Jade Skull

by admin on September 18, 2004

Jade Skull

Jade Skull

Ngari, West Tibet

My path to purification began in the home of Shiva the Destroyer – or perhaps it was just his rubbish bin. The shantytown of Darchen at the foot of Mt Kailash in western Tibet is populated with half-naked, red-cheeked children playing in trash heaps. Teahouses running on car battery power, with dirt floors lined with old pillows, serve as bedding for road-weary pilgrims and backpackers before they start on their kora around Asia’s most sacred mountain.

The word kora means ‘pilgrimage circuit’, or simply, ‘big circle’. It describes the clockwise path followed by devout followers of Buddhism and Hinduism in their effort to attain spiritual absolution for the sin of being alive. Throughout Tibet one can see the faithful making koras around temples and other holy places, though none as consecrated as the 52-kilometer circumambulation of Mt Kailash (known in Tibetan as Kang Rinpoche and in Mandarin as Shen Shan).

I began my pilgrimage at dawn (after hesitantly downing a cup of salty yak butter tea for strength) guided by a trail of prayer flags up the misty southern ridge to the Gyangdrak and Selung monasteries, and then following the few stone cairns back down to the kora. At one point the kora branched off, leading to a sky burial site, the place where Buddhists bid farewell to the dead by dismembering corpses and leaving the remains for the birds of prey that form koras of their own far above. The proximity of a burial site is disturbingly announced in advance by the shredded clothes in the vicinity, and more abruptly, by the occasional human bone dropped from the sky by said birds.

I continued my journey, passing a number of resplendently dressed pilgrims watering their horses in a shaded canyon. Before long, I arrived at the Chuku monastery, which hugs the western hillside above the Lha-Chu River, in clear sight of the enigmatic Mt Kailash. Aside from being the most holy Buddhist site in Asia, it is also the source of four great rivers: the Sutlej, which flows to India; the Indus, to Pakistan; the Karnali, which feeds the Ganges; and Tibet’s own Yarlung Tsangpo.

I arrived at Mt Kalish at dusk, which in summertime comes at about 10pm; Mt Kailash was bathed in ruby-red hues, a spectacular site, though one soon obscured by drizzling rain clouds. Exhausted, I turned in for the night at a nearby yurt on the grassy banks of Damding Donkhang and soon after I set my head on the filthy pillows, I fell asleep.

I’d been cautioned by a number of experienced pilgrims that the second half of the Mt Kailash kora was the most difficult. And, sure enough, as soon as I passed Dirapuk monastery and crossed the Lha-Chu river the following morning, the route became increasingly treacherous. The steep path eventually thinned out – as did the air – and then disappeared altogether among the large boulders strewn about the Drolma-Chu valley.

I am in my early 30s, but in no time was moving slower than an old woman. Indeed, 80-year-old Tibetans spinning their hand-held prayer wheels quickly out-paced me. Before I had ascended but one-third of the way up the 5,600-meters of evil that is the Drolma-La Pass, I was doubled over with exhaustion. It was then, during this moment of truth beneath the luminously golden face of Mt. Kailash, there appeared before me a vision. Her name was Yang Jing, my own Tibetan goddess of mercy.

One day prior, I had met Yang Jing, a Ngari local, in the company of her grandmother. At the time, both of them were on their third kora in just three days. When she spotted me draped over a large boulder, they were already halfway through their fourth. Carrying only prayer beads and a small pouch of necessities, she relieved me of my burden, a backpack filled with ‘non-essentials’ – laptop, camera, food, clothes and water.

Embarrassing as it was, a lovely Tibetan woman, eight years my junior, carried my pack the rest of the way around Mount Kailash, simply because I could not. (At the end of our kora, Yang Jing not only refused payment for her help, but offered me a gift – her decades-old yak bone prayer beads; the only recompense I can now offer her is this story).

Though weighed down with my belongings, Yang Jin soon outdistanced me, while I struggled along at the rear, making my way up the bleak Drolma-La, passing the glacial brooks of Shiva-Tsal and the clothing-littered stones and macabre shanks of hair that pilgrims leave to symbolize the expulsion of their old sins. With a light snow frosting the terrain, I finally caught up with Yang Jing atop the scenic pass where she recited her prayers.

Then with the frozen jade waters of Gauri Kund lake below, we carefully began our descent. As we reached the lower level, I was able to breathe again and the remainder of the kora was a delight. We crossed snow banks and passed venerable elders prostrated in verdant meadows fed by small streams trickling down from the mountain’s horizontally-banded crystal face. Later, we arrived at a smoky encampment, with chanting pilgrims sitting around yak-dung fires.

We continued past fields of boulders blanketed in thick green moss before taking a rest in a tea tent crowded with jovial Tibetans. Instant noodles and soft drinks were available, but I boldly choose the traditional Tibetan staples of yak butter tea and tsampa, an ‘instant’ bread made from barley flour kneaded with the tea. Like most Tibetan pilgrims, this was all Yang Jing carried in her small satchel during her multiple koras. Tsampa may be flavorless, though it smells unwashed, but it seems to provide sustenance and energy aplenty for Tibetans to complete 13 circuits.

After our rest, we pressed on through the lush hillsides, tracing the Dzong-Chu river until we came to the Zutul-Puk monastery where most of the Hindus from India had set up camp. I, too, might have spent the night there, but in spite of the searing pain in my legs, I was determined to follow the steely Yang Jing back to Darchen to complete the kora on my second day. My resolve was rewarded when we finally rounded the last bend and met with a stunning vista overlooking the Barkha plains: the Himalayas to the south, aglow under the evening sky.

We walked by a series of mani prayer walls and inscribed yak skulls, together, into the setting sun. It seemed a fitting way to end this epic tale, with the southern sapphire face of Kailash behind us – along with our sins.

Travel Pack

A number of travel agencies and hotels around Lhasa can arrange week-long Land Cruiser expeditions along Tibet’s southern route past Lake Manasarovar to Mt Kailash for approximately RMB 4,000 per person. Alternatively, budget travelers can take a three-day sleeper along the northern route, departing from Lhasa’s north bus station every couple days to the outpost town of Ali for RMB 700. Water, food and a window seat in the front of the bus is strongly recommended. From Ali’s north junction you can hitch a ride on a ‘gypsy’ jeep to Darchen/Mt Kailash, or catch a lift on one of the trucks from nearby construction sites, or the occasional rogue bus. Permits are no longer required for travel in Tibet and as such no agency should charge you for one.


About the Author

TOM CARTER is the author of 'CHINA: Portrait of a People,' a definitive 600-page book of photography due out winter 2007 from Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books.

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The Jade Skull

Jaded sticker........Oh the humanity?

Arrows take flight soaring with numbers in the millions
But their targets destination is as shady as chameleon
Dodging glances in the absence of motion with graceful ease
Emanating an aurora almost as alarming as a hearty sneeze
It is only logical to be emotional in a circumstance such as this
Confessions being sobbed into silence is something that I miss
Humbling a leviathan behemoth a serpent sleeps in deepest dark
Prowling in my skull driven and relentless as a self eating shark
Labeled with a jaded sticker that is clawed at but will not peal
Seeking remedy a constant poet with wounds that do not heal
Insanity is what others experience in their routine toils of the day
Sanity is much worse I dare reason after analyzing what they say
Only a "a bit weird"
I shall have to try harder next time
= ]

um, i dont actually understand ur poem...its a bit weird..no offense

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