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Die ultimative Reise: Ein Besuch bei Shiva auf Berg Kailash (2000)

Kailash—holy mountain, center of the universe, snow jewel, and the ultimate challenge for any pilgrim. There are as many names for Mount Kailash as there are people who have or who have intended to visit it. Pilgrimage paths for four religions end here. Since time immemorial Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and members of the Bon religion have prayed to receive Mount Kailash’s sacred darshan. Those who have survived the challenges pilgrimage to Mount Kailash entail have come back changed, the image of the sacred mountain emblazoned on their hearts.

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Kailash—holy mountain, center of the universe, snow jewel, and the ultimate challenge for any pilgrim. There are as many names for Mount Kailash as there are people who have or who have intended to visit it. Pilgrimage paths for four religions end here. Since time immemorial Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and members of the Bon religion have prayed to receive Mount Kailash’s sacred darshan. Those who have survived the challenges pilgrimage to Mount Kailash entail have come back changed, the image of the sacred mountain emblazoned on their hearts.

Holy mountains are not holy because someone has deemed them so. No, they are dressed in holiness from top to bottom, and whoever sees them cannot doubt their sacred status. No one and no religion needs to create a cult to encourage worship of these mountains. These mountains exert an attraction all their own that no one can escape.

Many cultures host sacred mountains. The ancient Greeks had Mount Olympus, the Germanic peoples Asgard crowned with the tree of life, and the Japanese Mount Fuji, king of all of their 350 holy mountains. In a number of world religions God has appeared to His worshipers on holy mountains, such as when He appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai and delivered the Ten Commandments after engraving them in stone.

Kailash is a symbolic representation of the human body, so there is a divine connection between Mount Kailash’s mystical dimension and the human being. For example, Mount Kailash is surrounded by seven rings of rock, similar to and representative of the seven energy centers (chakras) in the human body. Therefore when we circumambulate Mount Kailash we not only make a sacred journey into the mountain’s external space but all pilgrims confirm that they also make a journey into the secret areas of the soul. Pilgrims walk the lunar landscape around Kailash and travel an equal distance through their rocky inner space. Whatever happens on the physical journey resonates in the soul.

Many pilgrims approach Kailash with burning questions—problems they want solved. Most hope that they will find an answer to their problems during the course of their pilgrimage. Few are disappointed. The mountain speaks – or better yet, the lord of the mountain responds.

Pilgrimages that follow the path of our inner longings do not start in our hometown. Nor do these journeys climax on reaching the geographical goal. Nor do these journeys end when we go home. The difficult and sometimes dangerous pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, located as it is in one of the loneliest places in the world, is nothing less than a quest for one’s own soul. Therefore, such a journey starts deep in the heart and ends when the pilgrim has come full circle and returned to that deep place, changed forever.

I had my own reasons for undertaking this ultimate pilgrimage. I too was seeking answers—and I felt that the questions I was asking, related to my spiritual quest, could only be asked of and answered by Lord Shiva, lord of Kailash. It is said that he can always be found in his earthly abode of Mount Kailash; it made sense that I had to go there.

But once I had decided, it was not as simple as buying a plane ticket and making appropriate travel arrangements. Those who had made the pilgrimage before me told me that Mount Kailash itself decides who can approach and who cannot. In fact, just before we began the leg of our journey that departed from Kathmandu, Nepal, we heard about a group of pilgrims who had started for Kailash with a hundred donkeys. All of them, including the donkeys, were killed in a landslide as they tried to enter the Tibetan High Plateau from India. This news made us nervous. The same question entered the minds of everyone on our party: Would we be given permission to approach Mount Kailash?

September 19, 2000

Tomorrow we start our journey to the sacred mountain. As I read again through the list sent by the Himalayan Waves Trekking Agency (the friends from Nepal who had arranged our pilgrimage to Muktinath) I smile. Their costs cover double-occupancy rooms in guesthouses, room in two-man tents during the periods we’ll be camping, the Sherpa staff, a Japanese Landcruiser (4WD), one support truck, one Tibetan guide, local transportation by yak (!), all monastery entrance fees, Mount Kailash permits, the usual Tibet-China visas, and oxygen masks (Haribol! That means we’ll be going quite high!).

The charges do not, however, cover extras like landslide rescues, porters, or additional transportation. We find ourselves hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

September 20, 2000
The Day of the Landslide

I am sitting at the Nepal-China border station writing this first entry in my Kailash pilgrimage diary. We have just traveled eight hours from the Kathmandu temple to the Chinese border station through the most breathtaking mountain scenery. We passed several landslides on the way. A few were quite dramatic—complete villages had fallen into the river. But these landslides were only forerunners to the one we just crossed, which was already weeks old. They still hadn’t managed to clear the rubble. A whole road had disappeared and traffic in both directions had been stopped for three weeks.

When I saw it and heard how long traffic had been stalled, I immediately knew that if we were ever going to reach Kailash we would have to shoulder our luggage and hitchhike into Tibet – provided we could climb over the landscape debris. The adventure was on and we gave ourselves into Lord Shiva’s hands.

As we walked we passed a long line of trucks and cars, some stuffed with European adventurers. Finally, we approached two of those famous camel-trekking land cruisers and asked the drivers what was ahead. One man told me, in a Scottish accent, “There’s another landslide ahead, and yet another really bad one half an hour’s drive into China. Neither the Nepalese nor the Chinese governments have even begun to clear them. We have been sitting here for three weeks, but it looks like we might have to wait another two months. Probably we should just go back to Scotland, but that’s not going to be easy either.”

His words did not encourage us. I have heard that traditionally, the obstacles one must overcome to enter Tibet are difficult. After the rainy season the Himalayas seem to shake off the roads civilizations create much the way an angry bear throws off its captor’s ropes.

But by Lord Shiva’s grace our organizer, Deepak, had been informed of the landslide situation and was not deterred. We then proceeded to walk the five kilometers past the stranded cars and gradually climbed up and then along a small path. Before we knew it we were past the landslide, our luggage on our backs. Deepak had arranged for us to be met by a rather adventurous looking Tata truck on the other side. I have always wanted to sit in one of these impossible vehicles, whose windshields are covered with dangling and flashing kitschy Oriental decorations. One wild drive later, during which we carefully avoided looking down the steep cliffs, which allowed us to keep our stomachs in place, and we were at the Nepal-China border where I am now writing this entry. From here we will walk into China, cross another landslide with the help of our porters, who will have to carry up the mountain our luggage, the tents, and a fourteen-day fuel supply.

