A Flawless half-moon floated in a perfect blue sky on the morning
we said our goodbyes. Extended banks of cloud like long French
loaves glowed pink as the sun emerged to splash the distant
mountain tops with a rose-tinted blush. Now that we were leaving
Ravu, Lhamo said she wanted to give me a farewell present.
One evening I’d told her through Daniel that I was heading towards
Mount Kailash to complete the kora, and she’d said that I ought
to get some warmer clothes. After ducking back into her tent,
she emerged carrying one of the long-sleeved sheepskin coats
that all the men wore. Tsetan sized me up as we clambered into
his car. “Ah, yes,” he declared, “drokba, sir.”
We took a short cut to get off the Changtang. Tsetan knew a
route that would take us south-west, almost directly towards
Mount Kailash. It involved crossing several fairly high mountain
passes, he said. “But no problem, sir”, he assured us, “if there
is no snow.” What was the likelihood of that I asked. “Not
knowing, sir, until we get there.”
From the gently rolling hills of Ravu, the short cut took us
across vast open plains with nothing in them except a few gazell
that would look up from nibbling the arid pastures and frown
before bounding away into the void. Further on, where the plains
became more stony than grassy, a great herd of wild ass came
Tsetan told us we were approaching them long before
they appeared. “Kyang,” he said, pointing towards a far-off pall
of dust. When we drew near, I could see the herd galloping en
masse, wheeling and turning in tight formation as if they were
practising manoeuvres on some predetermined course.
Plumes of dust billowed into the crisp, clean air.
As hills started to push up once more from the rocky
wilderness, we passed solitary drokbas tending their flocks.
Sometimes men, sometimes women, these well-wrapped figures
would pause and stare at our car, occasionally waving as we
passed. When the track took us close to their animals, the sheep
would take evasive action, veering away from the speeding vehicle.
We passed nomads’ dark tents pitched in splendid isolation,
usually with a huge black dog, a Tibetan mastiff, standing guard.
These beasts would cock their great big heads when they became
aware of our approach and fix us in their sights. As we continued
to draw closer, they would explode into action, speeding directly
towards us, like a bullet from a gun and nearly as fast.
These shaggy monsters, blacker than the darkest night,
usually wore bright red collars and barked furiously with massive
jaws. They were completely fearless of our vehicle, shooting
straight into our path, causing Tsetan to brake and swerve. The
dog would make chase for a hundred metres or so before easing
off, having seen us off the property. It wasn’t difficult to
understand why ferocious Tibetan mastiffs became popular in
China’s imperial courts as hunting dogs, brought along the Silk
Road in ancient times as tribute from Tibet.
By now we could see snow-capped mountains gathering on
the horizon. We entered a valley where the river was wide and
mostly clogged with ice, brilliant white and glinting in the
sunshine. The trail hugged its bank, twisting with the meanders
as we gradually gained height and the valley sides closed in.
The turns became sharper and the ride bumpier, Tsetan
now in third gear as we continued to climb. The track moved
away from the icy river, labouring through steeper slopes that
sported big rocks daubed with patches of bright orange lichen.
Beneath the rocks, hunks of snow clung on in the near-
permanent shade. I felt the pressure building up in my ears,
held my nose, snorted and cleared them. We struggled round
another tight bend and Tsetan stopped. He had opened his
door and jumped out of his seat before I realised what was
going on. “Snow,” said Daniel as he too exited the vehicle, letting
in a breath of cold air as he did so.
A swathe of the white stuff lay across the track in front of
us, stretching for maybe fifteen metres before it petered out and
the dirt trail reappeared. The snow continued on either side of
us, smoothing the abrupt bank on the upslope side. The bank
was too steep for our vehicle to scale, so there was no way round
the snow patch. I joined Daniel as Tsetan stepped on to the
encrusted snow and began to slither and slide forward, stamping
his foot from time to time to ascertain how sturdy it was. I looked
at my wristwatch. We were at 5,210 metres above sea level.
