Tibet is dirt in equal measure to dazzle. And Mount Kailas, the most divine mountain in Asia, is the epitome of both. This hulk of rock and ice is so holy the sight of it is meant to inspire metaphysical musings on impermanence and eternity, soulfulness and compassion in all who behold it. All mountains spark such wonder and wondering in me, but Kailas in particular is sacred for Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of the Jain and Bon faiths. Out of devotion to one deity or many, hundreds of pilgrims a year shuffle around Kailas to compensate for the sins of a lifetime. Or many lifetimes, as the case may be.
So Mel and I ditched our bikes and met our pal Laura Boggess to trek the Kailas kora (kora means to circumabulate a place or object of devotion), a thirty-three mile circuit around the unclimbed 22,000 ft mountain. The trail, while well-trampled, is tough going, reaching elevations over 18,000 feet at the highest pass. According to lore, one kora of Kailas washes you squeaky clean of sins, while thirteen koras confers insta-enlightenment (and also chronic exhaustion). Absolution and nirvana are probably not so easily mapped, but even if circumnavigating this hallowed rock fails to atone for sins in past lives, perhaps it prevents sins in one’s present and future life, all thanks to the self-reflection such rambling inspires.
What is a mountain? An obstacle; a transcendence; above all, an effect.
I went to Kailas anticipating a fun hike with friends, a healthy break from the bike. Hiking nose-to-toes with hordes of people is the last thing I want to experience in the mountains, so I figured I’d be frustrated on this traffic jammed trail. But Kailas was more than merely tolerable. It was the sort of beautiful madness that leaves you deeply moved for a lifetime. Possibly many.
Just picture a mass of pilgrims of all faiths and ages, shuffling along a narrow trail at all times of day and night. Wrinkled Tibetan grandmothers haul diapered grandkids on their hunched backs, fingering prayer beads and muttering om mani padme om, while I wheezed and struggled to match pace. The only people I was physically capable of passing were those prostrating through the entire kora, but gleaning satisfaction from passing such devouts only made me feel profane and pathetic. Long processions of Hindus on yakback snaked ahead and behind on the trail, and otherworldly Tibetan chanting rang from everyone and everywhere, sang from the very stones of Kailas. The top of the pass was a confusion of prayer flags, with primary colors splattered on rocks like holy graffiti, or tangled above the trail in hallucinogenic spider webs. Horses and yaks clomped about, scattering ecstatics like minnows. All at 18,000 feet on a mountain. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is chaos taken to such heights.
But in China, dazzle is never the full story. There is always and unfailingly dirt to accompany it. Now I have nothing against dirt, and judging from the state of my fingernails and clothes here, dirt positively adores me. But I mean dirt of a different sort, less natural and nuturing, more dingy and despairing. All around Kailas was strewn the materialistic detritus of modern civilization. Noddle packaging, plastic bottles, candy wrappers, aluminium cans….this on a pilgrimage route, this on sacred earth! But as I hiked around that mountain, I began to ask myself, why discriminate? What earth is not holy? Is any land truly unworthy of worship, except those swaths of it we the fickle and careless and casual have desecrated?
After Kailas, the rhythm and spirit of the adventure changed completely. Our Chinese visa was about to expire, so Mel and I were forced to bid farewell to the Germans and rush to Shigatse to renew both. This meant our bikes suffered the indignity of being disassembled and stuffed into the back of a jeep for a two-day drive. Then in Shigatse they only gave us a 7-day extension on our visa, just enough time to explore Lhasa and boot it out of Tibet to renew our visa elsewhere (in other provinces, visa extensions are granted with fewer qualms). So yesterday we flew to Zhongdian, a city in Yunnan where our friend Laura Boggess is based, to figure out the next step.
Through we have a month left to go, and anything can happen in a second never mind a month, it feels like we’ve transitioned from the experience to its epilogue. With our remaining time sapped and structured by visa extension deadlines and transportation constraints, with days mapped out and budgets dwindling, we’re slowly making the transition back to the constrained realities of life as we usually know it.
I already miss the stirring wildness, the terrible and beautiful isolation, the paradox and paradise that is northwestern Tibet. I miss the crazy company of the Germans, the dynamic we had as a team. I miss the challenge of those unforgiving roads, those merciless passes, those giddy heights. I miss the thrill and uncertainty of never knowing, on any given day, what I’ll see, what I’ll feel, who I’ll meet, how my life might be utterly transformed around any bend in the road. But if I take anything from Tibet, let it be an acceptance of the impermanent nature of everything. And may this help me recognize the marvelous in the mundane, wherever I go and whatever I do.
Polar explorers – one gathers from their accounts – sought at the Poles something of the sublime. Simplicity and purity attracted them; they set out to perform clear tasks in uncontaminated lands. The land’s austerity held them. They praised the land’s spare beauty as if it were a moral or spiritual quality: “icy halls of cold sublimity”, “lofty peaks perfectly covered with eternal snow”. Fridtjof Nansen referred to “the great adventure of the ice, deep and pure as infinity…the eternal round of the universe and its eternal death.” Everywhere polar prose evokes these absolutes, these ideas of “eternity” and “perfection” as if they were some perfectly visible part of the landscape. They went, I say, in search of the sublime, and they found it the only way it can be found, here or there – around the edges, tucked into the corners of the days. For they were people – all of them, even the British – and despite the purity of the conceptions, they manhauled their humanity to the Poles.
-Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk