Travel journal

Pilgrimage to Kailash, September-October 2011

 

To my marvelous travel mates: to Pallavi for the wonderful demonstration of friendship that she gave us in giving up the kora to stay with Kavitha who had to go back for mountain sickness; to Kavitha who would accept with her splendid smile everything the trip would bring; to Prarthana with whom I share the experience of working  for space agencies, a long nose and an indoeuropean humour; to Ching for her calm bravery and determination and for illuminating us about Chinese culture (the photos of the kora are dedicated to her, since it was there that she had to leave behind her heavy photographic camera); to Katy who always had soothing words, advice, and medicines for each of us; to Jeff for his driving enthousiasm and to Chhiring who led us with his hearth along difficult paths, inspiring confidence and sharing with us his cultural and religious traditions.

Many thanks to my wife Carla and my cousin Orsola, who helped me with the English translation.

The only way to rediscover the magic of travel is to stop being consumer-tourists and to get back being pilgrims.”, Tiziano Terzani

Index:

Travel itinerary prepared with GoogleEarth (red = by plane, blue = by car, green = on foot)


 

Foreword

The idea of doing the kora (pilgrim’s tour) around mount Kailash came to me while reading the nice book by John Snelling “The Sacred Mountain”, which tells about how the mountain became sacred for Hindus, Buddhists, Jain and Bön (a very old shamanic religion in Tibet), about the legends which surround it, and about the travellers who visited the region in the past. The idea of going back to central Asia aiming not just for tourism fascinates  me. The organization of the trip is not easy, also because several friends said they were ready to join me, but when it came to decide they drew back. Eventually, my cousin Ginevra put me in touch with Mariano, an Italian who lives in Australia and did the kora last year. His help has been decisive as he suggested a Nepalese travel agency, Firante of Surendra, and above all since he gathered a small group of people determined to do the trip: Jeff, Australian, Katy, Chinese from Hong Kong who lives in Canada, and Ching, Chinese from Chengdu who lives in the States. Later 3 Indian ladies joined us: they all have an American passport and can then avoid the lottery established by the Indian government to select the thousand Indians to whom Chinese allow to visit Kailash every year.

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Friday 23 September

My daughter Laura accompanies me to Fiumicino in a bright day of starting fall. I leave full of expectations, and not just mine: my sister Anna a few days ago invited me for dinner and gave me an envelope containing a black ribbon, which I should leave under a stone on Kailash. She wrote on it something invisible and asked me also to bring her back a stone in memory. Some years ago she gave me the book by John Snelling about Kailash, which started my interest for the mountain. My wife Carla would have liked a pashmina, since our cats ruined her beige one, and she wants to give as present the one she just bought in India. A friend would have liked some mountain salt. The first stop in Munich lasts 5 hours. I then take the opportunity to go downtown, drink an authentic beer and eat a Schweinhaxe; nevertheless I do not miss Munich where I lived for six years.

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Saturday 24 September

The Abu Dhabi airport, second stopover, is wonderful and one can hardly believe that the desert is all around. There is free internet and computers are available everywhere. On the flight to Kathmandu there is mountain atmosphere, since most passengers go for trekking and already wears boots and carry backpacks. Fortunately, Jeff, my Australian mate, has sent an e-mail to warn us to bring a passport photo for the visa and I had it done in Munich. The bureaucracy for the visa is rather simple, I just have to fill in two forms and the queue proceeds quickly. Two persons from Firante, the agency organizing the trek, are waiting for me at the exit and they take me to the hotel. One of them is Chhiring, the guide who will be with us during the whole trek. Half way their car breaks down. We have to push it out of a crossing, and with Chhiring we continue on a taxi. The hotel is in Thamel, the busy central district. I go out to look for the pashmina for Carla, choosing among the many shops selling them. The seller is friendly and helps me in a difficult choice. Still I cannot make my mind up, and take some photos of the best pashminas he has shown me, and I send them to Carla by e-mail. Jeff is in another hotel, and I join him there for dinner. Meanwhile, another participant to the trek has arrived. It’s Ching, a Chinese lady who was born in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and now lives in New Jersey. She has dinner with us. They are both very nice, still very different from each other. Jeff works in mines in the North-West of Australia, looking after equipment maintenance. He has just been surfing in Thailand. Ching is an economist, working in finance. Her husband is too busy and could not come. After dinner we all go to my hotel to welcome Katy, who will also trek with us. She is also Chinese, but from Hong Kong, and at the end of last century, just before Hong Kong returned to China, migrated to Canada and lives now in Vancouver, where she works in the administration of the national Health service.

