Pilgrimage to Tibet

Pilgrimage to Tibet
by Alice Koh

While many go to the Wall at Jerusalem, or to the Vatican at Rome, or to the Kaaba at Mecca, or walk the road of St. James of Compostela in Northwest Spain, I decide to go to the highest mountains of the world and give my thanks to the gods living there. I went to Mount Everest, Mount Kailash and to the holiest Manasarovar Lake, up in the Himalayas.

This pilgrimage is what the ancient Americans called Vision Questing.

I do not come here as a tourist, seeking after commodities like good food, good beddings or good hotels, but as an act of worship and purification. This pilgrimage is done with reverence, prayers and meditation. God, therefore, is the main goal of this journey.

The world stops here, literally stops. Your television, your cell phones, every commodity that you are used to, do not exist here. What does exist is clear blue heavens, beautiful clouds, and at night, a moon that you can almost touch. The sacred mountains are everywhere.

The people here are kind, physically fit and very spiritual. They have nothing of material value to give, but they are very generous people. They give their hearts and hospitality.

I find myself at the center of all things, at the sacred Mount Meru, or Su-meru according to the Buddhist legends, or the Sacred Ashtapada mountains of the Jains; Mount Kailash, according to Bon-Tibetans.

I have accomplished what few Hindus do in their lifetime. I bathe in the sacred lake of the Manasarovar. I have done what few Bon Tibetans will do in this lifetime, walk clockwise the whole of Mount Kailash. And what few in the world will ever be witness to see, the snow-covered pyramid of Kailash that radiates light when the sun lit it from up high.

My pilgrimage or calling began when I was called to this place in a dream.

I am fortunate to have received the blessings of many. I am eternally grateful. A pilgrimage is never one’s own. You who have wished me a safe, very powerful and spiritual journey, blessing me that Lord Buddha and Goddess of Mercy be on my right and my left respectively, protecting me and blessing me with their holy love and compassion, were also with me. I thank all of you from the deepest love of my soul and heart combined.

To say that Kailash kora is an arduous journey is an understatement. It is a test of will over my physical limitations where every step is a literal struggle for breath in the extreme high altitude.

Many people start the kora by taking an Eco bus 10 km away from Darchen popularly known as the base camp of Mt Kailash. I start my kora right where I am in Darchen. My inaugural first step. I think I have to kiss that ground. Because that first step signifies a spiritual awakening.

Kora means pilgrimage. Mt Kailash is a mountain that is considered the most sacred and holiest in 4 religions; Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Shaivism. It is also known as the navel chakra of the universe.

Kora is a walk around Mt Kailash that takes 3 full days, only resting for a much-needed sleep at night to recharge physically and mentally.

Toilet condition in the mountains is horrendous. It is not only a bucket system. This bucket has not been cleared for weeks. There may be 3 or 5 holes in a toilet without any door. After a day of that horror of filth and indescribable stank, modesty is no longer an issue at all. You just want to do your business and run out without even buckling up your pants for that much needed gasp of air and gag. Oh! Have I mentioned that there isn’t even water to wash your hands after your shitting and peeing?

First day I walk in the valleys around majestic mountains. Endless meandering paths undulating in the gentle incline and decline of the natural topography of the mountains. The view is jaw-droppingly stunning. The gentle streams of crystal-clear waters and at times the rushing of foamy waters forms part of this scenic background of what people would have called the Shangri-la of our world.

The path is made of sand and gravel. In spite of its immense beauty, the harsh weather of bitter cold and a little sandstorm takes a toll on my physical body. Blisters insidiously develop in the soles of my feet. My backpack is pulling onto my shoulders like a spoilt brat who insists on sitting his enormous weight on my very tight and sore shoulders.

At this time, without a purpose for doing the kora, one would have given up to the elements and take the emergency car back to base camp. This has never been an option for me.

What sustains me is the dedication of every step to each of my students especially those who are fighting their painful health battles. I call out to each of their names and each of my loved ones’ and also to dedicate this kora to all beings. Without this selfless dedication, it is extremely difficult to complete the kora.

The mantra of the day soon evolves to the single syllabus of OM. Every exhalation is a silent sigh of OM. This mantra gives me the strength and fortitude to forge through this extreme hardship of the hike.

It is during the last leg of my first day journey that the West face of Mt Kailash comes into full view. By then my body is a wreck. The omni-presence and the quiet wisdom of Mt Kailash is the last spur of stepping yet another foot forward.

Finally, after 30 km and 9 hours later, a great heave of unhuman determination pushes me up a steep incline of 100 meters to reach my cabin for the night.