It looks like we’re the only ones who abandoned the queue – the only ones adventurous enough to climb over landslides and catch rides in trucks through the „no-man’s land“ between Nepal and China.

* * *

We’re high in the mountains in a strange border building. A Nepalese customs officer has come to sit next to me. He says, encouragingly, “Don’t worry, you will surely reach Kailash by Lord Shiva’s grace. He is very merciful.” Somehow I believe him.

* * *

The very fact that we so much desire to proceed to Kailash and Manasarovar shows that we have heard a call from within, a call coming from Krishna’s greatest devotee, who is ready to help his insignificant, antlike brothers. Thousands of sages, adventurers, philosophers, and even demigods have traveled to Kailash and been engulfed by blissful ecstasy at the sight of its supernatural beauty. For followers of the Vedas Kailash is known as the earthly home of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. It is at Kailash that Lord Shiva meditates deeply on Lord Krishna and holds satsangs with sages headed by Narada Muni, ecstatically explaining his Lord’s glories. Kailash is also known as Mount Meru, the center of the universe, to followers of the Vedas, and over the eons the mountain has been called Jewel Peak, Lotus Mountain, Silver Mountain, and Svayambhu (“Self-manifest”). Near Mount Kailash sits the legendary city of Kuvera, treasurer of the demigods – a draw for certain types of people.

Aside from it being Lord Shiva’s residence, all-merciful Mother Ganga, who originates from Lord Vishnu’s lotus foot, descended to earth and was caught by Lord Shiva’s matted locks as he sat here. After Lord Shiva had tamed her wildness sufficiently to protect the earth’s inhabitants, he allowed Gangadevi to descend from Kailash, where she circumambulates the mountain and divides herself into four rivers. This is therefore the birthplace of four of the world’s major rivers: the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Sutlej, and the Karnali.

Manasarovar, near Kailash, is the world’s largest freshwater lake at this altitude. The lake was created by the universal engineer Brahma at the request of great rishis. Despite his qualification as the universe’s secondary creator, forming this lake did not prove an easy task for Brahma. The rishis had asked for a lake that would contain the essence of all the Vedas. Despite the difficulty, Brahma succeeded in his creation at the end and now those who bathe in Lake Manasarovar will become free from the accumulation of sin and find all their spiritual desires fulfilled. And if those who bathe do so in a devotional mood, they will definitely and immediately become free from the cycle of birth and death.

This area feels so sanctified that even Buddhists and Jains recognize it and have made the mountain one of their holiest shrines. Like followers of the Vedas, the Buddhists consider this area the center of the universe, but instead of thinking of it as Lord Shiva’s residence they consider it the residence of Korlo Demchok, or Chakrasambhava, a form of Buddha in the Tibetan tradition. It is interesting to note that this form is very similar to the description of Lord Shiva. Chakrasambhava is accompanied by his female companion Tara. The Tibetans have dedicated the highest pass on the parikrama to her. She seems quite similar to Shiva’s wife Parvati. Chakrasambhava wears a tiger skin, like Shiva, and is similarly garlanded with human skulls. The Buddhists also honor Dromla-la Pass and Gauri Kund, hardly 3 km from the mountain, as two of the holiest places on the parikrama. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain all believe that only those who are destined to reach these places are permitted to come.

September 21, 2000
Drive from Nyalamu to Lake Paigutso (4850 m above sea level, 221 kms)

We awake in a shabby guesthouse poetically named the “Snow Lion.” We are 3800 meters above sea level. Was yesterday a dream? After crossing the Nepalese border we trekked over the Friendship Bridge and read in disbelief the words on the Chinese billboard that greeted us: “We maintain good relationships with all our neighbors. This bridge was built as a sign of the friendship between China and Nepal. Chinese policy is known around the world as the most peaceful.” Such propaganda! We can’t help but think of the injustices and cruelties the Chinese government committed while invading Tibet. Goebbel (Hitler’s propaganda mouthpiece) once said: “If you repeat a lie long enough, it becomes true.” Could this statement by the Chinese ever become true?

In my mind I review the still fresh impression from yesterday’s “struggles.” We definitely had divine help. Crossing that landslide, which had stopped even the boldest adventurers in their tracks, was more than an act to prove our experience in Himalayan trekking – it was a miracle!

* * *

We have just arrived at the Chinese border station. It’s 4 o’clock Nepalese time, but we just discovered that the Chinese set their clocks two hours later than the Nepalese. Couldn’t figure out a reason for that. But the border is just about to close. The officials, despite their billboard, are unfriendly and are threatening to close the border before we can enter China. Apparently, they feel, they have spent the day here for nothing – the landslides have stopped everyone else from trying to cross; we have been their only customers. Finally, with the help of a handful of American dollars slipped discreetly inside one of our passports, we are given visa stamps and waved into China. As soon as we leave the station we are assailed by a loud bang. They have closed the border and jumped into their jeeps to race back to wherever they are living their frustrating mountain exile.

All through this ordeal it has been raining like hell, and now with dusk setting in it feels ominous. But good news: two Tibetan landcruisers are waiting for us just beyond the border crossing. The driver releases us and our possessions from the Tata, and we press into the landcruisers to be driven into the mountains. Thank you, Deepak, our Sherpa leader!

* * *

At the guesthouse. It was a long, exhausting trip to get here from the border station. We even had to navigate our way under a few waterfalls, which drummed heavily on the jeep’s roof. Even when during the best parts of the drive we couldn’t see anything because of the rain. While Karl is arranging our rooms I am standing outside in the dark, half-numb from the travel. I was almost run over by a jeep that suddenly sped out of the dark rain a few minutes ago. But I also noticed, as the jeep’s headlights illuminated the inside of the guesthouse for a moment, that there’s another group of pilgrims here. I saw them bundled in blankets and smiling unearthly smiles.

* * *

I just spoke to the other group of pilgrims. They are returning from Kailash, and they seem shaken by their long travel – so shaken that they had to struggle to respond to me. But soon it came out that one of them is a devotee of Srimati Radharani. She told me she regularly visits Vrindavan. Later in the conversation I asked her why she had come to Kailash. She said, “We all need to get Lord Shiva’s mercy to overcome the obstacle that stands between us and the Divine Couple – our false egos. Lord Shiva removes this obstacle.”

One of the others in the group was exultant. “We were in the presence of God! It was so wonderful. I have no words to explain it. Lord Shiva ki jaya.” And another added, “Although some of us are so old we could barely breathe at the high altitude, we were each allowed to circumambulate Mount Kailash by Mahadeva’s grace.”

These pilgrims seem deeply touched by their experience. After our conversation one of them gave me a small block of camphor and said, “Here, you will need it. When you can no longer breathe because of dust or mucous, hold this to your nose and it will free your breathing. It’s prasada (offered).”

First day, September 22, 2000

I had the most beautiful dream about Mount Kailash. The mountain was surrounded by a supernatural light, and a holy flame burned at its summit – a flame that destroyed all my anxieties and fears.

We woke to Chinese anthems interrupted by occasional bursts of “good news.” I understand neither Chinese nor Tibetan, but the newscaster’s voice made me suspicious. This is how the propaganda broadcasts in Nazi Germany must have sounded: too enthusiastic to be true. When I asked our Tibetan guide, Nitai (I have provided him an alias so that he will not get into trouble should a representative of the Chinese government ever read this), what was being said, he looked desperate. “I will tell you in a few days,” he said.

* * *

A few days have passed since we heard the broadcast. Nitai seems more confident that no one is spying on us, so he has told us what the broadcaster was saying the other day: “‘Always remember, the Chinese have given you freedom and advancement,’ and more such nonsense.” I saw the bitterness on his face and he told us and remembered the slogans at Friendship Bridge.

“How do today’s Tibetans deal with the Chinese invasion and their systematic re-education of the Tibetan people?” I am curious about this. Nitai says that there is no point in fighting the Chinese. “In the ‘70s our Kampa warriors tenaciously fought a guerrilla war against China, but it was pointless. Now we have taken refuge in what our lamas have instructed us: ‘Do not hate the Chinese. They already have amassed so much bad karma.’ Anyway, everything is so temporary. All life appears and vanquishes between birth and death and is miserable in between.”

As Nitai spoke, solacing himself with ancient Buddhist philosophy, I suddenly remembered a Buddhist symbol of temporality I saw once at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The BBT had a booth there, and next to it some Buddhists had painstakingly created a colorful mandala from dyed rice flour. At the end of the fair they simply destroyed their work of art. They treated it like it was nothing special.

Whenever Nitai comes to a mountain pass and there are prayer flags flapping in the wind, he sings a song that sounds something like “Lha Gyal – Lo So So So.” He says it means “May the gods be victorious.”

* * *

It’s morning. We have just made a a short inspection of the village (garbage and beer bottles strewn everywhere, and all the department stores as Spartan as in any Communist country) and now we are departing. We will pass through a Chinese checkpoint, common on the outskirts of many towns, and then begin our drive through the beautiful Tibetan landscape. We plan to pause briefly at the hot spring that is said to be the location of Milarepa’s cave. Milarepa (1052–1135) is the most beloved of Tibetan saints, and he was a major force in shaping and popularizing Tibetan Buddhism through his beautiful songs. One of his songs goes like this:

I was afraid of death and escaped civilization.
I went into a mountain cave to meditate again and again on death.
Finally I lost my fear of existence.


Brother you don’t know if you will wake up tomorrow alive.
Nevertheless you plan for tomorrow.
You don’t know where you will be reborn.
Nevertheless you indulge in the temporary satisfactions of this life.
Now is the time to prepare for death.
That is my earnest advice.
If your heart is touched by these words, begin your mediation immediately.

These songs remind me of a short meeting I had with a Nepalese devotee, who told me that his father and uncle went on pilgrimage to Kailash. His uncle had to be left behind near Paryang because he had caught an incurable cough, which later resulted in his death. When it was clear that he couldn’t travel on and would probably die, his brother went as quickly as possible to Mount Kailash and Manasarovar, hoping to return in time with water from the holy lake. It took him a week and a half to return, but he arrived in time. His brother was still on his deathbed. The sick brother had been meditating on receiving the sacred water. This devotee told me that as soon as the water touched his uncle’s feverish lips he was relieved of all pain. He began to shed tears of ecstasy and called out in great happiness, “Mahadeva, ki jaya.” With this exultation, he blissfully left his body.

* * *

Today we crossed a high pass at 5700 m. True to Tibetan custom the path over the pass was decorated with numerous prayer flags. And beyond the pass we saw a wonderful vista of snow-capped mountains.

Nature here is untouched and the mountains seem multi-colored. The Tibetan high plateau is indescribably peaceful. Still, the journey over it is also indescribably trying. Many of the roads are simply tire ruts left by earlier travelers, and these thin lines fade into a mountain desert. We have been forced to swerve around countless potholes as big as trucks, and sometimes we’ve had to drive through rivers whose waters have flowed into the jeep’s cabin.

* * *

It’s evening and we have finally reached our destination. Our Sherpa crew is quickly erecting the tents as I write. The waters of Paigutso Lake are sapphire. The beauty of this place is beyond description. Still, let me try to describe it:

There is deep rivulet filled with crystal water running by our camp. We use this water for everything – cooking, cleaning, and bathing. The lake glitters in the distance. To the left we see the most spectacular mountain range dressed in a mantle of white snow. That’s the Trans-Himalaya. In another direction the savanna is spotted with herds of white yaks. Something in me – the hermit? – feels called by this beauty, and I am wandering into its wildness a little to find a good place to chant. In the Gita Lord Krishna states that solitude makes it easier to seek spiritual knowledge.

* * *

The sun is setting and the temperature is beginning to drop. An icy wind is blowing. We are honoring our evening meal in the tent the Sherpas hastily erected for this purpose. I am beginning to feel strange. I can already sense that this won’t be an easy night. One learns to read his body’s signals as he ages.

* * *

After eating earlier, we all retired to our respective tents – Dieter and Karl to theirs, the grhastha couple to theirs, and me to mine. This is becoming one of the worst nights of my life. It seems I have altitude sickness. Many a mountain expedition has been interrupted or canceled when one or more of its participants has fallen ill like this. Altitude sickness makes you feel like you’ve been hanging upside down from a tree branch for hours. You can’t sleep, but you can’t stay awake either, and so you drift in and out of consciousness, feeling so horrible you want to die. Then you are driven from your tent into the black night of howling wild dogs (the Tibetan street dogs, peaceful by day, become man-eating monsters by night) by the urge to evacuate.