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Sunday 25 September

Pashupatinath under the rain

Sunday is a working day in Nepal (their holiday is on Friday afternoon and Saturday). We can then shop for the few things we miss for the trek. Chhiring comes with us and helps us in selecting the right shop among the thousands of shops for trekking gears. I buy a pair of over-trousers for the rain and a pair of trekking poles, 9 euros overall. I am also looking for a rain mantle, but those I find have too short sleeves. Then with Katy we go to Durbar Square, the historical city centre. We have to pay a ticket to enter the Square, but it is worth it, since there is a series of wonderful buildings made of red bricks in Chinese style. We also visit the Royal Palace, and go up to the top of a 9-storied tower to admire the panorama. We then visit an ecological exhibition. There we stop at the stand of a no-profit organization for housing support for which Katy has worked last year. There are also some interesting solar panel systems. Katy goes back to the hotel, while I take a taxi to Bodhnath to see the big stupa, which is an important centre for the Tibetan buddhism in exile, and then to Pashupatinah, important Hindu centre. On the river banks corps are cremated, and the overlooking hill is full of small temples lived in by monkies. Rain gives to the place a wonder of reflected lights. Back to the city we meet with Surendra, the boss of Firante, who comes from Simikot, like Chhiring. He describes the trek. He is nice, competent and inspires confidence. He seems to be very promising for our trek. After dinner we drink a tea together and go on knowing each other.

“Motivation is what tells a pilgrimage from any other journey.” Dalai Lama

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Monday 26 September

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur

This morning the idea was to leave early with Katy to join Jeff and Ching in Bhaktapur. However, it is pouring down and instead we decide to go for the last shopping. We then look for the rain mantles which we are still missing. We are lucky and we find a tailor who makes them to measure and at a lower price than the ready ones, with some disappointment for the shopkeeper who brought us to him. It’s clearly our lucky day, even if it rains, and I manage to conclude the choice of the pashmina for Carla. Although it keeps on raining, we take a taxi to Bhaktapur. Along the way I notice strange vibrations on a wheel, and I warn the driver who does not seem to worry. Eventually he stops, he notices that the bolts holding the rear right wheel are loose, and he tightens them: in this way at least we do not loose it. Bhaktapur’s downtown has wonderful old and well preserved buildings, which are made shiny by the rain. The same rain forces most tourists under shelter, but not us. We eat a snack in a nice bar on the balcony of a beautiful tower. A taxi driver then takes us to Patan, which is now within the city of Kathmandu. Here also there is an old city centre, very nice and less touristic than Bhaktapur. Back in Kathmandu we pick up our rain mantles, which are ready by now, and we have dinner with Jeff and Ching at their hotel.

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Tuesday 27 September

Pottery shop in Kathmandu

The morning is devoted to the last preparations, but I find the time to go back to Durbar Square and especially to walk around it, in the small streets full of surprises. Surendra comes to the hotel and hands us over to Chhiring, who takes us to the airport to catch the flight to Nepalgunj, a stopover near the border with India, in the lowest part of Nepal at just 160 m above the sea level. We fly with Buddha Air; two days ago one of their planes crashed while landing in Kathmandu. We are not worried, even though when we leave there is a downpour. Above the clouds the weather is good, and we can see Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, a nice show while the Sun goes down. In Nepalgunj there is nothing to see, but we have time to get to know the three Indian ladies who will be trekking with us, Kavitha, Pallavi and Prarthana. They are all from Hyderabad and they have all lived in the States for several years, but now they moved back to India. At dinner we talk about Kailash and travel, my favourite topics.

 “The most sacred mountain of the planet – sacred for a fifth of the World’s population – stays hidden on his highlands like a pious illusion.” Colin Thubron

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Wednesday 28 September

Jeff at the bazar in Nepalgunj

We have to leave early, so we wake up at five and I feel really well. At the airport a long wait starts. There are two tourists who are waiting since yesterday to take the plane to Simikot and they leave before us. Slowly our luggage gets checked and weighted, including hand-luggage. My bag weighs exactly 15 kilos, the allowed amount, but the back pack weighs another 7 kilos, and for these I have to pay. Finally they give us the boarding cards and they transfer us to the boarding area. The wait goes on: the plane does not take off due to too much wind in Simikot. Around 12:30 Chhiring takes us back to the hotel, saying that there is still a small hope that we could leave before 4 pm. Also this hope vanishes and we resign to a swim in the swimming pool and to a visit by rickshaw of the bazar in Nepalgunj. The bazar is colorful and gives us the opportunity of several good shots. Also Ching and Jeff are very keen on photography and they have nice cameras. Before dinner I show to rest of the group my slide show about the trip to China, and particularly the Indian ladies are very interested.

