A Remarkable Kung Fu Story

Ancestors Temple (祖廟 zǔmiào) in Foshan, Guangdong Province

Ancestors Temple (祖廟 zǔmiào) in Foshan, Guangdong Province

In February of this year I spent a couple weeks in the Guanzhou area of southern China. While I was there I had the good fortune of meeting the parents of one of my colleagues. They were gracious enough to show me around, invite me to meals, and so on. Since they were both retired, they had time on their hands. One day we traveled together to the nearby city of Foshan. I was doing some research on various topics related to Chinese popular culture and wanted to visit the Buddhist temple at Foshan as it is a famous place for Chinese martial arts. This is where the famous martial artist Wong Fei-hung came from . It is also the birthplace of the other famous martial artist, Yip Man.

Ancestors Temple buildings

Ancestors Temple buildings

We spent a couple hours wandering around the beautiful monastery enjoying the gardens and the various buildings.

Lots of flowers at the temple

Lots of flowers at the temple

Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum

Lotus; an important symbol in Buddhism

Lotus; an important symbol in Buddhism

There was also an outdoor martial arts show that we watched as well. It was pretty touristy but the many Chinese tourists seemed to enjoy it.

Martial artist doing a lion dance

Martial artists doing a lion dance

In one hall of the monastery there was a museum dedicated to Wong Fei-hung (huáng fēi hóng 黃飛鴻). Most of the space was dedicated to talking about all the movies that have been made about his life (more than 100). It was a pretty interesting exhibit. It is interesting how legends are born and propagated.

Statue of Wong Fei-hung

Statue of Wong Fei-hung

The Wong Fei-hung museum

The Wong Fei-hung museum

Painting of Wong Fei-hung

Painting of Wong Fei-hung

Kung Fu studio

Kung Fu studio

Kung Fu weapons

Kung Fu weapons

While we were in the exhibit talking about the importance of martial arts in Chinese culture, I remembered an event that happened many years ago, which I shared with my friends. This is the story.

Shortly after I was hired at BYU to teach Chinese I was contacted by a martial arts instructor, the late Ron Heimburger, about some translation work. He was a Wing Chun Kung-fu (詠春功夫 yǒng chūn gōngfū) master who had been trained in Hong Kong. Many of the names of the various kung fu moves were in Cantonese and he needed some help translating the terms. It sounded pretty interesting so I agreed. We met a couple times and I helped him translate some terms. He was a very nice guy and I enjoyed chatting with him. About a year later he contacted me again with another offer. A Wing Chun Kung-fu Grandmaster (the person he was trained by) was coming to Utah to conduct a kung-fu camp. He did not speak any English and they needed someone to come to the camp to interpret for him. This Grandmaster was Yip Ching (葉正 yè zhèng), son of the famous martial artist Yip Man (葉文 yè wén). I had no idea at the time who any of these guys were. Again, it sounded interesting, so I once again agreed to help out. This was in 1997.

The camp was held at a ranch in the hills outside Fairview, Utah. This is a rural farming community about 120 miles south of Salt Lake City. I spent two days at this kung-fu camp interpreting for Yip Ching. He was a nice old man and I enjoyed hanging out with him. The highlight for most of the participants, which consisted of about 100 Wing Chun martial artists from around Utah, was when we all gathered one evening in the lodge and Yip Ching told the story of his kung-fu lineage. This is pretty important to marital artists. He explained who trained him, and who trained him, etc. all the way back to the famed Shaolin Temple where Chinese martial arts originated hundreds of years ago. It was an interesting story. It was also interesting to see how enamored these kung-fu students were to actually be in his presence. One guy whispered to his friend, “he touched my arm!”

He was trained by his father, Yip Man, in Foshan, in Guangdong Province. His father was also the kung-fu master for the famous Bruce Lee. Yip Ching and Bruce Lee were trained together at the same time by his father. I once asked him about Bruce Lee, and he replied that he was a mediocre martial artist, and was more into show than anything else. Yip Ching and I got to know each other fairly well during those three days, and before I left he gave me his card and told me that if I was ever in Hong Kong, to look him up.

One year later I was passing through Hong Kong after spending a couple months in Mainland China directing a study abroad program. I gave him a call. He invited me over to his house for tea. It was a typical, small, modest flat in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon. I met his wife and we chatted for awhile. We then walked over to his kung-fu studio that was nearby and he gave me a tour of the place. It was nice seeing him again.

