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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This morning we're tracing another path to heaven. We've been following people to what they consider sacred places on earth. It's a series of reports called The Geography of Heaven, and today that geography is in the mountains of Tibet. Pilgrims travel every year to the rugged land around the mountain called Kawakarpo. It's along Tibet's border with China's Yunnan Province. To the pilgrims, it's a journey of atonement, and success can lead to a higher rebirth.

In this second report on Tibet you will not hear the voices of many Tibetans. It's not safe for many to speak openly with western journalists. You will hear astonishing sounds captured by NPR's Bill McQuay. This National Geographic radio expedition resumes at 14,000 feet.

BILL MCQUAY reporting:

We've just reached the top of Dokarla Pass. It's been a long steep trek up. The top here is covered with the prayer flags.

Standing giddy in the thin air, I am flanked by hundreds of white prayer flanks. My Tibetan guide Kayson tells me the flags have been left by pilgrims to help the dead find their way to a better rebirth.

Death and rebirth seem to occupy most pilgrims we meet, and there are thousands. Most dressed in thick layers of pink, red, and black wool; musty with the smell of burnt wood and the dusty trail. They come believing the arduous journey around their sacred mountain is an opportunity for repentance and a better rebirth. But Kayson and I have a more immediate problem.

We're standing here waiting for our animals. The animals are having trouble getting through all of the prayer flags, and getting tangled up. Loaded with 20-days of food and fuel, our horses and mules have become snarled in the hundreds of prayer flags that are flanking the paths.

I have undertaken this journey with these people to better understand what I'm told is an important part of Tibetan Buddhism: pilgrimage.

We follow our animals through the Pass. I ask Kayson about the hundreds of stone objects we see along the trail. The 2-foot high structures resemble miniature houses.

Mr. KAYSON: After we've die, we believe that 49 days after, is roaming around. So during the 49 days we don't have any house to stay in. And that time we live, you can stay inside that house.

MCQUAY: Inside the small houses are cigarettes, money, grain, and even a bottle or two of alcohol. I'm told pilgrims have put these inside because it's what they would like to have in their next life.

We trek over mountain passes covered with prayer flags, piles of barley flower and bowls of yak butter. These are offerings left by pilgrims, who chant prayers to the mountain god, Kawakarpo.

(Soundbite of praying pilgrims)

MCQUAY: For six days we've trekked the narrow trails that snake around the mountain god's abode. We arrive at a small temple on an island surrounded by tributaries of the Salween River. Inside, a bell rings with each turn of a large prayer wheel. The red, 8-foot tall cylinder is covered with letters of gold. I ask Kayson what they mean.

Mr. KAYSON: It's written Om Mani Padme Hum.

MCQUAY: It's Om Mani Padme Hum, a favorite Tibetan chant. It's the chant of Chenrezi, whom Kayson calls the Buddha of Compassion. Within this quiet temple, in the presence of this wheel of compassion, sits a statue of a man on a white horse who looks anything but compassionate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN (Speaking in Tibetan)

MCQUAY: It's Kawakarpo, the god of the mountain. He's wearing a suit of armor and looks very much like a medieval king dressed for battle, not something I expect in a land of nonviolent Buddhists.

It wasn't until I had a chance to speak with someone who had been on the pilgrimage before that it began to make sense.

Ms. KATIA BUFFATRIA (Anthropologist, Paris University): For many people, Tibet is Buddhist. But I think that it's important to note that Buddhism came in Tibet only in the 7th Century.

MCQUAY: For ten years, Katia Buffatria(ph) studied Tibetan pilgrimage. An anthropologist at the Sorbonne, in Paris, she's trekked the 150 mile Kawakarpa pilgrimage three times.

Ms. BUFFATRIA: Before Buddhism came, among other deities, you had a territorial god, which was called Ula. It's a mountain deity. Kawakarpo is a Ula, and like all the Ula is represented as a war god. It is regarded as the ancestor of the population living in his territory. In each pilgrimage, you can see a lot of ritual, which belonged to the non-Buddhist tradition, and a lot of ritual which belonged to the Buddhist tradition.

MCQUAY: We resume our journey, slowing walking the mountain trail that bends with the contour of the Zhejiang River below us. Overhead, the jagged rocks looked like giant splinters jutting out from the mountain. Ahead of us, a construction crew has been dynamiting the mountain for the new Tibet road. The explosion drops tons of rock and stone on this ancient pilgrim's path.

The path has pretty much disappeared with this rubble, so we're picking our way around the rock, here. There's just no path in front of us, and there's a 60 or more feet plummet to the Zhejiang below. The dust is cleared a little bit, and the animals are coming through.

The horizon seems to expand with each passing day. The air is colder and the trail steeper. We are nearing Shula Pass, the end of the pilgrimage. Most of the Tibetans have gone ahead. It's almost winter, and they are rushing through the high passes, before the first heavy snows arrive.

It's been a long trip for (unintelligible). Here we go. We're heading up Shula Pass.

Climbing towards 16,000 feet, the trail of red stone and dirt turns to mud and snow. We reach the Pass. We are greeted by a thousand fluttering prayer flags, and the ringing of our animal bells.

Unidentified Man: These are very good prayer flags.

MCQUAY: We hang our prayer flags. It marks the end of our pilgrimage, and for Tibetan Buddhists, a cleansing of past misdeeds. So much of what I've seen and heard during this long journey seems only concerned with the future, the seemingly endless cycle of rebirth and death stretching ever onward. But now, surrounded by prayerful flags, the lighting and the sound of the animals' bells, and relishing the time I've spent with friendly and gentle Tibetans, I'm not concerned with either death or rebirth. It's what is happening in this moment that seems most important. Tibetan scholar and author, Thupten Jinpa.

Mr. THUPTEN JINPA (Author): People outside the Buddhist world get the impression that the main objective for a Buddhist believer is to find a good rebirth. In some sense that is true, but on another level, it really is thought for the sake of something higher. So, as part of this, on a daily basis, Buddhist practitioners remind themselves of their mortality, or finitude. And this is to really to impress upon the individual the preciousness of the every moment of one's life, so that one feels the weight of responsibility to use that moment in a most responsible and constructive manner.

MCQUAY: For RADIO EXPEDITIONS, I'm Bill McQuay.

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