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The trek along the Karnali river (4.5 days, 68.8 km)


 

Thursday 29 September

Women above Simikot

Today we wake up at six and hope for the best. In fact there is some fog, but it rises soon and at 9:40 we leave for Simikot on a small single-engine plane. We are the only passengers, together with another guide who goes for a climb. Landing in Simikot is rather spectacular since the landing strip is half way up a mountain, very short and ends on the mountain slope, so it’s one way only. In fact on a side there is a plane which went off the track two months ago, but nobody was injured. The preparations for the trek are slow, actually too slow, as we will discover later. We have lunch in a hut and then we finally leave. The air is crystal clear and the weather is good with a few scattered clouds. We feel a bit the altitude of 2900 meters. We start by climbing up to the top of a ridge and then we go down to the Karnali river, whose stream we will follow to the border with Tibet. A local teacher walks with us as an additional guide, as well as the leaders of the yaks who carry our luggage and the camping equipment. Among them is Surendra’s brother, and a man who leads the two horses rented by the Indian ladies. We pass through several small villages, which look poorer and poorer. In one of these some small boys steal the only pen I have, taking it from a pocket of my back pack. I tell it to the teacher, who chases them and gets my pen back. As a compensation I give the boys one of the precious chocolates (Bacetti Perugina), which I took from home to celebrate on Kailash. With the teacher, Jeff and Katy we are the first of our group. We arrive in Dharapuri, the first camping place, after six, and the Sun is long gone behind the mountains. They offer us tea and biscuits, much appreciated. On the place there is a German couple, also heading to Kailash. Shortly after us, the yak leaders arrive and mount the tents. The ladies with Chhiring arrive around 19:40, when it’s dark since an hour, and I have already shown the stars to Katy. We should probably have left earlier from Simikot. In any case the dinner cheers us up and prepares us to the night in the tents.

“The rhythm of the step generates a rhythm of the thought.” Rebecca Solnit

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Friday 30 September

Along the Karnali river

The first awakening among the mountains is memorable. Our staff is very skilful in preparing breakfast and dismantling the camp. By eight o’ clock we are on the way. The day is wonderful and the temperature ideal for walking. We follow the Karnali, with only few up and downs where the valley is too steep to walk on the river banks. While walking alone I have a consolatory inspiration. Since my arrival in Kathmandu my left heel aches, a pain very similar to the one that has been afflicting my sister Flavia already for some time and of which she told me a few times, regretting above all not to be able to go for the walks she likes so much. This surprises me greatly because I haven’t done anything that could have caused the pain and because of the unlucky coincidence of this happening just at the beginning of my trekking to the Kailash. Today I thought that I’m just bringing to the Kailash some of Flavia’s pain and that later it will pass, and maybe also Flavia’s pain will pass. This way it is much easier to stand it and it doesn’t create me too many problems, also because the sticks help me a lot. We stop for lunch in a panoramic place under the village of Kerni and the ambience is very friendly and relaxed, even though some of the ladies walks rather slowly. Chhiring explains to me some shamanism and there are many occasions to chat or walk on our own. In the afternoon we go on climbing a little to a pass at 3200 meters and then the path descends in a steep way to an affluent of the Karnali along which we stop to camp at Salli Khola. This evening everybody is at the camp before six o’ clock and we are happy and excited.

 “The pilgrim heads for the the last horizon, towards a destination that is already present in the deepest of his being, though not yet visible to his eyes.” Javier Moro

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Saturday 1 October

Buddha's stories at the Yalbang monastery

I start the day well with a hot shower (there is even a shower tent). We get off at about 7:30 and after a couple of hours we get to the Yalbang monastery. It’s quiet and picturesque. They are working on one wing: I don’t know whether they are restoring or building it ex novo. Chhiring is very good in explaining the stories of Buddhism and of Buddha himself that are painted in the outside and in the inside. Jeff performs in his magic, that the very young monks enjoy much. Then we descend again towards the river and we stop for lunch on the bank of the Karnali in a wonderful spot; I don’t miss the occasion to plunge my feet in the chilly water of the river. In the afternoon we cross a bridge on the Karnali and we climb up a little on the opposite side where we reach Tumkot, the camping place for the night in a narrow valley from where nothing can be seen. Jeff and Katy feel strong and following Chhiring’s advice they climb to the monastery to improve their adaptation to altitude, while I remain quietly in the camp. The heel’s pain today has been fluctuating, and it didn’t prevent me from going on. If I manage to control the pain as I did so far, I hope not to have major problems. When we arrive to the Tumkot camp they inform us that at 11:30 today there’s been an earthquake more or less on our way. At dinner Chhiring offers us a medicament against mountain sickness, essentially a diuretic. On his advice as well, I decide not to take it.

