Once More to Mount Kailash

by Karen Swenson


Screen Shot 2012-03-18 at 1.26.45 PMSometimes getting into Tibet is a snap; sometimes it is a convoluted diplomatic maneuver out of an Eric Ambler spy novel. In 2007, on my 8th trip to Tibet, it became the later because a group of young Americans, mistaking their egotistical urge for courage, flew in with a rolled up banner reading, “CHINA OUT OF TIBET,” unrolling it in the midst of Lhasa. They were thrown out of the country but those in the country suffered for their action. The Chinese banged the Tibetan door shut, an action at which they are expert. The pointless protest disrupted the tourist trade on which many Tibetans are dependent.

I flew from Shanghai, having ascertained that no Tibetan visas were being handed out there, to Chengdu, capital of Szechwan, hoping to find a way in, but every agent I talked to at the, unfortunately named, Traffic Hotel, next to the bus station on the cemented shores of the polluted Jin river said they wouldn’t be able to get me a Tibet visa for at least two weeks. Disgruntled, I wandered Chengdu seeing sights I had not visited in years. Prosperity had come to town in rouge and furbelows and the inhabitants were on a prolonged buying spree (this was before the earthquake) but prosperity had also brought interesting improvements to the park around Du Fu’s cottage in the form of archeological excavations that exposed the real cottages of the poet’s time and the refurbishing of a number of monasteries and temples. Between parks and temples I emailed a friend in New York expressing my irritability. He suggested I try the local CITS travel agency, a thing I would never have done on my own. There a young man, whose English name was Jim, signed me up for a five day Chinese tour of Tibet. I knew that given those five days and a little luck, I would find a Tibetan agent in Lhasa, able to get an extension on my visa, as well as a guide and car to go to Mount Kailash. It would be my 7th time to Kailash.

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Some people need to revisit Paris. I am a compulsive returnee to Tibet and Kailash. It is my escape from western civilization and its vulgarity, Berlusconi to Gaga. The four days it takes me, going from a little less than 16,000 feet to 18,600 as I go over the pass, Drölma La, circling the mountain, very slowly, enables me to detach from the octopus grasp of my culture’s adhesive attachment to time. It is a meditation trek. It is an attempt to hear whatever I believe is reality, which gets obscured by the incessant noise of one’s life, an attempt to return to the melodic line behind the personal and societal razzmatazz

Arriving in Lhasa with my Chinese companions and two other foreigners, a young, Frenchman and a middle aged Austrian who informed me President Bush was right, the problem was simply that, “Saddam’s WMD have not yet been discovered,” I went immediately to the street, Mentsikhang Lam, that runs from the famous Tashi One second floor restaurant to the Chinese built plaza of the Jokhang Temple. My old agency had moved, leaving behind an alarming residue of desk rubble and papers. I tried the Tibetan run agency in the Snowland’s Hotel, climbing the stair past the odiferous toilets, but they were in despair about getting visa extensions. Now quite worried, and madder than ever at my banner-bearing fellow countrymen, I wandered up and down the street lined with tourist geegaw shops, cheap clothes shops, being tugged at by the occasional persistent baby-bearing-beggar, as I dropped into agencies that also couldn’t get me a visa extension. I found one place where a young man, with eyes that wandered everywhere but somehow never found my face, thought he could get a visa extension but said the Kailash trip would cost 12,000 yuan plus 250 yuan a day for the guide plus, plus ($1,600, plus, 35 a day, plus, plus.) I said I would return if I decided I was interested.

A number of dusty Westerners looking haggard from adjusting to Lhasa’s 12,000-foot altitude were hanging about the entrance to a shop with a large sign saying, FITS, above the door. I too was feeling decidedly out of it since it takes four days to get through my basic body adjustment to the altitude, from screaming headache, through lassitude and emotional funk, to feeling I may not die if I don’t move quickly. I walked in to FITS to find a smiling, overweight, Tibetan woman, (overweight is unusual since altitude tends to keep you thin) who said she could get me a visa extension and would charge 14,000 yuan for a car, guide and driver to do the round trip to Kailash and back. I signed up immediately.

