Lessons at the “Shivalaya” in “THE” Himalayas

The legend goes that the great Reinhold Messener was once allowed permission by the Chinese administration to climb this mount. Definitely not lofty by the standards of the first man to be atop Mt Everest without oxygen….this was a mere 6000 and few hundred meters. So he started off to recce the Mountain and in the process witnessed some display of human faith that must have shaken his conscience- thousands of years of devotion centred around a single Mountain Relic -Holy Mount Kailash…Not only did he abandon the idea himself but also implored various alpine clubs across the world to never try such an idea. He could not possibly have stamped upon the fountain head of faith of millions of pilgrims belonging to no less than 4 different religions, some of them older than Christianity by few hundred years and some by a few thousand..Those thoughts were bouncing in my mind over and over again as I stood transfixed watching the lone pilgrim wearing a leather overall and a pair of slippers in his palm…prostrating body length..standing up….aligning his heels to where his extended finger tips were, and repeating the process all over again. He would repeat this for all the 38 Kilometers of the Parikrama of Holy Mount KailashKang Rimpoche (King of Snows) and abode of Lord Shiva. That was a moment of truth…one of those inflection points in one’s living memory.

The story started one fine afternoon when this phone rang from my esteemed client Mr Gupta..who called up to enquire if I would be willing to accompany him in a trip to Kailash. Upon asking the cost I was informed that I could hitch a ride cause a few seats were empty in the group and fixed cost was anyways being taken care of. It took me some moments to realise that I was being offered a ride to Kailash Manasarover complex and back for free!!! Not only that seats were there to be filled up by people of my choice/…preferably having trekking background. Mounik– my business partner cum occasional trek companion and Rupendra…my long standing die hard trek partners were only too willing to oblige. Thus began the Odyssey of our lifetime ….it was the 15th of May 2005.After minor hassles at Delhi immigration checkpoint one finally boarded the flight to Kathmandu. The hassle was about stamping the Indian immigration stamp that would be required at the immigration checkpoint in Chinese territory…Otherwise a short and event less trip landed us in Kathmandu a few hours later. Meeting the organiser there one had the initial briefing of the journey ahead. The next 24 hrs were spent in a lavish dinner, some gear shopping (Kathmandu is the most fabulous market I have seen in South Asia ..for mountain gears), some Puja at Pashupatinath temple and finally the trip to the airport to board the aircraft for Nepalganj. It was 16th evening when we reached Nepalganj.

Nepal has this nice and cheap facility of charterable small aircrafts. The downside is, in the mountain skies so prone to thermals and winds, one has a gut wrenching adventure even flying that normal flight from point A to Point B. The night was spent in Nepalganj where in the hotel I had my first go at Lawn tennis in which I sent at least half a dozen tennis balls adroitly over the fence into oblivion. The flight trip to Manasarover usually follows the route of Delhi-Kathmandu- Nepalganj (or some other intermediate landing strip)- SimikotHilsa. The last two legs of the journey is usually along the Karnali River valley with high mountains on both sides and some 8000er peaks like Cho Yu at a a distance..also this leg is done by Chopper because anyways the last leg has to be in chopper, there is no way one can land an aircraft at Hilsa.
This morning we had an aircraft plying us to Simikot and we were to then transfer over to a Mi-8 chopper. These are the only means of transport to Nepal border. The flight to Simikot was almost event less except for the weird feeling of flying a non-compressed aircraft at 3500 mtrs. That’s the first time I saw my alti meter giving me a real reading inside an aircraft!! It was a roller coaster experience as mighty peaks would almost come in touching distance of the belly of the aircraft and then fall away. The air hostess was pretty whom we tried to lech as best as we could but for the nausea that was overtaking with every plummetting of the aircraft in the thermals with the scary cliffs all around. But apparently all was normal….this happens everyday!!

Simikot is a pretty hamlet nestled in the middle of nowhere…the road to and from Simikot is that of bridle path which trekkers use. No surface transport connects it to the outer world. It only has air connection to the south. Apart from Military and the occasional tourist like us visitors are few and they come seldom. Having transshipped ourselves to the MI-8 we were to now proceed to Hilsa border…the border in the Northwest tip of Nepal…merely a few Kilometers away from the Indian Lipu Lekh pass (route followed by the trekking pilgrims from India).

The border actually is defined by a bridge across the Karnali river..a oldish looking girder bridge. Few hutments have sprung around with very poor looking peasant folks. Some of them asking for money and some pretty looking women openly soliciting for sex!!We actually had to pay some passage fee to the local Maoist Guards there…I don’t know whats the current situation after the political re-alignments. The drive to nearest immigration checkpoint and a little hamlet is 30 Kms approx. by the name of Purang/Paryang(Taklakot). Money transacted here is Yuans…close to 7 yuans to a dollar. Usually no place of stay in Tibet would have a proper Toilet…one has to make do with open community toilets.More sex abounds here in the small military town. One can notice smartly clad well made up girls sauntering along the concrete streets. One can somehow sense out the ostentatious display of the body-wares…The military vehicles, loaded trucks and a liberal number of Toyota Land-cruisers dot the town. There are shops that sell almost everything …like our typical Kirana stores…even fruit vends exactly the way you find in India.

An occasional Tibetan Lama would pass by and give you a friendly nod. One even got talking to me in Hindi (broken of course)..apparently he had been to Dharamsala where his revered God Incarnate- The Dalai Lama- sits. The Chinese are typically stand-offish..god knows why. Much later, on our way back we were almost whiskers away from picking up a fight with a drunken Chinese soldier in the town pub. …I think its the rude way in which he asked for our identity and asked if we were from Kashmir to which Mounik very defiantly replied…New Delhi. The guy just glared and went off.Paryang can be quite cold in the evening…just as the sun dips over the horizon, little fire places come up all along the street. In the evening we had to take that small 1 Km walk down the street to get the dollars exchanged, since the transactions in the town have to be in Yuans. It was the evening of the 17th May.

The drive to Manasarover is about 5/6 hours in Land Cruisers offering some once-in-a-lifetime photo shoots.

As we started off from Paryang we had to stop by for vehicle fuelling. We were wondering for a while where the Petrol Pump was, just when the filling nozzle for petrol materialised from behind a wire meshed window…reminding one of windows of Alcohol shops in India. The drive ahead takes one through villages that reminds one of time standing still. The atmosphere is dry and arid, the nose feels dry, the lips harden up and the sun beats down from the sky with raging fury.One sees Chortens at regular intervals with various decorations on them. Chortens are small places of worship that people construct near their settlements. Many of these would be thousands of years old. One often finds the dried up head of the Ibex on top of doorways…probably to ward off evil. The strange thing is, not a village appears to be inhabited from the look of it!! What could be so compelling a reason which prevented a single soul to be on sight in those villages, I still wonder.

Driving through Tibetan landscape is an immensely absorbing experience. Its so unique, unseen and new…one just soaks in the atmosphere every moment. The Gurla Mandhata (7900) guarding the southern flanks of the Kailash Mansarover complex is the first feature one notices after some 2 hours of drive. The driver announced the feature and also calculated that we have been making good speed. The Chinese drivers are jolly headed and are pretty good at what they do. Almost all available vehicles are different models of Toyota landcruisers, each different from the other by signature gizmo that adorn the dashboard. Shorty afterwards the Rakshash Tal loomed into view suddenly from between two distant slopes. Though named after the demon, the lake does evoke that tranquil and subliminal feel for the first time and announces entry into the Zone of the Gods.In Hindu mythology there is an interesting story behind creation of the lake. The reason for its creation, apparently none other than Ravana of the Ramayana fame. Ravana– The famous villain of the Hindu epic Ramayana had amassed immense power by doing heavy penance worshipping Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva. Those times he was called Vaishravana (Son of Rishi Vishravas). He used to be a devout worshipper of Lord Shiva. One day the demon king decided to get Lord Shiva to Srilanka– his home country. This meant Lord Shiva had to be relocated from his Himalayan abode of Mount Kailash. So he set upon the task of uprooting the Kailash Mountain and taking Lord Shiva along with it. In the process there were perceptive seismic movements in Mount Kailash. A frightened Parvati – the divine consort of Lord Shiva- implored her husband to handle the crisis and Lord Shiva pressed his toe finger hard on the surface of the mountain. That resulted in the demon king being trapped under the heavy mountain which he was already carrying upon his mighty shouder. The Lord pressed in so hard, the demon king got trapped under the mountain in a hole very deep and shouted out in agony. The screaming agony of his was so loud, it was heard across the three worlds. Thus he came to be known as Ravana (Rav– Sanskrit- meaning making a loud sound) and the hole he was trapped in eventually came to be filled in water and came to be known as Rakshash Tal.

Whatever be the reason of origin, the place is beautiful and the Holy mount Kailash rules over it even today…. on whose banks one might find curious herds of grazing wild Chirus (endangered now for the demand of Shahtush). The road circumvents the Kailash bank and leads up to a tract of land between Rakshash Tal and Manasarover. This is when one realises the short distance between the two mighty lakes. The mysterious part is the stark difference in the chemical composition of waters in the two lakes..separated by as much of land as 500 mtrs. The water in Rakshash Tal much higher in acidity and chlorine content.

