By Nick Middleton
About the Author
Image Reference: amazon.com
Nick Middleton is an award-winning geographer, writer, TV presenter, environmental scientist and university lecturer. He was born in 1959 in London, England. His curiosity about how planet Earth works and how people interact with it was fuelled from an early age. Now he works and communicates on a wide variety of environmental issues and travel topics for a broad range of audiences, from government policy-makers to primary-school children. He also teaches at the University of Oxford where he is a Fellow of St Anne’s College.
Nick is the author of seven travel books, including the bestseller, Going to Extremes, which accompanied a television series he wrote and presented for Channel 4 and the National Geographic Channel on extreme environments and the people who live in them. His TV documentaries have been broadcast all over the world and his books translated into more than a dozen languages.
This article gives an account of a journey from gently rolling hills of Ravu to Mount Kailash.
The narrator wanted to complete the kora at Mount Kailash. Lhamo gave him a long sleeved sheep skin coat to keep him warmer. He hired Tsetan’s car and took Daniel as companion for escorting him upto Darchen. He seems a lover of adventure who is not at all afraid of taking risks.
The narrator and Tsetan took a short cut to get off the Changtang. This route would take them south-west, almost directly towards Mount Kailash. It involved crossing fairly high mountain passes. Tsetan said that there would be no problem if there was no snow. This short cut took them across vast plains having arid pastures. They saw a few gazelles and a great herd of wild asses. As hills came once again, they passed shepherds tending their flocks.
The narrator and Tsetan passed the dark tents of the nomads in lonely places. A huge black dog, a Tibetan mastiff would stand to guard outside. These dogs raised their big heads erect and watched the narrator’s car. As the car came closer they would start barking and ran towards their car. The dogs would stop barking only after chasing them off the property.
Then they entered a valley. The snowcapped mountains were visible on the horizon. The river in this valley was wide and mostly blocked with ice. Gradually they gained height and the valley-sides closed in. They were climbing up the hill. The turns became sharper and the ride bumpier. Tsetan drove in third gear. The narrator felt the pressure building up in his ears. He held his nose, snorted and cleaned them. They were at 5,210 metres above sea level.
Tsetan grabbed handfuls of dirt and flung it across the icy top layer. Then he drove the car slowly and carefully on the icy surface. They continued to climb in the bright sunshine. They crept past 5,400 metres. The narrator’s head began to throb horribly. He took gulps from water bottle. Finally, they reached the top of the pass at 5,515 metres. The lower atmospheric pressure was allowing the fuel to expand. It could be dangerous. So, Tsetan advised them not to smoke.
As they moved down the other side of the pass, the narrator’s headache soon cleared. It was two o’clock. They stopped for lunch. By late afternoon, they had reached the small town of Hor. They were back on the main east-west highway. It followed the old trade route from Lhasa to Kashmir. Daniel got a ride in a truck to return to Lhasa. Tsetan got the punctured tyres repaired. The narrator found Hor a grim, miserable place with no vegetation.
They had tea in Hor’s only cafe. They left Hor after half an hour. They drove towards Mount Kailash. After 10.30 p.m. they drew up outside a guest house in Darchen. One of the narrator’s nostrils was blocked again. He was tired, hungry and gasping for breath. He could feel better when he sat up. He stayed awake all night. The following morning Tsetan took him to the Darchen medical college. The doctor felt the narrator’s pulse and gave him medicines for cold and exhaustion due to altitude. The narrator slept soundly at night after first full day’s course of medicines. When he recovered, Tsetan left him as he had to return to Lhasa.
Darchen had some simple general stores selling Chinese cigarettes, soap and supplies of food. Women washed their long hair in the icy water of a narrow brook near the guest house. There were no pilgrims. Darchen had only one cafe. He met Norbu there. He was a Tibetan but worked in Beijing at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, in the Institute of Ethnic Literature. He could speak English. He too, had come to do the Kora. Norbu was very fat. He found it very hard and tiresome to walk or go up. The narrator decided to make the trek in the company of Norbu, instead of waiting for the devout believers. They hired yaks to carry their luggage. Norbu said that he had no intention of prostrating himself all-round the mountain. It was not possible for him as his tummy was too big.