The next day I abandoned my tour as they were dragged off to yet another concrete barn to buy tea or preserved vegetables or Chinese medicine compounds. The tour members were never offered Tibetan products, never allowed to talk to a Tibetan, nor did they make any attempt to make contact with the Tibetans around them all of whom spoke some Chinese. They saw very little of Tibet in those five days but a great many concrete barns selling Chinese goods at hyped prices. I hoped that my chubby agent, Dawa, would have my passport and the permits. She didn’t, but she had been successful in changing my ticket on the recently opened train that I would take back to Shanghai. When I walked in she was raking some unfortunate young Tibetan over some very hot coals. She didn’t shout at him, but you could almost see her fury fizzing like a shaken bottle of Coke. He stayed calm and quiet voiced through the process. It was a fascinating display of Buddhist self-control on both sides.

The day my Chinese companions left I could feel the tension drop from me. It wasn’t that they were unpleasant, although they did prod me about the Dalai Lama. I told them I would not discuss him since they already knew my opinions and disagreed with them. They were, indeed, very pleasant to me but somehow made me the feel like a freak, the bearded lady at the circus. I stayed on at the hotel, even though I loathed my cold, cement block room, with ill-fitting windows, and stained carpets. The hotel was called the Mongolian, with nothing Mongolian about it, just the required, achingly ornate lobby that, however, had one redeeming oddity, a tree growing up and through the roof that had to be watered by the receptionist each morning.

That night I went in to Dawa’s office to find all permits in order, my passport waiting and to meet my driver Putse, a young man with acne, and my guide Sonam, in desperate need of a dentist, both in their twenties. Before we left the agency, I asked Dawa to explain to Sonam that I would be doing the khora, the sacred pilgrimage path around Kailash, in four days. All Tibetans, I don’t know why, believe that foreigners should do the khora in three days. If I do it in three I have no time to look at anything but my feet. Therefore, I want four days. She told him four days in Tibetan. I reiterated in English, “Four days,” holding up four fingers. Sonam nodded. Foolishly, I thought Sonam had agreed.

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The next morning Putse picked me up at the hotel, driving us to the junction where the Tashi One restaurant is. I hopped out of the car to buy delicious steamed pork buns at a tiny stand for our breakfast, buoyantly happy as a stringless balloon gusting on the wind to be with my two Tibetan companions on the road to Kailash after so much frustration, planning and mild subterfuge. Further down the road we picked up Sonam who hopped out of the car after a block or two to buy boiled eggs and more pork buns.

The road to Lhatze was paved but, to my delight, the Chinese were bearing down on speeding with police posted along the way to track cars and trucks, there were that few, causing Putse to have a light foot on the accelerator. But sometimes he would go too fast, thus getting to the next police checkpoint before the time he should have arrived. Then we pulled off the road and sat until time caught up with us. That was all right with me. I like sitting in the car with the door open looking out at rock formations where I can see clearly layers of sedimentary rock that have been lifted up and bent the way you might fold a bulky mattress.

In Tibet, road improvement has to do with getting troops and supplies back and forth across the Changtang plateau. You cannot spend two hours on a main road in Tibet without seeing a caravan of army trucks, which you must allow to precede you, containing young Han soldiers. Once past Lhatze, still one of the ugliest towns in Tibet with its white bathroom tile, blue glass Chinese buildings, the road became dirt with lots of dust up the nose and in the hair. The Tibetan Lhatze is just outside the Chinese version, off the road, requiring a permit to visit it. We began to pass pretty, small villages, some with new houses built in the old Tibetan style, mud brick walls, with courtyards full of stacked yak dung for the kitchen fire and farming implements, attesting to the tenuous prosperity that has finally trickled down to the Tibetans. These houses’ south facing balconies are brightly painted with Buddhist symbols and host family summer gatherings. Great swaths of purple rock are splashed on the mountainsides and there are display models of strata for a geology class. The off road traffic consisted of herds of sheep, goats, yaks and the on road, of people with horse carts or tractors, tourists in four-wheel drives and police cars. Yaks in red feather duster-like headdresses were plowing the fields with brass bells around their necks. Putse sang along with his Bollywood tapes, of which he had an endless supply, or whistled shrilly off tune. Since I also drift off key when I whistle, I understood. They asked me if they could smoke in the car. I gathered my courage and said, “No.” Both Sonam and Putse had cell phones that played Tibetan tunes.