The snow didn’t look too deep to me, but the danger wasn’t
its depth, Daniel said, so much as its icy top layer. “If we slip off,
the car could turn over,” he suggested, as we saw Tsetan grab
handfuls of dirt and fling them across the frozen surface. We
both pitched in and, when the snow was spread with soil, Daniel
and I stayed out of the vehicle to lighten Tsetan’s load. He backed
up and drove towards the dirty snow, eased the car on to its icy
surface and slowly drove its length without apparent difficulty.
Ten minutes later, we stopped at another blockage. “Not good,
sir,” Tsetan announced as he jumped out again to survey the
scene. This time he decided to try and drive round the snow.
The slope was steep and studded with major rocks, but somehow
Tsetan negotiated them, his four-wheel drive vehicle lurching
from one obstacle to the next. In so doing he cut off one of the
hairpin bends, regaining the trail further up where the snow
had not drifted.
I checked my watch again as we continued to climb in the
bright sunshine. We crept past 5,400 metres and my head began
to throb horribly. I took gulps from my water bottle, which is
supposed to help a rapid ascent.
We finally reached the top of the pass at 5,515 metres. It was
marked by a large cairn of rocks festooned with white silk scarves
and ragged prayer flags. We all took a turn round the cairn, in a
clockwise direction as is the tradition, and Tsetan checked the
tyres on his vehicle. He stopped at the petrol tank and partially
unscrewed the top, which emitted a loud hiss. The lower
atmospheric pressure was allowing the fuel to expand. It sounded
dangerous to me. “Maybe, sir,” Tsetan laughed “but no smoking.”
My headache soon cleared as we careered down the other
side of the pass. It was two o’clock by the time we stopped for
lunch. We ate hot noodles inside a long canvas tent, part of a
workcamp erected beside a dry salt lake. The plateau is
pockmarked with salt flats and brackish lakes, vestiges of the
Tethys Ocean which bordered Tibet before the great continental
collision that lifted it skyward. This one was a hive of activity,
men with pickaxes and shovels trudging back and forth in their
long sheepskin coats and salt-encrusted boots.
All wore sunglasses against the glare as a steady stream of blue trucks
emerged from the blindingly white lake laden with piles of salt.
By late afternoon we had reached the small town of Hor,
back on the main east-west highway that followed the old trade
route from Lhasa to Kashmir. Daniel, who was returning to
Lhasa, found a ride in a truck so Tsetan and I bade him farewell
outside a tyre-repair shop. We had suffered two punctures in
quick succession on the drive down from the salt lake and Tsetan
was eager to have them fixed since they left him with no spares.
Besides, the second tyre he’d changed had been replaced by
one that was as smooth as my bald head.
Hor was a grim, miserable place. There was no vegetation
whatsoever, just dust and rocks, liberally scattered with years
of accumulated refuse, which was unfortunate given that the
town sat on the shore of Lake Manasarovar, Tibet’s most
venerated stretch of water. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist
cosmology pinpoints Manasarovar as the source of four great
Indian rivers: the Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej and the
Brahmaputra. Actually only the Sutlej flows from the lake, but
the headwaters of the others all rise nearby on the flanks of
Mount Kailash. We were within striking distance of the great
mountain and I was eager to forge ahead.
But I had to wait. Tsetan told me to go and drink some tea in
Hor’s only cafe which, like all the other buildings in town, was
constructed from badly painted concrete and had three broken
windows. The good view of the lake through one of them helped
to compensate for the draught.
I was served by a Chinese youth in military uniform who
spread the grease around on my table with a filthy rag before
bringing me a glass and a thermos of tea.
Half an hour later, Tsetan relieved me from my solitary
confinement and we drove past a lot more rocks and rubbish
westwards out of town towards Mount Kailash.
My experience in Hor came as a stark contrast to accounts
I’d read of earlier travellers’ first encounters with Lake
Manasarovar. Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese monk who had
arrived there in 1900, was so moved by the sanctity of the lake
that he burst into tears. A couple of years later, the hallowed
waters had a similar effect on Sven Hedin, a Swede who wasn’t
prone to sentimental outbursts.