Upon arrival, I’m greeted with the majestic view of Mt Kailash right in front of my eyes. Light feathery snowflakes dance gracefully all around me. The owners of the cabin tell me it is a blessing from Mt Kailash.

This cabin is right at the foot of North face Kailash. Words can’t essentially describe the spirituality of the mighty Kailash looking down upon my wrecked but deeply awed body of mine.

This place is so full of god grace that once I reach my bed, I collapse and cry. I have so wanted to give up. But I think of my family and friends, and my students who are in pain. I am determined to go on. Humbly I ask the mountain and Lord Shiva to please give me strength and guidance; to please lift my spirit. I do not want to give up; to please grant me his blessings; I must get up tomorrow and move on until I fulfill this pilgrimage. My tears continue falling. But then! God Shiva answers my prayers! Snowflakes start falling again, they are like the gentle touch of hands caressing my face, reviving my spirit and giving me this outburst of energy and power. The answer to my prayer touches me deeply that it brings fresh tears to my eyes.

Whole night I hear the sound of snowflakes falling on my rooftop. It is a surreal experience for a city girl like myself. Under the watchful eyes of the holiest Mt Kailash, I fall into a deep dreamless sleep.

After a night of inertia, the body wakes up at 6 am to a stiff and painful log. Every discomfort is pronounced. I can even feel my core muscles tightened to a taut rope and every attempt to unfurl my body leads to spasm of pain.

Finally, after a few meager splashing of bitter cold water to blast wakefulness and a much-needed breakfast of cold but calorie-laden Tibetan flat bread (like naan) and oily warm omelette and cups of hot tea, I’m set to continue on the 2nd day of my kora.

By the way, up in the mountains, there is no shower facility. I have not showered for days! And remember, there is not even water to rinse your hands after shitting and peeing! So, keep your ego and jaded lifestyle at home. You are here for God and God is watching!

The second day is the most intensive of the journey. It is an extremely tough hike up a steep ascent in at least 3 inches of snow. It takes 3 hours to reach an altitude of 5600m. For your reference, at 6000m, oxygen is severely depleted which can cause claustrophobic damage to a human.

Immediately upon reaching the summit, one must make a steep descent down the mountain in snow and ice. I lose my footing several times even though I have my pair of good old waterproof heavy duty trekking shoes and a pair of hiking sticks. On the contrary, the natives have at most only a cane and a pair of normal covered-up shoes to deftly and quickly maneuver the descent in slippery ice! I feel like a bulky chunky agile-less elephant! Somehow, I think an elephant is still more graceful and Zen than I am!

Halfway down, a very kind Tibetan young man takes pity on me and holds out his hand to me. I hold onto his hand tightly as he leads me down the narrow rock and ice slippery descent.

Tibetan people are very kind especially to comrades doing the kora together. The common thread for God ties the hearts together. The young and the old ones who are a hundred times fitter than I am are every ready to lift you up from a fall or to give a gentle push from behind. One even picks up a stone and presents it to me.

After a steep descent of about an hour which feels like a lifetime, I come upon a blessedly cozy traditional teahouse. A hot cup of sugar loaded coffee tastes like heaven. In Singapore, I shun sugar like the plague. Here, sugar is a life saver.

At the base of the mountain, it is another 5 hours of walking in sand and gravel strewn “flatland”. How flat can the valleys around the natural topography of mountains be? Steep incline and steep decline, on and on and on. Have I mentioned this second day is the most arduous and intensive journey?

The mantra of this day is “I can make it”. Before I come for this kora, a loved one beseeched me to never ever give up even if I were to crawl to complete the kora. In my blistered feet and broken psyche, his booster rings in my mind. I’m really really thinking of crawling, if not for these people who are prostrating in the snow and looking at me surreptitiously at my gasping self.

Another very steep incline which punches me out of breath, I reach my stay for the night. It is in a monastery. However, the physical and mental toil of my body takes away the joy and serenity of sleeping in a monastery. I do remember though sleeping in the spiritual rhythm of the Damaru drums by the monks.

On the third day I wake up to a sore body. After much struggle with the self, I go out to breathe this most sacred air and salute the holy mountain in front of me and take in the serenity of the monastery. Salute the sun, the air, the snow, the rocks, everything that I can lay my eyes on. I say, hello! Thank you for your protection. Thank you for your love that you have bestowed upon me. My heart is overwhelmed with gratitude.

After a breakfast of flat bread and a hardboiled egg and cups of blessedly hot tea, I again make the steep descent down the mountain. This day is supposedly the easiest day. Again, in the undulating ups and downs, my blistered feet cry in protest. This is definitely not the time to give up. I have reached the last leg of my kora. I again pray for fortitude and protection.