The one bad incident of the day was when the window on Putse’s side fell down inside the door. We pulled over and while he dismantled the door I walked up the wash where we had parked. It contained a big puddle, a small green patch of meadow and then rose rugged and rocky with patches of the wonderful purple shale, which taken to New York turns dull in the thick light of sea level air. Maybe that is what happens to me too. Perhaps in Tibet’s thin air my psyche is a rich, royal purple that then turns dun and dull in the dense sea level atmosphere.

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Tibetan Thangka depicting Mount Kailash


That night we slept in Saga where I paid 100 yuan for a private room with dubious sheets and a prettily tiled bathroom with no water and an overflowing toilet. I slept in my silk cocoon that supposedly protects one from bed bugs. I must admit that I have never had bedbugs in Tibet, although I have had them in an itchy spectrum from a bed in Rome to the upholstery of an Indian restaurant in Hong Kong. The second day to Kailash we stopped at a town with a billiard table holding pride of place in the main street. A Chinese woman runs a restaurant here that is excellent—eggplant and eggs for lunch. While I ate, Sonam and Putse who seemed to inhale their food, went outside where I saw them talking to two women. When I came out after paying our bill, they asked me diffidently if I would mind if we gave the two a lift. They turned out to be a nun and her friend who were also headed to Kailash to do the khora. We became as companionable as you can become with no language. When we arrived at the big spider web of prayer flags that marks the first sighting of Mount Kailash’s dome, everyone put up prayer flags, including me, circumambulated the khora around the flags and then did prostrations, no mean feat at an altitude of close to 16,000 feet. We went on into Hor for butter tea, milk tea or Pepsi in a little café crowded with smokers and card players. There were also two Chinese military gnawing on sheep bones while talking on their cell phones. I hate the Chinese presence in Tibet but I also feel very sorry for these young men, used to city life and its excitements, dropped into this harsh, unforgiving, ascetic landscape. Imagine being an eighteen-year-old New Yorker transported to, and confined to, a small town in western Nebraska for two years.

We five returned to the car for the last stretch into Darchen, the town from which one begins the circumambulation of Kailash. This trip from Lhasa to Darchen used to take five hard days of driving and fording rivers. There are still a few rivers that have yet to have bridges built over them but the Chinese have improved the roads, whether paved or dirt, so that the trip has become considerably shorter. At the checkpoint I handed Putse the necessary papers out of the glove compartment. I had, shortly after we left Lhasa, usurped the front seat for my sanity and health; it is usually the prerogative of the guide. However, I found that when Putse went to get out or put away his permits his head or hand somehow always brushed my left breast. So I started handing them to him. Then I found my knee was being touched. I removed the offending hand with a smile and returned it to its owner. After that there was a change in attitude. I was more amused than distressed since he was in his twenties and I was about to turn seventy-two. Although I had told them my age, they later confessed that they had decided I was 48. That tells one a lot about aging in Tibet where the altitude and dry air, to say nothing of the largely unfiltered sun, take a toll on everyone. When I have finished a trip to Tibet I know exactly what I will look like in ten years.

In Darchen, a distressingly dirty town, we stayed at the guesthouse I’d slept in the year before run by an unsmiling family who, when I asked if they recognized me, glumly nodded. We argued over price but finally they came down to 150 yuan a night, an outrageous $18 a night, for a room, indeed clean, but with no other luxe attribute. I walked up the hill to the post office, mailed every postcard that was ready to go and ate Muslim noodles at a pleasant little restaurant with a Japanese man who was also going to start the khora the next day.

