GOD OF ALL MOUNTAINS
A TRIP TO KAILASH MANSAROVAR
HIGH IN the Himalayas there stands an icy mastiff, a strange-shaped monolithic gargantuan in black – Mount Kailash. At its foot are two huge lakes, one more massive than the other, Manasarovar and Rakshas Tal; revered by the followers of four ancient religions – the animistic Bons, the non-violent Jains, the truthseeking Buddhists and the eternal Hindus.
A few years ago, I went on a Kailash Yatra, part of a TV crew embedded with one of the religious tours that regularly operate on the Kathmandu Kailash route, and I went the year the ‘pucca’ road was still being built.
A flight to Kathmandu and a couple of days later a bus ride to the Nepal-China border brought our 125-strong group to the Friendship bridge, which we had to cross on foot, passing through Chinese Customs, one person at a time. On the other side was Zhangmu, a small frontier town where the next morning we boarded Land Cruisers that would take us to Kailash. We started off on the highway to Lhasa and as we climbed out of the gorge, the turquoise blue of a limitless sky welcomed us to the Tibetan plateau. The highlands stretched in all directions, broken by snow-capped mountain ridges, there was not a tree in sight, only grassland furrowed by an occasional stream. On the pitch black road our convoy, of some 40 odd Land Cruisers, hurtled through time, carting dreams of a hundred individual quests of discovery. A couple of hours later, we left the highway, as our vehicles turned west, to travel on grass fields that led to Manasarovar. There were no signs, no habitations, no markings and no landmarks to indicate that we were even headed in the right direction. It takes a while to realise that are no electricity poles, no agricultural fields, no airplanes flying above, no shacks, no plastic blowing in the wind and no FM radio. There are just four silent people in a car overawed by this strange new experience of being a speck, in the vastness of their surroundings.
As we kept stopping, to film along the way, we saw our convoy disappear, its dusty wake taking us away from human contact, one vehicle at a time. The only sound was that of the wind and under the harsh ultra violet rays of the sun, that first day, we had the first of our many punctures. We drove through innumerable small streams, saw small trucks and big cars changing wheels or being stuck in water and soft mud. We saw lakes that were pristine blue, we saw smoke rise from rare little hamlets on the horizon, we saw a donkey cart loaded with household goods going from nowhere to nowhere, we met locals who smiled and waved as they walked the plains and we saw the first signs of a road being built, to take future travellers to Manasarovar. We saw birds flying and swooping for food in rivulets and water bodies, our driver told us that more than six months a year, this entire grassy landscape remained covered under snow and ice. At a height of about 15,200 feet, Saga is the last town on the way to Kailash where one can stock up on provisions. There are hotels and small restaurants and it being a garrison town we were warned not to point our cameras at anything military. This was the place where we were to wait out a day, to acclimatise our bodies to the high altitudes, we would now be crossing.
It took us two days, after leaving Saga, to reach Manasarovar. The journey was more of what we experienced the first day of the drive, except for the Kiang or the Tibetan wild ass. We saw a herd, roaming free, grazing on the grass that grew in
At first sight, Mount Kailash looks looks like a piece of giant black rock topped with a wig of pure white
(Top) Lake Manasarovar in Mount Kailash is among the holy sites that draws devotees in large numbers; (Above left) The sight of the snow-capped Mount Kailash from Dirapuk is a real visual treat for the visitors; (Left) This ardous sacred trail often includes mishaps such as buses getting stuck in the mud