Mount Kailash Kora

Tibet, China

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Deep in the wilds of Western Tibet towers, in its majesty, Mount Kailash, sacred to four religions and a place of pilgrimage for centuries. At 6,714 m (a bit over 22,000 ft), Kailash does not rival the Himalayan giants, but it is a truly beautiful mountain, with its four striated faces under a cone of pure, unsullied snow.

Hindus and Buddhists believe Kailash to be the navel, or axis, of the world and the abode of Shiva, the destroyer and transformer, and of Samvara, a wrathful manifestation of the Buddha. Jains and followers of Bön, the ancient shamanistic religion of Tibet, also revere the mountain.

Kailash is the watershed of Southern Asia, in myth and reality. Four great rivers issue from this region: the Indus to the north; the Yarlung Tsangpo to the east; the Sutlej to the west and the Karnali, older than the Himalayas themselves, up which we trekked from the south.

Even before the Communist invasion of Tibet, few westerners had seen Kailash, although it has fascinated geographers and adventurers for more than two centuries. For nearly 40 years after the Chinese takeover, it was completely inaccessible to foreigners and Chinese alike. From the mid-1980s, foreigners have been allowed into Tibet, but Kailash's extreme inaccessibility in the vast, nearly roadless wastes of Western Tibet has contributed to its continuing mystique; even now, while much has been written about Kailash, few westerners have had the fortune to get there.

The destruction during the Cultural Revolution was desperate in the Kailash region, with hundreds of monasteries and shrines dynamited. The Chinese have since started to allow some reconstruction, and the fervour with which these dirt-poor people have rebuilt their sacred sites is profoundly moving.

Pilgrims now throng to Kailash: not just Tibetans, but Hindus and Buddhists from India to Japan, joined by Western and Chinese travellers. Some, like us, walk across the Himalaya along old trade or pilgrimage routes, gaining valuable acclimatisation to the potentially fatal altitude. On the narrow suspension bridge at the border with Nepal, we met the shrouded body of one poor pilgrim, slung between a pair of poles, his head lolling, his widow led blindly behind him, too stunned – or sick herself – to show any emotion.

Your first view of the mountain is unforgettable. We came from the south, labouring, tense with anticipation, across a low pass to our first sight of Rakshas Tal, the Demon Lake, whose waters, ruffled by a squall to a dark Prussian turquoise, spread out below us, surrounded by low barren pale ochre hills. Behind them, the Trans- Himalayas lined the horizon, the icy dome of Kailash glistening in serene isolation against the pale cobalt sky.

Everyone comes to Kailash to walk the kora, the sacred circuit around the mountain. Every Tibetan aspires to walk the kora, as a lifetime's sins can be washed away by completing one kora. 12 koras entitle the 13th to follow the hidden, special inner kora. 108 take you straight to Nirvana. Sharing the path with these pilgrims, often the simplest illiterate nomads who have saved for years to make the trip, is insiring, whether or not you are a believer, even through an altitude induced miasma.

Day 1

On the morning of our kora, I stride out with my friend Reggie Heyworth, through the grim outskirts of the charm-free village of Darchen, not exactly confident – at 4,575m (15,000ft), we are already uncomfortable - but full of purpose and exhilarated to have actually started after years of anticipation.

My wife, Ali, has been flattened by a blinding altitude headache, unable to keep food down. She orders us to proceed; Dendi our magnificent Ghurkha guide, who is shortly to climb Everest, stays behind to keep an eye on her. We thread our way, with Tashi, his Tibetan understudy, through the mixed animal and human excrement on the edge of town. With its curls of lazy smoke in the cool morning shadows, the tethered pack animals and the sounds, smells and bustle of breakfast, packing and departure, it feels like a medieval caravanserai, even though few buildings are more than 10 years old. 

Outside town, we wind past mani walls, skirting the base of the Kailash massif. To our left, the huge, treeless Barkha plain is dotted with white nomadic tents and herds of sheep and goats. A corner of Rakshas Tal shimmers in the distance beneath the gorgeous snowy mass of 7,728m (26,000 ft) Gurla Mandhata.

We are overtaken by Tibetan horsemen, singing as they head off for a day's tourist gouging higher up, offering rides to struggling Indian pilgrims. Watchful yak are driven past us, loaded with supplies, snatching at the odd tuft of coarse grass as they walk.

After an hour and a half of easy going, we reach the first prostration point. The mountain's beautiful south face appears as we reach the prayer-flags on a ridge, and there is only one possible action: a full, flat-out prostration. I can feel Reggie's boot itching behind my arse.

A rather thin Englishman called Richard overtakes us. He is on his sixth kora – he does the 53 km in two days – and wants to complete 13 of them so he can tackle the sacred inner kora. He is, however, struggling gloomily with the Demons of Doubt.