I told this story to my friends and they were totally blown away. They couldn’t believe that I actually had met and knew Yip Ching,  son of the famous Yip Man. They went around telling strangers in the museum that I was Yip Ching’s interpreter. I thought that was pretty funny.

Now back to my visit to Foshan. As we were leaving I noticed another hall that we had not visited, and I noticed that it said Yip Man Hall.

The Yip Man Museum

The Yip Man Museum

We went over and it was a new museum all about Yip Man. It was even more interesting than the Wong Fei-hung museum. There were lots of artifacts, photos, and stories about his life.

Photograph of Yip Man

Photograph of Yip Man

Photo of Yip Man with his two sons, Yip Ching and Yip Chun

Photo of Yip Man with his two sons, Yip Ching and Yip Chun

Photos of Yip Man in action

Photos of Yip Man in action

The wooden dummy used to practice Wing Chun kung fu

The wooden dummy used to practice Wing Chun kung fu

Then we entered one room that was dedicated to how Wing Chun kung-fu has spread around the world. It showed photos of Yip Ching holding kung-fu camps around the world and training all kinds of foreigners in Wing Chun kung-fu. Then, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was the story about the Utah camp, and there was a photo of the camp’s participants, and there I was in the photo. Granted the photo was too small and grainy to really make out the faces too well.

Photo of the Utah camp. I am second to right of Yip Ching with shadow across my face.

Photo of the Utah camp. I am second to the right of Yip Ching with shadow across my face.

If my friends were impressed before, now they could hardly contain themselves. I was very amused by all this and thought, what are the chances of this happening. It was pretty incredible. Needless to say, they were very impressed and practically treated me like a celebrity.

So that’s my kung-fu story. I have another one too, about a visit to the Shaolin Monastery in China, but I’ll save that for another post.

Here are a few more photos from the Ancestors Temple.

One of many halls

One of many halls

Ponds are common features at Buddhist temples and monasteries

Ponds are common features at Buddhist temples and monasteries

Worshippers burning incense

Worshippers burning incense

Retired women playing Mahjong

Retired women playing Mahjong

The Debating Monks of Sera Monastery

Debating monks of Sera Monastery

Debating monks of Sera Monastery

The Sera Monastery is one of the three most important monasteries in Lhasa, the Holy City of Tibetan Buddhism. The others are the Drepung and Ganden Monasteries. They are dedicated to the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and are, or at least were, university monasteries. In earlier times life in Tibet revolved around the monastery. The monasteries played the role of religious center, education center with schools and universities, hospitals, marketplaces, and so on. Even now, much of a young person’s education can still be had at a monastery. The Sera Monastery was built in 1419 on a hillside in the north part of Lhasa.

One of the unique things about Sera is it’s long tradition of debating. As part of the their training, monks participate in a series of debates. These debates are held in a courtyard of crushed stone. Senior monks grill junior monks on various doctrine. The junior monks are seated, while the monks questioning their knowledge of Buddhist scripture fire questions at them, accompanied by dramatic hand slapping. The hand slapping is a signal for the seated monk to respond.

Debating monks

Debating monks

20120513-DSC_8690The debates are held each day. Though it seems pretty entertaining to the visitor, it is serious business and an important part of the training of these monks. Tibetan Buddhist monks are never without their prayer beads. In fact, most lay people in Tibet also carry prayer beads.

The debates last one to one and a half hours. It was noisy and the air was charged with energy.

Hand slapping is part of the ritual

Hand slapping is part of the ritual

Junior monk debating

Junior monk debating

The short video below best shows how these debates are conducted. I found this religious training fascinating. I have always loved Buddhist temples and monasteries for the peace and tranquility that I feel there. This was a little different because it was so noisy and lively.

The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Last year when I was in Tibet, we spent several hours wandering around in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. It was a bright sunny day. The sun is very intense on the Tibetan Plateau, which averages about 15,000′. I ducked out of the sun into a hallway that connected a couple buildings and encountered this young monk. The floors were made of crushed stone and were polished smooth and glossy. This monk was polishing the floor. His “mop” consisted of a large bag of rocks with a rope tied around the top. Under the bag was a sheepskin. He walked slowly up and down the hallway dragging the very heavy load. Click on the photo to better see the expression on his face. His skin glistens with sweat and the exhaustion is apparent in his face. To the right, outside the frame, another older monk was supervising his work.

