Mount Kailash

Prayer flags and monument on the mountain
Mt. Kailash in Tibet is one of the world’s most venerated — and least visited — holy sites. Walking its circuit alongside pilgrims, yaks and yogis, we circle the center of creation. This radio story by Scott Carrier debuted on Stories from the Heart of the Land series (see Scott’s photo gallery below).

“Mountt Kailash” (19:14)

At 15,000 feet above sea level, Lake Manasarovar in western Tibet is the highest freshwater lake in the world. In mid afternoon it’s exceedingly bright and there are no trees, so the only way to escape the sun is by closing your eyes, and even then you can still see. The name, Manasarovar, means Consciousness Lake, as Hindus believe it to be a manifestation of the mind of Brahma, the creator of the universe.

The water is dark blue, black in places where wind is skimming over the surface. The sky is also dark blue, nearly black. A hundred miles to the south culmulus clouds are rising over the Himalayan crest line. Clouds that were born in the Indian monsoon, fat with water, but somehow made it up and over the highest mountains in the world and are now exploding with power in the thin air of the Tibetan plateau, some dragging long veils across the ground, rainbows trailing in the wake.

Hindus also believe that anyone who goes swimming in this lake will have all his sins erased, but I tried it already and I don’t think it worked. Maybe if I were a Hindu, maybe if I were a cloud.

This morning I got up early, went for a walk, and saw some nomads who’d spent the night beside the lake. They were an extended family, with grandparents and babies. Pilgrims, from some other part of Tibet, come to walk around the sacred mountain, Mt. Kailash, just ten miles to the north.

The sun had come up but was buried behind heavy clouds, and there were three inches of new snow on the hills above the lake.

It was cold, and I was watching the nomads take down their canvas tents. They pulled the stakes, took out the center and corner poles, and tossed the canvas in the back of the Chinese cargo truck they were all traveling in. And then there was nothing left pick up or put away.

And then there was nothing left pick up or put away. They had no stuff, no gear. They’d slept in their long coats, or chupas, on the bare ground, and their chupas were filthy with dirt and grease, as were their faces and hands. They looked like homeless people, but they’ve lived here for thousands of years.

Religious idol
At 22,000 feet above sea level, Kailash is far from the highest mountain in western Tibet, but it sits alone and has a magical shape–four sides like a pyramid or the top of a diamond, covered in snow and ice. Hindus believe Lord Shiva lives on the summit locked in sexual embrace with his consort Shakti. Their dance pushes the circle of life, and when they stop dancing the world will explode. For Tibetan Buddists the mountain is home to many dieties, including the tantric buddha, the Supreme Bliss Machine Buddha, Chakrasamvara.

Beside the lake shore there’s a pointed butte, the front side shaped like a cone, 300 feet tall. Near the top there is a rock out crop and inside the rock there is a small cave. An old monk with a flashlight lets us in. This is where Padmasamvara, one of the saints who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have meditated more than a thousand years ago.

My friend Lisa has a video camera and she’s taping these kids with the screen turned so they can see themselves. We’re in Darchen, the village at the southern base of Mt. Kailash, where you start walking the kora, or circuit, around the mountain. The houses are made of adobe bricks that are the same color as the road.

They have low, flat roofs made from wooden beams imported from Nepal. Inside they lay sheets of linoleum over compressed dirt floors and cook on sheet metal stoves that burn chunks of dried yak dung, the smoke smells a little sweet.

The motorcycles going by are all Chinese four strokes with roll bars and wind farings and mud flaps, fake snow leopard skin seats, decorated with flying tassles and painted with eternal knots, swastikas, lotus blossoms and flames. The riders are young men with yak bone berets in their hair, wearing leopard skin cowboy hats, red vests, turquouise necklaces. They look like mod gauchos, but they’re yak herders, yak boys, come to town on their ponies.

In the middle of town there’s a row of shops where you can buy last minute items for the hike—barley flour, or tsampa, snickers bars, beer, cigarettes, pots and pans…In front of the shops, out in the open air, there are a couple of pool tables, one with a four year old girl up on top, dancing and dropping balls, while her friends shoot around her.

We begin the kora, the pilgrim’s path clockwise around the mountain, falling in on the trail with some nomads, 25 yaks, and a few horses. Some of the yaks wear prayer flags and have ribbons braided into their hair, others carry loads. One girl has a white lambskin hat shaped like a tall coffee cup and a white coat with bells on the fringes. This man has a brass amulet around his neck and a long knife around his waist. I ask him a question through our guide, and he looks at me like I’m a talking shoe.

He says they’re from down by the lake and they’re walking around the mountain, practicing their religion, just like they always do and always have done. Then he stoops down and picks up a dried yak dung off the trail and puts it inside his chupa.

You couldn’t live here without yak dung — you’d freeze and starve to death.

Mother and son in their tent home
I can see the trail going up the canyon maybe two miles ahead of me, and also two miles looking back from where we came. The canyon is a half pipe, a mile wide and a half mile high. The people spred out along the trail look like little beetles, maybe 80 to 100 in all. I’d guess that half are foreigners from Europe, Japan, India… and the other half are Tibetan nomads.

This man, Tsayon Dorje, is a nomad from Nabri, 400 miles to the east. He says he came here in the back of a cargo truck with his wife and children and grandchildren, 11 in all, and that they came to purify negative karma by praying for all sentient beings under the six realms of existence.

“How’s it going?”