 “When we give ourselves to places, they return us back to ourselves.” Rebecca Solnit

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Sunday 2 October

Lunch at Pani Palbang

According to the program, today is the hardest day and we set off at 7:15 with the sky covered with clouds. We pass immediately a bridge on the Vali Khola and the track then climbs a steep slope with about 600 meter’s drop and I cover it without difficulty, with Jeff ahead and closely followed by Katy and by the teacher: on the top there is a heap of stones piled up by wayfarers and surmounted by small flags; we add our own stone. Then the track levels and soon we arrive in Pani Palbang, the lunch place at about 3600 meters. The clouds are gone and the sky is very clear. The ladies arrive bravely and we have lunch all together. The atmosphere is very beautiful and Jeff and Katy set of again at 12:30. I follow them after 15 minutes and the track goes up gently, becoming a dirt road. Soon after I meet a white jeep coming down. After 15 minutes the jeep passes again with the ladies on board: they offer me to get in, but I prefer to go on walking. Then Chhiring gets down to walk with me, as I’m now the last one. The road runs on the North-East edge of the valley and underneath there are cultivations, villages and the river at the bottom, in the shining and clear air. In Yari Jeff and Katy are waiting for us, and we go on with them. Jeff is quicker, I prefer to watch my heel and I stay with Katy and Chhiring. The wind rises and the temperature drops, but the sun doesn’t leave us. Before 4 pm we get to Thadodunga (Straight Stone), the place of the night camping where they welcome us in a hut with a tea and then with a garlic soup: Chhiring says that is very good for altitude, anyway it tastes good as well. Then I set up my tent and I warm up reading the book about the Kailash. In fact, in the last days I’ve been quicker walking than reading. The ladies feel good l and go for a little walk. Only Prarthana is not well and Chhiring suggests her not to sleep, in order to sleep better in the night. I try to keep her awake with a tea, waiting for dinner. After dinner she’s already better. In the night the wind drops and everything becomes very quiet.

 “We walk, and our religion is shown in the way we walk.” Reginald H. Blyth

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Monday 3 October

Children at Hilsa

This morning we wake up early as usual and the staff  has not yet dismantled the meal tent, so we can have breakfast in the warmth. The day is wonderful and there is no trace of the clouds that had come back yesterday night. We prepared the tips for the bearers and the assistant cooks who leave us here and I hand them over with a few words. Soon the sun heats up the air and when we set off at 7:15 some wind rises. Today we must go over Nara La pass at 4535 meters altitude, and then descend to the border with Tibet, on the Karnali. The Indian ladies and Ching take the jeep, while Katy, Jeff and I go on walking, accompanied by Chhiring. I feel very well, the air is crisp and I get to the pass in one hour and 15 minutes, half of the standard time, according to Chhiring. Luckily the carriage road doesn’t go through the pass, but turns around behind it. On the top there is the usual bunch of stones, just bigger, and a row of small flags hanging over the pass. Towards North on the Tibetan border there are beautiful mountains of about 6000 meters, and further away South the Saipal Chuli range, reaching 7000 meters. Jeff arrives soon after me, and then Katy and Chhiring and we stop to take pictures. I climb a little higher to look at the wonderful sight. On the way down the view on the Tibetan plateau appears. We arrive in Hilsa, a village on the river on the Nepalese side of the border, where they offer us tea. We cross the Karnali on a pedestrian suspended bridge. There is no  bridge for cars and the few vehicles passing here directed to Pani Palbang must have waded the river somewhere. We pass the Tibetan border, we leave the Nepalese assistant guide and we meet a Tibetan assistant guide, two jeeps and a truck with the drivers who will accompany us to Tibet. Some Chinese soldiers check carefully all our luggage and the time zone changes of two hours and a half, while in the whole of China the time zone is the same. We go by jeep to Purang (Taklakot in Nepalese) a few kilometres North and we stop at a medical centre where they measure our temperature and they check again our luggage. They leaf through all our books to check that we would not have any picture of the Dalai Lama. After these formalities, we can finally go to the quite spartan hotel. We take a tour of the village, but there is little to be seen and we have dinner in a Chinese restaurant, taking Katy and Ching very good advices on the menu. After dinner I go to an Internet café to write to Carla and the children.

