I barely slept the remainder of the night and woke up with a searing headache. Relentless pain was shooting through in succession with no relief provided by painkillers. I had a bath by the banks of Manasarovar in a makeshift tent with water warmed by the kind staff and participated partly in the Rudra homam. I could tell that several others also slept poorly and suffered the crippling impact of altitude sickness.
As the fire smoked up, something the priest said struck me. He asked us when taking sankalpam to focus on ourselves. To focus on the relationship between us and the higher consciousness and not dilute our prayers by praying on behalf of family members and friends. We are lucky to be by these banks he said. When the time is right, our children, spouse, parents and others too will make this journey. He also told us to keep our senses open, and not miss absorbing what happens around us. Even the winds have something meaningful to say, he said and we must be ready to listen. For my wearied self, it was a call to focus on the moment. To quieten the ego, grow deeper into silence and surrender to this vastness. While I would occasionally take a photo to share, I wanted to transform into a sponge, imprinting all these experiences in various sheaths of my memory.
After brunch, I packed my bag in preparation for the next leg of the journey. An important decision at this point was whether we would employ a porter to carry our day pack or hire a pony to ride upon for the parikrama. After today's weakened condition, there was no doubt remaining in my mind that I needed a porter. Already several members were calling off the parikrama as the altitude’s impact depleted their energies and made it difficult to even walk a few steps without support. The mood was grim and uneasy as we piled into the bus towards Darchen, the base camp.
At Darchen, we checked into a big hotel. I remember its warm lobby with a lingering smell of cigarettes even when my brain wasn't functioning clearly. As word spread of my birthday, I was a lucky recipient to a surprise celebration of an apple pie cooked by the resourceful cook in the crew, warm wishes of strangers much like family and several Nepalese songs. I felt at home with them - it was a perfect ending to a perfect start.
Pic: Tibetan Porters at Yama Dhwar
We awoke early the next day and bundled into the bus towards Yama Dwar, the gateway from where the parikrama begins. Porter and pony assignments were made here through lotteries. Tibetans of both genders, came in from remote villages to participate and make a princely sum carrying the bags of yatris. Yatris whose language and methods differed wildly from theirs. Their petite bodies were endowed with strong lungs and muscles that effortlessly carried several kilograms of weight. I was delighted to learn that one of the Nepalese staff in my crew was elected to be my sherpa. This made it easier for me to converse in Hindi.
My sherpa, Mani, was a Buddhist of Tibetan ancestry and about two decades younger to me. He claimed he only ate vegetarian food and unfailingly visited the Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu on important occasions. Much like his father, he was born in these mountains, took to mountaineering early and worked as crew member in various expeditions, most recently being K2. His only weakness he professed were Instagram, Bollywood movies and Cup-o-Noodles. I mused at his determination to put his best self before me, and laughed when he told me I was his mothers age. I didn't realize then that in less than a day, he would mother me and even tie my shoelaces when I struggled to walk or focus. His was a life that was divergent from mine, one I couldn't relate to but was very happy to learn about.
Pic: Starting the Parikrama
Mani effortlessly hauled my day pack which I had nervously over stuffed that morning, and we were ready to begin our four day journey together. As was the custom in those parts, I executed three circumambulations around Yama Dwar, sought the blessings of the Hindu pantheon of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva for a safe passage, rang the bell above my head and marched through its cluttered gateway not looking back once.
On the first day, yatris start at the southern side and walk clockwise around to Dirapuk, close to the northern face of Kailash. It was a distance of about 10 kilometers that could be covered with a gentle amble except for some steep sections at the end. Mani could tell when I had trouble talking and refrained from engaging me in conversation. He became adept at watching my face for any sign of struggle, guiding me to a rock to rest or offering me the water bottle.
The kitchen staff had provided hot water that we all dutifully filled into our 3 liter thermos that morning. We were advised that water is an important source of oxygen and we should plan on completing the entire quantity by that evening. They had also wrapped a samosa, some boiled chickpeas for protein, a 5-star candy bar, biscuits and Frooti, a processed fruit juice in a carton for each yatri.
Since this route is accessible by emergency vehicles, we had to step away once in a while to let them pass through. That day would determine how many would continue on the parikrama and how many would turn back and return to Darchen. Nestled in the bare mountains, we walked upon sandy trails by the river as it rushed and sprang delightfully on one side. There was no tree cover, and all bio breaks were to be executed behind rocks. Occasionally we would encounter a Tibetan tea house that provided an opportunity for us to stretch our legs, have coffee or refill the hot water upon payment. I was pleasantly surprised to see huge drums serving as trashcans along the way and wondered how often they were cleared.
Mid-way, Mt. Kailash appeared on my right. I hadn't seen it since the first day at Manasarovar, so my face lit up instantly to see it this close. I took a longer break at a tea house right after to finish some of my packed snacks while treating Mani to instant noodles. My throat and nostrils were dry given the continuous onslaught of the wind. I chided myself for not packing any nasal spray as the dry nasal lining bled making it harder to breathe.
The day stretched on and I took my breaks leaning on my poles as sitting down and getting up felt like more effort. Occasionally we would be pelleted by rain and hail. The sharp sound of the hail as it struck against my plastic poncho interrupted by the heaviness of my breathing cut off the rest of the world for me. It was difficult to focus on anything beyond my next step. My extremities were getting wet and cold and I hoped at every turn I would be gifted with a sight of the Dirapuk monastery.
After what seemed like a long day, Mani finally nudged me and pointed to a building across the road. Even though it wasn't far away, it took another 20 minutes to get there. By then the rain came in harder and I was shivering in the cold. More than 6 hours after I started, I finally dragged myself into the dormitory where we would spend the night. It was directly across the North face of Kailash, often considered its most beautiful side, but that evening it was hidden by a thick cloud cover.
[To be continued]