It was dark by the time we finally left again and after
10.30 p.m. we drew up outside a guest house in Darchen for
what turned out to be another troubled night. Kicking around
in the open-air rubbish dump that passed for the town of Hor
had set off my cold once more, though if truth be told it had
never quite disappeared with my herbal tea. One of my nostrils
was blocked again and as I lay down to sleep, I wasn’t convinced
that the other would provide me with sufficient oxygen. My
watch told me I was at 4,760 metres. It wasn’t much higher
than Ravu, and there I’d been gasping for oxygen several times
every night. I’d grown accustomed to these nocturnal
disturbances by now, but they still scared me.
Tired and hungry, I started breathing through my mouth.
After a while, I switched to single-nostril power which seemed
to be admitting enough oxygen but, just as I was drifting off,
I woke up abruptly. Something was wrong. My chest felt
strangely heavy and I sat up, a movement that cleared my
nasal passages almost instantly and relieved the feeling in
my chest. Curious, I thought.
I lay back down and tried again. Same result. I was on the
point of disappearing into the land of nod when something told
me not to. It must have been those emergency electrical
impulses again, but this was not the same as on previous
occasions. This time, I wasn’t gasping for breath, I was simply
not allowed to go to sleep.
Sitting up once more immediately made me feel better. I
could breathe freely and my chest felt fine. But as soon as I lay
down, my sinuses filled and my chest was odd. I tried propping
myself upright against the wall, but now I couldn’t manage to
relax enough to drop off. I couldn’t put my finger on the reason,
but I was afraid to go to sleep. A little voice inside me was
saying that if I did I might never wake up again. So I stayed
awake all night.
Tsetan took me to the Darchen medical college the following
morning. The medical college at Darchen was new and looked
like a monastery from the outside with a very solid door that led
into a large courtyard. We found the consulting room which was
dark and cold and occupied by a Tibetan doctor who wore none
of the paraphernalia that I’d been expecting. No white coat, he
looked like any other Tibetan with a thick pullover and a woolly
hat. When I explained my sleepless symptoms and my sudden
aversion to lying down, he shot me a few questions while feeling
the veins in my wrist.
“It’s a cold,” he said finally through Tsetan. “A cold and the
effects of altitude. I’ll give you something for it.”
I asked him if he thought I’d recover enough to be able to do
the kora . “Oh yes,” he said, “you’ll be fine.”
I walked out of the medical college clutching a brown envelope
stuffed with fifteen screws of paper. I had a five-day course of
Tibetan medicine which I started right away. I opened an after-
breakfast package and found it contained a brown powder that
I had to take with hot water. It tasted just like cinnamon. The
contents of the lunchtime and bedtime packages were less
obviously identifiable. Both contained small, spherical brown
pellets. They looked suspiciously like sheep dung, but of course
I took them. That night, after my first full day’s course, I slept
very soundly. Like a log, not a dead man.
Once he saw that I was going to live Tsetan left me, to return
to Lhasa. As a Buddhist, he told me, he knew that it didn’t
really matter if I passed away, but he thought it would be bad
Darchen didn’t look so horrible after a good night’s sleep. It
was still dusty, partially derelict and punctuated by heaps of rubble
and refuse, but the sun shone brilliantly in a clear blue sky and
the outlook across the plain to the south gave me a vision of the
Himalayas, commanded by a huge, snow-capped mountain, Gurla
Mandhata, with just a wisp of cloud suspended over its summit.
The town had a couple of rudimentary general stores selling
Chinese cigarettes, soap and other basic provisions, as well as
the usual strings of prayer flags. In front of one, men gathered
in the afternoon for a game of pool, the battered table looking
supremely incongruous in the open air, while nearby women
washed their long hair in the icy water of a narrow brook that
babbled down past my guest house. Darchen felt relaxed and
unhurried but, for me, it came with a significant drawback. There
were no pilgrims.
