Traveler and writer Meg Moser joins us again for a fabulous guest post on one of the world’s great spiritual treks, the 32-mile (52 km), high altitude Kailash Kora. Meg offers you an inside look at what it’s like to walk the holy circuit, along with some practical travel tips. The post describes a trip taken with YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon in September 2017. If you are interested in making the trip yourself, you will need a Tibet trave agency to help you with permits. If you want help with that, ask us here to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a great trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.
The Outer Journey: A Description of the 3-day Kailash Trek
On the road from Saga to Darchen
September 14, 2017
We were cruising at 15,000 ft on the highway to Darchen in our white caravan with prayer flags that stream like pigtails from the side mirrors. This was Day 14 of near constant travel by plane, train and automobile to reach this remote part of western Tibet, and we had been driving for nearly 6 hours.
Yolanda touched my arm and pointed excitedly out the window, “Look! It’s Kailash!” Unmistakable with her unique verticle cleft, Mt Kailash (or Kang Rinpoche, in Tibetan) is the only snow-covered mountain amidst a sea of blue massif. Rising over 21,000 ft, even from this vantage point, she is both beautiful and utterly intimidating. The first inkling of doubt creeps into my mind. I wonder…can we really do this?
Darchen (15,313 ft / 4,667 m)
Darchen, basecamp for pilgrims of Kailash, was probably an attractive village once. The only street into town is lined with the Chinese-instituted resettlement housing — cement boxes — for Tibetans and partially completed buildings destined to be hotels or stores. Yolanda and I have decided that since we will be roughing it on this trek that we will stay in the one “fancy hotel” in Darchen: the newish Himalayan Kailash Hotel. Impressively large, yet largely deserted, it is an odd place. Our room is furnished with IKEA-knock offs and comfortable beds with electric blankets, but no room heat. There are random punched-out holes in the clean white walls, no room wifi, terrible food and perhaps most shocking – in a world where tea is more plentiful than oxygen – no tea is available. When I protest, I am told, “We no speaking English!”
Video: A Short Compilation of the Kailash Kora Journey
Acclimatizing Day Hike and Trip Prep in Darchen
September 15, 2017
In the morning we meet Namgyal, our guide, for a short acclimatization hike above Darchen. At this altitude, Yolanda and I walk as if we have heavy chains bound to our feet. Namgyal, bored by our pace, lights a cigarette, and charges ahead chatting in his cell phone. When we eventually reach him, we are breathing hard and sweating under our down jackets. He motions for us to sit like children at his feet facing the massive Himalayan range due south. As Namgyal regales us with stories of his childhood, it dawns on me that this part of the Himalayan range was once the site of a main escape route for Tibetans after the 1959 Chinese occupation. Somewhere there is the Nepali border and beyond that, Dharamsala, India where his Holiness the Dalai Lama resides in exile. I have read stories of Tibetans who journeyed to Kailash from hundreds of miles away to do the kora before leaving their homeland, unsure if they would ever return. The descriptions of this journey are incredible, stories walking for over a month over glaciers, fueled by tsampa and cigarettes. Many Tibetans sent their children alone with strangers in hopes of better opportunities for them outside Tibet. From where I sit contemplating, passage through those mountain looks…impossible.
That night, Yolanda and I do dinner on our own without Namgyal’s help. We choose the local teahouse right across from the hotel that is identifiable by a a greasy wool blanket hanging over the doorway. We pull aside the heavy material and find ourselves the only women in a dark, smoke-filled room with men drinking beer and eating thukpa (noodle soup). There is nothing in English except for the wifi code on the wall. Yolanda quickly assesses the situation, adjusts her glasses, and starts to read the menu…out loud…in Tibetan. A silence falls over the entire room and we are all in awe of Yolanda’s secret superpower.
Day 1: Darchen (15,313 ft / 4,667 m) to Dirakpuk (16,672 ft / 5,081 m) — 12.4 miles / 20 km
September 16, 2017
At breakfast this morning Namgyal informs us that our porter is sick and he is trying to find a replacement through the government-run Kailash porter agency. He tells us not to worry, which as Americans, has the opposite effect. He tells us to start and he will catch up with the new porter. At 8:00 am, fueled by milk tea and shapa-le (fried bread with meat), we begin.
Dark clouds threaten rain as we start up the paved road towards the mountain. A little white dog jumps off the curb and instantly falls in with us. His tail is curled upwards and trotting right beside Yolanda, he becomes our unofficial escort ensuring we get a proper send-off.
We approach the well-worn dirt path going clockwise with no views of Kailash, but aware of its presence on our right. There is a palpable excitement now. Within a few minutes, we are joined by a whole family and cheerily exchange heartfelt grins. Instead of the traditional Tibetan greeting of Tashi Delek on this kora we are told to say, Chin-lob-che which means May you be blessed!
Many carry small knapsacks on their back (sometimes a baby), with just enough tsampa for their journey…and a cell phone.
