After returning to the camp house at Darchen, I headed out in search of a hot water bath. The emerging village of Darchen has quite a few such setups, run on solar energy by enterprising locals, where hot water shower bath is actually a possibility. The lady charged 10 RMB for a nearly unlimited bath; a thing of luxury I’d say. The weather had totally cleared up. From a distance, the waters of Rakshastal appeared like a turquoise tray beneath the gigantic Gurla.
Our next halt, an hour’s drive from Darchen, was at Qugu monastery, also known by Trugo or Chugu, located by the Southern shore of Mansarovar. After days of travelling and trekking, we were finally going to be at the serene Mansarovar. The weather advantage was on our side as we left Darchen. Cruising on the highway, our vehicles briefly halted at Barkha where we topped up our rations and veggies. A few of us bought large-sized plastic bottles to carry the sacred water back home. Prayer flags were festooned in all directions; ancient chortens, mane stones, flagpoles et alia. Modern nomadic herders dotted the eastern shoreline. Completing a clockwise circuit of the flagpole at Hor Qu reception centre, we reached the Qugu monastery built on a raised level-ground by the sacred lake.
It was comfortably warm inside the dormitory of the Qugu camp house where the room had the most iconic vistas – the Kailash Mansarovar – right from the windowpanes itself. Outside, it was cold with the temperature dropping further; every time a cloud passed overhead. Grabbing a cup of hot tea and later having reassembled my luggage, I headed out for a walk along the shoreline. The lake is far wider and larger than I had imagined it to be from the photographs and numerous descriptions. The lake turns turquoise from dark blue as the drifting clouds make way for the sun. Shining fifty miles away in solitude, the Kailash is clearly visible. From a distance, its chiselled south face creates the illusion of a long, vertical stairway, as if for Gods to climb by. Although void of any life, as if carrying the marks of some sacred prehistory, the Mansarovar with its sapphire-blue waters, sandy shoreline against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains is wholly appealing. We seemed to have entered the holy land.
As I sit by the lake watching flocks of geese, crested grebes, mergansers, gulls and some other waders bobbing on the blue waters; in smaller groups, yatris huddle together after having completed the ritual bath; performing yagya and group poojas along the shoreline and bursting into loud holy cries. The lake contains several varieties of fish, carp and scale-less loaches on which these birds that winters in Indian plains, feed. The mythology equates these birds to Shiva’s swan that is said to nest on its shores. I revered in deep respect for the earlier travellers and adventurers who explored and surveyed this region; including the eminent ornithologist Dr Salim Ali who took a first of its kind expedition in 1945 to Mansarovar and behaviourally studied different species of this region.
Apart from its spiritual significance, the region has also been famous for its yield of gold and turquoise; though most of the mines in the surrounding hills now stand abandoned. The region brought many curious western explorers; including game lovers William Moorcraft, Hyder Hearsey, explorers Sven Hedin and the pundit surveyors. Its most famous pilgrim Swami Pranavananda visited the region more than ten times and carried out scientific surveys as well as collected data and penned multiple guidebooks. The clear blue waters of the Mansarovar, highest freshwater lake of this sheer size in the world have been associated with mythologies of different faiths and religions. Tibetans, who call it Mapam Tso, commemorate the lake to Milarepa’s victory over a Bon shaman. The followers of Buddhism are also of the view that Buddha’s mother Maya bathed in this lake before conceiving him. Hindus believe that Mansarovar was the divine imagination of Brahma; before it became a geographical reality. As also is the belief that those who bathe in the sacred waters of the lake, where Gods dip; get cleansed of all sins from past as well as future life.
I wade in about 10m from the shore and as the water reaches my knees, I take five dips. The glacial melt of Mansarovar is not as cold as I expect it to be. Not sure if it cleansed my body but it calmed my soul for sure; giving it the warmth it needed. Faith argues that there exist hot springs inside the lake, even though; it remains frozen for more than eight months of the year. For the next couple of days, our activities were simple yet most fulfilling in this quiet natural sanctuary; sky gazing, long walks, collecting pebbles, clicking photographs, counting birds, meditating and performing poojas of course.
Picking up a handful of pebbles from the shore to take home as sacred mementoes, I make for the Qugu monastery (4590m), the traditional bathing place for Hindus before 1959. Being traditional overnight halt on the Mansarovar circuit as also for the basic guesthouses built adjacently; Qugu along with Chiu gompa still continue to be the most active pilgrimage sites around the lake. Just as the seven other monasteries built equidistant around the lake, symbolising a spoke of Buddhist Wheel of Life; Qugu was also gutted in the Cultural Revolution. Even though, with the onset of international tourism, a few of these devastated monasteries have been restored but they could never be as populous.
