The dream ‘yatra’ to Mount Kailash requires two months’ rigourous preparatory training and the trek has often been labelled as the world’s toughest. Our route via Beijing apart from being the easier one also offered fascinating destinations as a perk.
The group included my friend’s old father-in-law, his wife, sister and two of their friends from the US. June was spent in arrangements – collecting the gear, advance payments, preparing physically, mentally and so on. The journey by Sri Lankan Airways via Colombo and Bangkok to Beijing meant more miles to our sojourn! As we arrived in Beijing, we noticed that the city of bicycles was now full of automobile ‘jams’. It took over an hour to reach our destination by the river at the outskirts. The downcast sun and a constant haze made the river and the distant snow-capped mountains invisible.
Our first excursion was to the Olympic Stadium, called the Bird’s Nest. Next we headed to the Mutiyanyi section of the Great Wall of China – juxtaposed against the old, the new faded in the enormity of a creation that was as vast as the land. The visit to the Summer Palace was followed by the Forbidden City, inhabited by the various Kings of China down to the Last Emperor. Passing through bloodied Tiananmen Square we reached the West Beijing Railway Station to board our train to Lhasa.
After being ushered in the luxuriously appointed upper class waiting room, we were ceremoniously led to the soft sleeper coach of the Sky Train or Qinghai Rail. With about 12 million dollars spent over a span of 7 years, grappling with permafrost at 17,000 ft altitude, Qinghai is an engineering marvel with oxygen spouts and UV protection. After forty six hours of scenic terrain we were at Lhasa Station, warmly welcomed by our Tibetan guide Tsering.
A short bus ride, weaving through flyovers and bridges over the Kyichu and Brahmaputra took us to the hotel where other members joined us. As a precautionary measure we were to acclimatize ourselves to the high altitude and watch out for headaches and shortness of breath. We had to abandon yoga and meditation due to lack of oxygen.
In the morning we visited the 11th century abode of the Sakya Muni Buddha – Jokhang Temple. The golden statue of the Buddha supposedly lay hidden in a cellar, away from the invading Chinese during the decades of reformation of Tibet. We also saw a statue of the Maitreya Buddha. It is perhaps the only place where active worship including lighting of yak butter lamps is practiced. We then went to the Potala, the about 500 year’s old erstwhile home and office of the Dalai Lama, positioned at 400 m
above ground. There were some graffiti hailing Chairman Mao presumably by the Chinese soldiers who had moved into many monasteries during the dark period of Tibetan Buddhism. Lunch consisted of Chinese tea, rice porridge, steamed rice bread and boiled vegetables along with a can of Sprite – our staple for the next fortnight! Returning to the hotel we passed bars playing loud disco music completely in contrast to the rotating prayer wheels. Cars and limousines jostled with ramshackle public buses, cycle rickshaws and hand carts.
In the morning a few of us went to Drepung Monastery which is now deserted amid restoration work. We saw the ‘sky burial’ site where mortal remains of devout Tibetans are dismembered and fed to vultures. The post lunch visit was to the Sera Monastery similar to the Alchi and Tabo Monasteries of India. The highlight was the stylised ‘dialogue’ among student monks on philosophy. We spent the evening in the Tibetan Hospital and Research Centre being introduced to the principles of Tibetan medicine. After a session of transcendental meditation, we retired for dinner and to bed.
Early next morning we began our road journey. The first stop was the high altitude Turquoise Lake with mesmerising blue waters skirted by mountains in earthy colours. We reached Shigatse and entered the Tashi Lungpo monastery of the Panchen Lama, the boy monk and the official Lama of present day Tibet. The monastery was built by the first Dalai Lama and is undergoing renovation. The main highlight of the monastery is a five storey temple housing a fantastic 26 m copper gold plated statue of Maitreya Buddha, known as the future Buddha and the tomb of the 4th Panchen Lama containing masses of jewels and gold. Next morning we left early and arrived late at the check post at Saga on the bank of the Brahmaputra. On the following day, we had to chart our own route across waterways and quicksand although a truck carrying supplies accompanied us. Our first night in tents at a campsite beyond Parayang town was a very cold and unique experience.
