Mount Kailash is extraordinary, whether or not you follow one of the four religions that hold this Tibetan peak sacred. A gigantic, weathered, stratified pyramid of rock which juts amongst the Himalayas, the mountain marks the source of four of Asia's longest and most significant rivers. Its fissured southern face resembles an ancient holy symbol, the swastika, and for many Hindu-Buddhist devotees it is the centre of the world. It is the setting for some of the most important stories in Asian religion, and devout pilgrims trek here every year to pay their respects by circumambulating the foot of the mountain. Non-religious trekkers come here too - climbing the mountain is forbidden, but the experience of trekking to its foothills is nonetheless challenging and impressive. Trekking expert and friend of Selective Asia Marie Stissing Jensen told us about her own journey through the region...
SA: What does Mt Kailash mean to you as a Buddhist, and why is the trek so important?
MSJ: 'Mount Kailash is holy for Tibetan Buddhists for various reasons. Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have meditated in caves around the mountain, and the sage Milarepa is said to have fought a battle with dark forces on the mountain. Walking the kora is considered a purification process, and pilgrims also accumulate merit and blessings when they complete it – both practices are aimed at reaching higher levels of consciousness and preparing for a beneficial rebirth.
As a Westerner and still new to Buddhism (I've studied on my own mostly, by reading a lot and attending a few courses during the past five years), these concepts are still fairly foreign to me. However, the more I study about Buddhist philosophy and psychology, the more sense it makes that these practices have a very real effect on our minds, whether or not we believe in a continuous mind stream that reaches beyond this incarnation, as Buddhists do.
And when it comes to training and quieting the mind, what better place than nature, and barren desert and mountains in particular? For me, the beauty and harsh conditions of the place had a certain attraction unrelated to Buddhism. The dedication of the many prostraters one meets when walking around the mountain certainly made a big impression, and I gained a lot of respect for their faith and perseverance. It takes a truly strong mind and will to prostrate around Kailash, not to mention the pilgrims who were prostrating all the way from Lhasa (which takes 2-3 years). This makes one very humble.'
SA: Can you describe the most memorable moment on the trip?
MSJ: 'Difficult one… Mostly, it was walking with my fellow pilgrims (we were a small group of seven, all different ages and nationalities) either in silence, or chatting about this and that. We had a lot of time to get to know each other, as well as time to ourselves and our own thoughts. The 'alone time' was quite important too, though. I love camping, so being able to camp along the trek was a big bonus for me. The first night on the kora we camped in a spectacular valley, surrounded by yaks – absolutely amazing. The Dolma La Pass was of course a challenge, but to me the atmosphere of the entire trek and the overall experience was much more memorable than the conquest of the pass.'
SA: How challenging did you find the trek overall?
MSJ: 'It’s a fairly challenging trek. It is very short, but the high altitude makes it tough. Successful acclimatization is key, and taking your time to get to the mountain is a good way of doing that. We took five days to drive from Lhasa to Manasarovar, and then walked around Manasarovar for three days before going to Kailash. We also took our time - four days - to do the kora [circumambulating the mountain] itself. If you are in a reasonable shape and walk slowly, it is definitely a doable trek, and absolutely worth the effort. The nature and cultural experience is extraordinary, unlike anywhere in the world.'
Photos courtesy of Marie Stissing Jensen