Trudging doggedly, I finally see the town Darchen, the base camp of Mt Kailash, from a distance. I continue to tuck my chin in and just focus on stepping one foot forward at a time. Visually the town is near, but in actuality, it is another 4 km in meandering painful path.

After a 4-hour hike, I finally complete my kora. There is no rejoice. But a quiet acceptance that I have done it. I have answered my calling. Were I to do it for myself, I wouldn’t have had the steely will to complete it.

You may notice the anti-climactic completion of my kora. This is the equanimity of life. I have fulfilled my duty. I have seen God in each being on my kora. I understand the power the mind yields over matter. There is no rejoice when my body is near to breaking, but a deep gratitude for being led thus far.

The majestic mountains have been there since time immemorial. Every stone I pick up holds so much knowledge that I in this lifetime can never be able to grasp. Every mountain is a knowing entity that one bows in deep reverence and humility. The wisdom of the mountains flows into 4 rivers, one of which is the source of the holy Ganges.

Here I have met the gaze of sadhus from all different traditions. Tibetans monks and devotees prostrating even in the snow to this holy mountain. Others are in deep meditation. Both look as though they have entered into Samadhi or a deep trance that nothing can affect them.

Many are more concerned of doing their thousands of prostrations, to earn their Punya or merit.

My whole time I pray and chant the Om. I feel everything: the boulders, the myriad hues of the mountains, the streams, the lakes, the crystals in the stones, the green grass, the white snow, the fluffy clouds and the blue heavens. Oh, how I love this heaven! I have never seen blue so beautiful and so perfect in my life!

The second part of the pilgrimage is a visit to Manasarovar Lake, the most venerated of all holy lakes in Tibet, especially for Hindus who have made the pilgrimage walk around the lake for nearly 2000 years.

When I reach the lake, I pay homage to Lord Shiva by offering the rice that I have brought from home. I do with so much love and devotion that I cry. I give my thanks to all the Spirits in this place.

I see many pilgrims around me. Some are bathing at this sacred lake. Others are doing puja. There is a Guru teaching about this sacred place. There are birds gliding in the cold air, partaking as much as we humans do of the surreal auric field of this mystical lake. I sit. And time stands still.

No one will understand true charity until they walk this pilgrimage. Charity of speech, body and mind. Here you see true devotion, devoid of any selfish gains. Sadhus come with nothing except the purity of their hearts. They leave with nothing except the love from their gods. God does not let him die. This is a life worth living. It is a life filled with meaning and purpose.

Oh, and I see Sadhus doing Pranam to people they consider Saints. I understand the difference between Pranam and Namaste by witnessing it. A monk does Pranam when he bows low to the ground and kisses the feet of the Sadhu. A person does Namaste when he bows his head and folds his hands and greets another person.

You will never know how much God and life has given you, until you step out of that box that you have imprisoned yourself with.

But this pain keeps reminding me of my Ego. This simple and primitive way of life also reveals to me that I still have this Ego. But now God has given me a slap and woken me up. You want to see God. God is here and God is a huge mount that looks like a pyramid.

Indeed, when in Rome, do what the Romans do, for it is better to eat and drink poorly, than to die with gold chains and fine clothes with you. Indeed, it is better to live, for, can the dead attain dharma? I do not think so. They were given a chance, as I am given the chance today. And so, I do not mind going on without a warm shower, or without my delicious grapes and nuts and cereals with all those delicious cancer hidden chemicals. Oh, and that delicious fattening oily McDonalds French fries. Haha they remind me of Tibetan meat now that I think about it.

When I was in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, I saw carcasses of cows and yaks sold in the streets. They looked so diseased and rotten. Here in Kailash, however, my life is in the hands of my Goddess of Mercy. And if I must eat rotten meat in order to attain dharma, then, yummy, bring it here! And I will not be hypocritical either. But it will be the truth.

This kora has given me a new lease of life. After I walk the kora, after I bathe in the sacred waters of the Manasarovar Lake, I feel like I am born again. Like my life has a new beginning. Like a rebirth. Throughout the day the holy Mount Kailash keeps its hue of snowy white, standing so regal and majestic, quietly bestowing grace and blessings to all who come in deep reverence.

I saw Tibetans prostrating as they circumambulated the sacred mount of Kailash.

I saw these and I thought of all the Sadhus and Saints and monks and pilgrims that have walked this same path that I am walking right now, oh, but for how many thousands of years? Many of them only having a bowl, clothing for cold weather, sandals and a cane. If they were lucky enough to reach the monastery, they had a place to sleep and rest, and perhaps eat, if not, this same road served as a place to sleep. Thanking god all the time.

I have come. I have answered my calling. With deep reverence and humility, this shared experience of all who have walked before me, with me and after me, will be etched deeply in my heart.