Afterwards, the spectacle of the day…nay…life! 4 hours into the drive…The Gurla Mandhata on the back and the Rakshash Tal to the left, the Holy Kailash visible straight ahead, the majestic view of Brahma’s lake reveals itself. …Mapam Tso– Lake Manasarovar. The dimensions decidedly larger, the looks infinitely more majestic- almost a sea sorrounded by 20000 ft snow capped mountains. The lake has a climatic zone of its own. The gentle interplay of the clouds, the deep blue expanse of water and the snows on the horizon, create the magical kingdom of Brahma- The creator God in Hindu Mythology.

The blue that one sees there is different …be it in the sky or the water …it has a different brilliance to it one we do not see often. ..haven’t really found out the scientific reason for it, though there must be some explanation. Also there are explanations in “Theory of Optics” of the interesting phenomenon of stars emerging from the middle of the night into the sky…themyth of the divine nymphs coming to the lake for their midnight dip. Although I was a bit spaced out that night I still seem to remember some spectacle like that.

Very soon the destination approaches- place of stay for the night at Chidananda Ashram…located right at the banks of the lake. The Ashram is a welcome haven for all pilgrim groups arriving from Paryang. There are about 15/20 different rooms to rest and a place for community eating and cooking. Rest rooms are equipped with beds and Razais. There is just one attendant whose only job is to handover and take back keys probably. Pilgrim groups have to fend for themselves in terms of cooking and arranging provisions. Just behind the ashram a bit to the North West is the Chiu Gompa…an old Gompa perched on an impossible incline of a hill (aren’t all Gompas an engineering challenge…I wonder sometimes) that looks like a perfect triangle with a pretty acute tip. On that afternoon of 18th May we soon found our rooms and settled into the respective room dormitories.

From the door leading to the back, the lake is a mere 200 feet away. Dry dead grass make for a spongy approach to the shoreline. Feels like any other large water body..nice cool breeze, gentle waves lapping at the shore, the chirping and calls of migratory water birds – but when one combines that with the presence of the Grand and Holy Kailash over the horizon, the high altitude, the bizarre dream-scapes of Tibet and the magic of Brahma – just standing by and watching Manasarovar becomes a transcendental experience..The lake has its own inhabitants in form of migratory birds that flock in from far North. We managed to see a group of Arctic Terns that were feeding nicely around the Ashram premises. One can spot pairs of Brahmani Ducks foraging for food on the waters of the lake. It is said that the duck pairs lead a faithful conjugal life till death.. so much so that if one partner dies, the other joins in by way of fasting onto death!

With increasing altitude and advancement towards the goal, the food was somehow getting blander and tasteless. That morning of 19th May we had the limits. There was this group of pilgrims from Chinmaya Mission with a Baba leading them through a discourse. Sharp at eight the discourse ended and just when we were about have the standard boiled cabbage and maggi noodles, this group came up with steaming hot Idli, Vadas and Sambar. We looked on, mouth watering, cause we had no such luxurious choice. That evening we had to go to Darchen and find out about the Parikrama route. We set off in the afternoon for the drive.

The drive from Chiu to Darchen (at the foothills of the south face of Kailash ) is a dream drive as in the films of American Wild West…through the wide and awesome Barkha Plains. As one rises over the hills beyond Chidananda Ashram the kingdom of Kailash beacons. In the optical illusion of that majestic mount and the vast expanse of the plains one would never be able to make out the distance to be 20 Kilometers! Looks as if one can reach out and touch that “Jewel of the Snow”. The Landcruisers sometimes race with each other driving at 80 miles an hour at times in that place where any road can be the road as long as u have the mountain in sight. The dust cloud in the wake of the speeding vehicles making it the dream set for that wild-west-movie.

Darchen is a small settlement where immigration formalities are required to be carried out with the administration. There is a large guesthouse/hotel managed by the government where pilgrims come and stay before starting off on Kailash parikrama. The village economy is entirely dependent upon the religious tourists. Yak operators and guides mill around in the crowd in search of potential business. While waiting for the gruff looking official to stamp the papers I got reading the posters and instructions written in english. It makes for some very interesting reading, one would actually have to try hard not to laugh. I do recommend a reading of similar material where chinese translators of the english language display their skills. The enquiry revealed that the path was still heavily snowbound beyond Dhiraphuk Monastry and Yak operators havent yet arrived with the yaks. The plan of getting the lady and the old in the group across the parikrama seemed to be fizzling out. We however identified the required support for a yakless parikrama.

