the Chinese and that the entire complex is a sham left in place just to entertain tourists.

Nonetheless, Tashilhunpo was mostly undamaged in the Cultural Revolution and it's temples make fascinating viewing. Pasang accompanied us to explain the imagery and despite his not really being fluent in English, we soon had a crowd of hangers-on listening to his explanations.

Tashilhunpo is a big place and Buddhist iconography is a long and complicated topic, but I'll include here one popular example. According to Pasang, the multi-headed, thousand armed image that seems so popular in comic representations of Buddhist art is Avakokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion from whom the Dalai Lama is said to be reincarnated. He has so many heads because his is said to have exploded when he contemplated all the ills in the world, and he has a thousand arms because that is what it will take to cure those ills.

Our tour ended at the tomb of the 10th Panchen Lama.

The Panchen Lamas

In Tibetan Panchen means "great scholar" and Lama means "religious teacher." The Panchen Lama is supposed to be a powerful religious scholar, the second greatest leader of Tibet, and the protector of all the world's living beings.

Historically though, the Panchen Lama has frequently been embroiled in decidedly non-spiritual squabbles.

The 9th Panchen Lama was killed when he tried to use the Chinese to gain a political advantage over the 13th Dalai Lama. Traditionally it is the Dalai Lama who identifies the next incarnation of the Panchen Lama, but the 10th Panchen Lama was forced on the Tibetans by the Chinese in 1951 and grew up under Chinese control.

While at the core of Tibetan culture, the process of identifying, testing, and selecting reincarnations, is ripe for modern as well as historical manipulation. The Chinese have long tried to subvert the process in order to gain spiritual control over the Tibetan people, but their attempts with the 10th Panchen Lama were a spectacular and ironic failure.

At first he played the expected role of Chinese puppet, but in September, 1961 he wrote Mao Tse-tung a 70,000-character document cataloging Chinese abuses in Tibet and asking for more freedoms.

The Chinese responded with a letter demanding he renounce the Dalai Lama and take up Tibet's spiritual reigns.

In 1964, in front of tens of thousands of Tibetan's demonstrating in Lhasa, the Panchen Lama announced Tibet would one day regain it's independence. This time the Chinese responded by throwing him into prison where he remained for 14 years suffering abuse and torture.

He emerged from captivity in 1978 more subdued but still quietly struggling for the Tibetan cause. He died in 1986, officially because of a heart attack, but some suspect he may have been poisoned, or maybe just died of broken heart, no longer able to bear the condition of his beloved Tibet.

The 10th Panchen Lama's death rekindled China's efforts to subvert the reincarnation lineage. In 1995 the Dalai Lama identified Gedhun Choekyi Nyima a 6-year-old from Lhari, Tibet as the next Panchen Lama.

Within a month the Chinese kidnapped the young Lama, his parents and brother from their home in Tibet and are even now holding them under house arrest somewhere in China.

Rather than the Dalai Lama's choice, the Chinese forced Tashilhunpo's abbot to appoint Gyancain Norbu, son of a communist party member, as the 11th Panchen Lama. It was a particularly insidious move as this Panchen Lama will have an influential role in the selection of the next Dalai Lama.

For his part, the current Dalai Lama has declared that he will not be reincarnated in Chinese occupied Tibet, thus setting the stage for poltico-spiritual maelstrom after his death. We are sure to see controversy, probably another Chinese puppet, and maybe even the end of the Dalai Lama lineage.

In the meantime, it has been six years since anything has been heard from Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, kidnapped at 6-years-old, the world's youngest political prisoner.

19 Oct 1999
While I was in Kathmandu, an e-mail friend from Scotland had sent me the book, Walking to the Mountain. Written by Wendy Teasdill, it is her account of how in 1988, with the area officially closed, she had rode, hitched, and finally walked this route from Shigatse to Kailash.

As we pulled out of town I sat in the back of our comfy Land Cruiser and read how Chinese officials foiled her attempts to buy a horse in Shigatse, so she had stocked up as many supplies as she could just barely carry and staggered down the road we were then cruising at a comfortable clip. About 20k outside of Shigatse my place in the book and physical location intersected, but the connection was tenuous. As I read about her begging matches off pilgrims and struggling across swollen rivers I'm overcome by a sense of normalcy and being "on the beaten path." I pondered this for a long while and begin hatching schemes to banish those feelings.

Tonight's town, Lhatse, typifies the Chinese presence in Tibet. A long row of sterile, box-like buildings faced with white tile and blue glass. The town looks more like the inside of an airport bathroom than a Tibetan village. The restaurants are all Chinese so we dine on fried noodles and go to bed ignoring the lure of the flashing lights at the Karaoke/disco place across the street.

20 Oct 1999
As we rolled out of Lhatse, the "road" turned quite literally into a streambed, and for the first time I began to feel a bit off the beaten track. Lakbha turned out to be a fabulous driver and he deftly maneuvered the Land Cruiser around boulders and through innumerable river crossings. They are building a new road here, on the banks above the river, and I wondered what the journey will be like in a few years.

As a traveler, I am both a victim of and a participant in this process. Each time down a road it shifts just a little bit from "less traveled" to "more traveled" and will never quite be the same for those who follow. Sad in a way, that it is impossible to share those perfect moments in both time and place.

