It emerged from a casual conversation – the focused desire to trek up to Mansarovar and Mt. Kailash. A friend of a friend, who is strong Shiva bhakt (devotee), spoke of the yatra (usually translated as a pilgrimage but literally, a journey) and how much she wanted to do it. The word registered, but only faintly, obscured immediately by images of trekking in the majestic high Himalaya and Tibet. 'I'll come with you' was out of my mouth before I knew it. That was 4 years ago. Each summer we planned the trip – by air from Delhi to Kathmandu, from there by road across the border into China and on to Kailash in Tibet to walk the 36-km parikrama (circumambulation) of the mountain. Each year something or the other kept us from making the trip. Shiva, it seems, had other plans for me.
I wanted a trek and a trek I would get – the traditional footpath through present day Uttarakhand, along the Indian border with Nepal into Tibet. 'It's really tough.' I was told. 'You have to be really fit. Start training six months in advance', counseled someone else. 'Don't be stupid! It's downright dangerous' scolded a more forthright friend. I was not to be moved. I enjoy a good walk and besides, how difficult could it be? Going online, I registered with the Ministry of External Affairs (because of the crossing into China) for the 2016 Kailash Mansarovar Yatra.
From Delhi (709ft/216m above sea level) it's approximately 1,700km to Kailash and back. Only about 200km of this is covered by foot, or pony if so desired – but what a spectacular 200km it is. We, there were 55 of us, plus porters and ponies, started walking from Narayan Ashram, 54km from Dharchula (2,985ft/910m), a small but bustling hamlet divided between India and Nepal. A (pedestrian) bridge spans the Kali Ganga that separates the towns and sees much to-ing and fro-ing between the two countries!
It was the Kali that showed us the way for 4 days as we walked, Nepal on her far bank to the right. From Sirkha (8,400ft/2,340m), where we spent the first night, she accompanied us at a distance, showing herself every now and then, gurgling softly at the sight of us puffing and panting our way up and down the mountains she cut through so effortlessly. The next day at Gala (7,680ft/2,340m) she met us in the morning, raging and roaring, challenging us to walk the gorge she'd smashed through to Budhi, mesmerizing us with her power, almost drawing us into her arms. She left us as we negotiated the steep climb from Budhi (8,890ft/2,710m) to Chialekh and the spectacular valley beyond, meeting us again en route to Gunji (10,370ft/3,160m) where, exhausted, we rested a day. Taking pity on us then, she relented and led us gently on to her birthplace, Kalapani.
We left her there, walking on to Navidhang (13,980ft/4,260m) from where we would, starting off at 2.30am, climb up to Lipulekh (5,050m/16,730ft), the pass leading into Tibet. A light drizzle (to be honest it was cold, miserable, biting sleet), accompanied us through the dark. Then, about a kilometer from the pass, dawn broke through, the first rays of the sun hitting the peaks, reflecting off the snow to dazzle us.
Beyond Lipulekh stretched Tibet, the near vertical, rugged terrain we had trekked till then transforming into vast plains. Kailash was still about 124km away but once we negotiated the steep descent from the pass, it was a smooth bus drive to Taklakot (12,930ft/3,940m) where we cleared customs and stayed overnight to acclimatize. From there, by bus again, on past Rakshastaal where Ravana undertook tapasya to honour Shiva, and Mansarovar, the purest of the pure, to Darchen (4,670m/15,320ft). This was when we caught first sight of Kailash – where Shiva resides, where his energy is encased. We would set off to challenge the parikrama of the mountain, via Dolma Pass (5,590m/18,600ft), from Yamdwar (4,810m/15,780ft) the next day.
Sitting amid the wildflowers on the banks of Mansarovar three days later, looking across the sparkling blue of the water at Kailash, I felt a tingle of awareness. Somehow, in the walking towards it, in the smiling attentiveness of the jawans of the ITBP who walked alongside us, the cheerful encouragement of the porters, most of them young students, who thought nothing of running back a kilometre uphill to retrieve an umbrella or a water bottle for a yatri; in the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, the awareness of the sheer drop to a raging river a careless step away, the sight of a rock exquisitely sculpted by that raging river, the alertness for falling rocks, the pain of cramping muscles, the effort to inhale enough oxygen... I had grown beyond myself. Unknowingly I had accepted the vastness of the universe and its energy within me. I had walked towards Shiva. My trek had become a pilgrimage.
No, not a pilgrimage, a Yatra.
My sincere thanks to all my fellow yatris , specially Rajiv Puri and Deepak Raja, who so generously shared their photographs.