I tried to do yoga to recapture my equilibrium but instead began to simultaneously vomit and pass stool. By then it was very cold out, and our campsite was covered in rime. I was freezing; my body had no energy left to fight the cold. I wrapped myself in any clothing I could find, only to throw off the layers as my fever spiked and I began to sweat like a Himalayan mountain under the summer sun.

I think that’s enough for you to know; the rest cannot be described anyway. But whenever my consciousness drifted to “alert” I asked myself, “Why am I here and should I try to go home?” Then, “What, precisely, do I want from this pilgrimage?”

As soon as I meditated on this question strength flooded my consciousness. Lord Shiva appeared before me – he was the answer. I remembered the Pracetas being blessed by his darshan and I felt peaceful.

Do you know that story? Once the king asked his sons, the Pracetas, to perform austerities to strengthen and qualify themselves for rulership. He advised them to pray to Lord Vishnu to make them good rulers. The young men approached Lake Manasarovar at the foot of Mount Kailash, and as they stood on the shore of the beautiful lake they heard celestial music and the air filled with the recitation of hymns. Then they saw Lord Shiva and his associates rising from the lake’s water. Lord Shiva was pleased with their sincerity and said, “Any person who surrenders to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, the controller of everything – matter, spirit, and the living entity – is actually very dear to me.” (SB 4.24)

Lord Shiva praised the princes and told them of his own relationship with Krishna’s devotees. “You are all devotees of my Lord, and as such you are as worshipable as the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself. I know that because I too worship Krishna, the devotees respect me and I am dear to them. Thus no one can be as dear to the devotees as I am.”

Srila Prabhupada comments in a purport to this section of the Bhagavatam: “A devotee of Lord Krishna does not disrespect Lord Shiva but worships him as the most exalted Vaishnava. Consequently whenever a devotee worships Lord Shiva, he prays to Lord Shiva to achieve the favor of Krishna. Lord Shiva was not kind and merciful only to the Pracetas; anyone who is a devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is very dear to Lord Shiva. A devotee should be offered respect on the level of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and sometimes even more respect. Indeed, Lord Rama, the Personality of Godhead Himself, sometimes worshiped Lord Shiva. If a devotee is worshiped by the Lord, why should a devotee not be worshiped by other devotees on the same level with the Lord?”

The purpose of my pilgrimage is to worship Lord Shiva as Krishna’s best devotee and to ask him for a boon he is most capable of bestowing: that I can become free of false ego. It is my false ego that separates me from my Lord. The purpose of this journey, then, is simple: to come closer to Sri Krishna by requesting the help of His greatest devotee.

Finally, at about 4 a.m., the hellish night ended and I fell asleep. Later I woke freezing. I seemed to have left all my extra “weight” on the Tibetan plateau during the night.

* * *

When Dieter checked on me this morning he immediately recognized my condition. Like a father, he has now wrapped me in whatever clothes the other members of our team don’t need for the moment and has positioned me before the gas heater. Soon we’ll have to continue the journey. I am now chanting my rounds silently, hoping that I have passed through the worst and that I can indeed reach Mount Kailash.

* * *

We’re back in the jeep. After a few hours of driving we see a settlement of nomads with their many yaks and few fur tents. These people wander with their few possessions strapped to the backs of their yaks. The yaks are everything to them: transportation, milk source, suppliers of wool, company, and in the end, food.

For us Westerners, accustomed as we are to our highly complicated life, the simplicity of nomads is attractive – at least from a distance. I doubt that any of us could live like these people and endure their hardships with the tolerant smile they seem to bring to life. Westerners are not generally known for qualities like tolerance. These people, on the other hand, resemble children. They live in the moment and love everything – people, plants, animals, stars, or whatever else – for itself without trying to change anything into something else. In this way they are not trying to control and reshape life as they find it but they participate in it with childlike admiration.

Just a few decades ago, when the first airplane landed in Laddak, the local farmers brought big helpings of rare grass to feed “the hungry iron bird.” They thought of it as having traveled so far; it must certainly be starving. They wanted to be hospitable.

When I heard this anecdote my first reaction was to smile, then laugh at the naivete of these people. But my second reaction was different. I began to admire their hospitality and kindness, and I could see that they lived in a different world than me.

* * *

We are not long alone in observing the romantic nomadic life. Another car filled with returning pilgrims has arrived, and an enthusiastic Italian just told us of his spiritual experience at Kailash: “There is nothing as beautiful as the sacred mountain. You can feel Lord Shiva in the atmosphere.” Then he turned to miserable me and said, “This country is beautiful, but you need Diamox to protect you from altitude sickness – Diamox and tons of water.”

I have heard lots about this allopathic remedy. I have especially heard that the side effects are worse than the sickness, but this Italian is so enthusiastic, insisting that he has taken Diamox every day and is obviously still quite alive that I have agreed to swallow a pill. I now hope that my arms will still be attached to my body by this evening!

* * *

After a long drive we have arrived at the Brahmaputra River. The Indians we met at Nyalam told us that they could not cross the Brahmaputra and had to make a detour around the raging river to a bridge. The detour took them four days out of their way. But today the Brahmaputra is calm; only by examining its bank can we see that a few days ago the water was much higher. An hour after we rang the bell for the ferry we are finally seeing signs of life on the far bank. The ferryman and his assistants are coming.

But we hear no motor. How is the ferry moving? As the ferry silently floats nearer we see the trick: the ferry has been fastened to a steel cable that runs over the river. Because the back of the ferry is turned a little against the current, the current pushes the ferry across. (Sorry for not explaining it more clearly – it took genius to think of this solution to make ferry rides over an often raging river safe. It’s something people in Europe could learn from the Tibetans. It would a save a lot of energy in certain cases.)

* * *

Our jeep and the supply truck rumble onto the ferry, and after turning the ferry a little in the opposite direction, we are pushed gently over the Brahmaputra. I’m glad there is no storm tonight to cause high waves or a flood. The ferryman tells us that we are the first to cross the Brahmaputra in days. Shiva is taking care of us.

* * *

We will stay the night in the town of Saga. This place reminds me of movies depicting Armageddon. Saga looks desolate; somehow it seems as if it has been thrown together in the middle of the Tibetan desert. Despite the dirt, however, it boasts a few tourist attractions: mineral water, restaurants, prostitutes, and a radio station.

