The abode of the gods, Kailash in the desolate plateau of Western Tibet, is less a mountain than a living entity. Described as the axis mundi or central pivot of the earth in the Vedic scriptures, the Hindus revere it as the home of Shiva; Buddhists see it as the palace of Chakrasamvara. The Bon call it the nine storied swastika mountain and circle it counter clockwise. It is said that the Tibetan yogi Milarepa is the only person ever to have touched its 22,000 ft. ice packed cone, soaring to the summit on the first ray of the morning sun to win a contest for supremacy of Kailash with a Bon magician.
I had sustained for more than twenty years a vision of a mountain and a lake very high up at the centre of the world. The lake is turquoise, the mountain shaped like a gigantic cone dripping in thick white ice. The texture is transparent, almost like a mirage, because nothing impedes the play of light. The turquoise lake, cobalt blue sky and gold sand look surreal. In front of the mountain and lake is a vast plain of gold, windswept into bands with different shades and textures. I imagined rainbows coming in and out of the sky like dancers swirling coloured scarves on a vast stage.
It all started at the Shambhala Hotel in Lhasa on the busy street leading to the Jokhang, a 7th century stone fortress-temple. At precisely 7:30 pm a monk in gold and maroon robes walked nimbly through the ostentatious ‘monastic’ reception of the hotel with its massive marble pillars and crystal chandeliers, into the dining room and sat at the head of our table. Nine expectant faces looked up at him, a group assembled over the year by my vision of Kailash. They knew he was to be our guide for the journey to Kailash but no one had met him or knew who he was: a renowned Tibetan doctor, an accomplished yogi and something of a shaman or wizard. He had healed me of a serious life force imbalance the year before.
The moment Lho Kunsang Rinpoche walked through the door nothing else was happening. It was as if the brightly coloured buffet dinner laid out neatly on a white tablecloth – steamy cauldrons of Tibetan soup and dishes with floating hunks of fried meat and Chinese vegetables – became a painted backdrop, like a large flat canvas in a modern art exhibition. He was beaming, his face radiating energy. His attendant Tharpa, a monk in his early thirties accompanied him.
Lho Kunsang appeared to be more a vibrant force- small, nimble and bright – than a set of features. He greeted me with a dazzling smile – we hadn’t met for over a year. In a second his hands were pressing both sides of my face as I bent low to present a long silk ceremonial scarf. As each person offered a katag, he made immediate full voltage contact
He placed himself at a table diagonally at right angles to mine, facing me. I placed my offering on his table, an exquisite crystal double vajra that I had been attracted to at a shop in Kathmandu, wrapped in finest silk brocade. The coincidence of finding it was the last of eight auspicious signs that I had noted from the time the pilgrimage was conceived. He ignored it.
His hair was a little long for a monk, reaching almost to the base of his neckline and it looked as if it needed washing. His face was shiny with perspiration as though he’d been hurrying to get here. And indeed he had – a day on horseback, four days in a jeep. He looked at me as if to say, okay you asked me here, now it’s your turn.
I leaned forward, folded my hands in front of my heart. I am so happy to see you, Rinpoche, I said. It had been six months since his face appeared in my mind as the guide for this journey.
I had been to Kailash the year before to do a travel feature for the Guardian but at that time my vision had not been fulfilled. I had to join a trekking expedition of Australians who were determined to add the prestigious Kailash to the list of their outdoor pursuits.
We drove 800 miles from Lhasa in the east through a landscape ever more desolate. In Saga, the Tibetans seemed like listless dust-coated survivors in an end of the world setting. ‘This landscape makes me anxious’, said Leo, a computer technician trained in the Israeli army.. We tried to find somewhere to eat our packed lunch amidst the dead animals and scattered faeces, settling finally for the baking heat of the dusty land cruiser to shell boiled eggs. ‘ We’re right out of our comfort zone’, said Helen that night as the wind rattled through the mess tent. ’This trip is the worst mistake I ever made’ said Mo. At dinner her husband Colin, a 60ish Australian doctor and admirer of explorer Sven Hedin, brought out a whisky bottle: ‘May I never be reborn in Saga’.
We bumped further into solitude. A white horse and rider, Siberian ducks, yak-herds, blue sheep, golden marmots, punctuated by police check posts. On a hillside near a monastery at Dzongba a solitary Tibetan prostrated to a stone reliquary, absorbed in his devotions. The road turned into a hard mud pot-holed track and we pulled out a land cruiser from a steep crater.
Sometime afterwards rugged contours softened into pastel shapes and the fabled Lake Manasrovar burst upon us like an explosion of liquid sapphire. Only a thin strip of green-gold shoreline marked it out from the matching sapphire sky. I climbed to a stone cairn and added my prayer flags to the bright flapping strings. Stretched out before me was the most pristine panorama on earth, the massive 54 mile Manasrovar, lake of the sun and its darker sister, Rakastal, lake of the moon, with the 5 snow peaks of the Gurla Mandata mountain range in primal harmony like the first day of creation. Malcolm, a photographer, saw the word God spelled out clearly in the clouds. ‘It’s magic’ he said his eyes alight looking at the waxing moon.