He says basically, I’m 61 years old and it’s pretty hard, maybe because I have bad karma and from killing so many animals in my lifetime.

“Will you change?”

“No, he says, this is not for this lifetime. This lifetime I am a poor nomad, but if I purify my karma then maybe in the next lifetime I won’t have to be mean to animals. This is not for now, but when I die it will help.

Most of the foreigners walking around the mountain have hired porters to carry their back packs. At ten dollars a day it’s a good deal, considering the elevation and the distance. But this man, Paul Garden from Norfolk in England, is carrying his own load, which only amounts to some food and a sweater stuffed inside a Tibetan chupa. This is his eighth time around the mountain.

This sound could be yak dung fire inside a stove, or rain falling on a roof, but it’s the wind ripping through prayer flags on the north side of the mountain, where I can look up and see the full on north face and the summit, less than two miles away, a mile above my head. Only two people are said to have been on top–Buddha and the Buddhist saint Milarepa–but they didn’t climb up. Buddha flew as a black neck crane, and Milarepa rode on the first rays of the morning sun

This is supposed to be the most powerful spot on the circuit around the mountain. It’s said that from here the gods and spirits are so close they can hear your prayers and if you make a wish they will do everything they can to make it come true.

I wish for more oxygen. At 17,000 feet my cells are getting only half what they get at sea level, and they don’t like it. Everything is supposed to be coming together at this point, but I have a headache between my eyes.

At night we sleep or try to sleep in a two man tent below the mountain. I somehow lost our water filter, so we have less than a quart between the two of us, and I didn’t eat very much for dinner, and my sleeping bag is basically a nylon sack with a little bit of down, perfect for summer nights in the Utah desert, but it’s not working at 17,000 feet.

Everytime I fall asleep I dream I am suffocating and wake up gasping for air. Then I have to struggle and concentrate on each and every breath, inhaling, exhaling, until I relax and go back to sleep, only to dream I am suffocating and wake up gasping for air. So I get up and go for a walk.”

The tent is covered with frost, the air bites my teeth, I look up at the sky and am immediately attacked by infinity. The milky way is a thick white blanket that offers absolutely no warmth whatsoever, the moon coming up over the mountains to the east is only a sliver, the thinnest excuse for a moon imaginable. The stars are needles in my eyes, and the mountain is lumenescent and looming against the darkness. I walk over to the stream to get some water but the water has frozen like clear hard muscle stretching over rocks. I feel like the mountain has it’s foot on my chest and is trying to kill me, which is somehow a relief. Once I realize this I relax and walk back to the tent, eat a Snickers bar and go to sleep.

Prayer flags
In the morning we begin the hardest part of the walk around the mountain, the trip up and over the Domala Pass at close to 19,000 feet above sea level. On the trail there are four Tibetan pilgrims, three men and a woman, prostrating themselves around the mountain. They have aprons of carpet hanging over their chupas and Chinese house slippers on their hands. They stand with their hands or slippers clasped at the forehead, then the throat, then the heart praying for refuge in the dharma or truth of emptyness. Then they bend down and slide their slippers out in front along the ground until they are lying flat out and they pray that all suffering of every human being may disappear. Then they get up, step one body length forward and do it again. It will take them six or seven days to go around the mountain this way, and they have no sleeping bags or water bottles, not even any food that I can see. It’s hard for me to comprehend, in fact I don’t understand it, but people have been coming here, doing this, for thousands of years.

The top of Domla pass is shaped like smooth saddle, but it feels like a bone, maybe a skull cap, or maybe it just feels like death. The pass is close to 19,000 feet above sea level, a rocky and barren foreign planet with geodesic lines curving up into mountains and down in to glacial canyons and in the distance there are mountains after mountains after mountains and all the space in between. The more I look, the more I disappear, and it’s not a bad feeling. The part of me I leave here I don’t need, and it means I’ll have less to carry down the mountain.

Cheyenne Dorje, the 61 year old man I met yesterday, has made it to the pass with his extended family, and he climbing up on top of a big boulder that’s like a symbolic horse. His grandson is helping him and the women are offering advice and criticism. At the base of the boulder are horse skulls and braided horse hair ropes. He gets up on top and throws a leg over the ridge line like he’s sitting in a saddle and bends down to touch the rock with his lips, praying for forgiveness for all the bad things he’s done to animals.

This stream comes from a glacier on the east side of the mountain. From here the water runs down the canyon into Lake Manasarovar, then south over the plateau as the Sutlej river, and down through the Himalayas, across the Punjab, emptying into the Arabian Sea. Then it will come back as clouds and fall as snow and freeze into ice that will eventually melt and run into this stream. A circle.

Eighty miles to the west there are streams like this one that become the Indus river. A hundred miles to the south there are streams like this that flow into the Ganges, 60 miles to the east are the headwaters of the Brahmaputra. These four rivers drain the Indian subcontinent. In this way this mountain is like a heart and the rivers and clouds are blood vessels, a circulatory system.

Chinese scientists now say the glaciers in Tibet are melting at a rate of 50 percent every ten years, which means that in forty or fifty years this circulatory system is going to disappear.

From here it’s the long run out back to civilization. We’ll follow the stream down the canyon and then get in our rented Landcruiser and drive four days east across Tibet then south through the Himalayas to Kathmandu

Back to traffic jams, dirty air, lots of problems and worry. The trick is going to be taking the mountain back with me, to not let it disappear, so I can stand there in the middle of the worry and feel the mountain like a foot on my chest.