* * *

Late in the evening a Tibetan woman approached me to me ask (with emotion) if I have a photo of the Dalai Lama. And this evening our Tibetan guide told me of Chinese activities in the area, especially what happened here during the invasion of Tibet. He added, “Please do not repeat anything I’ve said or I will get into trouble.”


September 23, 2000
Drive from Saga to Paryang [4540 m] – 185 kms

Today’s drive was like all our drives have been: hours without seeing even a trace of human civilization – nothing but occasional herds of yak and wild donkeys, and everywhere the mysterious Tibetan landscape. A few times we drove through raging rivers, and whenever the driver needed a cigarette break, we got out and walked ahead of the jeep just to keep our blood moving. Now we’re at yet another guesthouse.

* * *

There’s not much worth mentioning about this place, but I do want to tell you about my visit to the roofless toilet. Tibetan toilets are constructed simply, but you have to climb a few steps to enter them. This toilet had no roof, so during my private “sitting” I looked over the wall and saw the breathtaking Himalayan Mountains. It was incredibly awe-inspiring, yet I couldn’t help but laugh at my viewing chamber.

Now it is evening. I have dragged a chair outside so I can try to warm myself in the sun’s setting rays. Large dogs are wandering around me, nosing through piles of smouldering wood. I have set myself up on a crematorium!

But I am already comfortable and the reading matter I have chosen for these few minutes in the sun is too fascinating. No point in changing my location. But I wonder about this place. Srila Prabhupada once said, “This world lasts only a few days.” Sitting with death stimulates philosophy.

I am carefully watching the progress of the sunset. Once the sun sets I will no longer be safe from these dogs. But right now they are thinking only of their love affairs. Tibetan dogs are no different from dogs anywhere – a male approaches a female and she snarls and finally succeeds in chasing him away.

September 24, 2000
Paryang to Darchen [4700 m] – 290 kms

Today is Ekadasi, the most difficult day to arrange for food. Our Nepali cook is desperate. “They already have so many restrictions, and now they are not even allowed to eat grains!” He looks at the potatoes and sighs.

* * *

It’s almost evening. Our jeep is climbing yet another mountain – and suddenly we are being treated to a spectacular darshan. As the jeep pulls to a stop we see Mount Kailash and Manasarovar clearly for the first time. It is impossible to describe the unearthly beauty of this place. We are so moved by it that we throw ourselves to the ground in obeisance. The air is filled with mysticism. As we chant the Shivastakam it seems, just for a moment, that we see Lord Shiva deep in meditation in his crystal palace.

* * *

According to the Linga Purana Mount Kailash looks quite different than the Kailash we see with our eyes. Apparently, there is a city with eleven concentric rings, one above the other, which form plains. Lord Shiva’s palace rests on top of the highest ring, exactly at the top of the sacred mountain. Within this palace Lord Shiva is united sexually with Goddess Parvati, daughter of Himalaya. Mount Kailash definitely reminds us of a lingam, the creative aspect of Lord Shiva through which we all enter this world. Shiva is both a creator and a destroyer; he uses dance to carry out both functions. He is Nataraja, lord of the dance, and he annihilates with his tandava-nrtya (dance of destruction), dissolving everything into nonbeing.

The Ramayana states something the meaning of which becomes clear at Kailash: “There is no mountain range like the Himalayas, for this range contains both Kailash and Manasarovar. As the dew is dried by the morning sun, so our sins are dried when we gain sight of the Himalayas.”

The Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the trans-sensual dimension of Kailash in fourteen wonderful verses. Although we cannot perceive this dimension with our senses, however, by Lord Shiva’s mercy aspects of it can be revealed to us.

“The abode known as Kailash is full of different herbs and vegetables, and it is sanctified by Vedic hymns and mystic yoga practice. Thus the residents of that abode are demigods by birth and have all mystic powers. Besides them there are other human beings, who are known as Kinnaras and Gandharvas and are accompanied by their beautiful wives, who are known as Apsaras, or angels. Kailash is full of mountains filled with all kinds of valuable jewels and minerals and surrounded by all varieties of valuable trees and plants. The top of the hill is nicely decorated by various types of deer.

“There are many waterfalls, and in the mountains there are many beautiful caves in which the very beautiful wives of the mystics are found. On Kailash Hill there is always the rhythmic sound of the peacocks’ sweet vibrations and the bees’ humming. Cuckoos are always singing, and other birds whisper among themselves.

“There are tall trees with straight branches that appear to call the sweet birds, and when herds of elephants pass through the hills, it appears that the Kailash Hill moves with them. When the waterfalls resound, it appears that Kailash Hill does also. The whole of Kailash Hill is decorated with various kinds of trees, which produce flowers with fragrant aromas. There are many banana trees, which decorate the small hillside lakes very nicely. There are different kinds of lotus flowers, and the small lakes are full of various kinds of birds, who whisper very sweetly. There are many kinds of other animals also, like deer, monkeys, boars, lions, forest cows, forest asses, tigers, small deer, buffalo and many other animals, who are fully enjoying their lives.

“There is a small lake named Alakananda in which Sati used to take her bath, and that lake is especially auspicious. All the demigods, after seeing the specific beauty of Kailash Hill, were struck with wonder at the great opulence to be found there.”

[We found this lake later in our trek.]

Srila Prabhupada comments: “According to the commentary called Sri-Bhagavata-candra candrika, the water in which Sati used to bathe was Ganges water. In other words, ancient texts confirm that the Ganges flowed through the Kailash parvata. There is every possibility of accepting such a statement because Ganges water also flows from the hair of Lord Shiva.”