It is not uncommon for junior monks to do a lot of the grunt work in the monasteries. Years ago I was visiting with a Buddhist monk in a monastery in Hangzhou, in Eastern China, and he told me that when he first arrived at the monastery he spent a great deal of time sweeping courtyards and doing dishes. He slowing worked his way up to less menial jobs. In a sense they must pay their dues, or prove their worth. In another Tibetan Buddhist monastery I visited with a monk who was in charge of selling trinkets to tourists. He said it was not his first choice of jobs, but that he was willing to do anything to help out the monastery. I have never heard a monk complain about anything.

Even though the harsh sunlight coming in from the left blew out the detail on the bag and floor, I do like this photo. I’m glad I stumbled on this interesting scene. I wish I would have shot more and had taken some closer, more intimate shots of him. But, at monasteries you have to be careful not to be too invasive and respect the privacy of the monks.

It was shot with a Nikon D90 with a Sigma 17-70mm lens, at 24mm, 1/80 sec. f/4.5.

Tibet’s Libraries

Tibetan scriptures in the Sera Monastery, Lhasa

For most of Tibet’s history, monasteries have been the center of society. There were not only religious and political centers but were also schools. Anyone who was literate was educated in a monastery. It is no surprise then that the monasteries housed the libraries of Tibet. In fact, even today in Tibet and other Tibetan areas of China, those who who can read and write Tibetan were most likely educated in a monastery as written Tibetan is usually not taught in regular government schools.

These libraries not only housed printed books, but also the metal plates, and woodblocks used to print books. The Sera Monastery outside Lhasa still uses these ancient plates to print the scriptures used in monasteries today.

Library of plates in the Sera Monastery

The metal plates are framed in wood

Rows and rows of plates, floor to ceiling

A typical plate

These particular plates are used to print loose-leaf scriptures that are commonly used in monasteries. They consist of long strips of paper with text written the long ways across the page. Below is a poor quality photo of these books for sale, under a glass case.

Completed scriptures ready for sale

Typically a senior monk will recite scriptures using these long loose-leaf texts, and young monks in training will chant them after him. The photos below are from the Pachu Monastery (built in 1418) in Gyantse. They are not that great as the room was very dark. The senior monk sat cross-legged on an elevated stand with the scriptures open in front of him. A group of six young monks, between the ages of 14 and 18 years old, would chant the lines after him. They did not have scriptures in front of them; they had to rely on listening and repeating what they heard. They were a lively bunch of boys. When they took a break, I had a nice time chatting with them.

Senior monk reciting scriptures

Young monks taking a break from chanting scriptures

The printing room in the Sera Monastery also produced bound books of Tibetan scripture, history, science and other books. They were for sale right there in the printing room.

Tibetan books for sale at the Sera Monastery

In nearly all the main prayer halls of the monasteries I visited, Tibetan scriptures in bound books were placed at each monk’s station. They were usually well worn.

Well worn book of scripture on top of monk’s robes

Most monasteries have libraries of printed books wrapped in silk fabric and stacked on wooden shelves. These books were usually not behind glass or anything and anyone could reach out and touch them.

A large collection of books in the Pachu Monastery

Close up of the books wrapped in silk

The library at the small Chiu Gompa Monastery in Western Tibet

As a bibliophile I was fascinated with these collections of books. Being so close to them was a great thrill, even though, out to respect, we did not handle them. Unfortunately I do not read Tibetan, but I still found myself wanting to acquire some of these beautiful books. At a street stall near Barkor Square in Lhasa I found a woman selling the long loose-leaf scriptures. I bought a volume from her wrapped and tied in a saffron cloth. I had no way of knowing what I was buying so I asked her to pick a popular volume for me. She said it dealt with health.

I cringe to think how many libraries and books were destroyed during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. It is not like you can easily replace them. I know that many of the original plates were hidden during this time, so that books that were destroyed could be reprinted.

When I was doing some linguistic research in Yunnan Province (2010) and Tibet (2012), I learned that many Tibetans could not read or write Tibetan. In most government schools, Tibetan may be used as the medium of instruction, but they are not taught how to read and write Tibetan; they are taught how to read and write Chinese. Those who were literate in Tibetan were most likely trained in a monastery school. In the past, before the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1953, it was the practice for families that had more than one son, to send one of them to the local monastery to be educated. Many of these boys stayed and became monks. The literary tradition in Tibet was closely tied to religion and monasteries. Today it is mostly monks and nuns that can read and write Tibetan, though in some areas others are attempting to learn written Tibetan as well. However, this can be dangerous as these kinds of schools are frowned upon by the Chinese.