Dropping from the ridge, we turn north across a close-cropped tablecloth towards the famous Tarboche Flagpole, which is festooned with as many prayer-flags as I have seen anywhere - and in Tibet, that is saying something. On a shelf high above is an ancient sky burial site, around which huge lammergeyers soar on the thermals, and above that, much closer now, is the great white peak itself in all its perfection. You can clearly see the vertical gouge on the south face, made during a battle for supremacy over the mountain between Milarepa, the C11 Buddhist saint and the Bön master, Naro Bönchung; this intersects with pronounced horizontal striations and other marks to form the mountain's famous vast swastika, a Buddhist symbol of spiritual strength.  

We cross a low ridge into the extraordinary, glacial Lha Chu valley. A flat, gravelly bottom recedes between vast, sculpted red towers on the Kailash side and broken crags with huge scree slopes on the left.

At a depressing group of huts and tents, landcruisers are disgorging their tottering occupants for a curtailed kora, many of them on ponies. A crowd of colourful Tibetans mills among ponies decked with vivid saddlecloths and trappings. Beyond, pack yak pick at sparse grass. You can tell the horsemen and hustlers from the pilgrims: the former banter cheerfully in leather cowboy hats and padded jackets; the latter trudge abstractedly past in their sheepskin coats and headscarves, desultorily flicking their prayer wheels.

High on the left is Chuku Monastery, founded in the 13th Century but of course wrecked in the Cultural Revolution. Although rebuilt within the last 20 years, these monasteries have already been worn by the harsh climate into an ancient patina. Bright prayer flags flutter high on the hillside above the monastery, releasing their printed prayers to the heavens.

The valley narrows into a dramatic gorge, and starts to climb in earnest. The increasing altitude has us gasping at the slightest incline. The crags above us are now spectacular wind-polished blocks.

We pass our first prostrators: two women in thick aprons and with shoes on their hands are lying down full length with their arms out, then standing where their hands were and repeating the process. This is going to take them three weeks. In their slow self-mortification, they match the flashier performances of medieval European flagellant-penitents and modern Phillipino Easter exhibitionist-crucifixionists.

We stop for water, then lunch, then photographs, then just for a stop. Death feels imminent.

The valley finally opens up again, its flat bottom dotted with yak among the sparkling strands of the stream, and we reach another little encampment bustling with ponies, horsemen and tired pilgrims.

The wind gusts down the valley, whirling dust from the procession ahead of us. It starts to rain. We plod painfully onward.

Another hour and a half's labour, our only relief being that others seem to be suffering more than us – no remission of sins likely for me – and we reach our campsite at around 5,000m (some 16,500ft). Across the river, to the north, is the tiny Dira-Puk monastery, surrounded by tiny sparks of colour against the harsh, grey-ochre hillside. And soaring, resplendent, above us is the famous north face, some 1,700m (over 5,000 ft) of banded rock and ice, its heavy snowy cape catching the afternoon sun.

It is amazing how quickly you can recover: after a few minutes, we climb up to some prayer flags high above us, where we sit and contemplate the mountain. I then doze in the sun, musing on spiritual improvement. A sharp need for a pee overtakes me – Diamox turns your bladder into an 80 year old's - and I water the base of the rock. I then do a couple of mini koras around the prayer flags, then sit down for some further thought – straight into my earlier puddle. Some quick karma.

We drink tea, then wash, then gobble noodle soup. We express undying love to our n-n-nervous yak, which are tethered in line just below us. The sun is going down and a sharp wind pierces our layers. We retreat to our tents for a long, sleep-deprived night. Grunting yak and gusts of wind ensure that it is not a quiet one. Our yak men sleep soundly in the open nearby.

Day 2

The Day of the Big Test starts in the freezing pre-dawn. We are well psyched up, helped by forcing down a huge breakfast of porridge and omelette onto stomachs which have shrunk with the altitude.

Our departure is cheered by the rising sun catching the majestic cone, shreds of mist obscuring parts of its striped lower cliffs.

We cross the Drömla Chu stream on some rickety poles and start a long, gasping grind out of yesterday's Lha Chu valley. Walking here quickly strips away millions of years of evolution: we are back to the primitive mechanics of life: a breath in or out with each slow step, with a rest every 100 breaths, then every 50.

A steady flow of Tibetan pilgrims, who seemed few yesterday, trudge past: thick sheepskin coats, edged with bright weavings, the top half hanging back from their belts as the day heats up; felt hats, prayer wheels, knives; the women in long, heavy skirts, their heads often shawled against the wind. They will have started from Darchen long before dawn. The men and women seem effortless as they march past; tiny, wizened grannies keep our pace, if rather more cheerfully.

