Early that morning, the day five of the Yatra, I got up to pack my stuff for the yatra. I had already arranged everything I needed, the previous night but the packing needed to be organised. I divided my stuff into two bags, a 100L duffle bag, to carry all the heavy clothing, along with a 40L backpack. The backpack contained my cameras and other gadgetry besides some basic high-altitude winter gear like a balaclava, bandana, floppy hat, sunscreen cream and gloves, etc. as well as an assortment of small energy bars along with some quantity of dry fruit.
All of us were supposed to reach the Gujarati Samaj Sadan by 0600hrs to be a part of the flag off ceremony hosted by the Delhi Government. Owing to some family commitments, I had to give that event a miss and instead aimed to reach the New Delhi airport by 1000hrs. The group gathered at the check-in window of the airline we were booked at by the Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (STDC). By the time we assembled at the kiosk, the members of the group had already adorned themselves into outfits symbolic to a traveller; some wearing trekker’s gear, some sticking to pilgrim’s robes and some still formally dressed. The “journey” had begun. The introductory exchanges the yatris had had amongst themselves for the past few days were increasingly getting productive now. Insofar as the general expression of the group with respect to the holy Kailash was concerned, a shift from formalities to “What this Yatra means to me” was increasingly felt. Clearly, each one of us was enthusiastically looking forward to the journey ahead.
The flight from New Delhi to Bagdogra – located in northern part of the state of West Bengal – base airport for Sikkim, takes about 90 minutes. Luckily, I got the window seat. For those who know these mountains, not more than 20 minutes after you take off, a Himalayan curtain-raiser awaits you. Soaring high above the clouds, the twin peaks of Nanda Devi catch your attention; the frame quickly transports to other higher peaks. Shortly before the inflight onscreen GPS map flashes the position of your flight soaring above Patna, the mammoth rock of Mt Everest (Chomolungma) comes into view. I didn’t expect it to be so vivid and was just awestruck!
Soon enough, the aircraft hovered above the lush green patch of Siliguri and as it prepared for its aerobatic-touchdown, I took a few more photographs of the green-scape from the tiny aircraft window. We were earlier briefed about our routine for the day but the welcome bestowed at us on our arrival at the Bagdogra airport was something none of us had expected. And well, in all goodness, this one was merely a glimpse of what lay ahead.
Organised by the STDC, select college and university students from Sikkim – dressed in their traditional attire – had come to greet us on our arrival at the airport. A few local traders and businessmen accompanied them. Without creating any trouble for other co-passengers, the representatives of STDC humbly presented the yatris with khadas, the traditional scarf-like ceremonial garland made of silk. Symbolising a pure heart of the presenter, the incensed greeting left us mesmerised. Before our luggage committee could come into action, the helpers of STDC arranged our entire luggage in the two buses provided to us for our journey to Gangtok that day.
Siliguri, part of West Bengal, lies at the base of the Himalayan foothills. The flight had made our journey to Bagdogra as comfortable as it could have been possible. The scenery was spectacular save for the monsoon haze just below the top of high Himalayan peaks. After a quick lunch, we left for Gangtok, the capital hill-town of Sikkim.
The second leg of the day’s journey to Sikkim, from Bagdogra to Gangtok, was to be completed by road. For a long part of the drive, the road passes through the Teesta valley and then branches off to Gangtok. Although nothing of note could be mentioned here, the delight of the initial moments of that road-journey is indescribable. Having caressed the Himalayan peaks, the cool breeze descending from there could be felt as we passed through thickly wooded foothills. Around here, the lush green country full of tea gardens puts on a new face to the landscape. Northwards lay Sikkim, stretching as far as the Great Himalayan Range and the trans-Himalayan passes. The state of Sikkim is bounded on the west by Nepal and on the east by Bhutan, both sacrosanct to a wandering traveller.