The three landcruisers carrying nine members of our group, and one support truck came to a halt at Tarboche on the southwest corner of Kailash near the beginning of the kora, the day before the traditional flagpole raising ceremony on the full moon.
For 600 years interrupted only by the Cultural Revolution, a 60 metre flagpole laden with tiers of coloured flags carrying prayers for good luck and prosperity, has been hoisted at the base of Kailash. For Tibetans, the omens for the year are judged by the straightness of the pole. Lamas in red and white robes sat in a line on the bare hillside above the giant pole pointed at the mountain and blew their horns in a long low wail at the empty sky. Cymbals clashed and shuddered, thick blankets of incense smoke rose from a stone cairn. Kailash withdrew under the clouds.
A ritual master in a cloak and wide brimmed hat dangling red tassels shouted instructions to the team. Levers were positioned into place. He cheered and on the third rousing crescendo, there was a rhythmic heave raising the pole 15 degrees. Hours later it was finally in position. An exultant cry went up as paper prayer flags were tossed into the air like confetti, then an eerie silence. The pole was tilting towards Kailash, a bad omen. Some Tibetans began to circle it frantically; a few turned away panic stricken.
In the late afternoon a sudden gust of wind blew down our cooking tent. Malcolm called us excitedly. ‘The vultures are swooping into the sky burial ground’. Our impeccable Sherpa team presented us with an elaborately iced party cake. ‘Welcome to Kailash’. it read.. ‘Have a good kora’.
Towards the end of the first day of the 3 day kora I looked up at the ice crystal cap adorning the cone-shaped mountain on my right, and took in the awesome northwest face. The northern blue-black granite wall rose in a daunting 5000 ft monolith, the angle from the red cliffs of the western side jutting out from it like the craggy blade of a dagger. After eight hours walking at over 15000 ft, I was reeling with exhaustion. The trekking group was a half kilometre in front and there was no guide. Nor was there a single Tibetan pilgrim to be seen.. Kailash had become a restricted area during the 50th anniversary of the ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet. I was alone on the most sacred, remote pilgrim route in Asia. Ahead was the 18,600 ft Dolma-la pass where many pilgrims have died from altitude sickness or frozen in a sudden blizzard. I staggered into our campsite three hours after everyone else.
In the morning we climbed out of our tents to find snow encircling us. We ventured onto the trail following the path over a glacier, winding up the side of a mountain to the first pass, and climbed steeply into thin air.
After that everything happened in slow motion and silence. I remember asking a Sherpa porter if that line of prayer flags ahead was the Dolma-la, and he said yes. The trance walkers in the distance seemed to be moving into the sky and we followed. One step, one gasp, no thoughts. Time collapsed. At midday the sky was covered in prayer flags like dots of colour in an impressionist painting. A huge boulder with mantras proclaimed the Dolma-la. Someone grabbed my hand and said, you’ve made it, but by this stage there was barely anyone to celebrate the achievement. Blue sky, cool wind, white clouds, and a mass of survival molecules pulsating with life, like everything around it.
This has to be the pivot of the earth, I wrote in my diary. But it felt empty, a hauntingly surreal virtual reality. Remembering the power of the mind in sacred places, I made a wish to return the next year, the auspicious Year of the Horse. I prayed that the vision of the mountain and the lake would be recharged with the right group, the right motivation and the right spiritual guide.
Four months later it was 9.11. The twin towers toppled, slanting like the ill-omened flagpole of Kailash. The travel pages of newspapers couldn’t sell Eastern adventure and Kailash was eclipsed by safe domestic fun.
Now here I was after a year back at the Shambhalla Hotel leading a group of nine pilgrims whom I had lured with the promise of a sacred journey with a peerless spiritual guide. They listened intently as Lho Kunsang presented his argument for not accompanying us to Kailash. ‘I am really very busy. I have to pick up money from my sponsor in Shanghai and get it to my monastery in Amdo by May 15th or the building work will stop.’ It was May 11. He would send a young Lama from his monastery to guide us.
The role of leader made me utterly determined to make this trip happen: ‘But this is just a technical matter, a business arrangement while Kailash is the sacred mountain and a pilgrimage with you will change our karma for this life and all future lives’
Two hours later, when tears, pleading and coercion hadn’t worked, Tharpa suddenly leaned forward and whispered to me, ‘A little more’. Immediately I understood this was a test a guru sets a disciple to prove his worthiness before a special teaching can be given. I offered the return plane fare from Lhasa to Shanghai in exchange for Lho Kunsang’s commitment to meet us on the road in one week.
The atmosphere changed instantly as I counted out six one hundred dollar notes. Like an apparition, Lho Kunsang swirled out the door in a bright flash of maroon and gold. Martin, our emotional support man, hugged my trembling body. ‘I really appreciate what you did. You opened your heart.’
