Friday, December 22, 2006

MOUNT KAILASH: AXIIS MUNDI AND THE VOID SYNDROME


Sticky notice! Fellow travellers: the book about my hitch-hiking expedition to Middle East has just been published under the title “Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan”. Visit my online bookshop. Order a copy and keep me on the road!
Our passage through the monasteries of Tirthapuri and Gurgam had been, to be candid, sacrilegious. The holy hot springs of the first had supplied us with a badly needed bath, while our infiltration in the second during a ceremony had left the resident lama clueless in front of all his community. It was clear that if we continued that way we would reincarnate in a bat. That’s why Mount Kailash, center of the Buddhist universe provided us a perfect chance to mend our karma. Pablo and I walked along desolate Route 219. It was a windy day, which explained why we were finding hats every kilometer or so. Hat number 3 was particularly cute, narrow winged, not without a certain Tango look. Maybe that was why Pablo adopted it immediately. So far only four vehicles had used the road that morning, all chartered jeeps that would never stop for us, but as soon as “number 3” touched Pablo’s head, a Lexus 4WD came out of nowhere and gave us a lift. Since then, number 3 was our lucky hat.




The driver was some kind of dandy, smoking blue filtered cigarettes and listening to classical music. All the Land Cruisers that had passed us, compared to our unicorn, were mere cargo beasts. To comfort we could add visual magnificence: in the horizon, towards the South, the snowed giants of the Himalayas raised perpendicularly from the ground, miniaturized by the distance but unperturbed by the continuity of the plains. Soon, Kailash showed up in the North. After having heard so much about it, its greatness didn’t reach me as obviously as expected, in the comparison with the spectacle still displayed by the other Himalayan giants in the south. The believes –and facts- around this “small” 6650m mountain dwarf all the other of its kind, with the exception maybe of K2 and Everest.

Four religions in the world –Buddhism, Hinduism, Jains and Bonpos- revere the mountain as the center of the universe. An axis mundi. Its four faces, well shaped as that of a pyramid, justify those who see on it the source of the cardinal points. Hindus spot in the top of Mount Kailash the abode of Shiva, while Bonpos refer to it as the place where their master reached enlightenment. Faithful ones of these four religions have caravanned to Kailash for at least two thousand years, but the West believed, until the 19th century, that the existence of a sacred mountain from which snows the four great rivers of the Subcontinent –the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej- melted could only be a fable.



After listening to so many references to the purity and sanctity of the place, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we realized that Darchen, the town in the base of Kailash, was a dumping site. I will not give the details of the composition of that trash-deco, but I must mention that brigades of street dogs patrolled the streets monitoring their empire over this or that trash mountain. Who would have said that the center of the universe was made of garbage?




Anyhow, Kailash was going to become a turning point in our Tibetan adventure, my own emotions confirmed by their reflection in the dialogue with Rich, Nicolai, and the other cyclists that we hadn’t met since Ali. All the cyclists that in Kashgar talked with enthusiasm about the trip to Tibet, here in Kailash, 1500 km of several nights camping at –15 C, bear in their faces the signs of who has just awaken from a nightmare. It seems as if they had just been chased by a street gang. Those that in Kashgar exposed with calm security the thousand and one methods to enter Tibet, now exchange advise of how to get out of there as fast as possible. In the middle, a syndrome that nobody had calculated had affected them (us), so many measures taken to prevent the mountain sickness only to fall victims of the “void syndrome”.