For a deeper realisation of the great peace one enjoys as the Teesta Valley slowly reveals itself and to appreciate the beauty of the scenery, the restfulness of trees and hedges, of trails and sidewalks, one must spend a slightly extended time here. I promised myself another visit. Unlike other voluminous rivers originating from the Himalayas, the Teesta was not observed to be in spate even though the water was a little muddy. The road to Rangpo initially followed the right bank of the Teesta through woods and clearings on an easy gradient. We drove at peace, spending most of the time in observing the environment, something that was to be a part and parcel of the day’s routine in the journey ahead. The environment was as beautiful as one could wish, mostly untouched as well as natural and in parts strangely reminiscent of forests.
On the way, at Melli on the left bank, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) had hosted a High Tea for us. “How fortunate we were to be a part of the first batch”, most of us would often admit! Quickly enough, we were on our way to Gangtok again. Just before Melli, the greener waters of the Rangit River confluences with the Teesta. There was a great harmony in the valley that day even though it was misty which meant arrival of seasonal rains. Our next halt was planned at Rangpo, another High Tea, we were briefed; this time by the STDC at its reception centre.
Apart from the lush green stunning landscape, one might come across typical BRO road warning signs comically presented as one-liners on roads leading to the border such as this one. “Better to be late Mr Driver than The Late Mr Driver”, “BRO – Cutting Hills but Joining Hearts” or a little suggestive one “Be gentle on my curves” and “Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep”, etcetera to name a few. The valley opened up after Melli. Quickly enough, we reached Rangpo where another welcome ceremony, albeit an extended one, was held. The ceremony included cultural and folk dance performances by local artists and college/ university students. Almost the entire village including the local MLA as well as the administrative staff had gathered to welcome us. And, of course, the media was there!
By the time we left Rangpo, it was dark already. Rangpo has always been a police check post where entry permits to Sikkim get checked. A fairly large village now, Rangpo also marks the border between Sikkim and West Bengal. It is from Rangpo that the East Sikkim starts. Gangtok is still another 30km from here. Ahead, the Teesta valley was terrace-cultivated. The next town on our way was Singtam, located at the junction of the Rongni Chu with the Teesta. Our guide informed us that the stretch of the river between Singtam and Rangpo is a popular rafting tract. Culturally, Singtam marks the end of a civilisation we all were familiar with. All the crests, bridges, public places were marked with colourful fluttering flags that announced the acceptance and arrival of Buddhism. It was pitch dark and we arrived at Gangtok in time for a late dinner and still spent the early part of that night discussing the expected series of event lined up for the next day. “End of a long but fulling day it was”, I marked in my travel notes.
Gingerly, I found my way to the first floor of the Gujarati Samaj Sadan on the evening of 13th June, 2015. Or was it the second floor? A middle-aged man at the reception had told me that this was where the Kailash Mansarovar Yatris had been put up. It was day one of the yatra, according to the Ministry of External Affair (MEA)’s schedule – the day the yatris arrived in Delhi, and I being their Liaison Officer (LO), first met them here.
As I soon found out, they were all just as anxious and excited about this yatra as I had been for weeks! Through the social media group that we had created, most yatris had at least some knowledge of each other before coming to Delhi. Ranging between the ages of 27 to 70 years, our motley group had people who hailed from almost all regions of the country – Tripura, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, West Bengal and more. The burning desire to see and pay homage to the Holy Mount Kailash as well as to experience the serenity of the grand Lake Mansarovar was the common thread that united all of us. The constituents of the group ranged from all walks of life – be it homemakers, or bankers, or teachers, or government servants, or even businessmen, politicians and doctors, etc.
The first three to four days of stay in Delhi for the yatris are looked after by the Delhi Government. The Tirth Yatra Vikas Samiti of the government arranges for the bedding and lodging of the yatris at the Gujarati Samaj Sadan where they are accommodated in a well maintained dormitory. For outstation participants, this place serves well to allow initial (and often lifelong) bonding to happen amongst them. Apart from that the samiti also provides a comfortable transportation to the yatris to facilitate their movement in Delhi.