The last verse speaks of two arms of the Ganges:

“The demigods also saw the two rivers named Nanda and Alakananda. These two rivers are sanctified by the dust of the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Govinda. The celestial damsels come down to those rivers in their airplanes with their husbands, and after sexual enjoyment, they enter the water and enjoy sprinkling their husbands with water.” (SB 4.6.9–25)

After describing more of Kailash’s beauty the Bhagavatam goes on to describe how the demigods met Lord Shiva there:

“The demigods saw Lord Shiva sitting under a huge banyan tree, which permanently cooled the atmosphere yet was free from the disturbing noise of birds. Lord Shiva was sitting under the tree, which was competent to give perfection to mystic yogis and deliver all people. Lord Shiva sat there, surrounded by saintly persons like Kuvera and the four Kumaras, who were already liberated souls. Lord Shiva was grave and saintly. He was situated in his perfection as the master of the senses, knowledge, fruitive activities, and the path of achieving perfection. He was the friend of the entire world, and by virtue of his full affection for everyone, he was very auspicious. He was seated on a deerskin and was practicing all forms of austerity. Because his body was smeared with ashes, he looked like an evening cloud. On his hair was the sign of a half-moon, a symbolic representation. He was seated on a straw mattress and speaking to all present, including the great sage Narada, to whom he specifically spoke about the Absolute Truth. He was dressed in saffron garments and absorbed in trance, thus appearing to be the foremost of all sages.” (SB 4.6.32–39)

Srila Prabhupada comments: “It is said that during the advent of Lord Chaitanya, Sadashiva appeared as Advaita Prabhu, and Advaita Prabhu’s chief concern was to elevate the fallen conditioned souls to the platform of devotional service to Lord Krishna. Since people were engaged in useless occupations which would continue their material existence, Lord Shiva in the form of Lord Advaita, appealed to the Supreme Lord to appear as Lord Chaitanya to deliver these illusioned souls. Actually Lord Chaitanya appeared on the request of Lord Advaita. Similarly, Lord Shiva has a sampradaya, the Rudra-sampradaya. He is always thinking about the deliverance of the fallen souls, as exhibited by Lord Advaita Prabhu.”

* * *

As we drive closer to Kailash we cannot take our eyes from its majestic beauty. Since Lord Shiva is the master of all mystic yogis, His abode is mystical. Clouds are assembling over Mount Kailash and taking magical forms. For instance and clearly visible to all of us is the word om, “written” in the Sanskrit alphabet. Now the wind is reforming the cloud into a halo around the mountain. Then suddenly there is a second mountain – a mountain made of clouds – hanging over Kailash. Then so many other forms. Lord Shiva is smilingly giving us his mystical welcome. What is truly amazing is that there are no clouds around any of the other mountains. It’s clearly a “welcome ceremony.” Somewhere the Lord is sitting and arranging all this, almost like a Native American sitting on a mountain and making smoke signals.

Kailash is so beautiful that I keep wondering how it got here. It is clearly distinct from the mountains that surround it. This leaves only one explanation: it was placed here by divine hands to serve as Lord Shiva’s residence.

As we approach, we notice that the mountain looks exactly like a South Indian temple with its many halls and walls leading to the sanctorum. Yes, Mount Kailash has taken us all by surprise and bound our hearts to Lord Shiva.

September 25, 2000
The beginning of our Mount Kailash parikrama (total length of the parikrama path: 53 km. First day: 18 km)

We are trekking from Darchen to Dira Puk, altitude: 4909 m. We will start our circumambulation of Mount Kailash early this morning. We are surprised by the twenty-five Westerners starting their circumambulation at the same time. Where did they come from all of a sudden? Many adventurers these days have heard of Kailash’s breathtaking beauty. Paul, an Englishman in the group, just told me that he had an audience with the Dalai Lama before coming to Kailash. The Dalai Lama told him, “Make all experience zero. First understand that everything is made only of material elements, then that the elements are ultimately energy, and then that the energy does not exist.” Good luck with that, Paul!

I also met a Physics student from the University of Karlsruhe. He has been telling me of his journey here. He flew with his bicycle to a town in Russia, and from there cycled through Mongolia into Tibet. Except for his lips, which are quite chapped, he seems in great shape. When I asked him what he ate along the way he shrugged and said that he asked the nomads for tsampa (barley flour), which he sprinkled with river water and made into a paste. “It’s enough,” he smiled. “You can survive on it.” He also told me of the many dangers he met along the way – robbers, bakshis, hungry border officials, and disease. When I asked him why he had undertaken such an intense journey in the first place, traveling for days on a bicycle through the desert, struggling to cycle through snowy mountain passes, and exposing himself to the uncertainties of Asia, he seemed surprised by the question. “It’s like asking why birds fly. They fly because that’s how they are made!”

Good answer. I too often feel the need to leave limiting situations. Ultimately, of course, this desire comes from the soul, who remembers life in the free spiritual sky, where one is not limited by material conditions. The call for freedom is the suppressed call of the soul for Krishna. I tried to explain this to this young man, and at the end of our talk we exchanged addresses. Let’s see what will come of our discussion.

* * *

Now we are walking again, and although we began in a knot, we are beginning to spread out. Within a few minutes each of us is alone. It takes three days to circumambulate Mount Kailash. The first day is considered the day of purification, the second the day of departure, and the third the day of renewal. As we walk, adventurous-looking Tibetans sometimes overtake us. I see one youthful couple leading a horse with a strange-looking load – it resembles a human puppet covered with a thin blanket.

The other Westerners have disappeared into the mountains to climb up to a monastery.

* * *

Someone just explained to me that the monks in the nearby monastery have a conch shell that is blown only by a specially trained monk. When that monk blows the conch, the sound is believed to carry a departed soul to nirvana. Also, near this monastery is the famous “sky” burial grounds where dead Tibetans are exposed to a special type of treatment: the corpse is taken to these grounds and exposed. Then a particular type of vulture arrives to feast on the flesh. Whenever a body is placed in these grounds, the leading vulture lands thirty feet from the corpse, then slowly hops forward. After it has eaten, it seems to signal the others, and within minutes the corpse is devoured. After eating, the vultures turn, and without looking back, walk thirty feet from the skeleton and then gracefully fly away. This is considered to be an auspicious burial.

After hearing all this it suddenly occurred to me that the “puppet” hanging over the horse was probably the skeletal remains of the young couple’s departed relative. They must have given him a sky burial and were now on their way to the monastery so the soul could be “blown” to nirvana by the sound of the conch shell.

* * *

Around us is an atmosphere that I can only describe as vibrating silence. There are many wild animals who live in harmony with the pilgrims here, especially the ever-curious marmots. It’s difficult to say which of the yaks are domesticated or wild, and there are wild donkeys that resemble horses that watch us pass. Often I also see horned antelope. Everything here reminds me of the holy area that would surround the grail. This is especially true after you pass through Choerten, a gate made of piled stones piled and held together only by gravity. It looks like a gate into another dimension.

I look back and see the first of four places where pilgrim offer prostrated obeisances. These places are called Chaktsal Gang, and they are supposed to be openings or entries into Shiva’s Mandala, which surrounds Kailash. Why obeisances? Because humility is the entrance into spiritual life.