 “Walking symbolizes freedom.” Javier Moro

“This freedom does not consist of doing what we want, it is neither arbitrariness nor stubbornness nor thirst for adventure, but the readiness to accept the unforeseen, the unexpected in life circumstances, the good as well as the bad, with open mind.” Lama Anagarika Govinda

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Tuesday 4 October

Mount Kailash from Chiu Gompa

Because of the time zone change there is no light until 8 and so we take our time. Stupidly, yesterday night I forgot my camera at the restaurant. I go back there with Chhiring and they kept it for me, but I should have been more careful. In the hotel there is no water, the camping is much better with hot water every morning. We set off North and the road is very good in the desolate plateau. To the right, the wonderful Gurla Mandata of 7728 meters and other more distant mountains appear. But the best surprise awaits us at Gurla La pass (4675 m.): The white cone of Kailash appears over the Rakas Tal lake. No picture or imagination can match the actual view. We stop and take pictures at the pass and at a panoramic spot over the lake. I go down and feel the water that is clear and cold, but not freezing. Chhiring prepares a hot fruit juice, much appreciated. We go on and from a small pass between the two lakes , the Sera La, finally we can see the lake Manasarovar and we stop again and take pictures. Kavitha explains to me the meditation techniques that she learned following a course in India. I’m touched by this incredible chance. In Chiu Gompa we descend towards the lake, to the night camp. The place is wonderful, with the peaceful Kailash watching over us. We are all very moved . With Jeff I go a little further on the lake for the ritual bath. The water is less cold than one could expect from a lake 4580 meters high among eternal snows. First I sit in the water and then I even plunge offshore. Obviously, we take pictures of each other and a weasel makes us company on the shore. The ladies too take the ritual bath a bit closer to the camp. I sit on a chair in front of the lake reading Thubron’s book, the pages on when he was here, full of interesting digressions. I climb on a hilltop to take pictures of the sunset. Dinner is very pleasant. Then in the night cold I attempt a picture of the Kailash under the stars, with Ching who has a wonderful lens and a tripod.

 “The Kailash emerges from the celestial sphere like an eight rib umbrella and from the earth like an eight petal lotus flower, like an outspread carpet.” Giuseppe Tucci 

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Wednesday 5 October

Lake Manasarovar from Chiu Gompa

The morning is bright, with the sun rising in front of the tents beyond the lake. Before leaving we visit the Chiu Gompa monastery, that was destroyed by the Chinese and then rebuilt. The view on the lake is above all beautiful. Then we head towards the North to take the main road from Lhasa to the West along the valley. The Kailash is now very close, one feels like touching it. We pass by Darchen, the starting place of the kora where we’ll get back in a few days and soon after we turn South on a dirt road that leads us to Tirthapuri, the place of the night camp, in the valley of the Sutlej, one of the four important rivers rising in the Kailash region. Here we find a thermal source and a monastery, and around it I make a kora. In the distance the Kailash can be seen from a strange direction, with a similar mountain in front of it. The monastery is surrounded by stone fences containing carved stones orderly arranged. As soon as the sun sets, the temperature drops drastically and we enjoy the hot dinner in the meal tent, then everybody to bed, or better said, to airbed.

 “The mountain (Kailash) is wrapped by an aura of mystery so dense and changing that escapes the simple description.” Colin Thubron

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Thursday 6 October

Smiling Buddha at Tsaparang

The tents are covered in frozen dew, but the sun melts it. Today we leave the truck with the camping equipment and the cooks, because in the next two days we’ll stay in small lodges. We get back to the main road and we follow it North-West to Songsha, where we turn left on a very good road climbing up with hairpin bends to a pass at 5200 meters. Beyond it is a large valley ascending in a wonderful mountain range to the border with India. On the way down we approach beautiful formations of eroded land. Finally we get into them and they look even more beautiful. Descending further down we meet again the Sutlej river, that we follow to Tsaparang, one of the seats of the Guga kingdom. We stay at a friendly family guest house surrounded by a wall, containing also a small well tended garden. I try the yak butter tea: it’s less bad tasting than I expected, like a heavy soup. Then I climb with Katy to the monastery, from which come ritual chants. We’ll visit it tomorrow, so we go for a tour crossing a small valley beyond which are charming ruins with nice views on the Sutlej valley. Back to the guest house to our surprise we find the German couple that we had met along the Karnali. The dinner is pleasantly Chinese and after it as usual Chhiring explains us what we’ll do tomorrow, and as usual the conversation drifts on the kora, driven by the questions of the worried ladies. Chhiring is good at reassuring them and letting things go as they should. Prarthana lends me her mobile to send Carla a message of happy anniversary, as mine doesn’t work any longer because, keeping it in my pocket, I have unintentionally typed in three times a wrong PIN and now it asks me the PUK that I don’t have.

