John Vincent Bellezza
Sitting and Running
The expedition season is set to start. Soon I shall turn my attention to logistical organization, negotiations, and the challenges and joys of living on the road. I am still very much spurred on by the prospect of discovery, seeing places for the first time and meeting new people. I shall try to make the most of my travels and the great amounts of energy (human and mechanical) that go into them. If I can recover something useful and share it with others, then I think my peregrinations will continue to be successful.
This month, while I am still stationary, I shall once again focus on my old journals, relating an adventure or two from yesteryear. I have been a faithful journal writer for many years. Except for my first trip to the Subcontinent in 1983, I have an almost continuous record of my doings and observations in High Asia. My early journals read more like travelogues interspersed with interesting facts about the Himalayan locations and the peoples I have lived among. The later journals have become more records of my research and contain fewer narratives of my daily activities. Perhaps someday, I will collect the most interesting tales from these documents and put a book together for the general reader. While not everyone will want to delve into the minutiae of culture and history, a personal story of adventure and discovery might find a willing audience.
August 22, 1986
After four weeks of hard travel from Lhasa, Mount Kailas appears on the horizon
This is my 28th day from Lhasa and my 29th month from America. We have made many stops today on account of the overheating engine. Right now we are stopped for lunch. We shouldn’t be far from the holy mountain. The sun has passed behind the clouds and there has been an attendant drop in temperature. I am expectant in reference to my encounter with Kailas (Tibetan: Kang Rinpoche). It should not be more than a few hours away. That is, if the truck endures for that much longer.
I’ve made it! My dream of the past 3 1/2 years has been realized. Here I am at the foot of the holy mountain Kailas. At its snail pace, it took the truck awhile but like the turtle it was steady. There is an Indian group here and the four of us have made arrangements to do the parikarama (circumambulation) with them, starting tomorrow. They have paid about 12,000 rupees for this privilege, and not only that, they had to be selected from 13,000 applicants. These Indians are obviously well educated and several of them have been to America. I attended their arati (worship session) today. It was a moving experience. Indians, as I have said and written many times, are usually a very hospitable people. With me now at my camp site is a Tibetan pilgrim from Lhasa who traveled with us from Moncer. This friendly young man is also to begin his circuit tomorrow.
From here (Darchen), I can see the Rakas Tal Lake to the south and also the Gurla Mandhata massif (25,000+ feet). The weather is clearing and the late afternoon sun is shinning unobstructed. I am very happy to be here it is needless to say. Kailash-Manasrovar is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists as the center of the earth. It is the supreme abode on this planet of the celestials. It represents cosmic birth and progression to enlightenment and consummation. It is the destination of millions, if not in real life, than in dreams. It is a hard won attainment even in this day jets and motor vehicles. The sun shall soon behind the immense plain that opens to the south but before it does I want to pause and contemplate this wide and wonderful site. Another odyssey has been commenced, or should I say, another odyssey has been consummated. Salvation is won through diligence and perseverance but a trip to Kailas can only enhance one’s efforts. At sunset, I walked over to a river that drains the flanks of the holy mountain. I said a prayer for peace and dropped a one yuan Potala piece into the water. Before hitting the sack, I had a tukpa (noodle stew) in the mess tent.
I arose from my bed this morning to a clear vista of the Himalayan Range, 50 miles to the south. The section of the range that greeted me is in the vicinity of the tri-juncture of Nepal, India and Tibet. The Indians and the other three Westerners employed yaks to carry their luggage and even their persons. I am the only one in the group to haul my gear around. The trail paralleled a valley that runs along the west side of Kailas and then the north side. The trail is adorned with many cairns and mani walls. There is also a tall pole with prayer flags attached to it. It is called Tarboche. Hindu shrines are conspicuously absent but this does not impede the Indians in any way. I was the first to arrive at today’s camp. The others are only now coming. I think we covered 12 mile today. The circuit is 32 miles long in total. Hindus and most Buddhists walk the circuit clockwise, while the shamanistic Bonpo circumambulate in a counterclockwise direction.
I was rewarded with my first glimpse of the pyramidal Kailas peak this morning from the west. The peak is about 22,000 feet high and very imposing in dimension and configuration. Its icecap glistens brilliantly in the sunshine. It is a fair day weather-wise, I am glad to report. The sun is radiant and the atmosphere warm and placid. A walk around Kailas is traditionally likened to a rebirth. One completes the walk feeling revitalized and newly directed. This is the premier pilgrimage for Indians, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Tibetans. The amount of pilgrims visiting the holy mountain is sharply on the rise. The ongoing construction at Darchen illustrates this. Until 1984-1986, very few Westerners had been around Kailas. This is quickly changing. Perhaps in a few years Kailas will be a very popular trek for Westerners? I certainly hope not. Its sanctity should not be disturbed by recreationalists. In the late afternoon, Hugh Swift and I hiked up to the base of the Kailas peak, which was about 700 feet above our camp. The resplendent wish-fulfilling jewel towered above our vantage point. Hugh took some photographs from the saddle we stood on, which is connected to outliers of the Kailas massif. Mount Kailas is a supreme example of nature’s exquisite artistry. Its ambience is one of great peace and beauty. The Tibetans who are in charge of the Indian’s accommodation were good enough to let me cook dinner on their fire. It was a full day of activity and adventure.
Most of us began walking at dawn. I had not stridden out of sight of the camp when I stopped to have tea and tsampa (parched barley meal) with a couple of Tibetan men. From then on, I stayed close to these fellows up until the Dolma Pass. The symbolic rebirth sequence today included where old clothes and a lock of hair are discarded. Next in line were the three interconnected rocks that pilgrims crawl under. I was unable to squeeze under the middle rock. Finally the pass itself is reached. It is heralded by masts of prayer flags, cairns and inscribed mantras. One walks around the multicolored fluttering (if there’s a breeze) prayer flags to facilitate the rebirth. As I have already written, there are a multitude of cairns and inscriptions delineating the route. These are also important in the rebirth sequence. They are sort of mileage markers that help the pilgrim wend his way around the mountain. I failed to mention yesterday that there is a footprint of the Buddha in stone on the trail. Pilgrims make offerings there of khatas (scarves), butter and money.
On the trail this morning Kailas was plainly visible. It is a megalith of refined proportions and carefully architected magnificence. Merely the site of this holy mountain is sufficient to purge the mind of myopia and narrow-mindedness. I don’t think this is hyperbole because so much effort goes into reaching Kailas that one’s expectations surge into a crescendo of optimism and faith. I am the only one here at Dolma la (elevation, 18,000+ feet). The Tibetans have already begun the descent. Here comes the noted trekker Hugh Swift. The Indians are still some time from the pass. The Tibetans picked a variety of herb that they indicated they use in fire. I don’t know what it is but I also picked my share. I have never harvested herbs from this elevation before. It was very clear this morning but now some clouds have collected around the peaks. On the four sides of Kang Rinpoche are hermitages where a small number of lamas reside. I hope to visit at least a couple of these gonpas. A significant portion of Tibetan pilgrims complete the circuit (32 miles) in one day. This is an excellent example of these highlanders’ great endurance. The ascent to the pass was relatively easy. The descent was much steeper. By the time I left the Dolma Pass there were Westerners, Indians, Nepalese, and Tibetans present.