KAILASH MANSAROVAR TREK FROM INDIA
Mount Meru: Centre Of The World
By Shailesh Pathak
It’s freezing cold as you gaze upon the summit on fire. And marvel as your heart’s desire comes true. Manasarovar and Mt Kailash, the holiest lake and mountain in the world, shimmer in front of you. The entire Manasarovar-Mt Kailash region is a living shrine and one of the greatest and hardest of all earthly pilgrimages.
Long before modern nation-states came into being, the most devoted and resolute pilgrims aspired to complete this unparalleled pilgrimage, the path to moksha. Then, chances were that the yatra would be one-way — if the arduous mountain trek and cold didn’t get you, predatory robber gangs in Tibet would. If the pilgrim didn’t return after a two-year period, he was presumed to have ascended to Vaikunth, the ultimate destination, fulfilling his holy journey.
Things are much easier now. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India, organises the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, a 26-day round-trip from Delhi, on the age-old route, between June and September each year. Accomplished with excellent logistic support and in reasonable comfort, it is a reliable, economical, safe and beautiful way of doing the yatra.
This is true for several reasons. Instead of being at the mercy of possibly unscrupulous tour operators, the yatri is feted by the Government of India and its agencies. The yatra costs less than what tour operators in India and Nepal demand. And there is transparency in what is offered and provided. Selection is based on a two-level medical check-up.
The journey to Tibet ensures gradual acclimatisation, a critical factor. The route is over the Indian Himalaya up to the Lipu Lekh Pass on the Indo-Tibet border. Even 60-year-olds in our group accomplished this climb. The yatra offers incredible mountain vistas and other sacred sites such as the magnificent Om Parvat, Bhimtal, Almora, Jageshwar and Pataal Bhuvaneshwar, even as the holy mountain of Nanda Devi blesses the yatri all the way to Dharchula. The return through India’s Deo Bhumi, the ancient Uttarakhand, is heavenly.
Under the aegis of the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN), decent food and pucca accommodation is available on the Indian side, with proper toilets. Facilities, especially toilets, are primitive on the Chinese side, but yatris are not required to stay in tents anywhere along the way. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) provides all support. Indeed, at the end of the yatra, all of us came away in awe of them.
A Liaison Officer (LO) is deputed for each batch of yatris. He is always a senior official of the government (IAS, IPS, Allied Services), and is also an experienced trekker. I was the Liaison Officer for the first batch of yatris in the MEA’s 2005 Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra. In addition, there are usually two doctors (as yatris) in every group, with a decent medical kit. The LO is provided with a satellite phone; contact is thus maintained through out the yatra, and during emergencies. Based on the daily status report filed by the LO, the KMVN website is updated so that loved ones back home can remain informed. At all camps, except during the six days of the parikramas, STD or ISD phones are available.
For any emergency on the Indian side, helicopter evacuation is arranged and indeed, this was required to be done for one yatri in 2005, who displayed symptoms of acute Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS). On the Tibetan side, since the LO is an official representative and has a white passport, it’s easier dealing with difficult Chinese authorities. There is continuation across batches. The injured and ill of an incoming batch are brought out by a returning batch. In 2004 and 2005, this happened to only a single yatri; all the others completed the yatra safely. The total expenditure of the MEA on the 2005 Kailash Manasarovar Yatra was Rs 39 lakh.
Finally, with each and every detail organised, the yatri is free to focus on the most important journey of his or her life, in the company of fellow citizens from different parts of the country. While the more athletic members of a group trek throughout, there are others who take a pony all the way. The male-female ratio is usually 60-40. The youngest yatri in our batch was 24, and the oldest 62. Even if you are middle-aged, and have seen mountains mostly in pictures, you are the ideal candidate for this yatra. It is not a test of physical strength or endurance, though it helps to have a sound constitution. What is more necessary is heartfelt devotion, mental resolve and a burning desire to complete the parikramas. If this applies to you, go for it!
On your return, most of your friends and acquaintances will expect a big puja and feast, though there will be the uninformed and naïve who will ask, “And how was Amarnath?” Your weight would be down by a minimum of five kilos, and improvements in your cardiovascular system will extend your life expectancy by several years.
