That night more people returned to Darchen as their symptoms were concerning. Sleep was still elusive. I finally slid out of the sheet at 2 am after trying. The weight of the electric heated blankets helped more than the meager warmth it provided. There were no restrooms in the building and we had to walk to a public restroom outside or use the natural outdoors. Power supply was restricted to a few hours in the evening so it was dark all around. Aided by my headlamp, I gingerly made my way down the stairs clutching at its railing.
The rain had stopped and the night was quiet. I could see the silhouette of the mountain right outside nestled against the stars. It felt deceptively close as if I could reach out and touch its surface, but I knew we were separated by several hours of hiking at the very least. It was a beautiful silence interrupted briefly by the ebb and flow of thoughts of how the next few days will pan out. Kailash stood still as if reassuring me with its presence while demanding complete surrender. I shook my head and returned back to catch what little sleep I could.
The next day, atleast 15 yatris were ready to walk towards the mountain. We were not certain if we would make it close as the previous batch were turned back from Dirapuk given the weather conditions. I wore pretty much the same clothes as the previous day except for a pair of dry and clean socks and an extra sweater. My pack was a lot lighter and I felt less guilty burdening Mani who was pretty much carrying all my possessions now. We made our way up together amidst cautions from the guides to slacken our pace. Colorful streamers of Tibetan prayer flags lay strewn along the way and the porters entreated us to respect the local custom and not step or walk across them.
The patches of green on either side of the steep trail was strangely comforting in contrast to the grayness of the rocks around it. Icy water that had just melted off the glacier on Kailash was ringing down in streams. I was told that Tibetans don't eat fish from these rivers out of respect for the mountain from which these waters come from. Mani was used to my silence by now, and we relapsed to a synchrony of non-verbal communications where he took the lead and I placed my pole to where he pointed. The trail was becoming more slippery and disappeared completely after a point as the ground gave way to fields of loose gravel and sand. My pole struck a hard surface and when I pushed against it, I noticed streaks of white dirty ice below the layer of gravel. I shuddered as it reminded me of my recent fall from stepping on an icy patch at a national park where I suffered a mild concussion and a fracture. This was going to be more challenging than I had previously imagined.
We had two senior guides in the group, one of whom had done the parikrama over 80 times. They plowed ahead to see whether we would be able to get close to the mountain. It was a 4.5 kms trek to the mountain which got harder as we got close to it and my pace slowed down considerably. When we started I was near the lead and over time I fell back behind many groups. The trekkers ahead turned from humans to lines and then dots occasionally disappearing into the snow. I reached mounds of ice with a thick layer of rocks, having navigated the makeshift bridges that Mani made for me to cross the streams. Climbing those required help from two porters, one to pull me with my poles and the other to haul me up from behind. I remember feeling desolate as each physical challenge exposed my helplessness.
Puffs of light snow that descended lending a magical feel to the whole environment. The mountain was right in front of us beckoning for an embrace. Blanketed by snow in patches, it was pulling us towards it. I felt I needed to draw in on this strength so I turned on my phone to play some Shiva slokams in a loop while focusing on its speckled surface. I chanted internally, telling myself that I have come this far and I am going to hike all day if needed to get as close as possible as this opportunity may never bless me again.
I caught up with the other yatris by now. The internal struggle on their faces was palpable, whether to go ahead or turn around. The snow became a lot deeper. I could see ahead that one yatri had accidently sunk his entire leg into the snow. Several began turning around, and I didnt judge them one bit. On a pilgrimage such as this, it is hard to know what is correct. Will you be wise and return to safety as you have family who depend on you or will you lean a little more into insanity. Afterall several have come closer to the mountain than they ever imagined they would or perhaps the first in their family to do so. I smiled, as I leaned in on my selfishness and took the next step.
With time, my cognitive capacity was restricted to only observing where Mani placed his boots so I could emulate him. I could see the dark wall near Kailash’s base and hear some jubilant cries of “Om Namah Shivaya” as the lead crew had managed to reach the mountain. This raised some hope that it was now all on me. The frontrunners had traced a path, though I knew realistically it would be another hour before I could share in their jubilation.
The hour drew in bringing more darkness and snowfall with it and I wore my poncho to avoid getting wet. A chance encounter of the exuberant face of another yatri returning from the mountain was a comforting reminder that it would all soon be worth it.
And then suddenly it came upon me. I remember the wide smile of one of the senior guides, Raju as he held out his hand and said “You made it”. He assisted me towards the mountain cautioning about getting my foot stuck in one of the deep crevices that were forming around it as the ice melted.
My mind can still picture the scene vividly, long icicles dripping water droplets along the edges, loose gravel on rock ledges, a light layer of sand that clung to my hand upon touching its surface, the pristine whiteness and cold of the environment and the comforting silence. I was surprisingly bereft of emotion. I put my head on its surface and made a request, to bring me faster on this journey in my next birth. As my intellect took over, I remembered the script that I had prepared in my mind in these last months. I drew out the spatika or crystal mala that I was wearing, placed it on the surface of Kailash and chanted the Shiva Manasa Puja. Composed by Adi Shankaracharya this hymn captures the traditional 16 step worship or shodasha upachara routinely performed in a Hindu ritual as imagined mental actions for a devotee with constrained resources. A few minutes later, I opened my eyes and turned back as other yatris were now queuing behind.
I thanked the kind crew with a smile for giving me the privacy and not rushing what was an experience of a lifetime. Mani was thrilled as well as it was his first time being able to touch Mt.Kailash. His father, a senior guide in the crew, was also present. They hugged, laughed and took pictures together. Kailash is dear to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and the Bon people and it was a pleasure to share ownership of that emotional moment with several yatris.
I turned to head back, it would be another 4 hours of trekking at the minimum but my heart was full with the realization that every day now was a gift from Shiva.
[To be continued]