As the world celebrates the 70th year of the summiting of Mt Everest, I am reminded of my expedition to Kailash. The landscape here, which includes parts of Nepal and China, is more remote, and less frequented by adventure-seekers. Mt Kailash in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China is an ancient pilgrimage site, held sacred by Hindus, Jains, Tibetan Buddhists, and the Bonpos of Tibet. People go to Kailash not to summit it but to gain spiritual merit by circling the vast base of the mountain. I went there as part of an international team on a research project.
It was a cold, overcast morning in late July 2016 when we started out for the ascent to the 5,650-metre- high Dolma La pass, the highest point on the parikrama (circumambulation) route of the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra. After three hours of non-stop walking, with just a few dozen metres remaining between us and the pass, the mist suddenly cleared and a golden, nebulous sun shone through for a few minutes. To us, it felt like a welcome sign. Soon, we were rejoicing and hugging each other as we reached Dolma La. Indian pilgrims, most of them on horses led by guides from the local nomadic communities, briefly got down at the pass to light incense and say their prayers. Some Tibetan pilgrims broke into the age-old nyelu songs, which joyously proclaim the eternal fraternity of all who cross paths on a Kailash pilgrimage.
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This was the crowning moment of our month-long expedition, which involved treks from west Nepal’s Humla district to a network of sacred sites in western Tibet, topped by Kailash. Ours was an eclectic group of researchers and artists from China, India, Nepal, and the US who were collaborating on a research project to document and understand the everyday lives, livelihoods, cultural practices, and heritage of communities living in the adjoining mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet. These regions are connected by historic transborder ties of religion, pilgrimage, trade, kinship, and pastoralism. Political divisions have not succeeded fully in severing the bonds. I joined the expedition as a representative of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a Kathmandu-based intergovernmental organisation.
“Life was brutal in this stunning landscape. Humla was a desperately poor region with a chronic food deficit.”
The expedition was a life-changing experience. Humla and Burang county are the remotest inhabited regions respectively of Nepal and TAR. Back in 2016, Humla was a week away from the nearest Nepali road head. We had to take a treacherous flight in a small aircraft from Nepalgunj to Simikot, Humla’s picturesque district headquarters. From there, we commenced our trek, which, except for one day, lay entirely among high altitudes, above 3,000 metres. The journey took us through stunningly varied natural and cultural landscapes, which modernity had not touched.
- Mt Kailash in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China is an ancient pilgrimage site, held sacred by Hindus, Jains, Tibetan Buddhists, and the Bonpos of Tibet.
- The adjoining mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet are connected by historic transborder ties of religion, pilgrimage, trade, kinship, and pastoralism.
- Our expedition to Mt Kailash as part of a research team was a life-changing experience. Humla and Burang county are the remotest inhabited regions respectively of Nepal and TAR.
- Life was brutal in this stunning landscape.
Life in Humla
In central Humla, all the villages consisted of densely clustered traditionally built houses perched on vertiginous forested slopes, interspersed with terraces of rice, buckwheat, and barley, which were cared for with back-breaking labour. The local shamans have an ancient tradition of making pilgrimages to Lake Mansarovar, near Kailash, to attain mystical powers. In these remote regions, the shamans are much-revered as spiritual healers: they also act as mediators in social conflicts. The terrain got harsher as we reached upper Humla, where snow-covered peaks tower over sparsely inhabited alpine scrubland. The Tibetan Buddhist monasteries here have old ties with monasteries in present-day Burang county.
Life was brutal in this stunning landscape. We found that Humla was a desperately poor region with a chronic food deficit. Its relatively stable old economy, based on transborder barter of Nepali grain for Tibetan salt and wool, had been left in disarray by successive Sino-Nepalese transborder agreements, and the replacement of Tibetan salt with subsidised Indian salt in the 1970s, and successive droughts in recent decades. The aircraft that had taken us to Humla would also routinely ferry large consignments of grain from the Nepal government and the World Food Programme.
The young men of Humla found it more lucrative to do manual labour in Burang county, allowed under a transborder agreement, instead of farming on the steep mountain slopes. Daily wages were several times higher in China. Even Humla’s Tibetan Buddhist monks made a decent living by offering their services in Buddhist Burang, which, paradoxically, had very few monks of its own.
Burang county was much more modernised and connected to mainland China by a smooth highway and an airport. In Humla, there was very little presence of the Nepali state beyond Simikot.
In contrast, Chinese presence and influence were pervasive in Burang. Burang town had a well-established market selling Chinese clothes, electronics, food items, and alcohol. Almost every business had a Chinese flag flying atop. There were several modern hotels for Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrims and tourists in both Burang and Darchen, a small town that marks the gateway to the Kailash trek.
The Chinese government had rebuilt the monasteries around Lake Mansarovar and Mt Kailash that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. But these monasteries were curiously devoid of monks, with only a few caretakers living in them.
It was moving to witness the great devotion of Tibetans along the parikrama route. Many Tibetans we came across did this difficult 53 kilometre circumambulation in a single day, and repeated it for several consecutive days. Some did the entire parikrama through full-body prostrations, an arduous method that would take around three weeks. The logic was that the harder these voluntarily undertaken hardships were, the greater would be the merit earned by the pilgrim.
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There was generally little interaction among the different groups circumambulating Kailash. Even so, our hearts resonated with the message of the traditional Tibetan nyelu songs we had heard on Dolma La. The Kailash-Mansarovar yatra remains suspended from 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdown started. A recent report in Nepal’s newspaper, The Kathmandu Post, stated: “Nepal is missing out on the millions of rupees the Indian pilgrims used to bring into the economy. It is uncertain if and when China will reopen the border.”
Meanwhile, the Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, announced recently that work on the Kailash-Mansarovar highway project via Pithoragarh in India is almost complete. The new road is expected to reduce the travel time to Kailash by many days.
Will the landscape lose its aura as newly opened roads ease communication with Kailash-Mansarovar? Also, will the economic condition of the people living on this route change? It remains to be seen.
Abhimanyu Pandey is the co-author of Kailash Yatra: A Long Walk to Mt. Kailash through Humla (Penguin, 2018), with Kevin Bubriski. He is completing a DPhil in anthropology from Heidelberg University, Germany, as a DAAD scholar.