Short Answer Type Questions
1. Why did the author take the short-cut in spite of high mountain passes?
Ans. The short–cut would take them south-west, almost directly towards Mount Kailash.
2. What sights did they encounter in the rocky wilderness?
Ans. These vast open plains had only dry pastures. A few gazelles could be seen nibbling the grass. He also saw a great herd of wild asses. They passed shepherds tending their flocks. They would pause and stare at their car. They sometimes waved. When the track came close to the sheep, the animals would change direction.
3. How did the author react to the Tibetan mastiff?
Ans. The Tibetan mastiff was a huge black dog. It guarded the dark tents of nomads. They barked and ran fast towards their car. They would stop barking only after chasing them off their territory.
4. Why did the author complain of headache? How did he get relief?
Ans. The author was not used to high altitude climbing. He complained of headache when they at the height of 5,400 metres. He took gulps from his water bottle. This helped somewhat. His headache cleared as they moved down the other side of the pass.
5. Why, do you think was the author perturbed at the loud hiss emitted by the car?
Ans. Tsetan partially unscrewed the top of the car. It emitted a loud hiss. The lower atmospheric pressure was allowing the fuel to expand. The author was perturbed. He considered it dangerous.
6. What do you learn about the salt lake on the other side of the pass?
Ans. The salt lake was dry. It was on the other side of the pass. The plateau was covered with hollow areas of low flat lands near water and brackish lakes. These were the remnants of the Tethys Ocean. This ocean bordered Tibet before the great continental collision lifted it skyward.
7. Which incident does the author remember as they reached a small town, Hor?
Ans. They had suffered two punctures in quick succession on the drive from the salt lake. Tsetan was eager to have them fixed as they left him with no spares. So they stopped outside a tyre-repair shop. Daniel was returning to Lhasa. He found a ride in a truck. So the author and Tsetan bade Daniel farewell at the tyre-repair shop.
8. What is the importance of Hor? How did the author feel there?
Ans. Hor was a small town on the main east-west highway that followed the old trade route from Lhasa to Kashmir. The town was on the shore of Lake Manasarovar. But the author does not feel impressed by it. He found Hor a grim, miserable place. It had no vegetation but only dust and rocks. There were heaps of garbage too.
9. Why is lake Manasarovar Tibet’s most venerated stretch of water?
Ans. Lake Manasarovar is considered to be the source of four great Indian rivers. These are the Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra. Actually only the Sutlej flows from the lake. The headwaters of the others all rise nearby on the flanks of Mount Kailash.
Being the source of great rivers, lake Manasarovar is considered Tibet’s most respected stretch of water.
10. Why did the night at the guest house in Darchen turn out to be another troubled one?
Ans. One of his nostrils was blocked again as he laid down to sleep in Darchen. He could not get enough oxygen to breathe. He had to pass a sleepless night.
11. How does the author recount his experience at the Darchen medical college?
Ans. The Tibetan doctor had no white coat or other apparatus. He looked like any other Tibetan in his thick pullover and woolly hat. He felt the veins in the author’s wrist and asked him a few questions. He diagnosed his malady as ‘‘a cold and the effects of altitude.’’ He prescribed a five day course of Tibetan medicines. The author had a sound sleep after his first full day’s course.
12. What options did the author have after Tsetan left him?
Ans. His only option was to wait for some other pilgrims. The route of pilgrimage was well trodden. But he did not want to go alone. Parts of the route were liable to blockage by snow. He had no idea whether the snow had cleared or not. He hadn’t come across any
English speaking person to answer this basic question.
13. What did the author learn about Norbu? How did he feel?
Ans. Norbu was a Tibetan. He worked in Beijing at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He had come to do the ‘Kora’. He had been writing academic papers about the Kailash Kora and its importance in various works of Buddhist literature. He had never actually done Kora himself. The author felt happy. They could do Kora together.
14. Did the author stick to his original plan to make the trek? Give a reason for your answer.
Ans. No, the author did not stick to his original plan. He had originally imagined to make the trek in the company of devout believers. Norbu wasn’t a practising Buddhist, but he was enthusiastic. The author thought carefully. He decided that Norbu would prove to be an ideal companion.