I went back to the guesthouse and changed for bed washing my face in the hot water from the Chinese thermos that the guesthouse provided. Sonam knocked on the door just as I was climbing into bed. He gave me my passport, there are formalities that a guide must complete before you can start the circumambulation, and then hung about having closed the door. It was very cold and I went back to the bed, sitting on the edge and pulling the covers over my legs. He came and sat beside me putting a hand on my knee, at which I said with starchy, schoolteacher firmness, “Absolutely not.” I got up, opened the door but it was only as I ushered him out that I smelled alcohol on him. I suppose he had a couple to get up the courage. This was my eighth trip to Tibet and never on all those trips had anyone made a pass at me. I had thought that my great age would protect me but here I was at almost 72 being propositioned in quick succession by two twenty-something Tibetans. Unfortunately I had no one with whom to share a giggle.


For breakfast I had tsampa with butter tea before starting out. Ground roasted barley, tsampa, is the staple of the Tibetan diet. Every traveler carries a bag of it. There is much writing by Westerners about how awful butter tea is. I can’t say that I find it dreadful. Yak butter is stronger tasting than cow butter, which is fairly insipid, and in the U. S. more tasteless and odorless than in Europe. I suppose it is that flavor that makes people say it is rancid, which it rarely is. The great thing about yak butter is that it gives you the energy, so badly needed, to get to the 18,600 feet of Drolma La, the pass over which you must go to complete the Kailash circumambulation. Trekking at this altitude you can use up 2,000 calories a day just breathing. I’ve often thought it would be a good commercial enterprise to start a fat farm at about 15,000 feet. The clients could have regular meals and a Snicker bar a day but would have to also walk two miles a day. If they weren’t sneaking hugely they would certainly lose.

We started the khora with the nun and her friend accompanied by their porters but they soon out distanced me. Next the Japanese man I’d dined with the night before arrived and streaked off. He may have done the khora in one day, quite a feat since it is 33 miles. Usually the Tibetans do that, although sometimes they take two days. Then a couple of Danes arrived but they too were much faster than I. Everyone is much faster than I on the khora.

Mount Kailash is sacred to Buddhists of all varieties, Hindus, who believe it is the home of Shiva and Paravati, Jains, and the Bön, those who belong to the religion that preceded Buddhism in Tibet. It is thought that people may have been circumambulating the mountain in one form of pilgrimage or another since at least the second millennium BC. The number of folk tales that are attached to various rock formations and water courses but have nothing to do with either Buddhism or Bönism, suggest that the mountain’s sacredness reaches deep into the past. Within the span of our historical knowledge, however, the mountain was originally the focus of Bön pilgrimage. With the arrival of Buddhism, a rivalry developed between the Böns and the new religion for the honor of the mountain as a pilgrimage site. This developed into a confrontation between Naro Bön Chung, an important shaman, and Milarepa and his disciples. Both were considered magicians. Milarepa, a Buddhist saint who had started life as a black sorcerer, received his name because he meditated as a hermit in a thin cotton wrap—Repa means “the Cotton-Clad one”— using the yoga method of ‘inner heat’ to survive the mountain winters. That method, still practiced today, has been scientifically proven. Naro and Milarepa had a series of contests with Naro starting by straddling Lake Manasarovar. Milarepa responded by flying above the lake, his body spread over its surface, before balancing it on his thumb. There were various building competitions between the two. But the final contest was which man could reach the top of Mount Kailash in the morning. At dawn Naro emerged from his tent, threw his leg over his drum and rose slowly toward the summit. Milarepa’s disciples were frantic. Their master had not yet left his tent where he was meditating. Finally he emerged just as a sunbeam came over the top of Kailash. He threw his leg over the beam and rode it swiftly to the mountain’s crown, startling Naro so that he fell off of his drum, which in its fall scarred the south face of the mountain leaving a vertical groove.

Bön practitioners still circumambulate Kailash but they do it counter clockwise while everyone else, Buddhist or not, does it clockwise. If one is lucky one may see a Bön shaman sitting at the edge of a cliff chanting and playing his one handed drum that has balls attached to it by strings.

I have never discovered what the purpose of the Bön pilgrimage is but for Tibetan Buddhists the circumambulation is associated with change and rebirth. A khora done with good spiritual intent erases the sins of a lifetime but the pilgrim must have the willingness to change her or his life thereafter. It is not about god. It is about one’s inner and outer life. The khora is based firmly on the belief in what cannot be apparent to our senses and reason, what we call holy or sacred, that genre into which we dump all we do not understand.

