London, July 2019
She did complete Lhasa Kailash Tour with Nepal Highland Treks in June/ July 2019 in her 69 year
Many years ago, a healer of bi-national fame (England and India) spoke highly to me about Mount Kailash: a seed was planted, then, due to become a sprouting plant, not just to stay a dream. To gather a handful of interested people was not an easy task: many deep wishes stayed only in the hearts but few comrades did adhere. Two well-intentioned people - who turned shaky at the last minute - decided “Yes, let’s go to Kailash!”. And not to mention the “Universe” mysterious and hidden plans: right at the end, a Vietnamese guy was able to join us, having had his new passport just delivered. And so, the four of us met for the first time ever in Kathmandu: Brahmavara from her Buddhist monastery in Amaravati - England; Helena from far away from Norway but living in Monaco-France; Hui, young businessman from Ho Chi Min city (old Saigon) and myself. Hemanta, from Nepal Highland Treks our organizer, joined us at the Sechen monastery where we stayed for a few days.
Sister Brahmavara and me (Maria)with our organizer Mr. Hemanta from Nepal Highland Treks, we met the first time in Kathmandu. I exchanged lots of emails with him to fix our Kathmandu Lhasa Kailash Tour program.
In this travel account, I shall only write about those experiences, which have had an emotional meaning for me and are kept clear in my memory but I will not ignore those important happenings regarding Kailash, the holy mountain, the primary target of our voyage-pilgrimage.
In Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital loved and frequently visited by world-wide hippies in the 60ies and 70ies, we visited monasteries, stupas (constructions, which often contain the relics of holy or famous lamas-priests and which represent the mind-heart of Buddha), as well as small tourist shops and the palace where the Kumari lives. She is a pre-pubertal girl chosen within famous noble or religious clans and kept in a special home as a saint to be venerated and honored until she will be “freed” when pubertal and returned to normal life with… a pension! I do not know much more about this tradition, which sounds to me pretty abusive but the Dalai Lama, too, is chosen in a similar way and brought up in like-wise circumstances from a very early age.
Monday 1st July is the day of cousin Chantal’s’ funeral in Cernobbio, Italy. We had permission from the head monk of a grand, Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu to have a funeral celebration in her honor: prayers and chanting are led by Brahmavara; incense sticks and a photo of Chantal are placed against the backdrop of splendid Buddha statues. The ceremony is felt deeply by all of us: goodbye Chantal!
We 4 participants in chanting with the help of sister Brahmavara. Helen missing here to take this picture. It is inside Sechen Monastery. we satisfy ourselves to get this chance for my passed cousin Chantal's peace soul.
The Chinese visa finally arrived – yes, surely, Tibet is now Chinese, having been invaded and subjugated bloodily by China in 1959. We leave by plane directed to Lhasa, the capital city of TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region, created in 1965, …. autonomous…well, this is a matter of opinion!). Alas, they do not let us land in Lhasa, due to bad weather…so they say; but the next day when we finally reach Lhasa, they will say the weather was fine! What lies and Chinese, secret, trickery they have told us…and we will never know the truth!
We have to land at 1300 km away from Lhasa in an unknown and anonymous little, Chinese town Chang Du, made of modern, soul-less buildings and highways. Here I will explore alone the surroundings, while my three mates go by taxi to eat in some squalid, Chinese restaurant. I end up in a small, local park, adjacent to a polluted road, where mothers, babies, and their toddlers dance “freely” at the sound of an old gramophone that spreads military tunes, Chinese regimented songs, mirrored by the equally stereotyped and rigid movements of the dancers. I sit and watch and a mother offers me her baby to hold.
The next day we fly to Lhasa at last: there we have the joy to visit the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s residence before the Chinese invasion in 1959, when he, aged 19, fled to India. The palace is now taken over by the Chinese army and government offices, but for a handful of monks kept there to show the world the Chinese façade of tolerance… But the 60.000 monks residing in the Potala in the past were mercilessly persecuted and killed! Unfortunately, the Chinese government lies and fabrications keep Tibetan people subjugated like beasts: a painful and infuriating situation which any sensible and aware person would easily pick up in the atmosphere. The Potala is deserted - today - as the government has forbidden Tibetans to pray, today being the Dalai Lama’s birthday: disobedience will be punished with the loss of job or…disappearance! Up with Chinese “democracy”! We visit the Palace with heavy hearts and admire the innumerable, beautiful rooms with beautiful statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (Buddhist aspiring), saints, and famous lamas. A splendor! And again, in the evening with sadness in our chests, we visit the Dalai Lama’s summer residence, the Jokhang, and pray for him and for the Tibetan both oppressed or in exile!
We depart from Lhasa, 3600 meter-high, towards Gyantse (3900 mt.): seven hours’ drive with our expert driver Dowa and Tenzin, who will be our guide for all the time we will be in Tibet. We travel up to passes, as high as 5000 mt., where we stop only briefly to pee, then we descend fast along the Friendship Highway, a good road built after the Chinese occupation of 1959 and which goes from Shanghai to Nepal.
