Pilgrimage to the Unknown

For over 30 years I have wanted to go to Western Tibet to walk around a holy mountain called Mount Kailash. It is a mountain sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bonpo, and is the headwaters of the four major rivers of the Asian Continent. It’s been a constant dream to go on pilgrimage and circumambulate this striking, beautiful mountain.

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At the beginning of May, I saw a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash being offered and it was to be led by Ian Baker. It was scheduled for July 2 – 18, 2017, and it felt like the perfect medicine for me in my life at this time! I had heard of Ian Baker and had read a few of his books, one of which he wrote with a friend of mine – Carroll Dunham.

FullSizeRenderI met Carroll in Nepal in 1985, and visited her over the course of years while I travelled in Tibet, Nepal and India. She continues to live in Nepal with her husband Tom Kelly and two boys, and has always been a huge inspiration for me. It was her story of circumambulating Mount Kailash in 1987 that had planted the seed, and the idea of this journey has been in my heart ever since. This is a photo of her taken by Tom Kelly.

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In mid-May, a week after I signed up for the Pilgrimage to Kailash, there was a little hiccup. I found out that Ian Baker was wanted by Interpol for “possession of animal body parts” and wildlife smuggling. Two of his apartments in Kathmandu had been raided in 2008 while he was out of the country, and there has been a warrant out for his arrest by the Nepal Police since then. How bizarre! I asked Carroll what she thought and read some articles in his defense. Carroll responded that she could not go into details about Ian’s past, but he would be a great guide for Mount Kailash. Well, I just hoped that this situation would not get in the way of our journey. My bags were already packed!!

IMG_2490A couple weeks later at the beginning of June, there was another glitch. A big one. Ian sent an email letting us know that he been denied the necessary “Tibet Travel Permit” (TTP) in order to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region. He said that he was denied because of his association with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who he wrote a book with, called the “Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple”. He assured us that we would be able to continue with the pilgrimage. He found two new guides, and applied again for the TTP.  I felt huge disappointment to not have Ian as a guide, and quite a bit of uneasiness to not have a permit in place. I had been rereading his incredible book, “Heart of the World”, and was so looking forward to his 40 years of experience immersed in the spiritual landscape of Tibet and pilgrimage to wild and unknown places. Each day I prayed things would fall into place.

ian copyWell, the worst happened. Two days before leaving and flying to Chengdu at the end of June, I received an email saying that our whole group had been denied the Tibet Travel Permit for the second time. At the 11th hour, our permit was cancelled at the 6th office that had to approve it – the police.

Ian sent an email saying: “We have just received some very distressing news from the agency in Lhasa. It seems that after having gone through all the necessary steps in securing the many required travel permits within Tibet – the Tibet Tourism Bureau (Tibet Entry Permit), Public Security Bureau (Aliens Travel Permit), Border Control Permit, Military Affairs Permit, and Permit from the Office of Foreign Affairs – the process was suddenly stymied at the last stage, the Tibet Police Department, which has denied the permits for “political reasons”.”

It was devastating! Our group all had flights and were ready to get on planes, if not already headed to our meeting point in Chengdu, China. We immediately were given options – a refund, or a new trip to match our existing itinerary. Within 48 hours, Ian put together a new optional trip for us – traveling to Eastern Tibet to the Kham region, where we did not need a permit. This trip would be led by a friend of his, a former monk, Joshua Kinney. And so, with a spirit of adventure, I ended up going on a spontaneous pilgrimage to circumambulate a totally unknown mountain, with a guide whom none of us knew.

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Out of 16 participants, ten of us agreed upon the new itinerary, and we began our long journey to meet in Chengdu, and then fly 2 hours northwest to a city in the Qinghai province called Yushu. We were embarking on a true pilgrimage! A pilgrimage of “not knowing”, just like the Zen pilgrim koan.

In this koan, Jizô asks Hôgen, “Where are you going?” Hôgen says, “I am on pilgrimage, following the wind.” Jizô says, “What are you on pilgrimage for?” Hôgen says, “I don’t know.” Jizô then says, “Not knowing is most intimate”. Well, I like Hôgen certainly had no idea where I was going, nor the deep intimacy it would bring.IMG_2728In the short time I had before leaving I did some research to try to figure out where I was going. I read that the city of Yushu sits at 12,100 ft and did not have an airport until 2009. I had barely heard of Yushu, although I did remember that I heard of a huge earthquake in Eastern Tibet. I realized that it was Yushu, which in 2010, was flattened, and since then had been completely rebuilt.P1070336Not only is Yushu the name of the biggest city in Qinghai Province, but it is also the name for the municipality – the Yushu Autonomous Prefecture – which lies in the southwestern part of Qinghai Province. Historically, this is a region of Tibet known as Kham, and the borderlands of Eastern Tibet. I learned that Yushu Prefecture contains the headwaters of 3 of Asia’s longest rivers – The Yangtze (Dri Chu འབྲི་ཆུ་), the Yellow (Ma Chu རྨ་ཆུ་) and the Mekong (Dza Chu རྫ་ཆུ་).P1070398In the brief time I had to research, I was amazed at what I read. Most of the region consists of high altitude grasslands lying at elevations between 13,000-16,000 ft. In the past, this region was nearly entirely nomadic. It also includes the amazing Hoh Xil plateau which is the third largest uninhabited place in the world after the North and South Poles. Who could imagine!