 

 

 

 

Chiu Gompa Monastery in Western Tibet

Yak skulls

In May of this year (2012) I traveled to the small Chiu Gompa Monastery built into the cliffs on a hill on the shores of Lake Manasarovar in Western Tibet, (on the way to Mt. Kailash).  It is located a short distance from the small town of Darchen at the base of Mt. Kailash. It is about a 900 km drive from Lhasa and usually takes about four days.

Western Tibet is remote, rugged, windy, and cold. It is much more rural than Central and Eastern Tibet. The people of this rugged area dress in long thick robes to protect themselves from the constant wind and cold. The woman all wear the distinctive fuchsia scarves around their heads.

Chiu Gompa Monastery on the shores of Lake Manasarovar

The monastery is built right into the cliffs. There is an ancient shrine in a cave here dating back to the 8th Century. It is a very interesting monastery and an important stop for many pilgrims. Most Tibetan Pilgrims will come to this area for two very important pilgrimages; 1) to circumnavigate Lake Manarsarovar and visit the several monasteries around the lake, and 2) to circumnavigate holy Mt. Kailash.

The several monastery buildings are built right into the rocky hill

The monastery library; Buddhist scriptures are stored on these shelves

Modest monks quarters

We spent about 2 hours wandering around the monastery complex. While most of the others in my group descended down to the Land Cruisers, I followed some pilgrims and did a circumnavigation of the entire monastery complex.

Pilgrims circumnavigating the Chiu Gompa Monastery

Lake Manasarovar from the hilltop Chiu Gompa Monastery

There were quite a few pilgrims at this monastery on the day we were visiting. The motorcycle has practically replaced the horse in most areas of Tibet. There was a big group of motorcycles there that pilgrims had ridden. They were packed with tents, clothing, food, and all sorts of things. Tibetans like to decorate their motorcycles and trucks with colorful decorations.

The next set of photos are of the many pilgrims and shrines at the monastery.

Typical dress of women in Western Tibet

She was taking photos with her cell phone

As I wandered around this monastery I was again struck by the religious devotion of the Tibetan people. They make great sacrifices to make these pilgrimages. It made me rethink my own devotion and commitment to my beliefs. I have always felt a sense of calm, peace, and a distance from the troubles of the world whenever I am at a Buddhist monastery. Even though I am not Buddhist, I feel the sacredness of these special places. It is a blessing for the Tibetans to have these holy places of worship.

The Pilgrims of Tibet

Typical pilgrims with prayer wheels

One of the striking things about Tibet is the religious devotion of many of the people. At every temple and monastery there are throngs of Tibetan pilgrims paying their respects, praying, prostrating, replenishing the butter lamps, and making cash donations. It seems that there are more women pilgrims than men, but you see all ages, but mostly adults.

This first series of photos were taken at the various Buddhist temples and monasteries in Lhasa, Gyantze, and Sakya. Most of the women in this part of Tibet wear a colorful apron. It is common practice for pilgrims to circumnavigate the temple complexes, spinning their prayer wheels, and spinning the many large prayer wheels that are placed around the perimeter of these complexes. Pilgrims often travel long distances to various monasteries to pay their respects and gain merit for their devotion. I saw many groups of pilgrims eating picnic lunches on the grounds of these monasteries.

This woman was actually begging outside the Sera Monastery in Lhasa

Conversation with a Monk

Butter lamps (candles) found inside all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries

Back in May when I was in Tibet we visited quite a few Buddhist monasteries. I have always loved temples and monasteries as they are such a nice contrast to the hustle and bustle of life outside, especially those in China proper. They are quiet and peaceful. I have always been drawn to monks as well. I’m interested in their stories, why they decided to become monks, and if they enjoy what they do.

While in the Pochu Monastery in Gyantze I had an interesting discussion with the monk pictured below. He allowed me to photograph him with my iPhone.

Monk in the Pochu Monastery in Gyantze

I had chatted with him briefly in the main prayer/meditation hall. I had asked him about some prayer beads that were in a glass case. We just exchanged a few words. A bit later as I was walking toward the door to leave, he approached me and softly touched my shoulder. I turned and he asked me if I had a few minutes to talk. It is a great blessing to be able to speak Chinese and talk with these people, even though Chinese is not their native language. Unfortunately my Tibetan skills are very rudimentary, and consist of a few phrases. He led me across the hall to the low padded benches where the monks sit in prayer, meditation, and chanting.

