Inner Feelings

Steve Berry

I considered laying down and contemplating death. This is what I was supposed to do, I knew, but that part of me that for fifty years had been subjected to middle class English conditioning had told me that probably not a lot would happen. Sweet mystic fumes of burning juniper wafted across the huddle of bodies, a bell tinkled, a hand drum chattered, deep guttural droning came from the monk in ragged robes sitting below the snapping flag. Dead humans had been dismembered and eaten by the Griffon Vultures here for century upon century. We would die too one day. This body I lived in would just be a pile of ashes one day. Why not lie down with the Tibetans and face up to it? Down below, only fifteen minutes walk, an altogether different play was being enacted. Down there people laughed, drank, churning in a mass around the newly erect flagpole, praying for better fortune, lost in their meditation, transported, living the tradition. Life was in full swing down there. Here sorrow and fear were in the air.

A few of us had walked up after the climax of the Saga Dawa festival, ever more slowly, gasping with the altitude. Are you ever prepared for death? Suddenly life and its frippery was far behind. We circled the gigantic rock platform in some sort of dream. Floated around describes it well. There were piles of small cairns, no blood, no bones, just discarded, rotting clothes, prayer stones, and crinkled old people spinning their prayer wheels. When their eyes met mine the chasm of difference between us slid aside. We both knew we were thinking about death. The conditioning was wearing thin, and to be honest I had forever rejected most of what the establishment had tried to ram down my throat anyway. Had I not been in my youth a Flower Power child, had I not read my Lobsang Rampa, hitched to Morocco, experimented with Astral travel, and the rest.

The line of drifting Tibetans stopped near the centre of the platform. Here sat the cross legged lama and perhaps fifty or more pilgrims lying in an untidy heap. We stood, outsiders, observing and I knew it would not matter if I lay down next to them too. The powerful stink of Yak butter and sweat were added to the juniper as I lay down next to some dust caked men. I was vaguely worried that I might catch fleas.

I closed my eyes. Time passed, my body felt light, thin, transparent yet it felt good, strong. A thousand million questions about love and peace and war piled in one side of the brain and slipped inconclusively out the other. I thought of so many things in those few minutes as the wind blew and the sun shone down — the deaths of my brother and father, my own life. Calmness, peacefulness, a whiff of infinity. What did it all mean? Power, wealth, fame, possessions — it all counts for nothing at the end. Is it helpful to know billions have died before me? Only I experience my own death — what on earth is it going to be like? The things we do in a lifetime, our plans, our fantasies, our social standing, our pitiful efforts to make the daily bread, it all comes to nothing. But even as the sheer futility threatened depression 'the I' that was the observer of these thoughts smiled, laughing at the deep and clever mystery of life.

When I did surface from my temporary death I saw even the Tibetans who were leaving looked subdued, serious. I thought how attractive the Buddhist idea of re-incarnation was now. After all, three score years and ten and then infinity? Surely not — infinity compared to seventy years is an awful long time dead!

When I eventually got up I was convinced that in some unfathomable way I knew I still had a long way to go in this body. Another lady, in normal life a lawyer in Paris, agreed it had been a strange and intense experience. Had she felt what I had felt?

For is this not what all who endure the hardships of reaching Mount Kailash in Western Tibet come for? To experience the infinite, the mysteries, to contemplate their own navel. No, for some I am sure it is just an adventure to a place, an incomparably beautiful place, but just a place. Our western conditioning allows little belief in the world's navel being our own. For eastern religions a journey to Kailash is a journey to the centre of oneself, when you should contemplate all the good things you have done in your life, and all the bad. To come to an understanding, to repent perhaps, to gain merit by so doing, to purge and purify yourself of sin. For some purer souls it is to reach enlightenment. Namby pamby mish mash I hear you say. Fantasy.