For two days, irrespective of the weather I ramble on along the shore; with a camera in hand resting only at night or for meals. At over 4500m, with the air being light, my heart beats faster but my feet are aware where they are stepping. Up there, the sun burns with a cleansing brilliance. The sands are whitish and soft underfoot. As the cold wind would rise every now and then, the miniature waves too would respond proportionately. Fenced by snowy range, the holiest of the earth’s lakes – the Mansarovar – with its two hundred square miles of water, stretches endlessly with unfathomable azure. The rare natural colours that matter here are brown-earth, snowy white, sky and its reflection plus some occasional patches of greens. Everything else, including those of the prayer flags are a creation of mankind.
We are not bothered by the timing and quality of the food that is being served to us by the cooks. The excitement of staying so close to the sacred spectacle doesn’t let us sleep. Our gazes are ceaselessly fixed in the northern direction. At night when the clouds disperse, we are treated to the most spectacular display of stars. Many of us step outside of the dormitory to see the sky more clearly in a widest of high-altitude theatres. The faint profile of the snow-laden peaks is very much comprehensible in a moonless night. A few of us claim to have seen lights descending from the sky into the waters. Someone from the group asserts that these are deities in the form of light who descend to bathe in the lake, which is why it is sacred. Almost all of us agree with full devotion. Now whether it is St Elmo’s fire or something else, pilgrims are delighted to have seen it. I got up early in anticipation of another extraordinary view but was greeted with murky dawn and overcast sky on both mornings.
Having spent two days at the site, as per the itinerary, we wrapped up our Mansarovar yatra by completing a parikrama of the lake in a clockwise direction. As we continue circling the lake passing a few deserted monasteries or shelters, we climb a ridge and reassemble by a cairn of rocks from where a near dramatic view of the Manasarovar as well as the Rakshastal, on the other side, could be obtained. Ahead, we crossed the historic Chiu Gompa as well as the channel that connects Mansarovar with Rakshastal before we assemble at the reception centre at Hor Qu to board our buses.
Next morning I got ready for the day earlier than usual and rushed to the street from where an unobstructed view towards the Barkha could be obtained. Out there a cloudy dawn splattered the trans-Himalayan landscape with gold and purple hues. By now, mind was quite used to seeing the Himalayas to the south. With the massive block of tilted snowy rock of Gurla Mandhata (7,694m) rising unchallenged from the plains, the mountains and glaciers of Zaskar range that feed the twin lakes were partially visible. The quiet of the terrain devoid of any vegetation was cracked only by the ruffles of the prayer flags in a relatively low intensity wind. Everything stood frozen except for the dark grey clouds. The golden light quickly faded into nothingness once the moisture laden clouds took over the sky.
The Kora around Mount Kailash starts and finishes at Darchen only. Following a heavy morning meal, we packed up our trekking gear and left for the Yam Dwar at Tarboche (4730m); modern day start of the trek. Owing to altitude sickness and other ailments, three of the group members decided to stay behind in Darchen and give the parikrama attempt a miss. Our guide briefed us that the medical facilities throughout the route, including that at Darchen, are next to nothing even as more than a dozen Indian pilgrims are reported to die on the Kora every year. The most effective treatment for altitude sickness is to immediately take the patient down as many feet as possible. The issue here is that there is just no place to escape in this endlessly vast high altitude territory. Even the nearest airlift facilities are located at more than five days journey from Darchen.
Inside the bus, a few of the yatris begin to chant Shiva bhajan in chorus; filming each other with mobile-cams at the same time. Facing northwards, some of us are praying fervently with folded hands. The holy summit was still hidden behind a dark cover of clouds. Located at a distance of 5km westwards from Darchen, Tarboche is the site of the popular Saga Dawa festival organised every year in late spring. Just next to it is a sky burial site where, as per tradition of the last ritual, the mortal remains of eighty-four Buddhist saints were fed to the birds of prey. When we arrive at Tarboche, the trailhead is deserted but soon enough a team of porters and pony herders assemble. Light drizzle starts. I pull out my poncho from the backpack and wear it over my backpack and trekking gear. I step out of the mêlée created by the lottery draw proceedings among the herders and porters who seem to be in no hurry to start for the trek. The yatris were allotted porters and ponies through a lottery draw. We have been intimated by the guide that nobody is allowed to share a pony and the backpack cannot be carried while riding; requiring the task of a porter. Although, the summit of Kailash was hidden behind dark clouds, the lower bands of the rock were quite visible. Skulls of wild yak and sheep are stacked on mani walls. At the site stands a recently renovated ancient chorten Kangnyi – Yamdwar – that has a passage through its middle.
Part of their religious tradition, the Hindus and Buddhists circumambulate the Kailash in a clockwise direction whereas Bonpas do it in the opposite way. As soon as a porter and pony were allotted to me, I set off up the trek leaving behind the chaos of ponies and porters. Stooping to enter the doorframe, I crossed the Yamdwar. Inside, a mummified sheep was tied to its ceiling. From this point onwards, most of the group members preferred to ride on ponies with porters carrying their belongings and stuff. Only four – five of us opted to attempt the kora on foot.