Remember, it’s not just the destination, but also the yatra itself that is part of this incredible experience. Thousands have trod on this path before you, in less opportune circumstances. The Kailash Manasarovar Yatra becomes the high point of your life — things change for the better on their own when you return, spiritually uplifted and physically in better shape.
LEGENDS, MYTHOLOGY AND HISTORY
Kailash predates almost all religious pilgrimages in India. While Lord Shiva visits Varanasi, his eternal abode is always Kailash, where he dwells with his consort Parvati. For Hindus, Kailash is the physical manifestation of the revered Mount Meru, the centre of the world. In the Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “Among the mountains, I am Meru.” As the merudanda, it is the spinal cord, the axis mundi that holds the world together. The Vishnu Purana (approx 200 BCE) describes how the world is made up of seven continents ringed by seven oceans — “The central continent has Meru at its core, bounded by three mountain ranges to the north and three to the south. One of these ranges is the Himalayan barrier, interposed between Meru and ‘Bharatha’, the Indian subcontinent. Meru itself stands eighty-four thousand leagues high, with four faces of crystal, ruby, gold and lapis lazuli. Ganga falls from the heavens on Meru’s summit, circles the mountain and then divides into four mighty rivers which flow to the four quarters of the earth.” Today we know that the Kailash Manasarovar region indeed gives rise to four great rivers: Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej and Karnali.
Lake Manasarovar was believed to have been created by Brahma. The Puranas have it that 12 pre-Vedic rishis, sons of Brahma, performed austerities for 12 years near Kailash and had darshan of Shiva and Parvati. They supplicated Brahma for water for bathing, upon which he created the huge lake. Pilgrims believe that in the dead of night, divine beings descend from the heavens to have a holy dip in the Manasarovar. A single dip washes away the sins of a lifetime and one is born again, free of any wrongdoing.
Mt Kailash stands tall, at 22,027 ft. The four faces of the holy mountain are distinctive. An aerial photograph of Kailash bears an uncanny resemblance to the Shivaling we worship. Deep clefts on either side isolate it from the rest of the Kailash Range, making it one of the few mountains on earth where a parikrama (kora in Tibetan) is possible. It is said that after its parikrama, one is freed from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. After 21 parikramas of the traditional route, one becomes eligible to undertake the inner parikrama or the middle circuit, which runs high across the four faces of the mountain.
The highest freshwater lake in the world, Gauri Kund, at 18,536 ft, lies just after Dolma La, the highest point in the Kailash Parikrama. This was the spot where Parvati came for her bath when the gods prayed to her for protection. Frozen for over half the year, Gauri Kund’s waters are credited with great powers of fertility for women.
Rakshas Tal is considered inauspicious by Hindus and Buddhists. There are no monasteries around its 115-km perimeter, as opposed to several along the 88-km circumference of Manasarovar. Paradoxically, Rakshas Tal receives the waters flowing down from Kailash, while Manasarovar is fed by the streams coming down Gurla Mandhata. Rakshas Tal is associated with Ravana; the belief is that he was trying to carry off Mt Kailash to Lanka. Perturbed, the gods pleaded to Ganesh. Divine intervention led to Ravana asking Ganesh to hold the mountain while the former relieved himself. This task took much longer than expected, and Rakshas Tal was born.
It is held that earlier Manasarovar and Rakshas Tal were one body of water with an island in the middle. Now they are separated by a narrow isthmus of low hills, with only a thin, mostly dry channel called Ganga Chu connecting them.
For Jains, Kailash is the Ashtapada, where Rishabhanatha, the first Tirthankara, achieved enlightenment. Buddhists believe that the legendary Lord Demchog (complete with trident and damaru) dwells on Kang Rimpoche (Kailash) with his scarlet consort Dorje Phangmo. Milarepa, the Buddhist spiritual leader, went to Kailash in 1093; he is credited with creating the supreme Tibetan mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. The ancient Tibetan shamanistic faith, Bon-Po, holds the mountain holy and says their gods moved Tise, the ‘nine-storey swastika mountain’ from north-east Tibet to its present location. The Bon-Po do the kora counter-clockwise, all others do the parikrama clockwise. Thus, four religious belief systems — Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Bon-Po — hold the mountain holy.
