Thursday, June 07, 2018

Tibet Journals IV: Once 'Round Kailash

It was our fifth day spent above 4000m, and LYL was suffering some.  She ultimately decided not to join me for the kora around Mt. Kailash.  I didn't feel right to leave her, but she insisted.  She was happy to have a couple of days off the road, and the hotel room had heat and internet and power (though we weren't told the latter was for only four hours a day).  Plus as she spoke Mandarin, she could make her way around the little town of Darchen without much trouble.   Thus reassured, I set off at dawn the next morning.

I'd brought my trekking pack, one not new but as yet unused. I'd packed light, but was still a little concerned how I'd function at altitude.  Wanting too to help give work to one of the locals I'd hired a porter, Sonam, a name which I somehow predicted. An 18-year old just out of school, he'd refused his pay up front, since he didn't want to be tempted to waste it on food or drink on the journey, preferring instead to turn it over to his grandmother. (I'd really wanted a yak too, but it was too early in the season, and their hooves wouldn't be able to handle the lingering ice of the passes.) Despite this, I decided to carry my pack myself for the first hour or so, until we crossed the first pass.  G and D were along of course, the latter not required to, but wanting to make the trip.  G was particularly excited, as this would be his 100th circumambulation around one of the most sacred mountains in the world.

Cows roamed unattended in the dull light.  A group of women rested against a building, before resuming their full-length prostrations.  (I'd seen a number of people making their pilgrimage this way, nearly all being women.)  There were more further on, the mark of their fingertips in the dust, as they inched their way up this slope that would top out at 4730m.  A few people were resting there, including one family that had two young children with them.  I finally handed my pack over to Sonam, who looked a bit relieved.  G told me that he'd felt uncomfortable at my wearing it.  After performing a trio prostrations, we set down the opposite side.

The trail across the valley was through a desert landscape, the side of the trail barren and littered with small stones.  Thick bands of riverbeds cut the dry earth, unladen with water as the winter snows had yet to melt.  On a ridge above and to the right was a place for sky burials, and directly ahead loomed the mountain, fuller in body than when seen from the south.  We rang the bell hanging from the belly of a hollow chorten, then pushed on, beneath the gaze of Chuku Monastery.

The valley began to narrow.  There was a semi-permanent yurt tea house here,  offering simple food to pilgrims. The two caretakers were red-robed, their long hair tied in the back.  I coudn't quite make out if they were nomads or monks.  I decided to wait to eat until the next tea house a couple of hours on, but enjoyed a rest while the others ate.  A Russian party of about a dozen ate quietly at an adjacent table.  They were carrying a fair amount of gear and looked pretty tired already.  G told me that the kora was popular with Russians for some reason, and previous explorers from that country had a theory that the mountain actually a massive man-made pyramid.  (I found out later that LYL was reading about the mountain at the same time that I was walking around it, and came across some pretty interesting and bizarre information.)              

We pressed on, passing the Russians who seemed to be dropping like flies.  Later I'd see the main body of the group  moving toward an immense cut in the mountains' western flank.  G mentioned that there was a tougher alternative route through that valley, and that they were foolish to try is so early in the year.  The prostrators didn't seem to have it much easier, move like inchworms.  Many wore thick mitts, and what looked like butcher's smocks, the leather protecting against the friction on the ground. What had less protection was their faces, chapped red from the sun and wind.  Most of them seemed to be undertaking their three-week journey in groups, and had a support vehicle that would go forward to set up camp, which served as their finish line for the day.  Now and again a vehicle would drive slowly past, its cargo bed piled high, reminding me of the chasers that work in tandem with balloonists.  Passing a group resting, one of the women asked D to carry a pair of thermoses for her, to be deposited a kilometer or so further on.

And we moved along.  The walking was okay, but I found myself feeling somewhat euphoric, as if had had a couple of beers.  Reality had a certain elasticity as I moved across this moonscape.  My fingertips would tingle now and again, and fatigue came and went.  When sitting to take a rest, there was a dream-like quality to it, as I wasn't quite here. All of my movements were slowed down, and accompanied by much fumbling, and a general lack of digital coordination.  This was accompanied too by a paranoia that the others would notice, and I giggled to myself that it was more like being high on pot.  Which might explain too why I'd suddenly start to walk off, leaving things behind.  Strangest of all were the moods that I shifted through:  elation, fatigue, mild disorientation. But it was always to euphoria that I would return.       

My overall mood changed after the second tea house, which was closed for some reason. I kicked myself now for not receiving the noodles offered at the previous stop.   I had some trail snacks with me, namely nuts and chocolate and chilied yak jerky. G offered me some Tibetan fry bread, which went well with the latter.  But the high altitude demanded more. What I was really missing now, with the wind coming up, was a warming cup of tea.  

