Journey to the Centre of the Universe
Ian D. Robinson
In 2002, after the death of his spiritual advisor, New Zealand Long Rider Ian Robinson vowed to deliver his ashes to Mount Kailas, Tibet's most sacred mountain. Fighting cold, exhaustion and runaway horses, he camped in high mountains with wolves, dicing with the elements and altitude sickness.
I looked up, there was the mountain’s stunning north face, white with snow. To see it at last, after 3500 kilometres and nearly six months alone on horseback, was staggering and I burst into tears. I threw my arms around my horse’s neck and hugged him, the poor animal probably thought I’d gone mad.
Mount Kailas, Gang Rinpoche in Tibetan, ‘The Precious Snow’- to Tibetan Buddhists, Hindu, Jains and Asian Shaman alike- is the home of the gods, the centre of the universe, the most sacred place in the cosmos. To early European explorers and geographers it held the secrets of the source of four of Asia’s greatest rivers; the Indus, Karnali, Brahmaputra and Sutlej all spring from the mountain’s slopes. The region is one of the world’s most remote; few Tibetans make the arduous journey, even these days it’s considered distant in the extreme, and to a Westerner must seem like the end of the earth.
In May 2002 the bitterly cold Tibetan spring was beginning and I started my journey from a tiny village in Amdo, eastern Tibet, near the frontier with China. To reach Kailas I would have to cross some of the toughest terrain on the planet: mountain ranges, deserts, frozen wastes, from waterless places to some of Asia’s largest lakes and rivers. I would have to deal with the altitude- rarefied air at heights of over 5000 metres- severe cold, snowstorms, blizzards, lack of food, extreme isolation and loneliness, and the Chinese authorities. Most of Tibet is closed to foreign travellers- visiting all but a few tourist spots is illegal without special permission.
Early one morning I loaded my two horses. I would ride one and use the other as a pack animal. I put on a heavy chuba, the long cloak of the Tibetan nomad lined with lambskin. The horses carried basic camping gear in canvas saddlebags.
Ahead of me lay an unknown trail thousands of kilometres across the Tibetan plateau. My expectations were few. I doubted myself now that I was facing the conditions and environment. I couldn’t think further than a day ahead and the idea of reaching Kailas seemed to be some kind of obscure fantasy.
I rode out of the hills and into a grassland valley following an animal trail that soon met up with a small river. By evening I had gone about 25 kilometres which I decided was far enough for the first day and I set up my camp in a hiker’s tent below some hills. I unloaded the horses and set them out to graze, tethering them on long ropes with short iron stakes and placing hobbles on their ankles.
When darkness fell it began to snow and by morning the tent was half buried. When I unzipped the door a bank of snow fell inside and I had to dig my way out. It was a baptism of ice and a tough way to start the trip. To my relief the horses were still there, grazing under blankets of frozen snow. I pulled on my boots and crawled outside. Low cloud hung in the valley; it was still and blindingly white, silent except for the gasp of my breath in the cold. I felt awful, nauseous and lethargic as I started to pack my gear. Altitude sickness. Every action took enormous effort- walking across to get the horses exhausted me, I struggled with the unfamiliar riding gear and uncooperative animals. By the time I had packed up and loaded the horses I was completely drained.
The first difficult week passed and I crossed the Yellow River and climbed into the Maqen Gangri mountains. The range contains a 6282 metre peak the locals call Ami Maqen. One afternoon I dropped into a valley and found a house near the river where a pack of 10 dogs greeted me. Tibetan mastiffs are vicious beasts and I was always happy to be mounted when I approached a house. I had to wait for the family to chase the dogs off before daring to climb out of the saddle.
‘Demo,’ I said, using a local greeting. There was no response from the old man. ‘Demo,’ I tried again. I told him I was going to Gang Rinpoche, hoping to break the ice.
‘Gang Rinpoche dro.’ I repeated.
And we stood there staring at each other, I was hoping to be invited in and given tea. ‘Have you got any cha?’ I held an invisible bowl up to my mouth.
‘Aa!’ He understood and I was ushered inside.
I sat on the edge of a sleeping platform next to a tin stove and the old man’s wife glared at me with a look bordering on hostility. She handed me a bowl of tea made with churned butter and salt. The usually rancid butter was an acquired taste but it was good to have something hot for the first time in nearly two days.
‘Tsampa sa?’ the old man asked, do you want to eat tsampa? Tsampa, or roasted barley flour is Tibet’s staple diet and the world’s simplest meal. The flour is mixed with tea, butter and sometimes dried cheese, kneaded into dough and eaten. At times I would go for days and not eat anything else.
