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.