My sense of contentment with our own level of adventure was short lived though. As the day wore on dark clouds gathered and it finally began to snow. As we finally left the stream bed and began climbing for a pass we met a jeep full of Chinese police and a parade of trucks that all had been turned back. It had been snowing hard higher up and the road was treacherous.

Just as our trip had been getting interesting, it seemed it might be over. The guys don't want to risk a try at the pass, and for the first time we heard what would become their stock excuse, a concern over fuel, in convincing us to return to the previous town and spend the night.

And so, midday found us in Sangsang without much to do. In our frustration we hiked up a peak just outside of town and dubbed it Mt. Disappointment.

Footbridge near Mt. Disappointment.

21 Oct 1999
The usual means of transport in Western Tibet.
The Swastika was an ancient symbol for good luck long before Hitler took and interest in it.

We had been hoping for news of someone crossing the pass from the other direction, but with no signs of any successes we (and everyone else) set out to give it a go.

As we drove, we passed more bad omens, several trucks still stuck where they had obviously stopped and spent the night. There really wasn't that much snow, less than a foot, and both Stuart and I were incredulous that here in the "Land of Snows" they'd never heard of tire chains.

As the road steepened we lost traction and went skidding back down. Lakbha sent Pasang out to lock the hubs into 4wd as Stuart and I again slapped our foreheads. We had assumed we'd been in 4wd for days now.

With the hubs locked we managed that and came to the scariest bit. The one lane road there was built precariously into the side of the cliff and the ice-choked river roared several jeep lengths below us. As the tires began to slip and we slid closer and closer to the precipice I saw Lakbha take one hand off the wheel in a Buddhist prayer gesture just as the wheels regripped and we lurched over the hill.

A bit later we came across the Chinese police walking, afraid to ride in their jeep. Obviously not enough prayer...

Over the pass things got easier and we soon pulled onto the high Tibetan plateau, the dry barren wasteland that makes up most of Western Tibet. We stopped in the town of Saga, ostensibly for gas, but the guys disappeared so I went for a walk.

Sirens sounded and a voice began to blare through a loudspeaker. It seemed for all the world like a town-wide fire drill as people began to line up and march down the main street. At the end of the street was a large official building flying a large Chinese flag from a tall pole, On the building's steps a podium had been set up and before it stood a Tibetan man with his hands cuffed behind his back. For 15 minutes at the podium, an official ranted at the gathered crowd and then the man was taken away.

To this day I have no idea what it was all about, and it may not have been nearly as sinister as it looked. The experience shook me though, and I was embarrassed that my camera remained in its bag and I didn't even ask any questions.

Stuart and I eventually discovered the guys tucked in a video room behind a restaurant. They had been watching a kung-fu movie and thought it was now too late in the day to go on. We were having none of it though, and anxious to make up for the lost day forced them out into the sun and back on the road.

After another few hours of driving we stopped in Zhongba, our smallest town yet.

Tibetan Hospitality

This town is typical of many in the region, a few traditional Tibetan homes and a guesthouse nestled in a bend of the road. The buildings all have walled courtyards, and these courtyards are the de facto toilets. When asked where we should properly do that sort of business, Pasang responded with a sweep of his arm and joyfully pronounced, "anywhere."

The buildings are whitewashed, and then topped with a band of Burgundy. Atop the walls are drying stacks of yak dung, the ubiquitous fuel in this region. For dinner, we step over a knee-high doorsill and join our hosts in their living quarters.

There is no electricity, and kerosene lamps dimly light the room. Smoke from the yak dung stove blends with smoke from the endless cigarettes and swirls about the low roof. The roof is supported by rough-hewn beams, painted in the Tibetan style of intricate swirls and filigree done in bright primary colors.

Lying in the corner on the dirt floor is a days-old sheep carcass. Our host walks over and using the dagger from his belt hacks off a few pieces of raw meat -- Tibetan snacks. Their staple is tsampa, barley flour mixed with yak butter and water to make a doughy paste. We tried a bit and found it tasted a lot like sand so instead of raw sheep and tsampa we opt for thukba, Tibetan noodle soup.

The woman of the house mixes flour and water, then rolls out our noodles by hand, taking breaks to add more yak dung to the stove, also by hand. A pot of water is brought to a boil and the noodle chunks are tossed in along with some wilted cabbage and a dash of soy sauce. This is thukba, our staple for the time we were in Western Tibet. While it boiled our cook picked up a bottomless toddler and spread his legs for him to pee on the dirt floor of the kitchen cum living room cum bedroom. Dust control?

Our thukba is served with bö cha, Tibetan yak butter tea. The tea comes from a churn where hot water, rancid yak butter, and a handful of spices have been blended. Note the decided lack of tea in "Tibetan yak butter tea." The potion isn't really as vile as it sounds, especially here where the people are poor and skimp on the butter. It tastes mostly like fatty salt water with lingering flavor of old leather shoes.

The biggest problem with bö cha is the never-ending supply of it. The tea is a mainstay of Tibetan hospitality, and a cup is instantly poured for anyone who enters a home. It's not really possible to refuse or to avoid drinking. Every few minutes the host makes a round of the room proffering each guest his or her cup and a sip must be taken. Finishing a cup is an impossibility as when even a fraction of millimeter is sipped off, the cup is immediately refilled from a seemingly endless supply. Keeping the cup full is a matter of pride for the host.

The game becomes one of drinking just enough that the refills keep our cups warm (perish even the thought of drinking cold bö cha!), but not so much as to turn our western stomachs. A difficult balance.