Outwardly, the Yatra formally begins on day two with a detailed medical check-up at the Delhi Heart and Lungs Institute (DHLI). This is also the time when all the shortlisted participants get to meet each other for the first time. The MEA had given me a list of 49 yatris, about half of whom I had already met the previous evening at the Gujarati Samaj Sadan. As required, all the participants reached the hospital at 0800hrs on empty stomach. The medical tests included an umpteen number of blood tests, TMT, PFT, ECG, and the like. I had been through these nerve-wrecking tests just a few weeks ago as part of the selection procedure for LOs. The nervousness in the air was palpable, as was the excitement.
Passports of all the participants had been collected along with some visa related formalities. The Chinese were not going to affix the visas on our passports apparently; they were going to issue us a common group visa for all the yatris. All this and more was just mentioned in the booklet the MEA had sent us a few days before. The medical tests at DHLI took almost the whole day, and ended with a short presentation on the medical emergencies that may arise at high altitudes.
The results of the medical tests, and also the final list of fit yatris, were to be declared on day three at the ITBP Base Hospital in Delhi where we were expected to reach by 0900hrs. Today was also the day we had set aside for the formation of our yatri committees who would independently manage the group’s affairs, related to the task assigned to them, till the completion of the yatra. The briefing document I had prepared for the yatra comprised all the agreed committees along with a brief description of their duties and responsibilities. The list included Finance committee, Food committee, Luggage committee as well as a Headcount committee. Mercifully, I was able to get volunteers within no time as everyone was keen on making the yatra a success.
The doctors at the base hospital called the yatris one by one and after a brief media check-up; the DHLI report was examined to gauge the level of fitness for the yatra. By the time the final fitness list got prepared, we had organised a briefing session as well as a formal question and answer session in the conference hall of the ITBP base hospital. As ours was going to be the first batch of the KMY through the Nathula, there was some uncertainty with respect to the facilities and procedures in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). So this was going to be one adventurous trip!
We all agreed to not leave any shopping for the last minute in Delhi, as the next day was to be packed with official formalities at the MEA building. With that in mind, all of us made a recheck with respect to the checklist of items to be carried, as mentioned in the MEA booklet, including the travel accessories, winter gear as well as medicines. It was also agreed that all the yatris should carry just a little extra money with them – for unforeseen eventualities.
Next day, the day four of the yatra, all of us gathered at the MEA building, on the Janpath in Delhi, where we were briefed one by one by the concerned officials of the ministry. Smt Sushma Swaraj, the Minister for External Affairs, Government of India had come to flag off the first batch – of the newly opened route through Nathula to the holy region. The auditorium was packed with media from all over the country. Little did we know that the presence of cameramen and reporters was going to become a regular sight for the batch throughout the journey!
The ceremonious flag off by the Minister was followed by some general briefings relating to dos and don’ts, submissions of indemnity bonds and other such formalities, after which we finalised the task as well as assigned duties to the various committees. Everyone got down to perform the role as was expected by the group. The Finance guys collected money towards the common pool. The Luggage team took feedback of baggage from each of the members of the group. The Food committee prepared a menu and identified the ration we needed to purchase from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, and last marketplace before we crossed the border. The remainder of the day was spent in getting forex conversions or making last minute purchases for the journey. Once in Tibet, conversion from US Dollar to local currency was possible but not from Rupee to the local one. Therefore, most of us carried some extra dollars.
On a personal note, I had been intimated of my selection as LO of Batch 1 via Nathu La at the eleventh hour, and given my hectic work life, so was the case with my preparations. Although I do consider myself physically and mentally fit, I was aware that this yatra required a lot more than that. In terms of physical fitness, anyone with a spiritual or Himalayan inclination and a healthy as well as mentally fit body frame should be able to take up this journey. I had been to Himalayan treks before but here we were stepping on foreign soil and being on the first batch none of us were sure of what lay ahead. On the logistical side, I had made a hurried trip to an adventure gear store the previous weekend to upgrade my accessories and gears to match the extreme climatic and harsh conditions of Tibet for this yatra. We were venturing into Tibet at a time and season when the weather can actually get very wet. The list of items I planned to carry closely resembled the one recommended by the MEA in its booklet.