Getting ready to depart back to Ashram we had this most hilarious sight. There was this youngman from Calcutta moving around in the crowd with “Free Tibet” boldly emblazoned on his T Shirt. Gaurav, our Baba-like guide went over and tapped the guy on his shoulder, advising him further on the consequences he might invite from the Chinese Military Police and if it wasnt a matter of principle, would he be more discrete in advertising his thoughts purely in order to save consternation for his group members? To which, the youngman quickly responded by changing the T Shirt in a ziffy.

Back home at the Ashram the news of Yakless parikrama was received with gloom by the team. Most of them were actually banking on the Yak support especially the 2 ladies and at least 4 of the not so old gentlemen. The three of us trekkers and the oldest in the group Mr Gokul Pattnaik were keen on completing the Parikrama. While Gokulji’s motivations were purely religious and spiritual, ours was also the thrill of crossing over the Dolma La- 5900 mtrs- 19000 ft. That would have been my career best. We agreed to move as a team till Dhiraphuk and do the Northface Darshan. After which, three of us and Gokulji would continue on the Parikrama over Dolma La and the rest would come back. We shall rendezvbous at Ashram almost around the same time.

That night was eerie. None of us had a good sleep. I was experiencing palpitations, which I have never experienced before, not after 3 days into the heights. In the midnight woke up and went to the lake shore. The sky was clear and innumerable stars shone in the sky. The frequency of shooting stars that one sees in the skies there are probably unparalleled. In that 15 minutes I saw two of them happening. Lost in my thoughts I think I saw stars shooting out into the sky..but I cant pinpoint it for sure..whether it was an objective observation or combined effects of insomnia, altitude and the ethereal ambience. Early morning at 4oo Hrs we went for a morning photoshoot, carrying the tripod all the way to the hill beyond at about a kilometer. The shot was worth the effort.

Next morning the mood had turned gloomier. The group was now steadily gravitating towards the option of not doing the parikrama at all..not even till Dhiraphuk. The 4 of us were now singled out to stay back and fend for ourselves even as the larger group has a brief darshan and return back home to India. With heavy hearts we decided to go with the group promising ourselves that we shall be back again. Rupendra went for a one hour meditation on the lake shore to calm himself. I was crestfallen but I could only take so much liberty in a trip that was offered free. I mused to myself- may be this is what the Lord wanted. May be he wants me to come back once more..all on my own and not riding modern machines that shorten time and distance..in my elements. The plan was now to visit Darchen and the begining of the parikrama, do a Jeep parikrama of Manasarovar and drive back to Paryang for onward journey back to India.

The Kailash Parikrama starts to the east of Darchen at a place called Yamadwar…aptly named from a spiritual and traveller’s point of view cause of the transcendental experience its about to provide…. We were there at 1100 hrs. Gaurav was explaining the importance of the tall flag pole and the fact that people unable to do parikrama circumbulate the pole 13 times – the virtual parikrama….thats when we saw the Tibetian pilgrim. Leather overalls and slippers in hand he was doing the Parikrama by prostrating serially along the whole of 38 Kilometers..even over the mighty Dolma La. This was the spiritual journey of his life!! the group of friends and relatives walking along to support him on the endeavour. I have never seen such utter devotion and faith and dont think I ever shall. Faith! thats what keeps them going and enjoying in whatever they have!! People in Tibet are not rich..the advancement of China has barely touched their lives..but they do seem to be a happy lot..when left to themselves. What would one do with out that faith in a place so very unearthly!!

The parikrama around the Kailash in Tibetan is called “Kora”. Kailash has two “Kora”s. ..the inner and the outer. The description above is about the outer Kora – 38 Kms, 3 days and Dolma La. The inner Kora, apparently done by very few monks and seers and the die hard explorers requires permission from the government. Apparently its risky and replete with dangerous rockfalls, slides and avalanches.

The return and the Parikrama around Manas was eventless. One has to stop once on the eastern side of the lake to complete some formalities again. The road finally leads from under the Gurla Mandhata and joins back the incoming road from Paryanag. The thought of not doing Parikrama hanging heavy on our minds we were lost in our own little worlds. This time at Paryang we looked for a better place of stay. The large hotel building about 200 meters away looked promising and we plonked ourselves there only to find later that even this place didnt have a proper toilet and running water.In order to get out of the sombreness Gokulji, the three of us and one more gentleman went over to the nearest pub. The local chinese cuisine, though good, wasnt exactly what we are used to back in India. the beer was good neverthless. Toying briefly with idea of some night life (By now Mounik and I had discovered the little discotheque cum night club nearby) we finally retired to the sleeping quarters.

