A pilgrimage to the Saga Dawa Festival on Tibet's holy Mount Kailash is a journey for the mind and body
By MICHAEL ARMITAGE
Special to The Globe and Mail
DARCHEN, TIBET - It is another cold morning and I wrap my hands around a mug of hot water. I watch trucks approach from all directions as they send out tails of creamy dust. Smoke from a cluster of wool tents swirls around me. To the north, the holy Mount Kailash soars above the neighbouring grey peaks. Days ago, this wind-whipped site was just a sprinkling of mud-brick abodes, sanctuary to passing shepherds. Now, it is loud with the laughter of children and the singing of local songs. Above, the full moon signals to Tibetan Buddhists that the Saga Dawa (Full Moon) Festival in Darchen, Tibet, will soon begin.
Like thousands of others at Saga Dawa, I have travelled to western Tibet to watch people celebrate Buddha's enlightenment. Here, we will partake in the traditional flagpole-raising ceremony, then hike and camp along a 53-kilometre pilgrimage trail around Mount Kailash. We will be following in the footsteps of Buddha and his devotees, who first descended on Kailash 2,500 years ago.
Since then, it has become the most important and sacred mountain for Tibetan Buddhists. Known also as Meru, Kang Rimpochey or Tise, Mount Kailash is a place of pilgrimage for half a billion Hindus and Jains. Its unusual symmetrical slopes feed four of Asia's most holy rivers, including the Indus and the Bramapudra. Just seeing it from a distance is considered a blessing. To worship it, pilgrims circumambulate the mountain on foot. The act gives them remission from sins and cleanses the karma. For some, it is as significant as bathing in India's Ganges River during Kumbh Mela.
During holy periods on the Tibetan calendar, in May and June, the Saga Dawa Festival attracts huge crowds. During my visit in 2002, the Year of the Horse, an extraordinary 20,000 to 30,000 people made the pilgrimage, an attendance larger than the population of most Tibetan cities. The Year of the Horse occurs once every 12 years and, according to folklore, trekking around Kailash once during this time is equal to going around 12 times any other.
As one of the non-devout attendees at Saga Dawa, I am on a different kind of pilgrimage, however. I am here to witness one of the few remaining Tibetan ceremonies that continues virtually unaffected by Beijing's modernizing efforts. While Chinese settlers chase the swelling tourist market, building luxury hotels and vast malls, most of the Tibetan pilgrims sleep in handmade, yak-wool tents and carry colourful blankets made from skins. This is my chance to witness and celebrate an ancient culture.
Kailash is tucked well away from major transportation hubs. Getting there requires a flight to the capital, Lhasa, from Beijing or Kathmandu. From Lhasa, the voyage is 1,375 kilometres westward, which takes three days overland, without paved roads or bridges. A well-maintained SUV and driver are crucial.
Pilgrims spend years preparing and applying for government permission to travel hundreds of kilometres to the mountain on open trucks, over boulders and through streams and sticky mud. To the south of the Kailash region, the Himalayan range saws up through the bleached landscape. Clouds remain caught in the peaks, like stretched-out cotton balls. The surrounding mountains withhold rain and partition Tibet from the rest of the world. There are no trees, no flowers, just the yellow stubble of grass and moss.
By midday, warmed by tea, I am ready to begin the journey to Saga Dawa. I begin walking along the south flank of the mountain, leaving Darchen for Tapochey, the site of the main flag-raising ceremony. Immediately, I feel the thin air (the altitude is greater than 5,000 metres) robbing my lungs of oxygen. My legs begin to feel rubbery. The sun is high and harsh, burning my face.
At Tapochey, the festivities are well under way. Workers haul a nine-metre flagpole to the centre of a natural outdoor bowl formed by the surrounding hills. Pilgrims string long prayer flags from the distant cliffs and tie them to the base of the pole. Others distribute kattaks (prayer scarves).
More pilgrims arrive, congregating around fires to heat up water for tea. It is like a family picnic, although with people spinning prayer wheels and muttering mantras through their cracked lips.
