During my travels to Nepal and Tibet, it was such a delight to photograph kids; even when they were simply waving at our passing bus. This is on my return trip through the border town of Kodari, Nepal. Eleven cute kids in these two households!
… feel free to wave back at them!
Kailash Parikrama: Hiking Around Kailash, Day 11, 12 and 13
Approximate Elevation: Dira Phuk: 4,775 m (~ 15,666 ft);
Dolma La (Pass): 5,650 m (~18,500 ft)
Within an hour of starting our Parikrama, the rains stopped, the clouds dispersed and the sun broke through. By this time, our small group of hikers and porters were spread out and I was essentially walking alone (with Pema way ahead). The elevation was slowly taking its toll and I would make frequent stops – just to catch my breath. And with Pema leading, we made steady progress.
At one point, we reached a gap in the fortress of mountains ringing Kailash, and there peeking through the break was the imposingly massive, black granite Kailash!
The overnight storm had covered it in fresh snow and clouds still kissed its forehead. I learned that Kailash is shaped like a rounded pyramid with four distinct faces aligned with the cardinal directions. From Manasarovar we had earlier seen the South face – Aghora! Here was the West face of Kailash – Sadjyota! WoW! I was so close to Kailash! I had brought along several Shiva Stotras (Shiva Raksha Stotra, Shiva Ashtakam) to recite along the way, but with the brain deprived of oxygen, and the body barely conscious, I did not have the energy to recite. I could only chant Om Namah Shivay.
Kailash Parikrama: Hiking Around Kailash, Day 11, 12 and 13
Approximate Elevation: 4,560 m (~ 15,000 ft)
The arduous journey across the Tibetan plateau had taken its toll on most of us. While the fabulous vistas and the serene landscape of Manasarovar instantly lifted our spirits, our bodies looked forward to a few days of rest. The toughest part of the tirth yatra (pilgrimage) still lay ahead of us: performing a parikrama of Kailash.
In a temple, Hindus generally perform a pradakshina of the deity by walking around it in a clockwise manner. Mount Kailash is the icy abode of Shiva and Parvati and thus in reverence, we were to perform a parikrama; same as a pradakshina, but walking around the entire mountain. This would take us three days and we had to trek rough terrain, cross streams, climb steep trails, jump from boulder to boulder and traverse a pass high in the mountains at 19,200 ft on the second day – rain, snow or shine. And we would be camping on the mountain side. Coincidentally, the hike over three days was slightly over 42 kms, the same distance as a marathon.
After Manasarovar, we shifted our base to Darchen, a tiny compound of sheds at the base of Kailash. There our tour organizers identified half of our groups as not fit to continue on the Kailash Parikrama. After spending so much money and the long trip I’d have thought these folks would be upset – but not. They were tired and sick, and relieved they could stay back at Manasarovar. Of the rest, 20 were asked to hire and ride horses or yaks around Kailash.
I was one of seven considered fit enough to hike over the three days. I did not feel very confident though. I was still running a fever and having trouble with my breathing (small detail). Here the concept of surrender came to the fore. Yes, we all have to surrender to destiny and move forward. If I had to pass from this world, what better place in the world than on a parikrama of Kailash? And importantly, there was the ego thing: There was no way I was going to return home without doing the parikrama of Kailash.
All of us hired porters to carry our small bag packs which held only essentials for the day. Mine had an extra pair of socks (I hate wet socks), a rain jacket to go over my warm jacket, an extra bottle of water (I carried one bottle on a sling), my secret stash of granola bars, laddoos and other snacks. I carried the camera around my shoulder and bought an inexpensive walking stick locally. The organizers arranged for yaks and porters to carry our tents and kitchen stuff. Several sherpas walked with us carrying emergency medical supplies and oxygen canisters. The folks who did not go on the Parikrama were to camp at Lake Manasarovar with a skeleton crew.
During this tirth yatra, we had to re-acquaint ourselves with the divine. There were none of the material or verbal symbols of divinity here. No temple with stunning gopuras, or exquisitely carved mantapas. No shrines in niches and no priests chanting mantras and performing puja. Many were incredulous and asked: “There is no shrine here? Nothing?” Sorry, you have to engage the mind and see the divine outside the temple, inside your own heart. Realize the nirguna formless, aspect of the divine. Certainly, there was no hundi here to collect donations, either. The divine was all around us and within us.