It must have been 200hrs in the night when I was shaken awake from a sleep I so acutely lacked. Mounik was nervous and anxious “Gokul Saab ka kuch ho gaya hai yaar…He isnt able to breath!” I bolted straight up and went to the next room where he was lying, helped by his room mate. A loud wheezing sound as if he wasn’t breathing, rather smoking a hookah..that gurgling sound coming form the chest. His face white. Instinctively I knew it was probably HAPE.

There are two grevious conditions of High Altitude sickness. What I was seeing before my eyes was one of them. HAPE is about water in the lungs (High Altitude Pulmunary Edema) and HACE is about water in the brain (High Altitude Cerebral Edema-when the altitude conditions get really acute). Luckily in our team’s case it was of the lesser variety- HAPE. We had Gammow bags (Containers in which you simulate the conditions of lesser altitude) but they were nowhere to be found at that time in the midnight. One of us rushed off to the military hospital across the road and promptly called a doctor in. I must admit, the chinese were most helpful in the situation. The doctor recommended a stay in the hospital and in 30 minutes, with the help of tibetian porters (who were performing the all important role of language interlocuters between the chinese military doctor and us) we got Gokulji to the military hospital. With abundant doses of diuretic injections and copius supply of Oxygen he seemed to stabilise. But HAPE has no curative solution! we had to get him down in altitude ASAP the next morning.

The next morning was a flurry of activity of satellite phone calls to Nepalganj to plan the arrival of rescue chopper at Hilsa border. Luckily that was only half an hour of drive. The chopper was due to arrive at 830 and we left at 800 hrs…picking Gokulji from the military hospital after paying a handsome tab of 2000 Yuans – approx- Rs 15000 for the night’s emergency rescue. The Chinese were generous to provide an Oxygen cylinder to be carried over during the chopper flight and another ingenous solution in form of an air pillow bloated up with oxygen to keep Gokulji stabilised. At the Chinese border the trekkers within us forced rest of the teammembers to slog across to Hilsa on foot carrying loads while the porters and all of us helped carry Gokulji so he doesn’t exert much. The Chinese military doctor and two soldiers accompanied us to the chinese side. We even exchanged names and addresses while waiting for the Chopper. Around 830 we were at the Karnali bank across in the Nepalese Territory. The Chopper arrived in few minutes while Gokulji was still stabilised. Handing over the patient with the oxygen cylinder and several bottles of herbal medicines, the Chinese Soldiers bade us goodbye.We were apprehensive about the journey back from Hilsa to Simikot and onwards to Nepalganj. Simply because the aircraft (MI8 Chopper in this case) was unpressurised and we werent actually reducing the altitude for Gokulji. But he seemed much relieved upon arrival at Simikot(less in alti by 700 mtrs from Paryang). The amazing views of the Cho Yu was lost in the anxiety we were having over Gokulji’s health in the flight. Much relieved after seeing Gokulji’s conditions improve, we watched in amusement the refuelling process of the chopper. It was amusing on one hand and dreadful on the other because we were to board the same chopper on our way further down. They were in fact pouring the aviation fuel in from PVC Jerrycans into white muslin (at least cotton)clothes that acted as the fuel filter. Another 2 hours of apprehensive anxiety in the bare interior of the MI 8 and we finally saw the Nepalganj airport zooming into our views. It was the mid afternoon of
21st May…6 days after we had started off from Delhi. By the time we arrived at Nepalganj (800 mtrs) Mr Pattnaik was up and about carrying his own bag on his shoulders…no sign of the HAPE that was troubloing him so badly merely 4 hrs before! We had an immediate transit back to Kathmandu in 2 Hrs and were whisked into an Indian Airlines flight in no time at Kathmandu….Mr Gupta’s contacts were at work already the moment we had crossed over to Nepalese territory. We were back in Delhi by 2000 Hrs exactly 12 Hrs after we left Paryang! Some transit in 12 Hrs!

The key in this whole experience is the sensitiveness to the fact that acclimatization is the key to survival at that Kingdom of Gods. After 15 long years of trekking in the Himalayas I saw the first case of HAPE(High Altitude Pulmnary Edema) in front of my own eyes in our own team that too at 2 o clock in the midnight!!! We, who have been exposed to the Indian Himalayas can be in for a big surprise on the “Roof of the World”in the abode of Lord Shiva.The interested might visit the following links…


Kailash- Video Clips
[ Published under the author’s permission ]

[ Original publication at www.snowscapes.blogspot.com on June 06, 2007–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]


One Response

  1. What a brilliant blog with awe inspiring pictures!!
    I am going to Mansarovar and Kailash in mid July and found your blog on google for information. Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences and pictures- truly awesome. Looking forward to the yatra


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