Bye Bye Sins…Hello Pandas

The holiest mountain in Asia, Mount Kailash holds spiritual significance for over a billion Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of the ancient religion of B’on. Believed to be the source of the Karnali (feeds into the Ganges), Indus, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra rivers, Mt Kailash is considered the source of human civilization and the home of Gods. For Hindus, the summit is the rightful abode of Lord Shiva, for Buddhists, it is the home of Dorje Phagmo. Although there had been previous attempts to summit the mountain, they never worked out. Due to its sanctity, no one is allowed to climb the mountain itself. Instead, millions of pilgrims from across Tibet, India, and around the world travel to Mt. Kailash to perfrom Kora. It is believed that one Kora around the mountain will eliminate all of one’s sins. For Hindus, just seeing the mountain is enough to bring good merit. Buddhists believe that if one performs 108 Koras then they are transformed into instant Buddhahood.

The first day of our Kora was rather pleasant, as we left the stinky town of Darchen behind and gently climbed up into a delightful river valley that treated us to panaoramic views and our first glimpse of Kailash.

Before we saw Mt. Kailash however, we had to hike below high cliffs demarcated with prayer flags. This was a sky burial site. Due to its high altitude and cold ground, it is difficult to bury people in the ground. Lamas of high significance are embalmed, while those of a lesser stature are cremated with their ashes placed in stupas. Laymen who were criminals are placed underground, so as to prevent their reincarnation. What happens to the rest of Tibetans you ask? This is where the practice of sky burials comes in. The family of the deceased pays local lamas to bring the body of their loved one to a high cliff or mountain top where another person chops the body into pieces, and crushes the bones so that vultures can come and take a piece for feeding. In this way, there is a giving back to the earth. As a westerner, it is easy to dismiss this practice as strange, grotesque, and even archaic, but if one really thinks about Tibetan Buddhism’s emphasis on reincarnation and connection with the universe, not to mention the physical reality of not being able to bury so many people in a land that is essentially a frozen tundra, it doesn’t seem quite as strange.


As myself, Michelle, Kailash and Steven were pulling up the rear (at least an hour behind) of our group, we often found ourselves alone on this first day. Fortunately for us, we had a little four -legged friend who seemed to follow us and wait for us the entire time. I’d like to think this was my old dog, Buddy, reincarnated, but really that’s just magical thinking….exactly the kind that ges conjured up in a place such as this.

That evening, we stayed at the basic guesthouses of Dira-puk Monastery where we had a choice of rooms; an old dormitory style room where the beds looked like they had been slept on since the days of Buddha himself, or a new room, where the beds were better, but there was no electricity. We opted for the second.

The next morning, we were up by 5am and began hiking with our headlamps, so as to be able to reach the two very difficult high passes before the sun was too high. We hiked up the Drolma-chu Valley, with its steep incline and rise of over 1000 feet. As the sky became lighter, and our breaths became deeper, we could see Mt. Kailash to our right, emerging from the clouds and glowing from the rising sun. It was a spectacular sight.

After enjoying the view, Michelle and I slipped ahead a bit. After a few more minutes I heard Steven and Kailash calling out from behind us to come back, they had something to tell us. They had just gotten engaged!

With all of us elated, we continued to climb, until we eventually made it over the Drolma-la pass, at almost 19,000 feet. I was wheezing at points, but it was well-worth the effort when we finally passed all the false summits and made it to the highpoint where we hung our prayer flags with all the others.

As we began our long descent we came across a beautiful blue lake called Gauri Kund, or “Lake of Compassion” on our right.

From here, it was another 8 hours around the mountain until we eventually made it to Zutul-puk monastery for the night.

Our last day on the mountain, we headed out in the misty rain around 8am. The trails took us through a lovely canyon along the river, before it dumped us back into the dump of Darchen a few hours later.

When we finally walked back into the town and arrived at our hotel, we were all so happy to have successfully completed the Kora!

The last couple of days in Tibet involved another 3 days driving back to Lhasa, with stop offs in Lhatse and Shigatse, where we were able to visit the Tashilhunpu Monastery, a site that survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

In the evening, Oliver, Michelle, and myself found ourselves in a local Tibetan Nangma, a mix of dance hall meets Karaoke.

Back in Lhasa we went out to Dunya for some western wine to celebrate Steven’s birthday, Steven and Kailash’ engagement, and the fact that we had all survived the kora and Mt. Everest together!

Afterwards, we once again found a nangma, only this time we wound up on stage singing the national dance with the locals. Fortunately, no pics of this exist:)

Our last evening, we had dinner followed by roof-top drinks where we all cheered to an incredible trip with wonderful travel companions.

After biding farewell to our new friends the next morning, and a long day of transit, we finally landed in the Chinese city of Chengdu. We had a few days in between the end of our Tibet tour and our flight home and I had regretted not seeing the great giant pandas of China the last time I was here, so I arranged for us to spend the day volunteering at the Dujiangyan Panda Base, part of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Less touristy than the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center, we were able to spend some time up close and personal with these beautiful creatures, as well as clean their poop (not bad) and feed them! Add in the boutique Buddhist Zen Hotel in the heart of the one of Chengdu’s old towns, and this was the perfect way to end the trip.

Exploring the old town around the Wenshu temple in Chengdu was pretty cool too, but when I came across a teak-wood, spitting-image statue of my dog, Gypsy, I knew it was time to go home.


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