Indians have been making the holy pilgrimage since time immemorial; both Kailash and Manasarovar find mention in the Skanda Purana, Vishnu Purana, Ramayana and Mahabharata. But till 1800, one of the greatest mysteries for cartographers was “the ancient and powerful belief in Asia that somewhere between India and China, there stood a sacred mountain, an Asian Olympus of cosmic proportions. This mountain was said to be the navel of the earth and the axis of the universe and from its summit flowed a mighty river that fell into a lake, and then divided to form four of the great rivers of Asia. It was the holiest of all mountains, revered by many millions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as the home of their gods. In metaphysical form, it was called Meru; in its earthly manifestation it was Kailas, or Kang Rimpoche (Precious Jewel of Snow), an isolated snow-peak on the Tibetan plateau. For more than 2,000 years, it has been the lodestone — the all but unattainable goal — that draws towards itself all the devotional cults that seek the attainment of bliss through self-sacrifice, austerity and penance,” says Charles Allen in A Mountain in Tibet.
The earliest European record dates to 1715, from an Italian Jesuit called Ippolito Desideri, who passed Kailash on the way to Lhasa. John Rennell, the ‘Father of Indian Geography’, in his 1782 map of Hindustan, followed the Hindu belief that the Ganga had its fountainhead beyond the Himalaya at the sacred Manasarovar Lake, that the Ganga flowed south till the “great chain of mount Himmaleh” and forced its way through a trans-Himalayan tunnel. It was only in 1812 when Hyder Jung Hearsey and Dr William Moorcroft crossed over the Niti Pass and surveyed the Manasarovar area that this geographical inaccuracy was corrected. In 1862, to survey Tibet surreptitiously, the Survey of India used the services of the Bhotia Pundits of Johar Valley’s Milam Village; Nain Singh Rawat (code named Chief Pundit or No. 1) and Kishen Singh (Krishna, or AK) being the most famous. Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer who was responsible for filling in the gaps in the map of Tibet, described the Kailash region as “a bare rocky countryside out of which the summit of a snow-clad mountain rose up like a glittering pyramid of silver”. In 1907, he sounded the deepest part of Manasarovar at 269 ft.
Salim Ali, on an ornithological pilgrimage, crossed the Lipu Lekh Pass on June 8, 1945, walking from Almora, the roadhead then. In his words, “The trail takes a north-easterly direction from Almora and passes through picturesque Himalayan scenery with superb views from various places along the route of Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and the Panch Chuli peaks.”
The mountains in Tibet are chiefly composed of conglomerates — large quantities of rounded water-worn shingle cemented together with clay through age and pressure. All the way from Taklakot to Manasarovar, the country is flat stony desert. In geological terms, Kailash stands alone, the world’s largest deposit of tertiary conglomerate.
If you are the type who wants to do a ‘Quick Kailash’ or ‘heli-Kailash’, please do not read what follows. This yatra is not for someone who is too busy for Shiva. You may like to fly to Moscow, thence to Hong Kong, and back to Delhi and lo, the parikrama is done!
One meets a variety of people on the yatra: friendly mandarins in the MEA, warm hosts from KMVN, ITBP personnel who are pillars of strength, children from isolated mountain villages who greeted us with the mantra that every yatri lives by: ‘Om Namah Shivaya’, grim-faced Chinese immigration officials, and Tibetan guides who know a lot of Hindi. But above all, one becomes part of a family that travels together for nearly a month. In our group of 23 yatris, we had pilgrims speaking all four South Indian languages, along with Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and Marwari, besides Hindi. If you haven’t left your ego behind, Kailashpati Mahadev will make sure that this happens during the yatra. High altitudes are difficult for almost everyone. Ensure that you respect the mountains and prepare with patience. Be prepared too to remain away from modern luxuries for the duration of the yatra. You will find few flush toilets in Tibet. This is a tough journey that will demand all your inner reserves. Having said that, I did not encounter a single yatri who complained or appeared defeated or overwhelmed by what many of them were experiencing for the first time in their lives.