Having said that I always feel what you wear is very much a personal choice and so stick with what works best for you. The real possibility of facing extreme temperatures in Tibet means that you must be prepared for both below freezing and burning sun conditions. My personal advice would be to carry a good quality raincoat or a poncho, down-filled jacket and a pair of high quality trekking shoes apart from all other listed gear or accessory. And above all, get physically and mentally fit before you decide to go. Success on this journey will depend upon your fitness and more importantly how you are able to manage your health with the changing altitude.
That night, I could hardly get any sleep. Our flight to Bagdogra was scheduled early next morning. My last minute packing, as also the excitement, kept me awake till wee hours that morning.
Disclaimer: All views expressed here are personal, and do not represent the views of the Government of India in any manner.
The first glimpse of the crystal clear waters of Lake Mansarovar and the sparkling snow of Mount Kailash convinced us that the deepest sources of inspiration and motivation are tucked away in the folds and cracks of the mighty Himalayas. This was the reason, we realised, that since time immemorial the best of yogis, sages, saints, and explorers, had undertaken the gruelling climb up the forested ridges or snowy caves of the Himalayas in order to meditate in the midst of the divine presence here.
Spread over the secluded highlands and positioned miles away from the humdrum of noisy cities, lies what we now believe to be the place where God’s presence can be experienced most tangibly. Nowhere else have we meditated under skies that are bluer, breathed air that is cleaner or seen colours that are so vibrant, bright, pure and abstract. Here, the landscape itself appears like an eternal expression of prehistoric forces.
As it marks the watershed of South Asia’s greatest rivers, the Kailash Mansarovar region has fascinated generations for centuries. Till the late nineteenth century, it was believed by almost one-fifth of humanity that somewhere between China and India there stood a sacred mountain, said to be the navel of the earth and the axis of the universe. This region was considered to be ‘the most significant and magnificent geographical problem’ still left to be answered on earth before the arrival of the previous century, writes Atkinson in the Himalayan Gazetteer, his record of developments related to the Himalayas.
Many an attempt were made by the powers that be including the British, Germans as well as the Mughal emperor Akbar to solve this geographical mystery. For centuries, legend had it that there was a mighty river that arose from the summit of Mount Kailash and flowed into a lake which gave birth to the four of the great rivers of Asia. Umpteen attempts were made to map this region and trace the true source of the four rivers that originated from the Kailash watershed as well as the channel between the Lake Mansarovar and Lake Rakshashtal. It finally took more than five centuries to establish the true source of these four great rivers, namely the Sutlej, the Indus, the voluminous Brahmaputra and the Karnali, a major tributary of the Ganga River.
The Kailash and Mansarovar region is believed to be the holiest of all pilgrimages in more than four religions. In its mystical form, this isolated holy mountain, 6638m (or 21,778ft) in altitude, is known as Meru; in its earliest of manifestations it was Kailas – the ‘crystal’ or in local parlance Kang Rinpoche – jewel of snows. The Hindus believe Mount Kailash to be the abode of Lord Shiva, the supreme creator and destroyer. For the Buddhists, the sacred rock is the place where the world and all its powers originated. Followers of Jainism believe that it was here that the founder of their religion achieved enlightenment. The ancient shamanistic Bonpos who pre-existed Buddhism in Tibet believed that the holy mountain provided a link between heaven and earth and drew powerful cosmogonic, theogonic and genealogical associations from it. On a religious map of Asia, if it ever existed, most of the lines identifying the main pilgrim routes would focalise at this remote and remarkably sacred region in Western Tibet.
Accessing the region has never been an easy affair as the Kailash and its waters lie enclosed by the toughest and most inhospitable of natural barriers on earth; the Himalayan ranges to the south and west, the deserts of Takla Makan and the Gobi to the north and east. In addition, due to its own inwardly-directed religious preoccupations, Tibet had for centuries – until 1959 – remained sequestered from the world outside. Select traders and pilgrims were allowed after careful investigations but other explorers, particularly westerners, were strictly prohibited.
