“Are you a Buddhist?” that was the very first question my friend asked me when I enthusiastically told him about my plan to do the three-day Kora (pilgrim circuit) around Mt. Kailash in Tibet.
“You know I am not.” I replied simply.
“Why would you want to do it then?” came his follow-up question; this time, he asked with a degree of curiosity.
In response to his second question, I gave him a raised eyebrow and a twisted lip. On the one hand, I was a bit annoyed by his limiting presumption that the Kora would attract or would be for pilgrims only. On the other hand, I was questioning my own keen interest in partaking in the spiritual circumambulation. Why would I want to do it, exactly? Deep down, was I in search of some spiritual blessings or awakening like most of the Kora pursuers were?
Also known as Kang Ringpoche (translated as “Precious Jewel of Snow”) in the Tibetan language, the 6714m-high pyramid-shaped Mt. Kailash was revered not just by the Buddhists, but also by the believers of three other faiths — Hinduism, Jainism and Bonism. They believed in the sacredness of the mountain for different reasons. For instance, the Buddhists believed Mt. Kailash was the holy abode of the wrathful manifestation of Buddha Sakyamuni named Demchok while the Hindus believed the mountain was the sanctified domain of their God of Destroyer called Shiva.
During my visit most of the people I encountered outside of my small 6-person trekking group were Buddhist pilgrims from areas as near as the Ngari prefecture that was home to Mt. Kailash and places as far as Tibet’s capital of Lhasa. It had come to my observation that the devout and faithful pilgrims were of different age groups. Apparently I was mistaken to think the Kora would be physically impossible for the young children, or the elderly for that matter. Equipped with my limited Chinese language proficiency, I made light conversations with some of the local pilgrims who spoke the language in addition to their own Tibetan native tongue. One family told me their two little boys were as young as 6 and 7 years old and that it was their first time doing the Kora together. One young man told me he and his friends were from an area far away from the Ngari prefecture but their work brought them to Mt. Kailash so they grabbed the opportunity to circumambulate the holy mountain.
Despite their differences in terms of age, gender, place of origin or the number of times they had completed the Kora, they shared (very) strongly one thing in common: the firm belief in the religious significance of performing Kora to gain blessings — the more Koras one did, the more blessings he would receive, and the greater his chance of being reborn in a better state or form in the next life would be.
Tashi, our local Tibetan guide whose short, curly black hair caught my attention the first time we met at the Lhasa Gonggar Airport, informed us that there were two types of Kora: inner Kora and outer Kora. He shared that in Buddhism beliefs one must perform the outer Kora at least 13 times before she would be allowed to do an inner Kora. At the age of 30, Tashi had done 3 inner Koras and completed his 57th outer Kora with us. I pictured his pool of blessings from all those Koras he had performed and would most certainly do more was getting deeper and deeper.
Most of the Buddhist pilgrims either had a Tibetan mala (prayer beads) in their left hands which they gently rolled with their thumbs or they carried a handheld prayer wheel in their right hands which they spun clockwise (in the same direction as they, and we, walked around Mt. Kailash) and murmured Buddhist mantra. It was also not uncommon to see the hardy souls perform the Kora by repeatedly prostrating themselves along the 52-kilometer outer circumambulation path. I observed that this devotional practice entailed some steps or patterns performed according to a particular sequence — raising the hands which were clasped in the prayer position to the sky; touching the hands to the head, mouth and heart; kneeling down; dropping the body forward; and lying face down on the ground at full body-length.
Watching the pilgrims, I was profoundly moved by their strong religious faith. How could they be so devoted to something that was intangible or unprovable? Watching them also compelled me to look within myself. I was once quite a believer in my own religious beliefs. However, as I grew older and became more exposed to the multitudes of spiritual concepts or systems outside of my own, my grip on my own faith began to loosen. I had great respect for people who were devoted to their faith. I could become curious about different religious traditions or systems, or even be fascinated with them. However, when it came to my personal religiosity, I had simply become distant and uninvolved.
The thought about my own spirituality was interrupted by the humbling sight of local pilgrims who chose to walk instead of prostrate sharing their drinking water with those who did the latter. Kale, one of our trekking group members, also stopped to offer some of his water and food with most of the prostrators whom he walked past. Witnessing first-hand this gesture of kindness I was moved and inspired to show similar kindness to some of the pilgrims I encountered along the way. I supposed there was much truth in the saying that kindness was contagious.
The Kora was much more arduous than I thought it would be. Day 1 was a trek of 20km from Darchen (4575 meters) to Dirapuk (near 5000 meters); Day 2 covered 22km with the highest elevation of 5630 meters at Dromala Pass; Day 3 was a relatively short and easy trek of 10km back to Darchen. Although I had been taking Acetazolamide faithfully since a few days prior to arriving in Tibet, I still experienced some physical discomfort related to altitude such as chest tightness, bleeding nose and headaches. At such high elevation of the Kora, the weather conditions could be extreme. On the one hand, the oppressive heat not only tired me out easily, it also burned my sunscreen-applied face. On the other hand, the biting cold and strong winds chilled my covered-with-thermal-gloves fingers and wrapped-in-layers-of-socks toes into clumsy numbness. We occasionally stopped at tea houses along the way for some much-needed rest. Holding a cup of hot salted black tea or sweet tea in my hands, I felt a tingling sensation in my numbing cold fingers. I also made sure I warmed my toes and socks by sitting as close to the traditional fireplace as possible before continuing on the journey.
