Getting thereWhere, amid the cosmic play of birth and death, virtue and vice, does a pilgrimage truly begin? I first heard of the Mount Kailas pilgrimage many years ago, in India, and even then the name seemed an echo from an unknown, numinous past.
Being a pilgrim is completely different from being a tourist. A tourist wants the environment to be at his or her service: a pilgrim is there to surrender to it. A tourist wants to bring back souvenirs: a pilgrim wants to discard what he already has. To a vacationer, discomfort, boredom, fear, and uncertainty are the enemy: to the pilgrim, they are friends reminding him or her to relax and let go. At the time I made this pilgrimage in 2006, the walk around Mount Kailas made an inspiring pilgrimage and a pretty terrible vacation - you have been warned!
Some very basic details about myself may help you understand the viewpoint from which I am writing. I'm in my mid-fifties, a relatively committed Tibetan Buddhist practitioner particularly of the Lojong (Mind Training) practice, born in England but currently residing in the Pacific Northwest, making a living both as a Web developer and as a Tai Chi teacher. I am also a lover of the people and culture of China, and so I have some empathy with both of the cultures of modern Tibet. My spoken Chinese is pretty fluent: my Tibetan very limited indeed except for religious terms. My personal idiosyncrasies, hangups, and limitations will become pretty obvious as you read on and the pilgrimage brings them up into the light.
Even though a pilgrimage may have no definite beginning, an account of one must. Let me start my account on Alki Beach, Seattle, on a warm midsummer evening in 2006. I am watching the sunset with my ex-wife and best friend, Pamela, and my prospective future girlfriend, Eva. Perhaps it's a sign of a lack of focus and clarity in my life that it is my ex-wife, rather than my future girlfriend, who is driving me to the airport, and with whom I am sharing a room tonight (my friend Ping's spare room, her in the single bed, me in my sleeping bag on the floor.)
Strange that the first stop on my pilgrimage should be L.A.! From there I fly via South Korea to Chengdu. I arrive at Chengdu around 10 p.m., but my luggage does not. I have only one day in Chengdu before leaving for Lhasa. My present outfit of T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops seems unlikely to prove sufficient for a pilgrimage whose high point is over 18,500 feet.
In a small sign of larger global seismic shifts, the mistake made by an Alaska Airlines agent in Seattle is remedied by a young Chinese girl working the night shift in Chengdu airport, who arranges for my bags to be shipped on from L.A. It's after midnight when I leave the airport: too late to change money. I have to find a taxi driver who is prepared to take dollars, and by the time I get to Sam's Hostel only the night warden is awake. He comes from the Yi tribe high in the Kun Lun mountains, who still keep each other as slaves, and is learning English to help his people develop a tourist trade.
I came here before in 2003 hoping to make the Kailas pilgrimage, but wasn't able to since Tibet was closed because of the SARS epidemic. Chengdu has changed a lot since then. Almost everyone now has a rechargeable electric moped - even the schoolchildren. They are silent, ecologically sound, super-efficient, fast, and very dangerous if you're a pedestrian, since you don't hear them coming and Chinese driving habits have not improved at all. The chaotic city construction projects from '03 are now all finished and look beautiful: the migrant construction workers who used to live in the streets have presumably moved on to other things. The teachers with whom I used to study Tai Chi are no longer at the Renmin Park: a lot of the former Tai Chi and dance areas have been taken over by people playing Western sports.
My luggage arrives just in time: after midnight the next day, just before my early-morning departure for Lhasa.