The Last Pilgrimage – VJ Supera
Editor’s Note: For those who have been around the Feathered Pipe Ranch, it is well known that India, founder of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, has a sister named VJ. Both Superas being inveterate, adventuresome travelers, made their way to India in the late sixties individually and by different overland routes. By strange coincidence as most things have been within their lives, they met again on the banks of a river in north India.
While most are somewhat knowing of India’s story and where it has taken her since, few know of VJ’s story, or stories, besides that she is more of a nomadic gypsy than a sedentary householder. Her dreaded graying hair, shiny-gold tooth and wickedly joyful laugh bespeak of a veteran traveler of many lives with a fire in her steel blue eyes that will burn bright until the last breath.
The story that follows is a tale, written by VJ Supera, based on her experience of making the pilgrimage around the base of Mount Kailas. It speaks clearly of the enormity of the undertaking and the unforgiving but emancipating nature of the land. Enjoy.
There is a mountain in western Tibet that stands alone in all its sacred glory. The Hindus call it Mt. Kailas. The Tibetans call it Kang Rinpoche, “the precious one of ice.” This mountain represents The Almighty in concrete form, and man in his impermanence. Its perpetually snow-clad peak rises 22,028 ft into the air. People do not climb this mountain for that would show disrespect and anger the gods who dwell there.
The bewitching quality and overpowering beauty of this mountain has compelled pilgrims to walk around its 32-mile base for more than four thousand years. They say that walking around the mountain washes away the sins of an entire lifetime.
Tarchen, at 15,000 feet, is the starting point of the pilgrimage and the last outpost of civilization. Only a few nomad tents and rough stone huts are to be seen here. These primitive dwellings symbolize the harsh reality of life, when in utter desolation man, God and nature are able to become one. A few nomads live at this elevation, tending their yaks and long-haired sheep. The nomads sell dry yak meat and other provisions to the pilgrims.
It had taken the German couple two months of difficult travel to reach Tarchen. They spent the day putting their gear in order, resting and buying supplies before departing on the pilgrimage. There were other foreigners in town, too. A British man who had gotten to Tarchen in only two weeks, had left early that morning to begin his walk. He had money and had rented a Landcruiser that took him 800 barren miles to Tarchen from Lhasa. He was 32 and well known in certain circles as he had been on several famous expeditions in Nepal. He was a serious student of Buddhism.
The Germans had met an American couple at a truck stop in Tradum, a small, lawless town six to eight days south of Tarchen. Both couples were lucky and had caught a ride in the back of an old truck with some Tibetan pilgrims going to Tarchen. The brutality of the trip, and Tibet in general had affected the American woman adversely. She was in a severe state of depression, unable to leave the security of her sleeping bag and tent. She cried constantly. She felt her situation was hopeless for there was no way out of Tarchen unless she walked. The German couple and the American man spent part of the day going to different nomad tents bargaining and buying supplies. That night, outside their tent, the Germans built a small fire out of yak dung, the only fuel in this high, treeless, desert region.
The Germans boiled water in a large teapot blackened with soot. The American man joined them, since his wife was not speaking. The wind was cold and cutting and the water was slow to boil. When at last the water started to boil they brought the teapot inside the tent to fill their bowls and mix with the tsampa, a roasted barley flour.
“Tomorrow morning early we’ll begin our parikrama (holy walk),” the German man said slowly. English was not easy for him and he wished to be precise. “We have known about this mountain for 20 years, and now God has given us the chance for this auspicious pilgrimage.” His whole manner was gentle and slow. He rubbed his beardless chin pensively.
His wife nodded in agreement. Her mousy brown hair hung around her shoulders. She had aged considerably since they had been in Tibet; the harsh climate had dried and wrinkled her skin. The had become very thin. She poured more hot water in her bowl and clasped both hands around it to capture any warmth that might escape.
“I wish we were walking with you now but that’s impossible,” the American man said. “She’s not in a good space, not good enough to begin pilgrimage.”
“Do you suppose we should wait another day?” the German woman asked. She was very concerned. “Maybe she’ll be better soon.”
“No, don’t bother,” the American said, his voice full of disappointment. “Once before in India she went into depression. She doesn’t recover easily. I shouldn’t have brought her to Tibet. She knows nothing about pilgrimage. She only feels the harshness here and not the magnetic force of divine energy. I wish I had come alone. God, what a mistake. It would be really bad luck to get so close, a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and yet not be able to go around the mountain.”
The German man set a large piece of dried yak meat on a dirty cloth with his knife and they all helped themselves, cutting off small pieces. They ate in silence, each one absorbed in his own thoughts.
The German couple slept poorly. Although they wore every piece of clothing they owned, they slept cold. In the morning they had their breakfast of hot tea and tsampa. It was a clear blue, cloudless sky. The snowy peak of Kailas shone brilliantly in the sunlight. The Germans broke camp. Then with eyes closed in reverence and palms folded, facing the mountain, they offered their prayers.