We stopped at Chaktsal Gang a pile of stones with mantras carved on some, heaps of yak skulls also with mantras carved into their foreheads, a stick, brought from heaven knows where since we had seen no trees for days, strung with khatas, white scarves that are offered to sacred places, people or given to those about to start on a journey, and prayer flags printed with the image of the wind horse that bears the flaming jewel, grantor of all wishes. Chaktsal Gang means prostration site and there are many along the khora. This is the first time since leaving Darchen that the black ridges surrounding the mountain drop away and one can get a clear sighting of the black ledges edged with white that compose her dome. I added a string of prayer flags to those already wafting in the breeze.

The next stop is Chörten Kangnyi, the two-legged chörten. The chörten is the descendent of the Indian stupa, a structure of mud brick containing relics of holy monks. Walking through it, with the proper attitude, erases the sins of a lifetime. Near by is the tarboche, a tall, sort of flagpole that is raised at the festival of Saga Dawa, the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment, cocooned in khatas and prayer flags. It is pulled up right by two huge trucks while Tibetans who have traveled from all over Tibet cheer. Just beyond the tarboche is the path up to the sky burial site. We didn’t go up, a mistake, first of all because it is a fascinating place and there is always a chance that one might see a sky burial, but also because it left us with too much time at the end of the day. (More about that later.) Since Tibet is a rocky land where the ground is frozen for much of the year the Tibetans have evolved a unique method of disposing of dead bodies. They take them to a ritual location that is always used for this purpose in a sort of closed stretcher. A butcher is hired. He cuts up the body, cracks the skull and pulverizes the bones. The birds, vultures and other birds of prey, know these sites and come down to feed. The Tibetans believe that since humans take so much from nature during their lives they must give back at their death.

Sonam and I had been discussing how many days our khora was to be, despite my four fingers and Dawa telling him in Lhasa that I wanted a four-day khora. However, it had to be gone over again. He was sure, like every other Tibetan guide I have ever had going around Kailash, that I should do it in three days. I thought I had won. Later it became apparent that I hadn’t and I was going to have to fight for my four-day khora. That’s why we should have gone up to the sky burial site; it would have used up more time. However we did climb, a killer climb among gigantic boulders above the Lha Chu River, to Chuku Monastery, which was busy with pilgrims putting up prayer flags and prostrating in the direction of Kailash. We did the little khora around the monastery with them and filed into the main temple to be given what looked like tea in our hands to drink and pour over our heads. Then we were bopped on the head with a carved shell as a blessing. When the monk blew it as a sort of trumpet, its sweet sound echoed off the cliffs. Sonam and I walked down continuing our argument in a friendly way.

There was a tea tent run by a Tibetan woman of deep smiles and her little daughter, not far from the base of the monastery where we could have stayed the night. We did have a lunch of tsampa and cheese there. I was quite ready to settle in, write in my journal and have a supper of a bowl of noodles but Sonam was antsy, wanting to walk further. Foolishly I gave in; it was his attempt to move us along so that we would do the khora in three days rather than four. Hours later, at least three of them, we arrived at another tent, which he had said was “just a little way.” I was furious with him, an inappropriate emotion on a pilgrimage, plus my hip hurt from excessive use and I had to repeat a mantra to keep from obsessing about all the nasty things I wanted to say to him. On the other hand the scenery was overwhelmingly beautiful as we walked between turreted cliffs, passing white streamers of waterfalls and boulders patched with orange and green lichens. Looking at a photograph of the Horsehead Nebula, swimming in its ocean of dust and gases, I have an appropriate sense of my size in the universe. The landscape of Tibet has the same affect on me. We also passed a young woman on her own, very pretty, prostrating her way along the path, a major endeavor that could certainly take her several weeks. When you do prostrations anything sacred, you walk from where your feet are at the end of the prostration to where your head just was, in other words your height, and then do the next prostration. It pay to be tall.

