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Sho’La – the Sacred Pass Crossed

Jeff Fuchs, kora ambassador

Another team, another time, another season, the same pass. Sho’La and its stone heights await once more, as it always has and always will. One of mountains’ great truths is that the mountains don’t move for any force. They simply wait because they can. It is the mortal world that must move to them.

We’ve been eating hot dust storms for days and when the dust has eased it has been a blizzard of ice hitting us in the teeth. Elements in the ‘heights’ take on an added intensity that pummel and enhance in equal measure.

Our team ascends another pass on our way to Sho'La as a blizzard picks up force. Another team further behind stops to rest and put more layers of clothing on. It is not uncommon to find corpses that simply remain where they fall along such pilgrimage routes.

Our team of six has been trekking almost ten days upon one of the ancient world’s  remaining pilgrimage routes, tracing what remains of an icon of another world. The ‘kora’ is of another time. It is of a time when the earth and people were linked, and when they still cared for one another. Once again, and perhaps inevitably, the powerful grace of Sho’La Pass is the destination, teasing my imagination with no less mesmerizing power than it did years ago. It waits for us to the northeast as we follow the clockwise contour of the circumambulation around Kawa Karpo’s bulk. Four Tibetans, Michael, and I, have every ‘need’ upon our six backs and there is that tingling feeling of joy at being autonomous. We have our path, our destination, and we have our sustenance. Michael has come after years of listening to my slightly neurotic monologues upon the sacred aspect of the route.

Michael making his way north towards Sho'la pass with snow peaks behind in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

It is late in the year (some say too late) for us to be travelling the daunting pathways that scurry well above four thousand metres. We’ve drawn some consolation that along with us, lined Tibetan women from a thousand kilometres away are also performing their own ‘kora’s’ (circumambulations) around the great mountain range of Kawa Karpo sharing the route with us. Nomads with children upon their backs are up in the blue-black dawn of 4:30 am long before us trudging along until 8 pm in wool-covered ranks following a route which will cleanse their spiritual slates…and take efforts which would cripple many. To see the nomads with their limps, their indestructible wool cloaks, and their ferocious will, is to witness something that touches every fibre of the being, and touches the memory of a different time.

The ancient traders still speak about Sho'La's formidable power and abilities to 'alter the skies in an instant'. This octogenarian trader from eastern Tibet described Sho'La as "a furious beauty of a place" that he was happy to pass unscathed.

Already upon our own journey we’ve witnessed and heard of two pilgrims plunging down icy slopes upon the route we follow. Broken bones, shattered limbs, and punctured dreams do not stop the pilgrim’s march. Such is this pilgrim’s way: tangible suffering brings tangible rewards. Frozen limbs, disorientation, broken bodies and even death await along many of the sacred kora paths throughout the Himalayas. Such is the price that faith often demands within the spires of stone.

No mule or yak accompany us. After October four-legged beasts of burden are rarely risked as the potential to lose a precious animal upon the passes when snows and winds are in full song is too great, even now.  Winter in these parts isn’t so much a season as it is a random event that can happily occur eight months of the year.

Kandro leads a mule on another journey that we took together to cross Sho'La. There is a saying amongst locals that one should be over the pass before mid-afternoon or else wait until the next day as temperatures plunge and the deities are more temperamental in the dark.

This pilgrimage journey is an unending series of ascents and descents that burn the quads, stun the senses, and remind that people still come to their sacred mountains. Our team begins early morning, taking frequent tea breaks, before settling into camp. There is no monotony, no senseless repetitive plodding but it is a grinding patience that makes a journey successful.

Jeff at breakfast in camp

Every metre holds colour, texture, and vistas that in turn open up new worlds, and in many ways the journey feeds us as much as demanding of us. Pilgrims have said that the struggle only accentuates the meaning of the journey. It is a tribute to the mountains’ great abilities to conjure up worlds that don’t need exaggeration. At times the ancient route (which still acts as an access path to remote villages that lie tucked away from much of the world) slims down into a mere wisp. Edges of our route plummet down into grey stone chasms and the blue strings of waterways which lie distant below us.

There is an often-quoted Tibetan saying of travel through the high-altitude realms: “There are no straight lines through the mountains”, leaving no doubt about how much was – and still is - required to pass safely.

It doesn't take much swivelling of the head to be reminded of the mountain's unimaginable powers. Here taking in a west facing portion of the Kawa Karpo range.

