Mythical centre of the universe

The journey to Kailash-Mansarovar is a matchless experience, says Amar Chandel after a recent visit

Mt Kailash and Nandi Parbat.
Mt Kailash and Nandi Parbat.

A sadhu at Lake Mansarovar
A sadhu at Lake Mansarovar

A Tibetan girl in a village near Mt Kailash
A Tibetan girl in a village near Mt Kailash. — Photos by the writer

Every year thousands of people apply to the Government of India for going to Kailash-Mansarovar. Because of a limited number of visas issued by China, only a handful get the green signal in a draw of lots.

If you are among the unsuccessful ones, you can consider the Nepal route as a viable alternative. It costs considerably more, but there are several plus points as well. The pilgrimage takes only 17 days — about a week less — to complete; the walking component is smaller and above all, medical restrictions are less stringent: you only need a certificate of fitness.

But make no mistake about it. Going there just because the medical checking on the way is less severe can be suicidal. If you have the slightest blood pressure, heart or breathing problems, perish the thought of embarking on this journey, because even the slightest ailment is going to magnify many times at the high altitude. Even the perfectly healthy persons take a lot of effort to acclimatise fully. Severe headache, body ache, disorientation and palpitation are the most common symptoms. There are numerous instances of coma, paralysis and even death too. Living, leave alone walking, is a difficult proposition at heights of 15,000 ft plus for a person born and brought up in the plains.

For those who are ready and willing to face all challenges, the journey is an unparalleled experience. It begins at Kathmandu, the captivating capital of Nepal. It is best undertaken in a group, comprising anything from 10 to 100 people, because the co-travellers act as an ideal support group in case of an emergency. The pilgrimage takes place only from June to September because during the rest of the year, the area is snow-bound.

One starts from Kathmandu at the break of dawn in a van and passes through scenic rice fields of Nepal along the Arniko highway made with the aid of the Chinese. The road is in bad shape but the view is captivating.

On the way, you pay "tax" not only to the government authorities but also to Maoists, who waylay the vehicles every now and then. Nobody thinks it wise to refuse their demands.

After a drive of about five hours, one lines up at the Friendship Bridge at the Kodari border for completing visa formalities. These can take one to two hours. Red tape is the same everywhere, you see.

On the Chinese side, Land Cruisers await you, in which four persons are accommodated. The Tibetan drivers know no English or Hindi. So, there is a Nepali sherpa also there in each jeep.

The jeeps take a sharp climb which within a distance of some 40 km takes you to an altitude of 12,000 ft after customs check on the way at Zhangmu which may take another three hours. You spend not just one but two nights at a small town called Nayalam for acclimatisation.

Luggage being unloaded from yaks after returning from Kailash parikramas
Luggage being unloaded from yaks after returning from Kailash parikramas

The place has been carefully chosen. If lack of oxygen and high-altitude strike you, the best antidote is to quickly move to a lower altitude. Since Nayalam is only 40 km up the Tibetan plateau, this job can be quickly done from there. In the scarcely populated region, the next town is some eight hours further.

At Nayalam and other night halts, Nepali sherpas quickly set up kitchen and serve piping hot food, because the Tibetan food available there is hardly palatable to the Indians. Vegetarian fare is even rarer to find.

After two days’ rest, the jeep caravan recommences the journey from Nayalam. For the next two days one covers about 250 km in about 10 hours daily to reach quaint habitations like Saga and Prayang on the way to Mansarovar. Mountains are absolutely bare, reminding one of moonscape, although higher reaches are covered with snow. There is no road as such; only a rough track, that too only during part of the way. In the rest of the places, there is not even a track and it is a miracle that the drivers find their way through the meadows.

At times one had to wade through more than three feet of water, putting the 4X4 power of the all-terrain jeep to great strain. If a vehicle is caught up in the tricky water, others are always there to pull it out. Drivers are also competent enough to take care of even major repairs.

On the third day too, one travels the whole day to finally reach the shores of Mansarovar at a height of about 15,000 ft. The serenity and tranquillity that the highest freshwater lake in the world exudes is palpable, even if one is not there for religious reasons. The reflection of the mighty Mt Kailash in its crystal clear water, which changes hues every few hours, is one of the most beautiful visions that one can hope to have.

And for the religious minded, it is the ultimate destination considering that a holy dip in it is supposed to wash away the sins of a lifetime. Not only Hindus but also Buddhists, Jains and Tibetans consider it the most cherished pilgrimage.

Next day, most sprinkle the freezing cold water of the lake on their bodies, while the more daring take a holy dip. Some even embark on a parikrama of the lake which runs into more than 50 km and takes three days.

From there one travels to Darchen, the base camp for Kailash parikrama, via Rakshash Taal, where Ravana is believed to have worshipped Lord Shiva. Darchen is one place which provides ISD facility and also a few reasonably good hotels.

One can go to Ashtapad to have a magnificent view of Mt Kailash, the mythical Mt Meru, the divine centre of the universe around which the whole creation revolves. Those who decide not to go on the parikrama spend their time at Darchen.

As usual, the parikrama begins early in the day. One goes to Yama Dwar and takes horses or yaks from there. Most prefer to go on foot. As one goes round the 22,028-ft abode of Lord Shiva, the scenic beauty of the place bewitches him. The sheer grandeur of the mountains and valleys rivalling Grand Canyon is to be seen to be believed.

The first night halt is at Diraphuk where a tented colony is quickly set up. The proximity to the holy mountain is cathartic. A quick dinner of khichdi or chawal-dal later, most retire for meditation or contemplation.

The second day is the most difficult of the 45-km parikrama. One has to trek 22 km and also climb up to 18,650-ft Dolma La pass. As the near-vertical climb awaits you, you curse yourself for having embarked on such an arduous journey, but there is no going back. Shouts of Bam Bam Bhole do give you the strength to press on.

By the time you reach the pass around mid-day, most are too tired to think of going to take a holy dip in Gauri Kund at the feet of Mt Kailash but a handful do undertake the painstaking trek.

Things can turn all the more nasty if there is rain, sleet or snowfall on the way, as it happened in our case.

The second day’s tented halt is at Zuthulphuk, the miracle cave of Milarepa where one is amidst waterfalls of pristine beauty.

The last day’s trek is only about 10 km. Suddenly, you realise that you have completed one of the most difficult treks in Asia and the sense of relief is tremendous.

The return journey from Darchen again takes four days of backbreaking drive, stopping at Prayang, Saga and Nayalam on the way. The route is as tough as it was when you were on the way out, but now you feel lighter, on the wings of your "achievement".