“Tashi delek. Tashi delek,” the old lady sang out cheerfully, as she raced past me. Her wrinkled face gave me a happy, toothy grin and then she was gone, heading effortlessly for the 5,630-meter Dolma La, the highest point of our pilgrimage around Mount Kailash.
If I’d had the energy, I would have had distinctly uncharitable thoughts. There we were, all togged out in hiking boots, thermal clothing and expensive down anoraks, plodding painfully along, gasping for breath, while yet more smiling Tibetans, most of them elderly, and most of them wearing nothing sturdier than gym shoes and thin jackets, rushed past us in a swirl of smiles, prayer wheels and tashi deleks.
We finally made it to the top of the Dolma La pass, and collapsing in an ungainly heap, sipped our reviving hot lemon juice. Then we joined enthusiastically in the ritual chanting of the Tibetan pass-crossing mantra, ki ki so so lha gyalo, as we tossed rice flour in the air as an offering. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of it all and the serenity of accomplishment that I did what I always do in such circumstances. I cried.
Crossing the Dolma La was the high point, literally, of a wonderful three-week trip west from Lhasa, driving and walking our way to the sacred sites of Lake Mansarovar and Mount Kailash.
Tibet is not an 'easy' destination and altitude sickness is a great leveler. All of us were pole-axed by the altitude at some point or the other, but by planning wisely and having extra days in Lhasa at the start of our journey, everyone was in great physical shape by the time we reached our goal, Mount Kailash. Every day, when we arrived in camp, we would go for a long walk, getting our bodies used to the increasing altitude and the decreasing oxygen.
After several very necessary acclimatization and sightseeing days in Lhasa, we drove west, long days driving in Land Cruisers, through breathtaking scenery. We visited Xigaste and the fabulous Tashilhunpo Monastery, and then on westwards through increasingly small and forgettable little towns: Saga, Periyang, Samsang and finally the scruffy, unprepossessing village of Darchen, the starting point for pilgrimages to Lake Mansarovar and for the Kailash kora – the circumambulation of the holy mountain.
Most nights we camped, usually because the local hotels were appallingly basic. Our Nepalese cooks produced such amazing food that even on those nights when we could have stayed in hotels we all opted to camp instead. Until you have tasted chili baked beans for breakfast at over 5,000 meters, you haven’t lived. We had picnic lunches in the sun, sitting by icy rivers. We had freshly-cooked pizza. And at Everest Base Camp we even had a freshly baked (and iced) chocolate cake. Camping de luxe.
Tibet is beautiful in a starkly dramatic way. The colors are more vivid than anywhere else I have been. Monasteries tower against deep blue skies, prayer flags flutter in the constant wind, and the countryside seems changeless. The small towns, though, are not as appealing. Chinese banners, ugly construction and absolutely appalling litter everywhere, do not encourage you to stay longer in town. We had a few hilarious forays into Chinese-run shops, trying out our few words of Chinese, with varied success, though I have to confess that no one had enough vocabulary to ask: “Do you sell thermal long-johns?”
The three days it took us to complete the kora were tough, but the scenery was so fabulous and the views so breathtaking (literally and metaphorically) that we all trudged on. The yaks carrying our camping gear overtook us. The cheerful Tibetan old-age pensioners overtook us, but we plodded on, walking slowly, and stopping for regular drinks to combat altitude sickness.
Walking along such a famous and holy pilgrimage route is a little unreal. It is all as it should be. It is exactly as you have seen in books. There are prayer flags fluttering from every peak. There are mounds of stones making cairns. There are old Tibetans prostrating themselves on the ground as they walk. There are grey-faced Hindu pilgrims returning disconsolately on donkeys, telling you how ill and cold they feel. The thin air and the vivid colors add to the slight air of unreality. And towering over everything is Mount Kailash, dazzling against the clear blue sky.
The mountain is every bit as spectacular as every photo you have ever seen, but even more so. It is so beautiful that you want to pray and cry, as I did, frequently. As you progress round and up the kora, walking onwards and upwards past sacred spots, your views of the mountain evolve. About an hour from the summit of the Dolma La there is a bittersweet moment. The pass is in sight and within your reach, but to get there, you must turn away, with a last view of the famous north face of Mount Kailash.
Walking down from the summit, past the green, icy Gauri Kund is every bit as tiring as the climb up, since your knees take a lot of strain. A group of us made things worse for ourselves by getting lost, but eventually a couple of yaks and a pony were sent out from our camp to find us, and we made a late but triumphant entry into camp, to the sarcastic cheers of the rest of the group.
From Mount Kailash, we drove onto Tingri, a busy little town at the foot of Mount Everest. We visited what we could of Everest Base Camp, but the tourists stalls, the offers of mountain bike rides and the busy road construction were a little sad after all the raw, savage beauty we had seen earlier.
Finally, we camped at Rongbuk Monastery, the highest monastery in the world, with a view to die for. To lie in your cozy, bright yellow little tent and gaze at Mount Everest is, simply, unforgettable. Watching the sunrise over the highest point on earth, with a mug of hot chai, was the perfect end to an exhausting, uplifting, deeply spiritual journey.