Fantasy? Don't we all live our daily lives in fantasy? We crave excitement, escape — a different reality to the one that belongs to us. We pursue the perfect hero inside ourselves, pursue the perfect partner, pursue power beyond our abilities, pursue wealth in the hope we can buy our fantasies. We read fantasy, we watch it on the TV, the cinema, the theatre. It is the stuff of our dreams, and consumerism just a by-product.

Strange then, that a place should actually exist, whose legends would put Marvel comics in the shade. Stranger still that all Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and the remnants of the old Tibetan religion Bonpo, see this place as the physical and spiritual centre of the universe. Yet we have largely ignored its existence. Why? Because we would rather place more importance in hero worship of those who can climb to the earth's highest point. Kailash is a mountain that every year for thousands of years Tibetans, and Indians, have come to make their Kora, or circuit... to make a journey to the centre of themselves, to pursue their goal of achieving perfection.

So many religions are faith by rote. I remember friends in the village where I grew up saying to me 'My father and his before him, and his before that, prayed to God therefore it must be right, so I will do it too.' I never did buy that. So many follow blindly, and in every country, including Tibet. You can see it clearly in every religion where the original philosophy has been overlaid with idolatry, and where ceremony has become a matter of solid tradition and its meaning largely forgotten. But still, when you see a group of fifteen young Tibetan friends prostrating all the way around Kailash, head to toe, head to toe for three weeks, through snow on an eighteen and a half thousand foot pass, you have to believe they are not just doing this to please their parents.

The little death on the sky burial site above Tarboche was 2002, the Year of the Horse. It was my second visit to Kailash and my first to attend the Saga Dawa festival. We had flown to a mountain airstrip at a town called Simikot, trekked for a week through the western mountains of Nepal, been fleeced by bandits, crossed a high pass, endured the bored and arrogant Chinese border guards, bumped along in clouds of dust over another sixteen thousand feet pass, and trekked along the northern shore of the holiest lake in Asia. We had battled with the doubly arrogant Chinese police at Darchen and survived two days in that filthy town with its dead dogs, human faeces, and the worst campsite it has ever been my displeasure to suffer and pay for. No one said it was ever going to be easy. It seems that it is obligatory for the Kailash pilgrim to suffer greatly before it is proper that he or she receives enlightenment. Your suffering reaches its climax on the crossing of the Dolma la, 18,600 ft, the highest pass on the Kora, the place where you receive enlightenment. I have seen many people in tears at this point, as they leave behind their old life and strive to start anew, or say goodbye to friends who have already passed away.

That year in 2002 there were thousands making the Kora after the festival. From the pass you could see an almost unbroken line of humanity labouring upwards through the snow from the west and descending to the east. Even in the middle of the night there were people passing our tents intent on completing the Kora in a day; possible for a fit Tibetan. One of the greatest pleasures on the Kailash Kora is contact with every kind of Tibetan; families spinning prayer wheels, shy women with shier children, nefarious ruffians, Bonpo people coming in the opposite direction, as is their custom, every face a story untold. Their acts of faith in support of their threatened religion was nothing though compared with seeing with my own eyes twenty or thirty people making the three week full prostration Kora.

The saying is that an outer circuit cleanses the soul of a lifetime of sin. One hundred and eight bring perfection and allow escape from the wheel of life forever. Furthermore thirteen under your Buddhist belt and you then qualify for the much whispered about, secret Inner Kora.

The south face of Kail ash from the inner Kora.

12. The south face of Kail ash from the inner Kora. (Steve Berry)

Little is known of the Inner Kora. I had heard vague stories of how crampons and an ice axe might be needed to gain a very high pass right under the south face, and that the route was subject to stone fall Very little is written about it, I could find no one who had done it. But I did discover in 2002 that there is a Tibetan tradition that says that if an Outer Kora is made in the Horse year it is equivalent to thirteen in any other year, thus providing a 'short cut' to the Inner Kora. Of course all this is dogma and in actual fact I think each individual will find his or her own enlightenment only by conscious effort. It might take one Kora or several hundred that's impossible to say. However I do believe when we visit another people's culture their traditions must be respected. I feel the rule of thirteen, or the Horse year shortcut, has to be followed.

