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The Kora of Mount Kailash

When I wrote this entry about seeing The Police in concert this summer, I wrote that I had 119 goals in life, with 26 down, leaving 93 to go. Make that 122 goals, 26 down, and 96 to go -- I forgot visiting Nepal, visiting Tibet, and making the kora around Mount Kailash.

Mount Kailash is a holy site for multiple religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bön. All these religions hold that circumambulating (circling on foot) Kailash, known as the kora, has special significance. Buddhists believe that making one kora washes away the sins of a lifetime. (They also believe that 108 kora confer instant nirvana.)

The summit of Kailash is 6,638 meters. The various religions that revere Kailash believe that to climb to its peak would be sacreligious, and it's not clear whether this has ever been done. The highest point of the kora is a pass at 5,630 meters. There is an inner kora that leads to a special pilgrimage site at 6,096 meters, Serdung Chuksum, the Cave of the Thirteen Golden Chortens. By tradition, this inner kora cannot be attempted unless one has made 13 kora (also known as the outer kora).

Luckily for those of us with busy schedules, there's a Buddhist Monopoly "get out of jail free" card. Every 12 years, during the Year of the Horse, one outer kora counts for 13, so one trip around Kailash and you get to attempt the inner kora. (There's an excerpt from a good National Geographic Adventure article on the topic here.)

According to the Chinese astrological calendar, the next Year of the Horse runs 31 January 2014 to 18 February 2015. I don't know if I'll be capable of attempting the inner kora -- even the outer kora is said to be extremely difficult. But if one were planning on going, going during the Year of the Horse would at least give the option of attempting the inner kora -- and how many people in the world can say they've been to Serdung Chuksum?

The obvious question in all this is "why?" I've long considered myself agnostic, though truth be told, I'm closer to atheism than agnosticism. If I don't believe in Buddhism, or nirvana, why make the kora? The answer for me is that I can appreciate the symbolism of a religion without accepting its core beliefs. It's why I ritually cleanse myself before entering a Shinto shrine in Japan (link here, scroll to the bottom of the page). And while I may not believe in the supernatural aspects of any religion, I have particular respect for Buddhism as a philosophy. One doesn't have to be mystical to see the principle of karma at work every single day.

So I'll go to Tibet, make the journey to Kailash, and attempt the outer kora. If I make it, I may go on to try the inner kora. And while I won't literally believe that the sins of my lifetime are being washed away, I'll appreciate the symbolism of it all. I'll admire the faithful who make the kora without North Face jackets, without Vasque boots, without LaraBars or Jetboils or Katadyns. I'll be amazed by the faithful who make the entire journey prostrate, crawling their way around their holiest peak. And I'll come back a different person.

In what way I'll come back different, I have no idea.

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