UPDATE: OCTOBER 24, 2016
We recently heard this sad news from the organizer of this trek: ” I have recently decided to terminate our annual Kawa Karpo pilgrimage trek as, sadly, after 2015 (the year of the sheep and most auspicious year for this particular kora) the route had been cluttered with litter. There are plans to organize a clean up soon but it is now almost beyond repair, which is real shame.” There are many fantastic Kham treks. If you’re interested, contact us here to learn more.
A Purifying Spiritual Quest in the Footsteps of Tibetan Pilgrims in Kham
By Adrian Bottomley
Straddling the border between Yunnan and Tibet sits one of the Buddhist world’s most holy mountains – Kawa Karpo or “white pillar” in Tibetan. Never climbed and worshiped as a deity, it is an icon of the ancient Bon religion, an animistic tradition based on the concept of a world pervaded by good and evil spirits that inhabit forests, rivers and mountains. Every year thousands of hardy and devout Tibetans arrive to circumambulate the revered peak in one of the region’s most sacred pilgrimages. So, I decided to join them on a trip of a lifetime and trek in unison with the wild, Khampa nomads in a quest to purify a lifetime of negative karma.
Images from the Kawa Karpo Kora
Click on any image to enlarge it and/or to begin a slideshow.
Spectacularly Diverse Scenery
The topographic extremes on the circumambulation path around the Kawa Karpo – the kora – are immense. Within a stretch of less than ten kilometres the land rises from 1800m along the Mekong River valley to 6740m at the summit of Kawa Karpo. Environmentally, it is equally impressive, with a wide variety of spectacular, untouched landscapes. Following the trekking route, I passed through sub-tropical scrub, arid canyons, moss-laden forests, alpine meadows and above the tree line, scree-strewn, snow-capped peaks.
Journeying to the Trailhead
Getting to the start of the trek was a stunning journey in itself. Driving for the best part of a day and a half out of Shangri-La, the road crossed over high mountain passes with huge vistas of the Eastern Himalayas. Laid back Tibetan villages such as Benzilan, and the beautifully muraled Dongzhuling Monastery, offered a number of interesting ways to break up the journey as the road headed further off the beaten track. I spent the first night in Fei lai si, and was rewarded in the morning with spectacular views of Kawa Karpo and its photogenic, triangular female counterpart, Miancimu, the jagged tips of the mountains glowing in the radiant dawn.
Collecting the “Key to the Kora”
Embarking on the challenging twelve day trek first involved a visit to the Zhizingtang monastery to collect the symbolic “key” to the kora. It is here that Tibetan pilgrims seek spiritual inspiration and prepare mentally for the journey. The first of over 180 kilometers in the days ahead began with the crossing of an old chain bridge over the Mekong River before ascending through a gorgeous valley to the village of Yongzi. From here the goal for the next two days was Dokar – La, the first of six high-altitude passes. The path wound its way up through primordial forests with lichen hanging from the branches like old party streamers. The mind started to settle, and I became mesmerized by the hypnotic ringing of the caravan pony bells.
Dokar La Pass
The first of the great passes, Dokar La, is 4,479 metres high and offered the first real test of stamina as well as amazing views of the surrounding peaks. It was colourfully draped with thousands of fluttering prayer flags and covered with offerings of tsampa flour and yak butter. The kora is dotted with many sacred sites including springs where pilgrims stop to collect the water to take home for their family and small shrines where further offerings of clothes, food and money are left to be used when retracing the route in their next life.
Ancient, Moss-laden Forests
After a few days I arrived in the pretty Tibetan village of Abing, the first en route and took the opportunity to satiate my craving for a coke and a cold beer. The scenery down in the Salween River valley was suddenly more barren and strikingly arid, dotted with cacti, as the route ascended once again towards the isolated Tibetan village of Gebu. Magnificent views of snowy peaks slowly replaced the huge pine trees. The introspection that came from meandering through lichen forests was lifted by the big blue skies.
Mighty Sho La and the End of the Road
Ahead loomed the mighty red and grey Sho La pass at 4,800m beckoning both the pilgrims and I with its other worldly beauty. In days gone by this was the biggest test of mortal will for traders and their ponies transporting tea along this ancient trade route into Central Tibet and India. The revered shrine at the top was piled high with offerings of clothes and bamboo walking sticks. However, the haunting, high altitude pass was not a place to linger for long so the descent down to what turned out to be the most scenic campsite on the kora, at Zhaxi pasture, was a welcome one. With the Sho La in the rear, the kora was nearing its end. I spent the final day hiking past grazing yaks, crystal clear streams and immense forest before the trek came to an abrupt end when I hit the road. But every trip, no matter how majestic requires some kind of hard resolution.
Kawa Karpo Kora Trip Details
- The adventure starts and ends in Shangri-La in Dechen Prefecture, Northern Yunnan.
- Accommodation typically involves camping and staying in Tibetan farmhouses and locally managed hotels.
- The kora takes 11- 12 consecutive days of relatively challenging trekking to complete and reaches a maximum altitude of 4,900m.
- The price per person is USD 4450 and includes all transfers, guides, accommodation and equipment. Flights to Shangri-La are not included. Additional costs upon arrival will be minimal and limited to a few drinks and snacks along the way.