I repeat the mantra in slow unison with each shuffling step as I painfully inch my way up to the pass.
“Time. For. A. Rest,” I announce breathlessly.
I collapse onto the snow, my lungs screaming for oxygen, while Kunchok sits patiently beside me, lighting a cigarette.
Two elderly Tibetans join us, visibly exhausted from the high altitude trek.
“Tashi delek,” we greet each other, wheezing from exhaustion, “Hello.”
We’re 200m from the highest pass, halfway through our 52km, three-day pilgrimage around Tibet’s holy mountain, Mt Kailash; Kang Rimpoche as the Tibetans call it, Precious Jewel in the Snow.
We had camped at 4800m the previous day and were now inching towards the 5630m-high Drolma-la pass. I set off at 8am on Day 2 for the 18km trek and would not arrive at our next camp until 5.30pm.
Kunchok has been holding my hand for the past few hours, the ice and snow slippery underfoot. He also gallantly carries my day pack, so all I have to do is carry myself.
“Okay. I’m ready,” I said, breathing deeply. “Let’s go.”
I shuffle a few metres before doubling over, fatigue weighing down on me. Kunchok stands by in silent encouragement, his lungs and blood cells immune against the severe lack of oxygen in the nether regions of the Himalayas.
“I … just … need … a minute…”
My guide remains non-judgmental about by my painfully slow progress and lights another cigarette.
A youngish Tibetan man strides past us, purposefully heading towards the high pass.
“He’s a professional,” Kunchok tells me. “Sick or older Tibetans who can’t do the pilgrimage pay him to walk around Kailash for them.”
A karma win-win.
The record for completing the 52km kora (circuit) is around 12 hours – I was doing it in the painstakingly slow tourist pace of three days.
The more devout pilgrims make the kora doing full prostrations all the way, even in knee-deep snow, taking them about three weeks to complete the circuit.
I continue to stop-start, stop-start, silently repeating the mantra Om mani padme hum in time with my shuffling footsteps.
Kunchok walks diligently by my side until we reach the Drolma-la pass, prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, cheering our arrival.
Tibetans believe that one kora around Kailash offers merit points towards your spiritual development, with bonus points if you make this journey during the Saga Dawa festival, which celebrates Buddha’s enlightenment.
Every year on the full moon day of the fourth Tibetan month (May or June) thousands of pilgrims from Tibet, India, Nepal and around the world gather to drink and eat as they watch a flagpole wrapped with new prayer flags being replaced by a dozen men.
Once the flagpole is in place, people set off for the pilgrimage around Mt Kailash.
We caught our first glimpse of Kailash two days before we arrived at its base. We heard from a returning group of Westerners that the snow was knee deep and the visibility on the track was almost zero due to cloud cover.
So I appealed to the gods, sending out a silent prayer asking for clear blue skies – and that's exactly what we had during our entire time walking around the mountain! Unfortunately, I forgot to add one tiny detail: warm weather.
I huddled into my sleeping bag every night wearing two pairs of thermals, flannel pyjamas, track pants, fleece top, extra thick socks, a beanie as well as having two blankets over the sleeping bag.
And it was still freezing cold.
Getting up in the middle of the night when nature called was a laborious, time-consuming effort:
- unzip myself out of the sleeping bag
- fumble for the torch
- put on a jacket
- fumble getting shoes on
- find roll of toilet paper
- unzip frosted tent flap
- stumbling out into the open air
- steer clear of grazing yaks
- peel off three layers of clothing etc
- bundle myself up again
- crawl back into tent
- zip up frosted tent flap
- kick shoes off
- crawl into sleeping bag
- re-arrange blankets
- curl up into a ball to warm myself up
High altitude pit stops
“I’ll need a toilet stop soon.”
“Yes, okay,” Kunchok relayed the message to our driver.
We continued driving for another hour across the open, empty plains of the Tibetan plateau.
“Really, I do need to make a stop.”
Another half hour later, the Landcruiser rolled to a stop near some large boulders, the first we’d found since my initial request.
“You can go here,” said Kunchok.
Our driver, mindful of female modesty, would drive until he found a suitable outcrop of rocks or a ditch, which also provided (albeit minor) protection against the raging winds whipping across the plateau.
There is nothing remotely lady-like about trying to maintain your balance behind a boulder, toilet paper fluttering in the wind while tucked under your chin, fumbling to re-arrange three layers of clothing to look somewhat respectful for the short trip back to the Landcruiser while wheezing and gasping due to oxygen deprivation.
Oh for the comforts of sea level living!