Nevertheless, few spirited and courageous trans-Himalayan travellers made a name for themselves by venturing gearless into the forbidden land. Such a feat, however, required nerves of steel and a strong measure of rebelliousness to overcome the natural as well as manmade impediments. Having read about the works of Indian surveyor-spies called the Pundits who explored the Tibetan mainland in disguise, the controversial claims made by Sven Hedin, the military mission of Younghusband to Lhasa, the scientific research work of Swami Pranavananda, our interest and desire to visit the true iconic figures of the Himalayas had grown manifolds.
Mostly directed by the desire to satiate the obvious curiosity and fascination, we had embarked on the journey to the holiest of natural shrines. For both of us, who prefer to travel (and live!) without a fixed itinerary or objective in mind, such a meticulously organised sojourn was going to be a new experience. As our vehicle inched its way towards the sacred region through the inhospitable terrain of Tibet, we couldn’t agree more with the fact that its raw countryside is the ultimate overlander’s delight in terms of the scope for adventure and excitement. Perhaps not anywhere else on the planet is it possible to travel in the shadow of peaks, eight-thousand metre high, and cross multiple high-altitude mountain passes most of which are above 5000m.
Now that we are back and as we write this with deep interest, we haven’t been able to disassociate ourselves with the breath-taking grandeur of those two iconic figures, which we call the Sacred Space. It is as if we’ve had a sacred communion with an infinite strength, wisdom as well as righteousness. The subsequent posts will portray our experience, observations and inner echoes in the light of the foregoing description. We were fortunate to be a part of the group that was full of humour, knowledge as well as religious quest. The distance between New Delhi and the Sacred Space, as the crow flies, is just 475 km compared to above 6500km we covered to complete the journey through the Nathula. Honestly, we rate this Yatra among the most mind-stimulating organised travels in the world. Towards this, we also owe our gratitude to the Government of India, Government of China, MEA, STDC and concerned officials who made it possible for us to visit the dreamland, the Sacred Space.
It was a cold misty morning at Nathu La, the natural high-altitude passage between India and Tibet, across the Himalayas, in Sikkim. Passports had been verified for the one last time by the Indo Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBP), baggage tags checked, and the visa papers secured, as the rain came down lightly on the first batch of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatris standing in a straight file at the Indo-China border, some 4,310 m feet above the sea level. These thirty seven pilgrims were witnessing history being made before them by being the first travellers from India to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) through the Nathu La after the border was closed in 1962.
We, the members of the first batch, or the historical batch as the authorities would tell us over and over again could feel the unmistakable excitement and festivity in the air. Having dreamt of a Kailash-Mansarovar visit all through our lives, we were finally heading to the most sacred spot on this planet to almost half of humanity including the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jains and the Bonpas.
The mountains had always fascinated us. “The Godly Kailash and the Manas-Sarovar (translated as ‘the mind-lake’), how placid and beautiful could a lake be whose name sounded so heavenly?” such thoughts kept us occupied. We had all heard stories or anecdotes of the Kailash visit from those who had been to the holy land. Some experienced yatris in the group would often share their tales over meals and acclimatization walks from day one of the yatra.
“Yea in my mind these mountains rise, Their perils dyed with evening’s rose;
And still my ghost sits at my eyes. And thirsts for their untroubled snows”
Swami Pranavananda quotes Walter De La More in his memoirs
We were fast getting initiated into a direction that would eventually take us into the deep stillness of our inner-self by way of sacred communion with nature. Away from the madness of the cities, we had never felt more alive than when we were in the embrace of the Himalayas. Inside our minds, the mystical yearning to visit the Holy Kailash Mountain and the Mansarovar Lake in Tibet had been germinating for many years. The very thought of such a possibility would leave us dreaming about the grand solitary spaces of the Himalayas. The moment when our yearning of years was going to be fulfilled had finally arrived. It filled us with great delight when our wish and desire to pay our first homage to this natural and divine wonder through Nathu La got materialized in June 2015.