From time to time we see Mount Kailash, but then again it is hidden behind other mountains. Although every time it reappears we seem to have come closer, there is an atmosphere of unapproachability around it. Sometimes pilgrims feel an unspoken order to not come closer. Reinhold Messner, the famous Austrian mountaineer who scaled all the 8000-meter-high mountains of the world, certainly heard this order. The Chinese officials had offered him a license to climb Mount Kailash so as to further humiliate the Tibetan people, but Messner’s reply was uncompromising: “Of course I declined. It would not have been intelligent to do otherwise. One should not trample on gods.”

To my knowledge, no one has ever scaled Mount Kailash except for the mystical saint, Milarepa.

Walking on I see a tall flagpole decorated with beautiful prayer flags inscribed with Buddhist mantras. The flags flutter in the wind, distributing blessings over the earth. This particular flagpole is erected each year on the full-moon night of May, exactly at the time when Siddharta attained enlightenment. Tibetan’s read the year’s fortune based on how the flagpole bends. This year the flagpole is tilted toward Kailash, which means it will be a good year.

While walking I am reading Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Saranagati. Not for a minute do I want to forget why I have undertaken this pilgrimage: to request blessings to surrender my life more and more to Lord Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada writes in the Srimad-Bhagavatam: “When one becomes free from all bodily relationships within this material world and simply places himself in the position of an eternal servant of the Supreme Lord, it is to be understood that all the contamination of his material attachments have been burned by the blazing fire of transcendental ecstasy. This is how powerful the path of surrender to Krishna is.”

* * *

I just passed a large stone with a footprint embedded in it. Some Tibetan pilgrims informed me that it is Buddha’s footprint. The stone, they said, fell from the top of Mount Kailash and Lord Buddha stepped on it. One especially enthusiastic pilgrim took the stone and ground some dust from the footprint for us to honor: “Eat this and you will attain nirvana.” I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I ate what he offered with a silent prayer to Krishna to give me love of Godhead. That is our way to achieve liberation from material existence.

After this incident, four bearded Americans arrived and I waved them over to Lord Buddha’s footprint. I told them what the Tibetans do to honor the footprint, and eventually they themselves took part in the ritual. I have found that most people have an almost childlike faith in the power of rituals to uplift them. The Americans asked me a number of questions and I easily fell into the trap set by Lord Shiva.

Yes, it was a trap set by Lord Shiva. Let me explain.

As I spoke about the spiritual purposes to pilgrimage I felt these Americans’ admiring glances. These glances seemed to be saying, “This man knows so much!” I felt my heart fill with pride.

But then something else filled my heart: I had a distinct understanding that something was entirely wrong. I felt highly uncomfortable in my skin. In fact, I began to sweat profusely from an unexplainable heat that mysteriously continued to increase. Soon I felt as cooked as a potato. I soon found out that I was feeling the heat of someone’s anger. Finally, my condition became so intolerable that I felt almost relieved when I was suddenly sucked from my body and began to hover twenty meters above it! In great surprise at this turn of events I looked toward Kailash and thought I saw Lord Shiva standing at the peak. His seemed to be saying, “You egoistical fool! Just look down and see your own theater game of pride.” I did what I was told and for the first time in my life, I could see an ugly and horrifying mistake: the ego game of the preacher! It was terrible! In the name of helping others I was basking in their admiration.

I was so shocked that I fell back into my body and immediately excused myself. It became clear to me that so many things I do are done simply to boost my false ego. It is difficult to write this; coming to this realization was incredibly painful. At the same time it felt like a sign of health to see for myself, perhaps for the first time, how my false ego disturbs my spiritual life. I still feel relieved and enlightened when I remember this lesson. I know that Lord Shiva gave me an important understanding on my first day of parikrama, the day of purification. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Everyone acts under the dictation of the ego. Therefore Lord Shiva is trying to purify false egotism through the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead... To be engaged both in mind and in action in the devotional service of the Supreme Lord is the process for purifying false egotism." (SB 4.24.43, purport) Everyone who undergoes this pilgrimage gains some kind of realization, by Lord Shiva’s mercy, that will help him or her to become purified. I seem to be no exception. I want to learn to talk not for my benefit, not for name, fame, or glory, but truly to help others.

* * *

Again I am walking alone. I have arrived in a valley in which the mountains look like temples, castles, cathedrals, and castles filled with mystical beings. What is more amazing is that they seem to change shape, almost as if someone were projecting slides on the rocks. First I see a number of Buddhas, but then suddenly the forms shift. I feel like I’m watching a silent movie.

* * *

I just discussed this shape-shifting phenomenon with our Tibetan guide, who told me that the formations I saw were mystical because they project forms already in the viewer’s mind. It’s difficult to describe what was happening, but each time I turned around I discovered new images on the rocks. It was quite amazing. It reminded me that the world is a mirror that reflects back to us what we need to learn.

Once I heard about two dogs who wanted to attain the legendary temple of mirrors. After searching for it for many years one of the dogs finally arrived in a large mirrored hall. Shockingly, he found himself facing one thousand dogs with bared teeth. These dogs were growling and seemed ready to leap at his throat at any moment. Terrified he turned around and ran out of the temple hall. He would make sure he did not return.

Then the second dog arrived at the same hall. But this dog had a different experience. He saw one thousand dogs wagging their tails in delight to see a new friend. These dogs grinned at him and made hospitable sounds. This second dog felt comfortable: he had found the world friendly.

Today Mount Kailash showed me that my attitudes shape how I see life. I saw many things, some of them reflecting my embarrassing attachments to this world. Walking through them felt like therapy – a therapy that reminded me of what is essential and gave me strength to say no to some of these attachments.

* * *

I have been alone for six or seven hours and am now looking for our group. I can’t find anyone. After walking for another half an hour I see a monastery on the left and a herd of yaks. Among the yaks are five tents. Are they ours? But even as I approach the camp my eyes turn again and again toward Mount Kailash’s northern face. This face is close to the narrow parikrama path – so close that I have a strong desire to go toward it. But that seems impossible since it’s snowing and the mountain is still quite a distance from here. Better I locate our camp. It’s almost dark.

* * *

After crossing a raging river and almost falling from the slippery stones into the water I have made it to the opposite bank. Something tells me this is not our camp. Let me go first to the monastery to take darshan.