Four days before the yatra
We are gathered in Delhi, with all yatris having received telegrams, and the detailed MEA booklet, which reach the yatris about three weeks before they assemble in Delhi. Medical tests are conducted at Batra Hospital. The next day ITBP doctors go over our reports and declare almost all aspirants fit. At least two yatris are doctors, and we are happy. There is a very useful briefing on the entire yatra. We are overjoyed at the love and affection with which some NGOs gift us medical kits and clothing, and provisions for the entire group. Day zero brings a send off from the Chief Minister, Government of Delhi, where all of us get a special rucksack and raincoat, with lots of affection. We are the first group in the silver jubilee year of the yatra. All groups get such send-offs, only the dignitaries change.
Day 1: Delhi to Bhimtal
We journey by AC bus or train to Kathgodam (1,690 ft/ 240 km/ 8 hrs north-east), where we change to smaller buses to negotiate the hill curves. Already, the group is a cohesive whole and volunteers emerge to handle all luggage, take care of weaker yatris, keep everyone in high spirits, or educate the others on the religious aspects of the yatra. The whole group listens to bhajans together; individuals don’t shut themselves off with iPods. We spend the first night in the excellent KMVN Tourist Rest House at Bhimtal (4,500 ft/ 40 km/ 1 hr north of Kathgodam). I start members of our group on muscle exercises for the trail ahead.
Day 2: Bhimtal to Dharchula
A long drive north through the verdant Himalaya and we stop for lunch at the KMVN Tourist Rest House in Chaukori, located on a spur among tea estates. We have a glorious view of Nanda Devi, said to be Parvati to Kailash’s Shiva. At 25,646 ft, Nanda Devi is higher than Mt Kailash (22,027 ft). We travel 3 hrs to Mirthi, where the ITBP Camp Commandant briefs the yatris on the route ahead. We reach Dharchula (2,300 ft/ 313 km/ 14 hrs east-north-east of Bhimtal) on our side of the border. The KMVN Tourist Rest House is comfortable, and we sleep well after the long journey. Dharchula is not very high, and some yatris even feel warm. On the other side of the Kali River, thundering away through the night, lies Nepal’s Dharchula, a district headquarters town. It’s accessed easily by a small bridge. We see a just-married bride from the Indian Dharchula being taken with pomp and ceremony by her groom and his party across to the Nepalese side. Shop for cheap warm clothing there, in case anything has been missed out.
Day 3: Dharchula to Gala
The waterproof packing has been done, weighed, and handed over to the luggage contractor @ 25 kg per yatri. Usually, most yatris carry less items, and the total load this time, even after including common provisions, is well within the limit. After a formal send off that features a beautiful Kumaoni dance, Uttaranchal’s Tourism Minister flags off our bus. We head for the roadhead Mangti (4,325 ft/ 43 km/ 3 hrs north-east), where there is a melee to organise ponies and porters.
The trail north-east to Gala (8,005 ft/ 3 km/ 2-3 hrs), the first camp, is beautiful. There are places en route where trekkers appreciate the value of their hard conditioning back home. Pony riders get over their initial trepidation. Yatris, now coalescing into a collective, sing bhajans and share experiences. Members of the luggage, finance and troubleshooting committees are doing quite well.
Day 4: Gala to Budhi
A long day that begins with a descent of 4,444 steps. To reach Budhi (8,900 ft/ 18 km/ 11 hrs north-east of Mangti), we have both climbed and descended in a single day. We stop for lunch at Lakhanpur, on the banks of the Kali River, our companion for the next six days. The river also forms the border with Nepal. The trail passes through superbly scenic countryside. The trees are changing as the altitude increases. The first snow peaks have appeared. They look divine. The friendly KMVN staff at the huts in Budhi welcome us with a big smile, and great food.
Day 5: Budhi to Gunji
We start on the steepest climb in the yatra, the Chhialekh ki Chadhai (the climb of Chhialekh), a tall hill next to Budhi. Even hardened trekkers would do well to get onto their ponies and simply enjoy the view on this long day. We reach the meadow above Chhialekh in 11/2-2 hrs, having climbed 1,510 ft over the 2-km trail north of Budhi. A banner we see every day on the trail, all the way to the border, adds to our joy. ‘Welcome, Kailash Manasarovar Yatris, from ITBP’. The hot tea and pakoras at the ITBP Command Post are heavenly. Thereafter, it is a flat walk north-east to Garbyang, over meadows which would put a pastoral Swiss countryside to shame. The Annapurna Peak is to the right. Garbyang is the ‘sinking village’, a geologically blighted ground with weak shale moorings; houses that were built high have now slid down to the level of the river. Here, another post of ITBP welcomes us and provides us with an armed escort. We can see the adjoining village of Nepal, said to be under Maoist control. ITBP’s superior firepower adds to our sense of safety.