I ate as the family stared at me. They’d never been face-to-face with a Westerner and I tried to communicate with my hopeless Tibetan. I took out some photos from home, pictures of my family that I could describe to them: ‘This is my mother, my father, brothers, sister.’ They crowded round the tiny album trying to get a better look. They would never really comprehend where my home was but, despite the differences between my world and theirs, they could relate to the photos. I had a family somewhere, a mother far away who was probably missing me.
‘Cha tung.’ The old woman held out a kettle to fill my bowl, and for the first time she smiled.
The weeks passed by with the miles I rode and the mountains, grasslands and rivers I crossed became too many to count. I traded my horses as I went as they became tired and worn out. I struggled back into the mountains on narrow trails often finding isolated monasteries where I would spend the night in the company of young monks.
A week later I crossed some low hills and the Tanggula Shan mountains came into view on the opposite side of another vast sweeping valley; a great saw-tooth range stretching as far as I could see to the east and west. I had been riding for eight weeks using five different horses and I was exhausted. I was beginning to think this land had no such thing as summer. Occasionally a relatively mild day would raise my hopes for a turn in the weather but the next day would plunge back into winter again.
The ground of the valley was a nightmare- rough, wet and a mixture of boggy holes and lumpy sod. We’d come to frozen streams the horses would refuse to cross; sometimes I had to lead them over one at a time, terrified we’d crash through the ice. The region was almost uninhabited: when I found people I’d stop and beg for tea and something to eat. I’d take my tea bowl from the folds of my chuba and give the people a double thumbs up saying ‘Kuchi, kuchi’ which means ‘please’. But often they shook their heads and waved me off. ‘Cha mindu!’ they’d say. We haven’t got any tea.
In the evening I’d look for somewhere to camp. If there was no one around it was another night on the frozen ground, struggling to put the tent up in the gale. Often the poor horses would find little grass and they would grunt at me, waiting for a nose bag of grain I didn’t have. The combined cold and altitude had a debilitating effect, as if I’d been struck down by a severe illness.
Several days later I was arrested by the Chinese authorities. Somehow my whereabouts had been reported, by whom I’ll never know, and the officers, one Chinese and two Tibetan, had come from the nearest centre of Naqu. The region I was in was restricted and prohibited to foreigners without a special permit. I tried to play the innocent tourist and argued to be allowed to continue but next morning my horses were confiscated and I was taken 200 kilometres to Naqu by jeep where I was fined and ordered to leave the Tibetan region.
At night I escaped- I smuggled myself out of town in a car to a small monastery. I managed to buy two more horses and was just about to set off when the police found me again; this time I fled on horseback and was chased for hours by the police in their jeep. Luckily it had just snowed, I headed to high ground too steep for the vehicle and vanished into the hills.
I rode for three more weeks trying to avoid even the smallest settlements in an effort to elude the police. But it was hopeless. On the shores of a lake, Gyaring Tso, after three months riding 2000kms, I was arrested again, my horses taken from me and my passport confiscated. By now my visa had expired and I was taken to Lhasa, heartbroken to be in the holy city with my dream of reaching Kailas by horse shattered. I was again fined and expelled from the People’s Republic.
In the months that followed my return to New Zealand I tried to put Tibet behind me. I tried to accept it was over and to put the feeling of failure to rest, to leave the trip as it was, unfinished. But I wasn’t able to.
In June 2004 I was back in Lhasa and a few days after my arrival in the highest city in the world I was back on the plateau on horseback and setting out from the village of Yangbajian just west of Lhasa.
This time I travelled with only one horse. I limited my gear to the essentials, not much more than what I stood up in, a lighter sleeping bag and no tent. I planned to travel fast and light and I hoped that having only one horse would make it easier to escape if I ran into trouble. And the chances that I would be caught again and expelled were high: from the moment I left Lhasa I would be travelling illegally.
Over the next weeks I crossed a variety of landscapes: mountains, desert and grasslands. I spent nights in caves, or in the company of nomads in their black yak-hair tents, but more often I slept in the open in the middle of enormous valleys with no protection from the wind, rain and snow. At night wolves watched my tiny camps from the mountainsides above.
Finally, two months after setting out from Yangbajian, Kailas was within reach. I trudged through the Gang Dise mountain range in a blizzard and, as I rode on, the mountains turned to hills and the hills gave way to open ground. At the edge of the plain in the far distance I could see the settlement of Barga, further to the southeast I could just make out the sacred waters of the lake Manasarovar and to the west the dark lake Raksas Tal. To the south rose the massive peak Gurla Mandhata, at 7683 metres one of the highest inside Tibet.