In the morning we set out westward, passed a lake, considered a cursed one by the Tibetans and stopped by a babbling rivulet for lunch. Sporty marmots kept us company with cavorting deer sighted in the distance. We had seen a few wild asses on the way and now admired the gentle courtship dance of the black necked cranes. Mounting a promontory we suddenly sighted the distant Manasarovar Lake by the side of Holy Mount Kailash. After prostrating in front of this ‘Holiest of Holy sights’, we proceeded to go past the Darchen village at the base of Kailash, past the Northern shore of the Lake on to the Raakshas Tal and further ahead to the Hot Springs at Tirthapuri. We camped by the Sutlej for the night. The monastery here was visited by Padmasambhava who performed Tantrik meditation in the 11th Century. Next morning we drove over very difficult terrain along the bank of the Sutlej to emerge at the site of the 11th Century kingdom of Yeshe-O called the Guge Kingdom on the first Silk route. People had lived in multi storeyed cave structures on the hill side and the palace was a high building in the midst. It was a grand sight and we visited the ancient monastery. We could see the Himalayan ranges from here and were told that the Indian border is a mere 40 km away.
We were exhausted when we reached Darchen at the feet of Kailash. We began the parikrama (circumambulation) in the morning of the 24th, nine days after arriving at Lhasa. Afterwards, we set out early for the first 23 kms of trek. Past the first prostration point, the going was enjoyable in the wide chasm skirting the West face of the mountain and trudging along the gurgling river. The luggage was transferred from the supply trucks and firmly secured on the backs of yaks. Weather turned foul, sun faded, drizzling started and we braced ourselves against the roaring winds. Sleet followed soon. It was relief when the horses for our group were sighted. My resolve to walk was tested severely by the onset of snowfall.
By late evening we arrived at the monastery of Dhiraphuk at an altitude of 17,700 ft – exhausted and chilled to the bone. A hot drink and the ensuing rest were most welcome. Our tents by the glacier faced icy winds through the night and by morning icicles hung daintily on the tent eaves.
After breakfast, we mounted our horses to resume the upward ascent to Drolma La at 19,000 ft. The path was strewn with boulders. The cold numbed my fingers every time I clicked pictures! With colourful streamers of prayer flags in sight, we knew we had reached Drolma Pass. Weary legs yearned for rest, but we could not stay too long at this altitude so we descended to the other side skirting the frozen Gauri Kund. We now had to walk several miles downhill to reach the river bank before we could resume our horse ride. The joy on sighting the Mongolian kitchen tent characteristic of our camp from the distance was unrivalled ecstasy!
The next morning we visited the Zuthulphuk Monastery where Atisha, the monk supposedly spent a lifetime meditating. We then rode and walked for considerable distance before reaching the last prostration point and yippee! Our land cruisers were sighted and beyond them the serene blue waters of the Manasarovar were visible.
A short ride took us to the camp on the bank of the Manasarovar and we made a beeline to the waterfront. Indian pilgrim camps were close to the waterfront and we could see the litter dumps! In fact our team spent a good hour next morning dredging the lake of tetra packs, plastics and other refuse left behind. We walked into the cold water forming a human chain with elderly uncle in the middle and bracing ourselves against the wind we took the 3 customary dips in unison. Shivering and changing into dry clothes on the windy bank was an ordeal. It was a full moon night and we drove unto the lake after dinner to view the rising moon! It was a divine experience and well worth the hardship gone through by each one of us. Months of training, the Sky Train journey, the long stay in Tibet to acclimatise, the low salt, no spice, no fat Tibetan diet and the camaraderie contributed a lot in achieving this goal.
On our return we stopped by Rongphu Monastery, the highest in the world and the Mt. Everest National Park, which incidentally is very well protected. The next morning we drove to the Base Camp in non-polluting electric buses and took the road to Zhangmu, passing the magnificent peak of Shishe Pangma, next in height only to Everest. The next morning we parted company with our drivers and Tsering at the border check post. We crossed over the Friendship Bridge into Nepal and were picked up by land cruisers for the 200 km journey to Kathmandu. A two hour flight later we were