With the weather coming on, we didn't linger long. After an hour or so, I began to feel sluggish and heavy, my blood sugar seeking lower elevations.  The sky too was taking on a darkening shade, with snow flurrying here and there. The wind blew into mini-cyclones the dust around us. Under this weather, marmots popped their heads up in a parody of Groundhog Day.  And the mountain maintained a solid, anchoring presence above and to my right.

As we closed in on camp, I rested more often, pacing myself.  Sonam was somewhere up ahead, and we hadn't seen D in a while, he having wandered along solo off-trail, his continuous chanting pretty impressive considering the work that the lungs were forced to do.  During one break, a young Chinese man offered me some chocolate.  Due to his height and features I'd thought he was Japanese at first, but I somehow figured out  that he was from Ningxia.  His partner was having a far rougher time than I, and later on the trail, I saw them walking hand in hand. I too moved along as the road began to climb.  The squared corner of the guesthouse beckoned from just beyond the rise, so I put my head down and powered on. 

We'd arrived at the camp in good time.  The sun was high again and the day growing warm.  There was better heat inside the yurt, and as I ate a plate of simple rice, more and more people dragged themselves in.  Like always in Asia, there were loads of people just hanging around, and I inevitably tried to figure out how they were all related. But being weary, I soon gave up.  One very young girl stood waiting for lunch in her pigtails and native dress, and when the noodles arrived she launched an attack on them.  I assumed a family ran this place, but in fact it was looked after solely by a pair of women.  Most of the other people were workers, slowly assembling the concrete shell of a new hotel.  The banging and thudding took a great deal away from the peace of this high mountain idyll.  After awhile I'd pretend that the pneumatic drills were Tibetan horns, coming from the temple across the valley.      

After lunch, I sat awhile in the sun and read, the mountain just in front.  Over the next hour or so, the Russians began to straggle up, usually to ask me if I'd seen the rest of their party.  G asked at some point I wanted to visit the monastery across the valley. It was tricky going over the frozen river below.  A pair of small guest houses stood abandoned on either bank.  There didn't appear to be too many monks here, but one young man led us around, and going up the steep steps I noticed his ankles, black and caked with dirt.  In time I realized that he had some kind of mental handicap, and seemed to appreciate physical contact with G, often throwing his arm around him, or suddenly giving him hugs.  G had proven himself to be a very kind and sweet man, and he return the contact happily. 

We moved through the rooms, looking at statues and thanka old and new.  There were plenty of other things here, drums and brass horns, and parts of animals, and it all resembled some odd kind of folk museum.  Best of all of course were the views, of Kailash rising eminently across the valley.  I imagine that a life spent here would be the utmost challenge.  But that view might make it seem worth it. 

I returned to the guest house to find that some of the Russians had commandeered my room. They simply dumped  my things onto a table outside, and it took me awhile to find my pack. I began to tell them off, the thoughtless and selfish bastards, but unable to find a common language to make it stick I tossed a few swear words their way and walked off. G found me another room, and assured me that I wouldn't have to share.  (I was grateful, then felt guilty the next day when I found that he and D and Sonam had slept in the main dining room, in order to allow this to happen.)  It was still light but night was coming on, so I decided to settle in, wanting a little isolation.  G later thoughtfully brought me a plate of fried potatoes, but they were cold and sodden with oil, so I abandoned them in the far corner of the room.

Even with my warmest sleeping bag it was pretty cold, so I threw a few old blankets over the top. Even so, sleep refused to find me.  I was nearly there, until someone began to pound on the window, eventually with enough force to break through the lock.  But rather than enter, they settled into the room next door.  I assumed that I'd been given the room of some of the workmen, now drunk after dark.  They kept up and incredible racket late into the night, talking on their mobiles and playing obnoxious music.  It was a painfully long night.         

Sometime before dawn, I crept out of my bag into the dark and cold.  I'd brought a change of clothes but decided not to suffer the cold when pulling them on.  I packed up, had some chocolate and coffee for breakfast.  The workmen next door were finally quiet and still.  Before leaving, I was incredibly tempted to fasten a lock to their door.  They of course would kick their way through, but I felt myself wanting a small modicum of revenge. But after another thought or two I figured I shouldn't be so petty, being on pilgrimage after all.
It was still a couple of hours before daybreak, but the mountains were silhouetted as white crags against the dark.  Well above 5000 meters now, both breath and footfalls grew heavy.  There is a certain meditation in moments like this, as reality is condensed to images so distilled it is as if they were shot with a pinhole camera.  And after that level of concentration relinquishes its grip, the details recede and memory becomes unreliable. I do recall sitting to have a snack break, and only upon standing again did I realize that that I'd been sitting in a site for sky burials.  