We sat on the low bench in the left of the photo. The benches are covered in wool carpets.

We sat down facing each other; then he asked me a question that totally took me by surprise. He said,

“There is a cell phone brand called Apple. Have you ever heard of it?”

I almost laughed. He said they are made here in China and they are very popular but also very expensive. I told him that I had heard of them and that they are very popular in the US as well and that Apple is an American company. I pulled out my iPhone and showed it to him. Then he pulled an iPhone from inside his burgundy robes and showed me his. I was not surprised that a monk had a cell phone as I had seen many monks talking on cell phones. I was surprised about his interest particularly in iPhones. He asked how much they cost in the US. Then he told me that they cost about 5000 yuan in China, which is about $800 US dollars. I was pretty surprised. I asked him if he liked his iPhone. He replied nonchalantly,

“It’s okay, I guess. But there isn’t much to do with it.”

Most of a monks income comes from their families and donations from others. I suspect someone probably gave him the phone.

I asked him about himself. He was 28 years old and had been at Pochu Monastery for the past 13 years. The monastery was built in 1418. He came from a small village about an hour outside Gyantze. One of his older brothers was also a monk and an older sister was a nun. His other brother was at home working the farm growing barley. He had another sister that lived in Lhasa. I asked him why he decided to become a monk. He told me that even as a young child he had always been attracted to the monasteries and temples in the area. He felt something different, something peaceful in these sacred places. His parents sensed this and encouraged him to become a monk. It is common for Tibetan families to have at least one family member become a monk or nun. It brings great merit and honor to a family. He said he enjoyed being a monk and had no intention of ever leaving. Another monk joined us and we chatted a bit longer. Their Chinese was not great, but good enough to communicate.

All Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have a prayer hall where all the monks can gather for instruction from the abbot, chant scriptures, pray, and meditate. The prayer hall at the Pochu Monastery was quite large. It consisted of rows of low padded benches where monks would sit crossed legged. At each of the these stations was their formal robes, a distinct gold colored hat shaped like a banana, their book of scripture, and a wooden bowl used at meal times. Below are a few photos from inside the prayer hall. These halls can be quite dark, but my Nikon P300 with it’s f/1.8 lens (on the wide end) did an okay job in these dim places, though they are not the greatest photos. The fastest lens I had on my Nikon D90 was a Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5. This was not quite fast enough to get clear shots inside most monasteries. As usual, click on any photo for a larger and better view.

The main prayer hall.

Inside the prayer hall

Tools fo the trade—robes, scriptures, and a wooden bowl

Well-worn Tibetan Buddhist scriptures

Prostrating pilgrim in the main prayer hall.

Buddha figures at Pochu Monastery

In another smaller hall I met a group of teenaged monks chanting their scriptures under the direction of an older monk who was leading the group. When they took a break, they were very animated and I had a fun time teasing them. They asked where I was from and when I responded that I was an American, one of the boys pointed to another sitting next to him and said he was an American too. I looked at him and said,

“Really? He looks more like a Canadian.” Pointing to another I said, “And he looks like a German, and he a Frenchman.”

They were roaring with laughter.

Teenaged monks chanting scriptures in a smaller hall.

An older monk was leading them in their chanting with these leaves of scripture. Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are often loose-leaf like this.

Entrance to the main prayer hall at Pochu Monastery

Pochu Monastery buildings

Prayer flag pole and buildings

Pilgrims circumambulating the temple grounds

Pilgrim spinning her prayer wheel

Pilgrims exiting one of the prayer halls

The ancient Gyantze fortress rising above the city.

The Doors and Windows of Tibet’s Monasteries

When I was in Tibet in May, we visited quite a few Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. I am fascinated by doors, and to a lesser extent windows. I’m not sure what draws me to these colorful doors; it probably has something to do with what lies behind them. I found myself so many times wandering around a monastery and wondering what was behind some lonely door. I wished I could wander at will, especially at the magnificent Potala Palace in Lhasa. It is almost like a small city with countless halls and rooms. Of course, the tourists are only allowed to see a very small portion of them.

