We spent the night at a hotel in Kerung and then the next day drove towards Saga. Saga is over 4500 meters in altitude and it was there that I found myself getting dizzy and breathless if I walked at my regular pace. I heard murmurs of headache, nausea and sleeplessness all around me despite many of us on Diamox. This served as an early warning for us to walk slow, talk less, eat consistently to energize and drink more liquids. I bought a personal oxygen canister in Saga in the event of an unlikely emergency.
Our tour group ensured we were fed a hearty meal including snacks but I was slowly losing my appetite as we gained altitude. The long bus rides were filled with bhajans and songs. A strong data connection ensured we never lacked access to YouTube and its musical offerings. Despite concern that we may not be able to use Google and its applications in China where it is banned, Airtel and a few other providers ensured that we didn't have to switch to applications with native support.
This will be a good point to talk about the tour group. Our group was 67 strong, which was bigger than what the agency had handled previously. To manage the logistics we were split into two subgroups. The crew were kind, capable and sensitive enough to understand where to lend a hand and when to leave a yatri alone. Despite a long day's hike or travel, they were able to download all the samagri and utensils at the location and ensured that our comfort is prioritized. I don’t think most of them had a decent night's sleep because they were always available at our call. Most of the kitchen ingredients traveled with us from Nepal in huge blue vats and boxes. All our meals were vegetarian and generally consisted of dal, roti, sabzi, salad and a dessert, sometimes substituted with khichdi, soup, pakoras amongst others. Breakfast was similarly vegetarian with toast, porridge and an Indian breakfast item like dosai or upma.
Even though we were strangers from different walks of life and ages, we were united by our bhakthi for Shiva and shared a strong excitement for this journey. Everyone was aware that they were on a special and perhaps the most meaningful journey of their entire life. The remoteness and inaccessibility of Kailash complicated by the associated expenses and health risks ensured that most Hindus, Buddhists and Jains pushed it out towards the fag end of their lives when they had fulfilled their Dharmic duties towards their family. While this reduced their chances of completing the parikrama, it ensured that they at least saw and felt the presence of this mountain once in their lives, much more than a million others could claim.
The bus landed in Manasarovar on July 3rd. Our Tibetan guide announced that we were very lucky to have an unobstructed view of the mountain. We all sprung out of our seats clambering to leave the bus. I remember half running towards the mountain to drink all that I could with my eyes. It felt like the snow splattered mountain had a giant magnet fixed on it which was drawing me to it. The excitement was palpable and when realization hit how far it was, I finally sat down on the sand. I can't touch it, at least not today. I closed my eyes. My city-bred brain was soaked in thoughts of career, deadlines, family, chores and upcoming social commitments that it had forgotten how to focus on in the present. But one sight of the mountain had cut through that clutter. I remember asking internally - Will you let me come to you? After nearly 30 minutes passed, I opened my eyes and finally noticed the lake which I had almost forgotten.
Pic: Mt.Kailash from Manasarovar
The blue waters shimmering at a distance was the fabled Manasarovar mentioned in the puranas. Waters born out of the thoughts of Brahma, so special that mystical beings from other realms or lokas visited it every night. Several of us have imagined and yearned for one dip in these alpine waters in our lifetimes and suddenly it was near me. I could touch it, but not enter. The Chinese government has forbidden dipping into these waters since 2017, but we were told that we could bathe in its waters provided in buckets inside a makeshift tent the next morning.
I decided to call my family and share this unique opportunity. My in-laws, parents and kids were together traveling to a hill station in TamilNadu. Everyone roped it for a view, drawing with them the poor driver who wasn't given an opportunity to refuse. I secretly thanked technology which made it possible for my family to partake of my excitement from thousands of kilometers away.
We completed the parikrama of the lake in the bus with stopovers for viewpoints at the Rakshas Sthal and Manasarovar. The winds were blowing strong with no trees to hinder their movement. Having ignored the warning to keep my headgear on, I suffered a dull headache and nausea that came from exposing my head in my excitement to see the mountain. We stopped by on a side of the lake that was empty of other tourists to gather some of its holy water in our thermos for taking back home.
The lake was more crowded than normal on account of Guru Purnima that day. For the Hindus, Guru Purnima celebrates Krishnadwaipayna Vyasa who accumulated and classified the Vedas and wrote the venerable Mahabharata and puranas. For the Buddhists, it marks the first sermon by Gautham Buddha. Guru Purnima was therefore, a tradition to honor Gurus and enlightened masters from all sampradayas in the Sanatana Dharma. The moon would be especially beautiful and radiant and I was determined to stay up as late as possible to soak in its light.
We were housed in mud huts by the banks and served tea to bring relief to our bodies wearied by the travel and the excitement. The weather was warm, and we were told not to stray too far from the lodge for fear of any wild animals. We made pacts with each other to be woken up before the hours of Brahma Muhurta to go sit by the lake. I set multiple alarms on my phone as I would not miss it by sleeping through the night.
As luck would have it or by the unfortunate placement of my cot by the door and window, there was a constant flurry of light and people, I couldn't sleep a wink. I slowly eased out from under my blanket, careful to not wake up the others in the dormitory. I met two other yatris who were just as restless as I was and we decided to walk down to the banks of the lake by ourselves. There is a strange onslaught of energy in these areas that just keeps one awake as if priming us on to meditate and not waste any moment sleeping. With headlamps, we tentatively walked wondering about safety when surprisingly a few of the staff greeted us and told us that they had erected tents to meditate or steal a break from the cold by the banks. This increased our confidence.
[Pic: Courtesy Fellow Yatri]
The moon shone really bright and overshadowed other stars in the sky. Where its reflection bounced off we could see water-spocked silty puddles that glistened bright. I turned off my head lamp and requested others to do the same. As my eyes accustomed itself to the dark, the stillness and beauty grew upon me and I felt that I too dissolved into this frame. Alerted to a quick movement, I spotted the streaks of a shooting star as it dissolved into the horizon, briefly wondering if any devata had made their entrance on this grand stage. My eyes would occasionally spy a few birds on the vast expanse of the water. For a moment I was jealous of them as they were lucky to be able to dip and dance on its serene surface with abandon.
Minutes melted along, into hours. It was now well past midnight and more yatris began streaming in. I began heading back and looked once again towards the mountain, now barely seeing it and mentally thanked Shiva for bringing me here. For what made it special was that my birthday had just dawned by these banks and in his warm embrace. A moment that neither I nor anyone could have planned for in their lifetime.
[To be continued]