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Kailash Mansarovar: The pilgrim’s progress

I have wanted to do the Kailash Yatra for a few years, so when an opportunity came up, I enrolled without giving it much thought. We were a group of 28 who took the Nepal route to Kailash, via Nepalgunj, Simikot, Hilsa, Taklakot and Manasarovar.

Kailash Mansarovar: The pilgrim’s progress

We assembled at Nepalgunj, a dusty and hot town from where a small aircraft flew us to Simikot, perched in the Himalayas at 10,000 feet. Sitting in a flimsy plane dwarfed by the mighty Himalayas is an unforgettable feeling. At Simikot, we spent three days surrounded by towering peaks, rolling fields of grain, quaint temples, deep valleys and colourful prayer flags. Living conditions were at best poor, but at the same time we saw so much human resilience.

We explored the surrounding hills and local temples set against the backdrop of the snow-clad peaks and attempted the Karnali river trek, thinking it may give us a taste of the Kailash parikrama that awaited us. A few of us braved this steep descent to the river and then back.

The path of faith Vignettes from the journey to Kailash Manasarovar special arrangement

The path of faith Vignettes from the journey to Kailash Manasarovar special arrangement  

We headed to Hilsa from Simikot in choppers. I was thrilled to get a seat next to the pilot, and a ringside view of the mountains before landing at a dusty little strip in Hilsa, that was the Chinese Immigration point. We crossed the Karnali river on a suspension bridge and then began the interminable wait for immigration clearance. After screening our bags multiple times and scrutinising our memory cards, we were at last on our way to Taklakot at 12,500 feet. The hotels were big, but sadly none too clean, and we spent two days exploring the local market.

Nothing had prepared us for what we saw next. The bus turned a corner and there it was — Rakshastal — this huge and perfectly blue saltwater lake. It is also where we get the first glimpse of Kailash, distant, yet distinct.

We arrived at Manasarovar by late afternoon. I have never felt more overwhelmed or alive than when I did standing on its banks, surrounded by snow-clad peaks and soaring white gulls looking at Mount Kailash.

Manasarovar is a fresh-water lake at 15,000 feet; the nearby glaciers are the source of the mighty Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej. We stayed in a monastery on its banks and stopped for a dip in the holy waters. The changing light at sunset was sheer magic, as were reflections of a million stars on the lake.

The following day we drove to Darchen, the starting point of the three-day parikrama. Beyond Yama Dwar, a small brick gate-like structure, Mount Kailash looms high. There is a belief that those who pass through this gate are absolved of their sins.

The first day of the parikrama was from Darchen to Diraphuk. The path was quite wide and the only challenge was the rarefied atmosphere.

My porter took my backpack and my stick and disappeared, as I dawdled and enjoyed the 12-km hike past gurgling streams and barren terrain. The last half hour to the rest house was in hail and I jogged there wet and muddy.

A beautiful Buddhist monastery stands like a sentinel to the North face of Kailash. The following day, despite overcast skies and heavy snowfall, wetravelled 22 kilometres and reached Dolma La at 5,636 metres. A little distance from the pass is Gauri Kund, a frozen lake with blue-green water visible in its depths, where I found my porter busy selling lake water in plastic bottles!

From here it is a steep descent to the base of the pass, where we lunched on noodle soup and yak milk and butter tea. The rest of the distance of 12 kms to Zutulpuk was a pleasant haze for me, as I walked with renewed energy. Despite our camp being nothing more than a tin shack with holes in the wall letting in cold wind, I slept like a log.

The following day, we reached Darchen thereby completing our parikrama. We joined others having breakfast there, and those who had not been able to complete the parikrama,circled us three times to get its benefit. Such is the power of faith.

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