Putting on their heavy backpacks, the Germans began to circle the mountain in a clockwise direction. They had to go slowly for the high altitude tired them quickly. Often they stopped to rest and reflect on the beauty of the mountain The wife’s backpack was large and ill-fitting. Every step was painful. She knew something beyond her own power compelled her to move.
That night they made camp without fire. They could only carry enough yak dung for two more fires, or three at most. They had to conserve. They mixed their tsampa in cold water and ate the paste-like substance. They didn’t speak. Their bodies were wracked with pain. Each lived his own silent, separate hell. Sheer determination and necessity forced the woman to get up, go outside and pee. In the full moonlight she saw the glory that was Kailas. Overwhelmed by its power and beauty she began to cry, tears streaming down her face. The harsh wind made the tears feel like ice, and she brushed them away with her dirty sleeve. Tomorrow they had to cross Dolma Pass, at 18,600 ft. She did not know if she could make it She could turn around and go back to Tarchen, but she would never do that. This was the first time she had put her life on the line and she knew she had no choice. She would have liked to stay out and look at the mountain in the moonlight but it was much too cold.
Her husband came out to relieve himself and then stood by her, putting his arms around her and kissing her gently on the forehead.
“Are you afraid?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” he answered. “But then I remember, have no hope and have no fear. If you think like that then fear can’t bother you. Come, let’s go inside. We must try to rest and relax our minds and bodies. Tomorrow will be difficult.”
In the morning they built a fire and mixed their tsampa and tea. They had a little sugar and ate that too.
They packed and walked slowly up the snowy path. There wasn’t a trail and they walked over and between large boulders. Brown, grassy spots showed here and there; it was the beginning of June and of spring. The clear, blue sky was filled with large cumulus clouds that played hide-and-seek with the holiest of mountains.
Today was difficult and they had to rest often. They helped each other take off their backpacks. They sat on rocks, drank water and ate dried yak meat.
“See that blue by that boulder?” the man asked.
“Yes, it’s the same color as that British man’s jacket. Perhaps he lost it on the trail.”
“Wait here, I’ll go see,” he told his wife.
He walked back down the hill and found the British man lying face down in the icy snow. He was semiconscious and breathing hard. The German signaled for his wife to come. She sat down and held the sick man’s head in her lap. She put his hands, raw from cuts and the cold, in her armpit under her clothes to warm them. She put her wool cap on the man’s head. While the woman held the man her husband looked for a suitable place to make a camp. He found a piece of almost-flat ground that offered some protection from the constant wind. The altitude was very tiring for the German. It seemed to take forever to set up the camp and each breath cut into his lungs like a razor.
The job completed, they put her ground cloth down and covered the sick man with a sleeping bag. She tried to give him water but the water in the canteen was too cold and the man winced in pain.
The German woman put some water in her mouth to warm it and then gently spit it into his mouth. She had seen nomad mothers feed their babies this way. The water revived him, his mind cleared and he was able to whisper. The German moved closer. Slowly and painfully the Brit recalled his story.
He had set up his tent, he told them, and, not feeling well, had fallen asleep. In the morning he had tried to go down to the river to fill his canteen, thinking dehydration had set in. It took him forever to get to the river. He kept blacking out and falling, sometimes crawling. He passed in and out of consciousness. How long had he lain there he did not know. Several groups of Tibetan pilgrims had walked by. They had stopped and looked but wouldn’t help him. He had begged them for help but they just walked away.
“I don’t understand,” he whispered. “They are Buddhists and I’m a Buddhist. Where’s the compassion?” His eyes filled with tears and his body shook with emotion. His world was falling apart, his spiritual beliefs torn asunder. He lost all control and cried like a child. The German woman held him in her arms and rocked him gently.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered.
They promised they would not. He lay quiet now, quiet in his exhaustion. The husband tried to explain.
“The people around here are not true Buddhists, but rather of the old Bon religions. They believe in spirits, charms and sorcery. I’m sure they were afraid that if you died your spirit would jump on them. They are simple people They didn’t mean to hurt you.”
The explanation was of little solace. The German asked the man where his camp was and then he and his wife left and went to get his things.
It took time to locate the camp and pack the man’s belongings, all of which were of high quality. It was almost dark when the Germans returned. They made him comfortable in his own sleeping bag.
The man’s stove was an “MSU” high-altitude type and it took the husband some time to figure out how to operate it. The Brit had packaged food and they fixed him a cup of hot chocolate fortified with powdered milk. He drank only a little.
He dozed in and out of a nightmarish sleep filled with, gods, demons and the savage hell-realms of Buddhist belief.