This blog series is a joint effort by Aarti Saxena (who also happened to be the Liaison Officer of the batch) and Satyender S Dhull, who were blessed to have been a part of the first batch of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra (KMY) via the Nathu La. As we write this with deep contentment of finally having visited the Holy Land, we cannot help but wonder still if we shall ever be able to visit Kailash again. For us, our spiritual-escapade into the Sacred Space would always be a rare adventure in Tibet, a country absolutely full of history, interest and significance.
The following posts are an endeavor in capturing the most magical moments of the yatra, before and after we crossed the Tibetan border! We hope you enjoy reading about our journey and experience it through our eyes and perspectives. Om Namah Shivaya!
Disclaimer: All views expressed here are personal, and do not represent the views of the Government of India in any manner.
Reception at Gangtok
Adjusting to the higher altitude
The legend of the soldier Baba Harbhajan Ji
Crossing the Nathula
Getting shepherded through Tibet
On the Friendship Highway
By the Tsangpo Chu
Traversing the Barkha
The Kailash and the Yam Dwar
A Glimpse of Eternity by the lake
Retracing the trade route to Nathula
The Festivities around
Back to the Plains
“How wonderfully fresh and adventurous it must have been for the 20-year-old Braham travelling through the Himalaya in 1942 as a young soldier on leave during the Second World War and how wonderful to have Sherpa companions whom he had read about in the pre-war Everest expedition books,” pens the ace mountaineer Doug Scott in the forward written for the book Himalayan Playground by the author Trevor Braham. In a way his expression sums up what this book is all about – the adventures of Braham from 1942 to 1972 on the roof of the world – the Himalayas.
Having spent a good part of his studentship in Darjeeling during the British Raj, energetic Trevor Braham took to mountaineering at the age of 20. The blessing guardianship of the Kangchenjunga massif had casted a strong influence upon him that aroused his later ambitions in the field of organised mountaineering. His initial rambles in the western part of Sikkim in 1942 enabled him to define his interests and helped him assess his strengths and limitations.
Next he boarded the thought of Garhwal Himalayas in 1947 and climbed the Kedarnath Dome among his many other exploits in the region. Opportunely he was in the holy town of Badrinath, as he claims, on the day when India gained independence. “It was a privilege to have visited the mountains of Garhwal at a time when unlimited mountaineering opportunities existed in a beautiful and practically untouched region,” Braham writes. Himalayas addicted, he visited the Himalayas almost every year during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Braham’s other noted explorations recollected in the book includes that of Sikkim region in 1949, Kullu-Spiti watershed region in 1955, Karakoram in 1958 before his interest shifted to the tribal regions of Swat, Kohistan and Kaghan during the decade of 1960s. According to him his prime objective of traveling to the mountains was not to seek material objectives or accolades but in search of those eternal rewards that only Himalayas possess, free from the routine humdrum of life.
Although, the book sheds some light on the mountain life of the times about which very little written historical evidence has been obtained, it essentially remains to be a recollection of the events that transpired more than 50 years before. Written in 2008 without any seeming aid from the trip-reports, the book fails to do full justice to his raw enthusiasm, interest as well as the variety of information otherwise obtained by way of travelling into the regions which were relatively untouched by mountaineering or tourism. Frankly speaking, the book is merely a recollection of his experience giving a blueprint about his “trips”. The description in the book looks to be mellowed down after a gap of more than five decades.
Notwithstanding the loss of information, the book intriguingly captures climbs in the remote Himalayan region by way of trip-photographs. Without doubt, one of the most interesting aspects of this modest book is the description of his activities in the tribal areas of Pakistan Himalayas. Although, it makes for a pleasant read for a Himalayan lover, nevertheless, nearing Rs 2000, a paperback edition of the book is highly overpriced. The book is available at Amazon as well as at Flipkart.