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TRAVEL 'The Unique Tibetan Culture Produces Human Beings with More Smiles on Their Faces' - The Dalai Lama

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/11/10; November 10, 2002.]

Hard Yakka
The Weekend Australian, 9-10 Nov 2002

A journey to the holiest of Buddhist mountains is no cup of butter tea, reports Leah Lawrence from western Tibet

MAKING a spiritual pilgrimage is seldom easy and Roger is finding the going particularly difficult. It isn't driving hundreds of kilometres over the vast Tibetan plateau to reach the holiest of Buddhist places, Mt Kailash, that disturbs him. Neither is it the lack of showers and the violent change between the bitter cold of night and the raw heat of the midday sun. Nor that there are 12 of us from five countries (plus drivers and a guide) squashed into three jeeps for days on end. The problem is the thukpa.

In isolated western Tibet, where vegetation is sparse and there is little wood for fuel, thukpa (noodle soup) is the only meal available to foreigners who find the Tibetan staples of tsampa (barley flour mixed with pungent butter tea and rolled into balls) or yak meat a little too robust.

Roger, a 22-year-old Briton, has taken to raising phantom chip butties to his lips and talking dreamily about the virtues of his local Stroud fish and chip shop. He is also pouring the HP sauce he has brought with him on to anything that tastes remotely Tibetan.

I have come to western Tibet to circumambulate Mt Kailash - for Buddhists, this is the centre of the universe. Kailash, strangely beautiful and remarkably conical, is the source from which the great rivers of Asia flow in the cardinal directions: the Indus to the north, the Brahmaputra to the east, the Karnali, which joins the sacred Ganges, to the south and the Sutlej to the west.

For Hindus, who refer to Kailash as Mt Sumeru, the mountain is the abode of Shiva the Destroyer; for Buddhists like me it is the place where all Buddhas dwell. To walk around it once with the right motivation - for it is unthinkable in Tibetan culture to conquer a mountain by climbing it - is said to allow the pilgrim to wipe out the sins of a lifetime.

Our group arrives dirty and dusty in Darchen, the place where pilgrims leave for circumambulation. There is a belief in Buddhism that the closer humans get to holy places the more degenerate the environment, and Darchen, I discover, is no exception. More a tent city than a town, it is plagued by a viciously cold wind and great mounds of rubbish. Darchen is bursting with activity because of a rare occurrence in the Tibetan lunar calendar. In this, the Year of the Water Horse, pilgrims get the same merit from circumambulating the mountain once that it would usually take to circle it 13 times.

The road leading to Darchen is lined with trucks bogged down in huge mud lakes, their open decks packed with pilgrims wrapped in every conceivable scrap of clothing against the cold - most commonly involving the chuba, a sheepskin-lined yak wool coat, trimmed with tiger-print or colourful brocade and worn with one arm on and one arm off the shoulder, hanging loose. For men this is almost always accompanied by a Tibetan favourite, the cowboy hat, while women have their hair made into 108 plaits and decorated with chunks of oral and turquoise for the occasion.

We arrive in Darchen to hailstones and news that the Drolma La Pass - at 5636m, the highest point of the circumambulation - is covered in snow and passage is impossible. The descent, we are told, is icy and dangerous and if pilgrims do make it through the pass, they are breaking arms as they slip and slide down the far side of the mountain. One man has died of altitude sickness at the top of the pass, where the air carries about 25 per cent less oxygen than at sea level.

Still, we hire porters and join a stream of people heading into the dark crack between the foothills, the words of guide Tenzin resounding in my ears. Waving us off, he merrily calls out: "I will pray for you." Then he returns to the sanctuary of his hotel room. This does nothing to alleviate my concern that I have spent thousands of dollars and travelled hundreds of kilometres and am about to attempt the pass in skateboard shoes and a sky blue Nepalese rain-cape.

My self-concern about the rigours of the four-day walk is alleviated by the sight of grandmothers with babies roped to their back walking in slippers and Tibetan men making their way across the rocky landscape In leather dress shoes. I am finally appeased when an Indian sadhu, an ascetic who has denounced all worldly possessions, wearing just a loincloth overtakes me.

After a three-hour walk, during which my Israeli companion Suzy twice ends up horizontal in puddles of mud, we set up our tent toward the west face of the mountain and, for the first of many times to come, are begged by pilgrims for pictures and news of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who since 1959, after China invaded Tibet, has lived in exile in India.

We are given a thermos of hot water by a family of nomads camped in a nearby yak-wool tent that, much to Roger's horror, allows us to eat thukpa in the form of two-minute noodles. All through the night the sound of pilgrims chanting the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum wafts through my dreams. The next morning we wake to bright sunlight, a chill wind and an eight-hour hike to the place from where we hope to see the north face of Mt Kailash.