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Friday 7 October

Sutlej valley at Tsaparang

Today we stay in Tsaparang. We go all together to visit the citadel. Unfortunately some of the most wonderful buildings are closed because of restoration works. Anyway, the ascent to the rock studded with grottoes and ruined buildings is very spectacular and evocative. More  than ten thousand people lived here, and now there is nobody but a few tourists and the restoring workers. It seems impossible that the dry and wild land surrounding us could allow all those people to make their living out of it. The few paintings that we manage to see are very interesting, with Indian influences. We hope that the restoration will preserve their peculiarity. At the top there is the summer palace with wonderful panoramic windows. Just under it, accessible through a steep gallery, is the winter palace, excavated in the rock, with openings to the outside. We go back to the guest house for lunch and then I take a quiet walk towards the Sutlej river that here is turbid, due probably to the friable clay. We take advantage of the last quiet day before the kora to prepare ourselves to it, physically and mentally.

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Saturday 8 October

Ching and a shopkeeper at Darchen

We leave for Darchen, the starting point of the kora. After about twenty kilometres we stop  to visit the Tholing monastery. It was abandoned by the true monks, there are a few substitutes put there by the Chinese government, and they are partially restoring it. Nevertheless, here one can see wonderful frescoes, ancient and not much ruined. The religious atmosphere can only be imagined, but the artistic charm is all there, though it is difficult to understand it due to the low light and the lack of explanations. I buy a book in the hope of being able to enjoy again calmly these wonders. To go back to Darchen we retrace the same road. On the surrounding mountains there is fresh snow fallen the night before. Truly there is a snow scent, it’s colder and windy. I feel tired and cold. In Darchen we go for a shopping tour, but the cold wind soon pushes me back in the guest house. A good dinner heartens body and spirit and increases the expectations for tomorrow. I feel strangely light, in spite of a few ailments, maybe I’m getting in the right mood. For the next three days of the kora we will bring with us only the bare essentials and I will leave my computer.

“You can take a man out of Kailash-Manasarovar, but you can’t take Kailash-Manasarovar out of a man.” Manoj M. Haridas

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Kora around Mount Kailash (2.5 days, 46.2 km)

 


Sunday 9 October

North face of Mount Kailash

It is the great day of the departure for the kora. The first eight kilometres could be done by jeep, but with Jeff and Katy we decide to go walking and Chhiring comes with us. Soon we enter in the valley to the North, running along the Kailash massif. Chhiring prostrates at the first prostration point and so he will do at all the others. We get to Darpoche, the place where during the Saga Dawa feast they rise the pole with the little flags. The views on the Kailash are wonderful in the very clear sky. There are many local pilgrims proceeding with us and they look very happy and colourful. The track is large and it climbs gently along the river. Beyond the river some workmen rise poles for a power line: one feels that things will soon change even on the kora. We stop for tea in a local tent. We pass by a mountain called Shiva Lingham and then the valley turns right: we are now over the Kailash latitude and we come to see its North face. We reach the spot of the camp near the Drira Puk monastery. With Jeff I climb even more along the valley towards the Kailash North face and after 300 meters we reach a hilltop full of flags, from where we see the glacier coming down from the Kailash. We are tired and very thrilled. The sun goes down and it starts to be cold, so I hasten down (so to say, with my heel giving me a pang at every step). This evening they serve the dinner in our tents while they did not bring the meal tent. The highest night is awaiting me.