As we walk along the Kali Valley, we espy Gunji (10,500 ft/ 20 km/ 10 hrs from Budhi). Even though we have to walk down the bridge, cross over into Gunji Village, and then double back quite some distance, as long as we can see it, it doesn’t look too far away. At Gunji, ITBP personnel serve us hot tea and snacks. There is a round of medical check-ups at the ITBP Command Hospital here. ITBP doctors put us at ease, and unless there is serious threat to life, every yatri goes on. We all do. A game of cricket with the ITBP jawans, and rounds of antakshri (yatris vs porters) are huge fun. The two evenings are reserved for bhajans at the ITBP temple here. And the bonus: most yatris have their first hot water bath after starting from Dharchula.
Day 6: At Gunji
We remain at Gunji to acclimatise. I give horse-riding lessons to the entire group here; our oldest yatri confides later that his pony and he got along much better after that. A separate trail from Gunji leads to Chhota Kailash, also called Adi Kailash. Another journey, another time.
Day 7: Gunji to Kalapani
This is perhaps the most beautiful day of the journey. Fully rested, we start for Kalapani (11,811 ft/ 9 km/ 6 hrs east). The level walk is along the Kali River, rich with birch, pine, bhojpatra and juniper trees. Just before Kalapani, hot springs invite the enthusiastic. At Kalapani, a magnificent temple welcomes yatris to the source of the Kali River. Vyas Gufa, high above us, is believed to be the place where Sage Ved Vyas wrote the Mahabharata.
Day 8: Kalapani to Navidhang
At Navidhang (13,080 ft/ 9 km/ 6 hrs north-east of Kalapani) we move above the tree line. The sky is clear and we get an amazing view of the beyond-words Om Parvat, where snow falls in the shape of ‘Om’. There is a review of weather conditions on the morrow, with the ITBP. We sleep early, praying to Kailashpati to bless us with good weather.
Day 9: Navidhang to Taklakot via Lipu Lekh Pass
Crossing the Lipu Lekh Pass (17,828 ft/ 9 km/ 4 hrs north from Navidhang) into Tibet is the toughest part yet for the yatris. This must be done before 9 am for strong winds and inclement weather conditions make the trek too risky after that. We leave Navidhang at 3 am, with a full ITBP escort. We wear all the layers of clothing we possess. We are well-acclimatised by now, so we ascend gradually. Ponies come in most handy. At long last, we clear Lipu at 7 am, India time (9.30 am, Chinese time). CA Sherring writes in Western Tibet and the British Borderland on the view of the Gurla Mandhata Mountain from Lipu Lekh Pass, “...the impression on the beholder is that the scene before him is truly one of nature’s grandest handiworks. There are no trees or verdure to relieve the severity and the almost total absence of animal life adds to the feeling of intense desolation prevailing everywhere.”
A motley crew of Tibetan porters awaits us at the top of the pass. We exchange tashi delegs (hellos) and thu-je-ches (thank yous). Indian porters leave us now and our entire luggage, including the contractor’s supplies, is transferred to the Tibetan porters. Guides from the Tibetan travel agency engaged by KMVN receive us here, and we cross over into Tibet. The farewell to the Indian contingent, especially the ITBP personnel, is emotional. We descend 100-200 ft to escape the strong, icy winds and wait for the immigration formalities to be completed. We have a valid group visa to enter China.
The descent underlines the importance of shoes with a good grip. One physically fit yatri keeps slipping in his sneakers, and needs support from both sides. An excellent bus awaits us. A welcome drink (a cold can of Pepsi, would you believe), and a khatta, a white scarf that honours us, are gratefully received before we sink into our luxurious seats, resting our tired limbs. The day’s trek is over.
