Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra - A spiritual odyssey

Winding through India, Nepal and China (Tibet), the Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra is a gritty test of will and endurance, but its rewards are manifold and intangible

By Srila Ramanujam

What can you expect when your body, mind and soul go searching for the “unknown” in what is truly a land far beyond known habitats? The flight to New Delhi, then a connection to Kathmandu, Nepal is usually smooth, enjoyable and, in fact, if you are lucky, it affords an awesome panoramic view of Himalayan snow-covered peaks.

Most tour operators prepare tourists at base camp in Kathmandu and, somehow, when the briefing comes from a Nepalese or a Tibetan, you feel a sense of security, a feeling that you might be in safe hands for the rest of the two-week expedition. And, of course, no one can escape the preparations at base camp for the 14-day ordeal -- repacking all the gear into tough duffel bags and ensuring that one is stocked with gloves, snow coats, good trekking shoes, woolens, first-aid kits and so forth. But really, since the mind is all set to meet with the greatness and vastness of nature, none of these trivial things seem to matter.

A view of distant snow-capped peaks on the Kailash range


For tourists approaching through the Republic of China, an inevitable and momentary time is crossing over from Nepal through the “Friendship” bridge after, of course, completing immigration formalities. Once in Chinese territory, the first thing to do is get your currency exchanged to the local Yuan, especially before going away into the remote mountains. The next absolute essential thing would be to obtain a four-wheel drive vehicle like a Toyota Land Cruiser to ensure a safe journey through the tough terrain. Now all set to take on the spiritually enriching, body-mind challenging expedition, we gradually build on scaling to higher ground.

The indescribable majesty of Himalayan peaks


We stop at Nyalam (12,000 ft) to acclimate. Not to miss the jaw-dropping panoramic views that scroll past as in a movie, replete with steep mountainous cliffs, deep gorges, free-falling waterfalls, pristine flowing water and verdant hills all around. It’s no wonder Nepal almost tops the list when it comes to one of the world’s best places to be for breath-taking mountains and fun-filled adventure sports. The route is graciously dotted with some of the best Tibetan monasteries. So also are the splendors of the wonderfully small villages inhabited by yaks, woolly lambs and huge Tibetan mountain dogs as one crosses over to Chinese territory.

A view of the Kailash range


Now at Nyalam and having a day or so to acclimatize, we had to get into thermals, warm headgear, scarves, jackets and the rest. Night temperatures dip so suddenly to subzero accompanied by biting Himalayan winds, and the only possible way to keep warm was to down some hot fluid every now and then. The Sherpa team assumed their roles, and made sure that everyone was taking their diuretics to ward off extreme altitude sickness. It is also essential that you get your exercise and put your stamina to test at this altitude. A whole day’s rigor is recommended. A trek of 3 km or so becomes very challenging at that altitude owing to the paucity of atmospheric oxygen. We had news that a snowstorm was closing in on Nyalam in the next few hours, and the team decided to leave before it hit us. The only way to escape such weather was to move on quickly and change plans even if it was to start the next day as early as 3 AM. When the task ahead is of such gargantuan proportions, the mind leaves its comfort zone and assumes a strangely defined “can-do” approach that seemed even more fun with a group, all set to summit and successfully complete the expedition.

A vision upon the horizon


The next stop was Saga and all through that day, we encountered miles and miles of plains, Tibetan plains for as far as the eye could behold, with no sign of habitation and more and more yaks, mountain sheep and wild asses grazing the vast plains. Enroute we encountered one of the longest rivers on the face of the planet, the Brahmaputra (officially known as the Yarlung Zangbo River in China), which flows from the Mt Kailash peaks and meanders through Chinese territory into India before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Saga, a quiet and self-contained town of ever-friendly people also serves as the last stop for procuring anything you had forgotten to bring along. It is literally the last point of civilization for eleventh-hour purchases. We were also feeling the impact of the weather conditions on our bodies. Diamox (a diuretic) was now an absolute necessity to ward off altitude sickness at 15,000 ft. Although situated at a higher altitude, Saga wasn’t as cold as Nyalam as it nestled amongst the mountains; like a saucer it is shielded from the cold, sharp Himalayan draft. Here we were advised to repack and take along only essential stuff for the next four days (as we take on the actual circumambulation of Mt Kailash and a dip in the mystical fresh water lake Manasarovar).