Ahead, the valley of Lha Chu narrows dramatically at an area called Sershong. Flowing through the valley of Gods, the Lha Chu is almost 10 metre wide carrying the snowmelt of holy rocks. On either side, spectacular cliffs of granite rise above; with mineral rich water cascading down to the valley floor. Wearing cowboy-like floppy hats, a few ponymen outpace me; their ponies adorned with embroidered saddles and brass bells tied around their necks. Soon enough a few motorcyclists overtake all of us. After about an hour or so, I find myself below the Chuku (or Nyenri) Gompa, the thirteenth century monastery perched high above the valley floor in a mountain-wall on its right bank. During the Cultural Revolution all the monasteries of the Kailash region were wrecked down and this happened to be the first one to be rebuilt.
The initial stretch of the trail is in fact a dusty footpath spread on a gradual gradient. The weather has gone from bad to worse as I stutter ahead on the holy trail. Showers of rain are possibly the last thing one would expect in this already freezing and windy high-altitude terrain. Snowfields and tonguing glaciers are visible up on the mountain wall wherever the fading visibility allows. Even though I am walking in a rarefied air, my breathing is not strained; partly due to the ascent being gradual but mostly due to being alone. Moving at my own pace, I feel exhilarated. Clouds keep getting darker. Inside a three layer of cloths, I am sweating as I trudge ahead. Outside its mind numbingly cold as the intensity of drizzle increases.
As I trek around Kailash, following timeless paths and footsteps of millions who have walked this mile before, I muse over its ever intriguing geology. At just about every turn of the trek numerous cairns and piles of mani stones stand a witness to millions of pilgrims who have treaded the same path before us. The terrain in this barren valley indubitably possesses a hypnotic charm. Mountain walls, rocks and boulders take on magical shapes that create an optical illusion. The infinite variety of rock here comprise every tinge ranging from crystal to creamy, amber, tawny, yellow, orange, pink and red, etc. The Kailash itself is blacker granite.
From a distance, the ridges around me appear a darker shade of reddish brown as a dense patch of fog engulfs the western face of Kailash. Unlike other faces, the western side looks imposing and almost menacing when viewed from an angle just below it. A notice board marks it to be a landslide zone. The abundant cairns and fluttering prayer flags testifies it to be a sacred site. The wind eroded and chiselled rocks speak of the threatening forces and laws of nature. Climbing a winding trail ahead, long pent up emotions inside of me unexpectedly become irrepressible as I feel divinity guiding my feet and carrying me aloft. Speechless and with teary eyes, I get a feeling of having arrived as I accomplish the long cherished goal of being in the presence of Kailash. Pilgrims are greeting each other with repeated holy cries of “Om Namah Shivaya!” Soon I find myself standing by a cluster of a few tented teashops where I stop to take some rest and get some relief from the drizzle.
The teashops are large canvas tents, set up during the pilgrimage season, selling freshly brewed yak butter tea, basic supplies, noodles, coke, red bull and even beer. Tables and benches are arranged along with some emergency bedding as warmth is provided by smouldering yak-dung in a cast-iron stove used for brewing tea. I consume three cupful of butter tea before starting again. The rest of the yatris ramble in on uncomfortable ponybacks. Many of their porters and ponymen are women who wear ankle length bright costumes and cover their faces with surgical masks to protect against the dust. Truly hardworking lot they are!
Nearly four – five hours after Nyenri, covering the most scenic stretch of the kora, we reached our campsite for the day at Deraphuk. Many visitors including locals and foreigners were camping in the vicinity of our guesthouse as well as the ancient monastery that was rebuilt in 1985 at the same site facing the striking north face of Mt Kailash. New concrete structures were being constructed including a few at the Deraphuk monastery located on the other side of the Lha stream. The guesthouse we were allotted seemed recently fabricated. Although, my body didn’t show any signs of altitude sickness but cannot stomach even a thought of any food in this below freezing temperature. Hanging my shoes and clothing to dry, I tucked myself in a layer of blankets and quilts. I vainly hoped to catch a glimpse of the north face in the evening light.
In the evening I stepped out to explore the tract above our guesthouse and reached a mani wall. Ahead of me is a stream that leads to the deceptively close looking foot of the Kailash. As I decide not to venture any further, I thought of the adventures of Sven Hedin who more than a century ago in 1907 went through a similar experience. To cross the 5640 m Dolma La and reach our next campsite at Zutulpuk, we have been instructed that we must start by 4am. The persistently bad weather thought otherwise.
It had snowed all through the previous night. Next morning before we started the day’s activities, a few yatris scrambled up the slope and collected chunks of ice to show the others. As the group prepares to leave for Darchen, endpoint of the circuit, one of the yatris made a round excursion to Kangkyam glacier that descends from the north face of Kailash. Regular kora walkers cross the Lha Chu and ascend up the Dolma Chu valley on a trail strewn with moraine and boulders. The trail forks at Jarok Donkhang (5210m) to a shorter one and less frequented route through Khando Sanglam La. The rocky expanse called Shivasthal, a pind-daan site is located at about three hours distance from Deraphuk on the route through Dolma La. Ahead the trail flattens a bit to reach the pass. The crest of the pass could be reached in about couple of hours from this site. The sacred lake Gauri Kund (5608m) appears as the steep descent begins. The grassy banks of Lham Chu Khir are reached in a tough hour-long descent. From here a rather easy descent takes you to the monastery of Zutulpuk (4790m). The pick-up point for – a bus ride to Darchen – is at an easy distance of five km from here.