Ishvar abides in the heart of all beings Arjun; impelling everyone to act as if they are (puppets) mounted on a machine. ~18:61 Bhagavad Gītā
The Land Cruisers dropped us off at the starting point of the parikrama. Just a barren, inhospitable valley with a pebbley trail. It was grey, raining and cold. Not a good way to start a long, tough trek.
Here Tibetans had assembled a mound of stone tablets. Each was exquisitely inscribed with the Buddha’s mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. These are apparently offerings of devotees from bygone eras. Some of the larger tablets had many rows of etched mantras.
From Lake Manasarovar: A glimpse of Kailash, Day 11 and 12
Approximate Elevation: 4,560 m (~ 15,000 ft)
Reaching Manasarovar was only the first stage of our tirth yatra (pilgrimage). The plan was to rest for a couple of days in Manasarovar, and then perform a parikrama (to go around) of Mount Kailash. Tibetans also consider Kailash holy, and they too perform the equivalent of the parikrama, called the cora. But the parikrama was much more difficult and it would take three days to hike the 42 kms around the mountain passes. And during the second day, our hike would take us upto the high point of 19,200 ft. That is approximately a third of the oxygen available at sea level!
I’ll describe the actual parikrama in a later post, but first let me wrap up the Manasarovar pics.
For a long night we remained couped up in our tents, while the storm passed overhead. The next day was stunningly beautiful giving us all a chance to rest and enjoy the lake. Around mid-morning the clouds cleared and we got our first glimpse of Kailash in the distance. Kinda resembles the linga and yoni we see in a Shiva temple. The horizontal striations resemble the horizontal marks Shiva devotees place on their foreheads. The deep gully on the mountain face is representative of Shiva’s vertically placed third eye.
In the evening we walked along the lake and captured this different pic of Gurla Mandatha on the South bank of Lake Manasarovar.
Lake Manasarovar – An Accidental Pilgrim, Day 10
Approximate Elevation: 4,560 m (~ 15,000 ft)
Over the six months I had planned this trip, I never gave much thought to the significance of going on a yatra (pilgrimage). I had signed up primarily as an adventure with my brothers and several of my cousins; to shoot fabulous pictures; and check off one more on my list of places to see before I die! That Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash were the most holiest of sites was only of passing interest. Continue reading “Lake Manasarovar – An Accidental Pilgrim”→
A Rest Area En route to Manasarovar, Day 8
Approximate Elevation: 4,550 m (14,925 ft)
As we left Paryang, the energy level in our group was high: come what may, at the end of day we would arrive at Lake Manasarovar! This stretch was not any different from what I have described earlier. Desolate, barren, overcast and bad roads! Additionally, heavy rains had lashed the plateau over the last several days and the roads were pot-holed mush and the rest of the plateau appeared like a large swamp. Swollen streams crisscrossing the area had essentially ‘cut’ many roads making them impossible to traverse. On reaching such a gaping crevasse with fast running water, our convoy would backup, leave the road wherever possible, and find an area where the stream was shallow enough to cross over. During these maneuvers, some of our jeeps stalled in the water, and others towed them to higher land. Then I thanked our stars for being part of a larger convoy. Slowly we progressed.
Along the drive we passed one of the first Rest Area. It was simply a clearing by the road with 7-8 tents pitched in a circle. Some sold tibetan prayer beads, bracelets and various prayer bells. Here was also a last opportunity to buy more wool socks and caps, for the much cooler temperatures around Kailash. And most served tibetan tea and local noodle dishes. The drivers particularly took this opportunity to enjoy their native brunch. The opening pic is one such rest tent, “Three Brothers Teahouse.” Continue reading “Rest Area En route to Manasarovar”→
Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra continues: Day 5, Blue Skies Over Nyalam
Once we reached Kailash, the plan was to walk around the mountain parikrama. We’d hike 40 km over three days, at elevations starting at 15,000 ft and reaching over 19,000 ft. While this might appear trivial at sea level, reality is vastly different at 15,000 ft. To test our selves, the organizers arranged a short hike on our free day in Nyalam. Even though we would start at 12,000 ft and hike only a 1000 ft, it was an important part of the self-assessment before continuing onto Kailash.