The doors and windows in this post are only a portion of what I shot. They are mostly brightly colored, though some of the out of the way doors look neglected, and used. They are in no particular order, and are from the following monasteries:

Lhasa:   Jokham Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Potala Palace

Gyantze:   Pochu Monastery

Shigatze:   Tashi Lhunpo Monastery

Sakya:   Sakya Monastery

I thought about labeling where each photo was shot, but I decided it probably doesn’t matter. If you would really like to know where a door or window was shot, send me a message and I’l let you know.

Mt. Kailash Kora, Part 2

 

We woke up to a beautiful clear day. The day we arrived in Darchen it was snowing and the pass got a few centimeters. The forecast was calling for more snow, but we lucked out and had clear skies all three days of the kora.

We got an early start this morning. Our Tibetan guide, Tenzin, said it would take 3.5-4 hours to reach Drolma La Pass. From where we camped it was about 6.4 km and 762 m higher. That doesn’t seem like much of a climb, but when you are starting at 16,500′ and climbing to 18,550′ it is pretty significant. Stephen, Brad, and I left together. Bruce, Susan, and Tenzin followed behind. Susan was struggling a bit with the altitude. We felt pretty good as long as we didn’t try to go too fast.

We began to see more and more Tibetan pilgrims heading up. Many of them do the kora in one day, which brings more merit than in the traditional three days. Bu the ultimate is to do full prostrations all the way around. This usually takes 14-16 days, but can be done in as few as 8 days as our guide had done previously. Tenzin had also done it in a day. This time with us was his 68th kora. He did not think he would make it to 108 as his knee had been bothering him the last few times. Tenzin was a very devout Buddhist. He always had his prayer beads in his hand, always, in the car, at camp, hiking. He never left them and they were well worn.

Tenzin’s well-worn prayer beads

Pilgrims hiking up toward the pass

Right out of camp we climbed a long series of switchbacks. At the top of this section the trail flattened out a bit, then descended before it turned into snow as it headed up toward the pass.

Trail heading up to the pass

Heading up this snow slope, we had our last look at Kailash, then it was obscured by other mountains.

Last look at Kailash

We pass several pilgrims heading up to the pass. Some of them were doing prostrations. I was blown away by the devotion of these simple, sincere people.

Pilgrims heading toward the pass

Prostrators taking a break on the way to the pass.

I was particularly impressed with this girl. She looked to be about 13 or 14 years old and was cruising up through the snow doing full prostrations. You can see the marks in the snow from her hands. They will mark on the ground the extent of their reach, then stand up, walk to that point and prostrate again. I have a short video clip of her on my Flickr photostream.

Young girl doing prostrations

Stephen and I would take about 30 steps, then stop for a moment to catch our breath. As we got higher that became 20 steps, then rest, then 15 steps and rest. We were certainly feeling the altitude. The highest I had been before was a mixed ice and rock climbing ascent of Mt. Meeker in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. That peak is 13, 911′.

Stephen heading up toward the pass

We finally arrived at the pass covered with prayer flags and the traditional Tibetan white scarves. Brad had arrived a few minutes before us. There was one other Western guy there as well as a few Tibetan pilgrims. It took us 2.5 hours from our camp. We felt pretty good about that.

Matt on Drolma La Pass, 5723 m (Brad’s altimeter read 18,550′)

Prayer flags on Drolma La Pass

Looking back the way we had come

We had first seen this pilgrim at Drirupuk Monastery. He had a huge prayer wheel that he was constantly spinning. He looked to be in his 60’s but was probably younger than that as Tibetans typically look older than they really are.

Old pilgrim on Drolma La Pass

The views on the other side of the pass were spectacular. The mountains really were amazing. The photos do not do them justice.

Unnamed mountains on the other side of the pass

The trail heading down from the pass was steep and very icy. It was pretty treacherous in places. I love the downhills and like to hike fast, so I left Stephen and Brad and headed down.

Heading down the icy trail

Pretty soon we were out of the snow and on very steep rocky terrain descending into another valley heading south. Where the steep section met the valley floor I decided to stop and take a break and eat a snack.

One thing that I did not anticipate on this trip is that with high altitude comes less oxygen to your extremities. We spent about 7 nights about 15,000′ and I had cold feet every night. I even wrapped my feet in my puffy jacket inside my sleeping bad and I still had cold feet. This was really strange because I seldom have cold feet, even ice climbing and winter camping. My hands were fine except for the day we hiked over the pass. I was wearing a pair of midweight windstopper fleece gloves and my hands got very cold. It was quite windy up there which contributed to it. When I stopped to take a break, I was down out of the wind and it was much warmer. When I took off my gloves I was surprised to see that my pinky fingers were a bit purple and swollen. After about an hour they were fine again.

