By Maninder Cheema
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.
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.
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 start, it started raining heavily and all of us quickly donned our waterproof clothing.
|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|
We could see some people from earlier groups returning after the first night’s halt without completing the parikrama because of the cloudy and rainy weather. We pressed on, hoping we would be more fortunate. Kailash was still elusively hidden behind clouds and we longed and prayed for them to clear so we could get a view of the mountain. All we could see was the base. The first day of the trek, we did 12 km in about six hours. It was a flattish stretch with a slight incline after seven km. I was not taking anything for altitude sickness and I was a little nauseous by the time we reached the night halt at Dera Puk. It was very cold at Dera Puk and we got into bed as soon as we reached the mud huts enclosure. We were seven in a room, but it did not matter. I was cold, stiff and wore two jackets to get some warmth. I used the Chinese herbal medicine to get over the nausea.
The next day was the toughest. We were to go from an altitude of 16,000 feet to 18,600 feet and then descend around 4,000 feet and cover a total distance of 22 km. Several people chose to hire ponies for the steep climb. I did the first six km in six hours to reach the highest point of 18,600 feet at Dolma La pass. The air was very thin and with my backpack, I would take one-step, stop to breathe, take another, stop to breathe. Just before we reached the top, the clouds finally cleared up and we had out first view of Kailash. It was breathtaking, and I stopped to take pictures. However, with the tension of completing 22 kms that day, we could not linger with the experience. Therefore, after a brief halt at the Dolma La pass, I started the descent. Just as I started the descent, I saw the mesmerising turquoise blue Gauri Kund, the little lake where Parvati is said to have created Lord Ganesh to guard her while she bathed. It is around 100 metres descent to reach the lake but I was in no shape to even think of going down. The sherpas had gone down to collect water from Gauri Kund to sell for Rs.1,500 a bottle in Kathmandu.
|Maninder Cheema against the majestic landscape of Mt Kailash|
On the way down, I was left all alone as those faster than me went ahead and the ones slower were left behind. I was thirsty and had finished the water I was carrying. All around me was bare barren stone. The stretch is usually a glacier, but there was no sign of snow, just a desolate barren landscape. For a moment, the loneliness of the place got to me and I wondered why I took the trouble to come to this desolate spot. I stopped to take a cupful of water from the stream flowing under the stones. It was too cold to have more than a sip.
Then I moved on and after completing the steep four km descent, took a break to eat two apples before starting the near flat walk of 12 kms to our next night halt at Zuthulpuk. This was along a beautiful river between two mountains, a flat green winding stretch of heaven. I started walking and then sort of floated on in a trance, at a brisk speed, with no feeling of pain or tiredness, as if I was being carried. When I think back to those 12 kms, I feel as if grace descended on me and carried me over the distance. At one point, when I was thirsty, we came across two sherpas from our group and I asked if they had water. They offered me water from Gauri Kund and I gratefully drank it up.
I reached Zuthulpuk by eight in the evening. Those on ponies had reached about an hour earlier and several others would trickle in by 10 pm. 12 of us were in a tent that night. I was feeling surprisingly fresh, with the barest of pain in my calf muscles and very blessed to have come thus far.
The next day, the 10th day, was an easy eight km walk, which I finished in about two hours. At the end, our Land Cruisers were waiting for us. There was a small hut with benches and tables inside and trekkers celebrated with coke, red bull and local beer. It felt appropriate to honour Lord Shiva with some beer. Soon we were back in the vehicles to reach another end of Lake Mansarovar, at Horchu. Another refreshing dip in the lake by evening, a relaxing campsite, with popcorn and hot soup by a stream. Sitting under the vast blue sky in the shadow of Mount Kailash, it felt that nothing could ever compare with this evening.
Time to bid adieu
|The author lives in Mumbai and |
work with SEBI. In her spare time,
she reads, writes, meditates,
walks, runs and travels
The return journey was very adventurous as our luggage and kitchen truck broke down soon after starting from Mansarovar. We reached Nyalam around nine pm at night with no sign of our luggage or group leader who had chosen to travel in the truck. We proceeded without them the next morning, but when we reached the border checkpost, there was high drama. The Chinese authorities refused to let us through in the absence of our group leader. After frantic phone calls between Delhi, Kathmandu, Lhasa and the border post, we were finally allowed to step across to Nepal. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and freedom.
The chakras open
My foot, knee, and back pain, have never reappeared so far. The lower back pain disappeared. It seemed to shift upwards in my back, close to the fourth chakra. I distinctly had the feeling that the lower chakras had opened and the upper ones were being opened. I had developed a sore throat while returning to Kathmandu which worsened over the weeks. It became so bad that I had to visit a specialist. When I was recovering, I mentioned to someone that I had this very bad throat after visiting Kailash. I still remember the answer – Lord Shiva is asking me to throw out all suppressed emotions and open up my fifth chakra. Over the coming months, the fourth and fifth chakras continued to open up and I have felt guided on what to do next.
For months afterwards, I could not forget the vastness of Tibet and the pull of Mount Kailash. It pulls you like a magnet. I understood why Dr. Puri went for the third time. The mountain stands like a guardian, offering its pristine purifying energy to all who are open to receiving it.
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