We pass piles of mani stones and prayer flags that signify important viewpoints of Kang Rinpoche. Though the mountain remains hidden, we follow the pilgrim’s example and prostrate three times. At this elevation, three prostrations feel like throwing down 20 burpees in the middle of a Crossfit workout. But I am grateful for the cloud cover, which provides the perfect temperature for walking.
Namgyal catches up with us a few hours later with two porters and I am delighted to see one is a woman, Youdon. The other is a young man, Tsering, who at 25 years of age, has done this kora about 750 times! Seeing the utter disbelief on my face Namgyal later explains that if a pilgrim cannot complete the kora he can pay an agile youth to finish it for him, thus still benefiting from the act.
A few miles in we come to a large valley and suddenly rows of large trucks roar past us, spitting dust and exhaust, heading towards Dirapuk. It is then that we learn that the government has leased Mt Kailash and Lake Manasarovar to a conglomerate of private companies. The plan is to build an access road and hotels as China has realized the cash cow of selling the sacred.
I am so upset by this blatant desecration of one of the most revered sites for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. Yolanda and I want to throw rocks at these trucks. When we voice our anger about this our guide and porters just shrug their shoulders. They seem unphased. Even the pilgrim who a prostrating on the side of the road, in the dust of the trucks, does not break in stride.
It was drizzling lightly on and off, but just as we reach Dirapuk around 4:30pm, it starts pounding rain. We are proud of ourselves: we have survived 12 miles and 1500 feet of gain at very high altitude and just before the rain!
What we call Dirapuk is the rough little settlement, like an army barrack of tarps and tents, that has sprung up near Dirapuk Gonpa (monastery). Our lodging for the night is a cement shed with a metal roof which becomes deafening in the ensuing hail storm. There are several food tents and some forlorn, wet horses tied up in a stone enclosure. As Igor, an Estonian and one of the few other foreigners we encountered on the kora, said to me with a wink: “It’s not so bad – with one eye closed.”
Yolanda and I find the spare mattresses are comfortable enough and there is electricity for a couple of hours to charge our phones. It is 5 pm by the time we unpack and change out our of damp clothes. We discuss walking to the nearby gonpa, but it’s cold, wet and getting dark so we choose instead to rest and hydrate. We join our guide, porters and some Nepali guides in one of the teahouse tents, huddled around the wood stove.
We eat instant noodle soup and black salt tea in plastic cups that are still greasy from previous customers. Full and finally warm, I watch as Yolanda and crew play logic games with matchsticks, which gets everyone shouting and laughing and reaching over each other to take turns. I take breaks to run outside to check for the famous golden sunset view of Kailash from this camp, but it remains elusive. I am enjoying myself so much, it matters little.
Day 2: Dirapuk (16,672 ft / 5,081 m) to Dolma La Pass (18,543 ft / 5,651 m) to Zutulpuk (15,800 ft / 4,816 m) — 11.1 miles / 18 km
September 17, 2017
This is the big day – the most elevation gain, combined with a long trek – as we summit the Dolma-La. I pass the night in a sleepless state at over 16,500 ft, despite taking Acetazolamide and every effort to acclimatize slowly. The temperatures have dropped and rain has turned to snow. We start at 7 am in the dark with our headlamps – our boots crunching on the snow-dusted trail.
After about two hours we reach the first and only teahouse before the pass. The sun is up and it is now a mostly level path until we reach the last of the big climb over the Dolma-La. Here the pedestrian traffic becomes more congested with Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike. There are small groups of Chinese starting the climb. Some look shaky, standing by the trailside taking hits of oxygen from small canisters. Others are crawling at a snail’s pace with walking sticks. Yolanda and I are feeling good, all of our efforts to acclimatize slowly to this extreme altitude paying off. We (in our minds) fly past them, taking pictures and video. Even laughing breathlessly! We pass a graveyard of clothing placed on piled rocks; disconcertingly like human forms. Namgyal explains that people bring articles of clothes of those who cannot make the pilgrimage to bring them blessings. As the sun rises we now see some of the pilgrims full-body prostrating over the rocks and snow and mud.
About 500 feet below the pass we encounter a young Chinese woman in trouble. She is stumbling with her eyes closed and her lips are gray. She is wearing a slim parka, no gloves, and her tiny friend is mumbling (presumably encouraging words, though in sharp tonal Mandarin, one can never tell) and literally pushing her from behind. Namgyal falls behind to help her. I ask if she is okay and Namgyal reassures me, “She is fine. She has weak mind. She has no will.” So I watch with a detached curiosity, content to conserve my energy. When she eventually staggers to vomit and almost collapses against Namgyal, I know my intuition was right. She is altitude sick.