Even at 12,000 ft, I could feel the reduced oxygen levels in the air. Once I lightly ran up a flight of stairs and found myself kneeled over, gasping. After a few minutes I was back to normal and remembered our instructions to “walking slowly”. Even a short walk through town would leave me panting. Thus this hike was not going to be easy.
After a leisurely breakfast, we started on the trail a few 100 meters from our guest house. Within a few minutes of walking, the elderly folks were taking long breaks. A few had already given up and started walking back to their rooms. I brought up the rear and tried to motivate many to rest often, but keep walking. Yet many would not be able to complete this small, but exhausting hike. I too was winded on reaching the top. Certainly the marathon training gave me the physical endurance, but it did nothing for my oxygen requirements.
Once we got to the top, the views of the mountains were mind blowingly spectacular. The mountains here are covered with wild grass, yielding the green velvet look, and a few scrub bushes on the slopes. At 13,000 ft, we are above the tree-line and there are no trees here.
I was surprised at the deep azure sky. Many photographers have noticed this and there are several reasons for this appearance. 1. there is zero pollution here and we are getting an unveiled view of the sky. 2. at the higher elevations the atmospheric layer is thinner. 3. at higher elevations, the angle of the incident light from the sun is lower, yielding deeper blue skies and higher saturated colors. 4. I use a circular polarizer which reduces extraneously diffracted light from reaching the sensor; and 5. (I love this one), it is said that our minds are cleansed by the hardships of this spiritual journey, permitting us to “see” more purely.
Halfway up the left of the opening photograph, notice the ant-like stick figures; that’s the rest of our group. I had walked to the nearby hillock for a better view, giving us a better sense of the size of the mountains in the background. The boulders in the foreground appear to have been tossed like giant dice rolled by a celestial hand.
In the grand scheme of things, how insignificant we are. How fortunate to perceive this nature in this form. How blessed to have been entrusted to care for all this. Truly so fortunate. You can see large versions of many images on Arun Eyes.
Our initial plan was to have a quick lunch in Kodari, perform exit visa procedures, and cross over the Friendship bridge into China-occupied Tibet. But instead, we found ourselves gobbling lunch to a backdrop of a frenzied stone-throwing mob and the staccato of automatic weapons. Read more details in previous post here.
We had uber-confident ‘armchair experts’ in our group, who provided continuous analyses. One opined that police would not fire on unarmed protesters, “they are firing in the air.” We learn’t later that the mob was engaging the military, not the local police. Another divined, “they are firing rubber bullets.” Yeah!
Yielding to my cousin’s protests, I hid my camera in my backpack and scrambled to the door for a close-up of military tactics. As the military advanced, they pulled down a couple of civilians standing in a truck and kicked and beat them ragged. The frenzied mob was hurling rocks. A few rocks came our way and shattered the glass front, littering the restaurant floor with glass shards. We all shrieked and scrambled for safety. I grabbed my backpack and dashed to the back room, where most of the others waited. A few more projectiles shattered whatever remained of the entire glass front.
As we had dashed in, so did our team of Sherpas. The military apparently thought that mob-members were seeking refuge in the restaurant and charged in after them. With heavy boots one kicked the swing door, breaking the last of the glass panels and thundered in. On seeing the puzzled looks of desi-tourists and quiet sherpas, he fired into the floor, looked around and stomped out! Whoa!
The owner promptly pulled the shutters. As the military pushed the mob back past our restaurant, we got a reprieve from the stones and bullets.
In the back room our party singing bhajans, taking our minds off the tenuous situation outside. The back room was a porch overlooking a canyon. Deep in the canyon below, the river Kosi rumbled and frothed over gigantic boulders.
Above, the seemingly peaceful Tibetan side teased us.
During this entire episode, the family owning the restaurant had not panicked, but instead kept us all calm (and away from windows). Their bucolic village was torn apart by mobs and military. Their restaurant, representing their entire life-savings, was littered with shattered glass and nervously pacing tourists. Coolly, mother, father, teenage daughter and a few helpers, started to pickup the glass and rock debris. We all laughed as the daughter showed us some of the rocks that had come through. The dry nervous laughter masked the fragility of our experiences.
