I was sleeping hard when a calf started bawling beneath the window of my room at the Samye Monastery Hotel. It was the last morning I’d wake to the sounds of the barnyard animals behind the hotel.
I’d been there for five nights and four days, visiting the small monastery and nunnery at the birthplace of Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal in central Tibet. I had 40 minutes to dress, finish packing and haul my suitcases to the lobby. I’d have to hustle—everything took longer at 11,000 feet.
Grabbing a bottle of water from my nightstand, I twisted off the cap and emptied it. Between the altitude and desert climate, thirst was a constant. No matter how much I drank, fluids seemed to evaporate as quickly as I could pour them in. I needed to hydrate for the hike up the mountain at Chimphu, my first climb since the stairways and ladders at the Potala Palace. Nearly a week later, my knee was better but still sore. Apart from that, I’d been well, no altitude sickness. Getting spaced-out, losing track of time was my only symptom. Case in point—only 30 minutes left to get to the lobby.
Pilgrimage, from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view, is supposed to be challenging. Enduring physical pain while on pilgrimage is considered a form of purification. The practices of traveling great distances by foot, sleeping outdoors in bad weather, prostrating every step of the way to a holy site all seem to induce pain. As a Westerner, I hoped to practice like a Tibetan pilgrim but was unsure of the pain=purification formula. Pain was challenging enough under normal circumstances, much less at high altitude. Could I be a pilgrim with self-doubt in tow?
Our small group—four Westerners, our Tibetan guide and driver—left the hotel on time. After breakfast and many cups ja ngarmo, (sweet tea) we loaded into the van and began the short drive to Chimphu. Leaving the bumpy, cobbled roads of Samye, we turned on to a newly paved two-lane road. Running parallel to the Tsangpo River, the narrow highway coursed a primeval landscape—a mix of imposing mountains, tumbling moraine and miles of sandy riverbank.
As we traveled downstream, the valley unfurled like a National Geographic photo spread. The mountainside expanded and contracted, pushing the road out and around in a series of blind curves. The barren riverbed piled high with windblown sand, forming a shifting field of traverse dunes. Framed beneath the endless sky at the top of the world, every view, from every angle, was spectacular.
Chimphu Hermitage is an ancient cave monastery and mountain retreat where a hundred or so contemporary yogis, monks and nuns live in seclusion. Established in the 8th century, Chimphu is the sacred location where Padmasambhava gave the first Vajrayana teachings in Tibet. Pilgrims visit Chimphu to practice generosity, making offerings as they walk the kora path that winds up the mountainside. Marked by boulder-sized mani-stones, retreat huts and reliquary, the path leads to the caves on the upper ridge then circles back down.
Visiting the highest caves at Chimphu are said to bestow blessings but hiking to the top was not in my plan. I wanted to visit the cave where my heroine Yeshe Tsogyal spent 12 years in retreat. The hike would be strenuous enough, about 4,000 vertical feet. Putting aside thoughts of distance and my capacity to purify, I quietly recited om-mani-padme-hung and began the kora practice.
Joined by a fellow pilgrim and our guide, we followed the winding trail through thickets of Tibetan juniper and dry, thorny brush. Uneven stairways zig-zagged across the rugged terrain, leading to sandy, scrub flats and outcrops of exposed rock. Prayer flags fluttered overhead as we passed by the flat-roofed retreat huts perched along the path. Many of the huts were topped with pieces of plastic tarp. Looking down into the valley, the hut roofs created a random pattern of bright blue squares, floating on a wave of green.
Water, mantra and the scenery sustained me for a while but as the altitude increased, my knee began to ache. Breathing turned into a noisy, self-conscious task. Determined to complete the practice, I stopped every twenty steps or so to lean against a rock and suck air until I caught my breath. Youthful nuns passed by, leaving me in the dust trail of their maroon chubas. My patient companions slowed their pace.
After a two long hours, we agreed to stop at a spring just below Yeshe Tsogyal’s cave. Sitting down was a welcomed reprieve; breathing was much easier at full stop. Before heading out, I walked to the spring. Inching along, I tried to ignore how spongy the earth felt under my feet, how lightheaded I’d become. At the spring, I drank all the the icy water my stomach would hold. I splashed my face and hoped I wouldn't stumble and fall, ass over teakettle, back down the mountain.
Rest and a belly full of spring water wasn’t enough to revive me. Staring blankly at the steepening trail, the idea of starting back up the path was suddenly inconceivable. A few hundred feet from Yeshe Tsogyal’s hermitage, my resolve was gone, replaced by disappointment and the constant pain in my knee. Giving-up when I was so close to her cave was equally inconceivable. I couldn’t get my head around either option.
As if hearing my anxious thoughts, an elderly nun emerged from a hut beside the path. Gesturing with her silent dark eyes, she offered me a boiled potato, a staple food shared by Tibetan monastics. In a rush of pure gratitude, I picked a small, brown spud from her dented pot and thanked her with folded hands. Taking a bite, tasting the earthy sweetness of her humble gift was the reassurance I needed. Kindness and a potato propelled me forward.
Yeshe Tsogyal’s hermitage was small, about 10 feet deep and eight feet wide. Enclosed by weathered stonewalls on three sides, her cave looked like an archaic shed with a tiny wooden door. Dizzy and breathless, I stepped into the small, dim chamber. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust but I found a stone bench near the end of the cave. With a heartfelt bow, I sat down opposite the modest altar, illuminated by a row of large butter lamps.
The rounded ceiling and walls above the altar were blackened by hundreds of years of soot. I imagined the countless number of candles and lamps that had lit the lonely stone room, the infinite number of mantras and prayers uttered in the darkness. I imagined the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had followed the same path, made the same climb.
After a few moments, I stopped imagining and relaxed into the quiet of the cave. The oily lamps flickered; the silence in Yeshe Tsogyal’s cave expanded. With aching knees and arduous breath, determination and doubts, I rested in meditation. Impure or purified—it was part of the pilgrimage, part of the practice.