A 32-day Trek to Kailash – Manasarovar (1996)

A 32-day Trek to Kailash – Manasarovar (1996)
As you slide down the snowy slopes of the 16,750 foot high Lipulekh Pass on the Indo-Tibetan border, you are greeted by a breathtaking view of the Gurla Mandhata glowing in her powdery white crown of snow, a view that stays with you throughout your two week soujourn in Tibet.
Three hundred and forty four kilometers from Almora in Uttar Pradesh across the McMohan Line stands the 22,028 foot Mount Kailash (Kang
Rinpoche in Tibetan), in mythology, the abode of Siva and his consort Uma. At its base are two shimmering lakes Manasarovar and Rakshas Tal which, in a setting almost surreal, mirror the silvery summit of the mountain in their placid turquoise waters.
Referred to as the Tso Mapham or Tso Mavang by Tibetans, Manasarovar, according to geographers, is one of the oldest lakes known to human civilization (it existed, for instance, long before Lake Geneva). The antiquity of the lakes and peak situated on the highest plateau on the earth has given birth to many legends. The lake is situated at a height of 14,950 feet above sea level and spans an expanse of 320 square km in Tibet. The remoteness of its location enhances its appeal. For the religious minded, Mount Kailash and Manasarovar are imbued with divinity and spirituality and are considered to be the ultimate pilgrimage destination; for others,a visit to Kailash Manasarovar offers a most memorable trekking experience.
After two days of traveling by bus from Delhi, you reach Tawaghat, a border village on the banks of the river Kali separating India and Nepal, in Pithorgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. The trek begins here. The climb to Pangu, the first of the nine camps, is the steepest and takes all of ten hours. The nine day trek to the border is remarkable for the variety of scenic beauty it offers en route including a breathtaking view of the Annapoorna range bathed in the golden light of sunset at Shirka.
As you climb higher, the green canopy disappears suddenly and you are greeted by progressively shorter shrubbery. The route from Gala to Malpa is no wider than two feet in many stretches with a boisterous Kali coursing down with a deafening roar into a gorge on the right and the dynamite-blasted mountainside on the left. Balancing on the narrow slippery steps even as one waterfall after another crisscrosses the path requires concentration. The ‘Om Namasivaya’ chant gets even more strident as the rocks dislodged by the trekkers hurtle through the mountainside and add an element of thrill to the day’s trek.
During the trek on the Indian side, you are never too far away from the sound of the Kali river which at times subsides to almost a whisper, only to bounce back with a steady roar at other times. The lack of sufficient oxygen slows you down at Gunji which is at an altitude of 15,500 feet. The makeshift tents can barely screen the fierce wind which almost knocks you down when you come out into the open. At Kalapani, the source of the Kali, the mighty river is a tame trickle that disappears under the Kali mandir which is bedecked with hundreds of many -sized brass bells. The steeple of the temple and the bells cast a stunning reflection on the moonlit Kali.
Navi Dhang is the last camp on the Indian side before one crosses the border and enters Tibet. It offers a spectacular view of Om Parvat on whose peak the word “Om” in Sanskrit is etched in snow perennially. You leave Navi Dhang at 3 am and trek by torchlight to the accompaniment of a steady drizzle and biting cold.
The incline toLipulekh is gentle but appears interminably steep because of the inclement weather. A thick snow carpet blocks your descent into the Pass. You have no alternative but to slide down the snowy hillside to reach the Chinese team awaiting your arrival on the glacier below. A half kilometer trudge across the glacier is followed by a brief and bumpy horse ride at the end of which, a swanky bus awaits you.
The scenery as well as the weather change dramatically at this point. Bright sunshine replaces the drizzle and the landscape is absolutely bleak and bare. It is a curious contrast to the verdancy on the Indian side. It takes three hours to traverse the 18 km to Taklakot in Purung Valley. Taklakot, once the capital of the Guge Kingdom, now houses the ruins of a monastery and exquisite cave paintings. The hillside is dotted with mud caves which double as dwellings for the local people. The town itself is a curious contrast of modern glass and chrome buildings constructed by the Chinese and the captivating ethnic huts of the local Tibetan people. The Karnali, a muddy stream, crisscrosses the town whose earthy monotones are relieved by green patches of barley and peas.
The same bus takes you to Taarchen the next day. En route, when the turquoise blue of Rakshas Tal comes into view, it takes your breath away. Legend has it that Ravana did penance on the banks of the Rakshas Tal to propitiate Siva. Unlike Manasarovar, Rakshas Tal does not attract pilgrims as its waters are considered to be poisonous. As the number of visitors to Rakshas Tal is few, its pristine splendour has been untouched, unlike Manasarovar whose banks are strewn with broken bottles and other refuse. The sky is a brilliant blue and the water so placid that the name Rakshas Tal strikes you as utterly incongruent. Rakshas Tal is the source of the Sutlej; it also flows into the Manasarovar through an underground stream.
