Kora Kompleted…Enlightenment Undetermined…
Hello everyone from the Thirtapuri Gompa, the third and final part of the Kailash kora. We had an amazing few days making our way around the sacred mountain, listening to Tibetan pilgrims chant "Om Mani Padme Hum" quietly while Indian pilgrims blurted "Aum Nom Shiva!" at every single opportunity. As for us, we were too busy breathing in the thin air of the Drolma La to say much of anything. But, we climbed up to 18,000 feet and down again…Great acclimatization at the very least.
It was quite a humbling journey all in all, and it is obvious why Mount Kailash is considered a sacred pilgrimage site by over a billion people. (Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpo all see it as their most sacred peak.) For me, finally visiting Kailash felt quite similar to visiting the Taj Mahal last December. I had heard for years of the glory of the Taj, and, like a movie everyone is talking about, thought that actually seeing it in person would be somewhat of a letdown. The reality could not possibly live up to the reputation. Quite the opposite was what I found in Agra: The Taj was more impressive, more glorious than anyone's descriptions.
Three days ago, as we strolled up the Lha Chu valley on the west side of Kailash, those same feelings came flooding back. We all were wide eyed, stunned by the dramatic beauty surrounding us. Two thousand foot walls of ruddy-colored conglomerate stone soared skyward; each one with a significance to the pilgrims plodding along. This one was Padmasambhava's (Guru Rinpoche's) torma (a ritual cake made of tsampa, or buckwheat flour), the next wall a protector diety being pulled to the bowels of hell by evil demons. Every step along the kora has a meaning, and every step is grander and more dramatic than the last. As we exited the Lha Chu and headed along the north face of Kailash, the dramatic walls of conglomerate transitioned into sweeping faces of granite. To the north, a gompa (monastery) appeared, dwarfed by the peaks above. It was Ditrul Phuk, the north side gompa, a holy place where both Padmasmbhava and Milarepa stopped to meditate centuries before. We made camp on a grassy plain below the watchful wall of Kailash.
Yesterday took us over the Drolma La and through the east valleys of Kailash. We shared the trail with elderly women from Korea, more Indian pilgrims from Rajasthan, Hyderabad, and Delhi, and a group of prostrating pilgrims from Kham, some 800 miles to the northeast. Again, the topography changed with the valleys, and the granite of the north switched to basalts and metamorphic jumbles strewn along crumbling hillsides. We made camp in yet another stunning, grassy plain, this time below the east side gompa of Zitrul Phuk, where Guru Rinpoche lifted the ceiling of a meditation cave to better fit his height. Perhaps a myth, but one that certainly captured the faith of the dozens of pilrgims prostrating at the cave's mouth.
Today's walk took us out of the kora and back to the plains of Tibet, which defy reality in their size. As far as the eye can see, low tundra stretches to the horizon. Snow capped peaks jut above the clouds of an ebbing monsoon, reflecting in the azure waters of Mansarovar and Raksas. And, all of this takes place at 14,500 feet or more – well above antyhing in the continental USA!
As we drove westward toward Tirthapuri and our awaited visit to the ancient Guge Kingdom, I watched Gurla Mandhata fade quietly into the dust of the Tibetan Plateau. I could not help but think of the climb to come, the excitement of being on a high, solitary peak far from anything and anyone, and with a great group of people.
And then, as it has done for weeks and weeks, my mind drifted back 9 years to the autumn of 1997. My (and Stuart's) good friend Quinn, his father Tom, and friend Soren, and their epic of survival on the slopes of Gurla's North Face. It is a story that puts most mountaineering epics to shame, and an aftermath of recovery which humbles me anytime I think of it or spend time with Quinn. I will not tell it here, as it is their story, not mine, and thus not mine to tell. As I watched Gurla disappear out of the Land Cruiser's window, I could see Quinn's face in my mind, his ready smile and zest for life as real as the mountains around me. If I can ever muster 1/2 the determination, tenacity, and courage Quinn has shown in the past 9 years, I will be a happy man.
Quinn, if you're reading this, you're one of my heroes. We'll be thinking of you every step…Let's go climbing…