IT was the most unimaginable way to enter the roof of the world, as Tibet is commonly described: on foot over a narrow suspension bridge that sways from side to side to cover a distance of about 50 metres across the Karnali river at Hilsa as it leaves the Tibetan plateau, where it originates, on its way to Nepal and onward to India as the Ghaghara in Uttar Pradesh before joining the Ganga. “Departed” said the stamp on this writer’s passport at the immigration office situated a few metres from the bridge at Hilsa in north-western Nepal’s Humla district! The group of 60 yatris had crossed over to Burang county (Purang in Tibetan; altitude 4,755 metres [13,205 feet]) of Ngari/Ali prefecture to the west in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China sometime in the third week of July to begin the trek to Mount Kailash, the sacred mountain that Hindus, Buddhists and Jains revere as the axis mundi, or centre of the earth, and the abode of the Hindu god Siva and the Buddhist deity Demchog, or Chakrasamvara.
The journey began in Kathmandu to the humid plains of Nepalgunj, from where Lucknow in India is just a four-hour drive, making it a preferred staging post for the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra. The next stop is Simikot (elevation about 3,000 m; 9,800 ft), the picturesque headquarters of Nepal’s Humla district. The airport has only a small runway set amid mountain slopes full of tall trees, and the town is serviced mostly by 17-seater Dornier aircraft and helicopters. After a day spent in acclimatisation, a helicopter ride through the mountains—one of the highlights of the tour—took us to Hilsa (3,640 m; 11,900 ft) bordering the TAR.
Mount Kailash is a unique mountain that has four distinct sides and stands apart from the other mountains of the Kailash range of the trans-Himalaya. The trans-Himalaya itself extends for a length of about 1,000 km along the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau (elevation ranges from 4,000 to 5,000 m) and parallel to the Great Himalayan range. Lake Mansarovar, a huge freshwater lake with a surface area of 320 sq km at an altitude of 4,590 m (15,060 ft) was to be our first stop. Like Mount Kailash, the lake too is revered by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpas (followers of Bon, a pre-Buddhist folk religion), and a sip of its water is said to cleanse one of all sins. To the west of the holy lake is Lake Rakshastal (4,575 m; 15,010 ft), whose creation in Hindu mythology is traced to Ravana. An endorheic (a waterbody, specifically a drainage basin, that has no outlet) lake, its water is said to be salty though this is disputed by many. The two lakes are connected by a channel through which water overflows from Mansarovar to Rakshastal. However, its source is no longer apparent because of a fall in the water level at Mansarovar.
Before the drive to Mansarovar there was the small matter of getting through with the immigration and baggage check at Burang. It was expected to take about half an hour for this group of 60 yatris, but the group’s private buses with driver and guide (all three essential for travel in the TAR) left the place a good four hours later. At one point it seemed as if the yatra would be over even before it had begun. One of the members of the group had wrapped footwear in a newspaper and that page of the Indian newspaper had a news item on the Dalai Lama. This was enough for the officials to begin a prolonged questioning of the yatri. Four hours later, they decided to let the group leave, but without three members of the group, including the one who was questioned and two who were with that person, as officials waited for word from their superiors in Lhasa.
While they joined the group the next day after clearance came from Lhasa, the rest of the group made the two-hour drive to Mansarovar the previous evening in enveloping darkness but just in time to witness a stunning moonrise over Mansarovar, its shimmering waters silhouetted against the sky. The delay seemed designed for us to take in this moment of ethereal beauty. At daybreak we had the first view of Mount Kailash, of its south face covered in snow, in the far distance, but the sanctity of the scene was spoiled by the building seemingly below it when seen in perspective but right in front of us: the restrooms block. True to what one had read and heard, it was open to the sky with nothing but a hole on the concrete floor serving as the toilet. In the neighbouring resthouse that we moved into later in the day, also overlooking the lake, there was, in addition, a vast shrub-covered expanse for open defecation and beyond it a view of the historic Gurla Mandhata mountain (7,694 m; 25,243 ft), a source for the Mansarovar and also the highest peak in Tibet.
The Tibetan plateau is the source of some of the major rivers in the world, including the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Huang He (Yellow river), and specifically the area around Kailash-Mansarovar is the source of the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Sutlej and the Karnali.
On the lake’s edge, as its blue-green waters stretched across the horizon and a chill wind howled through the emptiness, one felt a sense of peace and quiet until a couple of dogs, seemingly strays but Tibetan mastiffs nevertheless, arrived there and one tried to stay out of harm’s way.
Mansarovar now is out of bounds for the holy dip owing to pollution concerns, but one could still have a bath in water brought in buckets from the lake, and heated as well, at the waterfront in specially erected tents. This is arranged by the support staff of the organisers, a vital part of the group throughout the yatra. They come from Nepal and locally in Tibet and include guides, cooks, porters, and so on, and travel with the group. They look after the allotment of rooms for the yatris, four to six to a room; make sure that the yatris’ duffel bags, all numbered and of the same colour, reach them at every stop; cook food and make available hot water to drink and coffee, tea and other beverages at regular intervals; and on the trek they form the advance party that transports on yaks sacks of vegetables and other materials needed for the group at the next resthouse. Importantly, they secure for the group water from the lake in plastic bottles given by the yatris, which are distributed at the end of the trek.