I am all to aware that there is no emergency rescue here and the nearest hospital is days away. Namgyal has personally carried out two dead bodies in his time guiding here. My ski patrol training pulls me out of my hypoxia-induced apathy. I start barking orders which Namgyal translates to Mandarin: “Off with her pack! Give her gloves! Put my down jacket on her! I don’t care that she doesn’t want to eat! Make her eat!” Her friend jumps to action, fumbling to open the little candies she had in her pocket. The woman, eyes still closed, protests all of this, but she is no match for the three of us. Then each taking an arm, Namgyal and I drag her forward, as she literally stumbles as if drunken. Within minutes I realize I do not have the physical resources to drag someone up this mountain for very long. I remember we have an oxygen canister. Though Namgyal protests, I insist: “We will just give her 5 minutes of oxygen.” We force her to ingest more water and candy and put the nasal cannula on her. Within two minutes her eyes are open and a faint pink colors returns her lips. She smiles faintly for the first time. As soon as we pull the oxygen off, like a person reborn, she stands up and starts walking up the trail, her friend running behind her.
While Namgyal and I were occupied with this, Yolanda had been writing our names and those in our hearts, on our prayer flags. Then she and Youdon had tied them together to fly our prayers to the heavens at the highest point of this kora. When I reach the snowy, windy summit, Yolanda greets me with a big hug.
Our adventure does not end at the pass. The descent is pure ice. Tsering holds my upper arm like a parent holds his toddler to keep me upright as I continually lose my footing. I look back to see Youdron doing exactly the same for Yolanda. Elderly grandmothers with canes and young dads with babies on their backs manage to stay upright far longer than we do, but most all of us end up sledding down on our behinds at one point or another.
After a steep long descent it is a relief to reach a cluster of teahouse tents around noontime. It had taken us only five hours to make it to the pass and down to the valley! Lunch is again instant ramen and salt black tea. Yolanda and I are exhausted but elated as we walk the next three and a half hours to Zutulpuk Gonpa (monastery). We are delighted to find we are staying at the monastery. This small gonpa was built over a cave where Milarepa meditated and his footprints can be seen on the ceiling. Thislittle gonpa is so modest it is cared for by one lama, who is quite unusual. He has a ponytail, is married, and has several children. The kitchen and guestroom are run by two sweet young women who live there during the tourist season. We enjoy a delicious rice, curry potato, yak meal. I drink thermuses of weak milk tea trying to quell my annoying cough and journal on scrap paper from Yolanda. We are the only guests tonight.
Day 3: Zutulpuk (15,800 ft / 4,816 m) to Darchen (15,313 ft / 4,667 m) — 8.6 miles / 14 km
September 18, 2017
I sleep fitfully again at 15,800 ft, not only because of the altitude but also because of the construction site below (presumably another Chinese hotel) going all night with bright lights and beeping noises. In the morning, still cloudy and cold, the lama opens the meditation room for us and we buy some tungas (amulets) and special red dirt unique to this mountain, from behind a dusty glass counter.
The hike out is anti-climatic. The sort of let-down feeling after a big high. Conversation is minimal. Yolanda and I walk at different paces. Namgyal has his earbuds in and is singing out loud to some mournful Tibetan balLad. The porters walk fast, probably ready to shed their loads and be done. As we descend, there is no more snow and we shed our down jackets for the first time as we follow the curve of a river that carves a natural trail. The prostrating pilgrims on day 18? 19? of their epic journeys looking very very tired.
My body is sore and I am tired of being breathless all the time, but I also don’t want this to end. My heart is so full. I am feeling so grateful for everything: for the circumstances in my life that made this trip possible, for the pilgrims who welcomed us, for experiencing this part of Tibetan life that may not exist in years to come, for the power of Kang Rinpoche even though she never revealed herself. I wanted to give something back. It comes to me what I can do. I pull out some plastic gloves from my first aid kit and start filling a trash bag with empty beer cans, Red Bull, water bottles, glass vials of Chinese herbs, cigarette butts, soup containers and oxygen containers that had littered the entire kora. To my surprise I look back to see Namgyal, Yolanda, Youdon, and Tsering all zigzagging into the tundra to picking up trash, too! I don’t know why but it makes me incredibly happy.
And then, we are at the outskirts of Darchen and the end of our kora is before us. Suddenly, Namyal takes out his earbuds and puts his cell phone on loudspeaker and Yolanda and I recognize our favorite Tibetan song of the trip. All at once, in unison, we belt out the chorus:
Phur. Phur dro du. Fly. It’s time to fly.
More About Meg Moser
Meg lives in Oakland, California and works as a nurse practitioner providing health care for the uninsured and immigrant community. A college semester abroad in Nepal ignited her passion for the Himalayas and she later returned to study the lives of Buddhist nuns in SE Asia and work with Tibetan nuns-in-exile. She was a volunteer ski patroller for 5 years and guided on Mt. Shasta. In her free time, you can find her climbing and skiing in the Sierras.
Are You Ready to Make your Own Pilgrimage?
Since no independent travel is allowed to Tibet and you must work with a travel agency, you want to be sure to choose a Tibetan-owned agency, which hires Tibetan guides only. The simplest way to do this is ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a life-changing trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.