P1070641I was blown away that Hoh Xil region lies at an average elevation of 16,000 ft and is predominantly permafrost. It is home to abundant wildlife including wild yaks, Tibetan antelope, white-lip deer, brown bears, snow leopards, black-necked cranes, wild donkeys and Himalayan marmots, as well as a home to thousands of nomads.

P1070418What was most astounding to me was that 97% of the population of the Yushu Prefecture is Tibetan. It has one of the highest percentages of Tibetan people anywhere on the Tibetan Plateau and has some of the best preserved Tibetan culture remaining. This was incredible to me. Other parts of Tibet and particularly Central Tibet are more Chinese now that Tibetan. And on top of that, 15-20 % of the population of Kham are monks and nuns, and the nomad culture is still prevailing despite relocation strategies of the Chinese government. I was becoming so excited for what I would see, but still had a sense of facing the unknown.

P1070409It was an unreal experience to go somewhere we were not expecting to go, but the ten of us were committed. After flying into Yushu, we piled into Jeeps, and struck out into the vast Tibetan Plateau. Our pilgrimage began with visiting different nunneries and monasteries in the vicinity of Nangchen. Each day of the trip brought such incredible surprises – blessings from lamas, surreal monasteries on cliffs, chanting in caves and communing with eagles.

P1070531The land in Kham is vast and undulating and infused with the living traditions of Buddhust practice. After days driving around the plateau, on dirt roads, fording streams, chanting with our Tibetan drivers, we then spent six days circumambulated a mountain known as Jowo Zedgyal, This is the ultimate unknown – you will find nothing about it on the internet and almost no westerners have ever been there.

P1070281This journey to this hidden land was possible due to Josh, who has spent an enormous time in Kham since 1997, and has done 21 trips there since 2003. He has studied with many teachers in the region, has practiced extensively and spent time in caves in retreat. He knew everyone, everywhere we went.

P1060948Through his connections, we were able to visit Gepchak Nunnery. These yogini nuns are famous for their accomplishments in profound yogas and meditation, particularly in ‘tsa lung‘ (practices such as tummo or inner heat), Dzogchen (the highest meditation), and chöd (cutting through all clinging to ego). We met with lamas at Tana Gompa, Tsechu Monastery, Josh’s present teacher Pema Drimay, and spent a good deal of time at his late teacher Pema Dorje’s hermitage.

pemaPema Dorje died in 2014. For 13 years after the Chinese invasion Pema Dorje hid among the peaks that boarder Nangchen and Tibet. He had gone on pilgrimage to Jowo Zedgyal as a child and had a vision there. He was a true yogi, practicing pranayama and yoga up to five times a day. He says:

“Train in yoga and faith will increase. Knowledge of mind essence will strengthen…The text will tell you about it but just train the body and then it itself will know what to do.”

From Pema Dorje’s hermitage we then started the real pilgrimage, on foot, walking to even more remote hermitages, gompas and sacred lakes as we circumambulated the holy mountain. Some of our participants did not feel up to this journey, and our group dwindled to five.

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I had no idea I was going to fulfill my decades old wish to wander for days on the plateau surrounded by nomads, yaks, and eagles. Hiking over 17,000 ft passes, boulder hopping on rocky terrain, fording freezing creeks over endless hours was a dream come true! It was the hardest, most physically challenging experience of my life, and I have trekked and hiked and paddled for weeks in remote places. This was different.

There were days where there was no choice but to travel long distances, and we had many 12 hour days. The food was as simple and meager as you could imagine, and we were predominantly eating tsampa, millet gruel, yogurt, noodles and drinking Tibetan tea. In this area, there was not one tourist guesthouse or shop, or trinket for sale.

But it was more than intense hiking, and simple food that was the challenge. It was digestive issues, altitude sickness, poor sleep in monastery kitchens, and nomad tents, inter-personal relationships, and it was all ultimately what the pilgrimage needed to be!

P1070465I hit rock bottom half way through the pilgrimage – hungry, sick and hallucinating on the steps of Gochen Monastery, and visiting this lovely outhouse way too frequently. And something shifted inside. I saw my patterns of reactivity, and then as best as I tried, I had an experience of not being able to react as I normally would. What insight!

I saw myself behaving in a different way! When I wanted to shut down, feel sorry for myself, create distance with the group, I couldn’t. It was a dismantling patterns and habitual ways of being – which are so sticky and difficult to shift.