Tibetan pilgrims prostrating on Kora.

13. Tibetan pilgrims prostrating on Kora. (Steve Berry)

Then, a year after I had 'qualified' for the Inner Kora, a wonderful coincidence occurred. I met a Sherpa, Kami Tsering, who related how he had just completed the Inner Kora himself, having already achieved fourteen Outer Koras. Kami and his wife Lhakpa, subsequently came to stay at our house in Gloucestershire, and he showed me a fantastic picture he had taken looking down into the inner circuit, from high on a surrounding ridge. He described the route and told me how, near the pass, there are thirteen chortens containing the ashes of thirteen successive re-incarnate lamas from a monastery situated close to Lhasa.

The story jumps now to May 2004. The journey to reach Kailash had this time produced a different set of trails. The Maoist troubles in Nepal had lost us a day out of our acclimatisation trek, and then the Chinese truck carrying our equipment had broken its differential within an hour of crossing the border at Zhangmu. Working through the night this had been repaired but the following day the truck broke down again, and the day after that it took a different road than our three Land Cruisers and we lost time and patience trying to locate it. Then a cruiser ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, a kit bag was stolen, probably in the town of Saga, and we started to lose count of the number of punctures. The day after that the truck's electrics failed, but what the hell we could see by now the vacant looking, permanently smiling Tibetan driver knew how to fix everything. Unable to stop us by mechanical failure the gods then threw a snowstorm at us. With the wipers barely clearing the windscreen we laboured and slid our way over a 16,000 ft pass. Thankfully by the time we reached a section of the 'road' notorious for its mud and sand the weather had relented and our drivers bullied their 4-wheel drive vehicles through an innocuous looking track that often leaves motors stranded for days. When we did finally arrive at Kailash we found that an influx of Indian pilgrims had cornered the market in Yaks, and only by agreeing to pay the Headman for two night's accommodation at his relative's guest house, even though we were not going to use it, did we manage to secure eighteen yaks one day later than planned. As it transpired this delay did us a favour as the weather could not have been better on the day we crossed the Dolma la. However on the other side one of our party, Roger, fell ill and, putting him on the back of a horse, we pressed on down the eastern valley to Zutrul Puk gompa to get him to a lower altitude. In fact he was fine the next day and opted to walk instead of worsening the blisters on his backside caused from the makeshift wooden saddle.

Completing the Outer Kora at Darchen my companions then left for a soak in the hot springs at Chiu gompa while I and my old Sherpa friend Da Doiji and another Sherpa Ram, hired two local men at the Om coffee shop. In one corner, Tibetan yak herders, flush with money, played a boisterous game of Mah Jong. The two porters offered to show us the way round the Inner Kora. But the question was would the Inner Kora now be possible? Did in fact Kailash swing the levers of fate? Is in fact pure luck just that, or is there something more powerful at work? In the west of course everything is explainable, everything is a matter of science. In Tibet it is a different world where science may rule the material world, but where what happens to you as a human is governed by your Karmic deeds, not only what you have done in this life but very probably what you may have done in previous lives too.

In any case as we rose steadily up the gorge to the north of Darchen a thick layer of cloud stretched from horizon to horizon. The omens were not auspicious. After two hours we came to the mud brick monastery of Serlung gompa. This and other monasteries around Kailash had once been owned by the King of Bhutan and were largely destroyed during the Chinese Cultural revolution. These lands and others in western Tibet, Zanskar, Mustang and Ladakh were granted to the powerful first ruler of Bhutan, Ngawang Namgyal by the king of Ladakh in exchange for his assistance in combating the 'Great Fifth' Dalai Lama.

The north face of Kai1ash.