In Gyantse, we visit Pelkhor monastery and Kumbum stupa, destroyed by the Chinese then re-built. Then we leave for Shigatse (3900 mt.) where we visit the Tashilhunpo monastery, another splendid monastery destroyed then re-constructed by the Chinese! The Panchen Lama (who is a spiritual figure with only religious tasks, while the Dalai Lama is also a political figure) lived here before he disappeared by the hands of the Chinese, while his heir was killed and the next and current Panchen Lama is a puppet figure installed by the Chinese.
Beautiful Tibetan style Hotel reception in Shigatse, where we stayed one overnight, driving to Kailash.
The landscape is spectacular: the Tibetan Plateau is famous for its sand planes and dunes (100 million years ago there was the Thetys see here), and for its rocky mountains, which have curious and different pointed or rounded shapes and are of the most varied colors from white to grey to red to greenish, depending on their metal composition: copper, iron and other metals, which have not yet been extracted by the Chinese! Bunches of hard grass, similar to those on high alpine mountains, cover and hide here and their holes inhabited by huge marmots’, which we can approach and easily feed with bread.
Beautiful Landscape during our driving from Lhasa to Mount Kailash
The next day after 8 hours’ drive, which is exhausting but has beautiful scenarios around, we arrive at Saga (4900 mt.). It is a gradual uphill drive, which prepares us for Kailash altitude and takes us to the sacred lake Manasarovar (4510 mt.) where we are forbidden to bathe by our terrifying guide. He says the Chinese have closed access to the lake by wires…but this will not appear so, once we venture along its banks, wets our hands and heads freely with no fences around it! The water is not inviting to bathe anyway and it is pretty breezy. The scenario is fantastic: this solitary, silent lake framed on one side by the Gurla Mandatha of about 7000mt altitude and by Kailash on another side. Alas, Kailash is covered with black clouds and we fear for our Kora of 52 km, which is to start tomorrow! But we enjoy the silence, the almost eternal spaciousness, and the full solitude of this natural, lake scenario. After an hour of contemplation and gratitude to be able to be here, we continue our drive to Darchen (4500 mt.), where we leave in the car our luggage and all the unnecessary stuff and only pack the strictly-needed stuff for the 4 days of our walk – called Kora - around the holy mountain.
Thursday, 11th July 2019
We start our circumambulation of Kailash from Tarpoche (4600 mt.) not Darchen to avoid extra, unpleasant road-walk. Brahmavara is not too happy about this short cut, but the majority decides! The weather is very good: sun between clouds and cool breeze make our walk tolerable and this will be for the whole Kora, apart from a waterfall of a few hours on our last day: we were all protected by large mantles and raincoats, so were not too affected.
We start walking with good hearts and good hopes after some recent uncertainty of mine and anxiety expressed by constant talking by some of us! No one has so far suffered from altitude sickness. Only a preventive pill swallowed by Bramah. will be used of the 7 packets of Diamox brought by me and bought easily over the counter in Italy, in the face of British, conservative, and stingy doctors, who refused to prescribe it to us! Hui our Vietnamese, much-appreciated mate runs ahead, hopping just like his 2-year-old son… despite our wise warnings… In fact, he will soon strain his ankle and feel unable to cope… So, holding him by an arm, like a lifeless puppet, I show him the alpine steps coordinated with the breath. It was my blessed uncle Franco who taught me these steps with breath in the early sixties while camping with C.A.I. on the Italian Alps. Thank you, unforgettable uncle! After finishing the Kora (i.e. the walk around the holy mountain), Hui will say that it was those steps with breathing which allowed him to do the Kora – even though he also accepted to hire a horse, at some point, to help in the most arduous part of the Kora.
After driving from Darchen to the trek starting point, we walk a bit and found many prayer flags that make this picture a different view
Tenzin, our faithful guide, seems impatient with me at times: does he see me as a challenge, inquisitive? Have I got too much of my own mind? This is another mystery of our voyage! On the first day, we walk very slowly for about 7 hours and cover about 17 km, “an easy walk” had told us, Hemanta, our Nepalese organizer in Kathmandu. We arrive at Dirapuk (4900 mt.) on a large dirt and stone path: an easy walk to be done with trekking sandals or trainers, without having to use heavy boots, which I had decided to leave in London and never regretted it. It is a gradual ascend and not too steep, as one can see by the start and end altitudes. We walk slowly and continuously with few, short pauses, as uncle Franco taught me.