Our lead guide, Kandro, is a beast of these very mountains. Born, bred, and nurtured in this north-south range of stone, he is an old mate from many an expedition. He is as unpredictable as he is knowledgeable and his personality pays tribute to the notion that what is necessary isn’t always entirely controllable. Fiercely strong and prone to long and very questionably sung songs, he is a rare and unique creature of the mountains. His reverence and fear of Sho’La stems from a long-ago journey over the pass with me through a blizzard which ‘gifted’ him with badly frostbitten feet and came close to taking his life. Kandro’s features cloud whenever we speak of Sho’La, and he avoids mentioning it by name too often as he feels it will somehow put our own journey at risk. His home - which Michael and I graced days earlier - is littered with the bamboo walking sticks which mark the pilgrim’s journey. For each completed kora, a bamboo walking stick is the ‘reward’ cut from some of the very forests which surround the might Kawa Karpo range. He and his family had collected dozens throughout their years of circumambulating the route. Kandro knows the route and every crevasse along it.

The perpetually smiling Kandro waits impatiently holding the bamboo walking stick, collected by all local travellers. The path we will take lies to the bottom right.

Joining him are three others, all local and equally special in their strengths and personalities. Our cook and perhaps the strongest of our group is the lean and explosive Dolma, a woman from nearby Yong Zhr whose strength at times seems immeasurable. Her rigid insistence on a keeping a schedule ensures our team remains sharp and disciplined. Two other local villagers have joined us and have silently added steel and warmth to our endeavour. Mountains have always preached the need for cooperation amongst the living. Those who do not heed this simple law, find themselves suffering very quickly and perhaps for the last time.

The back of Dolma as our team makes yet another descent down the pilgrim's path.

We pass through the shadowed valleys and wandering length of the Tsa’chu River. Tales are told of this river and its and almost mystical qualities, and it only adds another layer of geographic power to our journey.

Mountains have long provided both barriers and protection; they have also maintained a land of legends and primordial beliefs, while rivers and waterways inevitably offer navigable routes through the mazy ridgelines.

A pathway over the pass is little more than footprints through prayer flags but it is the sacred crossing point and it is where pilgrims and travellers alike will take a moment to say thanks and pay homage.

Each village has its own reputation and its own particular kind of reverence for the Pass, and each has its own oral narratives. In all of my wandering through the Himalayas I’ve seldom encountered a pass spoken of with as much reverence as that of the mountains that it spans. But, Sho’la is known and famed just as much as the sacred mountain range upon where it resides. A fierce combination of sacred power, and blistering natural force made Sho’la one of the true tests of mountain travel in the past.

Michael and I marvel upon the communities and their time-tested reputations that we have passed through. There is the ‘town of thieves’, Geba; a town views Sho’la with trepidation and fear, there is the five-home community of La’do that worships and ‘listens’ to every breath of Sho’la’s winds, and then there is the town of Merishui that has long seen the pass as a powerful gateway to the Himalayan world; a literal hole through the sky which leads west.

Looking northeast from Sho'La's summit during the dry season. Merishui, the town of Tea Horse Road fame lies a long day's trek down to the right and for many marks the 'end' of the pilgrim route.

We’ve shared our route of dust, ice, and stone with bands of pilgrims who inspire a kind of reverence in me. The reverence I hold for them is not that of the spiritual world so much as it is for their ability and commitment in a world of ever-more comforts, to adhere to this physically demanding ritual that pays tribute to the natural world. The passage of time and effort here requires a kind of grinding ability rather than any bursts of momentary strength. The kora itself is something which cannot be rushed; it is something which is inextricably bound to a bit of luck and a lot of patient strength. It is a physical meditation of steps and wind.

Michael and I are following the route simply to be a part of something that blends an obsession of mountain ventures, with an increasingly rare event, the kora. It isn’t our first such journey together to bind these two elements. An eight-day walk north of my home in ‘Shangri-La’, the kora isn’t so ‘distant’ and otherwordly, but it does move the blood and it does beckon the curious and bold. Increasingly rare, the kora is a vestige of the pre-Buddhist animist Bön religion, though in an opposing direction. While the journey is an entirely physical experience, it does (and has) affect any who attempt it, an appreciation of the often forgotten world of natural elements. It is in the very efforts that the journey’s meaning becomes that much more clear.

Sacred peaks, trees, and sacred lakes were deemed sacred by the animist worshippers who's beliefs held sway before the Buddhists took over the Tibetan regions. So deeply ingrained were these beliefs in the sanctity of the earth's natural elements, that they were transferred into Buddhism. This peak rests northwest of our path.

