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Mystics consider Mt. Kailash the “Crown Chakra,” or the spiritual center of the planet. It holds a spiritual significance to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and the people of the ancient Bonpo religion in Tibet. Four great South Asian rivers emerge from the area: Indus, Sutlej, Karnali (a major tributary of the Ganga), and the Brahmaputra. Lake Manasarovar, close to the base of Mt. Kailash, is considered the “Lake of Consciousness” that originated in the mind of Lord Brahma.
To climb this peak is considered a desecration, so the only opportunity to experience this magical and mystical destination is a trek around the perimeter. When a friend invited me to join her on this 53-kilometer parikrama (circumambulation), I did not hesitate for a moment. I knew that Hindus revered Mt. Kailash as the abode of Lord Shiva, but my trip started out as an adventure into remote Tibet rather than a pilgrimage.
While I could not quite imagine what spiritual experiences awaited me at Kailash, I did have an idea about the physical challenges of travel in the area. My friend Shali and I would spend most of the days on our 16-day trip at an altitude over 14,500 ft. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms such as breathlessness, headaches, loss of appetite, and nausea were common.
Since most of Tibet is high-altitude desert, cold and dusty days were to be expected, while the harsh sun could blind the eyes and burn the skin. We would be camping or staying in primitive guest houses, without a chance of a hot shower for a week or more. Most people travel to Mt. Kailash from Kathmandu, Nepal in large organized groups. Shali and I were planning to travel from Lhasa, Tibet (altitude 12,000 ft.) with just a guide and driver.
We had planned to rest on the day we arrived in Lhasa, so we could acclimatize to the altitude. By evening, just walking around the room left me breathless. A dull headache was beginning to drain me as well and I began to worry if I was sufficiently prepared for this journey. However, I was amazed at how well my body had adjusted by the next day.
We went around Lhasa visiting holy Tibetan Buddhist sites like the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and the Norbulingka Summer Palace.
The next day we began the four-day-long drive along dusty dirt roads towards Darchen, the starting point for the Mt. Kailash parikrama. We carried our luggage, camping supplies, and food for the four of us in the Landcruiser. The nights got pretty cold, but the afternoons spent in the truck were hot and sweltering. The passing scenery of ancient mountains, wide rivers, and pristine meadows was captivating. It was Mother Earth in her raw unadorned form. We were always above the tree line, so our eyes could appreciate the shades of brown, the intense blue of the sky, and the play of clouds.
It was day four of our drive when our driver pointed to a distant stretch of blue and said it was Manasarovar. I found I had a lump in my throat and my eyes began to moisten. The moment I had dreamt about, planned for, waited, and travelled so far for was here.
Soon we saw Mt. Kailash in the distance. I had read so many travelogues where people had endured this long journey only to see Mt. Kailash partially for a few minutes, thanks to a thick cloud cover. I had tears of gratitude.
We stopped the car and I felt an indescribable pull towards the mountain. I walked purposefully towards it, dropped down to my knees and then to a full prostration. On the opposite side was Mt. Gurla Mandhata which looked just as majestic. It is the tallest mountain in western Tibet, standing at 25,243 ft.
This is revered as the dwelling place of the Goddess of Wisdom. I felt blessed to be there.
We drove on and reached the banks of Lake Manasarovar. The color was pure turquoise—it rippled and changed with the dance of the clouds and the Sun. I was beside myself with joy. I rolled up my pants and hopped, skipped, and jumped my way into the lake.
Since the day was so clear, we decided to do the Manasarovar parikrama by car. The lake was a jewel in every sense of the word. Mt.
Kailash sparkled in the afternoon sun and the wisps of snow that blew around it made it look like angels lifting off. There were impromptu rivulets formed by the melting snow that we drove through. Towards the end of our tour around the lake we reached a spot from where we could see Lake Rakshas Tal. Legend has it that Ravana (from the Hindu epic Ramayana) meditated there to appease Lord Shiva.
The next day was the beginning of our parikrama around Mt. Kailash.
Shali and I had hired porters to carry our gear and we started off slowly. I continuously chanted mantras in my mind; the walk felt like an experience in meditation. Imposing hills, tranquil valleys, gurgling streams, tiny rocks, giant boulders, snow and ice had all found a perfect resting place. A gentle wind urged us forward. There was no need to seek peace; it pervaded the place. Every breath was a blessing.