Cold hands

Stephen, Brad, and the rest of our group including our guide showed up shortly and we walked a short distance to a tent guest house. We decided to wait here for the Serpas and yaks. Tenzin wanted to make sure they knew where we would be camping. We relaxed inside for about an hour until they finally showed up. We then took off down the valley. We were under the impression that it would be a short distance to our destination, which was the monastery at Dzutrulpuk, the sight of Milarepa’s cave. Milarepa was an 11th century poet and  Buddhist yogi.

The trail followed a gentle valley along a peaceful river, grassy fields, and clear streams. Our short hiked turned into hours as we trudged down the valley.

We turned right and headed down this gentle valley

Tent teahouse along the kora route

Hiking down the valley

Mani stones

We continued to encounter pilgrims also hiking down this valley toward Darchen.

Typical dress of women in Western Tibet

Pilgrims hiking down the valley

Footprint of an early Buddhist saint

In the afternoon the winds picked up and soon they were roaring down the valley. We came to expect this. It seems that every afternoon the winds would pick up. We experienced this all over the Tibetan Plateau. With the wind it got pretty cold. We decided to wait for the yaks as we were not exactly sure where we would be camping for the night.

Bundled up against the wind and cold

As we sat waiting it got pretty cold. I put on all my warm weather clothing, which consisted of a long sleeved base layer, fleece hoodie, Patagonia Nano puff jacket (a lightweight puffy jacket), and a hardshell jacket. I found an large rock, curled up behind it to stay out of most of the wind and took a nap. We ended up waiting about two hours for the yaks.

Trying to stay warm and nap

We got camp set up, ate dinner, and went to bed. Total distance for the day was jsut under 23 km. The following day was a short 2-3 hour (about 10 km) hike to the mouth of the valley where we were met by the Landcruisers and drivers. We returned briefly to Darchen, then began the long drive back across the Tibetan Plateau.

It was a very memorable trek. I was most impressed by the devout pilgrims making the circumambulation and the spectacular scenery. It really was breathtaking (literally and figuratively). I have newfound respect for high altitude mountaineers. It is really tough breathing up there and we were only hiking on a trail. I have spent most of my life climbing and I can’t imagine difficult technical climbing at high altitudes. Pretty amazing. The wild landscape and the people of Tibet left a deep impression on me and I hope to return someday.

Mt. Kailash Kora: Western Tibet (Part 1)

North Face of Mt. Kailash

For most of the month of May (2012) I was traveling in Tibet. The highlight of the trip was a kora (circumambulation) around Mt. Kailash (6658 m, 21,843′), or the Tibetan name Gang Rinpoche (“Precious Snow Mountain”), in Western Tibet. This consisted of hiking about 50 km in three days. The high point was Drolma La Pass at 18,550′.

Just getting to Kailash was quite an adventure, consisting of driving overland from Lhasa in Toyota Landcruisers for four days covering 1436 km (892 miles). I’ll save that for another post. In this post I will describe the actual kora around Mt. Kailash.

Mt. Kailash is a sacred mountain, considered the heart of the world and the headwaters of four major Asian rivers (the Indus north, the Brahmaputra east, the Karnali, and the Sutlej west). For Tibetan Buddhist, Hindus, Jains, and the Tibetan indigenous religion Bon, it is considered the most holy of pilgrimage sites. It is said that a kora around Kailash will erase your sins, and 108 koras breaks the cycle of rebirth and assures one of nirvana at death. Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and believers of Bon all converge on this holy mountain to make the circumambulation. Young and old alike practice their devotion by making this pilgrimage. We saw pilgrims from all over Tibet making the long, arduous journey to Kailash.

First look at Mt. Kailash, the south face, on the way to Darchen.

The starting point of the kora is the small, nondescript Tibetan town of Darchen. It consists of two streets, one of which is paved for about one and half blocks, then deteriorates into a rough dirt road.

Main Street in Darchen

The upper part of town

Darchen from above

Roadside entertainment in Darchen

We arrived in Darchen in the afternoon and stayed in a very rustic Tibetan guesthouse. It consisted of a bare concrete room with four single beds, a single lightbulb, a washbasin, and a thermos of hot water. Typical Chinese pit toilets were located a short walk across the courtyard. For those of you who are familiar with Chinese squatter toilets know that they can be very smelly, to the point that it is difficult to breathe when doing your business. Well, try not breathing in a very stinky, dirty pit toilet at 15,000′. Not a simple task.

