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.At the beginning of May this year, I heard about a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash which was to be led by Ian Baker. It was scheduled for July 3 – 18, and it just felt like the perfect medicine for me in my life at this time. So I signed up! I knew of Ian Baker, and had read a few of his books, one on the lower left which he wrote with a friend of mine – Carroll Dunham. I met Carroll in Nepal in 1985 on my first three month journey which brought me around Annapurna and to the Gossainkunde Lakes. I visited her frequently over the next three years while I travelled further in Tibet, Nepal and India. Twice I was in Tibet – in 1986 for 5 weeks and 1988 for another 3 weeks. It was the most incredible experience of my life. I was able to travel extensively throughout Central Tibet (the TAR).
It was a magical time with the recent opening of the region for individual travel, with throngs of nomads and pilgrims in the streets, folks traveling in public buses, or biking across the plateau. I tried to go to Kailash, but it was an epic and illegal journey – usually taking a week to get there while hiding in the back of a truck. It was Carroll’s story of circumambulating Mount Kailash in 1987 while being chased by Chinese authorities that filled my mindsphere, and the idea of this journey has been in my heart ever since.
Photo of Carroll Dunham taken by Thomas Kelly
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! In 2008, two of his apartments in Kathmandu were raided while he was out of the country, and the Nepalese Police has had a warrant out for his arrest since then. How bizarre!
I asked Carroll what she thought and read some articles in his defense including a fascinating one in Outside Magazine. 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!!
A 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.Well, the worst happened. At the end of June, two days before leaving to get to our meeting place in Chengdu, China, we 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! We were ready to get on planes, if not already in the air, en route to various stopovers in Asia. Ian immediately gave us some options – a refund, or a new trip to match the dates of our existing itinerary. Immediately, within 48 hours, Ian put together a new trip for us – traveling to Eastern Tibet to the Kham region, where we did not need a permit. He arranged for a friend of his, a former monk, Joshua Kinney to lead the trip. And so, with a spirit of adventure, our group ended up going on a spontaneous pilgrimage to circumambulate a totally unknown mountain, with a guide whom none of us knew.
Out of the 16 original participants, ten of us decided to go to Kham, and began the long journey to meet in Chengdu, and then fly 2 hours northwest to a city in the Qinghai province called Yushu. It dawned on me that this was 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.In 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. In 2010, there was a huge earthquake in Eastern Tibet and Yushu was completely flattened, and since then has been rebuilt.Not 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 known as the borderlands of Eastern Tibet, and 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་).In the brief time I had to research, I was amazed at what I read. Most of the region 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!I 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.
What 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.
It was an unreal experience to go somewhere we were not expecting to go. After flying into Yushu, our group acclimatized and then piled into Jeeps, and struck out into the vast Tibetan Plateau. I shared a jeep with Wendy and Jacqueline – and we were like birds of a feather.As we visited different nunneries and monasteries in the vicinity of Nangchen, each day we were blown away by the surreal and endless beauty of the plateau. We visited the most stupendous monasteries on cliffs, we chanted in caves and soared along ridges with eagles.
After a week of driving around the plateau we were ready for the true pilgrimage – six days of circumambulating a mountain called Jowo Zedgyal, This is the ultimate unknown – you will find nothing about it on the internet and almost no westerners have ever been there.Jowo Zedgyal is like hidden land – so remote and difficult to access. Our travel there was possible due to our leader 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.Through 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).
After spending a night with the nuns at Gepchak, we visited Josh’s present teacher Pema Drimay. At the audience we had with him, he said, “I have nothing to say. I am just an ignorant man full of desire and aversion”…After a stupendous time in the most spectacular landscape, we then spent time with Yeshe Nima at Tana Gompa, The centuries old monastery is reached by switchbacks through a cedar forest and hangs high in cliffs with meditation caves dotted everywhere in the mountain scape.After blessings and a lovely dip in hot springs, we finally arrived at the hermitage of Josh’s late teacher, Pema Dorje.
Pema Dorje is one of the most renown yogis in Nangchen. He died in 2014. For 13 years after the Chinese invasion in the late 50’s, 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 and in recent years built a hermitage in the vicinity.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.”
We began our pilgrimage from Pema Dorje’s hermitage, walking to even more remote gompas and sacred lakes as we circumambulated the holy mountain, Jowo Zedgyal. A monk from Pema Dorje’s hermitage joined us with two horses to carry our packs. We affectionately named him “Horse Monk”. Some of our participants did not feel up to this journey, and our group dwindled to five. 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 two 17,000 ft passes, boulder hopping on rocky terrain, fording freezing creeks over endless hours was a dream come true!
Yet, it was the hardest, most physically challenging experience of my life, as we navigated vast distances at a high altitude on minimal sustenance. We lived on tsampa, millet gruel, yogurt, noodles and Tibetan tea. I often felt so queasy it was hard to eat anything at all.
But it was more than intense hiking, and simple food that was the challenge. It was sleeping as a group in monastery kitchens, and nomad tents, it was inter-personal relationships, and inner demons, and it was all ultimately what the pilgrimage needed to be!
I hit rock bottom half way through our six day circuit – hungry, sick and hallucinating on the steps of Gochen Monastery. We had been hiking three days. Day one began with diareah and vomiting, day two was a 14 hour endeavor over a 17,000 foot pass, and day three brought us into the TAR (illegally!) and our first outhouse – meaning up to this point we had no amenities what so ever.Feeling desolate and horrible in such a remote place, brought me in touch with my most raw vulnerabilities. And something shifted inside. The world looked different. It’s like everything was thinner or more transparent.As I was feeling dizzy and weak, I saw my patterns of behavior and reactivity so clearly. I felt myself shutting down, wanting to create distance with the group, and yet I didn’t. I couldn’t. As best as I tried, I had an experience of not being able to react as I normally would. Medicine came my way on all levels. The medicine of letting go of reactive patterns. But also, medicine from a Tibetan doctor who read my pulse. He gave me bitter white pills, and intense green powdered herbs. I shared my medicine with Horse Monk, who was quite convinced he needed it too… The next day we climbed a second 17,000 foot pass, after bathing in an auspicious stream. The world was different now…Ian 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 – “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. I somehow felt an incredible resilience and eagerness to embrace the hardships I was experiencing as we toiled up the second 17,000 foot pass which brought us into this idyllic valley, filled with hundred of yaks, nomadic encampments, and crystal waters. The nomads set up a tent for us and we slept on the earth, replenished by yak yogurt and the gleeful laughter of children tethering the sheep.The 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…In his description of the Kailash Pilgrimage, Ian talked about:
“the power of pilgrimage and prayer to alter the course of our personal and collective lives. At the very least it 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 felt the way I inhabit the world changing. A week after we arrived home, I found out that Ian Baker had been detained in Greece since mid-June! It was big headlines in the Nepalese newspapers. He had not been 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.
In the end, I suppose we were destined to have the trip that we did. As much as I wanted to go to Kailash – and still do – I have to admit I am worried about the impact of a modern highway, abundant tourism and Chinese check posts in the region. Meanwhile, our trip to Kham was like traveling back in the 80’s – driving in jeeps through rivers and streams, wandering for endless hours following 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.