06.03.2013 - 23.03.2013 3 °C
Part 4: The kora around Mt Kailash
Mt Kailash - home of the gods, both Hindu and Buddhist. Pilgrims from Tibet, Nepal and India venture here to walk the 52 km circuit around the base of the mountain. Although we had had sunny blue skies our first few days in Tibet, the rain had set in not long after we got to Darchen and the mountains became shrouded in heavy cloud. Such is the weather in Tibet.
Darchen is a rather sad, soulless town devoid of personality but with a stunning backdrop of mountains. It’s the starting point of the kora around Mt Kailash and seems to be made up mainly of restaurants of varying standard, souvenir shops and stalls all selling the same procession of dodgy beads, brass bowls, dubious coral belts and other Tibetan trinkets. I, of course, got sucked into buying “ancient” beads and they are still sitting in a box at home.
The highlight of Darchen is the intricately carved mani stones with a scattering of antelope skulls and row of stupas sitting adjacent to the monastery on the north end of the town.
As it is required for a foreigner to have a guide at all times, we were each allocated a local Tibetan who carried our gear during the kora. I found this quite uncomfortable as I am used to carrying my own stuff and I am not keen on having someone in servitude to me. However, I took the positive approach as I had no choice and recognized that at least my guide was employed and getting some money.
Sugi was my guide and the first thing I discovered was that despite the cold, he had no gloves or hat. This was quickly rectified as was making sure he had plenty of munchies and water for the trek.
We were staying in monasteries so I only needed minimum gear and as a result, my pack was very light. Sugi entertained me by chanting, recording his chanting on his mobile and then taking a break by playing his chanting back to himself. Luckily, he walked faster than me, so I didn’t have to listen to the chanting all day. And I did appreciate his looking out for me as the weather was cold and simply deplorable.
It is the circuit around Mt Kailash that is called the kora. Devoted pilgrims complete the kora in one day starting at dawn and finishing well after dark. Truly devoted pilgrims fully prostrate themselves along the entire 52 km route taking up to two weeks or more. Our plan was to take the standard touristo three days so that we could dawdle to a certain extent. We also knew that going over Drolma La Pass was going to be a slog and wanted to make sure we could take a well-earned rest on the other side.
Day 1: the well worn track which also acted as a road followed a valley surrounded by hills and peaks totally shrouded in cloud and mist. The wind was blowing down the valley and was quite cold, and there was a heavy mist. Each of us walked at our own pace and I usually did not see any one from my group until I stopped at a tea house, or at the end of the day. The walk was not overly difficult as the track was not steep, but I was humbled by the Tibetan family that walked past me and seemed to zoom off into the distance. My travelling four legged companion also impressed me with his wanderings from the trail to the yonder and back again. It was just a steady walk with a few inclines that required a wee bit of rest given we were at an altitude of about 5,500 feet.
Seventeen kilometers and about eight hours of trekking later, we reached Dri Ra Puk Monastery, sited halfway up a hill, where we overnighted in the dorm. A wander up to the monastery unveiled a small cave with a mural of a Buddha drawn on the wall and dimly lit only by a cluster of candles.
Dinner consisted of whatever we had in our packs – in my case roasted pumpkin cup-a-soup, crackers, some cheese and a tangerine - and eaten in our rooms. Dawah turned up with a leg of dried sheep, which is really a jerky with, unsurprisingly, a very distinct mutton taste, which he shared along with tsampa (roasted barley flour which is mixed with butter tea to form a solid sort of paste) and butter tea.
By evening, a lot of the cloud cleared and we could see most of the surrounding mountains, but Mt Kailash must have been making its own microenvironment as the top remained stubbornly shrouded in cloud.
The dorm we stayed in had only been built that year and provided basic accommodation: a cement building with two single spring bottom beds in each room. There was no water or electricity, but a candle was provided. There was some solar power, but this only ran the light bulb of the monastery’s kitchen.
Day 2: We woke up to an overcast day with low cloud, wind, sleet, hail and rain. Joy. We started our trek about 0830 and it was pissing down rain. The trail to Drolma La Pass is a series of switchbacks on rough, rocky terrain. Drolma La means “Pass of Tara” (5,700 m) and is festooned with blue, white and yellow prayer flags. Although we were only ascending about 700 m from Dri Ra Puk Monastery, the walk was a slog because of the steepness of the track, the uneven ground and the altitude. It was a matter of watching your feet, putting one foot in front of the other and breathing. Regular pits stops and drinking heaps of water got me to the top where I crossed the pass in hail and sleet. The Hindu pilgrims, wearing their bright yellow down jackets and doing the kora riding Tibetan horses no more than 11 hands high, had to walk the last bit to the top and over the other side as it was too dangerous to ride the horses. We discovered that this was too much for one poor Indian soul who died of a heart attack at the pass.
Once I arrived at the pass, I circled around the prayer flags and mani stones three times, left my own little pile of stones (ovo) for my family, caught my breath and headed down the mountain pass. The descent into the river valley on the other side of the pass did not offer much reprieve from discomfort as the trail remained rocky and very steep, and played havoc on the knees. Coupled with the snow and ice on the trail, it made for some hazardous walking.
After walking the steepest part of the track we followed the river valley for the long, slow descent to the very welcome canvas tea house at the bottom of the pass where some instant noodles, butter tea and biscuits provided a fine fare. After an hours’ rest we continued to Zul Truk Puk Monastery, where we again stayed in the newly built dorm. We had hiked for about 10 hours covering only 22 kilometers.
Day 3: I was pleased to leave the monastery. The dorm was basic but comfortable, but the surrounding grounds were covered with litter, excrement and empty cans of Chinese Bull. We started the hike in non-stop rain and trudged through a long valley where we were very happy to fall in a heap in our beds at the Pilgrim Hotel five hours later. I was wet, cold and totally knackered and was asleep in seconds, getting up long enough to enjoy a really tasty Schezuan dinner in a local restaurant.