The center of this trip is a Kora (holy circuit) around Mt. Khawakarpo, a snow-capped peak associated with the Indian saint-magician Padmasambhava. Revered throughout the Tibetan realm as the mind emanation of the Buddha, the mountain stands sandwiched between the Mekong and Salween rivers in the southern tip of the Tibetan plateau. The foothills are among the world’s hotspots of biodiversity.
This trip provides insight into the life and culture of southern Kham, a swathe of surprisingly green and fertile highland, Asia's greatest rivers, and villages tucked deep in the river valleys. Pilgrimages to Mt. Khawakarpo are considered especially beneficial when in the Tibetan year of the sheep (2003).
Meeting in Kunming (Yunnan) we fly to Gyalthang (3,344 m), southern-most Tibetan town and historical caravan port. We spend a few days exploring the town and its surroundings while allowing our bodies to acclimatise to the altitude. Sights include the chalet-style adobe houses of Dokar Dzong (old town), 17th-century Sumtsenling Monastery by the 5th Dalai Lama, and the revered Gyalwa Ringa temple in the countryside.
Land crusing northward toward Mt. Khawakarpo, we first descend steeply to the upper reaches of the Drichu (Yangtze). We stop to explore the town of Kungzera with its fertile fields and then drive up to the Dhondupling Monastery. Continuing through several high passes on a narrow, meandering mountain road flanked by immense forests of the Baimang Nature Reserve we reach the town of Jol in the lap of the Khawakarpo range.
Our first view of the magnificent peaks arising out of lush, semi-tropical and old growth forests, wild orchids and blooming azaleas are spectacular. In the next few days we tread the old pilgrim's trail in one of the richest tracts of biodiversity in the world. We meet herders grazing cattle on hillsides dotted with holy sites and prayer flags as the mighty Mekong roars below us.
Gyagar shar gyi mapcha Oh, peacock from the far east
Ri nup woe kyi seljung You set the western mountains ablaze
Gangri tse la shukpe Residing on the peak of the snow mountain
Neychen khawakarpo The great protector – Khawakarpo.
Ney la neydag yagjung A great caretaker resides within
Neydag Ugyen Pema The radiant Ugyen Pema
Ney la neyshuk yagjung Magical powers emanates from the mountain
Neyshuk Dampa Sangey The all empowering Dampa Sangey.
Chu yi chuwo yagjung Pure water flows bountifully out of you
Chuwo yungchab rangjung A natural offering to Buddha
Shukpa chakya rangjung Pyramid-shaped junipers bow down to you
Chakya kya yang migoe Like my palms clasping in worship.
A pilgrim’s song of Mt. Khawakarpo
Heading back to Gyalthang, we visit a range of Khampa villages to see craftsmen at work: The woodcarvers in Kungzera who produce the exquisite alter tables that adorn prayer rooms in many Tibetan homes; and the potters of Nyishar who produce teapots and many other household items for daily use.
After a day or two in Gyalthang to recover from the trek, we leave the highlands descending to Jang Sadam (Lijiang), the center of the ancient Naxi kingdom. We explore the charming old town, the labyrinthine waterways, and the old-world market. A unique performance of traditional Naxi music awaits us in the evening.
We fly to Kunming the next morning.
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