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 18: Mansarovar

Before starting our day's trek we find a monk to unlock the Milarepa meditation cave. It is only three feet high at its highest point. - about the same dimensions as the Dirapuk cave which was equally tiny. I can't say I personally had any deep spiritual experience there, but there is a very strong devotional atmosphere.

Another Western couple visit the cave shrine at the same time we do. These are the first Westerners other than Roger that we have seen on Kailas.

The walk out is pleasant, easy, and beautiful. We catch up to a group of young Indians and a really fun Dutch group with whom we enjoy chatting and who offer us some wonderful chocolate, plus of course more Tibetans, this time some nomads who are moving out and moving on. We also meet the first Chinese we have seen on Kailas, an intelligent and cosmopolitan family group who have studied abroad, have roots in Hong Kong and Singapore as well as on the mainland, and speak almost perfect English.

View back Along the Valley

Even though the Kailas pilgrimage is extensively advertised to Westerners and economically important to Western Tibet, that vast majority of those who take it are still Tibetan. I would estimate the numbers who take it as 70% Tibetan, 15% Indian, 10% Western, 5% Chinese.

Given the explosion in Chinese internal tourism, the new train from Lhasa, and the renewed Chinese interest in Buddhism, the number of Chinese tourists making the pilgrimage can be expected to increase dramatically, which should make for some very interesting intercultural encounters.

River Outflow at the End of the Valley

It is on the back of one of the nomads' yaks that we see this:

Yak Carrying a Solar Panel on Its Back

To us this is a symbol of technological leapfrogging: to the nomads of course it's just one more useful gizmo, no more 'high-tech' than a tractor or a ballpoint pen, or even a plastic bag. I understand that the Chinese government currently imports these from the E.U. They buy them in at $250 each and sell them at $100, because they know they can produce them themselves for less than that once they have enough sales volume. This solar panel is charging a battery even as the yak laboriously picks its way up a stony mountain path.

The Last Stretch

The pilgrimage ends, anticlimactically, in a dirt parking lot occupied by a military truck. In the morning Dorje wanted to allow 4 hours from the monastery, but led by the energetic Pablo we are in Darchen inside two hours.

We have an (early) lunch in our favorite restaurant and discuss our next moves. I want to visit Tirthapuri, a couple of hours away to the West (and thus out of our way). At Tirthapuri there is a sacred divination urn where you can check your karma level after the pilgrimage. You choose two stones from an urn containing equal numbers of white and black stones to find out if your karma is clear (2 white), mixed (1 white, 1 black) or in serious need of a tune-up (2 black).

Dorje absolutely refuses to risk the trip. He says that the road is bad, our car is overloaded, and if an accident happened help would be a long time coming. Later events show us the wisdom of his decision. Thinking about it, I'm not sorry I didn't draw from the urn. What difference does it make what state my karma is in? All I can do anyway is clean it up, or keep it clean, from this moment on.

We first head to Quhu monastery and hot springs at the North of Lake Mansarovar. The hot springs are closed, and also so unappetizing that we'd stay out of them even if open,. The monastery is a long way from the lake, and the vibes are not that great, so we head off again to Qugu monastery on the South shore.

Qugu Monastery on Mansarovar (Gurla Mandata in Distance)

This is more like it! It's a small monastery with half a dozen guest rooms, right on the shore of the lake. Through the window of our room Pablo and I can see Kailas and Gurla Mandata across the lake.

View Through Our Window

I have longed for this lake ever since hearing this teaching many years ago on a song of Kabir ('Swan, I would like you to tell me your whole story...)

The swan is one of the metaphors most used by Indian mystics. The swan lives beyond the Himalayas, in the Lake Mansarovar. The Lake Mansarovar is the purest lake in the world - very rarely does a human being reach there - uncontaminated, unpolluted, surrounded by the Himalayan beauty, virgin peaks.

The swan is born there, lives there, but when it becomes too cold the swan has to come to this [Indian] side of the Himalayas, to the plains. And sometimes it happens: a swan forgets the way to go back. A swan simply forgets that he has a home somewhere, starts living by the side of dirty rivers, dirty ponds, muddy places.

Hence, the swan becomes a tremendously potent metaphor for man. Man comes from God but he has forgotten from where he comes, who he is. Man comes from God, from the holiest of holies, and goes on living by the side of dirty rivers, muddy pools of water.Of course, he cannot be contented here, but he knows no other place to go. He is lost. This seems to be the only world.

The Eastern mystics use the metaphor of the swan for man.

Osho (Rajneesh), 'The Fish in the Sea is not Thirsty'

The weather is sunny though a little cool: I take off my clothes and swim in the lake. This is the highest fresh-water lake in the world (2,000 feet higher than the next contender, Lake Titicaca in the Andes), and it is covered in thick ice most of the year, yet what strikes me most is how normal everything feels. The water is cool yet pleasant on the surface and a little colder underneath. The experience reminds me of swimming in a Cascade mountain lake in summer near my home in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. I take two separate dips and make sure to dive fully under the water in the hope of washing away all my sins.

View of Kailas From the Lake

We are all feeling so comfortable that we decide to use the slack day in our schedule to stay here tomorrow as well. We soon change our minds as the weather changes.

Gathering Storm Over Mansarovar

Squalls suddenly blow in even as the sun continues to shine, bringing rain followed by driving hail. A double rainbow arches over the southern sky from East and West: where is this weather going?

West End of the Rainbow

East End of the Rainbow

Sunset Over the Lake

We decide to postpone our final decision till morning.

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