15. What qualities of Norbu do you think made him an ideal companion to the author?
Ans. Norbu was an educated person who could converse in English. He was a Tibetan and very enthusiastic. He knew about the importance of Kailash Kora. He was practical. He suggested hiring yaks to carry their luggage. He had a fine sense of humour. He could laugh at his own shortcomings.
Long Answer Type Questions
1. What impression do you form of the author, Nick Middleton, on the basis of reading ‘Silk Road’?
Ans. The author undertook the hazardous journey to Mount Kailash for performing Kora. He hired Tsetan’s car and took Daniel as companion for escorting him upto Darchen. He seems a lover of adventure who is not at all afraid of taking risks. This is evident from his ascent to undertake a short cut through high mountain passes involving the risk of slipping on snowy roads.
He is a keen observer of men and manners. He has a sharp eye for details. He describes the hilly people quite sensitively. He gives a graphic account of difficulties faced during ascent. His headache and loss of sleep are caused by cold and high altitude. His observations about Lake Manasarovar and Hor reveal the difference between legend and reality. He dislikes dirt and shabbiness.
He faces communication problem after Tsetan leaves and before he meets Norbu. However, he waits and takes correct decisions. He approves of Norbu’s practical suggestion to hire yaks to carry luggage and decides to perform Kora with him.
2. How was the author’s experience at Hor in stark contrast to earlier accounts of the place?
Ans. Hor is a small town on the main east-west highway. The highway followed the old trade route from Lhasa to Kashmir. The town is located on the shore of Lake Manasarovar. This lake is Tibet’s most venerated stretch of water. The Sutlej flows from the lake. The head waters of the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, rise nearby on the flanks of Mount Kailash. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist books regard Manasarovar as the source of four great Indian rivers. Earlier travellers had spoken in superlatives about their experience on first glimpse of Lake Manasarovar. Ekai Kawaguchi was Japanese monk. He had arrived there in 1900. He was so moved by the sanctity of the lake that he burst into tears. A few years later, the holy water of the lake had similar effect on Sven Hedin. He was a Swede. Moreover, he was not sentimental. Hence his reaction was quite noteworthy. The author found Hor a grim, miserable place with no vegetation. It was just dust and rocks. He was disappointed to notice heaps of rubbish lying dumped here and there. He calls Hor an open-air rubbish dump.
3. Give a brief account of the author’s experience at Darchen before he got treatment at Darchen medical college?
Ans. It was 10.30 p.m. when the author and Tsetan reached a guest house in Darchen. The author was tired and hungry. The drive in dusty Hor had started his cold again. The herbal tea did not help. One of his nostrils was blocked again. He was not sure that the other would provide him sufficient oxygen. He lay down to sleep. He started breathing through his mouth. Then he switched to single-nostril power. He got enough oxygen. He was about to sleep when he woke up abruptly. His chest felt heavy. He cleared his nasal passages. He felt relief in his chest.
He lay down and tried to sleep. But as soon as he lay down again, his sinuses filled up and his chest was heavy. He supported himself upright against the wall. He could not sleep at all. He had another troubled night due to his breathing problems. A little voice inside him kept saying that if he slept, he might never wake up again. So, he stayed awake all night.
4. Give a brief account of the author’s visit to the medical college at Darchen and the effect of the Tibetan medicines on him.
Ans. The building of the medical college looked like a monastery. The consulting room was dark and cold. It lacked the paraphernalia of a doctor. The doctor himself appeared like any other Tibetan in a thick pullover and a woolly hat. He had no white coat on him. The author explained his sleepless symptoms and sudden aversion to laying down. While feeling his pulse, the Tibetan doctor asked the author some questions. He diagnosed his illness as a cold and effects of the altitude. By now the author had developed some confidence in the doctor. He asked if he would recover enough to be able to do the kora. The doctor assured him that he would be fine. The doctor gave him a five-day course of Tibetan medicine in fifteen screws of paper. The after breakfast package contained a brown powder. The author took it with hot water. The lunch time and bed time packages contained small spherical brown small pills. They looked like sheep dung, but the author took them. He found the medicines quite effective. After his first full day’s course, he slept soundly at night.