In the morning the seriousness of his condition became apparent. He was extremely weak and his lips were stuck together with dried blood. They heated water and the woman cleaned the blood away with the corner of a dirty towel. The man continued to drift in and out of consciousness. When he did speak it was only to talk of being abandoned by Tibetans on the trail. She got him to eat a little tsampa and milk, feeding him mouth-to-mouth. He dozed off again.
“What’s wrong with him?” she whispered to her husband.
“His lungs must have burst from the altitude,” he answered.
“But he’s a mountain climber,” she said. “He should be okay.”
“It’s not that simple,” the husband said. “It can affect anyone, even if you have climbed before. There is no cure. Only going to a lower altitude will help.”
“Do you think he’ll die?” she asked.
“I think so. I think it’s just a matter of time.”
The woman looked at her patient. He was in a peaceful sleep. She held his hand. It isn’t possible, she thought. I won’t let him die. I’ll feed him food and water all day. He’ll recover and the three of us will walk back to Tarchen together.
She looked at him and held his hand. Death was not possible. He came into consciousness.
“You must try to eat,” she told him gently. “You want to live, don’t you?”
He nodded yes. The look of hope in his eyes frightened her.
He lived through that night though his suffering was great. The German man, exhausted from another sleepless night, went down to the river to fill the canteens. He looked long and hard at Kailas. “God, show mercy,” he prayed. “Take his life or let him live.”
He got back to the tent just as a Tibetan nun was walking by. She was a Bon Po and rather than walking clockwise, as one is expected to, she was walking in the opposite direction toward Tarchen. He offered her hot water and talked to her using the little Tibetan he knew. He communicated with her in sign language and told her the situation in detail and asked her to send help. She said she would and departed.
A strange energy awakened the woman before dawn. The British man was also awake and wished to speak. She quickly and gently cleaned the blood from his mouth and held him in her arms.
“All things are equal,” he whispered. He closed his eyes slowly and life departed from his body. The tent filled with a golden glow. The German man sat up in a jolt, sensing the energy.
“He came to terms,” his wife informed him. “His last words were, ‘all things are equal.’ He desperately wanted to understand, and he finally did.” She rocked him back and forth, repeating the words like a mantra. She found her husband’s eyes in the darkness and he held her hand. She felt sorrow and relief at the same time. Then she felt angry and cheated.
“Please don’t feel sad, my darling,” her husband said. “He died on pilgrimage. There is no better way to die. Come now, we have work to do.”
They gently pulled his body outside. The air was extremely cold. Kailas looked transparent in the twilight.
“Are we sure he’s dead?” she asked.
“Quite sure. Did you see the golden light?”
“That was his soul departing from his body. It has already merged. It has gone to its source. Now we must do something for his body. We should give him a Tibetan sky burial.”
“Not a real one?” she asked.
“No, we won’t cut him up and feed him to the birds of prey. We must find a good spot to put him and we will have to leave him naked. Go now, and look inside his pack. Bring me any of his religions personal effects.”
She returned moments later with his prayer beads, a small wooden statue of Tara, Goddess of Compassion, and a white Tibetan ceremonial scarf.
They chose a site close by for it was too difficult to carry him any farther. The husband removed the man’s clothes. The wife would not look at his nakedness, only at his face that looked so serene.
Only moments ago I cleaned the blood off those lips, she thought.
The husband put him in a sitting position, propped him against a large boulder and crossed his legs. The man’s hands were arranged in his lap, opened palm on top of palm, his thumbs touching. He put the ceremonial scarf around the dead man’s neck, and the prayer beads and statue of Tara in his palm. They left him facing Kailas.
No sooner had they returned from the funeral than a Tibetan man came slowly up the hill, leading a yak.
“Tashi delek,” he greeted them in the Tibetan manner. He was short, stocky and appeared to be in his 30s. His features were fine and his coloring light. He was not of nomad blood. He said he had been sent by the Chinese government. He had come from Lhasa to open a small guest house.
“How many here, tow mens or three mens?” he asked in pidgin English.
“Two men, one man finished.” The German explained the death by turning his eyes so only the whites showed. The Tibetan understood.
The German heated water and they squatted around the camp stove.
“Very difficult for Dorje, all night walking,” the Tibetan said. “Very hard getting yak from Dok-Pa (nomads). Dok-Pa saying if broken lung man dies on yak then Dorje must buy yak. Very difficult. Where is broken lung man?”
The German pointed to a group of large boulders not far away.
“Good, don’t bring back to Tarchen. Government man will give too much trouble. Dead Ingie (foreigner) too much trouble for Dorje.
They ate tsampa and drank hot tea and broke camp. Dorje packed the yak securely. They began the slow and painful journey up the pass.
The German woman looked back to where they left the dead man. She thought she saw something. Perhaps it was just the scarf fluttering in the wind.
There was only the eternal sky, the sun and the Mountain.
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