At Mansarovar, a short distance from the shore, tucked into a hillside is the Chiu gompa, one of the many monasteries that dot the landscape, where Padmasambhava, the Indian mystic who took Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century, is the presiding deity. On one wall of the room that has a statue of Padmasambhava is a huge mural that depicts scenes from Buddhist lore, many of them with familiar parallels in stories from Hindu mythology. The view of Lake Mansarovar from the top of the hill is breathtaking and the south face of Kailash looms in the distance to the north.
The prospect of a punishing, yet exciting trek to the holiest of mountains lay ahead of us, and for that we left Mansarovar the next day for Darchen, the base camp. This was the last chance to stock up on essentials from the couple of supermarkets that have everything from trekking gear and oxygen bottles to raincoats, lip balm and chocolates and nuts. This is also the chance to have a hot bath, the only one for the next three days, which is the time it takes to do the full parikrama (circumambulation) of Kailash.
Yama dwar (Tarboche in Tibetan) on the outskirts of Darchen, where the trek begins, is perhaps so named to suggest that one leaves one’s mortal being at the “door of the god of death” to embrace the sanctity that Mount Kailash is a symbol of. The mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner put it in perspective when he said, in 2001, in response to a Spanish expedition’s bid to climb Mount Kailash: “If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls. I would suggest go and climb something a little harder. Kailas is not so high and not so hard.”
That emotional connect with Kailash is established at the very start of the trek when the south face of the mountain comes into full view. The first day’s trek is up to Dirapuk (Dira means horn of female yak and puk means cave), a distance of 14 km, for a view of the north face of the mountain. Dirapuk is also home to the monastery by that name overlooking Kailash. All along the trek route are huge mountains whose peaks and crevices are covered with snow and ice that are the source of many a waterfall along the slopes that form streams and eventually merge into a river, the Lha-chu, that stays with the yatris all the way up to Dirapuk and beyond. The Lha-chu valley itself is a vast barren area on reasonably level ground but strewn with pebbles and stones of various shapes and sizes. The fact that the entire trek is at an elevation of between 4,500 m and nearly 6,000 m, in a low-oxygen environment, makes it that much more challenging.
Among the trekkers are Tibetan pilgrims, Hindu yatris, tourists and even Bon devotees who circle the mountain in the counterclockwise direction.
Spiritual energy can be a useful ally in making the ascent, and Tibetans symbolically spread spirituality with their piled stones and multicoloured flags with prayers and names inscribed on them and strung in places all along the trek route. About the flags, the acclaimed travel writer Colin Thubron says in his book To a Mountain in Tibet (Vintage, 2012): “They glare in five primary colours, embodying earth, air, fire, water and sky. Like the prayer wheels that circle holy sites or turn in the hand so the pilgrims, they redeem the world by the mystique of words. Some, near monasteries, are even turned by flowing water. Many are stamped with the wind horse, who flies their mantras on his jewelled back; others with the saint Padmasambhava…. Sometimes the flags are so thinned that their prayers are as diaphanous as cobwebs. But this… does not matter. The air is already printed with their words.”
Those who opted to trek the distance rather than go on horseback walked at their own pace, stopping to catch their breath and then continuing. The couple of teahouses along the route, the first after a distance of about 3 km and the next closer to Dirapuk, helped them rest awhile and eat something before resuming their trek. It took this writer and the guide, who also carried an oxygen cylinder meant for the group, almost eight hours to cover the distance. And at 6:30 p.m., the evening sun still shining, as this writer climbed the steel ladder to the first floor of the resthouse and entered his room hoping to rest his tired limbs, a fellow traveller who had reached there much earlier on a horse asked: “Have you seen Mount Kailash?” The question hit home like a thunderbolt. This writer made a dash for the door and stood transfixed at the sight in front of him: the iconic north face of Mount Kailash, the near-perfect linga in all its magnificence.
Not all members of the group went on the parikrama on the second and third day, only about 15 did. While some, including this writer, opted out on their own, others were disallowed by the organisers because of low oxygen saturation level in the body and age. Some who started out on the second day had to turn back at the Chinese checkpost because the officials there decided that only those aged below 60 would be allowed to go.
On the second day’s trek, one passes the Drolma La (5,630 m; 18,470 ft), the highest point on the trek, and then descends rather steeply to Zuthulpuk (around 4,800 m; 15,750 ft), where a monastery is situated, and from there on to Darchen to complete the parikrama. Those who completed the parikrama were justifiably elated, but even those who did not can be proud of what they had achieved in conditions that were anything but hospitable.