I’d been told that at the height of the pilgrimage season, the
town was bustling with visitors. Many brought their own
accommodation, enlarging the settlement round its edges as
they set up their tents which spilled down on to the plain. I’d
timed my arrival for the beginning of the season, but it seemed
I was too early.
One afternoon I sat pondering my options over a glass of tea
in Darchen’s only cafe. After a little consideration, I concluded
they were severely limited. Clearly I hadn’t made much progress
with my self-help programme on positive thinking.
In my defence, it hadn’t been easy with all my sleeping
difficulties, but however I looked at it, I could only wait. The
pilgrimage trail was well-trodden, but I didn’t fancy doing it alone.
The kora was seasonal because parts of the route were liable to
blockage by snow. I had no idea whether or not the snow had
cleared, but I wasn’t encouraged by the chunks of dirty ice that
still clung to the banks of Darchen’s brook. Since Tsetan had
left, I hadn’t come across anyone in Darchen with enough English
to answer even this most basic question.
Until, that is, I met Norbu. The cafe was small, dark and
cavernous, with a long metal stove that ran down the middle.
The walls and ceiling were wreathed in sheets of multi-coloure
plastic, of the striped variety- broad blue, red and white-that
is made into stout, voluminous shopping bags sold all over China,
and in many other countries of Asia as well as Europe. As such,
plastic must rate as one of China’s most successful exports along
the Silk Road today.
The cafe had a single window beside which I’d taken up
position so that I could see the pages of my notebook. I’d also
brought a novel with me to help pass the time.
Norbu saw my book when he came in and asked with a
gesture if he could sit opposite me at my rickety table. “You
English?” he enquired, after he’d ordered tea. I told him I was,
and we struck up a conversation.
I didn’t think he was from those parts because he was wearing
a windcheater and metal-rimmed spectacles of a Western style.
He was Tibetan, he told me, but worked in Beijing at the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences, in the Institute of Ethnic Literature.
I assumed he was on some sort of fieldwork.
“Yes and no,” he said. “I have come to do the kora.”
My heart jumped. Norbu had been writing academic papers about the
Kailash kora and its importance in various works of Buddhist
literature for many years, he told me, but he had never actually
done it himself.
When the time came for me to tell him what brought me to
Darchen, his eyes lit up. “We could be a team,” he said excitedly.
“Two academics who have escaped from the library.” Perhaps
my positive-thinking strategy was working after all.
My initial relief at meeting Norbu, who was also staying in
the guest house, was tempered by the realisation that he was
almost as ill-equipped as I was for the pilgrimage. He kept telling
me how fat he was and how hard it was going to be. “Very high
up,” he kept reminding me, “so tiresome to walk.” He wasn’t
really a practising Buddhist, it transpired, but he had
enthusiasm and he was, of course, Tibetan.
Although I’d originally envisaged making the trek in the
company of devout believers, on reflection I decided that perhaps
Norbu would turn out to be the ideal companion. He suggested
we hire some yaks to carry our luggage, which I interpreted as a
good sign, and he had no intention of prostrating himself all
round the mountain. “Not possible,” he cried, collapsing across
the table in hysterical laughter. It wasn’t his style, and anyway
his tummy was too big.
Father to Son by:
Author: Elizabeth Jennings
I do not understand this child
Though we have lived together now
In the same house for years. I know
Nothing of him, so try to build
Up a relationship from how
He was when small. Yet have I killed
The seed I spent or sown it where
The land is his and none of mine?
We speak like strangers, there’s no sign
Of understanding in the air.
This child is built to my design
Yet what he loves I cannot share.
Silence surrounds us. I would have
Him prodigal, returning to
His father’s house, the home he knew,
Rather than see him make and move
His world. I would forgive him too,
Shaping from sorrow a new love.
Father and son, we both must live
On the same globe and the same land,
He speaks: I cannot understand
Myself, why anger grows from grief.
We each put out an empty hand,
Longing for something to forgive.