When we arrived at the tent it was very windy and beginning to rain. In the tent were a family, two small children, a sweet-faced wife and a very handsome husband, dark with a square, virile face and shoulder length straight black hair. We chose our beds from among the benches that circumscribed the outer edge of the inside of the tent and were covered with heavy rugs, not uncomfortable but narrow. The cooking stove, the only source of heat, fueled by yak dung, which the children were sent out to gather, of course, occupied the center of the tent. A man in a handsomely trimmed sheep skin jacket and a black fur hat, with a striking necklace of turquoise mixed with black and white beads about his neck, came into the tent. He also was extraordinarily good looking with Native American features, high forehead, long aquiline nose and merry eyes. He watched me write for a long time. We communicated through facial expressions before he climbed back on his motorbike to ride down to Darchen in pelting rain and hail. I then realized that he and another man were running a delivery service between Darchen and the tea tents along the khora bringing up vegetables and other supplies.

Sonam, full of temporary contrition for having made me walk three extra hours, cooked us a dinner of cabbage and rice. The tent filled up with pilgrims who ate their dinner of tsampa and butter tea with, perhaps, a little dried meat or cheese, before going to sleep on the benches. While we ate the father asked me, by simply saying “Dalai Lama” if I had a picture of the Dalai Lama. I said, “No, because,” and put my wrists together as if in handcuffs. Others around the stove looked puzzled but the husband looked fierce and said, in English, “Police?” I said, “Yes.” A young nun, with a face somehow made more delicately exquisite by the round of her shaved head, who was sitting next to me smiled, reached into her robe and brought out a small piece of paper folded over. She unfolded it to show a photo of the Dalai Lama. She then pointed to the very unprepossessing “charm” she had hanging from a string around her neck. It was a folded piece of cardboard with Chinese advertising printed on it. “Dalai Lama,” she said. Tibetans amaze me.

Once we were all settled for the night the family ate dinner. When everyone was in bed the nun went to the family altar and softly, in the steady light of one yak butter lamp, chanted. I heard her mention the Dalai Lama twice before I drifted into sleep. Later, I went out to pee in the rain and hail, crossing the path of a fat, little, gray, tailless mouse as I exited the tent. It’s always good to know your fellow travelers. I was grateful that it wasn’t snowing, but the hail rattled against the tent at intervals all night.



We slept late; it was cozy to snuggle down into my molting sleeping bag. I should buy a new one but at seventy I keep thinking, “This may be my last trip,” and don’t buy a new one. All the pilgrims left before us. After a breakfast of tsampa, and yak butter tea, we walked glimpsing Kailash towering above us in her snowcap in brilliant sun. I saw a red monastery with prayer wheels that looked new so that for a long time I did not realize where I was. We walked through a squalid bunch of tents and Dawa said when asked about the monastery being new, “But pilgrims don’t go there.” Damned liar. But because it was so new looking I didn’t recognize it as the monastery of Drira Phuk or maybe I was disoriented from the altitude. There is no doubt that altitude affects your ability to think and shortens you temper. This monastery has the best view of Kailash and the monks belong to an order whose Karmapa I met when he was a child. After a lunch of cabbage and rice among the tents we crossed the river, started to climb and got into our final fight.

I was taking pictures of two girls from Ali, a town in far Western Tibet that when I saw it years ago looked like a pale mirage under a black mountain. They were all tricked out in turquoise earrings, necklaces, ribbons, and chubas, the traditional wrap around dress or jacket, in the case of men, in Tibet, of brilliant green wool when it suddenly occurred to me that the brand new monastery was actually Drira Phuk and that Dawa was leading me up to the pass, Drölma La, a day early. I turned on him and demanded to know in which direction Drira was. He collapsed like a windless kite and confessed. I had a fit about how this was MY khora, I’d paid a lot for it and I was fed up, which Lord knows I was but it was a decidedly western, non-pilgrimage attitude with its heavy emphasis on me, me, me. He said like a sullen teenager, “I suppose it is all my fault. Tomorrow I won’t carry your bag. You cannot see my heart.” I wasn’t worried about the bag since there would be plenty of pilgrims willing to carry it for me for the usual fee. I responded with “Well, you can’t see mine either.” Because I knew he had done this out of an irrational perhaps, but truly deep belief in the three-day khora, I said, “It is NOT your fault. All Tibetan guides want to do the khora in three days. I want to do it in four. It’s okay.” He immediately lost his sullen look when I said that it was not his fault.