My legs were wobbly after having covered some great distance of constantly walking uphill and downhill. My knees and thighs were especially sore. The muscle in my right calf felt so tight that I might have a calf strain anytime. At one point of Day 1 and much of Day 2, I experienced sharp pain in my lower back which I assumed was the result of carrying my backpack for hours on end. Going uphill was particularly difficult for me. I practically had to stop after every 10 steps. Every time I stopped, my heart beat so fast and loud that I could almost hear it. My breathing became more labored. No matter how hard I tried to inhale a great amount of air into my body, there just seemed never enough air entering my lungs. At that very moment, I thought how I had taken breathing/air for granted all this while in my usual environment.
At the end of Day 1, I experienced a throbbing left-side headache. The pain was so intense that it felt as if my eye would pop out of its socket. I broke down for the first time. Tylenol and hot ginger water helped reduce the pain. But the stubborn headache attacked again around midnight. In cold darkness, I lay wide awake in bed listening to the haunting sound of the fierce wind. The hours seemed extremely long and lonely. Thoughts were my only friends — hot chicken broth, hot latte, warm toes and fingers, hot shower that would thoroughly clean me from head to toe, my dusty thermal pants and trekking shoes that I had worn for a few days and would wear until the last day of the Kora, abandoning my Kora mission, my wonderful trekking group, the kind, generous and friendly local pilgrims I met along the way, how flexible and adaptable I could be outside of my comfort zone and without all those modern conveniences back home, how fortunate I was to be in Tibet, and to be still alive!
I prayed my bladder would hold until the day broke. There was no way I was going outside in the bone-chilling penetrating cold and howling wind for a washroom visit. As the washroom facility was too rustic and exuded a stench so repulsive one would crinkle her nose, I had developed a preference for nature peeing. I supposed exhaustion eventually reigned over the headache that I drifted back to dreamland.
Day 2 was the most challenging. At the end of it I got a blood-shot left eye which caused a blurry vision. I felt as if there was a very thin layer covering my eye. I couldn’t help but keep wiping my eye with a clean tissue in an attempt to remove “it”. Not being able to see clearly was definitely frustrating. One of my trekking group members, Karina, kindly offered me her eye drop. Tashi also squeezed a couple of drops of some Tibetan natural eye liquid (said to be very effective) into my eye. I hoped with some good night’s sleep and the magic of eye drops, the vision of my left eye would return (it did on the following day).
Day 1 and Day 2 were so challenging that Day 3 was a piece of cake. The terrain was mostly flat. I walked at a leisurely pace. I stopped numerous times to take in the beauty of my surroundings. The mountains loomed large. The sound of flowing river was peaceful. The winds had calmed down. I did a large chunk of the walk back to Darchen with Mayan, the beautiful 5-foot, long-black-hair fashion designer from Israel, who taught me a great deal about Buddhism and such important-but-often-overlooked concepts as self-understanding, self-compassion and the power of living in the moment.
As we were getting closer to Darchen, I stopped in my tracks and looked back at where we came from. Mt. Kailash had disappeared from my sight. The circumambulation path seemed very long and distant again. My mind drifted back to the day when my friend asked me why I would want to pursue the Kora around Mt. Kailash. If there was one thing that I could be certain of, it would be that the Kora neither drew me for a spiritual goal or purpose nor it helped me rekindle a fire for my own faith.
However, it helped me discover another kind of faith. On the one hand, it was the faith in myself — faith in my physical capability when pushed to its limits; faith in my ability to adapt myself to new surroundings; and faith in my ability to be flexible.
On the other hand, it was the faith in human kindness which was prevalent throughout much of the Kora — Kale and some of the local pilgrims who shared their water and food with those prostrating pilgrims; the woman who offered her handmade bread to two of our group members whose stomachs could not handle instant noodle soup; Chris (another group member) whom I would describe as a walking coffee shop as he always had hot coffee and was more than willing to share some with the group; Karina who offered me some eye drop when I got a blood-shot eye; the two elderly pilgrims who voluntarily helped me during a descent on a loose and slippery section of Day 2’s trail — one held my hand and arm to make sure I would not fall and the other helped carry my Nikon D90 to reduce the weight on my shoulders; the kind and motivating remarks that Tashi and the group members told one another so we could keep going; the constant exchange of “Tashi delek” greetings and warm smiles between those who were present. Those small acts of kindness were absolutely priceless.
Kindness was a form of spirituality, was it not?
With those thoughts swirling around in my head, I slowly covered the remaining distance back to Darchen. When I finally hit the first shop of this small, isolated town, I looked back again at where we came from. Mt. Kailash was visible again, and from where I was standing, it loomed large and powerful. But this time I felt I had gotten to know it a little bit more compared to the days prior to the Kora, a journey that not only strengthened my faith in myself, but that also inspired me to keep the faith in human kindness.