A couple of hours into the walk we saw the majestic west face of Mt. Kailash. Soon we came to the first prostration point—there are four such points on the outer circuit of the Mt. Kailash trek. Our guide pointed to a pile to rocks and said that it was customary to prostrate and then offer stones to the mountain. I had taken stones from Mt. Shasta (Editor’s note: See our July 2009 issue for an account of that trek), and I offered them now.
When we reached the Dirapuk guest house at the end of the first day of trekking, Shali and I had massive headaches. We rested for a while until we heard that a group of pilgrims were going to be performing a puja.
This turned out to be very special, as this group from Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu had brought with them a special Linga (a symbol of Lord Shiva) to be consecrated in Dirapuk. Coincidentally, I had with me a picture of Lord Shiva from another holy city in Tamil Nadu, and I was able to contribute to the ceremony.
Dirapuk offers a spectacular view of the north face of Mt. Kailash. We walked up towards the mountain to another prostration point. We soon arrived at a massive glacier that appeared to be flowing down from the mountain. From below the glacier a roaring river emerged. We felt very blessed at having made this discovery and drank handfuls of the holy water, considering it a divine blessing.
Day two of the parikrama is considered the most challenging. Shali and I were doing the trek on foot; however, horses are available and most people prefer to use horses. We started the day sharing the trail with horses, porters, and yaks carrying supplies. The trail was pretty steep and the day very cold.
The trail involved a lot of boulder hopping and a few river crossings. I was already pretty tired by the time we got to the base of the Dolma La pass.
This is the highest mountain pass during the entire trip, where we get up to 18,400 ft. We were most worried about this leg of the journey, however, it turned out to be reasonably short. Dolma La is named after the Tibetan Goddess Dolma, and is marked by innumerable colorful prayer flags.
We tied the flags we had carried, and expressed gratitude for having made it to the top.
The climb down was treacherous, steep, and slippery. We beheld the view of the beautiful lake Gauri Kund, where Goddess Parvati (Shiva’s consort) is supposed to have bathed. The wind was wild and howled around us, chilling us to the bone. I was feeling breathless and nauseous from the cold wind and the altitude.
Even after we climbed down, it was many hours of walking against the wind before we got to the Zuthul Phuk guest house. We arrived tired, dirty, sticky, and hungry to find that the guest house was full. Our guide made arrangements for us to sleep in a mud hut which doubled as a shop. We had a fitful night, with dogs barking incessantly, bedbugs making us itch all over, and people trying to barge into the hut at all odd hours of the night while Shali and I held fort.
Dawn arrived eventually and the last stretch of the parikrama lay ahead. It was an easy three hour jaunt. Our driver picked us up at the end of the trek and drove us back to Darchen. We found a place where we could pay 20 yuan and take a hot shower. At that moment being physically clean felt even better than being clean of all the sins the parikrama is supposed to have washed away. We slept the rest of the day in sheer exhaustion and gratitude.
The next day we trekked to Ashtapad on the south face of Mt. Kailash. After hours of walking we got close enough to Mt. Kailash to view the “Ice Linga.” This formation is created by the water dripping from what is termed the third eye of Lord Shiva on the mountain. It is also called the Atma Linga. In front is the Nandi Parvat. Two rivers emerge around the Nandi Parvat—Uma River and Nandi River—which merge to form the Karnali, a tributary of the Ganga. It was an intense place where divine presence seemed to throb in every rock and blade of grass. I recognized that primordial throb of life in my own heart.
We stayed at a guest house on the banks of the Lake Manasarovar near Chiu Gompa that night.The next day was Guru Purnima, a very auspicious full moon day dedicated to the ultimate teacher, Lord Shiva himself. There were different groups of people performing pujas and havans. We partook in those ceremonies and then had a dip in the holy waters of the lake. It felt like a coming together of my past and future selves and all the people in my life; a connection reset, of sorts.
The last night by the lake was spectacular under the full moon and many stars. Lights twinkled intermittently on the surrounding mountains. There was peace and tranquility to the night that soaked into the very depths of my being. Even the constant barking of the dogs did not disturb the perfection of life in the moment.
As we started our drive back towards Lhasa, thick clouds enveloped us and we could barely see 100 feet ahead of us. We realized how blessed we were that the forces of nature had colluded to make all the days so perfect while we were in the Kailash Manasarovar area. I went seeking out an adventure in the “Land of the Gods” and returned with a full heart and a lifetime of memories.
More information on organizing this trek can be found athttp://www.yalaadventure.com
Samanvitha Rao is a Technical Marketing Engineer based in San Jose. She is an avid adventure enthusiast.