“As far as I know, the Kailash and Manasarovar region is the most sacred of the Himalaya with its unique spiritual call. All human being, of any race, religion, organization or community, with a no matter how disturbed mind, can find here stability and relief.” Swami Bikash Giri

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Monday 10 October

Pilgrims on the Drolma La

The morning is icy but the light on the Kailash is wonderful. We set off early because the climb on the Drolma La at 5650 meters is awaiting us. I walk with Jeff, Katy e Ching, while the Indian ladies follow us on horseback. Soon later comes Prarthana and we come to know the sad news that Kavitha didn’t feel well and had to go back and that Pallavi decided to go down with her, in an exemplary gesture of great friendship. The climb is hard and compulsorily slow due to the rarefied air, but I feel good. I’m cheered up by the many pilgrims climbing with us. At a halt a local pilgrim, walking with two others, cheerfully asks for my sticks pointing one of his knees. I tell him that I’m 59, that my heel hurts and so I need my sticks. To make him understand I write a “59” on the ground. I ask how old he is and pointing his younger mate I write “20”. He writes “30” and his mate writes “19”. Then I tell him that when he will be 59 I will give him my sticks. We say goodbye laughing. We reach the place of the dead and Ching leaves a small bundle with her cut nails. It symbolizes the abandonment of the old life. Chhiring shows us the print of Milarepa’s hand on a stone, that he would have put over the smaller one laid there by his eternal rival Bonchung. Then he brings us close to a group of rocks: underneath there is a narrow passage through which one has to pass to get rid of the committed sins. He shows us how to do. Ching, Katy and Jeff follow him, while I don’t dare, I care too much for my sins. I get to the top of the pass before the others and some pilgrims celebrate me offering cheese and candies. The others arrive, I distribute the Bacetti Perugina that I brought for the occasion and we eat our packed lunch. Then I tie the ribbon that Anna gave me to one of the many threads full of prayers, while Jeff takes pictures and wants to shoot a short film, encouraging me to say something, I’m so moved that I can hardly do it. On the way down we pass by a frozen lake and a patch of snow. The descent is steep, to a tent where they serve us tea. Then it becomes more level, and this doesn’t make it easier to my heel. The East face of the Kailash can be seen only from one spot, and anyway it isn’t as spectacular as the others. When we finally reach the camp we are extremely tired. But the place is wonderful on the river and I refresh myself washing my feet in its water, not too cold.

 “We never grow tired of each other, the mountain and I.” Taoist poem

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Tuesday 11 October

Pilgrim who proceeds prostrating

The night has been very cold and the water of the river is largely frozen. Anyway the sun rises early along the Topchen Chu valley and warms up quickly. First thing we visit the Zuthrul Phug Gompa monastery in which there is a cave with the Milarepa prints. We have to wait for the monk who’s resting after cleaning up the monastery in preparation for the full moon feast. The inside is bright and has more a feel of spirituality than in other Tibetan monasteries. The Minarepa cave is very low and the prints have to be guessed. Outside, very close, there is a herd of blue goats. From a stream coming down from the West Chhiring collects in a small bottle some water coming directly from the Kailash. Just before coming out in the large Darchen valley the river that we walk along (Dzong Chu) slips in a gorge and the path climbs up again to get over it and in the distance appears again the Gurla Mandata, while the Kailash remains hidden. We have our packed lunch and soon after we meet the jeeps waiting for us. Jeff and Kathy and I want to accomplish the kora by foot and so we make also the last 4 kilometers to Darchen, where finally the Kailash reappears. The kora is completed, we are happy and we celebrate. Back on the jeeps we return to the Manasarovar lake and we camp on the North-East coast. The sunset on the lake is wonderful and soon after the full moon rises. After dinner the Indian ladies, their driver and I make the kora around the lake, shining to the moon. Some rabbits crossing the road in the headlights keep us company. We stop a couple of times to take pictures and then at the Gossul Gompa monastery, on the top of a hill pierced by grottoes. Along the road we meet groups of pilgrims making the kora around the lake under the moonshine. At the Chiu Gompa we go back to the asphalt road that doesn’t run along the lake. The previous wonder is such that we don’t dare to protest with the driver. I’m happy that Kavitha and Pallavi could at least make the kora around the lake Manasarovar.

 “The great Kailash, magnificent, with its snow cape, the moon overlooking from the skies donate to the lake their pleasant shadows.” Ekai Kawaguchi

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Wednesday 12 October

Peaks, lakes and dunes

The morning is extremely bright and I go to a close nomad tent to get some mountain salt that was asked to me. Inside I find a gentle and dignified local woman who has exactly what I’m looking for and it is difficult to make her accept 5 yuan in payment. We set off for a long transfer of 500 kilometres along the main road to Saga, on the way towards Lhasa. But there is no way to be bored about the wild landscape, the antelopes, the yaks, the 5000 meter high passes, the snowy mountains of the Himalaya range to the South, the blue lakes. We stop and play in an area of thin sand dunes and then to have lunch in a simple restaurant in a small village. We camp just before Saga in a not particularly appealing place along a stream and it will be the last night in a tent.

