A Mountain Of Living Mythology

Kailash

The Precious Snow Mountain Of Tibet

In the far western reaches of the Tibetan plateau stands an extraordinary mountain: shaped like a pyramid with four sides that face the four cardinal directions, from which emerge four rivers that flow in each direction, it’s no wonder that the mountain has become the inspiring setting for mythology and legends for over a thousand years.

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According to Hindu mythology, the god Shiva resides at the peak of Mount Kailasa with his wife, Parvati. The mountain represents a pillar of the earth at the centre of a lotus, around which other mountain ranges form the petals.

In Jain legends, Mount Kailash represents Mount Meru, the mythical mountain at the centre of the universe around which all of the planets and the sun revolve.

Both Buddhist and Bon (the ancient shamanistic religion of Tibet before the introduction of Buddhism) mythology associates Mount Kailash with their own deities, but it was also the stage for a great legendary battle between the religions: a Buddhist saint and a Bon magician competed for days for the privilege of having their religion be the primary religion of Tibet.

Finally, their last challenge was to reach the summit of the mountain as quickly as possible. The Bon magician sat on a magic drum and began flying toward the summit, meanwhile the Buddhist saint remained relaxed on the ground, worrying his followers. At last, as the Bon magician was about to reach the summit of Mount Kailash and win for his religion, the sun came up and the Buddhist saint rode on a ray of sunlight to reach the peak first and win the battle for Tibet. Since this time, followers of the Bon religion have walked anti-clockwise when visiting the sacred mountain, against the common clockwise route that is used by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains.  

In modern times, pilgrims from Tibet and India are joined by curious or pious tourists from around the world in paying a visit to the sacred mountain.

Mount Kailash is closer to the border with India than to the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa, but that’s not to say it’s close to anywhere, in fact. To reach the legendary mountain requires days of long drives across barren desert-like terrain and high passes, whichever direction you are coming from. But they say that the harder the journey, the greater the reward, right?

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The small town at the southern foot of Mount Kailash, Darchen, is the base from which pilgrims and trekkers begin their circumambulation of the mountain. Climbing the mountain is forbidden due to its holy status, but the one- to three-day trek around it allows you to appreciate the unique geography of it and connect with the pilgrims along the way.

Tibetan Buddhists will often set off from Darchen in the early hours of the morning, around 2 or 3am, and aim to walk the entire 52km kora (Tibetan: circumambulation path) in a single day, returning to Darchen exhausted just before midnight. The rough terrain, patches of snow even in summer, and high altitude – the highest point is the Drolma La pass at 5,600 metres above sea level – mean this is no easy feat.

Some particularly devout Tibetan pilgrims will even prostrate for the entire route. Prostration is a form of offering of the body, in which the devotee lowers their body to the ground and lies out flat on their front, marks the point where their fingers reach to with a small object, then stands and walks to their small object to repeat the process all over again – essentially, they travel the entire trail one body length at a time.

Between these two extremes is the more common method for experiencing the sacred mountain’s kora: a three day trek, staying in monastery guesthouses along the way and picnicking with nomads. It’s a once in a lifetime journey that allows you to truly experience the Himalayan spirituality and way of life, unlike anywhere else.

It may be the centre of the universe, home to Shiva and Parvati, or site of a legendary battle to rule Tibet’s religious hearts, but the Precious Snow Mountain is also undeniably a place you have to see once, and perhaps you too will start to believe it.

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Interested in visiting Mount Kailash? See our itinerary for a tour here, or contact us to start discussing a tailor-made trip to suit you.  

Dancing Deities Of The Dragon Kingdom

Paro Tsechu Festival

The Biggest Event In Bhutan

Bhutan is a country steeped in traditions and ancient practices, which are all put on show for the annual Paro Tsechu, the biggest festival in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

Hundreds of people gather in the cool mountain air at Paro Dzong, the ancient fortress-cum-monastery that is the centre of religious life in the small town. The historic building, officially called Rinchen Pung Dzong and built in 1644, is reputedly one of the country’s best examples of Bhutanese architecture, featuring robust walls and intricate designs.

Men, women and children come from all over the countryside dressed in their finest clothes for this event – men in their gho and women in their kira. Many Bhutanese people wear traditional clothing every day for work and social activities, but the festival is a great chance to show off new or special items.

The trumpets begin to drone and cymbals clash as the performances begin – monks dressed in elaborate brocade costumes take centre stage and begin their stylized dances. They pace, each step deliberate and carefully placed, raise their arms and flick their wrists, and leap into the air like athletes. Their dances are symbolic retellings of Tibetan Buddhist mythology or particular teachings, but to the uninitiated they make a colourful and mysterious spectacle.

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Throughout the day several different dances are performed, each one with unique costumes and masks to indicate which demons or spirits the monks are portraying. The monks spend months preparing themselves for the performance, and don’t disappoint their audience who watch enraptured, certain that just by being in the crowd they are gaining spiritual merit.

