Day One Parikrama: Darchen to Dri-ra Puk
In order to begin your trip around Mount Kailash, you first head west from Darchen, skirting the base of the foothills rising up to your right from the plain. Make sure to leave early in the morning. After a couple of hours you came to a pile of Mani stones with prayer flags. Here you turn northward into the valley that runs along the western side of the mountain, down which flows the Lhachu, or “Divine River”. A little further on you will see a tall flagpole streaming with prayer flags in the middle of a wide, grassy valley. This is Tarpoche, the site where local nomads and pilgrims gather to celebrate the important Buddhist festival of Skadawa, or the Buddha’s enlightenment day, on the full-moon day of May or June. Pass through the Kangnyi Choten (the “two-legged” stupa), signaling the entry into the kora and the purification of negative karma. The views of Kailash from this spot on a clear day may well be the best you will see on the whole circuit. There are also good camping spots nearby if you choose to hang out here for an extra day.
From here, instead of heading straight down to the river, even better views can be obtained by climbing for a while up to the east side of the valley and skirting the base of the mountain, before coming down to the valley bottom on your left. If you take this trail, you will have the added advantage of being able to visit the Site of the Five-Hundred Arhats, a long, flat ledge covered in huge mani flagstones and said to be a place where the Buddha came with five hundred disciples flying through the air from India. Near this site, one can also find the cave of Noro Bonchung, the famous Bonpo master who was Milarepa’s rival. At the entrance to the cave you can see Malaria’s footprint, which he left there during a competition with Naro Bonchung.
Returning to the main trail, descend and travel along the east bank of the river heading north of Tarpoche. After another half an hour or so, you will came to a bridge leading to the rebuilt Chugu Monastery, located on the west bank of the river. On the east bank, the path passes by the destroyed stumps of a line of large stupas near the river. Just before the path reaches Chugu there are hundreds of mani stones and on a cliff above the stupas, the hard-to-spot Pemapuk, a cave associated wit the historical Buddha, in which it is possible to stay. If you have time, cross the bridge to visit the monastery itself, which is associated with the Drukpa Kagyu school. The main assembly hall contains a self-originated white marble statue called Chugu Rinpoche, which is a form of Shakyamuni Buddha. Just below the monastery is the Langchen Bepuk, the “Hidden Elephant Cave” where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated when he visited the region. You can continue northward form here on either side of the Lhaschu. The views of the mountain are generally better from the western bank. On both sides of the river there is good, grassy camping ground to be found. Otherwise, return to the east bank of the Lhachu and proceed further up the valley. Towering above you on the left you will see three sharp peaks, which are associated with the longevity triad of Amitayus, White Tara, and Vijaya. The Tara peak to the south is remarkable for the peculiar stupa like formations that protrude from it. A bit farther up the valley on the right-hand side, you will see a squat domed outcrop of rock, which is known as Padmasambhava’s Torma. As you approach it, it appears as one wing of a juge sweeping arc of rock face. Hindu pilgrims consider this rock putcrop to be an embodiment of Hanuman, the monkey god and disciple of Rama.
The valley now widens out and starts to curve around the east. Marmots have made this area their territory, showing little fear and sharing the paddocks with the nomads. There is a large boulder here with a carving of and offering dedicated to the protector Mahakala. Depending on the time of day, you may wish to make your camp here and continue on to Dri-ra Puk in the morning. If you decided to push ahead you will require another one to two hours before you reach the area north of the mountain. Continue along the south side of the river close to the path for another half hour to reach the newly constructed bridge to Dri-ra Puk. Once you have safely crossed the river you can camp near the monastery or stay in the Indian pilgrim’s rest house (if there is room).
Dri-ra Puk faces southward straight up a narrow valley, at the end of which looms the impressive northern face of Kailash itself, a vertical wall of six thousand feet. Like Chugu, Dri-ra Puk Monastery is associated with the Drukpa Kagyu sect. The monastery traces its origins back to the 13th century, when the great meditation master Gotsangpa practiced in a cave there. The name of the monastery means “cave of the female yak horn” and it derives its name from the fact that a dakini in the form of a female yak, or dri, is said to have led Gotsangpa to the cave during a severe rainstorm. Imprints from the dri’s horn can be seen on the walls of the cave.
Although you may be tempted to make a detour up the valley opposite Dri-ra Puk to the edge of the mountain at the north face, you should do so only if you have ample time (allow at least 3hours) and the weather is clear. You should also be aware that from a traditional perspective, this side trip is considered inauspicious unless you have already made 12full circumambulations of Kailash on the outer circuit. Whether you make the trek or not, you can still enjoy the spectacular view of the north face of Kailash surrounded by three other peaks. These three peaks are associated with the bodhisattvas Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani, the triad known as the Protectors of the Three Realms. Manushri is to the west of the valley looking up to Kailash, Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani to the east.