5. What difficulties did the author encounter while crossing the mountain passes that led to the Silk Road?
Ans. During the first ascent through the valley, the turns became sharper and the ride bumpier. The author felt the pressure building up in his ears. Suddenly Tsetan stopped the car and jumped out. A large strip of white stuff lay across the track for about fifteen metres. The bank was too steep for their vehicle to scale. They grabbed handfuls of dust and flung them over the snow. When the snow was spread with soil, Tsetan slowly drove the vehicle over it. Ten minutes later, they had another blockage.
This time Tsetan drove round the snow. The steep slope was studded with major rocks. His vehicle was lurching from one obstacle to another. Once he cut off a hairpin bend. The author took gulps from his water bottle to ease his headache caused by rapid ascent. His headache cleared as they moved down the other side of the pass. Apart from two punctures in quick succession, they faced no difficulty till they reached Hor, a small town on the main eastwest highway.
1. Give reasons for the following statements.
(a) The article has been titled ‘‘Silk Road’’.
Ans. This article gives an account of a travel from the hills of Ravu to Mount Kailash. The narrator with his companions took the short cut to reach the main east west highway at Hor. It followed the old trade route from Lhasa to Kashmir. It was known as ‘Silk Road’. Hence the article has been titled ‘Silk Road’.
(b) Tibetan mastiffs were popular in China’s imperial courts.
Ans. The Tibetan mastiffs were large dogs with big heads. They had massive jaws and barked furiously. They were completely fearless of vehicles. They would chase persons or animals at great speed. Hence these ferocious Tibetan mastiffs became popular in China’s imperial courts as hunting dogs.
(c) The author’s experience at Hor was in stark contrast to earlier accounts of the place.
Ans. The author found Hor a grim and miserable place with no vegetation but a lot of refuse, dust and rocks. His experience in Hor came as a stark contrast to earlier accounts of the place. Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese monk, arrived there in 1900. He was so moved by the sanctity of the lake that he burst into tears.
(d) The author was disappointed with Darchen.
Ans. The author was disappointed with Darchen as it was dusty and full of rubbish. The town had a couple of simple general stores. Men played a game of pool outside one of them. The town had only one cafe. It had a medical college where Tibetan medicines were prescribed.
(e) The author thought that his positive thinking strategy worked well after all.
Ans. The author had timed his arrival for the beginning of the pilgrimage season, but it seemed he was too early. Daniel and Tsetan had returned to Lhasa. He was alone. He thought he had not made much progress with his self-help programme on positive-thinking. He didn’t come across any one in Darchen who knew English. Then he met Norbu and decided to make the trek in the company of Norbu, instead of waiting for the devout believers. Then he thought that his positive thinking strategy worked well after all.
2. Briefly comment on the following:
(a) The purpose of the author’s journey to Mount Kailash.
Ans. The purpose of the author’s journey to Mount Kailash was a religious one. He had to perform pilgrimage of ‘Kora’ to Mount Kailash. Devout Buddhists visited Mount Kailash for this purpose.
(b) The author’s physical condition in Darchen.
Ans. The author’s physical condition in Darchen was quite bad. He was tired and hungry. One of his nostrils was blocked again. His chest felt strangely heavy. He started breathing through his mouth. Sitting up made him feel better. He stayed awake all night.
(c) The author’s meeting with Norbu.
Ans. The author was staying in a guest house at Darchen. He was alone as Tsetan had left him and the pilgrims had not arrived. One afternoon he was sipping tea in Darchen’s only cafe, looking at his notebook. Norbu came in, saw his novel and asked if he could sit opposite him. Norbu asked him if he knew English. Then they began talking in English. Soon they formed a team.
(d) Tsetan’s support to the author during the journey.
Ans. During the journey, Tsetan was the source of great support to the author. He not only drove them safe from Ravu to Darchen, but also provided him valuable information. Tsetan took him to the Darchen medical college. These medicines helped him to sleep peacefully at night.
(e) ‘‘As a Buddhist, he told me, he knew that it didn’t really matter if I passed away, but he thought it would be bad for business.’’