14. The north face of Kai1ash. (Steve Berry)

The monastery is over five hundred years old and although badly damaged by the Chinese, it is the quintessential Tibetan meditative castle. More so, because living here, was one twenty two year old monk currently pursuing a retreat of three years. From here we could see the vertical cliffs that form the very base of Kailash. What more perfect place could there be to spend your time on this earth in meditation where even wild sparrows seem so tame they will almost eat from a stranger's hand.

From his Yak dung fire in his meditation room the young man treated us to perfect Tibetan salt butter tea. We camped in his front yard and in the night hailstones turned my tent into a snare drum. At 5.00 a.m. looking north only the root of Kailash could be seen; a depressing layer of cloud threatened bad weather. Everything in my life prior to this moment had brought me to this spot. Now either luck, or the gods, or my own karma, would make it well or not.

We set off on a barely discernable path towards Nanda, a 20,000 ft mountain that sits like a bull in front of the south face. Below was a stream heading toward the gorge and lake Manasarovar. We could see a Tibetan family down below following its left bank. To our left were huge red cliffs with hermit caves at their base. Just forty minutes brought us to a small ridge covered in scores of little stone cairns. This marks a point opposite the base of Nanda, and now the path steepened and fifty more panting minutes brought our pilgrim party to the gateway of the inner sanctuary. A miniature forest of stone cairns lay around our feet, where others have stopped in wonderment at the view before them and taken time to balance small stones one on top of the other, the more impossibly balanced the better. Ahead was the way leading down to the floor of the valley between the hulk-like form of Nanda and the amphitheatre of cliffs that reach out in a sweeping semi-circular arm from Kailash's south face. I was a boy again entering some secret place. How could something so beautiful remain hidden from the outside world? Still only the vertical cliffs that form the base of the south face were showing. In contrast my Sherpa's teeth were on full show. Experiencing quiet excitement and wonderment, pleasure and gratitude we wandered forward. Past a shrine where two Rhanjung* horse footprints were preserved, and eventually onto the flat floor of the valley. Here were scattered at random massive square and rectangular conglomerate blocks that must have fallen in some distant age from the dress circle.

The Tibetan family waved us over, a man and his wife and four shy and exceedingly beautiful daughters, not to mention seven or eight dogs. I shared my Kendal Mint cake and apricots. They lit a fire of dried yak dung using a set of leather bellows, and produced tea. They had travelled by truck from their home, five days east of Lhasa. The girls wore black yak hair clothes and thin strip headdresses studded with turquoise and jade. I sat with my back to Kailash. Then there was an unexpected shout from Ram, I turned. There was no warning that it was happening, or about to happen, but there in front of us was the south face of Kailash completely clear of cloud. Every detail was clear; on the lower cliffs were two identical circular shapes like the eyes on a Nepalese stupa. A ledge below formed a mouth that smiled. Plum in the centre of Kailash's south face is a snow filled gully that because of the regular horizontal rock layers looks like a staircase. The gully ends in a vertical drop of several hundred feet and as we watched, spellbound, a small powder avalanche ran down the gully and emptied from the bottom into thin air.

The wind caught the snow tail and blew it to the right. I remember at the time thinking how like a swastika it seemed.

Driving to Taklakot (Purang).

15. Driving to Taklakot (Purang). (Steve Berry)

We moved on closer and closer to the south face until we were labouring up the snow sprinkled slopes of rock debris that had accumulated here over many millions of years. Above us I could see the thirteen chortens in a line on their ledge. Our porters were heading that way. We could hear chanting coming from two monks up on the ledge. It looked frighteningly steep, and just then a Tibetan man and his son passed us on their way down. Dorje told me they had decided it was too dangerous to climb up to the chortens. I just said to myself if Dorje and Ram can do it then I can follow them, if they can't, I won't. The ledge was perhaps one hundred and fifty feet above us and as we scrambled up on slippery footholds the drop and its consequences increased exponentially. The ledge of the thirteen chortens is a perfect square incut shelf, and totally safe when you are standing on it. If you want to do a Kora of the chortens themselves, and it would be a serious opportunity lost not to, it means walking gingerly along, holding onto them, on the few inches between them and the edge of the ledge. Behind them you can walk easily but with your head ducked to avoid hitting the roof, which protects the chortens from falling rocks. These we could hear occasionally zinging past. The chortens were damaged at the time of the Cultural Revolution and have now been restored. Looking to the right are plumb vertical cliffs, looking out and to the left were a series of steep snow slopes and rocky walls, leading to a pass and beyond that to the other half of the Inner Kora. It was a strange feeling to be on this ledge, one of the holiest places of Tibetan pilgrimage, where I was safe, but from where I knew I had to leave, and either up or down, would risk almost certain death if I slipped.