The sun slides over the mountain and more revellers pack into the valley, shouting, laughing and singing. The pole is now completely knotted up in multicoloured flags. The crowd throws coloured confetti, which is carried up in the air along with wisps of rhododendron and juniper smoke.
Two trucks line up before the pole and attach long cables. The shouting escalates. Monks watch from the sidelines, playing trumpets and cymbals.
Finally, out of the chaos, the pole is positioned upright. The crowd is frantic. I am elbowed in the back as people rush to be blessed by a high lama, who concludes the ceremony with music and chanting.
The raising of the flagpole symbolizes the defeat and conquering of earthly demons; it is a stake in the earth that fastens faith to the ground. It is a simple act, but one that empowers the Tibetans, grounding their beliefs in the real world.
With the celebrations winding down, we leave Tapochey to start the great 53-kilometre route around Kailash. Most well-acclimatized Tibetans will leave early before sunrise and complete the trek back to Darchen the same day. Being a lowlander, I plan to hike and camp for four days. (Permits should be arranged in Lhasa through a travel agency.)
While most carry their own supplies of blankets and kettles, I opt to rent two mangy, ill-tempered yaks and a handler. Even with my aides, children pass at embarrassing speeds; some even offer to carry my backpack.
Walking the trail with thousands of people gives me a chance to immerse myself in the devout, to observe and follow their lives. For a while, I journey with a gang of strangers trekking in single file. After three kilometres, I join a family with five children. Although I cannot speak Tibetan, we communicate with smiles, pointing and sharing hot water. They have silver bells strung from their coats, blankets and kettles tied to their backs and amber and lapis lazuli braided into their black hair. I make the children laugh by placing old sheep horns over my tuque.
Other times, I walk alone, with only the sound of the rocks grinding under my boots. Surrounded by thin air and sparse vegetation, my mind begins to empty. The beauty of the surroundings becomes secondary to my thoughts, which reach into the present and the past. I ponder whether non-Buddhists can clean their karma and become free of being reborn by rounding Kailash. Maybe it will at least lighten my bag.
While human hands have created many of the great religious structures in the modern world, colliding continents designed those in Tibet. In essence, the earth is a church. A devout pilgrim will recognize effigies within a mountain face, or touch a boulder known to provide cures. From a guide, I learn of legendary rivers of rainbow water, healing salts and Buddha footprints.
My campsites lack the luxuries of firewood, level ground or bathrooms. The wind is constant, and I must find large boulders to weigh down my possessions. At night, I hear the bells of my porter's yaks and sheep grazing for grass. In the late evening, from the confines of my tent, I see a continuous string of people moving over the path, squinting to find proper footing. Clean air and a view of the Milky Way soothe my drained senses.
After four days of walking, I return to Darchen, without having a religious epiphany or achieving enlightenment. I am just happy to see my beaten Land Cruiser.
As pilgrims pass me and pack their trucks, I smile at people I befriended on the path. We sit together and watch the others round the final pass. Although I cannot express my feelings verbally, I realize I feel lighter, even happier, despite my hunger and fatigue. My sense of accomplishment is more than that of crossing a finish line.
I am still unsure, however, if my joy stems from the religious rites or the endorphins.
If you go
Tibet can be entered overland or by air. Direct flights to Lhasa are available only through Beijing or Kathmandu.
For more information, contact Royal Mt. Trekking Ltd.: Durbar Marg (King's Way) Kathmandu; phone: 977 (1) 241452/258236/256058; fax: 977 (1) 245318; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visitors to Tibet require a China visa and a special Alien Travel Permit, which can be obtained only through a recognized travel agency. Chinese visas issued by a Chinese embassy outside Kathmandu are not valid for entry into Tibet.
For guides and transport within Tibet to Mount Kailash, contact Shigatse Travels: phone: 86 (891) 6330483; fax: 86 (891) 6330482; e-mail: email@example.com.