Discovering Pilgrim's Mind, a Journey to Tibet: Lhasa, Darchen

Flags on every roof
Malas in every window
Kingdom in the sky

Jokhang Temple kora, Lhasa

There is no way to express the amazement of driving through the center of centers. All my life I have seen Tibetan text in little snippets. Ever its presence meant I was sitting in the mandala. Now it is on every building, on LED scrolling marquees, WCs. This, quite literally, was the land of my childhood's fables.

Jokhang roof, Lhasa

Every time we enter Lhasa our bus is stopped, and travel permits checked. About every 80 km we have to stop for ten minutes to have our papers checked. A police officer is constantly with us.

Samye Monastery

Our visit to Samye Monastery was cut short, but the green Gompa is spectacular. A great deal of renovation is underway. As the monastery founded by Padmasimbava, this is chronologically the first in Tibet. I was introduced to hard Dhri cheese: rock hard dairy product (with a few Yak hairs for flavor). Not the best cheese, but the taste and texture association with Samye is cemented in my memory.

Tsurphu Monastery

The clouds of valley are so close to the valley floor that they form a second tier of mountains wafting around the giants that enclose the valley. Most mountains are adorned with prayer flags fluttering their scripture into the wind. In this way the whole volume of the valley - from river to peaks - is sanctuary. It is very much a nested mandala starting with the protector mountains, down to the house or Gompa compound/court, into the lhakang, in still further to the shrine, and last to the heart of the rupa.

The Roman architecture term for a temple was "fane". To be "profane" was to be before or outside the fane. In Lhasa there is a sense that the mountains form the outer wall of the sacred space.

At Tsurphu we practiced together in the main shrine room behind the resident monks. They made us rich yak butter tea with plenty of salt. The statues behind the practice area are enormous, Karmapa after Karmapa! Many in our group are in tears.

Postcard of Kailash thangka

The closer we get to the mountain, the more ephemeral it gets. Each step closer we slide sideways. Weather reports are telling us the temperature will likely not get above freezing. Historical reports all agree the average daily high should be in the 50s. The forecast says with wind chill on our days should be 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The long road to Darchen

So far off the map
Drive through Thangka land
Rarified air

Altitude is a teacher to contend with here. At over 15k above sea level my first hour taught me much of my mortality. I quickly started moderating my breathing, kept my head down, and wondered if the bus had a defibrillator on board. Some of us start to sing.
Anyone who has heard of "Rebreathing" or yoga will know the effects of overly deep breathes. Your breath requires your whole body, and when you deepen it consistently it will give rise to all manner of emotional release.

This land is nearly indescribable. I can write that it is like driving through a Tibetan painting (Thangka) but I cannot convey what it is like to be surrounded by that landscape in every direction. The mountains are rich in iron AND copper, washing the vista in hues of green and red. Shining outcrops of salt glisten like jeweled mountains. The shadows of the clouds moving across the land morphing from one auspicious shape to another.

Then the really tall mountains hove into view on the horizon. Cloud and glacier capped - they are enormous. Simply the single biggest things I have ever laid eyes upon. The magic of this land is alternately bringing me to tears and terrifying me with its raw power.

And then the first siting of Kailash... Yeah... um... That is huge. Surrounded by four other peaks in remarkable symmetry, one of our band who has walked the Kailash kora before tells how this is the model of the Mandala, that Samye Monastery is patterned on this range.

First site of Kailash

Darchen, our basecamp for two nights is a small foothill town where the altitude exceeds that of Everest's base camp. Word from pilgrims coming down from Kailash is that the weather is good.
Dragon cloud over Darchen

Angela's sinuses have gone into overdrive, and she's developed a mixture of symptoms that are very concerning. People are sharing medicine with her. One gentleman has stayed behind in Lhasa due to heart issues. He sent his kit with me, ensuring I'll have enough clothes. Our group is acting more like a group with every labored breath.

Darchen wandering goats

The sun will burn unprotected exposed skin in 7 minutes. Solar tea kettles are everywhere. It is hard to imagine this village covered in snow 9 months out of the year.

Rainbow around my tea cup

Tomorrow we set foot on Kailash. We are not cavalier, boisterous, or confident. But we are together, and as much as we are afraid, we are thinking of our families, friends and greater sangha.


Thank you for reading this far and being witness.

Jason Winn and Angela Hartsell

Friday , July 1 02016