The Indians we met yesterday also travel at our pace, led on their ponies and looking miserable and ill but grimly determined. A fat old women slips from her pony, falling onto sharp rock. She lies there panting, blood on her cheek, and has to be lifted back up.

We gain some respite as we enter the starkly beautiful upper valley. Then, after another painful climb, we are at the Shiwa-tsal “charnel ground”, named after a famous place of cremation at Bodhgaya in India. Pilgrims undergo a symbolic death here, leaving an item of clothing (or hair, teeth or blood) to represent their renounced life. Surprisingly smelly bits of everything are draped from rocks and hundreds of little cairns. My white Marks & Spencer boxer shorts of yesterday did not seem quite comme il faut in the circumstances.

Across the valley, the fabled inner kora threads up a side valley, to cross a glacier and a high pass. A friend nearly died up there a few years ago.

And then it is the final agonising plod, lungs rasping in the thin air, 200m (650ft) up another heap of glacial boulders to the Drömla-la pass. As with everything else about this mountain, even the pass's height seems to be mythical: our books and maps all give different heights for it, 250m (over 500ft) apart. I settle for 5,630m (some 18,600 ft).

The Drömla rock is swathed in prayer flags. I sit and feel numb relief: exultation will come later, when my faculties are returned to me. Pilgrims clamber round the rock, under and over the ropes of prayer-flags that criss-cross the ground around the rock, chanting the invocation you hear at every pass crossing in Tibet. We are too exhausted to join them: we can hardly raise our arms for a feeble nonagenarian's high-five, and are too tired even to enjoy the irony of the pass' name: Drömla is Tara, the goddess of compassion.

It is bitter up here. We press on down a steep boulder slope to Gouri Kund, the pool of Great Compassion, in a bowl scooped from the shattered crags by some long-vanished glacier. It is sacred to Hindus, who should bathe in it whatever the weather. There is no vegetation here, just vast, smashed boulders and the milky turquoise lake. The sky feels pregnant with snow. It is a desolate place.

We meet two practitioners of Bön, the “black” religion which was supplanted by Buddhism, who are walking the kora in reverse. They have broad, friendly faces, and different clothing and trappings from the other Tibetans we have met. Orange shirts and thick maroon wool aprons, all very grubby, hats with flaps that are released to shade the sunny side, rosary beads and little silver skulls compliment the ubiquitous prayer wheels and sheepskin coats dangling behind them. They are from Kham in the far east and are on their 80th kora, aiming for 100.

Another steep clamber gets us down into the beautiful Lham Chu valley. We sit against a boulder among heaped saddlery and Tibetan pilgrims, guides and horsemen, scattered on the turf, their appearances ranging from tough through to villainous. We attack our lunch voraciously, luxuriating in the warmer and thicker air.

In our euphoric state, we make a fateful decision: rather than camping further down the valley, we will walk the whole way back today.

We reshoulder our packs and stride out, crossing the stream and trudging down the starkly beautiful valley. All the way, the river gurgles, often in multiple strands, through patches of close-cropped grass and smooth boulders. It is perfect walking.

We pass a pair of prostrators flat out in a damp stream bed. They must have been at it for over 20 days, and Reggie – not remotely swayed by the girl being very pretty – gives them a couple of Mars Bars: like many kindnesses, this will no doubt have unintended consequences, their tsampa – accustomed stomachs detonating as the rich bomb impacts.

A few minutes later, I see a man in perfect silhouette, squatting by a boulder, as A Thing detaches itself from him and drops neatly off. He stands up and walks on. No doubt some group's cook. At least he made no effort to wipe his backside, so his hands will be clean. As places you can defecate – or even fart – on Kailash are heavily prescribed, I wonder how he knows that this spot is acceptable. I don't go to investigate.

Rounding a corner, we gaze down on the beautiful, heavily grazed meadow of Zutul Puk, below a recently rebuilt but already dingy monastery. This houses a “miracle cave” where Milarepa meditated, after outdoing his Bön opponent in another test of puissance.

We pass the depressing, rubbish-strewn monastery guesthouse, and trudge on through the drier lower valley. My joints and blisters are really hurting now, and I am withdrawing into a dull, inturned reverie. We enter a spectacular gorge of purple and green rock before debouching into the sudden vastness of the Barkha plain.

I hardly remember the final stage back to Darchen, passing more mani walls just below the mountain's first foothills. Gurla Mandhata is cloud-shrouded, Rakshas Tal a smear of dull pewter in the distance. I don't care. We limp into Darchen at 7.30pm.


© William Mackesy, 2007

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