By Maninder Cheema July 2012 Mount Kailash stands like a guardian, offering its pristine purifying energy to all open to receiving it, says Maninder Cheema In June 2010, my friend Poonam asked me if I would like to go to Mount Kailash. I felt a shiver as I heard her and promised to think about it. All I knew of Kailash was that it was the mythical abode of Lord Shiva. That it was a physical place, which people visited, was a mild surprise. The next day I located Mount Kailash on a map and decided that this would be a wonderful opportunity to see Tibet, the roof of the world. There was no reason to say no and no reason to say yes. It was an opportunity out of the blue, something I had not ever dreamt of, something that may not even have occurred to me. If Lord Shiva wanted to specially invite me to Kailash, he could not have done it better than this. I started preparing for the trip. I read up everything I could find on the internet and realised that this was a major pilgrimage and not just an opportunity to visit Tibet and trek up the mountains. Around this time, Poonam had a freak fall which gave her a hairline fracture in her right upper arm. It was the kind of accident which discourages plans of making a difficult trek. While we were finalising our bookings, another friend who was to accompany us lost his father and abandoned the yatra. It began to look as if a Kailash yatra did not happen very easily. What if I was the only one left from our little group. Would I still go? I found that I wanted to go, no matter what. Fortunately, Poonam recovered well from her injury and began physiotherapy. A 65-year-old lady doctor from Delhi, Dr. Puri, was part of our group and as she was travelling alone, it was arranged that she would be my roommate for the stay in Kathmandu. She was the greatest inspiration for all of us, as this was her third visit and she very objectively explained why despite her injury, Poonam could do it. The plan appeared to be on track. However, I had my own little problems. I had been practising Osho’s dynamic meditation for some time to release suppressed emotions. While the meditation helped with the emotions, I ended up with a painful right foot because of jumping on the hard floor. Added to this, I had been having some trouble with my left knee, because of driving in congested Mumbai traffic with my foot constantly on the clutch. There was also pain in my lower back at that time probably because of bad posture. To make sure that I was in good shape for the yatra, every night before sleeping, I would apply Iodex to my foot and knee, wrap them in crepe bandage and then apply Iodex on my back. It was going to be a 15-day trip at high altitude and cold weather, with a three-day drive across the Tibetan plateau to reach Lake Mansarovar, followed by a three-day 42-km trek around Mount Kailash. The thought of the cold weather was enough to trigger my fears of cold. Perhaps in consequence, I caught a bad cold in humid, rainy Mumbai, ended up with a severely blocked nose, and collected a stack of medicines to carry on the yatra. A warm welcome Finally, the D-Day arrived and I caught an early morning flight to Kathmandu. As everyone else from our group was from Delhi, I was a solo traveller on this flight and was grandly welcomed at Kathmandu airport with a marigold garland and tilak, giving me a glimpse of how foreign visitors felt when welcomed ornately with aarti and garlands. We spent that day and the next one in Kathmandu, visiting the Pashupati temple, Baudhnath stupa, and some other shrines. On the third day, at four am in the morning, our group of around 50 boarded three buses to reach the Nepal-China border at Kodari. The under construction stretches were long and allowed us a true cross-country experience, driving through slush, streams and rivers, uneven muddy patches and empty fl at land It was a half-day’s drive across winding roads prey to landslides, as the monsoon was just ending in Nepal. At the border, we walked across the friendship bridge to the Chinese side where we were to board Toyota Land Cruisers provided by the Chinese tourist authorities for the drive to Lake Mansarovar. Each vehicle seated four passengers. Poonam, her husband, Dr. Puri and I settled ourselves in the vehicle allotted to us and tried to make friends with the driver. He spoke only Tibetan and turned out to be a very reserved person. However, he was a very good driver and took good care of the car and us, in that order, over the next week. Dizzy heights There is a two-and-half hour time difference between Nepal and China, and by the time our convoy of 12 vehicles reached our next halt, Nyalam, it was six in the evening. We halted here for two days to acclimatise. Nyalam is at 12,000 feet. The air was perceptibly thinner, and it was cold enough for us to be dressed in all our woollens. I was so light-headed that I remember laughing hysterically at everything that evening. We were five in