 “The idea of a self and of a being is the mount Meru (Kailash); when you will make free from the idea of self and being, the mount Meru will collapse.” Hui Neng

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Thursday 13 October

Sunset on Everest

It’s the Everest day. To get there we take a shortcut to the South along the Peiku Tsho lake and soon the Everest appears encircled by the Cho Oyu and the Makalu. Closer is the Shisha Pangma, the only 8000 in Tibet (the others are at border with Nepal). We stop at Thingri for lunch and we leave Kavitha in a hotel. She doesn’t feel like facing the height of the base camp. We get there along a bad dirt road, where a shock absorber’s support of the other jeep breaks. We stop to fix it and the only thing to do is to remove the shock absorber. So the jeep proceeds slower and by leaps and bounds, but without major problems. After the Rombuk monastery the other jeep blows a tire that has to be changed, real bad luck. We get to the tent camp, from where Jeff and I go on in a small local bus to the base camp and then we climb a little hill covered with prayer flags, from where we enjoy a wonderful sight on the Everest North face and on the Rombuk glacier that comes down just there. We go back to the Rombuk monastery, in front of which is the guest house where we will spend the night and where we have dinner with the wonderful view of the sunset on the Everest.

 “(The Everest is an) enormous white tooth growing in the world’s jaw.” George Mallory

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Friday 14 October

The Lalung La pass

We set off very early in the night lightened by the moon to arrive on time at the border. We stop in Tingri for breakfast and to pick up Kavitha and then we go on South on the Friendship Highway. We stop at Lalung La pass at 5120 meters to admire the majestic sight of the very close 8000. The road then descends into a steep gorge and in a few kilometres the landscape changes drastically. After two weeks above 3500 meter, we go down. At the border, under 2000 meters, climate and environment are tropical, quite a change. The village at the border on the Tibetan side, Zangmu, grows vertically and, since the vehicles are not allowed to cross the border, it’s full of trucks, but we get through without great difficulty. The border formalities are more simple then expected and we cross the Friendship Bridge on foot. It looks like the Berlin bridge with soldiers facing each other on both sides and frankly it’s difficult to understand why this Chinese border is so much more strict than others. We left the jeeps and we find a comfortable minibus that carries us for about 20 kilometres to the Last Resort, the hotel where we will spend the night. The road on the Nepalese side is very uneven, with many landslides on which they work non-stop. The hotel is beyond a suspended bridge from which the audacious can venture on bungee-jumping. It is not our case, instead we rest in the beautiful hotel made of tents scattered in the damp forest. In the evening we drink and feast, but I already miss the dry Tibetan plateau.

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Saturday 15 October

Last lunch with the ladies

The transfer in minibus to Kathmandu lasts a few hours and offers a survey of life on the most visited  Nepalese mountains, different from the one in the Karnaly valley. Here easier transports support a more developed agriculture and some trade activities. After many clear days, some clouds appear, but the weather continues to be fine. We arrive in Kathmandu before lunch and the capital seems a different world. To recover, I go to lunch with the ladies of the party in a friendly middle eastern restaurant. The afternoon is dedicated to some shopping, luggage preparation and resuming contact with the world via internet. Surendra invites us to dinner in a wonderful Nepalese restaurant with local dances. The ambience is very pleasant and everybody launches in roundup speeches. We also let ourselves get involved in the local dances.

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Sunday 16 October

Monkey family at Swayambunath

The last day in Nepal is dedicated to the last purchases and to the visit of the Swayambunath stupa, also called the monkey temple. The stupa is on the top of a flight of steps that becomes more and more steep as you climb. There are tourists, both local and foreigners, and a few believers. I buy an history of Buddha painted in gold on a black cotton cloth for Pietro, slippers for Leonardo and a collier for Laura. The rest of the day passes fixing the luggage and the mail on the internet. Then comes the time to say goodbye and to go to the airport. I’m already sure that this journey and its participants left to me something more than other journeys: they helped me to overcome the barriers that afflict our world, barriers of nationality, religion, culture, race, age.

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 “Life is a bridge, don’t build any residence. It’s a river, don’t clutch to its banks. It is a gymnasium, use it to develop the spirit, training it on the machinery of the circumstances. It’s a journey: accomplish it and go further!” Buddha