22 Oct 1999
The drive along the high plateau is nothing like what I expected. Vegetation and signs of life fade as we encounter sand dunes blocking the road and it feels more like Egypt than Tibet.

The only sign of snow is atop the 7,000+ meter peaks of the Annapurna range that tower off the plateau to the South. Walking barefoot in the sand it almost feels like a beach and it's a surreal juxtaposition to be staring out at some of the tallest and most famous mountains in the world.

Stuart walking on sand dunes in Western Tibet. Just out of view to the left is the Annapurna range of mountains.

Temple entrance adorned with yak skulls.

The day's drive brought us to Paryang, a squalid little place whose primary feature was a huge trash pile in the middle of town. Like most towns in Western Tibet this one is inhabited by a pack of wild dogs. At the sound of something new being tossed onto the garbage pile they'd come running from every corner and viciously battle for the title, "king of the mountain."

The town's other point of interest was a Buddhist temple containing a huge prayer wheel. As we watched, wizened old women dressed in Traditional Tibetan garb and mountaineering goggles would stagger into the temple and spin the wheel. Twice as tall as them and far heavier they'd grab it together and throw their backs into it setting it in motion for a few minutes and releasing more prayers to the world.

Outside the temple entrance was large pile of decorated yak skulls. Throughout Tibet, I would have difficulty coming to grips with the differences between the beliefs of Buddhism and the Tibetan practice of Buddhism. How do you reconcile all the idol worship, the killing of animals, and the amassing of wealth all for a way of living that decries such practices?

Really, I never worked it out, and I emerged from my time in Tibet disappointed in my ability to connect with Tibetans on a spiritual level. Part of it was the language difficulties and part of it was the long repression of Buddhism by the Chinese, but there is a more fundamental issue as well. The lay people of Tibet live and experience Buddhism on a different level. Pilgrims walking deserted roads and circumambulating chörtens don't see their actions in an intellectual, western way. The only know that it is right, and they throw every fiber of their existence into living as meritoriously as they can.

Buddhism in a Nutshell

May all beings everywhere, with whom we are inseparably interconnected, be fulfilled, awakened, and free. May there be peace in this world and thought the entire universe, and may we all together complete the spiritual journey.
--Quoted by Surya Das.
The Buddha, Sakyamuni

Warning: I'm not a Buddhist scholar, and I don't intend to play one on the web. But, Buddhism is such an inherent part of Tibet and the reasons I was there that I want to try and at least give an impression of the belief system. For a real introduction please see any of the many available books on Buddhism. I can heartily recommend Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das, from which I borrow heavily here.

Buddhists believe we all have the capability for Buddahhood, or enlightenment, within us. In fact, they say that we are all doomed to being reborn an infinite number of times in different states until we work our way into enlightenment.

"The Buddha," was an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama born during the 5th century BC. In midlife, he gave up his wife and family to begin a rigorous ascetic practice. He came to realize this was too extreme a path and turned to meditation. Eventually realized enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree.

He took the name Sakyamuni, and set himself to showing others how to achieve this perfect state. His teachings, the so called, "Middle Path," form the core of Buddhism today. The two central elements are the "Four Nobel Truths" and "The Eight-fold path"

The Four Nobel Truths

  1. Life is difficult.
  2. Life is difficult because we crave inherently unsatisfying things.
  3. The possibility of liberation exists for everyone.
  4. The way to liberation is by following the Eight-Fold path.

The Eight-fold path

  1. Right View
    This first step on the Eight-fold path encourages us to see the world as it really is, without delusions about ourselves. With both our eyes and our inner sight, The Buddha wanted us to shed expectation and fantasy to experience what really is around us, be it good or bad.

  2. Right Intention
    The second step on the Eight-fold path is to fill our hearts with empathy and compassion for all living things, to be completely free from negativity.

    Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma, that our actions in this life determine how we are reborn in the next. If we conduct ourselves well we will be reborn in a higher state and eventually work our way into enlightenment, or nirvana.

    In this endless cycle of rebirths, you have been both my mother and my child. Right intentions teaches us to treat all living things with respect for this relationship. The mosquito on your arm as been your mother, your father, your lover, and will be again. Treat it gently, as you yourself would wish to be treated.

  3. Right Speech
    The Buddha recognized the power of speech, that words can have incredible power for good or evil. In the third step he directed us to speak only the truth. To tell things simply and honestly.

  4. Right Action

    Do not do anything harmful, do only what is good, purify and train your own mind. This is the teaching of The Buddha, this is the path to enlightenment.
    --The Buddha

    This step on the path commands us to always live consistently with our beliefs. In all things, to act honestly and well-- not to kill, steal, or bring disharmony into the world.

  5. Right Livelihood

    Do no harm, act only to improve the world. Right Livelihood encourages us to think about our relationship with the world and to make sure that it is healthy and wholesome.

  6. Right Effort

    Living well isn't easy, it's hard and takes continual vigilance. This step on the path implores us to make the effort in everything we do.

  7. Right Mindfulness

    At this point in the path we need to develop a sense of "nowness," an awareness of the present. We need to live in this moment, not the past or the future, and be cognitive of both ourselves and the world around us.

  8. Right Concentration
    Following the path isn't easy, it takes effort and focus. This step on the path acknowledges that it isn't an easy road and encourages us to meditate and summon the requisite energy. We need to unify our spiritual aims and then diligently pursue them.