We turned around and came back down to Drira Phuk monastery with Dawa recovering his good humor with each step. We had a lovely time at Drira. He found the head monk, asked him all kinds of questions, told him I had met the Karmapa of his sect when he was ordained as a child, all of which got us a blessing, a red string to wear at neck or wrist and a supply of herbal pills for headache. We came back to the squalid tea tent to sit while it hailed. It was pretty looking out the tent door at the white streaks of hail blown by the wind in bright sun. Once that stopped I left Dawa to climb up to a place I know where I can have time alone with Kailash.

It is a stiff climb through purple and yellow flowers with the occasional burst of fuchsia. Sadly there are broken beer bottles about, attesting to the unhappy state of Tibetans. I strung up my prayer flags, tied my khata around a boulder and prayed. I walked up further passing a big waddle of marmot that found my presence of no interest as he busied himself around the various entrances to his burrow. I started and stopped to get my breath, tried not to step on flowers and arrived at a place that gave me a view into Kailash’s lap, the glacier and her plinth. She loomed huge over me, superb and majestic filling me with happy awe. Walking down I felt her behind me, big and beautiful.

Dawa and I were fed by some well equipped pilgrims in the tea tent who gave us dried yak meat and delicious tsampa with cheese mixed with butter and possibly sugar while the evening wind tried to yank the tent from its moorings. A young man in a cowboy hat watched me write. We rented two lumpy beds in a nearby tent but with evening it filled with a young, partying crowd of Tibetan kids. We changed tents to be with pilgrims of a more sober sort who started to leave to climb the pass at 4 AM.


We didn’t start until 7 or 8. As we climbed Indian pilgrims came along on small, handsome horses with hand woven rugs under their beautifully tooled saddles. The horses were baulking at the altitude. The Tibetan staff pulled them until their necks were stretched as far as they would go. One woman got off her horse, perhaps thinking she would breathe better on her own two feet. Instead of leaving her alone, a Tibetan started pulling her up the steep slope. Tibetans, since it is relatively easy for them, just want to get people up and down. He had her stretched by the arms as much as the horse was by its neck. Most of the Hindus had a very hard time and looked ill at the top of Drölma La, the pass, among the prayer flags. As I pulled chocolate out for Dawa and me, you always eat something at the top of the pass, there was the sound of a fight. Looking around I saw two Tibetans, both very young, locked in combat as they struggled beneath the prayer flags among shocked pilgrims. One had his sword out. People ran up to separate them. Finally the one with the sword was dragged away, the sword flung from his grasp. He fell practically at my feet, looking about fourteen, and seemed almost in convulsions, grimacing and obviously in terrible emotional distress. Humiliation and shame seemed the primary emotions. It was terrible on such a sacred spot. Everyone was distressed. It seemed to me emblematic of my recurrent conflict with Dawa and my inability to conduct negotiations with him without losing my temper, but to the Tibetans it harbored the possibility of future misfortune.

Our spirits dampened we started down on the narrow path from which one looks down on the sacred lake of Yokmo Tao, really a very small pond, that lay like an aquamarine gem below the cliffs. We had company all the way, the two pretty young girls from Ali and a cheerful husband with a very well dressed wife and daughter. He offered to carry my daypack. I refused him the first couple of times and then accepted. It made a world of difference not to carry it, although it is only about six pounds. When we arrived at the next monastery, Zutrul Phuk, the eagerness with which he accepted twenty yuan from me made me feel ashamed.

At Zutrul we stayed in the usual dusty not very clean but okay rooms rented by the monastery where there were two gay Frenchmen from Burgundy. Although the outhouse was marked in Chinese and in English according to sex I found the younger Frenchman towering like a heron on long hairy legs over one of the slits in the women’s division. I left to use the men’s.



