Mt. Kailash is the second largest peak in the Kailash range which is part of the Trans Himalayan range, oldest of the Himalayan ranges. This sacred geography where the Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Sindhu or Indus and Karnali (that eventually merges into Ganga) rivers originates, is dear to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Bonpos (people practising the indigenous Tibetian religion) alike. Since the Kailash range is in the rain shadow of the Greater Himalayas, it is primarily dry and inhospitable. Out of respect to the sensibilities of the people of the subcontinent, climbing the mountain is prohibited. It is best experienced by a parikrama or kora around its base.
There aren't many mountains in the Pacific Northwest where I live that offer hikes at comparable altitudes to Mt. Kailash’s Kora. I also wasn’t a seasoned hiker by any stretch of imagination so with the basic essentials of hiking poles, boots and a hydration pack, I targeted about 2-3 hikes with moderate elevation every week along with daily walks of about 4 miles on easy terrain to focus on endurance. I had to exercise caution to not exacerbate or relapse on my ankle recovery. On days I couldn’t walk because of the rains or exhaustion, I would work out on the rowing machine. In retrospect, the consistency of my routine helped me more than the length or elevation of hikes I covered. I had been advised that Pranayamam would help increase lung capacity, so while I added the Bhastrika and Anulom-Vilom practices, I didn't exercise sufficient commitment.
Over my treks I began building focus by inward chanting of slokas of Shiva and listening to Sri Rudram. When I struggled, I visualized myself by the base of the mountain hugging it or sitting by the banks of Manasarovar to propel myself to keep moving. This power of visualization served me very well during the actual parikrama when despondency and exhaustion took over. In parallel, I researched gear taking inspiration from friends who skied or climbed, on lightweight alternatives. The tour agency had committed to a duffel bag and a small backpack and provided a helpful checklist for my packing.
Obtaining a Visa for Nepal and Tibet were different ends of the spectrum. For Nepal one could get a multiple entry Visa upon arrival at the airport (waived for Indian passport holders). For the Tibet visa, I worked with the travel agency to produce paperwork detailing the exact itinerary along with personal and professional information such as all schools and workplaces I attended. Once submitted, it was required of me to show up for biometrics at an agency in Kathmandu that was easily managed by the tour group. Since I was traveling with a stop over in India, I came prepared with a prepaid Airtel number that would work more faithfully in Nepal and Tibet than my current subscription.
I found myself in Kathmandu at the end of June. Kathmandu is a friendly city with a lot of culture that draws you into its fold quickly. Its crowning glory is the Pashupatinath temple, and I made several visits in groups and by myself to sit by its premises. The crowded celebration of the brilliant aarthi over River Bhagmati on one side along with the solemnity that comes from the frequent cremation of corpses on the other side is a humbling reminder to practice Vairagya. I was able to use these visits to draw more and more into myself, embracing silence and acceptance of what's to come and yet participating in the warm company of strangers.
Pic: Gaths at Pashupatinath Temple
On one occasion as I sat by the side of a powerful Kala Bhairava shrine next to the main shrine of the Mukhalinga, I was surprised to hear familiar words in Kannada and saw a person in earthly robes striding swiftly past towards the main shrine. I later learnt that they were the primary priests of the temple. Trained by the Sri Sringeri Matha in Karnataka, India, 4 priests are chosen after rigorous examination in the Vedas and Shiva Agama Shastras to serve in the temple. The Sringeri matha is one of the four cardinal peethas established by Jagadguru Adi Sankaracharya that continues to stand stately despite the winds of relevance that Kala or Time subjects every institution to. This established tradition is similar to that in Badrinath Temple in Uttarakhand in Northeast India where Dandi Sanyasis from the Namboodiri community from its southern state of Kerala still serve as the Rawal or primary priest in the temple.
As luck would have it, Lhasa's Gongga's airport was still closed come June. A land based drive to Tibet's capital city from Nepal was out of the question as it would risk us reaching Manasarovar Lake by Guru Purnima. We fell back to using the Kerung land based route that would take us through the towns of Kerung and Saga in Tibet. Travelers were given an option to use a helicopter to be carted within 20 minutes to the border village called Syabrubesi and drive to Ghate Khola which was 1 km from the border as opposed to an 8 hour jeep ride through the mountains from Kathmandu. I chose the helicopter option for convenience while missing some splendid Nepalese scenery. Given the size of our party, our visas were made available a few days after we appeared for biometrics and we flew to the Nepal border on a clear Friday evening. We stayed at a small hotel by the border as the border offices were closed for the day.
Walking along the roaring Trisuli river by the border hamlet called Ghate Khola, I was moved by the sheer magnitude of the mountains. You don't realize just how big the Himalayan range is, until you are there and then it becomes easier to understand why for centuries restless seekers came purposefully to cloak themselves in anonymity here. I remember gazing long and hard at the top of these titans as darkness and fog began to engulf them to see if I could spot any human activity. Abandoning the comfort of a secure life, access to warmth, food and familiar company, seekers were ready to walk miles and embrace an unknown future, even death. I wondered if I would be strong enough to do it, I wondered if I perhaps tried to in one of my last births. For some uncanny reason, this place and it's trails felt very familiar, I surely must have come, I concluded.
The next day, we started early given that Tibet was 2 hours ahead of Nepal to try to get clearance at the last border post before entering. After a seven hour wait at the border, and a thorough inspection of our possessions including cell phones, we emerged on the Tibetan side with big buses waiting to carry us forth. All religious books or pictures of idols were screened by border officials that would indicate support for the Dalai Lama.
We were told that all our buses were equipped with CCTVs and there would be stops for passport inspection at various points. The next few days would see us drive for over half the day through a picturesque highway which stretched all the way to Shanghai. We looked forward in restless anticipation to the banks of Manasarovar.
I looked back one last time, mentally thanking my husband for pushing me on, my family in Bengaluru for bulwarking my children so I don't have to worry about them and friends who cheered me as I prepared for this journey.
[To be continued]