Sunday, February 15, 2009
The old man wore a sun hardened, wind worn face, a beaten leather jacket, a necklace of dzi beads, shells and ancient turquoise. He walked forward, his hands never stopping, working his mala. He stopped, looking at the mountain, placed his hands together in prayer, and bent down on hands and knees, forehead scraping the earth as he lay in full prostration, all the while chanting softly the mantra: “Om Mani Padme Hum.”
The Kora around Mount Kailash in Western Tibet is considered by many one of the holy grails of this planet. Whether you are there as a prostrating Buddhist, or Hindu on pilgrimage to Shiva’s throne, or just a traveler looking for some inspiration, the sacred mountain calls you. Kailash’s pyramid of snow juts into high altitude sky, and its rainbows of prayer flags send their offerings on the breeze. The kora is 50+km clockwise trek around the mountain with the start and finish in Darchen, a frontier town in Western Tibet.
You cannot fly here; the only way in is by jeep, bus, bike or hike. Most pilgrims opt for the jeep or bus, since Darchen lies more than 1000 kilometers west of Lhasa, and over 700 kilometers northwest of Katmandu, Nepal, the nearest feasible airports.
If you ever make it all the way to Darchen, you probably are here for kora.
The kora takes you 50+ kilometers clockwise around the peak. Thousands of pilgrims flock here to advance their sadhana. You will see grandpas and grandmas, infants, and everyone in between, walking, or prostrating to the high point at the Domla-la, over 5600m.
Along the way you can camp, or stay at the gompas or parachute tent camps. From the Drirapuk Gompa, you can walk to the Kangkyam glacier, hanging off the north face of Kailash. Standing on the blue ice, at the headwaters of the four rivers; Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Karnali and Indus, one cannot help but feel that this truly is the center of the universe. Four major religions consider this mountain sacred: Jain, Buddhist, Bon-Po, and Hindu. The kora around this abode of the gods is considered extremely auspicious. In fact, it is said that one proper kora can rinse you of a lifetime of sin – complete 108 koras and you may find yourself strolling the fields of Nirvana, enlightened beyond your wildest imagination.
As I sit at home writing, Kailash and west Tibet become one of those places that defy imagination. So remote, so high, so spiritual, that details quickly retreat behind layers of cloud. Kailash is such a place that leaves you wondering if you ever actually touched the ground there. Huge skies, electrically blue, ear ringing silence, and thousands of Om Mani Padme Hum’s fluttering in the wind leave you breathless. Standing at the top of Dromla-la, 5636m above sea level, I hung a set of prayer flags in offering to the Mountain for safe passage, to a friend that he would vanquish his cancer, and to the Gods that I was even given the chance to breath the air in such an amphitheater.