The east was growing light, bringing more definition to Kailash and her adjacent peaks.  My fingers were incredibly cold and quickly growing numb, a side effect of the frostnip they'd received while lost in a mountain blizzard five years before.   I couldn't wait for the warmth that would come once I got over to the east side of the pass.  Despite my layers of heavy hiking gear I never did feel warm, so was further in awe of the Tibetans who literally strolled past in their simple clothing, chanting despite the thin air, fingering their rosaries with bare hands.  

 Then I was finally atop 5630 meter Drolma-la.  I strung up my prayer flags, then tossed a handful of paper lungpa into the air.  D and G were busy stringing a much longer strand of flags a little ways up the hill.  I watched the stream of Tibetans walk past as if casually heading to the shops. I saw the young boy from yesterday, along with a couple of other kids.  One girl of about four was in tears, looking particularly cold.  I offered her one of my heat packs, but could do nothing about the two days journey ahead for her little legs.  I could only focus on my own.

We moved cautiously down the pass, slick and hazardous with ice. There was a shelf of a plateau at the bottom of the ridge, basked in the glorious rays of the sun.   This was the run off of a lake, frozen thick now, and we mock skated across, giggling as we went.  A rock field defined the far edge, so we sat here awhile, watching the light filling the valley before us.  This was the most glorious part for me, that peace, a relaxation both physical and mental after the most difficult part was done.  But we couldn't relax completely,  The next section was an impressively long, unsteady descent over terrain ever turning under foot.  The cold girl from early was nearly skipping down.          

We met her and her family at the tea house at the bottom.  Hot drinks never taste as good as they do after extreme cold.  You can almost feel the fluid coursing through the body, reactivating the dormant systems.  Thus warmed, we moved along the floor of the valley, mercifully flat but for the odd stump of a rise.  We'd criss-cross the frozen rivers now and again, colorful prayer flags overlapping with the white.  But  in our happiness we'd basically vault across, hopping the rocks to the opposite bank. 

The walk, while much easier now, began to grow long.  I hadn't eaten much, and coupled with next to no sleep, these two factors conspired against forward progress.  I'd take more frequent breaks, but appreciated the time to enjoy the landscape.   

Then finally came Zutul-puk Monastery.  Most pilgrims would spend their second night here, but it was only lunchtime.  I'd expected cup noodles, but was pleased that they prepared some real ones from scratch.  As we ate, G complimented me on my pace, joking that I wasn't a foreigner, that I walked like a Tibetan.  He said that next time I should do the kora in a single day, like the locals.  I joked back that his first mistake was assuming that there would be a next time.  

I was physically spent but we needed to do 32 km on the day, this after the 20 km of the previous day, not to mention the hard work earlier on the pass.   I told the guys to keep eating and went to take a 30 minute nap in the sun.  I dozed awhile, but then was awakened by fear of a mastiff coming over to protect the tents behind me.  Returning inside, I asked G to take me up to the monastery on the hill above, and I got a further rest waiting for the guy with the key to the Milarepa cave to finish his lunch. It turned out to be the same pony-tailed guy from the tea house yesterday.  So he was a monk after all.

The rest of the day was a slog, through that long flat valley.  D was out in front this time, and we overtook him at one point sitting in conversation with two attractive young pilgrims.  A number of other women were doing full length prostrations. I couldn't imagine them doing this over the pass, pointing their bodies downward over the slick ice.  Most amazingly, three of them were extending their bodies across the frozen river.  Even G and D took photos of them.  

The final stretch was through a valley that could have been New Mexico, red treeless hills set against a flawless sky.  I took breaks more frequently now, trying to pace myself and extend my energy.  At each stop I'd nibble a little chocolate, bartering my rations for blood sugar.  I can't remember ever feeling quite so worn out, and I had never before pushed myself to such limits while hiking.  In consolation, I reminded myself that this vehicle which has been propelling me through life has over five decades of mileage on it.

As if a test, the final section was an ascent, then along a knife-edge trail running high above fast-moving water.  But the section to come was the hardest.  We curl out of the mountains to the high plain, Darchen and our goal visible on the horizon.  And no matter how much we pushed on, that goddamn town seemed to come no closer.  This had a certain negative effect on the spirit, and I took breaks every 20 minutes or so.  Then finally, mercifully, we were there.   

I took a lot of pride that I'd done this three day walk in two.  The main reason was that I didn't want my wife to have to spend another night alone. She seemed happy when I saw her, having had a nice couple of days resting and enjoying the company of the young woman who ran the restaurant beside our hotel.  Not to mention their heat.   

And I in turn appreciated a hot shower, and a 12 hour sleep and the feeling that I'd done something really really big.  

On the turntable: "Fatal Flower Garden Variations (Various)"
On the nighttable:  Hal Roth, "We Followed Odysseus"

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