Saturday, July 27, 2013

Kailash calls!

We've moved the start of our trek forward to the afternoon of the 28th - that's tomorrow! I'm glad, as it'll give us two nights at our first high altitude stop (3800m - over 12,000 feet!), before we cross a pass at 5200m (17,000 feet). We're still talking huge altitude changes - Kathmandu is at about 1400m (4000 feet). But by the time we start the circumambulation itself, we'll have spent a week above 12,000 feet. Happy or not, our bodies will be pretty well acclimatized. Here's our itinerary, if you want to follow along. DAY 01 is Monday 29/7, the kora itself DAYS 07-09, Sunday-Tuesday 4-6/8. Scheduled return to Kathmandu at the end of a long day of driving (one of several) on 8/8.
It's not inconceivable there will be internet cafes in the traveler-focused Chinese-Tibetan towns en route; I'll post updates if I have a chance. The kora itself will be mercifully media-free. (The map above is from here).

Kailash me to the mast

A few thoughts on my wending my way to Kailash may not be out of place as I gather myself for the trip.

The first thought is that (like many things in my life) the privilege of this journey seems something I don't deserve. Seeing or circumambulating the holy mountain is the lifelong dream of a fifth of the world's population. Kailash is the abode of Shiva, home of all the great Indian rivers, and the Mount Meru at the heart of the Buddhist cosmos. When I told my Indian friend L that I was going, she said, voice in a hush, "that is the one thing I wish to do before I die."

But the Kailash kora has never been one of those things I hope one day to be able to do. Part of that has to do with the mountain's mythical status - like Shangrila it seemed a place merely of fable, and it has indeed been all but inaccessible until recently - but only part. Another part, I should admit, is its connection to religions which don't particularly speak to me - Hindu and Tibetan. But Australia has taught me the importance of places. One thing I hope is to feel the power of this mountain, the power that has called people to it for millennia as an axis mundi - not that I know what I would do with that experience if I had it! I guess that's another thing I go to find out.

Of course, encounter with the mountain won't be unmediated. The way we'll walk has been trod by untold thousands of pilgrims over centuries (perhaps millions over millennia), bringing their prayers, penances, more generally their meanings. For Tibetan Buddhists there's no part of it that's mere stone - not that I'm likely to see this:

Buddhist lore claims that if the eyes are purified, the land transforms. In a small gap between stones– so runs a sacred guidebook– the high lama may perceive a great city, a lesser yogi a fine hut, and the ordinary eye a patch of rock and scrub. A perfect adept might gaze up at Kailas and discern the palace of Demchog with sixteen attendant goddess mountains, but he transfigures this view inwardly to a mandala peopled by bodhisattvas, the goddesses multiply to sixty-two, and he is guided to other knowledge as if layers of illusion have peeled away. ...
Knowledge of these half-seen inhabitants– their whereabouts and power– was codified in pilgrim guidebooks as early as the thirteenth century. A few are still in use. Their narratives have trickled down orally from educated pilgrims to illiterate ones, who seal them with reported miracles. These are the Baedekers of the pious. They lay a tracing paper over the physical landscape, transforming it with stories, ordering it into sanctity. So Kailas becomes symmetrical. It deploys four prostration sites, and its humble gompas are seen as shining temples at its cardinal points. Their statues and treasures are reverently inventoried. Every peak and hummock now assumes a Buddhist title. Meditation caves overflow with the visions of named ascetics, even to within living memory. Any abnormality of cliff or boulder– a chance stain, a weird hollow– is identified with the passage of a saint, or the deed of a local hero
Colin Thubron, To a Mountain in Tibet (HarperCollins, 2011), 193-4

I'm usually a sucker for places saturated with past pious use. I like to ride the swells of past belief. I hope that's not all I feel, though, second-hand religion.

So am I going on a pilgrimage after all? Our party of ten will include three Americans, five Nepalis (one a Nepali-American), a Tibetan and a member of the Bai minority from China. Beyond one of the Nepalis and the Tibetan, I'm not sure anyone is religiously interested in Kailash - but I may be surprised. We may all be. It may be that its interest, its charge, its claim aren't or aren't just "religious."

Can one go on a pilgrimage casually, or unawares? People stumble on sites of power all the time in the lore of world religions - but after that, others seek these places of power out in hope, gratitude, desperation. The journey becomes as important as the destination; the setting out, the leaving one's ordinary life, becomes in some ways as important as the journey. After life-changing pilgrimages like the Haj, people's very names change. (Some Hindus add "Kailash" to their name after completing this pilgrimage, I understand.) Many pilgrims go for a particular reason, their hopes of absolution from sin or the satisfaction of a fervent wish enhanced by the ardor and danger of the journey.