* * *

The monks showed me a cave warmed by the yak-butter lights they keep burning twenty-four hours a day. One of the monks was preaching to a few Tibetans when I arrived, but afterward he invited all the visitors to attend a ceremony.

When I went back to those five tents I found the American pilgrims I had “instructed.” When they heard that I had lost our group they invited me in for a cup of tea and a chance to listen to their story. Six years ago the oldest among them had attempted to circumambulate Kailash, but he had become too weak so could not finish the parikrama. He has come again with his friends to renew his attempt.

I was listening to the Americans, but I could feel a slow seep of anxiety entering my heart. Where are the others in my group? I need to find them. I left the Americans’ tent in time to see a red dot approaching from the parikrama path. No doubt it is Karl in his red jacket. I waved to attract him, and half an hour later, he was standing next to me.

But it turns out that he too was lost. I was sure at this point that each of us was about to experience whatever Lord Shiva had planned for us. Since Karl was weak, tired, and thirsty I took him back to the Americans’ tent for hot tea and biscuits. I will leave him there and cross the river to look for the others.

* * *

This time Lord Krishna definitely saved me from falling into the water. You wouldn’t believe how slippery the crossing stones are. When I walked over to the parikrama path to look for our Sherpas I saw one of them – our cook – who had now told me that the others are “just now coming”[1] to set up the tents.

I have little time left this evening. Let me climb into the mountains in the direction of Kailash. This is the western face of Mount Kailash. He is guarded on two sides by mountain pyramids that resemble open curtains and which allow us to see the crystal pyramid in all its splendor. Winds rage around Mount Kailash’s head. But it seems possible to follow one of the rivulets and “touch” the holy mountain.

* * *

As the sun slowly set, Balakrishna Prabhu caught up with me and spoke what was also on my mind: “Why don’t we get as close as we can to Mount Kailash?”

“Yes, let’s start immediately!”

* * *

We raced against the impending darkness and now find ourselves about 5500 m high (by my estimation) and standing before Lord Shiva’s abode. The winds are blowing, and we are breathless after having jumped higher and higher from rock to rock. Balakrishna has gone a little farther to plant a trishul (trident) in the ground as his offering to Lord Shiva. I will stay where I am, and, overwhelmed by feelings of awe and respect, offer the water of the river springing from Mount Kailash back to Kailash. “O gatekeeper of Vrindavan! O Soma! All glories to you! O you whose forehead is decorated with the moon and who is worshipable by the sages headed by Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana, and Narada! O Gopeshwar! Desiring that you bestow on me prema for the lotus feet of Sri Sri Radha-Madhava, who perform joyous pastimes in Vraja-dhama, I offer my pranams to you time and again.”

* * *

By the time we returned from making our respective offerings the Sherpas had the camp set up, but we’re worried. It’s already dark. Where is Dieter. He still hasn’t returned as we climb into our sleeping bags for the night. It is extremely dangerous to spend the night unsheltered in these mountains.

We have sent a Sherpa search party out in two directions. I see the torchlight of one Sherpa climbing toward the Drömla Pass, which we are also hoping to climb tomorrow morning.

* * *

The Sherpas have been out searching for an hour – I watched them signal with their flashlights and heard them calling Dieter’s name. Now I see them returning – without Dieter.

* * *
Tonight the borders between dreams and reality were dissolved. I often saw Lord Shiva, creator, destroyer, and forever transcendental to the petty attachments of human beings.

September 26, 2000
Continuation of the parikrama over the Drömla Pass [5650m] to Zuthul Puk,
22 km, the longest leg of the journey.

We are up early. There is only one thought on all of our minds: Where is Dieter? Even though the Sherpas informed us that the yaks carrying our tents, food, and luggage have run away in the night and are still missing, we have decided not to wait for them to recover the yaks but to search for Dieter.

* * *

We found Dieter after two hours of steep climbing toward Drömla. We spotted his yellow jacket first, and I rushed toward him. His face was pale and he was incoherent. I gave him some hot water and a handful of vitamin tablets, and then one of the others in our party gave him a Kung Fu massage. Slowly he recovered enough to tell us his story:

“I was feeling energetic yesterday and decided to go ahead. When I finally noticed that I had gone too far – darkness was already setting in with no camp in sight – I had to decide what to do. It seemed my only option was to continue on until I reached the pass. It was so cold. I sheltered under the prayer flags, then wrapped myself in them and tried to sleep. But a little past midnight I heard a clear and authoritative voice telling me that no men were allowed I this place. She said, ‘It is my pass. Leave here or else.’

“I fled the pass but lost the trail. Finally, I was so exhausted that I had to sit down. But within an hour my circulation had stopped and I felt the cold creeping up my legs toward my heart. I tried to do push-ups to keep my blood moving, but my foot froze to the ground. As the cold was stiffening my limbs I knew that if I didn’t get help I would freeze to death. I knew I was in Lord Shiva’s kingdom, so I called to him for help.

“Suddenly I saw a violet light around me. It gave me such warmth. My circulation and breathing returned to normal and somehow I survived the night. When the morning light came I found the path and here I am. I want to go home. Is there a helicopter that can fly me back to Germany?”

By the end of his story the others had caught up with us and we all looked at one another, happy to have Dieter back among us. But of course we had no helicopter, so after offering him some more encouragement and giving him an energy bar from my pack, Dieter agreed to continue, determined to somehow stay with the group.

* * *

As we ascend we pass unusual sights. In one place there are groupings of stones under which tunnels have been dug. The Tibetans call these “sin-testing stones.” If you can get in and out between the rocks you are free from sin.

The well-known Swedish explorer Sven Hedin writes in one of his books that he once asked a Tibetan pilgrim, “What do you think? Is it possible for a skinny sinful wretch to somehow pass through the rocks while a fat good man remains stuck?” The faithful pilgrim answered, “No, that is not possible. Mount Kailash cannot be cheated.”

* * *

While we climb the mountain the air thins. It’s now so thin that we feel it doesn’t fill the lungs. Every few meters I have to stop and struggle for breath. Of course, the oxygen masks we were promised by the Himalayan trekking company are not available, but I think even if they were using them wouldn’t feel appropriate here. After all, we’re approaching Shiva Tsal, the place where the pilgrim is supposed to walk the distance between his death and his next reincarnation. No one can walk through this space with an oxygen mask.

* * *

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