Taarchen resembles a caravanserai in the midst of this wilderness. Bustling with tourists and pilgrims from many parts of the world, the Pajeros and Land Cruisers strike a note of incongruity in this desert country. A tent bazaar does brisk business while genuine Tibetan antiques and exquisite Tangkas jostle for space alongside jaggery and yak butter. The Kailash Parikrama (circumambulation) starts from Taarchen. Since the peak cannot be isolated for doing the parikrama, you have to go around the Kailash range from Lha Chhu and Zhong Chhu, covering 42 kilometers in three days.
The Kailash peak is tetrahedronal in shape and stands out from the rest of the peaks in the region both because of its shape and its perpetual snow cover. Taarchen is also the point where pilgrims can hire yaks – if they dare to. The yak is an unpredictable animal which prefers the dangerously steep inclines to the level route. Not only must the rider constantly resist the beast’s untiring attempts to dislodge her, she must also resort to constant acrobatics to save her legs from being smashed by the dangerous boulders that dot the route. Doing the parikrama by foot is definitely more comfortable than the yak ride, if you are not too breathless because of the low oxygen level.
Kailash is watched over by five Gompas. Chhuku in the west, Diraphuk in the north, Zutulphuk in the east and Gengta and Silung in the south. The first day’s trek presents a vivid view of the peak at close range. On this day, the snow has begun to melt because of the intense he at and the usually white peak is now streaked black where the snow has melted. At every curve you are presented with a new and tantalizing view. The halt at the spartan Dira phuk camp is followed by the most arduous trek so far. The ascent to the Dolma La at 19500 feet. The Dolma Pass is the highest point in the journey.
Dolma itself is an uninspiring boulder strewn hill. You gasp and groan at each step as your lungs strain to draw in more oxygen. Mercifully, it is not very cold here. The passs is riot of colours with a profusion of streamers that have been put up by pilgrims. The descent from Dolma offers a fantastic view of the oval shaped Gauri Kund below with its shimmering emerald waters. Our enterprising Tibetan guide sprints down the boulders with the agility of a mountain goat to bring a sheepskinful of the crystal clear water. After coming back to Taarchen, a bumpy ride in a an open lorry takes you to Zeidi from where begins the two day Manas parikrama. Manasarovar is a sheet of water that changes colour and contour every few minutes. The sky and the lake vie with each other to dazzle the eye with myriad shades of blue.
The lake is a study in contrasts. One moment you can see the fish and weeds on the lake-bed through the crystal waters, the next, it seems to have become sullenly opaque. Trudging 74 kilometers in two days in the heat can be extremely enervating, but you hardly notice it, entranced as you are, by the serenity of the lake. Gracefully swaying Brahminy ducks and barheaded geese abound. Manasarovar too is surrounded by Gompas: Gossul in the west, Chiu in the northwest, Cherkip, Langpona and Ponri in the north, Serlung in the east and Yerngo and Thugolho in the south. The glaciers around Kailash which melt and mix with the waters of the lake, are the source of the Indus, the Karnali and the Brahmaputra.  Virtually every river that irrigates Asia is born here.
Swami Pranavananda, who has completed 26 parikramas of Manasarovar and camped on its banks for several months at a stretch, has written the most authentic book on the region. He claims that even the Ganga has its source in a glacier in this region from where it flows underground upto Gangotri. You ford all these rivers at some point during the parikrama. Luckily, the rivers are not in spate. At every point around Kailash, you have a grand view of either the Kailash or the Mandhata or both.
Your pilgrimage ends with the Manas parikrama. The spell cast by the two week peregrinations through Tibet refuses to break even after you have been herded back over the Lipulekh Pass and handed over to the waiting Indo-Tibetan Border Police.
(Published in Frontline dated Dec 26, 1997. No link available, pre-internet era!))
(My camera malfunctioned during this wonderful trip. Hence, no pictures. Featured image on this page is from Wikimedia Creative Commons)

2 thoughts on “A 32-day Trek to Kailash – Manasarovar (1996)”

  • immensely readable with details which otherwise you may not come across in other travel tales, gives unique insights into the locale and eye of the author.
    In Dec 1982 as college students from Calcutta, we walked up to the last villages leading to Lipu Lekh , with limited resources and maybe a decade before the pass opened to trade and tourist /pilgrims. we had read up so much about Tibet, the lurking snow leopard and secretly hoped to discover the extinct himalayan quail. There was so much magic that journey left behind. Thank you Sudha for sharing and doing what only a wanderer can connect with.

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