We drive 22 km north through moonscape to reach Taklakot (13,123 ft), which is roughly the same altitude as Navidhang, our previous night’s halt. But it appears to be on the plains. Such is the topography of the great Tibetan plateau. Purang Guest House on Main Street is our home. We also have the luxury of a hot shower.
Day 10: At Taklakot
We spend the day in Taklakot while logistics are arranged for the parikramas. We purchase some Chinese currency and fresh vegetables. Do walk to the ends of Main Street: on one side is an excellent (and clean) vegetable market, next to VCD rental shops that have the latest Bollywood hits. We used the Internet cafés and ISD facilities to get in touch with folks back home. There are dry cleaners also. Mobile networks start working in Taklakot, and there is coverage over most of the route to follow.
It’s best to shop for keepsakes and souvenirs at Taklakot, but on the way back after the parikramas. The high street near the guest house looks glitzy, but the best bargains in clothes, toys and Tibetan handicrafts are to be had in the clean Nepali Mandi, a longish walk west on the road by the River Karnali. In Darchen, vendors will find you even before you get off the bus. Bargaining is very much expected everywhere
Day 11: Taklakot to Lake Manasarovar
Brilliantly twinkling stars gaze down upon us as we embark on our journey for the day in an AC bus. It is 6 am. The all-weather road crosses the Gurla Pass (16,125 ft). We look behind to see a glorious skyline of snow peaks. On our right is Gurla Mandhata (25,354 ft), almost close enough to touch. And then, we wait with bated breath. A glimpse of Mt Kailash and a resounding cry of ‘Om Namah Shivay’ exults through the bus. The vehicle goes down to the banks of the Rakshas Tal (14,815 ft/ 70 km/ 4 hrs north of Taklakot) and stops. We disembark, humbled by the wonder of where we are.
We just cannot stop feasting our eyes on the pyramid of snow, rising high above its surroundings, shaped like a Shivaling. Mount Kailash. Everybody is quiet now, as the bus skirts the Rakshas Tal and crosses over to Manasarovar. The scenery is indescribably beautiful. I counted six separate colours in the immense span of the sparkling waters of the holy lake. At Qihu (or Chiu) Gompa, we get down to walk by the shore of Lake Manasarovar (14,862 ft/ 98 km/ 5 hrs north of Taklakot) for the first time. Our feet begin to sink in the swampy bog.
The group is now split into two groups, since only 20-25 pilgrims can be lodged at most places on the parikrama. One has to complete the Kailash Parikrama first, and then do the Manasarovar Parikrama. The holy lake has a motorable road all around it. Hore (about 40 km/ 2 hrs east of Qihu), a camp on the east shore of Manasarovar, is too far away from the water: it’s worth a lunch break at the most. It’s better to cross Hore and go straight to Qugu (85 km/ 4 hrs without factoring in a lunch break), on the south shore, right next to the lake, where the rooms are fairly good.
If you have the time, stop at the Trugo Monastery between Hore and Qugu just to soak in the ambience. Qugu too has a monastery, and a lovely beach, where we wade into the water without any risk.
Day 12: At Qugu, Manasarovar
This is one of the most satisfying days of the yatra. We wake up to see the most wonderful view of Kailash, looming across the shimmering lake. We are well acclimatised as we prepare for a ritual dip in Manasarovar. We do this early, before the winds take over. Remember, faith wins over the cold. This is the best time to gather holy water from the lake to take home as prasad. Immediately after dressing, we head for the havan at a designated platform next to the monastery, at a fair distance from the lake. Given good weather, this is an unforgettable experience. As an ecologically aware person, I can confidently say that these activities do not damage the immense lake or its habitat in any way. Fully satiated spiritually, we now have breakfast and then explore the monastery next door. Later that night, the more enthusiastic among us stir out in the chill, beneath a canopy of brilliant stars, to see what is believed to be the hour of gods and goddesses descending to the holy lake for a bath. I awoke at 3.30 am and went around, but my devotion had not reckoned with the combined effect of biting cold and sleep.
Day 13: At Qugu, Manasarovar
We remain at Qugu and marvel at the changing moods of the holy lake during the day. Those interested bathe at the hot springs nearby (20 yuan).