Early in the evening, the shutters were rolled up to an eerie calm outside. AK-47 toting military controlled the streets and a forced peace had descended on the village.
Inside, the owners made chai and passed around biscuit packets. Our tour organizers along with local help made sleeping arrangements in the rooms above the restaurant. My cousins and I, got a small room in the adjoining guest house. Even stepping next door – across a threshold of a shared wall – felt dangerous. Next door too was a tiny restaurant/home with rental rooms. With nothing to do, we just sat around, chatted and caught up on life.
When traveling, I am accused of over-packing. In my backpack houlder bag, I carried an extra set of clothes, kit with toiletries and candy bars. With our luggage trapped somewhere behind the mob-line, I was likely the only guy with a toothbrush, and a set of pajamas. *hee hee* After decades of not needing my ‘spare set,’ it took a mob action in Kodari to validate my packing habits.
Dinner was in the restaurant/family room where all the owner’s family gathered as well. The only TV had continuous news of the standoff between the mob and the military. From the News we gathered that two agitators had died and many more injured. The situation was now apparently ‘under control.’ I just prayed for calm.
After a restless night, I was up at sunrise. I noticed the owner stepping out of his room, still rubbing his eyes and yawning. I asked him for some tea and he quickly got to making chiya (tea with ginger) and coffee for us all.
Out on the streets, all was quiet. We were encouraged, the military had withdrawn from the town. I scrambled up to the terrace to catch the sun glistening on the town. On the left are the buildings in Kodari and the immigration office is the last one. The Friendship Bridge connects to China-occupied Tibet on the right. The village on the hill in the background is the Tibetan town of Zhang-Mu. While we show our passports and go through the border here, it is at Zhang-Mu that our passports are inspected more carefully. Interestingly, China is not authorized by the UN to issue visas on our passports. Thus we apply for and receive separate ‘travel permits,’ which we surrender, and our passports don’t have any evidence of us entering China-occupied Tibet; only us exiting Kodari at the border. Ironically, it was in Kodari, part of the democratic Nepal that we had the most difficulty, while the sun shone golden on the authoritarian regime in Zhang-Mu. Whoever said life is fair!
After a quick breakfast we heard the border was now open and we could leave. … if we could get around the tire burning crowd!
Apparently, our tour organizers had made a deal with the local mafia, as well as the local immigration and military bosses. Our passports were taken ahead to prepare for a quick exit. When all negotiations were completed, we were asked to proceed quickly.
We marched single file. First through the quickly gathering mob, which quietly gave us passage. Then past more burning tires. Then the barren area beyond which the military in riot gear held their line. As we approached, we all held our breaths, the riot team parted and we were allowed to pass through. Phew.
I sighed relief as we reached the bridge. After a cursory examination of our passports, Chinese authorities quickly let us through. On the Tibetan side, everyone in our group had a wide smile on their faces. We had passed the first adventure. We mounted the waiting Toyota Landcruisers and the drivers took us up the mountains to Zhang-Mu for further passport checks and onwards to the Tibetan village of Nyalama.
During travels it’s near impossible to predict what will happen. The important lesson I learnt was to remain calm, smile, and … always pack an extra toothbrush and set of pajamas in your shoulder bag.
After departing Kodari, we quickly forgot about the incident – till our return journey. The locals mentioned that the rioting continued for a few days, as fifteen more bodies of locals surfaced downriver. *shudder*
The Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra continues: Onwards to Kodari
We spent a day in Kathmandu flying along the Everest Mountain Range, taking darshan at Pashupatinath, and the Baudhanath Stupa, (Monks and Kids at the Baudhnath) and visiting the local markets. We left early the following morning for the border town of Kodari, where we would process immigration requirements and cross over into China-occupied Tibet.