a room. The luxury of star hotels was far behind. Day six saw us headed from Nyalam to the town of Saga where we would have the last bath of the trip, until we returned to Kathmandu. Saga is a military town with proper hotels, electricity, and running water. Even so, we were four to a room. It was there that our little group had its first encounter with altitude sickness when one woman developed giddiness, and needed oxygen. Happily, she recovered enough to continue the journey. The mystical Gouri Kund Everyone had been given diamox tablets to be taken morning and evening to deal with altitude sickness. By the time we reached Saga, I discovered that I had developed an allergic reaction to the diamox, which is a sulpha-based drug. I had forgotten that I was allergic to sulpha. I abandoned diamox and purchased a Chinese herbal medicine from the Chinese doctor who came to attend to the lady with altitude sickness. Spectacular view The drive across Tibet to Lake Mansarovar is spectacular in every respect. The Chinese government is building a super smooth road to Mansarovar, but the road was still under construction across large stretches. The under construction stretches were long, and allowed us a true cross country experience, driving through slush, streams and rivers, uneven muddy patches and empty flat land. Some Land Cruisers were stuck in streams, and had to be pulled out with a towing rope. The power of a four-wheel drive was on full display. It was the end of the monsoon and the landscape was tinged with green, free of dust, and full of seasonal streams and rivers. We halted for the night at a place called Paryang after a difficult nine-hour drive. The accommodation was a square-shaped mud structure with rooms in the periphery and an open courtyard in the middle where all the cars were parked. We were five to a room, with just enough space to fit the beds in. There was clean linen, warm quilts and brightly painted walls. From here onwards, there was no electricity and no running water. Villagers use solar panels for electricity, which is available for about three hours at night for essential use. Diamox is a diuretic, and with everyone on the medicine, there were frequent breaks on the drive to answer nature’s call. In the open Tibetan desert, there is no bush to hide behind. By the time we reached Paryang, there was a dropping of all inhibitions about sharing rooms, sleeping in a roomful of people, and about toilets. We found that most times, it was better to head to the great outdoors with spectacular views, rather than the common toilet without running water. A divine experience Day seven brought us to Lake Mansarovar. It was a full moon night and Rakshabandhan, a very auspicious day to be at Mansarovar. We stopped at Chu Gompa, just by the lakeside. There is a myth that on a full moon night, if you stay by the lakeside through the night, you can see deities descend to the lake. Some in our group ventured to stay out until about three am. They did not say what they saw except that they were not certain whether it was the devas or their imagination. I was comfortably asleep in my mud hut. The next day, on day eight we braved the cold and took a dip in the lake. I had carried a swimsuit with me. The night temperature must have been close to zero. However, in the morning, the sun was out. Once in the water, it did not feel so cold and we came out completely refreshed. I found that my allergy had disappeared along with my many pains and aches. There was puja by the lakeside for those who were interested. I sat by the lake and tried to meditate. The sun was bouncing off the lake in columns of light, and a sense of utter peace and calm prevailed all around. My body was tingling and alive in every cell and felt wonderful. I could have sat there for a long time, but we had to move. We were to go to Ashtapad at the base of Kailash, where the first Jain Tirthankara, Rishabh, is said to have become enlightened. Moved to tears Mount Kailash is very close to Ashtapad, about 12 km, but it was covered in clouds. We trekked up as close as we could. I could see many pilgrims prostate on the ground, paying homage to Kailash. Suddenly, I felt the urge to do the same and my eyes filled with tears as I bowed down flat on the ground. Several people were so moved, they were openly crying. This proximity to the mountain impacted me tangibly. Something moved within, something shifted. We came down feeling heady and special, as if surrounded by love. After coming down, we drove to Darchen, from where we would start the parikrama around Kailash. Next day, day nine, all of us packed our small daypacks for the three-day trek around the mountain. Everyone hired porters to carry their bags, but I had decided to carry my own backpack. The trek starts at a place called Yam Dwar where pilgrims gather to pray for freedom from fear of death. As soon as we were to
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