As per our itinerary, our day’s destination – Darchen, an emerging village at the base of the holy Kailash – was 477km away from Zhongba. The road ahead after Zhongba seemed recently carpeted. Till about a few years ago, the stretch of the road immediately after the town used to be frequently invaded by sand dunes on either side of the road. However, with new road we did not face any problem. Within an hour of leaving Zhongba, we passed through a picture-perfect terrain of dunes, river and mountains. The first pass we crested after leaving Zhongba was 4650m Mayum La. Ahead, the road climbs another pass at 4725m and descends through even more dunes to reach Paryang. Photos taken along this stretch got us steppe, streams, desert dunes, azure blue sky and snow-capped mountains all in the same frame.
For those travelling in the Kailash Mansarovar circuit, Paryang has always been a popular stoppage point. The main settlement of Paryang, last one on way to the Kailash Mansarovar region, is not more than a typical Tibetan village we had been crossing on the way so far. The dusty village of Paryang is typically spread around a gompa. A majority of the residents comprise migrant nomads from neighbouring villages or labourers on engagement. Among the many houses are a few shops and some family homes that can double up as restaurants. The layout and description of the village, nevertheless, is expected to change in the coming years. Mostly led by the administration, a fairly large number of buildings, cells and compounds were being constructed. I was particularly intrigued by the construction of a massive granary as our fleet of vehicles briefly halted to get fuelled up for the journey ahead.
With last traces of organised human life now behind us, we marched ahead in full excitement of finally being able to touch and feel the Sacred Space. Marching in the northern side of the Great Himalayan Range in a westerly direction, we descended into a level valley twenty to thirty kilometre wide. At our left we had the icy peaks with tonguing glaciers and another mighty range of the trans-Himalayan region towards the right; with sand dunes and turquoise water bodies on both sides of the highway. Finally we had reached the crown territory of the Tibetan highlands. I mused in awe as we crossed the routes taken, a few decades back, by some of the greatest travellers or explorers on earth.
Here in this thin and clean air the rounded mountains were adorned in pure changing colours obliterated only by the intensity or angle of light; often at the mercy of the onrushing storms with their impenetrable masses of cloud in this season. On high peaks and ridges the permanent snow expanded in silvery white and in the depressions, on the valley bed, water bodies glittered like turquoises in a vast sea of mud and gravel. In such a calm splendid environment one would experience the same harmony with inner spirit as in entering the holy of holies area in a temple.
It is not as if living creatures are entirely non-existent on this naked, sterile, desolate wilderness of mud and rock. Contrary to the popular belief, a wild life corresponding to the grandeur of the landscape thrives and flourishes here. The scant, stiff and short grass iced by almost fictional shrubbery that grows here on the valley floor may have never contained sufficient nutrients for the caravan animals but for antelopes, wild sheep or wild asses, called kiangs; it appears to meet the need. Wild yaks sustain themselves on the mosses and lichens on the mountain slopes and among the moraines. Given an option I would impulsively follow the wildlife through my camera and record their nimble elastic leaps and rapid flights as they roamed on the mountain slopes in their habitat. But for the structure of the itinerary of this organised yatra!
We stopped for camp lunch by the highway, near Satsang, after a couple of hours drive from Paryang. Our cooking team had hesitatingly prepared poori aloo subzi for packed lunch. I had a hearty meal after which I made a few snap records of the marshy highland around our campsite. The route ahead passes through a yellow steppe zone. Wherever the weather was clear the craggy snow-capped Himalayan peaks were visible to the south. Soon we were encircled by red rocky barrenness in a valley full of icy streams. Winter ice by the streams was yet to melt completely. As if out of nowhere, a check post, manned by Chinese police and excise officials, emerged where our documents were once again checked and verified. The inspector in-charge specifically announced, “No photography is allowed”. “Please”, he added later. Suddenly everyone inside the bus was staring at me. I decided to give my camera some rest.
Soon afterwards, we begun the climb to the 5280m Mayum La, made famous by the legendary explorers and travellers. After Mayum La, the road widens a bit as we crossed the Shigatse prefecture to enter the Ngari prefecture. A rather long turquoise lake called Gung Gyu Tso comes into view to the left. A few of the passengers confused it with the Rakshastal. I was particularly focused on to find the holy rocky height of the Kailash in a total overcast weather. The blueness of the magical Mansarovar comes into view just before the village of Hor Qu (4620m). Robbed off its traditional charm; the village of Hor Qu wore a deserted look. A Chinese army encampment was installed at the village when we entered. The 7728m Gurla Mandhata is to the southwest and the lake was still actually a long hike away. Our convoy briefly halted at the newly constructed tourist reception centre at Hor Qu. I immediately got down from the bus to catch a glimpse of the Manasarovar (4580m). I felt the bone chilling fiercest of winds, the Kailash Mansarovar region has been famous for. Only a near view of the lake was possible in such a bad weather.