A highlight of the festival for the pilgrims and spectators is the arrival of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), embodied by a costumed monk. Guru Rinpoche was a saint, or a second Buddha according to some believers, who is credited with firmly securing Buddhism’s place on the roof of the world in Tibet. The unique Tibetan form of Buddhism was also spread to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche when he flew to the country on the back of a tiger and landed at the now famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery just outside Paro.

Finally, at dawn on the final day of the festival an enormous thangka (woven image depicting religious figures) is unveiled, completely covering the side of a building. The pious line up to make offerings or receive a blessing from the thangka, many believing that even just to see it ensures liberation from suffering. After a few short hours the thangka is once again carefully covered and stored inside the monastery building for another year until the next Paro Tsechu.

Paro town is like the cover of a chocolate box – its streets are full of colourfully painted wooden shop fronts, reminiscent of an Austrian or Swiss mountain village. Never colonised, Bhutan remained totally isolated until the mid-1970’s, when its border slowly creaked open and tourists began trickling in. Strict regulations for tourism has ensured that the country retains its charm and quaint atmosphere even through the introduction of sealed roads, cars, telephones, and electricity in the 1960’s.

The present-day Government encourages tourism, but requires all visitors to join a tour company. It levies a tourist tax of US$65 (NZ$90) a day to help provide free education and healthcare for the entire population. Tourist numbers remain modest, with less than 23,000 visiting in the first half of 2016, which pales in comparison to Thailand’s whopping 16.5 million tourists for the same period.

Even at Paro Tsechu, an event that draws crowds from far and near for this once a year event, tourists are in the minority and can experience being totally immersed in the Bhutanese culture. Get a front row seat to watch the colourful spectacle, surrounded by smiling local families, and make memories to last a lifetime with a Beyond The Clouds Dragon Kingdom tour in March/ April 2018.

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Discovering The Real Tibet

A couple of years ago if someone had told me that I’d find more authentic Tibetan experiences outside of “Tibet” than inside it, I’d have laughed at them. But after travelling in the Kham region – an area that is in China’s modern day Sichuan and Yunnan provinces – my eyes have been opened to the untouched world of Tibetan culture and traditions that have been preserved in this remote corner of the Tibetan plateau.

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Historically, Tibet was made up of three main provinces: U-Tsang (central Tibet), Amdo (northern Tibet), and Kham (eastern Tibet). These days, what we see marked as “Tibet” on our maps is in fact only central Tibet and is now called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Provincial borders were drawn through Amdo and Kham to assimilate these regions into the Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces of modern China.

In Kham these lines on the map haven’t disturbed the strong Tibetan traditions that have been deeply rooted here for centuries. In fact, due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of many of the Tibetan villages in Kham, they’ve been left relatively untouched by the modern developments going on in Lhasa and central Tibet.

Khampas, as the people are known, are famous for being horsemen and proud warriors. You can see them strutting through small towns such as Tagong or Litang, patriotically adorned in their traditional clothes and jewellery. In the grasslands their horses graze alongside herds of yaks, beneath snow-capped mountains and perfect blue skies.

Nomads’ black yak-hair tents dot the mountains. The warmth of their tents is only surpassed by their kindness, as you are welcomed into their home for a brew of tea or a taste of some local food – fresh yoghurt, dried meat jerky, and their staple tsampa. The food takes a little getting used to, as it’s simple and often lacking in flavour except for some chilli paste, but it’s hearty and what you need in the high altitude weather.

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Appearing in brilliant contrast against the blue sky and green rolling hills is the golden glittering roof of a monastery. The grandeur of monasteries in Kham can be overwhelming at first as they are richly decorated with paintings and statues dripping in colour and gold. Is this really a place of renunciation? But then you see the modesty of the local pilgrims offering their prayers and money to the temple as they have done for centuries, and the monks humbly accepting it on behalf of all sentient beings for the purpose of bringing enlightenment to all. This is a place of real compassion.

Tibetan Buddhism has been able to flourish in Kham and Amdo in a way that it couldn’t possibly do in central Tibet. Because Kham and Amdo now belong to Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu province the regulations are far fewer – including a notable lack of permits required for foreigners to travel there. Visitors to central Tibet must acquire Tibet Travel Permits through a registered tour agency, and must be part of a guided tour for the duration of their time in the TAR, whereas in eastern Tibet these rules are relaxed and visitors can travel far more freely and easily.

The freedom of eastern Tibet allowed me to meet many more monks, nuns, nomads and ordinary Tibetan people than I ever did in central Tibet, and form good relationships with many of them. I was welcomed into their homes and hosted at their monasteries, taken with their families on pilgrimage and shown around their mountains and valleys that they call home.

Now, when people ask me about going to Tibet I tell them to head east – go to Kham and Amdo if you want to experience the real Tibetan culture, see the towering peaks of snow mountains, and explore the untouched land as it has been kept for hundreds of years. Even Tibetans have a saying: “You go to Lhasa for the monasteries, you go to Kham for the scenery”.

Copyright Rebecca Carruthers