23 Oct 1999
Another long day of driving.

Yesterday's environment had been bleak, but we still occasionally saw a band of nomads herding their yaks and eking an existence out of the barren earth. Watching closely, we'd sometimes see large rabbits, bigger than the foxes that occasionally revealed themselves with a shake of a bushy tail. Wheeling through the high thin air, eagles soared, majestic symbols for this harsh land. And just as proud, we even saw a herd of wild asses thunder across the open plain. They kept pace with the Land Cruiser for a while, before wheeling away and beating out a frothy path towards the northern hills.

Today there was nothing. Just out of Paryang, we made some of the fabled river crossings, now sedately bridged by modern constructions. But soon there were no more rivers and no more lakes, and not even the Nomads ply that territory.

At lunch I tried to joke with Pasang about the possibilities of stopping at a drive-in, but couldn't make him understand. Probing further I found that even though he knew all the words to "Hotel California" he had never even herd of McDonalds! Maybe there is hope for the world after all...

After a full days drive, the first traces of water also brought signs of life. Eagles and hares, then even people seemed to reemerge as if from hiding.

And finally, coming over a rise like all the rest, the still, cobalt waters of Lake Manasarovar spilled out across the plain. We knew it must be near, but it was a surprise even so. Another pile of stones and jumble of prayer flags, the sort of cairns that seem to mark every obscure corner of Tibet, but this one marks the spot where holy Mt. Kailash first pokes it's icy head above the horizon.

It's hard to know just where or when my journey to this point began but resting in the high mountain air, gazing at the long sought jewel I contemplate all the circumstances that brought me to this moment and wonder how this new experience will shape my ever-changing road.

A short drive from Manasarovar is the frontier town of Darchen.

Darchen raises the bar on squalor. The entire town is a minefield of broken beer bottles, human excrement and unhappy people. It's the antithesis of all that is Tibet. Pasang has sharp words with some shopkeepers just trying to get them to boil water for instant noodles, and then we had a run-in with the hotel managers.

Both hoteliers wanted 120 Yuan for a room not even as nice as the places we'd been staying. Given that we are the only two tourists in town and the most we'd previously paid was 40 Yuan, this seemed like outright thievery to me. I said as much to Stuart and suggested we just start the kora and sleep on the trail. This incensed the hotel guy and he went scurrying off to inform the police that we weren't going to pay what we were quickly coming to see as an informal tax on the kora.

I was all for a confrontation in the name of principle, but Stuart and Pasang talked some sense into me, and we finally succumbed to this banditry. Welcome to the holiest place on Earth.

24-26 Oct 1999

Mt. Kailash

"Kailash," the western name for the mountain, is so abrupt and jarring. I prefer the more melodic Tibetan: "Gang Rinpoche" (say: gang rin-poe-shay). But, the mountain is known by any number of names and superlatives, mythical Mt. Meru, home of Shiva, "the center of the universe," "the navel of the world," or, as many westerners know it, "that holy mountain in Tibet."

With all these labels, the only surprise is how well it fits them all. Kailash bears an uncanny resemblance to mythical mountains from several different faiths. It sits alone on the remote Tibetan plateau not the tallest mountain in this land of giants, but one of the most distinctive. Its four faces match the cardinal directions and it presides over the sources of four of the subcontinents major rivers.

The Kailash kora is considered the most holy in all of Tibet. One walk around the mountain is said to wash away the accumulated sins of a lifetime providing a clean karmic slate. Serious pilgrims though, will do at least three laps, or better yet, a more auspicious 13. For the truly devout, 108 koras is supposed to grant instant access to nirvana.

The Tibetan pilgrims usually do the 53km (32 mi) circumambulation in one long day. Stuart and I will take a more leisure three days, stopping to see the many sights along the way.

For me, The mountain's initial appeal, was its remoteness and the difficulty in getting here. As with so many other things in my life, I'd heard it was hard, so I put it on my list, just another thing to bang my head against.

But, this journey has been different than most. It's tied to the transformation of my life and a spiritual exploration. I've come here looking for something, even if I'm not sure what it is.

Day 1

The day begins with us trying to extract ourselves from the pungent secularity of Darchen. The hotel people don't recognize a 100-Yuan note, even though that's what they charge for a room. For a moment, it looks like we will finally be arrested in Tibet, but finally a more rational manager is woken to accept our money.

Free at last, we walk past the monastery just outside town, give the prayer wheels a final spin and head out on the kora.

Less than an hour out of Darchen we get to the first of the four prostration points that mark the initial views of each of the mountain's faces. Following the ritual, I prostrate myself here. Facing the mountain, I place my hands palm together in a prayer gesture, then touch my forehead, mouth, and heart, before finally stretching myself full length in the dirt with my arms extended.

I feel a bit silly, and I'm nervous about the difference between following a ritual and mocking it. But in my mind, I too have come as a pilgrim and this is the smallest gesture of devotion. Hardcore pilgrims will prostrate themselves the entire way around the kora, making their way one body length at a time and marking their place each night with a stone. For the extreme pilgrim, we heard talk of doing the kora while continually prostrating towards the mountain! That's 53 km through rivers and over high mountain passes all done by making a prostration then taking a half step the left and prostrating again. In comparison, my simple four seem the token gesture that they in fact are.

