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Mt. Kailash - 6. Dolma La Pass and Zuthulphuk

The next morning we were up early before dawn broke out to start our hike. It would be the most challenging hike of the trip of nearly 23 kilometers which is longer than the overall distance covered thus far. The first 6 kms would be the hardest as we ascend to Dolma La Pass which was at an elevation of over 18400 feet. Many yatris had opted to continue on pony after the strenuous hike the previous day. I was daunted and weakly resolute but by now I had realized that there was no point overthinking it. The only fallback was perhaps an helicopter evacuation. Mani asked me not to worry, that we will walk as slowly as possible and take as many breaks as needed.


The trail was narrow, winding its way through boulders placed on a patchwork of dull dirty grass and sand in the lower sections. The wind whistled continuously and blew without restraint over the dry and barren landscape. The mountain ranges stood bare with its rocky and sandy layer exposed interrupted occasionally by patches of dirty snow. I could see Mt. Kailash for a short while on my right. The trail was relentless, continuously snaking uphill and my breathing came in harder and noisier with every step. I could do no more than a few at a time and then needed to rest by leaning on the poles. My lungs were crying for attention. It had barely been an hour since we started. I would glare at Mani everytime he said we were almost there as I knew he was lying and we were not ‘almost’ there.

I felt something warm on my face and recognized my tears streaming down bearing further testament to my helplessness. Desolation was beginning to spread again and drawing in on what little energy I had remaining. I could blame no one for this trip as it was entirely my decision. My family had already done their part to set me off happily and confidently. I looked at Kailash in anguish wondering what more I need to offer to complete this journey. Clearly the mountain and its natural environment was was much bigger than I was.

As if understanding, Mani handed me a thermos of hot water that I sipped quietly. An elderly Tibetan gentleman came up, paused, flashed his toothless smile and gave me a thumbs up. We couldn't speak each other's languages but his intention could be sussed out from his weathered, wrinkled enquiring smile checking in on my comfort. I smiled back, a part of me wryly reflecting if this old man was one of Shiva's attendants or Ganas. Maybe my surrender wasn't complete, so after I returned my thermos to be put back, I held my hand towards Mani. He understood and pulled me up for the next steps. After that I fell into a rhythm of being led by him on most of the harder sections. Looking back I wonder if years of self reliance as an self-proclaimed independent woman, I had forgotten humility and frowned upon exposing any vulnerability or seeking help where I needed. Perhaps I still valued my successes as my own, not paying homage to the invisible support of family, mentors and friends.

I wouldn't know the answer with any degree of certainty.

After several hours, we could see more of the ground covered with prayer flags until the rocks and ground were barely visible. There were a few photographs of children and adults, some in their military attire, stuck to rock surfaces along with messages and prayers bearing testament to a journey of healing after a grave loss. I saw several local Tibetans stand in respect and solemnity, their eyes looking into space. This was a significant place. This was Dolma La Pass, the highest point in our parikrama.

Pic: Gauri Kund

Mani let me stay long enough to capture some photographs of the breathtaking scenery as it was dangerous to be exposed to such altitudes for long. We quickly made our way for a steep descent through some very narrow rocky passages. I was worried about slipping and hurting my ankle again but internally relieved that from now on it would be easier on the lungs. In a jiffy, we encountered a stunning emerald blue lake, covered partly in ice. It stood out in that environment looking ethereal and inviting. We had reached Gauri Kund, where Goddess Parvati is said to have created Ganesha from the sandalwood paste that she scrubbed out of her body. This was her private bath. It was a steep drop to reach its alpine waters and though tempted I reluctantly handed my bottle to Mani to fill up. I reasoned I still had another 16 kms and nearly 8 hours of hiking left for the day so I couldn't afford to take further risks.

Mani bounded down in glee with 3 more bottles. I sat down by the rock to eat my snack finally free to observe what's around me. I could see yatris coming down, many looked happier than they did ascending up to Dolma La Pass. We exchanged understanding smiles. When Mani hadn't come back up in 20 minutes, I went to the edge to see if he was in trouble only to see him at a distance, posing for photographs, no doubt offerings for his Instagram followers. When he came up I helped him capture an Instagram reel before continuing.

The steep sections were wreaking havoc on my knees making me thankful that I didn't wait too late in life to make this trip. Halfway through we met Raju at a tea house. His face beamed with pride and relief as we hugged. He was getting worried as we were the furthest in the party and had posted some people with oxygen canisters in case I was in trouble.

After a short break, we continued to cross small streams and open fields onto the main road. By now we had the comfort of greenery, trees and yaks grazing languidly on the fields. This change in scenario had raked in new outcrops of optimism that I had forgotten the strain of the last few days. Rain came down in spurts and darkness was slowly creeping in. We continued journeying, flanked by a lush river on one side. The roads became increasingly more isolated with an occasional tent or ramshackled farmhouse. Mani was worried that I was getting exhausted and asked if I wanted to rest up in a neighboring house. But I was worried that once I sat anywhere, the inertia would cost me a few hours and it was getting dark already.

We had been walking for long in the rain by now and were both wondering if we took a wrong turn. We tried asking a few Tibetans in simple words and sign language whether we were on the right path for Zuthulphuk with no conclusive response. Before my cell phone ran out of charge entirely, I even tried reaching one of the guides on their Nepalese number who asked us to look for a big white building and just stay by the river on our left. My mind began working on an alternate plan of the feasability of spending the night in one of the houses in case it was completely dark with the little Chinese currency I had on me. Thankfully we didnt have to endure another adventure as we came upon the kind face of a fellow yatri who journeyed forth to see if we had lost our way based on our attempts to reach the staff.

It was one of the longest days of my life where after 13 hours of walking, I finally bounded into the comforting, white, interior of our dormitory in Zuthulphuk, greeted by the warm hospitality of the staff and a pot of hot soup.

[To be continued]

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