[T]he merit accrued from pilgrmage gets enhanced if besides the long distance and time taken, it involves undergoing and overcoming life-threatening situations. Thus, the arduous journey and the accompanying hardships and perils undergone by a pilgrim on the way bring correspondingly greatre reward.... Thus, mishaps, extremities of weather (including sub-zero temperatures, snow storms bitter cold, and blazing sun), bad roads, devastating landslides, avalanches, flooding, torrential rains, turbulent rivers, swept away bridges, hunger and thirst, dangerous passes over high ranges, and occasional attacks by bandits and wild animals are generally seen as enhancing the value and merits of pilgrimage.
K. T. S. Sarao, Pilgrimage to Kailash: The Indian Route (New Delhi: Aryan Books, 2009), 3

This describes the long, treacherous route taken by Hindu pilgrims up through the Himalayas on foot, many of whom aim to arrive at Kailash for auspicious days in still wintry April. We're going in a clement season in comfortable Toyota landcruisers, and walking only for the three-day kora itself. There may be road problems - always a possibility in the Himalaya - but Chinese roads are apparently much better than Indian or Nepali, and the Tibetan plateau is flat and dry. Compared to the traditional pilgrim's hardship-filled journey, it'll be a breeze. And its cost is minimal in time, not to mention expense - my way is paid by the Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya (ERSEH) project.

A voice in the back of my head is saying that you get out of a pilgrimage what you put into it, that a low-cost pilgrimage is a contradiction in terms, a wasted opportunity. It needs not only to be rooted in your own religious-cosmic geography and intentional but should involve sacrifice, preferably a big one. Before the arrival of modern technology - planes, cars, Chinese roads - Mount Kailash was a place one couldn't get to without significant hardship. (I haven't mentioned that dying en route was the ultimately significant and effective sacrifice.)

Part of why ERSEH is going, I gather, is that the international tourist-industrial complex is chomping at the bit, eager to make Kailash as easy of access as Bodh Gaya, Shangrila, Hong Kong Disneyland. Billions of Hindus and Buddhists have have been waiting for the chance - and more and more can afford to do it in style! Hardship pilgrimage is a thing of the past. Why not fly or luxury bus in, stay in a five-star hotel, get whisked around the famous mountain by helicopter (maybe one day you'll be able to glide in a monorail!), and still get back to your luxury suite in time for world-class cuisine and a soak in a Manosarovar-spiked spa? The governments of Nepal, India and China have signed an agreement declaring Kailash a "sacred landscape," and this is the moment when is determined what exactly that will mean. That project is mainly about environmental sustainability, but the question of how to sustain a religious landscape is acute here.

And me, where does this leave me? Sociologically speaking I'm a seeker, if a lackadaisical one. I'm hoping to find something on this trip I didn't know was available, the kind of thing one couldn't have known one was seeking until the finding. Part of my slapdash approach to seeking is an openness to serendipity - I didn't agree to come on this trip because of the challenges, however real, of mass tourism; my reason is closer to Edmund Hillary's oft-quoted reason for ascending Everest, "because it's there": the opportunity presented itself. Perhaps that in itself is worth appreciating.

Along with the above-quoted books I've been reading the account of pioneering western Tibetan Buddhist Robert Thurman's first trip to Kailash, heady stuff which seems to me, an outsider, often grandiose. He's is going to Mount Kailash literally to save the world, bringing his bodhisattva wishes for all people to a place which channels them farther and more effectively than any other. World peace and true Enlightenment for all beings! But I've marked the pages where he exhorts his group:

We came here on pilgrimage, to perform the Dharma, and we should confidently feel a sense of destiny. ... 
Awareness of freedom is part of Tibet’s special legacy. So is the rare preciousness of human life. Enjoy this contemplation of your potential. Count your blessings carefully. Be honestly proud of yourself. Karmically, you all made great efforts and did great things to get to be such beautiful human beings, to be here at this time…
Robert Thurman and Tad Wise, Circling the Sacred Mountain:
A Spiritual Adventure through the Himalayas (NY: Bantam, 1999), 46, 49