Our next landmark on the kora trail is the Tarboche flagpole. The tall slender pole is erected in an elaborate ceremony each spring. The way it leans is said to foretell the state of things for the year to come. Perfectly vertical and all is well, towards Kailash and there is trouble, but not too bad, away from Kailash and it's time to take cover. To our eyes it seems tipped slightly towards the mountain, and that would seem to match the general state of things.

Stuart relaxed here while I went to look at the Kangnyi chörten, just over a small rise. As I approached this rough-hewn arch I flushed two eagles and watched them pinwheel through the air. As I got closer to the chörten I saw what had had the eagles attention, fresh goat heads adorned the arch. I avoided their eyeless stares as I ducked under the arch to score my Buddhist merit points and again tried to reconcile my Western notions of Buddhism with its practice in Tibet.

From the gruesome to the macabre Stuart and I then climbed to a sky burial site. In Tibet, for those who can afford it, the traditional method for disposing of bodies is sky burial. The corpse is taken to high crag where it is hacked into pieces and left for scavenger birds. Once the lammergeyers have carried away the flesh the bones are ground to dust and thrown in a river.

As we walk through the site I have to choke down an unbearable sense of being somewhere I don't belong. The cairn dotted knoll is strewn with discarded clothes, locks of hair and fragments of bone. I picked my way through as if in a minefield and wonder if I've already stepped on a karmic antipersonnel device. In the center we come to the rock walled altar and its collection of well-worn cleavers. Stuart stopped for some pictures while I quickly retreated to place where the spirits didn't scream quite so loudly.

Descending from the sky burial site we rejoin the kora trail as it turns down a beautiful canyon and works its way upstream beneath the west face of Kailash. The trail is set just above the river and we try to make sense of the waters murmur as it cascades over the white stones of the riverbed. The walls of the canyon are painted in shades of red, like something out of the American West. It's hard to imagine that we are really in Tibet.

The second prostration point is a more meager affair than the first, just a large cairn marking the first view of the north face. We've settled into a hiking rhythm, so I take only a moment to make my obeisance, before carrying on.

The air is thin here and breathing is difficult, but it feels wonderful to be out in the world after a week imprisoned in the back of the Land Cruiser. We plod down the trail, with my body on autopilot and my mind is free to wander.

So, here I am at Holy Kailash, performing one of the most important rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. I try to meditate and marshal my thoughts to the task of just being here, in this moment.

In this moment though, my brain is filled with lascivious thoughts of an ex-girlfriend long gone from my life. I'm horrified, but there is little that can be done. The harder I push and try to force the direction of my concentration the deeper it wanders into a wholly inappropriate lurid realm.

I'm hopelessly distraught by the time we get to Dira-Puk monastery, our home for the night. In this life and others, I've wandered so far and worked so hard to be here, and this is the best I can manage? I think dark thoughts and wonder, am I Buddhist? does the question even mean anything?

Day 2

We wake tired and cranky. It had been a full moon last night, and according to my readings, we get double-bonus merit points for seeing it here on the Kora. We kept waking during the night to bundle into all our warm clothes and brave the bitter night air to check the moon's progress as it slowly rose over Kailash and ponderously arced over the river canyon.

We'll need that accumulated merit and all our patience though to deal with the guesthouse caretakers this morning. We had bargained hard with them last night bringing the price of our bug invested beds and yak dung pillows down from ridiculous to merely insulting. This morning they are back on ridiculous.

We refuse to pay more than what was agreed to and things start to get very tense. Voices are raised and angry shouts echo off the holy mountain. In the end we walk off with them still berating us and we carry large rocks in case they come after us with drawn daggers.

My bodhisattva on duty at the Drölma-la.

Trying to shed that negative tension I throw my energies into the hiking as the trail begins to climb steeply. Stuart and I have chosen different lines so I trudge through the crisp clear air with only the company of my bodhisattva.

Bodhisattvas are beings who have achieved enlightenment but instead of entering Nirvana they have taken a lower rebirth in order to assist the rest of us. I didn't recognize mine yesterday, at first she had seemed just another of the mongrel dogs that followed us out of Darchen, but today it seems obvious that she is to be my guide.

Slowly picking my way up the steep hillside she trots ahead finding the route and freeing me to explore my thoughts. I resolve to escape yesterday's mental debauchery and lose myself in the chant of Om Mani Padme Hum.

Om Mani, as I inhale, and Padme Hum, as I exhale, over and over again, in and out I make each breath full, swelling my lungs and trying to draw into myself a bit of the energy I feel about me. I exhale forcefully and with conscious thought, trying to expel all the emotional ballast that I want to leave behind here.

I am feeling good as Stuart and I's paths cross and we stop to regroup. This is the mental state I'd wanted to bring to Kailash. From our rest point we look down the "shortcut valley." That route is closed to all who have less than 13 koras so we must continue our climb up towards the Drölma-la.

Our next stop is Shiva-tsal, a spot on the kora where pilgrims are supposed to undergo a symbolic death by sacrificing something to represent what they want to leave behind in this life. I make the traditional offering by snipping off a lock of hair. Stuart decides to innovate and leaves behind his boxers to do the rest of the kora commando style.

It's only a short ways before we start searching for the Bardo Trang sin testing stone. Tibetan lore has it, that if you can wriggle through the narrow passage you are not burdened with too many sins as to be completely cleansed by one Kora. We find the stone and both of us manage to squeeze through. I wonder if I should try it with my pack though, maybe some of my sins are in there?