We ate in the Tibetan teahouse located at the guesthouse. The next morning, five of us set off for the Kailash kora. Traveling in Tibet requires that you have a guide with you at all times. Our guide was a thirty something Tibetan man named Tenzin. He was a very pleasant guy. He knew his Tibetan history and was very attentive to our needs. He was also a devout Buddhist and this kora for him was number 68. He had completed it in as few as 14 hours, and had done full prostrations around the mountain in 8 days (it usually takes 14-16 days). He was pretty hard core. Also traveling with us were four Nepalese young men (2 sherpas, and 2 Newaris) that arranged all our camping gear. In Darchen Tenzin hired three yak herders and 6 yaks to carry our gear. This felt a little funny to me as I have backpacked a great deal in the U.S. and am used to being totally self sufficient and carry my own gear. But this is how it is done in this part of the world.

The beginning of the kora was about 3 km from town and began in a wide river valley.

Beginning of the kora

At the start of the kora

We carried day packs, while the yaks carried all our camping gear. My day pack consisted of snacks for the day, warm clothing including a puffy jacket, fleece jacket, and a hardshell jacket, and my photography equipment.

It stared off very easy up this wide valley with little elevation gain. It was a beautiful sunny day. At 15,000’+ it is never too warm, but it was very pleasant. For most of the day I hiked with just a lightweight long sleeved base layer and a fleece hoodie.

Looking back down the valley we hike up

Dramatic rock faces below the west face of Kailash

West face of Mt. Kailash

Close up of the west face of Mt. Kailash

We followed this partially frozen river up the valley

Pilgrims stack rocks making cairns at various places along the kora

After about 8 km we saw the first of many prostrating Tibetan pilgrims. The ultimate in devotion is to do the entire 52 km kora in full prostrations. This consists of laying full length on the ground, over and over again covering the entire distance. These very devoted pilgrims will usually hike ahead estimating how far they will be able to go for the day, stash their camping gear, then walk back to where they started and begin their prostrations. They will typically wear a heavy apron to protect their body from the rough ground. They will also wear shoes or sandals on their hands to protect them as well. I was amazed at the devotion of these sincere, religious people.

Prostrating pilgrims

Pilgrim camp

Prostrating pilgrim taking a call on his cell phone

After about 12 km the trail began to turn east and climb up another river valley. Along this portion we began seeing Hindu pilgrims on the way down. According to another Tibetan guide that we met, these Indians did not want to go over the pass as it was snowy and icy and they were on horseback. It’s no problem with yaks, but quite serious for horses. Most Hindu pilgrims ride horses, instead of walking.

Indian Hindu pilgrims heading down

Tibetan woman leading a Hindu pilgrim

After hiking about 20 km, and climbing to 16,700′ we arrived at the Drirapuk Monastery. It was not a very steep climb, but was steady and with the altitude it was certainly no walk in the park. Slow, steady hiking was the key. Try to go too fast and you were very soon out of breath. The views of the north face of Mt. Kailash from the monastery were spectacular.

North face of Mt. Kailash from Drirapuk Monastery

North Face of Mt. Kailash

Drirupuk Monastery is set high on the cliffs across the valley from Kailash. It is a very small monastery with only a few resident monks. They were friendly and were willing to allow us into the monastery to look around.

Drirupuk Monastery

Pilgrim at stupas. Monastery in the background

Monk waving from the roof of the monastery

From the monastery we had to hike down to the bottom of the valley, cross a frozen river, then up the other side to a group of tent teahouses.

Tent guesthouses at 16,700′ below the north face of Mt. Kailash

We met up with the yaks and headed up the valley about a half mile to a meadow area where we set up camp. It was a beautiful, wild setting surrounded by high peaks.

Camp at 16,700′ below the north face of Mt. Kailash

Yak herder unloading a yak

The view from my tent door

I felt pretty good for most of the day, but by the time we got to camp I was pretty tired. My legs felt fine, but the altitude was really getting to me. I had a headache and was not too hungry. My friend gave me a Diamox tablet (for altitude sickness), and it really helped. By morning my headache was completely gone and I felt great, full of energy.

TO BE CONTINUED

See lots more photos of the Mt. Kailash kora at:

Tibetan pilgrim.