Tibetans face uphill struggle to keep holy peak pure

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2001, 12:00am

For the thousands of devout pilgrims who gathered, praying to the spirits in the small Buddhist temple by the glacier flowing down Mount Kawagebo, the avalanche that claimed the lives of all members of a Sino-Japanese expedition was no accident.

Seventeen climbers died in 1991 trying for a second time to conquer the peak that straddles the Yunnan-Tibet border. Since then, all other attempts have also ended in failure.

'No one should be allowed to go there. This is not a mountain - it is a god. What they did was sacrilege,' said Lama Songri Chunzum, a living Buddha from Bata monastery in Sichuan province.

Resplendent in his crimson and maroon robes, he was climbing through the woods to spend months meditating at the Lianhua Temple, perched well below the peaks of the 6,000-metre mountain.

Prayers offered there, at the abode of the gods, earn the believer three times as much spiritual merit as anywhere else.

'You can't see the deities who inhabit the peaks, but I can. Only those who have reached a higher spiritual level can see them,' he said.

In some years, as many as 70,000 Tibetan pilgrims walk or hitchhike to worship there.

For local people the climbers' deaths seem like a triumph of faith - although no one wished to see them pay with their lives.

'We had prayed every day they would not succeed,' said porter Deqin Qudong. 'People prayed everywhere, in Singapore and America too.'

Tibetans are not only praying, they are actively campaigning to prevent climbers reaching such peaks in Nepal and the rest of the Himalayas.

Pitted against them are eager Westerners and also the vested interests of the All-China Sports Commission, which receives substantial sums to reserve certain peaks.

Japanese climbers bought the exclusive rights to attempt Mount Kawagebo from 1991 to 1996 for an undisclosed sum.

Their last expedition, in December 1996, was abandoned the day before the team was due to make a final assault, as members feared the weather would turn nasty. They were mistaken, and could have made a bid for the top.

The next assault came in 1999 when an expedition backed by Sohu.com - an Internet portal - planned to climb the peak to celebrate the new millennium.

'We learned about it in late December, and immediately tried to find out who was behind it,' said Shi Lihong, a founder of the environmental group Green Plateau, which is trying to organise eco-tourism in the district.

Ms Shi and her husband, Xi Zhinong, managed to mobilise strong opposition. Hundreds of local officials as well as local villagers, monks and scholars signed petitions which were sent to the State Council.

'We helped organise a coalition,' she said. 'But we don't know if it has been cancelled or put off. The matter is now in the hands of the State Administration of Physical Culture and Sports.'

And the threat is never far away. 'There are too many peaks in China called holy that are not supposed to be climbed,' said Xiao Dan, of the National Mountaineering Association. 'We have been negotiating with local governments and religious leaders about this for years.'