After Bardo Trang, the trail steepens in its assault on the kora's highpoint, the 5,630m (18,466 ft) Drölma-la pass. All my readings have described the kora as swarming with pilgrims, but Stuart and I have been mostly alone. It is after all October, and the weather could turn dramatically bad at any moment. As we make the long slog up to the pass, I look down to see a kora-in-a-day pilgrim rapidly gaining on us. The fact that he is Tibetan, and unladen, doesn't matter to me, my Y-chromosome goes off, and I crank up the pace.

In the thin air I struggle to breathe and it becomes more difficult to maintain my Padme Hums. As my breathing breaks, so does my concentration. The pilgrim is gaining on me, and I curse myself for being slow. Then I curse myself for caring and finally another curse for caring that I care. I'm well cursed, and wallowing in a pool of self-condemnation when the pilgrim passes me with a cheery Tashi Delay. Stuart is far behind, and the pilgrim quickly ahead. I am left alone to lament my pride and competitiveness, the days rapture is gone.

It is clear and sunny on the summit of the Drölma-la and the wind is crisp but gentle as it sends aflutter the thousands of accumulated prayer flags. I add a string of my own, but not before inscribing them with the names of my friends and family. If you received a postcard from me before I left for Tibet, chances are good that your name now flies on the Drölma-la in endless motion and endless blessing.

As I wait for Stuart, I make a few circuits around the summit stone chanting the Tibetan pass crossing mantra, Ki Ki so so, La gyalo (long life and happiness, the gods are victorious).

When Stuart arrives we take a break for lunch and share the tube of cookies with our ever-present canine Bodhisattvas. The descent is difficult on my ankle, but otherwise uneventful. At the bottom of the pass we get to the only one of the "Buddha footprints" we are able to find on the Kora. These foot shaped indentations found throughout the region are ascribed to the travels of Sakyamuni and other saints. This one is atop a large boulder, so we scramble up to run our hands through the impression of The Buddha's foot.

The trail is gentler here as it winds down another river valley. Stuart and I opt for different sides of the river and I again find myself embroiled in a spurious race. His side begins flatter, and I race up and down the knolls I find on my shore to match his pace. I'm sure he is oblivious, as I should be, but I can't free myself from this compulsive competitiveness. I pause only for a brief prostration at the cairn marking the one glimpse of Kailash's east face.

I'm frustrated with my own pettiness, but the irritation just spurs me on. Eventually I wait for Stuart as he has to pick his way back across the river, and we finish this long day together, making the last easy walk to Zutul-Puk Monastery.

Here as well, two incredibly annoying caretakers staff the guesthouse. I'm all for camping in the open, just to spite their extortionate demands, but Stuart is finally able to knock them down a few Yuan, and we settle into our hovel for the night.

We boil up some instant noodles for ourselves and the dogs, as they take up a position on guard just outside the door. Any person or beast approaching has to withstand a fusillade of barking and it gives us an odd sense of security in a place where there really is nothing to be afraid of anyway.

Day 3


Famous for achieving enlightenment in just a single lifetime, Milarepa is one of Tibet's (and my) most beloved Yogi's, sort of a spiritual all-star.

Once a powerful sorcerer who used black magic to cause several deaths, under the tutelage of Marpa, Milarepa renounced his evil ways and fled to the high mountains to contemplate the Dharma.

Living in stark solitude, subsisting only on nettle soup that turned his skin green, it is said that after years of intense meditation, he was able to change his body into any shape and to fly.

The fear of death and infernal rebirths due to my evil actions has led me to practice in solitude in the snowcapped mountains.
On the uncertainty of life's duration and the moment of death I have deeply mediated.
Thus I have reached the deathless, unshakable citadel of realization of the absolute essence.
My fear and doubts have vanished like mist into the distance, never to disturb me again.
I will die content and free from regrets.
This is the fruit of Dharma practice.
--One hundred thousand songs of Milarepa
(As found in, Awakening The Buddha Within)

In the stories about Milarepa, I find what I expected of Tibetan Buddhism, a tangle of good and evil, mystical and profane; simple statements with endlessly tangled meanings.

Surya Das, recounts that when it came time for Gampopa, Milarepa's main student, to leave, he begged his master for one final lesson. At first Milarepa refused saying that what was required after all the years of study was more effort, not more instruction.

But, as the dejected student turned to walk away, Milarepa called out to him. When Gampopa looked back the master bent over and lifted his robe to display his weather worn buttocks, callused from years spent meditating on hard rock. "This is my final teaching, my heart-son," he called, "Just do it!"

Leaving one's homeland is accomplishing half the Dharma

Zutul-Puk Monastery is built over a cave formed during a contest between Milarepa and the Bön saint Naro Böchung. The story goes that Milarepa finished the ceiling before Naro Böchung could erect the walls. At first the ceiling was too high though, so he stamped it down with his feet, but then it was too low so he pushed it up with his hands.

The monks here are warm and friendly, nothing like the caretakers, and they are quite willing to show us the cave. It's a thought filled moment to crouch in the cave and place my hands in Milarepa's prints. He has long been my favorite Buddhist saint and I can feel the connection grow as I ponder his hours of mediation in this very spot.

We are quickly back on the trail, anxious to complete our way around the mountain. Inspired by Milarepa's cave I vow to be a saintly model of contemplation today, but it is again not to be.

