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The Oriental Caravan's 

Postcard from Mount Kailash...

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July 2002

Dear All,

Tashi Delek!

The Oriental Caravan has recently returned from its successful  expedition  across the icy wastes of the Tibetan plateau to reach the fabled nexus of the universe, Mount Kailash. There, in the company of thousands of pilgrims and nomads from all over Tibet, all aboard The Oriental Caravan were able to join in the festivities that accompanied this year's great Saga Dawa festival.   

Saga Dawa Crowd.JPG (90935 bytes)

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Crowd at Saga Dawa festival

Mount Kailash as seen from Lake Mansarovar

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Saga Dawa monks.JPG (56485 bytes)

Chiu Monastery 

Senior monks on their way to preside over the Saga Dawa ceremonies. 

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Kailash in snow 1.JPG (34288 bytes)

Pilgrims en route to Kailash help their transport through the sand

Kailash in snow

Approaching the Yarlung Tsangpo.JPG (30426 bytes)

Breakfast in Tibet.JPG (41515 bytes)

The Oriental Caravan en route to Kailash

Breakfast on the Roof of the World

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High altitude camp

TOC transport (J. Hipgrave)

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Filling up en route to Kailash.JPG (50533 bytes)

The Oriental Caravan's support vehicle fords one of the many rivers along the way

Filling up in one of only two filling stations for a thousand kilometres

Located in the wild far west of Tibet,  strikingly beautiful Mt. Kailash is sacred to four great Asian religions (Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Bon) and is considered by all to be the axis Mundi, the mountain at the centre of the universe (the reality behind the myth of Mt. Meru). Flowing from its feet, in the four directions of the compass, are four of the greatest rivers in Asia - the Indus (north), the Bhramaputra (east), the Sutlej (west) and the Karnali, which flows into the Ganges (south).  For the Hindus it is the home of Shiva, the creator and destroyer; for the Tibetans this is where the great nettle-eating poet Milarepa travelled to the mountain's summit on a sunbeam (the only person ever to stand on its top!) thereby triumphing over Tibet's original animist religion, Bon.
It took five hard days of driving, much of it at over 4500m, to reach the mountain. Freezing nights under canvas and extremely poor roads (where there were roads!) meant the journey was not always easy but the rewards at the end far outweighed any discomfort. Before approaching the mountain we rested at the magical Lake Mansarovar, the lake 'formed in the mind of Brahma'. For Hindus this lake is the ultimate pilgrimage goal and to bathe in its waters, it is said, is to wash away the sins of a lifetime.  
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Lake Mansarovar (tib. Mopam Tso)

Mt Gurla Mandhata (7728m)

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Lake Pelkhu.JPG (42391 bytes)

The western shore of Lake Mansarovar

Lake Pelkhu

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Drolma La.JPG (75716 bytes)

Pilgrims dig for sacred medicines on the approach to Drolma La pass (5700m) 

As a symbol of leaving their old lives behind pilgrims discard old items of clothing, or even body parts, before crossing the Drolma Pass, thereby

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Pilgrims during the early stages of the circumambulation pass one of Kailash's distinct four faces

Two hours out from Darchen, the start point of the kora, pilgrims come across the first of many massive walls that seem to protect the mountain

Phil with friends.JPG (54328 bytes)

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The Oriental Caravan's Chief Caravaneer, having completed the 3-day circumambulation, sits sinlessly with friends who helped him along his way

Conditions underfoot were sometimes icy. During our six day stay at the mountain there were six fatalities, mainly due to the altitude

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Man with prayer wheel.JPG (28804 bytes)

These men were prostrating around the mountain on ice. The 16-day prostration around the mountain ensures escape from samsara for those who undertake it

An old man spins his prayer wheel as he makes his way around Kailash

The circumambulation, or kora, of Mt. Kailash is around 58km and takes one long day for Tibetans (or sixteen if prostrating) - and three days for everybody else! The hardest part of the trek is the ascent of the Drolma La pass (5700m), the crossing of which is said to symbolise the starting of a new life. In the Year of the Horse (this year, 2002) the spiritual benefits accrued from making the kora are multiplied by thirteen - and, mercifully, just like bathing in Lake Mansarovar the sins of a lifetime are washed away! 
The date of the Saga Dawa festival varies according to the Tibetan lunar calendar - this year it fell on May 26th. As this, according to the Eastern 12 year zodiac, was the Year of the Horse, the year in which Buddha himself was born, the festival was of particularly great importance. For this reason, and despite its remote location, it attracted pilgrims from all over Tibet. Many of them, piled into the back of rickety trucks, bounced their way for several weeks over thousands of bumpy, dusty kilometres  just to get there. The main event of the ceremony is actually over very quickly and simply involves the replacement and raising of the prayer flag-strewn  Saga Dawa flagpole. As the pole is raised those in the crowd throw thousands of paper prayers into the air, followed by handfuls of barley flour. Up to 20,000 attended this year's festival to see among other things some spectacular displays of horsemanship. 

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Lungta 'wind horse' prayers are thrown into the air at the time of the raising of the prayer flagpole

Oriental Caravaneers 

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'Dra Lha Sol' - the tradition of throwing tsampa (barley flour) as an offering

Almsgiving earns religious merit for the donor

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'Tarboche' the great Saga Dawa prayer flagpole symbolises Mt. Kailash's position at the nexus of the universe

Horse riders

Festival goers.JPG (60948 bytes) Tsampaman.JPG (52636 bytes)

Couple, possibly from the Golok region of east Tibet

Enthusiastic flour throwers

Prostration.JPG (49652 bytes)

Horses.JPG (45327 bytes)

This pilgrim with protective wooden 'clogs' on his hands prostrates around the Saga Dawa flagpole

After the ceremonies horsemen show off their skills around the Saga Dawa pole

The expedition  to Kailash was The Oriental Caravan's most challenging trip so far and, for all those involved, a quite unforgettable experience. That the journey was such a success goes in large part to the hard work and experience of those Tibetan staff who helped us along our way and heartfelt thanks goes out to them from all members of the expedition. 'Tu che chay!' ('Thanks!' in Tibetan)
That's all for now. There are plans for further expeditions to Mount Kailash in 2003 and 2004. If you're interested in coming along please click here to apply for more information. The Oriental Caravan's next journey is again to Tibet on 'the Himalayan Caravan' in September. 

Wishing you a great summer,

Happy travels!

From Phil and all aboard The Oriental Caravan  


CLICK HERE to see more photos from Mount Kailash

Girls on the Barkhor Pilgrim route.JPG (47567 bytes)

Amber_seller.JPG (43155 bytes)

Girls on the Barkor in Lhasa

Red coral salesman at 'Khampa corner' in Lhasa

Phil, Choedak and Penba.JPG (44895 bytes)

Old man.JPG (42530 bytes)

With Kailash in the background Chief Caravaneer Phil Colley poses with Penba and Choedak,  some of the veteran members of The Oriental Caravan's team in Tibet 

Elderly pilgrim 

Forthcoming trips ...

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             Revised and last updated: November 20th 2013. Links