Day 1: Arrival in Lhasa

Day 2: Sera Monastery

Day 3: Bumpari Mountain

Day 4: Urban Kora

Day 5: Drepung Monastery

Day 6: Potala Palace Kora

Day 7: Gyaphelri Mountain

Day 8: Preparations for Kailas

Day 9: Gyantse

Day 10: Tashilungpo Monastery

Day 11: Lhatse

Day 12: Saga

Day 13: Pariyang

Day 14: Darchen

Day 15: Dirapuk Monastery

Day 16: The Glacier

Day 17: Dzutrulpuk Monastery

Day 18: Lake Mansarovar

Day 19: Return to Saga

Day 20: Nyalam

Day 21: Return to Lhatse

Day 22: Lhasa 2.0


Day 17: Dzutrulpuk Monastery

We get up before 7 the next morning since we have a long day ahead of us. I am the first to make it into the monastery kitchen, where I see the nun who normally works the hardest and wears the filthiest and most disreputable outfit. She is beautifully dressed in her full monastic regalia, sitting in an impeccable, serene meditation pose, reciting a lineage prayer from memory at high speed.

I go back to Pablo and the Swiss couple and tell them. I'm surprised that their first reaction is that we should interrupt her, so she can get on with cooking our breakfast and we can be on our way. Strange that the person here who has the least time to devote to formal practice is the only one I see doing any. Strange also these disconnects between our spiritual aspirations and principles and our actual practice that interrupt the universal healing that true religion can bring. I am in no position to talk, of course. I have done some pretty bad things already on this pilgrimage, and I am planning to do some much worse things once I get back to Lhasa.

In the end the others agree that we will pack our bags first and wait a few minutes for breakfast. After half an hour or so the nun serves us a quick breakfast of tea and tsampa and we are off before first light.

Beginning of the Ascent to Drolma La

The climb is steep and unremitting. As we pass the glacier to the North-East of Kailas I am having trouble keeping up.

Kailas's East Glacier

The other Westerners are carrying day-packs: my full-size backpack weighs at least thirty-five pounds, almost all of it useless. The Tibetan porters are carrying heavy packs too, and in some places they too are struggling, but their physiology is better adapted to the thin air and probably none of them program computers for a living.

I constantly fall behind, red-faced and panting. I catch up only at the ends of breaks when everyone else is ready to move on, so I never get a break myself. After a couple of hours we reach the Shiwa Tsel, or Dakini Charnel Ground. This is a place to abandon your past and to honor those you know who have passed on. Pablo does a brief ceremony for the soul of his deceased mother, and I do a more extended practice - the White Feast of Chöd in which I offer my body for the benefit of all beings, followed by brief ceremonies for dead relatives and friends of mine and of people I know. I finish by burning relics of the departed and a lock of my own hair. Some Tibetans doing similar practices look on approvingly, and a dog comes and lays himself down peacefully in my cross-legged lap.

All this takes time - at least half an hour. When I finish my practice my party is nowhere to be seen, and I have to guess at the correct route. It seems unlikely that I will catch them up at my present pace, but eventually I do, though only by pushing myself beyond my normal physical limits. I have already spent too much energy before the hardest part of the climb. I learn that the Swiss were so disturbed by the atmosphere of the Shiwa Tsel that they absolutely refused to wait anywhere near it.

Below Drolma La

The climb up to the Drolma La pass is steep, and of course the 18,500 foot altitude doesn't help, but what is killing me is the pace. Walter the Swiss expresses some concern about my apoplectic face but no-one slows down. The anger I feel toward my companions is anger at the onset of old age, sickness, and death, and underneath it is absolute terror of the void.

Shakespeare was many years younger than I when he wrote this:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth from the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed by that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I have already lived longer than him and so many men and women wiser and better than I - and to what end?

Me at Drolma La

We reach the giant boulder that marks the pass, and I circle it (not easy, so dense are the prayer flags that encircle it) and rest my forehead against a sacred spot on the stone. I feel absolutely nothing - every devotional impulse has been completely extinguished in me.

We head down, passing a sacred (and frigid) lake to our right in which pilgrims are supposed to bathe. I remember this fact but am not even close to acting on it.

Sacred Lake in which I Do Not Bathe

To our right is a ridge eroded into improbable and apparently unsustainable shapes.

Giant Block Balanced on the Ridge Crest

Heading Down

We cross a snow-field and drop down off this giant heap of boulders into a beautiful grassy valley, through which threads a large, braided, happily-chattering brook. Our five-year-old female guide runs ahead and shows us the way through the braids of the river until she misjudges a leap and falls back into the water, when she regresses from a guide to a young daughter crying in her loving father's arms.