Almost immediately we come across our first prostrators: pilgrims who circle the mountain by taking three steps and then, making the gesture of prayer at their crown, throat and heart, first kneel then lie on the ground as a way to show profound respect to the achievement of all enlightened beings. Doing the circumambulation this way takes around 14 days. Being Ingies, or foreigners, we stride off into the distance and soon have to stop for an extended nap, our bodies easily fatigued by the thin air. The Tibetan pilgrims move at a snail's pace, stopping frequently for a sit and chat, before resuming their walk.

That night we camp opposite Dirapuk Monastery, a small stone hermitage built into the side of the mountain, and in the morning wake to the spectacular sight of the sheer north face of Mt Kailash and in the distance a line of pilgrims slowly passing beneath its slopes.

After falling in the freezing river while trying to fill my water bottle, thus requiring our porters to take turns at rubbing my hands in a attempt to restore circulation, we set off to enter once again the line of pilgrims. Just minutes later we encounter the most extraordinary scene. Hundreds of Tibetans, surely among the greatest picnickers in the world, sitting in circles on the rocky ground around small yak-dung fires, eating and drinking and socialising before the arduous ascent to the Drolma La Pass.

They are very old and very young, lay people, monks and nuns, horses and yaks. In the weak morning light, made hazy with smoke, the scene has an ancient quality.

I start the climb through the first patches of snow with a gang of wild dogs trotting beside me. Already short of breath, I am quickly overtaken by all manner of pilgrims, many with the classic nomad look: matted wild hair, a dirty face and a smile resplendent with gold teeth, a sheepskin-lined cloak and cowboy hat tilted at a jaunty angle, the whole look topped off by huge '70s sunglasses. As I stop to stare at them, they stop to stare at me, all of us equally struck.

Slowly making my way up the track with a glorious view of the mountain to the east, I come across a chanting monk facing Mt Kailash with a group of pilgrims lying down in the snow close to him, simulating the death process, one of many spiritual practices it is beneficial to do at the mountain. All around the circumambulation route are sacred places to perform the appropriate meditation. There is the Phame Drilen Tasa or Parent Indemnity Test, which is a rock that has three small holes smeared with butter on its surface. With closed eyes the pilgrims are trying to put a finger in one of them. If the finger connects with a lower hole, it means the person must try harder to repay their parents' love; insertion into the top hole indicates admirable dedication.

It is just above this point that an elderly woman and I stop on a nearby boulder to share my water. After exchanging admiring looks in the direction of Mt Kailash, I turn up the snowy hill to go on my way but can't get any traction. Nanoseconds before it looks like I will backslide into my friend, I feel the solid grasp of four hands on my buttocks and am heaved forward into the line of pilgrims. Turning around I see my friend and an old man kindly waving me off.

Just a bit further Is Shenpe Dhiklak Chu, a small glacial stream that crosses the track. It is here that butchers come to try to cleanse themselves of the negative karma of killing. But it is the crossing of the Drolma La Pass that is the greatest moment on my journey. Those who are successful are symbolically reborn and it is here that all sins are forgiven. Celebrating this, the pass is festooned with thousands of colourful prayer flags, scraps of clothing, jewellery, shoes, hats and even teeth.

It is here, after a six-hour climb, that I first hang my own prayer flags and then inadvertently step on someone else's. I kneel next to my porter to make an incense offering in the snow and am silently praying when he suddenly bellows a heartfelt plea into the wind - a move that so surprises me that I instantly titter. It is only when he continues with his devotions that I feel ashamed of my self-consciousness at this, the holiest of places at the holiest of times.

The scene at the pass is like a village picnic. Despite the lack of oxygen everyone is invigorated, sharing their food and mingling with one another. Ahead is an eight-hour descent to our accommodation, the tiny Zutrul Phuk Monastery that sits in the eastern valley of Mt Kailash. Suzy and I go down using a special technique of clinging to any exposed boulder and sliding freestyle in the ice - all the while overtaken by agile elderly Tibetans. It is two hours before we leave the slope and reach the rocky grassland of the valley and another three of laborious walking before we catch sight of the monastery.

Walking like somnambulists, we enter its inner courtyard in the last light of day to find the doors to the temple wide open and a golden statue of Buddha, his serene face illuminated by a row of butter candles, smiling down at us. The hardest part of our journey is over. Tomorrow we will walk an easy three hours back to Darchen, where Tenzin has promised us a steaming bowl of thukpa.

Checklist Tibet is featured in a number of tours offered by adventure travel operator Peregrine. Its 11-day Lhasa to Kathmandu overland trip costs $AUS3540, excluding flights from Australia. More: 1300 854 444; www.peregrineadventures.com.

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