Ans. Tsetan was a devout Buddhist. He knew the purpose of the author’s journey–to do the ‘Kora’ at Mount Kailash. During the journey at high altitude, the author suffered from cold, headache and loss of sleep due to high altitude. Tsetan left him only when he had recovered after taking the Tibetan medicines prescribed by the doctor at Darchen. Since the author was on a religious pilgrimage, Tsetan thought that death was immaterial. However he did not approve of it as guide, since it would be bad for his business.
3. Hill-folk are more sensitive to nature and fellow human beings than the urban people. Discuss.
Ans. The hill-folk live a hard life compared to the people who live in urban areas. They are more sensitive to nature and fellow human beings than the urban people. This travelogue is full of examples indicating the sensitive behaviour of hill-folk. A few instances would suffice. Lhamo wanted to give the author a farewell present. She realised his need for something to keep him warmer. So, she presented him a long-sleeved sheepskin coat. His guide-cum-driver Tsetan advises him to take a route that would take them south-west, almost directly towards Mount Kailash. He covered this route successfully. When the author fell ill, Tsetan took him to the Darchen medical college. He had to return to Lhasa, but he left the author only when he recovered from his illness. On the other hand, the insensitive behaviour of the city folk who visit these hilly areas is evident from the heaps of rubbish they litter on the hills.
4. The reasons why people willingly undergo the travails of difficult journeys.
Ans. Life does not mean simply eating, drinking or breathing. It is more than mere existing. The love of adventure is hidden in human heart. The pioneers are ever eager to experience the thrill of facing the unexpected and unknown. Their courage and indomitable will-power inspired their companions to face the unpleasant situations and take risks. In modern times, we find astronauts orbiting the Moon, Mars and Jupiter to discover their hidden secrets. The spirit of adventure always excites man to undertake risks.
5. The accounts of exotic places in legends and book, and the reality.
Ans. The accounts of exotic places in legends and books may sometimes appear in stark contrast to reality. The author felt thrilled to read the accounts of the first encounters of earlier travellers with Lake Manasarovar. A Japanese monk named Ekai Kawaguchi arrived there in 1900. He was so moved with the sanctity of the lake that he burst into tears. His reaction was perhaps dictated by religious fervour. The second account seems more charming. A couple of years later Sven Hedin, a Swede visited the holy water. He was not prone to sentimental outbursts. But the water of the holy lake had similar effect on him. The reality was altogether different. The town ‘Hor’ was on the shore of the Lake.
It was a grim, miserable place with no vegetation but heaps of accumulated garbage. Thus reality was quite harsh.
What is Kora? What is its religious and spiritual significance?
“Kora” is a transliteration of the Tibetan word, “Skor ra”, which means “circumambulation” or “revolution”. The kora is performed by the pilgrim walking around the sacred site in the circumambulation in a clockwise direction, according to the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
The practice of the kora is one that began long before Buddhism came to Tibet. When Buddhism was introduced into the region from India, the kora came with it. The steps taken on the kora are meant to move a person along the path to enlightenment for all living beings. By circumambulation, a person can purify their negative karma and can generate the seeds of enlightenment.
It is also common for Tibetans to prostrate themselves along the route of the kora. In most cases, the pilgrim will prostrate themselves the entire length of their body, then rise to step to the spot where their hands reached. They will then prostrate again from that spot, and continue like this throughout the whole kora. This takes up a huge amount of time and energy, both physical and spiritual, and is believed to provide a massive increase in the spiritual benefits of the kora. However, this is one of the more extreme methods of prostrating, and only the most devout do this on all koras. Many people will walk and chant mantras, and prostrate at certain intervals around the circuit.
Kora is mainly performed while spinning prayer wheels, chanting mantra, counting mala, or repeatedly prostrating oneself. In this way kora functions as a mind-calming meditative exercise. In accordance with Buddhist tradition and belief, kora is always performed in a clockwise direction, and is often performed 108 times.Mt. Kailash kora is one of the most popular of all the koras in Tibet, as it circumambulates the most holy mountain in the world. The route starts at the village of Darchen, and winds along the base of the Kailash Massif, over one of the highest passes in the region, and down through a lush, sloping valley to the end. The route takes three days on foot or horseback, and stops are made overnight at the monasteries around the route.