Over the course of the trip Stuart has adopted the charming Tibetan trait of spitting, and today it appears he is going to get serious about it. Step, step, step, hraaawk thpwut!, repeated continuously. I'm yet again challenged to comprehend the depths of my pettiness, but the fact is, the spitting is driving me crazy. It just isn't a pleasant sound and each thpwut! brings me crashing out of my meditation.

I resolve to take this on as a challenge though, to let the jarring wash over me with no effect. I won't complain, I wont ask him to stop, and I won't avoid the situation by intentionally rushing ahead. It doesn't work, I'm seething as I work to focus on my mantras. Thankfully, I'm saved from my weakness as we develop a natural separation on the rolling hills, and I again reach for the calm I'd hoped to carry with me all through the kora.

I miss the official 4th prostration point, and so pick a likely looking cairn draped with prayer flags. As I rise and turn back to the trail I see my spiritual guide being sexually assaulted.

What are the lessons in all this? I do not know. I thought I would do the kora and feel bigger, more powerful, but instead, I feel naked with all my blemishes revealed.

26 Oct 1999 (contd.)
Back in town I made one last circuit around the monastery, spinning the prayer wheels and trying to sort through my thoughts. The kora completed, we made all due haste to escape the highly insalubrious environs of Darchen.

While Lakbha napped Stuart and I got to take turns driving the Land Cruiser on the way over to Lake Manasarovar.

Manasarovar is one of the holiest lakes in the world, but even in the sun it was chilly in October at 4,560m (14,950ft) and the slow drop off made bathing tricky. I waded further and further out before finally giving up and plunging into the knee-deep water.

Me, about to wash all my sins away in the holy, but chilly, Lake Manasarovar.
That's Kailash in the upper right.

Back on the marshy shore I bottled up some of the water for future sin cleansing before we headed back to get Lakbha.

While we'd been gone he'd met a friend of his who needed a ride to Lhasa, and they wondered if we'd mind helping him out. In our newly sin-free state, how could we have refused? We crammed his bedroll, stuffed full of his belongings, into the back of the Land Cruiser and returned to the road.

As well as our new passenger we seemed to have picked up a funky odor and at lunch we discovered what it was. While we waited for our thukba he rooted through the back of the truck and produced... a sheep carcass. Ahh, I see, lunch was to be his treat.

27 Oct 1999
We were up early, and back on the lonely road. We quickly left behind the pleasant lake region and recrossed the barren valleys. With the high Himalayans on our right and the rolling hills of Tibet on our left, the road snaked its way down valley after valley. Each climb to a low pass revealing another valley and an identical stretch of road.

We made it back to Paryang, and as I went for an evening walk I discovered our previous footsteps on the sand dunes. The seemed fresh, as if made minutes ago, not days. And already, I could feel the kora fading into that funny space between memories and dreams.

28 Oct 1999
Another lonely day of driving, endless valleys and barren hills dappled with the occasional green bit of scrub. Out of the monotony, appeared the dust plume of another Land Cruiser. We stopped to chat with them, another group of tourists on their way to Kailash. We were sad to lose our title of last in to Kailash that year, but it was a welcome break and strange really to chat with new people after so long on the road with Stuart.

One of their group was a woman named Tina. As we talked I discovered she was from California, in fact she lived in a small mountain town where I have friends and it didn't take long to come up with a common friend. Amazing, to be the only two groups of foreigners in Western Tibet and to discover ourselves friend-of-friends.

29 Oct 1999
Drive, drive, drive!

Back over the pass where our adventure had almost been halted before even begun, back down the brutal streambed aspiring to be a road and finally back into Lhatse, a "real" town in our newly skewed perspective.

We celebrated our return to civilization with a meal that, "wasn't noodle soup," and then went out on the town. The nightlife in Lhatse consists of one Karaoke place that, as we were to discover, is also a Chinese brothel.

As with a cup of butter tea, it seems impossible to empty a beer glass in Tibet. Round after round of 500cc beers was brought to the table despite the fact that only Stuart and I seemed to be drinking. Every few minutes, one of the elegantly dressed hostesses would come to our table to lift our glasses that we were then expected to down.

After a few hours of this, the whole idea of Karaoke didn't seem quite so bad as when we arrived. Stuart was cautious, because when we'd tried this in Lhasa they didn't have any English disks and he found himself on stage, microphone in hand, before a large crowd expecting something a capella.

With Pasang to negotiate they managed to find, "My Heart Will Go On" from The Titanic. So as Stuart crooned his love song, I got the attention of one of the hookers and took her out on the floor with the chaste dancing that seems to be the expected behavior in this sort of establishment.

Hand in hand, but with ample space between us we tread about the floor like something out of a grade-school dance. But, as Pasang assured me, for 500 Yuan she would go home with us for the night. Not quite ready to part with my sin-free status I politely declined.

After Stuart's standing ovation of all 8 hookers the cry of "disco" broke out. This seems to roughly translate as, "please play some real dance music and not nauseating love songs for pot bellied Chinese businessmen to serenade prostitutes with." For the record, I'm not a very good dancer, and this isn't helped by 47 small glasses of beer. It was sad then to watch these beautiful but unfortunate women stare at the aimless wanderings of my feet as if the meaning of life might there be suddenly revealed. If a craze of arrhythmic staggering breaks out across rural China, I may be personally to blame.

