Beyond Kailash - Across Western Tibet

Himalaya Tibet

Extracts from our forthcoming book about a drive to Tsaparang & the pilgrimage around Mt Kailash.

In 2002 my partner, Bev, and I were on a bus from Lhasa through Tibet, heading back to Kathmandu. The roads were truly awful. In our final days we drove west in heavy rain then forked south at a junction and descended 4000 metres to the border with Nepal. To the right the road was even worse. I asked our guide where the road went. "To Western Tibet and Mt Kailash". I knew one day we had to go.

In 2014 we returned to Tibet with our friend JG. This blog contains extracts from  the book that an account of the first half of that trip.

Stupa at Darchen, Tibet

This image is a stupa against indigo sky at Darchen, the start of the Mt Kailash trek. Available to buy here.

Entering Tibet by road means you gain 4500 metres altitude in just a few hours and to acclimatise we stayed two nights at the Pilgrim Guest House, a basic lodge at Niyalam. Prayer flags fluttering on a hilltop sky burial site opposite the lodge confirmed that we were in Tibet but the view below was of a new Chinese administrative town. Then we're on the road - driving west, soon above 5000 metres with prayer flags on the pass and views of snow capped mountains. We pass black nomad tents and salt lakes sitting between low hills.

Mountains of Nepal seen from Western Tibet

We have a crew of five, two Tibetan drivers, a Tibetan guide, an Indian sirdar and a cook. It's not clear who's in charge, the guide or the sirdar. Travel out west is always in two vehicles in case of breakdown. The crew will cook and maybe sleep in the lorry - which also has our camping gear for Kailash.
Tibetans love to picnic, especially near water. We stop by the Palku Tso and eat Tibetan bread, peanut butter and bananas. I decide to walk to the lake but realise I'm getting nowhere - in the clear light, distances are deceptive, the lake is further away than it appeared.

Palkor Tso, Western Tibet

As we drive west we have two contrasting nights, first in a shabby modern Chinese hotel at Saga then a delightful Tibetan caravanserai at Piryang with a friendly family and rooms around an open courtyard. Between the two is an unexpected gem of the 1300 year old Zadun monastery, set on a low hill above the village of Dzongba.
There is a large painted wood and clay statue of Padmasambhava, a replacement for the precious metal one melted down in the sixties during Mao's Cultural Revolution. The young monk shows us a brocade map that shows sacred locations of Western Tibet in the form of a demon.

Padmasambhava, Tibet

We drive on west into Western Tibet and the heart of the the county of Ngari. Prayer flags announce the first distant view of Mt Kailash, white and solitary behind black hills. We stare in awe at this beautiful mountain. We will return in a week's time to start the pilgrimage trek around Kailash, for now we just gaze at it's distant beauty.
We plan to stay at the pilgrimage site of Tithapuri but our papers aren't in order so we'll contact the office in Lhasa and try again on our return leg. So we settle for a long day's drive and head on to Tholing and our gaol of Tsaparang.

Prayer flags & Mt Kailash, Tibet

The landscape starts to change as the rock become softer and more eroded. And then, our first glimpse of the astonishing eroded canyons of the Upper Sutlej valley - far more extensive than we imagined. Our destination, the site of the ancient Kingdom of Guge. A dried up landscape of impossible canyons that stretches across the horizon. It's impossible to do justice to this landscape of pale sandstone coloured spires and turrets divided and subdivided by innumerable dried up canyons. Layers and layers of erosion, flat topped plains falling away abruptly into deep gullies.

The landscape of Guge, Western Tibet

Our destination is the ruined citadel of Tsaparang, a pinnacle of Tibet Buddhist culture that was abandoned 300 years ago. Above us we see ruins of a vertical city built on a ridge and hilltop, eroded cliffs pockmarked with meditation caves, old walls with empty window sockets, stupas and, lower down, three chapels appearing, from the outside, intact. 
The only way onward is to climb through near vertical tunnels inside the mountain. They provided the only route to the top of the mountain and the King's Palace. We emerge onto the plateau, a whole series of ruins show the size of the King’s Palace. The only intact building, the Demchok chapel, is locked. It supposedly contains the remains of a three dimensional mandala to Demchok, Chakrasambhava. Shangshang birds are carved into the colourful roof supports.

Demchok chapel, Tsaparang, Tibet

Nearby Tholing was the capital of Guge a few hundred years before Tsaparang. There are several chapels but, like the ones at Tsaparang, the Buddhist statues were destroyed by the Red Guards in the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960's. 
The Yeshe-O stupa at Tholing was built in the 10th century. Yeshe-O was a lama who became king of Guge after the breakup of the kingdom of Tibet and decline in Buddhism that followed the death of King Langdharma. Yeshe-O set about reviving Buddhism and is credited with bringing the great teacher Atisha from India to Tholing.

Yeshe-O Stup at Tholing, Tibet

From here we return east to Mt Kailash. The circuit round Kailash is only 32 miles but it reaches almost 19,000 feet. Many groups take three days but that makes the final day long and exhausting. We may only pass this way once and we plan to take four days and hope to be alive to every moment. We start just before Tarboche, the site of the annual flagpole raising ceremony on the occasion of Saga Dawa, the festival that celebrates the Buddha's enlightenment. There's a very heavy duty police checkpoint and three fire engines on hand to intervene in case any Tibetans self immolate to protest China’s repression.

Mt Kailash is awesome and changes as we see a different face as we pass around it. An extraordinary experience. This is the view from our first night's campsite.

Mt Kailash, Tibet

The book is nearing completion. Keep watching the home page for details.

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