Day 14: Manasarovar Parikrama — Qugu to Darchen
Later in the day, we transit to Darchen, further north (15,000 ft/ 57 km/3 hrs by bus/ 7 hrs if part trek and partly by bus), the base for the Kailash Parikrama. But first after breakfast at Qugu, some of us walk along the serene, winding shore, by the rhythmic waves of Manasarovar. Other yatris follow in the bus with packed lunch (aloo paranthas). We complete the Mansarovar Parikrama on foot (15 km/ 5 hrs). This is a highly recommended experience. When we tire, we wait for the bus. We then travel (42 km/ 2 hrs) across the Barkha Plain, getting closer to Kailash. The sacred mountain has been watching over us throughout the Manasarovar Parikrama. We had not realised how well-acclimatised we were till we met the groups from Kathmandu at Darchen — many among them seem to be under the weather. From now on, our group and those who have arrived from Kathmandu/ Lhasa, share the same route for the parikrama. We find comfortable rooms at Darchen and we call home to share our joy.
Day 15: Kailash Parikrama — Darchen to Deraphuk
The Kailash Parikrama, literally the high point of the yatra, begins. We take a bus to Yama Dwar (5 km from Darchen), where the snow on Kailash shines in benediction. We walk through Yama Dwar to leave behind the fear of death. The bus takes us a little further, where the trail starts. Many of us hire ponies or yaks from here.
Opt for ponies instead of yaks for the Kailash Parikrama, irrespective of cost. The former are more comfortable and stable beasts. Do not pay the pony/ yak owner 100 per cent advance at Darchen. A maximum of 50 per cent upfront, with the balance payable after returning to Darchen is best. At Deraphuk, a nefarious practice is to claim bad weather at Dolma La, and return the horses or yaks back from Deraphuk instead of going on to complete the parikrama
The trail to Deraphuk (17,000 ft/ 14 km/ 5 hrs) is not very steep. The best view of the north face of Kailash is from here. After reaching Deraphuk, the more adventurous yatris climb up the stream to touch the base of the holy mountain. Be warned, this is a tough climb, so it is important to go early and return safely. The highest camp, Deraphuk, is buffeted by terrible winds.
It’s important to wear everything one has got, especially around the head. Please note that this is the camp at which some yatris may reconsider doing the full parikrama, and return to Darchen after spending the night. This is a perfectly valid alternative.
Day 16: Kailash Parikrama — Deraphuk to Dolma La to Zutulphuk
We wake up early to catch the first rays of the sun set the peak of Mt Kailash on fire. Nothing else is lit except Kailash. We preserve this memory more in our inner eye than in our cameras. This is also the toughest day of our yatra, when we cover 25 km in 15 hrs.
We cross a stream, climb our ponies or yaks, and stay on the trail till we come to Shiv Sthal. Tibetans make offerings, lie down and feign death here, to be reborn. I leave behind a few strands of hair.
We climb up a ridge and behold the highest point in the entire yatra, the Dolma La (18,602 ft), at a distance high above us. A multitude of prayer flags flutter in the cold winds. We wonder how we’ll ever get to the top. We walk to the base of the Dolma La, turn back and have a final darshan of the holy mountain. With Mahadeva on our mind, we ascend the pass slowly, with many stops. The air is rarefied, but even our well-acclimatised body needs all our mental will in order to make the climb. We are not able to use ponies or yaks. We stumble on to the Dolma La. If the weather holds good, yatri groups stop a while at the pass, which is quite wide. Buddhists perform obeisance to the Dolma deity with touching affection. A huge boulder at Dolma La is said to represent Tara Devi. Their combined blessings make the yatra doubly significant. I weep with joy here, partly for the fulfilment of my own yatra, but more because my entire yatri group has made it up to Dolma La without mishap.