From here, it was mandatory for all group travellers to proceed further to Darchen in the buses specifically allocated for the purpose. Still, in view of the bad weather, the authorities at the reception kindly agreed for us to travel in our own fleet of vehicles. Ahead, it is 22km to the crossroads of the settlement of Barkha (or Barga) after which we continued west to reach Darchen. Unlike what I had read about this key junction from the diaries of the travellers, Barkha is an emerging touristy village from all aspects. Many shops selling basic needs and supplies, small restaurants, etc. have sprung up alongside the streets of this village square. Our convoy cruised and quickly made its way to the settlement of Darchen, where our permits were once again verified. This time we all were handed a packaged mineral water bottle along with a group entry ticket. “The water inside this bottle is sourced from the Kailash,” we were told. I consumed its contents in one gulp and packed the bottle inside my backpack. By now the weather had improved a bit to the south and we could see right up to the snowy heights of the Gurla Mandhata above the azure waters of Rakshastal. The guesthouse, our shelter for the night, was still a few kilometres away from this checkpoint.
As I recall the accounts of travellers I have been following, calling Darchen (4580m) even a settlement would have been an exaggeration till about a decade ago. That will be so untrue now. From just a seasonal ramshackle collection of tents and camps, Darchen (or Taqin or Lhara) has expanded into a two street settlement comprising houses, a few multi-storeyed buildings, guesthouses, grocery stores, restaurants and hot-shower cafes, etcetera. Having arranged my stuff into the room allocated to me, I went for a stroll in the market. Bargaining is very much a possibility and I bought an aluminium walking stick, at a reasonable price, for the kora trek the next day.
I wish we had a couple of more days to spend at Darchen, the starting point of the Kailash kora. Apart from a better acclimatisation, the place offers many interesting short hikes and walks from where even finer and closer views of both the Kailash and the Mansarovar could be obtained. Dense clouds drew over the Barkha plains blocking our view towards the lakes. The wind did not abate until late in the night. I headed back to the guesthouse for yet another briefing session. This time we were joined by the MP Sh Tarun Vijay. Darkness had fallen over the earth. I continued with my strict regimen of extra liquid intake; and headed to the room for an early light out after dinner. Bhatol bhai had uncurtained the window before sleeping. The weather looked dicey outside. Blue-white lightning flashed in the south as the moon rose over the mountains. Far in the distance, Gurla Mandhata rose like a spectre in white sheets. I thought of Longstaff’s unsuccessful attempt to climb the peak more than a century ago. The peak has so far been climbed more than six times since then.
Next morning, I hastily packed my stuff before moving out of the room to join the rest of the gang to board the bus for next leg of the journey. I had missed the morning meal. Mercifully, the nuts and energy bars I carried came to my rescue. As the engine of the bus cranked to life, I began to munch the nuts. Our day’s drive involved highland travel of over 475 km to cover the distance between Lhatse and Zhongba (4728m) through the truly nomadic countryside of Tibet.
To our utter curiosity, for our journey ahead, we were to travel on the China National Highway 219 (G219), the contentious thread of asphalt from Lhatse in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to Yecheng in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region; both claimed by the People’s Republic of China. It was this 2086 km of highland motorway – running not only adjacent to the Indian Territory but passing through the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh – the construction of which along with some other factors triggered the Indo-China war of 1962. Considered to be one of the highest motorable highways in the world, the G219 traverses many extended valleys most of which are often flat providing a habitable camping ground to nomadic settlements along with their herd.
The chief highlight of the day’s drive was a tête-à-tête with the 2,840 km long voluminous Yarlung Tsangpo River which has its origin in the holy Kailash region where we were heading with all our enthusiasm. In the years gone by a great debate as well as a few controversies raged about the actual source of the river along with its course down to Indian mainland. With the technical advancements and much interest, however, the source and the journey were traced to accuracy; still the gorge of the highest river in the world continues to be an intriguing exploration prize. Originating from the Angsi Glacier southeast of the Kailash Mansarovar region, the Tsangpo or Brahmaputra (in India) flows past the settlements of Zhongba, Saga, Lhatse and Shigatse. The G219, however, does not follow the Tsangpo (also called Zangbo) for a larger part of the route; instead it parallelly meanders through its side valley and tributaries. As with the altering course of the river, the road network too is course-corrected as more easily passable stretches are discovered.
