Wave Back to the Kids in Kodari

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!

Continue reading “Wave Back to the Kids in Kodari”

Kailash Finally

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.
photos of mount Kailash Manasarovar in Tibet by Arun Shanbhag
Continue reading “Kailash Finally”

Kailash Parikrama: A Trek Around Kailash

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.

īśvaraḥ sarvabhūtānāṃ hṛddeśe.arjuna tiṣṭhati |
bhrāmayansarvabhūtāni yantrārūḍhāni māyayā ~ 18:61 Bhagavad Gītā

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.
pics of stone tablets inscribed with Om Mani Padme Hum at Kailash by Arun Shanbhag
Continue reading “Kailash Parikrama: A Trek Around Kailash”

From Manasarovar, a Glimpse of Kailash

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 couped in the tent, 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!

Continue reading “From Manasarovar, a Glimpse of Kailash”

Lake Manasarovar, Finally

An Accidental Pilgrim Reaches Manasarovar, Day 10
Approximate Elevation: 4,560 m (~ 15,000 ft)
Pictures of Lake Manasarovar Kailash by Arun Shanbhag

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, Finally”

Rest Area En route to Manasarovar

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 for us 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 onwards.

Along the drive we passed one of the first “Rest Areas.” It was a simple clearing by the road with 7-8 tents pitched in a circle. Some sold trinkets like tibetan prayer beads, bracelets and various prayer bells. Some tents provided a last opportunity to purchase additional warm weather supplies like 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.

This was one such rest tent, “Three Brothers Teahouse.”

Continue reading “Rest Area En route to Manasarovar”

Across the Tibetan Plateau towards Sishapangma

Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra: Across the Tibetan Plateau towards Sishapangma & Saga, Day 6
Lalung La (Pass): 4,850 m (15,900 ft)
Sishapangma Base Camp: 5,036 m (16,522 ft)
photos of Green fields in the Tibetan Valley by Arun Shanbhag

After the extra day in Nyalam (3,750 m; 12,303 ft) for acclimatization and a short hike, we packed our bags and headed North and East for the settlement of Saga. While only 336 km away, the roads were essentially washed out, and we’d mostly be driving off-road. The journey would take us nearly 10 hours and it was the roughest day so far. Continue reading “Across the Tibetan Plateau towards Sishapangma”

Cerulean Skies Over Nyalam

Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra continues: Day 5, Blue Skies Over Nyalam
photos of mountains around Nyalama Tibet by Arun Shanbhag

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.

Enjoy the glory of this planet.


Next on Kailash Manasarovar Yatra: Across the Tibetan Plateau towards Sishapangma
Start of Kailash Manasarovar Yatra: Rendevous with Sagarmatha (Everest)

Respite in Nyalam

Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra continues: Respite in Nyalam, Day 4
Nyalam Elevation: 3,750 m (12,300 ft)

Kailash Manasarovar Yatra to Tibet, Respite in Nyalam, written and photos by Arun Shanbhag

After the terrifyingly bizarre events in Kodari, we eagerly continued on our yatra. After crossing the border outpost in Kodari, we got in pre-arranged land-cruisers and our convoy of about 17 land-cruisers, cut through the Himalayas, climbed the mountain range to the town of Zhang-Mu, and onwards towards the Tibetan plateau. Continue reading “Respite in Nyalam”

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