It had been two years, four months and twenty-four days since I’d ridden away from the village in Amdo. An hour later we topped a rise and the settlement of Darchen at the base of the mountain and the start of the trail came into view. ‘Oh my god, I’m here!’
I’d made it. I’d arrived at the end of the earth, at the centre of the universe.
To avoid a run-in with Darchen’s police I waited until dusk and walked in the darkness until after midnight before unrolling my sleeping bag on the ground hidden in the hills. Morning brought rain which soon became snow and I packed up in the half light, loaded my tired horse and set off on foot finally on the actual pilgrim trail, the most worn trail in Tibet. I had dreamed of this day for years but under the wet skies and falling snow, trudging through the mud I was exhausted and dejected. My horse dragged behind me and, although I must have been walking at the foot of the mountain, she pulled a veil of cloud over her head and sulked.
I crossed a low ridge and entered a grassy valley. At the head of the small plain stood a great pole, made from a single tree several metres high, known as the Tarboche, the ‘Great Prayer Flagpole’. This marks the start of the trail, a trail that has been walked for thousands of years by the faithful and the curious. Gang Rinpoche has always drawn people to her, seekers and runners, all trying to find something or leave something behind. Many of Tibet’s spiritual masters spent time here living in solitude in caves in the mountains. Every peak around the mountain, every river and tiny lake, every boulder seems to be associated with a deity or protector being, at places depressions in the rocks are said to be the footprints of the Buddha himself.
By now more people were on the trail, groups of Tibetans were catching up and passing me and also groups of foreign trekkers, the first Westerners I had seen in two months. One group walked past as I rested on a rock; no one spoke to me, they looked and looked away as they went by, not sure what to make of me. I must have been a bizarre sight, a Westerner in Tibetan dress with his horse, a great knife on his belt, bedraggled in the rain. They were all dressed in colourful trekking clothes, with equally well dressed Tibetan guides. They carried nothing apart from their cameras as all their gear was being carried on yaks herded by Tibetan handlers. Each trekker seemed to be assigned three or four yaks loaded with tents, camp chairs, cooking stoves and cylinders of gas, even barrels of purified water.
That night I slept in a canvas tent set up by the trail as a pilgrim’s rest. When I stepped outside in the morning to check on my horse I was thrilled to see that the skies had cleared during the night- I knew that within a few hours I would see Kailas. After tea we set off and walked for an hour, the trail was easy over hard-packed dirt and soon Dirapuk Monastery came into view on the other side of the valley. I crossed a small stream, the trail dropped around some boulders and then rounded the corner of a small hill.
Suddenly I looked up; there was Gang Rinpoche’s stunning north face, a sheer cliff 1500 metres high covered in yesterday’s snow. This was surely the greatest moment of my life, all at once I felt that every step I had taken, every kilometre I’d ridden, every freezing night, every hungry day, all the storms I’d been through, every trial, hardship and hassle, had all been worth it.
The following day we set off towards the climax of the three-day mountain circuit, Dolma-la pass. The pass is only six kilometres from Dirapuk but it is 760 metres higher at a total altitude of over 5600 metres. After a couple of hours the trail climbed steeply and became rockier. We picked our way towards the pass making a few metres ground each time before having to stop and rest for several minutes. Slowly the pass grew nearer. I topped a rise and was greeted by the roar of thousands upon thousands of prayer flags in the wind. In the middle of the pass I sat on a rock in the sun and for a few minutes felt elated at what I had finally achieved, but then was struck by a kind of delayed fear and an utterly exhausted relief that the journey was done and I could go home.
The next day we passed Zultrulpuk Gompa before leaving the pilgrim trail and cutting across the hills to avoid the checkpoint again. On my last days with my horse we made the 85 kilometre circuit of the sacred lake Manasarovar, sometimes camping in the ruins of monasteries destroyed by the Chinese. The lake lies at 4500 metres and is one of the highest bodies of fresh water in the world. Throughout history Tibetan saints have spent time on its shores blessing themselves in the holy waters and seeing visions on the peaceful surface. The lake also holds special significance for Hindus and Brahmins from Nepal, who trek through the Himalayas to bathe in the freezing waters, believing that immersion in the lake ensures rebirth as a god in their next life.
I ended my ride at a small monastery on the lake called Langbona with a tearful farewell to my dear horse who had carried me so well. I left him in the care of the grateful and kind monks and spent the next five days hitching back to Lhasa. I arrived late in the afternoon and swaggered through the streets in my boots and riding gear, my saddlebags on my shoulder, to a lodge for my first hot shower and clean clothes in over two months.
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