The turn-off to the Kailash Mansarovar region is a few kilometres south of Lhatse; marked by a check post where Aliens’ Travel Permit along with visa and passports are verified. While collecting our passports, the guide reiterated, “no photography, please” as the bus halted briefly. A few kilometres ahead, our nomadic caravan stopped again to tank up. The fuel pumps were located at most major townships we came across during our journey. The first section of the G219 to Saga (310km) passes through a pleasant country with occasional scattered settlements and frequent camping spots wherever water is plentiful. The highway G219 takes off from the Friendship Highway a little ahead of the check post and bears northwest direction afterwards. Ahead the highway crosses the Yarlung Tsangpo and runs through barren canyons and sporadic meadowland with scattered nomadic settlements or small villages. Within an hour of leaving the hotel at Lhatse, we passed by the photogenic azure blue Lang Tso (or Ox Lake), a bone of contention between the natives and the Chinese because of difference in views over sport fishing being popularised by the authorities. Past the lake, the highway climbs up to the crest of the Ngamring La (4500m), our first of the seven passes we climbed on the route that day. Our caravan briefly halted at the pass. In complete awe of the view, I got down from the bus. The morning chill had hided even the insects; besides us there was no trace of any living thing, animal or vegetable.
The chocolatey barren terrain was mesmeric to the core. All life doubts began to fade and all fears reshaped; before us stretched immortality and purification in the form of an act of nature, a revelation of the world as God sees it. For a moment I forgot I was carrying a camera. As far as our eyes could see, gleaming in the morning sun; rippled the rounded mud-frozen waves of the trans-Himalayan region of Tibet. Range after range, furrow upon furrow, stretched the brown hills so clear-cut and distinct from each other. I hurriedly made a few photo records before getting on the bus. The reflection of this stern, sombre and solitary scene was etched forever on the mind.
The road ahead passes through Kaga, by the muddy Ngamring Tso; after which the already limited traces of organised vegetation becomes totally rare. The settlement of Ngamring, an army base, is visible across the lake from the highway. With the last traces of trees now passed, the road enters a flood-ridden flat surrounded by broken rusty hills of brown purple hues climbing on each other and contented with having touched the skies. Passing through Yak country and interspersed with nomadic settlements, the road climbs two more passes – the Sang La (4742m) and the 4800m Kar La – before dropping down to Sangsang. Over the past few years, the Chinese have appreciably improved the road infrastructure. Without going into the harm such a one-sided lipstick development would have caused to the locals, I would say that the roadside facilities too improved alongside. Fuel pumps, ATMs, banks, small eateries and restaurants have sprung up by the highway at popular townships. Even though, almost nobody understands English, locals are more welcoming to foreigners than ever.
The highway crosses scenic wide alleys to enter a gorge of Dogxung Tsangpo flanked by dark craggy rocks. Emerging from the spectacular ravines, the road skirts Quzhen Tso to enter the flood plains of the Raka Tsangpo. The route then climbs Tse La and Gye La (4954m) before dropping down again to reach the small settlement of Raka (4900m), just before the junction of Northern and Southern routes. The settlement of Saga, by the Yarlung Tsangpo, is another 60 km from this popular junction. Until recently, the circuitous Northern route (1942km from Lhatse) used to be the preferred alternative over the much shorter Southern route (1219 km from Lhatse) to reach the Kailash during floods. The recent upgradation of road infrastructure on the Southern route has effectively put an end to the Northern vs Southern route dilemma as the latter one could now be travelled any season except for snows. We obviously took the shorter one where usually a stream flows alongside; so most sections of the road are not too far from water. A slightly raised level of the paved road ensures trouble-free movement of traffic. The road to Saga now passes through a stretch that is really a series of high valleys and ridges rather than an open plain. Purple, brown and amber rocks flamed against the darkened velvet curtain of the sky. And what a wildlife full countryside it turned out to be where I spotted a lot of birds of prey, marmots, blue sheep, wild asses and antelopes, etcetera.
The road from Lhatse enters the fast expanding township of Saga from its south and leaves it off from north towards Zhongba. With a fairly large army base, the sprawling township of Saga, a junction of roads from Nepal, Zhangmu, Lhatse and Kailash, is possibly the last practical chance to buy supplies before Darchen. With almost 150 km still remaining to reach Zhongba, the highway passes through a wild countryside inhabited by infrequent seminomadic settlements where flooding is a frequent natural event. The climb to another pass (Torkyo La) begins soon after leaving Saga. There are several ruined structures and monasteries, including the slightly preserved Dargyeling Monastery, alongside this route. The road ahead climbs to a pass marked by hundreds of miniature chortens before dropping to reach Old Zhongba, still 23 km away.
The rehabilitated settlement of Zhongba, musingly called New Zhongba, is still a few kilometres northwest from the olden Zhongba that bears the brunt of Cultural Revolution. Save for traditional entrance kani and a few compound huts meant for road workers, there isn’t much in the dusty olden settlement; not that the newer settlement has anything better to offer. Situated on the edge of the vast Thang Kiang Naga, or plain of the wild donkey and grass, New Zhongba is a typical settlement that you might simply just want to pass by. However, we were comfortably arranged in a renovated monastery-turned-guesthouse compound where the already basic facilities became even further basic.