My own return to this area is akin to returning to an old haunt that is never quite the same. While journeys in themselves have been given much of the credit in a time when the ‘getting there’ part is supposedly divine, there are times when a place, a space itself, impacts the very soul and skin. Such is Sho’la.

Much as the majesty of wind-ravaged heights take the breath, the pass is significant because of the meaning that is given to them by mortals. Sho’la is viewed differently by the eyes of locals than they are by Michael and I, and every day this feeling becomes more embedded. Our own journey has been interspersed with whispers, utterances, and even the odd ‘eyes to the sky’ that speak of the pass as if it were feudal lord of the place. An epic gateway, Sho’La, and its sibling passes that run through the Himalayas historically provided access points to some of the most isolated communities on the globe. It is also where travelers proved themselves and earned redemption, or simply perished.

North of Sho'la landscapes are like fierce dreamworlds of ice, stone, and immeasurable distances.

Michael’s patience, my own slight impatience, and the guiding force of our guides has led us intact to the morning departure for the pass. Morning air is a still an intimidating -14 degrees Celsius without wind. We have slept in a mountain camp close to 4.5 kilometres into the sky so we have some time to savor our summit and not have that element of ‘time’ dictate everything.

The sky is a clear dawn hue of purple and steel. We hasten to depart camp to get the blood running through the body. We leave the treeline behind and with that we enter the heights where the eye can range for a hundred kilometres.

We are quiet on this day and even the normally dynamic Kandro has gone silent. The pass awaits us. Snows have been portioned out upon the heights in smooth strokes. The signature red earth of the pass begins to dominate. The pilgrim’s path is easily marked with a single well-worn line making its way ever higher.

Sho'La Pass's eastern edge is covered in old snow which covers the prayer flags.

The last hundred or so metres is a zigzagging series of switchbacks upon stone, as the south-facing slope has had the sun erase most of its snow remnants. And then, we are simply there, on the blowing summit.  Sho’la is apparently named for the nomadic ‘sho’ or sour white yak yoghurt that is a favorite. The white colour and texture of the pass evidently was reminiscent of this pungent nomad special.

Michael, Kandro, and I do little talking which seems appropriate given our location. Mountains do this: they silence. Kandro is eager to get off the pass and its deity-status. His perpetual smile is present but empty as he nervously urges us not to hang about. Upon summiting Kandro bellowed the traditional ‘lha gyal lo’ that greeted and thanked the deities for our safe passage. Our other comrades, including the dynamo Dolma move off of the pass quickly to get to our planned camp. The idea of ‘success’ in these parts is an entirely different notion, and the joy of the summit will be savoured at camp later on for the locals. With all of their enviable strength in the mountains, Tibetans rarely boast within the realms of the sacred pilgrimage routes.

Our trail takes a wandering circular routing to take in as much of the region as possible. This 'wandering' of ours drove Kandro to distraction until he was reminded that it wasn't often one could take in so much 'sacred' mountain region in one day.

It is far more than an elevated bastion of winds and Mother Nature’s moods, it is a gate and entry point onto the globe’s highest plateau. The first of the great mountain passes along the fabled Tea Horse Road, reaching the summit of stone for many represented a panacea to cleanse away a lifetime of sins. Pilgrims who successfully negotiated its forces considered themselves blessed, seeing their efforts and exertions as part of an exercise in redemption. Even those who died upon passes accepted their fate, as it was an honorable way to go, and an honorable place to go.

With little drama, we eventually move off of the rumbling pass and down a snowy shadowed path. Our constant companion, the wind, has eased and only a cold northfaced slope welcomes us down and away from the pass that so generously allowed our passage

Our team gingerly comes down a pathway still covered in snow west of Kawa Karpo's main peak.

For all of the grinding wonderment taken in close to two weeks, it is a little piece of mountain irony that reaching our destination is so completely without drama. No storms rise, winds don’t increase and there is no soundtrack beyond the humming air currents and flapping of prayer flags. Sho’La and its deities are evidently satisfied that we don’t need any displays of its powers, nor do we need any sins punished though of course that would be fine too.

Leaving the mighty pass, which on this day simply basks in sunlight, there is that anticlimactic feeling that I often have of descending as though moving down from the heights is somehow and ending. This feeling is moved aside as Kandro begins what will be a stunningly off key song, sung with the earnest efforts of the tone-deaf. He is relieved to be safely away from Sho’La, and Sho’La must too, be slightly relieved.

Kandro (bottom right) leads a descent of a snow pass with our team following. Descents are far more dangerous than any ascents and it is where injuries and death are most common occurring.
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