The Brahmaputra River in all its majesty, known in China as the Yarlung Zangbo River

Our diets changed dramatically and we became accustomed to drinking tea made with yak milk. Anyway, as our minds were set on driving directly to Lake Manasarovar, plains after plains unfurled through the relentless drive. Finally, at that mystical place, it a view to behold. We beheld the clear blue waters of a freshwater lake at an altitude of 19,200 ft. It was shaped like an oval saucer, and faced the northern face of Mt Kailash. A lot of reasons are attributed to the healing powers of the waters, and for the Hindu people, it was indeed a life’s accomplishment, a spiritual endeavor believed to rid one of their earthly sins. Even more fun and adventurous was to camp at the lake’s edge all through the night to watch the star-spangled sky with very little between our souls and the heavenly Manasarovar night sky. Just a few kilometers from Manasarovar is an estuary known as Rakshastal, and although the waters of lake Manasarovar feed this estuary, no living organisms survive in its waters, and no scientific explanations have been advanced as to the reason why.

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Having got thus far, the group was now a lot more confident that it could probably complete the circumambulation of Mt Kailash, which was the mission of the trip. From Darchen you can find a horse, a horseman and a Sherpa for support — this your "team” to get you through this ordeal safely. For the next three days, we would be trekking along Mt Kailash’s edge or on horseback, like many prefer to do. The entire three-day “parikrama” (the Sanskrit word for circumambulation) is tasked as trekking through moderate terrain for 12 km the first day, difficult terrain for the next 22 km on day 2, and relatively easy terrain for about 8 km on the third. It is fun, totally refreshing, absolutely soul-reviving with breath-taking panoramic views and cozy Tibetan tea-houses to rest and for that warm cup of yak-milk tea, mental grit, mind-body balance and everything in between. Each of the team members slowly but gradually reach their day one’s milestone to Dirapauk for the night halt. A lovely sight from here to behold Mt Kailash. It appears to be just in front of you, at only a few paces distance but this is so much more than what can be put down in words that the experience is just so unique to each person to cherish and take back as a true gift of a lifetime. By now one encounters unpardoning mountain winds, howling and sweeping everything on their way. While on the trek, people do it for various reasons, from being purely a fun & adventure trek mainly for foreign mountaineers, is a spiritual journey for quite a few, an expedition for others and indeed a mark of reverence for the austere Buddhist monks.

The tranquil waters of the Manasarovar Lake


Day 2 is the real challenge, from Dirapauk to Zutulpuk, and again left to yourself to do it at your own pace with your team through all that difficult terrain. One wrong footing here, or a slip there, would place you in serious trouble with almost no help for many hours, and ultimately resigned to the power of all-pervading nature or, shall we say, The Almighty.

Getting to Dolma La at about 5,800 m, also the highest point along the entire trip, is a treasured moment not only because you summits the highest point but also because it is believed to be a spiritually enriched space for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike. The weather is not exactly welcoming; it is constantly changing and unpredictable. Snow or hailstorms can bring fierce winds with freezing temperatures. Day 3 is relatively easy. We trek on plains with only a few narrow ridges or cliffs to encounter towards Horchu, a point which serves as the official finish line of the expedition.

The high-altitude lake of Manasarovar, known in China as Mapham Yu Tso


Here, although we are left enriched from our soul-satisfying experience, there is suddenly is a feeling of heaviness in the heart to actually bid goodbye to the escort team, and to accept that we leave behind these awe-inspiring mountains, which were by now living entities to us. We traced the same way back to Saga base-camp, then Nyalam, and finally to the China-Nepal border for the crossover before completing the expedition.

The snowy crown of Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva


It is with a little apprehension that you shakes hands with humanity again, and gradually takes on reestablishing those communication networks, but with one sure change that would have set in – with our very own special experience of Mt Kailash and Manasarovar, – an expedition that is truly soul-satiating and one of its kind.

Srila Ramanujam is a writer and blogger with an interest in photography