The accommodation at Zhongba had excellent dining hall, comfortable rooms with clean sheets and a TV that only played Chinese channels. It was the lack of availability of hot water, limited supply of normal water and the squat variety Tibetan toilets, figuratively just a deep hole in the ground, which bothered most yatris. The dinner was typically preceded by a briefing from the head guide. By now almost all group members had decided to opt for pony and porter for the Kailash kora. The head guide accordingly proceeded to make the required arrangements. Outside in the compound, the starry nightscape allowed a view in to the depth of the universe. The bright stars looked so near as if they were part of the landscape. The universe was no more a mere abstraction but a matter of direct experience.
In spite of being mindful of the fact that we were now in China time zone, which was two hours and thirty minutes ahead of the Indian Standard Time (IST); stubbornly, my body was still not adjusted to cope with it. My android-enabled phone had already shifted to the latest time zone. I woke up much earlier than my usual rising time. It was seven in the morning as per the China Standard Time (CST). The previous evening, I had slept well past midnight according to the IST. In fact, to be honest, there was a certain degree of uncertainty about time for the entire journey right from day one. Up there, the clock and day seemed meaningless. Appreciation of the value of time on this journey to the Sacred Space was completely nonessential and counterproductive.
I felt refreshed even though I had slept very briefly. We had only covered 200 km out of more than 1500 km we needed to reach the Kailash Mansarovar region located westwards from the Indo-Tibetan border at Nathu La in Sikkim. Our next night halt was at Lazi, also known as Lhatse, located 295 km in central Tibet from our current location at Kangma, better known as Kangmar. The variance in culturally and administratively adopted nomenclature of towns or cities appeared a bit confusing initially. In Tibet, almost every town is known by multiple names ranging from Tibetan to Chinese, Roman and even Mongolian name. Common sense prevailed later.
As the group gathered in the dining hall for breakfast, a few announcements pertaining to the day’s routine were made by the Tibetan guide. “No photography”, the language translator mumbled. Grabbing a quick bite, I headed towards our truck where the group’s luggage was being collected. Being the younger most, I had volunteered myself to help with the group’s luggage. A few snap-records followed and we were on our way to Lhatse through the provincial highway number 204. The highway follows the age-old wood and wool trade route to reach Gyantse after which it becomes a part of the Southern Friendship Highway between Lhasa and Kathmandu. Ahead it merges with the highway number 318 at Shigatse. Both Kangmar and Lhatse are part of the traditional Tsang province, which is one of the most popular as well as prosperous regions of Tibet. Apart from a richer agriculture than elsewhere on the plateau, this province has the popular adventure-rich Everest region, Friendship Highway, Gyantse Kumbum, and many of the country’s most important monasteries.
Travelling by the Nyang Chu in its greener valley, soon we were at the historical town of Gyantse, famed for the fourteenth century Gyantse Kumbum, the largest chorten in Tibet and the Gyantse Dzong that dominates the local skyline. The fifteenth century compound of red-walled Pelkhor Chode monastery next to the dzong overlooks the town on a high hill. Once an important trade centre between India and Tibet, Gyantse was yet another site of a major battle between the confused Tibetan warriors and the organised troops of Younghusband. Carrying on the advance from Jelep La in Sikkim, the British spent nearly two months on the outskirts of Gyantse before seizing the dzong in just a day. The next misfortune came when a considerable number of structures of the dzong and nearby monasteries were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. As a repercussion of which, seeking freedom from Chinese, today, wishing for the lesser devil many Tibetan communities have marked the Younghusband’s Lhasa mission with red letter. Recollecting my thoughts from the previous evening I mused on the fact that we had retraced a major part of the route of 1904-Younghusband’s march to Lhasa from Sikkim.
With its red-white coloured buildings surrounded by green fields that are outlined by tall poplars, the settlement of Gyantse (3950 m) radiates the traditional charm of Tibet when viewed from the highway. Built atop a hillock, the dzong towers above the valley; and would sure command an extensive view from its top. Just a few kilometres ahead, another historical wonder – a ruined fortress – towers above the monastery of village Tsechen. The fortress is said to have been built in the fourteenth century and was even used as a shelter by the British during their 1904 military mission. Half an hour later our caravan stopped near Panam by the highway at a memorial built to commemorate the traditional dance Xie of Tibet. The memorial had a small museum-cum-craft shop.
Almost 90 km ahead from Gyantse lays the traditional capital of Tsang and Tibet’s second-largest as well as culturally, administratively and commercially important town Shigatse (3850 m), also known as Rikaze. As we entered the Shigatse city, we could not help but wonder if we were still in Tibet at all! There were tall multi-storey buildings and apartments all around. A modern railway track enters the city from its north-eastern side. Our caravan crossed the railway-track overbridge as we hurriedly bypassed the city. Wide planned streets, large glass-windowed grocery stores, restaurants, shops, offices dotted both sides of the street. The traffic smoothly managed itself with the help of traffic lights. The modern city gave just a little hint of the traditional Tibetan lifestyle. Spread near the confluence of Nyang Chu and the Tsangpo, the city nevertheless continues to be a hotbed of Panchen Lama and Chinese politics; taking shape from the monastic complex of Tashilhunpo, destroyed and rebuilt.