30 Oct 1999
Back in the Land Cruiser, we at least got to drive a new road, this time towards Mt. Everest base camp. After paying the entrance fee we climb to the 5,100m (16,728 ft) Pang-la pass. The summit of this pass looks out on the roof of the world. Dominating the view is Mt. Everest, but this is the most spectacular point in the most spectacular mountain range on our planet. Makalu, Lhotse, Everest, and Cho Oyu are lined up like teeth ready to take a bite out of any adventurer daring to try them.

At 8,848m (29,020 ft), Mt. Everest, the world's highest mountain, sits right on the Tibet/Nepal border. While I haven't been, I've heard the views from the Nepal side are disappointing. From base camp you can't see the summit, only the Khumbu icefall, the first challenging section of the climbing route. In Nepal, views of the summit can be had from a nearby trekking peak, but a bit of the magic is lost from that perspective, Lhotse, Everest's sister peak, looks taller.

There are no such issues on the Tibetan side. Everest, or Qomolangma as it is known in Tibetan, is clearly monarch in this kingdom of mountain gods and the entirety of it's 3,000m (10,000 ft) North face springs from the valley into the heavens, every inch is visible.

From a climber's perspective, Everest isn't really a difficult mountain. The challenges are posed only by logistics and altitude, the actual climbing is quite straightforward. Compare this to the 8,611m (28,244ft) K2 in Pakistan. While 237m (776ft) below Everest, it may be only the, second highest mountain, but it has extremely difficult and technical mountaineering it's entire length and a mortality rate that makes a trip to Everest look like a Sunday outing to the art museum.

Knowing all this, I, like many armchair mountaineers, had always considered Everest to be a "tourist mountain" that I really couldn't be bothered to climb even if the permits weren't so ridiculously expensive. Standing in Tibet though, looking out at the north face, all that changed. It's a beautiful mountain and the northeast ridge is a spectacular and aesthetic line. Qomolangma captured my heart and my imagination, and the wheels began to turn in the back of my mind.

n.b. In Nepal, my camera containing all my film from this region was stolen. You, like me, will need to make due with just my memories of the moment.

On the other side of Pang-la pass we found the worst road yet. It was poorly graded, badly rutted and full of boulders. It took all of Lakbah's concentration to just creep along at a walking pace. Beyond the painful decent though, we found a pretty little valley full of interesting Tibetan towns.

Tibetan hill town.

As we wound through the villages we got glimpses of rural Tibetan life. We watched as they tilled fields with yak-drawn wooden plows and threshed wheat by hand letting the wind carry the chaff away. A hard, simple life, but always lived with the ubiquitous Tibetan smile. And as we watched them, they always took a moment to watch us back, and we traded friendly waves across the language barrier.

The road began to climb again, and as the sun finally set we rounded a final corner to arrive at Rongphu monastery, at 4,980m (16,300 ft) one of the world's highest.

31 Oct 1999
We had troubles with the guys last night. They are worried about the weather and the high passes that lay between us and the Nepal border. A storm is forecast and they fear getting stranded at the border for the weeks it could take to clear the road.

Things have generally gone well between us, but there has been friction when Lakbha and Pasang have wanted to rush and we to relax. This time, Stuart and I insist we spend the day here. He goes to hike a 6,000m peak and I set off in the direction of Qomolangma with the intent of getting as high as I can.

As I walk towards base camp I fantasize about doing the mountain today, climbing it and being back at the monastery for dinner. In these mountains, all so large, it's impossible to get a sense of scale, the mountain is right there, and my fantasy seems so possible.

But, as reach base camp and continue beyond the mountain is no nearer. I end up wallowing in deep snow and progress is tortuously snow. When my midday turnaround point arrives I haven't even made it to advanced base camp and the glacier where the proper climbing begins. So goes my first defeat by the mountain.

That evening we drove back up the valley and stayed at a friendly guesthouse in the town of Peruche. Our guests laughed and joked with us as Pasang tried to arrange food and explain the western palate. The result was fine and we drank chang (Tibetan barley beer) as we all tried out the few words we knew of each other's languages. To me, it was a moment that captured all that is great about Tibet. Incredibly warm, friendly people offering whatever little they had in hospitality. We laughed wantonly as Pasang translated jokes and stories, but really we laughed just because laughing is good and fun. In Tibet that just seems so obvious to everyone, and maybe that is the key.

1 Nov 1999
We drove back over the Pang-la pass down the friendship highway towards Nepal. This area is what I thought all of Tibet would be like, a thick blanket of snow covering a riotous mountain range. We pass Shishapangma the mountain where Alex Lowe, one of America's best climbers, died not even a month ago. It is an overt and violent landscape, so different than the quiet desolation of Western Tibet.

We crossed one more high pass, the 5,124m (16,800 ft) La Lung-la, and then plunge off the Tibetan plateau. The road drops down a steep canyon growing more lush and verdant with every mile. It feels like African jungle as monkeys scream and we drive beneath waterfalls that plunge hundreds of feet.

Just past the town of Zhangmu, where the "Freedom Bridge" crosses the canyon and the border, we said goodbye to Lakbha, Pasang, and Tibet. We shouldered our packs, crossed the bridge on foot and began the process of trying to make sense of it all.

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Text and photographs are copyright 1994-2003 Evan Bigall, all rights reserved.