Dorje went over to examine the slopes leading to the pass. He came back and said he thought it was too dangerous and that we ought to go down. As he was saying this the Tibetan family, still with half its dogs, started up the slopes, and our two porters without asking us just followed them. We could not turn back — the shame would have been too great. Every step had to be carefully tried and tested before putting weight on it. And so we made slow progress. The dogs were being man-handled, pushed and pulled up the rocky sections. On the snow slopes they pranced around with no fear of the yawning drops below. Then we came to a rock step steeper than the rest. Above me two of the Tibetans were leaning down, balanced on rocky steps above the hard move. One held down a prayer flag, the other a scarf. They wanted me to grab them and pull myself up, and there was precious little else to use as handholds. Using as little force as I could I somehow levitated myself up. The shouts and laughter still ring in my ears. Above lay a snow slope leading to a foot wide dry rocky ledge, backed by cliffs. The Tibetan family stood there in a line making commiserating funny faces. They too knew this had been a crazy thing to do. Such sweet temporary relief! Never mind that off to my left somewhere the Tibetans were sizing up the next obstacle — for a few minutes at least I could stand without fear of slipping and look down into the perfect symmetry that is the Inner Kora.

Now we traversed more steep snow slopes that ended a little way down in vertical drops, without ropes, crampons or ice axes because Dorji had been confident that they would not be needed and we had left them behind. Then I could see Ram on the skyline shouting and waving to me 'Mr. Steve it is safe here, safe, really OK sir, just a little bit sir and it is safe.' Dare I hope for so much? To be so close and yet so far. When I reached Ram he and Dorji were clearly ecstatic. They knew fate had allowed them to complete something beyond the reach of most mortals. Serious photos were taken. Brought up in the Sherpa heartland my Sherpa brothers, as I now felt, knew something much more than me the meaning of their faith. I had read lots of books but it can never be the same. Still I could see how happy and humble they were, in the presence of Kailash.

We stood at 18,700 feet dazzled by the beauty of the second half of the Kora, now in front of us. To our right were the cliffs of Nanda. I had half hoped there might be a chance to explore up there but the cliffs were literally like the prow of a ship above us. Below were easier snow slopes leading to the valley floor. This eastern half of the Kora was just as symmetrical as the western. The cliffs were black, with regular vertical snow and ice gullies and horizontal strata similarly plastered in snow. The effect was both unique and in sharp contrast to the western cliffs, though they both held the same unbroken shape, like that of an amphitheatre, though you felt that nature had designed the whole to repel all intruders. No flat valley floor here though and our guide porters, who rarely spoke, wanted us finally to see two small lakes — one white and one black. 'Lakes' is an overstatement; they are two small ponds but strangely one is indeed white and the other black. I know not why. The second half of the Kora is beguilingly tiring. Endless boulder slopes until finally we hit the stream with its holy water heading towards the monastery. Our young monk friend rushed out to warmly greet us and I fell asleep in his meditation room after gratefully taking some of his acquired taste tea.

When we arrived back at filthy Darchen and walked into the Om coffee shop it seemed a lifetime had passed since we had left two days earlier, but yet the same group of Tibetans were there still, banging their tiles down in another game of Mah Jong.


Undertaking the Inner Kora (Inner Circumabulation) of holy Kailash in Tibet.

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