Inside the bus, yatris were equally thrilled to see Shigatse-locals waving at them. The opening of the Nathu La for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra was surely welcomed by the Tibetans. Lhatse (or Lazi), a popular pit-stop or overnight halting point for both Everest or Nepal and Kailash Mansarovar bound travellers, was still over 150 km from Shigatse market. Driving across central Tibet, somewhere between Qumig and Gangchen, we approached the crest of a lower pass, Tra La roughly 4,000 m above sea level. The terrain opened up as it became devoid of wide green fields. Far in the distance a low canopy of clouds dissolved into rain. The rainfall looked to be highly focused on just a small stretch. It was a rare moment of precipitation in this arid landscape. Our fleet of vehicles halted for lunch at a prearranged stretch near Shab Geding by the highway. A series of small yet modern Tibetan tents were pitched to accommodate the travellers as well as the support staff. We all routinely carried our packed meals with us. Usually, a few group members would volunteer to assist with everything from serving food to bussing tables as well as handing out utensils or fruits.
In less than an hour we were again on the Friendship Highway. Moving ahead, after a few stone crushing sites by the highway, the landscape became even more chocolatey and barren. During the bus ride post lunch, most of the passengers dozed off in their seats as I found myself engaged in the changing landscape. Emerging from the green Chumbi valley, the rolling hills that seemed green quickly changed to colourless but as we travelled over the Tibetan highland, changing landscape presented a range of mineral hues in the alluvial soil; from rust to ochre, amber and gold as well as the whiteness of salt. Deposited soil was aglow like polished copper. Carrying the testament of natural changes, in the form of bruises and dents, the barren hillocks as well as surrounding ridges changed from varying hues of purple and brown with the shifting sunlight. Taking energy from moisture in the soil, wherever it existed, shrubbery and succulents popped up within the valleys on the plateau.
Without knowing much about the destinations, I kept taking notes from whatever I could observe to be noteworthy. The bus began a smooth climb to the Lagpa La at 4465m. Such was the beauty of the road infrastructure that even a 20 wheeled loaded truck climbed such passes without showing any signs of trouble. From the slopes of the pass, I made a few snap records of the landscape we had just travelled through. A green patch of a settlement appeared like an icing on the enormously vast barren highland. The visible human intervention on the plateau, right or wrong, appeared very small in the vastness and grandiosity of the mountainscape. Even though fully aware that the survival of human life depended entirely on the temper of weather as well as availability of food, fuel and water; I felt the sense of freedom and spiritual independence deeper than possible elsewhere.
On the other side of the pass, the road descending from its slopes made its way through a desolate valley devoid of any vegetation. Far in the distance, a green patch encircled a few settlements on the valley floor. The reflection of light on the road in the rain-washed cloudy valley gave a silvery effect to the highway. Around here, with vegetation reduced to a minimum, the terrain seems like an expression of primeval forces of nature. Bare rounded ridges bear witness to the continuous action of wind, water and weather. Climbing down in loops and curves, I imagined the legendary pandit explorers on a barren terrain like this trying to get their things together. I would rate Nain Singh Rawat to be among the topmost adventurers of the entire Himalayan region. Disguising themselves as Ladakhi traders, the maps they produced and the information they collated were later found to be remarkably accurate.
An hour later, passing through the territory of ancient Sakya kingdom we reached Lhatse 4050 m. The township of Lazi is an affair of not more than a few streets. The Friendship Highway now bypasses the town to reach Kathmandu. We checked into a multi-storeyed accommodation which had all the features of a business hotel. Even though, the disco lights fixed inside the rooms were absolutely not expected, I was particularly delighted to find wi-fi service. Most of the signboards including on the temperature control unit were either in Tibetan script or Chinese. The only issue being that to regulate the room temperature or even to turn that thing off, we had to call up the helpdesk and involve the language translators. The issue at hand was that most of us realised the need to get in touch with the helpdesk well past midnight.
Having arranged our stuff in the rooms allotted to each one of us, we headed towards the market to take a stroll. Shops selling veggies, basic necessities, garments, restaurants, costumes, groceries, etcetera dotted both sides of the main street. Traffic lights beamed on the main junction. A dark cover of clouds stretched till horizon on the northern side of the town. As I position myself in the middle of the street to make a photo record, I notice a rainbow. The street passed directly beneath this otherworldly arch of primary colours hanging like strings of prayer flags; as if a gateway built to celebrate our arrival. Rainbow has a special mention in the Tibetan mythology. The folklore explains that rainbows represent the teachings and traits of saints who have passed away; calling it a doorway that leads to the Promised Land. Only the blessed ones can have an access to such unseen gateways that lead us into the idyllic country comprising buried treasures.
On the face of it, I do not believe in mythological expressions but there is a part of me that is forever curious to dig up such mysteries and question their authenticity. I slept quite early that evening only to awake in the night. I called up the helpdesk! :-)