Friday, July 26, 2013


After getting thoroughly lost yesterday (trying to get home from Kathmanu Durbar Square, lower left corner of the map above), I walked the 3km from my friends' house in Bathbatheni (A) to Thamel (B) today, picked up some supplies for the upcoming trip, and back. Being driven around is very convenient but you don't get a real sense of the lay of the land until you have to navigate yourself! Walking you learn to recognize this popular graffiti character, appreciate a coffee in the truck store-turned cafe Engine, notice details at Bathbatheni Mandir, and get home just as the monsoon season afternoon rain cuts through the sun...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


One relatively recent addition to our Kailash party, A, is an engineer and "social entrepreneur" famous for his in-depth tours of his native city of Patan. I joined one he gave for another New School faculty member on her first Nepal visit, and, as my first time in 2010, learned so much I started to be uneasy: could any place make such seamless sense in two hours, even as described by the most skilful raconteur? A's theme was "heritage" and we learned of a tradition of local care and repair by long-established families and neighborhoods going back continuously, it seemed, into the far distant past. (The stonework on some neighborhood shrines is 11 centuries old!) Recently UNESCO World Heritage status and World Bank support have helped Patan plug back into these traditions, which had suffered neglect from a misplaced sense of inferiority to western modernity. In fact, A explained to us, the founders of the Kathmandu Valley civilization had marshalled profound proto-scientific understanding of things from the time they drained the valley - an event preserved in myth in the story that it was the sword of the bodhisattva Manjushree. Their ingenious, elaborate, and ancient urban water system still works - so long as people value and maintain it. A's is such a pretty, timeless picture - a closed system - that it made me nervous. Aren't conflict and compromise - if not also structures of exclusion - necessary parts of the picture of any traditional society's survival? In recent months I've noticed that I'm rather less keen on places which haven't changed for centuries than I used to be... But that's a topic for another post another time, perhaps post-Paris.

In any case, A is an amazing source of local lore - like what's going on in this wall painting of the birth of the Buddha. Officially it's from his mother's side, but the local euphemism for where babies come from (like our "a stork brought it") is out of the mother's armpit. That feels like living religion to me!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Comme c'est curieux et quelle coïncidence bizarre!

The world of Nepal researchers and their friends is a small one, with lots of people multiply connected, so it's not surprising to find that people are linked by just one or two degrees of separation. But the whole world is small. In Kathmandu I'm staying with friends L and T - I met them last time I was here, in 2010 - who are most generous hosts to many folks passing through Nepal. Another houseguest, a political anthropologist, went to grad school at Cornell with L back in the day and has returned in Nepal for a postdoc study in the Terai. "Where do you live in New York," she asked at one point.

"Prospect Heights, Brooklyn," said I.

"After Bard I lived on Prospect between Vanderbilt and Underhill."

"What? That's my block!"

"Two sixty-five..."

"Two sixty-five?! That's my building! Don't tell me..."

"Fourth floor."

Yes indeed, five years before I moved up there, she and her husband were in the very same apartment of the very same building I now live in. The very one. Eat your heart out, Eugène Ionesco. Kinda mindblowing, in fact.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mini-trek pics

Perhaps the smallest plane I've yet been in  Farewell, Kathmandu! The beautiful lake at Pokhara, in the off-seasonAfter the first burst of climbing, the valley following us upNot much to see at Pothana ... ... except rain-bejeweled spider webs Long-tailed ferns on a rainy forest trailLandslide-devastated trail At Landruk, the rain stops and some mountain shapes emerge A trekking map shows the sights and trailsDown through rice terraces toward the other side of the valley
The rain-swollen Modi Khola river The view back to Landruk from the other side A rainbow in the valley below! Typical Gurung houses of Ghandruk Annapurna starts to show itself (look up!) Annapurna South garlanded in sunset cloudsIn the last light of day, the Fishtail appears (on the right)Annapurna South detail and Fishtail closeup the next morning
Back at river level again, a little shrine to Shiva Shrine to goddess of the mountain as we hit a "motorable road" Pokhara and its lake out the car windowThe view east on the lake, and west Am I sorry the Jomsom-Muktinath itinerary didn't work out? On balance - no. While culturally fascinating, the high desert terrain is apparently similar to what we'll encounter on the way to Mount Kailash. I might never have known the steep forest trails, lush greens, tiny villages and near-vertical rice terraces - not to mention the leeches!

Critters of the mini-trek

Not all as fun to get to know as some: a mob of water skimmers, a chicken, a leech (after tanking up on yours truly), a cat and kittens in a simple kitchen, a tadpole in a rice paddy, a grasshopper, a train of mules bearing cement, a dragonfly, goats, and two cool butterflies.