The descent is not easy either. Immediately after Dolma La is Gauri Kund, where Parvati comes to bathe. All but the most courageous ask their porters to fetch water from the highest fresh water lake in the world. It is frozen when we visit. The taxing descent thereafter is on rough trails over scree and boulders. There are no horses or yaks to help. But in the exhilaration of having crossed the Dolma, most yatris traipse along. We clamber down to a valley, which is also the origin of the great Tsang Po or Brahmaputra. Two teashops (dhabas) serve us the best noodles and tea we have ever had. We hungrily get our body fluids back. Some yatris rest awhile before starting the 10-km trek along the river to Zutulphuk/ Zongzerbu (15,715 ft). Using a mount from here is advisable. If the group plans this day’s journey carefully, and is also lucky weather-wise, the Dolma La crossing is done before 11 am, the teashops are left behind by 3 pm, and Zutulphuk is reached before sunset. This is the longest day and hardest trek in the entire yatra.
Day 17: Zutulphuk to Darchen
This is almost like a holiday. We know that Darchen is just 4 hrs away, and the rest of the trail is over level ground. We take it easy in the morning. My best memory of this day is that of an excellent flute rendering of the Hamsadhwani Raga by a gentleman from Bangalore, while waiting for breakfast. At the conclusion of our parikrama, we greet Darchen like a long lost home, and tumble into our rooms and beds. We phone our dear ones again, and share our good fortune at having completed the parikrama.
Day 18: At Darchen
Some yatris use this extra day to return to Mt Kailash for a view of the striations on the south side of the holy mountain, which are particularly sacred for the Jains. This is a day-trip in which you drive for about an hour on a road which goes right above Darchen, climbing zig-zag to a point beyond which you walk for about 3 hrs one-way. From here, the striations on the south side of Mt Kailash look close enough to touch.
Day 19: Darchen to Taklakot
Our return journey commences. We spend the night at Taklakot.
Day 20: Taklakot-Khojarnath-Taklakot
We make a day-trip to the monastery at Khojarnath (11,780 ft/ 25 km/ 1 hr). The beautiful idols here are marketed to Hindu pilgrims as those of Ram, Sita and Lakshman (and that will be 30 yuan please). But as Swami Pranavananda has confirmed, they are three Bodhisattvas. We return to Taklakot by lunch.
Day 21: Taklakot to Kalapani
The return over Lipu Lekh Pass seems easier this time. It is also an emotional moment. The next batch of yatris waits nervously to exchange places with us. Cries of ‘Om Namah Shivay’ interspersed with ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ rend the air as our ITBP friends and Indian porters, familiar faces all, greet us. We have a quick lunch in Navidhang and head for Kalapani, where ITBP treats us to a great dinner.
Day 22: Kalapani to Gunji
It’s breathtakingly scenic. We decide to take it easy and start late, at 9 am. But everyone wakes up at 5 am and we sing bhajans in our cottages till 8 am. We amble along to, and spend the night in, Gunji. Another great lunch hosted by the ITBP.
Day 23: Gunji to Budhi
We are back in Budhi. En route, we come face to face with the next batch of yatris and they are quite nonplussed by our confidence. For many of us, what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle and a very arduous journey now appears pretty easy in retrospect.
Day 24: Budhi to Dharchula
On the final day of our trail, we are both happy and sad. We now travel in comfortable buses but the high of the yatra is behind us. In the space of a few days, our lives have been transformed by a journey few Indians experience. Dharchula, where we stay for the night, looks like a metropolis.
Day 25: Dharchula to Jageshwar
We make a very worthwhile day-trip to Pataal Bhuvaneshwar (4,430 ft/ 160 km/ 8 hrs west). This is a huge underground cave full of stalactites and stalagmites, imbued with religious significance. We then travel through pine forests to Jageshwar (6,135 ft/ 103 km/ 4 hrs south-west from Pataal Bhuvaneshwar). Jageshwar is home to a spectacular group of temples. The KMVN Tourist Rest House here is really good.
Day 26: Jageshwar to Delhi
We take an AC bus back to Delhi, 467 km away, after switching buses at Kathgodam. Happily tired, most of us sleep. And wake up to the traffic of Delhi. We share the joy of completing the most arduous pilgrimage in the world. The worries of the journey are long forgotten. Every single yatri said the yatra was the fulfilment of their innermost desire. Without a doubt, it is a life-defining journey that brings the pilgrim much closer to Shiva himself. The most popular topic in our group, in regular touch even now, is ‘when can we go on the yatra again?’ Contact the writer at email@example.com