Buddhism, Spirit, Tibet

Prayer flags and hypoxia

April 22, 2011

Pilgrims prostrate themselves before the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

Life on the Tibetan plateau at 4,000 metres (13,000ft) above sea level and higher, is lived for two things: survival.

And the divine.

With the flight of Tibetans from their homeland, Tibetan Buddhism has spread across the world and I’ve come into contact with it regularly on my travels. And despite recent bloody history, the Buddhist culture in Tibet is still strong, although sadly only time will tell if this will last.

Visiting Tibet was something I’d wanted to do for a very long time, and after spending a month travelling in Mongolia, I returned to Beijing and got ready for my trip to the Land of Snows.

Lhasa and the Jokhang

At 3,600m (11,800ft), Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world.

It’s the former seat of the Dalai Lama, and home to the Jokhang Temple, the spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhists traditionally undertake a kora, or circumambulation, of holy sites, and pilgrims come from all over Tibet to walk clockwise around the Jokhang – the more times you can do it (up to 108 times), the more good karma you receive.

An elderly pilgrim performs the kora in Barkhor Square, Lhasa

The kora of the Jokhang, which circles through Barkhor Square, heaves with pilgrims in the early morning.

From all over Tibet, they come wearing traditional dress, as well as western garb. Women have long plaits and carry babies on their backs, and sometimes the men do, too. They chant mantras, spin their handheld prayer wheels and many prostrate themselves in order to increase their suffering.

Others just chat or talk on their mobile phones.

A woman prostrates herself before the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

A pilgrim in Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Because we were there at the beginning of an early winter, many pilgrims had left the high plateau for the season and come to Lhasa on a pilgrimage, so it was incredibly busy – and incredibly atmospheric.

Women and children in Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Pilgrims from the countryside in Lhasa

We joined the pilgrims on their kora, and walking shoulder to shoulder (or sometimes being shoulder barged out of the way by eager, elderly pilgrims) was very moving, and something I will never forget.

Jokhang Temple Detail

High Passes and Prayer Flags

Once we left Lhasa, we climbed even further onto the roof of the world.

Until we reached the border with Nepal almost three weeks later, we remained above 4,000m.

Highways in Tibet need to make their way up and over mountains, and we crossed several high passes each day we travelled in the Landcruisers. These passes at up to 5,000m, offered views of the plateau that literally took your breath away.

At that altitude, breathing is difficult and any sudden movement sets your head spinning and your lungs heaving.

Yamdrok Tso, at 4,400m, is one of three sacred lakes in Tibet. The surrounding mountains were covered in snow when we passed through.

Prayer flags in Tibet

High passes are also holy places, and they’re usually adorned with prayer flags. We stopped every time we crossed a high pass (often for a toilet break!).

Prayer flags adorn a high pass in Tibet

Trinkets decorate our driver's landcruiser, Tibet

On the Friendship highway, the main artery through Tibet and onwards to Nepal, some of the passes even had souvenir stalls.

Monasteries & Prayer Wheels

Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse
Outside of Lhasa, there are many monasteries throughout Tibet and we visited several.

At Sakya Gompa we were lucky enough to arrive just as the monks were about to begin their afternoon chants, which included the blowing of a Tibetan horn, one of the most haunting noises you’ll ever hear.

the Gyantse Kumbum, Tibet

Kumbum detail, Gyantse, Tibet

Performing the kora around monastery ruins in Shigatse

Prayer wheels are a common feature of Tibetan gompas, and they’re also found in other holy places.

Similar to prayer flags, they’re for spiritual blessings, and are usually inscribed with a mantra. You should always turn them clockwise – and once you start turning one, you have to finish the rest! Often that will take you on a kora around the outside of a monastery.

Prayer wheel in Gyantse

Mt Kailash & Lake Manasarovar

Well off the Friendship Highway, in the far western reaches of Tibet’s Ngari province is Mt Kailash.

At 6,700m, Mt Kailash has never been climbed.

Kailash means Precious Snow Mountain and it’s one of the holiest places in all of Tibet. And it’s not just revered by Buddhists – followers of the Jain, Bon and Hindu faiths also regularly visit the mountain.

It’s said that completing a kora of Mt Kailash, a 53km circuit well above 4,000m, is enough to clear the bad karma of a lifetime.

Chuku Gompa, at the beginning of the kora around Mt Kailash

Mt Kailash has four faces, and four holy rivers begin their flow from her foothills (including the Ganges).

One of the four divine faces of Mt Kailash, the precious jewel of snows

Similarly, Lake Manasarovar, the highest body of fresh water in the world at 4,500m is a place of pilgrimage. Bathing in or drinking the water can also help to cleanse bad karma.

Lake Manasarovar, another of Tibet's holy lakes

Gompa on a hilltop above Lake Manasarovar, another of Tibet's holy lakes

We didn’t bathe in Lake Manasarovar, but we did perform the kora around Mt Kailash.

Battling temperatures that were below freezing and without any substantial food because most Tibetans had packed up and gone elsewhere for the winter, we scaled the Drolma-la, a high pass at 5,700m (almost 19,000ft). It was the most difficult and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

The unforgiving landscape of the kora around Mt Kailash

Our group took three days to perform the kora – a dedicated Tibetan can do it in one day, and will usually cross the Drolma-la at least three times.

All smiles at the end of a three day walk around Mt Kailash in Tibet

Hypoxia or the Divine?

Whether it was hypoxia from the altitude or the experience of coming into such close contact with the divine on the Kailash kora, Tibet and its people had a very strong effect on me.

Now, back down at sea level, I find myself regularly longing to be back there again in the thin air of the Himalaya, listening to the creaking sound of prayer wheels turning and witnessing the resilience of the mountain people.

Go to Tibet and see many places, as much as you can; then tell the world.
– The Dalai Lama

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  • Reply Bluegreen Kirk April 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    This is something spectacular to experience. One of the photos reminds me of the setting from Dark Knight when they are high in the mountains. Looks very cold and would make for a great learning experience.

    • Reply Megan April 23, 2011 at 1:30 am

      It's definitely that kind of setting – was that supposed to be in Bhutan or somewhere similar (like Tibet :D)? I vaguely recall that part of the movie.

  • Reply Naomi April 23, 2011 at 12:14 am

    It's so interesting how a lot of religions use circumabulations in their rituals – Sufism, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism (and a long number of others). People are fascinating 🙂
    Also, I LOVE your blog. This is so, so inspiring!

    • Reply Megan April 23, 2011 at 1:33 am

      Thanks Naomi! Yep, I pretty much try to walk around any holy place in a clockwise direction these days. I wanted to do it in Burma, too, but sometimes our guides just led us through the temples any old way – it felt very strange not to be walking clockwise!

      Thanks for the kind words 🙂 I'm thinking of a stint in Korea at some point in the very near future, so I might need to chew your ear off about it at some stage!

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