The next morning we visited the temple of Zutrul Phuk where Dawa put his hand into Milarepa’s handprint in the ceiling, a thrill. In one of their contests Naro and Milarepa agreed to build a shelter together. Milarepa with his bare hand sliced a piece of stone in half, put one half on the ground as the floor and hung the other half in space telling Naro to build the walls. Naro was so overwhelmed by this feat that he backed out of the endeavor. Milarepa finished the shelter but found the roof too low and pushed it up with his hand, thus the handprint in the ceiling.

Walking ahead of us on the path I could see a short person of indefinite sex in a backpack smartly swinging a scarlet umbrella with a gold handle. I had to know who this was, so I hurried up as much as I could. It turned out to be a chunky young Japanese girl who told me proudly that she had done the whole khora without a guide carrying her own pack, definitely a feat. I can remember when one never saw a Japanese girl alone, when all Japanese traveled in groups behind a leader carrying a small banner. On our walk to the end of the khora in Darchen we saw a herd of antelope climbing the ledges above us and in the grass a big eyed bunny like creature with short rabbit ears and a short, but not bunny-like, tail, quivering but curious. Since the area around Kailash is a no kill zone animals often allow you to get quite close. There were also more birds than I remember seeing on the khora before, hoopoes, smart looking in their black and white striped wings who raising and lowering their crests with the air of matrons who had just glimpsed something infinitely shocking. The hoopoe’s Latin name is Upupa Epops, which is enough to cause anyone’s crest to rise. There were as well, lots of ducks, hawks, falcons, ravens and a red breasted something about half the size of a robin.

As we prepared to leave Darchen, Dawa and Putse asked if I would agree to take two passengers. It seemed fitting since we had come into Darchen with two to leave with two. In this case they were a young woman with a gold tooth who hawked and spat with a masculine force that Patti Smith would envy, and a man with a long thin face and a wispy beard. We drove and drove through magnificent country, the long snow bound barrier of the Himalayas to our right, the area of sand dunes, the two bridges, one old, one new, villages with new houses rising while the tape deck belted out Tibetan pop, Dawa and Putse joining in at full lung capacity. We drove into the night passing Saga, the town we would normally have stayed in. Finally we arrived in the dark at an inn full of Tibetan truck drivers. The five of us shared the usual Tibetan motel room. I asked the chambermaid, who accompanied us to the room, if there was a toilet. “Yes,” she said in English, a little indignantly, pointing to a door across the court closed with a rope. The gold toothed young woman and I eagerly crossed the dirt court with the aid of her flashlight, mine being dead. I undid the rope knot and flung the door open. We had both expected a room with trenches. The door, wagging its rope lock, opened onto a field full of piles of human and animal shit easily distinguished in the starlight. We looked at each other and burst out laughing.


Putse had us up at 6 the next morning. We drove under a glorious sickle moon into the dawn. At the turn off for Sakya, one of the important monasteries of Tibet, we dropped off the thin man. He was a monk, I realized. The gold-toothed girl fixed up his backpack with motherly care. It consisted of two U shaped pieces of wood tied together with his pack in the center tied to the two pieces of wood and the whole thing strapped around his shoulders. He looked a bit forlorn as we drove away waving out the back. That was the beginning of our dispersal, the end of the trip although we did stay the night in Shigatze. In the morning the gold-toothed girl was worried that the men wouldn’t show but they did. Our final dispersal was in Lhasa where we dropped her off near the Potala, me at the Kirey Hotel; the men went on back to the agency. I was exhausted and yearned to sleep for days rather than pack to take the train to Shanghai, but I had, despite the errant political actions of my countrymen, the Chinese reaction, and my wrangles with Dawa, made it back to Kailash one more time.


Karen Swenson grew up in Chappaqua, New York and studied at Barnard College and New York University. Her books of poetry include A Daughter's Latitude (Copper Canyon Press, 1999); The Landlady in Bangkok (1993), which was selected for the National Poetry Series; A Sense of Direction (1989); An Attic of Ideals(1974); and the chapbook East-West (1980). For the past fifteen years she has traveled extensively each year in Southeast Asia and written articles for The Wall St. Journal, The New York Times,and The New Leader and magazines based on her experiences in the East. Swenson has taught at universities and colleges across the country and served as a consultant for The National Geographic. She lives in New York City. [Bio from Poets.org.]