Once we left Kathmandu, we also left behind paved roads. Dirt roads lead us through the countryside, up mountains and picturesque views. After monsoon rains, the fields cut in mountain sides were lush with greenery, reminding me of Goa and Kumta. But the rains also bring landslides in the mountains, and we heard news of villages washed away. In many places we drove by recent landslides. The rocky rubble had merely been shifted, so traffic could go by. We were treated to innumerable streams cascading down mountain sides; and in many cases, the streams flowed right over roads, slowly eroding them. As our mini-buses dipped into streams and groaned out again, we were simultaneously gripped by adventurous excitement and terror – which would be the defining characteristic of this trip. The 135 km journey took us more than four hours.
Green fields zipping by.
The road hugs the river Kosi; in several places I noticed rudimentary suspension bridges which the locals use to cross the rapidly flowing river.
Indian trucks dominated the roads here and I was struck by the vivid graphics on their trim. At a rest area, I shot this artwork atop the drivers cab. The art depicts nicely the scenery (and the river Kosi) we enjoyed in the mountains.
Along the route, our accompanying bus got a flat tire and we stopped in a village. These kids were selling quartered cucumbers. I was not going to test my intestinal immunity and just settled for a pic. Noticed the effeminate lips on the kid on the left
A tea shop in the village
As we entered Kodari, the buses had stopped in front of tire-burning fires in the middle of the road. Blissfully ignorant of what was happening, we carried our shoulder bags and walked a few hundred meters to the road-side restaurant for a quick lunch. We walked around more burning tires spewing dense, acrid smoke and angry young men glaring at us. In some places the heat and smoke were very intense and we hurried along.
The mob stopped our bus and we had to stop over in Kodari
Our initial plan was to have a quick lunch and cross the border, which was only about 50 meters away. But all was not well in Kodari. Apparently the locals and the military police guarding the border had gotten into an altercation. The border was now closed and mobs had blocked the only thoroughfare with their burning tires and essentially brought this village to a standstill.
As we ate lunch we hoped the mob would disperse and we could proceed on. But that was not to be. Outside, we heard the raucous of the angry mob. And then,thakt, thakt,
We looked at each other, raised eyebrows at hearing shots being fired, but carried on with our meals.
You need to be called to participate in a yatra (pilgrimage). Without the assent of the Gods, any number of obstacles, reasons, excuses will crop up and prevent you for participating. Even in our family group, many dropped out for various reasons. I count my blessing that I could make this happen.
The yatra was difficult and at times fraught with danger. Appropriate then that we started by paying our respects to Shiva in the form of Pashupatinath (Lord and Caretaker of All Living Beings). He is the patron deity of Nepal and his temple in Kathmandu is worthy of a separate visit.
The temple dates to the 8th century (or earlier) with many later renovations. The Shiva linga is an imposing 3-4 ft tall with humanoid Shiva faces at each of the cardinal sides. The four faces on the linga are called: Tatpurush (East face), Aghora (South face), Sadjyota (West face) and Vamadeva (North face). The top surface facing the sky is called Ishaan. These are the names of the four side of Mount Kailash – the abode of Shiva-Parvati, and our final destination.
Above is the quadrangle leading to the entrance of the temple. On entering, you see the back of an imposing gold covered Nandi (bull) on a raised pedestal, facing the Shiva linga in devotion.
The linga is placed in a small square garbha gudi with doors at each face. Devotees can walk around the linga on a raised walkway. Priests at each doors accept offerings of flowers and bael leaves, place it briefly on the linga and bring back the prasad. Around the garbha gudi, Nepali women in bright red sarees light oil lamps and chant prayers. It was a beautiful scene – one I wish I had more time to savor.
The temple complex is a huge pavilion with 20-30 mini shrines around the periphery of the Shiva linga. Notable are the fierce-looking, bronze Kaala-Bhairav and a small temple with 125 lingas arranged in a maze. The lingas are placed knee high and as you walk the maze, you can touch all the lingas. Nice! There is a public cremation ghat right beside the temple, which I was not prepared to visit.
These kids were tending shoes and chappals outside the temple. They should have been in school instead! Rather than place money in the temple hundi, I gave money to these boys. They were puzzled, but accepted it. I intentionally over-paid the women selling flowers. They quoted in Nepali rupees, while I paid in India rupees (=1.6 Nepali Rs).
A beautiful temple. Wish I had more time to experience this sacred place fully – would prolly require a whole day. Also wished they allowed photography inside the temple complex, so I could share the ambience with you all.