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Fancy A Kora?

While at Samye we awoke at sunrise and headed for the top of Hepo Rei hill. It is from this point that Padmasambhava, the bringer of Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have overcome the demons of the land and converted them into protectors of the Dharma. As the light slowly illuminated our surroundings, we could see all manner of terrain in every direction. Nestled between the prayer flags, the full compound of Samye monastery came into view; directly behind us snow topped mountains began to stir and peek out from under the cover of soft cloud. The planes below formed a sandy desert, punctuated by mani stones and sporadic stupas. It was evident from this view point that the entire hill was at the centre of a kora; not only were pilgrims circumambulating the entire monastery, others were moving in a clockwise direction through the desert below us. Never underestimate a Tibetan’s ability to find a Kora. The general rule of thumb is, if in doubt or at a loss of what to do, start walking in a clockwise circle; you’ll probably find you encounter some form of holy object, and others will most likely follow you. This action is played out across the whole of Tibet, from a brief circuit of the smallest stupa, to the full grandeur of a trip around Mount Kailash in the west.

We made our way back for breakfast and the onward journey to Gyantse. Our first encounter of the day was with a herd of goats on the road. Our driver accidentally ran over the leg of a straggler which didn’t hold up too well under the weight of a fully loaded 4WD. The young herder was understandably unimpressed as he carried his injured patient away up the hill. Our driver meanwhile, had some heavy Karma to address. With no further harm done, we stopped at a sprawling sea of sand dunes. I’d never encountered anything of this sort before and my inclination was to wade over the virgin dunes as far as I could. Then Hazell reminded me I had no suncream on. Erik our travel companion kindly wrote out the date in the sand and took a photo of the pair of us, the only mishap being the beautifully crafted script suggested we had been there yesterday. The landscape of Tibet is a lesson in stark contrasts; on show in front of us were perfectly formed sand dunes which peaked like the crest of a wave, while mirroring this movement on the horizon were mountains soaring to freezing altitudes. It is a wonder that any living being can prosper in such harsh yet beautiful surroundings; perhaps in times of hardship, it is only the sheer beauty of their environment and their faith in Dharma that nourishes the Tibetans.

From the oppressive heat of the sand dunes, we rose high into the mountains again where we stopped at the infamous Yamdrok lake, 4441 metres above sea level. For Tibetans it is one of the four holy lakes and a kora is performed which takes roughly seven days. It is impossible to do this beautiful lake justice here, and I can only urge you to one day visit it yourselves! We watched with others as clouds formed and then passed across the valley, apparently embarrassed to be blocking the view. As they did so, sections of bright blue sky would break through, and the change in light was reflected in the water below. Silvers, blues and greens constantly shifted and shimmered on the surface; a mermaid’s tail flicking through the depths of the hillside. In this climate the water cycle comes to life in front of onlookers. The burning sun heats the lake below, the water evaporates up towards the cold air and then condenses into cloud before your eyes. The clouds then sweep across the valley and shed their load, which runs down the mountainside on its long journey towards the sea. If only our school science trips had been to Tibet…..

Further we rose, up to the Kharola Glacier which stands at 5560 metres above sea level. This was my first encounter at close quarters with a glacier, and I was spellbound. Glaciers became my new favourite thing. Water gushed downwards from jagged ice blocks; the brow of the Himalayas furrowed and perspiring, working hard to nourish the thirsty surroundings. Staring upwards with my jaw on the floor, it was with difficulty that I declined an offer from a Nomad to have my picture taken with a goat. Time was soon up, and we sped onwards, with the next few days consisting of a whirlwind tour of a number of important towns and monasteries.

Gyantse was the first; a settlement which in 1904 became the sight of a major battle involving the British. It was known as the ‘Younghusband Expedition’, named after the Major who was deployed on a diplomatic mission to curtail the rumoured advances of the Russians into Tibet. The Tibetans were reluctant to meet with the British, so a stronger line was taken and a battle commenced leading to the loss of many lives. The main monastery at this battle site is Pelkor Chode, containing the towering Kumbum, (which means 100,000 images), and days could be spent here alone. Unfortunately, we fell a few thousand short of seeing the whole entourage of chapels, and soon had to move onwards.

After a nights sleep in Shigatse, we visited the famous Tashilhunpo Monastery. This complex is of particular interest as it is traditionally the seat of the Panchen Lama, a powerful figure only outranked by the Dalai Lama. Intrigue and scandal surround both the monastery and it’s highest lama, and the ‘Great 10th’ had a history of difficult interaction with the Chinese before being jailed in 1964. In 1978 he was released, finally returning to Tashilhunpo in 1989, but his homecoming was short lived and he died soon after. Some claim he returned home to die, while others believe he was poisoned.

His reincarnate successor was chosen by a team including the present Dalai Lama, but the young boy was abducted by the Chinese and the monks at Tashilhunpo were ordered to choose a new ‘government approved’ candidate. A ‘new’ 11th Panchen Lama was then named by the Chinese Government; he is the son of Communist Party members and lives in Beijing, while his picture adorns the walls of most of Tibet’s monasteries. The majority of locals refuse to recognise this boy as a reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, and the search for the original, ‘Real 11th Panchen Lama’ continues. The complexity of the theological and political struggle is fascinating, but I fear that when the current Dalai Lama passes, the battle to name his successor will be hugely damaging to Tibet.

After chewing all this over with our tour guide, we raced onwards to our final monastery visit, Sakye. The trend in Tibet is to have an in-car DVD player with all manner of Karaoake hits for the passengers to enjoy. The Tibetan folk was a fitting auditory accompaniment, but as ‘Rod Stuart at The Royal Albert Hall’ began its second loop, the initial comedy value had most definitely worn off. I discovered ‘Maggie May’ can instantaneously remove the gloss from even the most magical of days in front of the Himalayas. The aural poison was soon dispelled as we jumped out at the monastery nestled in the valley at Sakye. The grey walls of the enormous compound are reminiscent of a castle fortress, and form the principle monastery of the ‘Red Hat’, Sakye sect of Tibetan Buddhism. We entered the main assembly hall with the monks in full flow; large drums and cymbals were struck as prayers were recited, while two large horns bellowed out a deep, atmospheric drone. We completed a Kora of the grounds and then returned to our car, where our driver was flirting with some female passers-by. He’d obviously put Rod Stewart back on. Alas, unable to reproduce the sexual allure of the gravel-throated rag doll blaring from the stereo, the driver sped off down the Friendship Highway towards Everest.

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