One week later, Lho Kunsang was with us on the road to Kailash. At night after an exhausting day of bumping over potholed terrain, he opened his heart.
‘From the age of nine till eleven, I was a monk and studied intensively with my master, a great Lama. I was very intelligent and learned quickly. When I was eleven, the Chinese took over, closed the monasteries and forced us into hard labour. We had to work in the fields, or on the roads breaking stones. There was no time for anything except work. Every day was intense with exhaustion just as you feel it now. It was forbidden to practice a single syllable of dharma. We couldn’t even talk to each other. We had no contact with our families. I was beaten many times but I remember two times distinctly. Once they crushed my thighbone and another time they kicked me in the eye so that I saw blood for three days. There is nothing good to say about this time’, he answered Martin who was trying to salvage redemption from his painful story. .’I was thirty eight when I got out and mentally ill. I went back to my monastery but it was in ruins. I’ve been rebuilding it for the last twenty years.’
I wanted to ask him how he had healed himself, but the numbness of exhaustion overcame me. Seizing my torch and clutching my hot water bottle I ran into the star specked night to my tent, and inched into my sleeping bag, thankful to close down all the senses for six hours.
The journey from Lhasa had taken twelve days on a thin wisp of road like a line drawn in invisible ink. It was four days until the full moon of Saga Dawa, when the flagpole ceremony would be performed and the best time to do the kora. A lot has been said about the transformative power of the mountain, its ability to charge the psychic nerve centres of the body, and we were all aware of the big transformation – the possibility of death.
On the critical third day when we would be reaching the 18,600 ft summit of the kora, we awoke to an ice brilliant sky, with air sparkling like crystal. There was radiance as if droplets of mantra had saturated the entire surface overnight. Again the perpendicular north wall of this massive Buddha palace seemed as relentless a reminder of the portal of death as it had the year before. But this time there was no fear. At the symbolic charnel ground where remnants of clothing were draped on cairn like stones to signify the pilgrim’s passage from this life, Lho Kunsang made his seat. He took out his thighbone trumpet and blew a long low wail that seemed to penetrate the depths of samsara. Singing a hauntingly beautiful melody, he clapped his large drum and rang his bell in the ritual that severs ego by offering the body to the starving spirit world. Tibetan pilgrims recognised him as the great Lama-doctor he was, and congregated at his feet, lying down as if in preparation for death. I lay on the snow curled up in the foetal position.
The procession towards the Dolma-la snaked in a long slow spiral upwards into the sky. Looking back, it stretched to vanishing point until the black dots were indistinguishable from stones. A strapping Khampa girl with wind burnt cheeks took my arm and helped me along the boulder-strewn path towards the top. The sleeves of her pink silk blouse billowed like sails in the wind beneath her maroon tunic. Her bright pink sun hat, turquoise earrings, zi stones and coral necklace gave the impression of wealth and with her straight nose and high cheekbones, she resembled a warrior queen in full regalia. She took off her bracelet of new diamond shaped zi stone and tied it on my wrist. The Tibetans called her Dakini.
I touched my head to the huge boulder of the Dolma-la, the power place where the 13th century yogin, Gotsangpa, watched the yak he had been following disappear. It was only then he realised the yak was an emanation of Tara and that she was showing him the kora around the sacred mountain. A sea of prayer flags were floating like coloured sails in an ocean of light embraced by an infinity of space. Lho Kunsang took out his bell and drum and communicated with the Buddhas. We all saw a rainbow arcing the sun in reply; the gods delight, he said.
There was a sense of celebration as each person entered through the Dolma-la boulder to the topmost plateau of the kora. It felt evolutionary, like the moment when homo erectus walked on two legs, or the fish’s fins turned into wings or when Milarepa decided to take the fast track to enlightenment to escape the hells. It felt like dense karmic imprints were being decoded and replaced with emptiness as in a pure land laboratory.
‘Guru Rinpoche said he would appear through rainbows‘ said Lho Kunsang. ‘All the protectors appointed by him are gathered here. It’s the time of opening the door of the holy palace of Demchok. The Buddha put his power into this mandala palace, blessed Kailash with eight kinds of unchangeable blessing and placed eight footprints around the mountain. Milarepa. Gotsangpa, Naro Bomchung, some of the Karmapas, all blessed this place. There is no other holy place in the world like this.
‘I am very happy. If you had not offered your hospitality and requested me, I would not have done this kora. We purified our negative karma, we have made a lot of merit. I dedicate it to the enlightenment of all beings.’
The steep descent from the ultimate high was broken by a frozen sapphire tear-drop, the goddess Tara’s lake of mercy, signifying rebirth into the soft spring pastures of the eastern valley.
When the flagpole was raised this time it stood perpendicular and majestic.
You can’t do anything more profound, more awe inspiring or more unearthly than the Kailash kora. It is an initiation into the bardo, like being shot out of a cannon and landing with a thud on the moon.