At Dirapuk, just like in all other guest-houses we slept in during our Kora, we had a comfortable, dignified, and essential accommodation. Dignified yes, but with:
1) Indians traveling like us to Kailash, who in the middle of the night set up their own kitchen and started cooking their curried meals, yelling and screaming in uncontained, selfish excitement;
2) Tibetan nuns also shrieking at 3 am when they got up to get ready for the Kora. Poor nuns! They had to put up with having in their bedroom two big Chinese men – a policeman and a government man – watching over them all night long, making sure the poor nuns did not get up to some “armed revolution” against China! The world is really going the wrong way! I repeatedly tried to negotiate some quietness with them all but after failed attempts, I threaten to beat them all up using my walking sticks and with unthinkable, inner strength… or violence! Only the sticks quietened them down…not the carrot! On the good side, the room where the three of us females slept for 2 nights, faced mount Kailash, so we had a glorious view of changing Kailash depending on the daylight and night stars. We spent two days at Dirapuk to acclimatize and on the second day, I stayed close by after washing clothes and settling in. Hui also rested while Brahma and Helena went exploring the other side of the valley and its monastery and enjoyed it despite the hard walk. In the afternoon we did something together but…I forgot what.
Me (Maria) at Mount Kailash North view. in between Derapuk and Dolma La pass, almost Last view of Kailash North Face
The hardest and most demanding day which tested us all – despite someone denying it – was the third one. We walked 12 and-a-half hours from Dirapuk to Zuthulpuk (about 4500 mt.) through Dorma La Pass 5650-meters-high, which has the symbolic meaning of re-birth: people who cross it and do not die physically, die metaphorically to their old Self. This pass is the home of Indi divinities Shiva and Parvati. The mount is sacred to Buddhists, Bonpo religion (it precedes Buddhism), Giants, and others. Here the biggest rivers are being born from mount Kailash and run down into India: the Brahmaputra – which we crossed several times by car during our voyage, the Indus, the Sutlej, and the Karnali.
This has been the toughest day but we all made it with little help i.e. a horse for Hui and acts of generosity by passing pilgrims such as the Russian guy, who opened the Kundalini center for Brahmavara giving her more energy and also offered her an oxygen canister, which neither of us could open and use! A Tibetan woman walking with her young son asked him to offer me his arm, which he did but as he sped too fast for me, I had to let him go ahead. Helena, young and trained, walked ahead like a Norwegian mountain goat, then waited for us and helped us with our backpacks. Poor Tenzin (our guide) and Dowa (our driver) carried out two, heavy backpacks with all the stuff the four of us needed for the four-day Kora. The porters refused this job as they wanted four backpacks as we were in four: they wanted more money, the greedy and deprived young guys!
As we reached the top of Dorma La Pass at 5650 meters, Tenzin and I light up the incense sticks, placed in the ground together with the many, paper-photos of my dear, dead and alive people, which I have taken with me from Europe: we prayed then continued. We forgot to buy a prayer flag with mantras to tie here on the summit for the wind to spread good omens to humanity! Alas! I cannot even say next time, as I am quite sure this is my last and only time on Kailash! Then, with no more hesitation, we descend this very arduous mount from Dorma La Pass down and down: descending is always worse than ascending a high peak! Two or three or more hours down to the flat where, as planned we did not stay in the squalid guest house: Tenzin has advised not to use the guest house here at the bottom of the pass. So, we continued for another four to five hours’ walk on what we call “false flat”. I remember Brahmavara reaching her limits but only slowly, slowly and patiently she and I made it to the end. At Zutulpuk we collapsed and rested to get ready for the next day’s final and shorter walk of only four to five hours.
5,650 miters Dolma La pass, smooth to reach but long to reach Juthulpuk our next camp after Dolma La pass.
On the fourth day of the Kora, we walked for a few hours from Zutulpuk to Darchen where the Kora terminates. Brahmavara always has to eat before 12 thus constricting all of us to an unusual regime. They all stopped and ate. I did not, as breakfast was still being digested! Tenzin invites me to walk ahead to Darchen so I dutifully did so. I walked and walked and walked under the hot and drying sun: water was scarce now in my bottle so I perched up a rock and waited and waited and waited. Alas, no one arrived: Hui and Helen had already got back to the destination. Brahmavara still eating! I did not recollect the name of the guest house already used on our arrival so walked into the local police office. With gestures, mimics, no English spoken by those beardless, Chinese guys, eventually they agreed to drive me around to possible guest houses to find the one we were meant to stay at. No, it is not the “Himalaya Hotel”, so what to do? But there the skillful Tenzin seeing my white wind jacket in the police car followed us there and rescued me. All is well that ends well: he took me to the correct guest house, whose name will remain unspoken! Even my belly upset (treated with penicillin) will pass and be forgotten.
This is almost the end of this tale of our glorious and successful journey and I will say no more about the last three days of driving back to Kathmandu via the Tibetan Plateau and Kerong on the Nepalese border, where we joined a terrible, mud road… unknown to the Tibetan country…The Chinese have at least done something good as well as having destroyed the Tibetan people, culture, and traditions!