The enormous –and void- distances between town ad town, and once there, the difficulty to communicate with an already shy culture, the boredom, and the mental fatigue more than the physical one, cause most of the cyclists to climb their bikes to the back of a truck in order to travel faster through the desolate country. Hence, while outside it snows copiously, the conversation topic inside then tea house that sheltered us were the beaches of Goa and Thailand. Rich, overwhelmingly afflicted by the monotony of Tibetan cuisine swears he would sell his soul for dinning out at Katmandu’s Everest Steakhouse. Had there been comic stripe balloons over our heads, only palm trees and beaches would have floated there. I apologize ourselves remembering that in any case we were no less psychotic that the artists who painted the murals at Guge…



But for some reason all of us had made the effort to reach Kailash. The possibility to share the atmosphere of one the most remote and isolated pilgrimage sites is enough to tame a traveler’s soul. The pilgrimage in itself consists of a 56 km long kora (circle) around the mountain. After completing a lap, one can claim he has done something to improve his karma. When 13 laps are completed, one is automatically set free of the samsara, or circle of reincarnations from which man is a prisoner. Some foreign visitors imitate the local pilgrims, with the difference that while the last cover the 56 km in a day, jumping and chanting as light as butterflies, the foreigners do so in 2 or 3 nights, with less joy than fatigue and a heavy camping equipment in their backs. At that point is was clear to us that in Tibet all the actions aiming to harmonize the individual with the cosmos have a dynamic that includes the concepts of circle, periphery and intangibility. Always, a circle is described around a holy, unreachable, center. The pilgrim that performs his kora around a monastery or mountain, or that who spins his manikhor is always referring to an immaterial center. As Tao states; the utility of the wheel resides in the void in its center. Who knows, maybe the Tibetans see in Rich and Nicolai’s bikes strange prayer vending machines. I told the, to increase communication with the locals they should write “om mani padme om” around the crowns of their bikes.
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Personally, the sacred nature of the mountain didn’t seem to me reason enough to spend three days walking around it, specially after having spent 5 months traveling in, around and across the Himalayas. Pablo, who was fresher, did his kora together with four Frenchmen learned enough about the spiritual dimension of Kailash as to trace back to it all the European pagan beliefs. Next stop would be the equally sacred Lake Manasarovar, which the Hindus consider a mental creation of Shiva. The lake is situated at 4600 m, so when jumping out of the truck that took us there we found ourselves stepping over snow up to the ankles. There we took note that the winter that had been running behind us was now in fact ahead of us. Even inside the guesthouse at the Chiu Monastery, built with a certain Disney drama before a cliff, the glass of water I leave by the bed at night shows a thin ice film at the morning. The thermometer, in - 15 Celsius. With such cold, we barely bother to pay a quick visit to the shores of the lake where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were thrown, and continue our trip.



Personally, the sacred nature of the mountain didn’t seem to me reason enough to spend three days walking around it, specially after having spent 5 months traveling in, around and across the Himalayas. Pablo, who was fresher, did his kora together with four Frenchmen learned enough about the spiritual dimension of Kailash as to trace back to it all the European pagan beliefs. Next stop would be the equally sacred Lake Manasarovar, which the Hindus consider a mental creation of Shiva. The lake is situated at 4600 m, so when jumping out of the truck that took us there we found ourselves stepping over snow up to the ankles. There we took note that the winter that had been running behind us was now in fact ahead of us. Even inside the guesthouse at the Chiu Monastery, built with a certain Disney drama before a cliff, the glass of water I leave by the bed at night shows a thin ice film at the morning. The thermometer, in - 15 Celsius. With such cold, we barely bother to pay a quick visit to the shores of the lake where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were thrown, and continue our trip.


We searched around us: a sheep’s skull was immediately set aside. From across the road Pablo hurled a pair of rain boots. When we found a red kid’s sweater we realized we had the elements we needed for the artifact. We took distance to evaluate the visual impact, and we couldn’t help laughing at the sight of…. A dwarf with sheep head and rain boots hitch hiking by the roadside! Six hours after a driver brings his Jeep Cherokee to a halt and stares at the dwarf. Fish takes the hook. Five seconds later, as pirates knife in mouth jumping to the enemies sails, we “approach” him and pray in all known languages. What we couldn’t imagine was that the Cherokee was going only 22 km away, to another forgettable town called Horchu.

1 comment:

Mind2Mind said...

Great adventures, but your broken English is so demanding, it makes for a turgid read. Have you considered the help of a translator or an editor?

Get together with a dedicated English coach and your writing will expand.