Into the Valley

A dog has been following us since before the pass - perhaps the same dog that was lying at my lap at Shiwa Tsel, I'm not sure. Normally I am not a dog person, but this dog is very cute. I'm concerned for his safety at this inhospitable height, though he seems very much at home. I still have a couple of Barbara's Oats and Honey bars in my pack (my staple hiking food). I offer the dog one of them and he accepts.

The Dog (Guide and Her Father in Background)

This valley, though beautiful, is very, very long. Eventually it T's into another, larger and lower, valley, and at the bottom of the descent is a tea tent where we stop, exhausted, to rest and to buy soft drinks and instant noodles. The tent has a solar panel, a cell phone charger, and a CD/MP3 player. Most of the nomads' tents we have seen have at least a solar panel and a cell phone charger, for after all, who needs a cell phone more than a nomad (unless it be a nomad's teenage children)?

This rest stop reinvigorates Pablo, who on our last descent was seriously wondering whether he had it in him to go on. From this point through the end of the trip, however, he will mostly be leading our way.

As we turn into the main valley something happens that finally shows me what is so special about the Tibetans. Our 'cute' dog sees a marmot and dashes straight for it, seizing it around the midsection in its jaws to shake and crush it to death.


Dorje runs up to the dog and tries to scare it into dropping the marmot, but the dog holds on and refuses to let go. Immediately a group of Tibetans following some distance behind us drop their packs and bound down the hillside, showing the same urgency as if someone were being raped or stabbed. Together with Dorje they surround the dog and finally force it to let go.

The marmot is still alive and its skin appears unbroken, but it seems to have suffered serious internal injuries. It lies there breathing in fitful gasps, its legs feebly twitching, and seems unlikely to survive. My fellow Westerners have pretty much written this animal off and are relatively unconcerned about its fate, but all the Tibetans feel an urgent need to do something, and so do I. I reach forward as if to pick the marmot up and carry it to its burrow, but Dorje tells me not to - that these animals carry serious contagious diseases.

Marmot Hole

He and I improvise a litter out of his walking-stick and mine and carry the marmot most of the way to his burrow before he falls off. Despite having told me not to touch the marmot, Dorje then picks it up himself and carries it the rest of the way. Meanwhile the other Tibetans are executing an elaborate scheme to 'blindside' the dog and blur the marmot's scent trail so that the dog doesn't know where the marmot has gone and will not return to finish the job, and the little girl spontaneously sits by the marmot and starts reciting the 'Om Mane Padme Hung' mantra of universal compassion, both to ease the marmot's suffering and to ensure it a fortunate rebirth if it passes over.

All this takes over half an hour. The other Westerners and a couple of the porters move on after ten minutes or so, whereas I wait until I see that there is nothing more I personally can do. Dorje waits even longer, until he has thoroughly checked that the dog has really lost the scent, so we both have some catching up to do.

I am already very impressed with the Tibetans so far, of course, but it is when Dorje catches up to me that he really blows my mind. The dog is trotting along beside him, looking up at his face with an appealing wide-eyed expression as if nothing had happened. My initial affection for this dog has turned to something bordering on disgust, but Dorje's feeling has not changed at all. He has shouted and screamed at this dog, chased after it with a stick, and done everything he can to frustrate his plans, but everything he has done has been out of compassion - just as much for the dog as for the marmot. And so he can walk companionably alongside the dog, pausing every once in a while to look down, smile, and pat it gently on the top of the head.

Heading South

This new, larger valley is just as beautiful as the last one, but unfortunately it's also just as long. We pass a Mani wall (made of stones each carved with a character of the sacred mantra On Mani Padme Hung) and a waterfall that in other circumstances would delight us, but all we can think of is our journey's end.

Mani Wall

Waterfall Across the Valley

Finally we come to a small settlement with some rooms. Significantly, even though the Dzutrulpuk monastery is only a couple of hundred yards above us, we don't even think about walking up to it. When I arrive Dorje has been negotiating with the owners about the price of accommodation, but infuriatingly we are unable to come to an agreement. The only way this would be affordable would be if all four of us slept in the same small room, which we don't want to do.

So finally we trudge our weary way up to the monastery, not because we want to imbibe the sacred atmosphere of Milarepa's holy shrine, but simply because we think if may offer a better deal on accommodation.

We break out the cards and play 'Shithead' in the monastery kitchen until Dorje gently reminds us that is a religious establishment, not a youth hostel (something we are constantly forgetting). The sun sets and it's time for an early night. I am so exhausted that I have not a single picture of the monastery.

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