P1070585Ian had told us of a Tibetan phrase that’s often invoked in the context of pilgrimage. It translates as “Whatever arises, bring it to the Path!” In Tibetan it says, “Ka Sher Lam Khyer”. He said it’s what really distinguishes an inner journey from an outer one, and to penetrate to the inner level, hardships are not to be rejected or abandoned, but openly embraced.

P1070616I am grateful to have had those hardships on the path, and to understand aspects of myself that had previously been illusive and hidden.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:

“The goal of pilgrimage is not so much to reach a particular destination as to awaken within oneself the qualities and energies of the sacred site, which ultimately lie within our own minds”.

P1070655The holy mountain Jowo Zedgyal is known as a pure land and place of wisdom quality. One of my goals or intentions for this pilgrimage was to shift my perception of life, to see the world in a clearer, expansive way. Ian had pointed out that:

“Thousands of pilgrims of varying backgrounds circle Kailash annually, releasing encumbrances of the past and undertaking a symbolic rebirth. Although Westerners may not share the same traditional belief in the transformative power of this 22,000-foot mountain, this journey nonetheless aligns us with an ancient way of life, attuned to the rhythms of nature and the universe and the power of pilgrimage and prayer to alter the course of our personal and collective lives. At the very least, a journey to Mount Kailash is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in an alternate vision of the world and to reforge our place within it.”

In the cool crisp air of the plateau, I could sense my vision shifting, and the way I inhabit the world changing. Months later I am still trying to integrate this experience deep in my mind stream so that the pilgrimage will have profound and lasting effects.

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A week after we arrived home Ian Baker was arrested in Greece. It was big headlines in the Nepalese newspapers. He was detained in Greece on June 17, and was not able to leave the country for more than six weeks while Greece decided whether or not they would extradite him to Nepal. He had to wait for 70 pages of documents to arrive from Nepal, and then to be translated into Greek. When the decision was finally made, Greece exonerated him.

It dawned upon me that even had we had received the Tibet Travel Permit, he would not have been able to leave Greece to be our guide. In the end, I suppose we were destined to have the trip that we did. And it was fun! It was like traveling back in the 80’s on dirt roads, in jeeps and on motorcycles, getting stuck in mud and driving through streams and driving at times where there are no roads at all!

P1070769At one point, before we even left, when it seemed our pilgrimage had fallen apart, I wrote: “I feel completely emptied out. If the preparations for this trip and all the changes, innuendo, and disappointments were planned and intentional – then they would have been totally successful at achieving a clean slate, an empty cup that is now ready to be filled. Maybe the pilgrimage has already achieved it’s goal”.

Little did I know that was just the beginning. At that point, I thought I knew where I was going! Perhaps the goal was reached for that stage, as there was a constant shifting of plans, and perhaps this was necessary as a lead up to the complete shift, the dive into not knowing and wandering with the wind.

In his book “Heart of the World”, Ian says:

“Pilgrimage implies – in part – a journey beyond the human impulse to control one’s experience and an openness to serendipity”. He had no idea how serendipitous our journey would be.

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 “There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths”.
-Mark Nepo
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  8 comments for “Pilgrimage to the Unknown

  1. William Lee
    August 6, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    Hi Susan, what an amazing odyssey! What an intriguing pilgrimage! Thanks for sharing and welcome back!

    • Carroll Dunham
      August 26, 2017 at 4:11 am

      What beautiful testimony of your beautiful spirit…thank you for inspiring us all with your exploration of the spirit in pilgrimage. Emaho!

  2. Ben Hunter
    August 7, 2017 at 4:00 am

    What beautiful testament Sue! So happy for you!!! Thank you for sharing this.

  3. August 7, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    Amazing story, Sue! Happy for you that you made this trip.

  4. Mary
    August 7, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    Wonderful account. Can’t wait to talk in person! So happy for you to have had such such an amazing experience!

  5. August 7, 2017 at 7:53 pm

    Hi Susan, Wow, sounds like an amazing trip. Hopefully see you at one of your yoga classes, now you are not at Kula it’s been awhile!

  6. August 8, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Enjoyed the story of your journey, Susan, and a little envious of the opportunity you had to explore a relatively unknown part of the trans Himalayan area. Hopefully, one day you will complete your quest to walk the Kora around Kailash. I have had the incredible experience of giving humanitarian service in Nepal for 22 years and during that time have been able to trek into Tibet from Nepal and have trekked the Kailash Kora on three occasions plus camped at Mansarovar. Each experience was different and memorable. Have also toured the Guge Kingdom in western Tibet twice and been to Lhasa several times. The TAR is a fascinating part of the World, despite China’s determination to turn it into just another part of China and wipe out the Tibetan culture. In my opinion, the spirit of the Tibetan people has simply been strengthened by the Chinese opposition.

  7. Jillian Cook
    August 21, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Dear Susan: I’m so happy to hear that your pilgrimage became a reality; that you had such a meaningful and deep experience and that you’re home safe and sound. I look forward to your classes and to receiving, through your wonderful teaching, all that you embraced and absorbed on your spiritual journey to Tibet. Blessings, Jillian

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