High in the Himalayas there stands an icy mastiff, a strange-shaped monolithic gargantuan in black – Mount Kailash. At its foot are two huge lakes, one more massive than the other, Manasarovar and Rakshas Tal; revered by the followers of four ancient religions – the animistic Bons, the non-violent Jains, the truth- seeking Buddhists and the eternal Hindus.
A few years ago, I went on a Kailash Yatra, part of a TV crew embedded with one of the religious tours that regularly operate on the Kathmandu Kailash route, and I went the year the ‘pucca’ road was still being built.
A flight to Kathmandu and a couple of days later a bus ride to the Nepal-China border brought our 125-strong group to the Friendship bridge, which we had to cross on foot, passing through Chinese Customs, one person at a time. On the other side was Zhangmu, a small frontier town where the next morning we boarded Land Cruisers that would take us to Kailash.
We started off on the highway to Lhasa and as we climbed out of the gorge, the turquoise blue of a limitless sky welcomed us to the Tibetan plateau. The highlands stretched in all directions, broken by snow-capped mountain ridges, there was not a tree in sight, only grassland furrowed by an occasional stream. On the pitch black road our convoy, of some 40 odd Land Cruisers, hurtled through time, carting dreams of a hundred individual quests of discovery.
A couple of hours later, we left the highway, as our vehicles turned west, to travel on grass fields that led to Manasarovar. There were no signs, no habitations, no markings and no landmarks to indicate that we were even headed in the right direction. It takes a while to realise that are no electricity poles, no agricultural fields, no airplanes flying above, no shacks, no plastic blowing in the wind and no FM radio. There are just four silent people in a car overawed by this strange new experience of being a speck, in the vastness of their surroundings.
As we kept stopping, to film along the way, we saw our convoy disappear, its dusty wake taking us away from human contact, one vehicle at a time. The only sound was that of the wind and under the harsh ultra violet rays of the sun, that first day, we had the first of our many punctures.
We drove through innumerable small streams, saw small trucks and big cars changing wheels or being stuck in water and soft mud. We saw lakes that were pristine blue, we saw smoke rise from rare little hamlets on the horizon, we saw a donkey cart loaded with household goods going from nowhere to nowhere, we met locals who smiled and waved as they walked the plains and we saw the first signs of a road being built, to take future travellers to Manasarovar. We saw birds flying and swooping for food in rivulets and water bodies, our driver told us that more than six months a year, this entire grassy landscape remained covered under snow and ice.
At a height of about 15,200 feet, Saga is the last town on the way to Kailash where one can stock up on provisions. There are hotels and small restaurants and it being a garrison town we were warned not to point our cameras at anything military. This was the place where we were to wait out a day, to acclimatise our bodies to the high altitudes, we would now be crossing.
It took us two days, after leaving Saga, to reach Manasarovar. The journey was more of what we experienced the first day of the drive, except for the Kiang or the Tibetan wild ass. We saw a herd, roaming free, grazing on the grass that grew in abundance. We saw sand dunes in the middle of the grasslands, dunes that rose to the height of a two- or three-storeyed building and except for the surrounding vista they could well have been in the Sahara.
At Manasarovar, water in the lake shimmered in the bright sunlight but if you touched it your hand would still freeze. Early in the morning the devout lined the banks to take their holy dip, shivering and chanting their prayers to Shiva. Far away, to the north west, Mount Kailash looked down at a scene that has probably not changed in a hundred thousand years. At night the clouds covered everything and lying in the tent the impenetrable blackness lay eerily heavy on one’s consciousness.
A couple of hours drive from Lake Manasarovar is Darchen, a tiny outpost from where begins the trek to Mount Kailash. A small valley opened up in front of us and on our right there towered a rock shelf where locals still left the bodies of their dead, for the forces of nature to return the remains to their elements. Here, we were told, the forces of nature were the fat and ferocious looking dogs of Darchen.
Darchen to Dirapuk, at the base of Mount Kailash, is a five- to seven-hour trek and halfway up, you get your first glimpse of Kailash, to never leave your side all the way to Dirapuk. The solidity and massiveness of Mount Kailash strikes you hard, it looks like a single piece of giant black rock topped with a wig of pure white. Humbled by the majesty of nature, I spent hours staring at the changing forms of Kailash. I saw the clouds come and cover it in the evening, I saw the moonshine reflect on its surface, in the middle of the night, I saw the snow cap turn hues of pink as the sun rose and I saw the vapour like wispy clouds form a skirt midway up its sheer sides. I walked close to its base and craned my head upwards to record every detail of the magnificent sight that held my senses in thrall.
On the trek back to Darchen, we saw a Yak fight and traffic halted, both up and down the track, as the beasts tried their best, to best the other. We passed once the fight ended, but back at Manasarovar there was still that one more magical moment to savour in this trip of sensory delights.
That evening, below an absolutely clear sky, there were patches of grey mist that hugged the terrain. Bright sunlight washed over the land as moving shadows, of clouds above, crisscrossed the terrain. There were erratic bursts of wind driving the low-hanging clouds in different directions and there were moving banks of rain, when suddenly the sun rays hit one such bank of rain transforming it into a block of rainbow. Imagine a rectangular rainbow, about 200 feet across and 150 feet high, drifting under a grey cloud sailing in the wind. The ethereal sight lasted for about five minutes before the angle of the sun turned and what was a wall of colour became the grey blue of rain once again.
On the return journey we had to drive from Manasarovar to Saga in a single day. We started very early but got delayed, filming along the way, and about two to three hours from our destination we got caught in a mudslide. The wheels spun uselessly as our powerful four-wheel drive vehicle floated on the sludge. After a long time we managed to hail a big construction truck, from a nearby road builders camp, to help us out. With some steel ropes and a mighty heave, the truck pulled our car out of the sludge, 300 yuan changed hands as we thankfully set off towards Saga. Half an hour later our steering rod gave way and we ground to a halt. It was already night and the chill had set in, our clothes soaked by a drizzle that refused to stop, we were covered in mud.
In that utter darkness we were stranded in the middle of Tibet’s limitless grasslands, even if we wanted to, we dared not set out in search of help. On those wide open spaces, we wouldn’t know which direction to go and even if we found someone, we wouldn’t know how to get back. A few hours passed, with much shivering, when far on the horizon two sets of headlamps were seen moving slowly in our general direction. We started up the engine of our SUV, switched on the cabin lamp and kept flicking our headlights in desperation. After what seemed an eternity the two sets of headlights flicked their beams, we had been seen. A search party had come looking for us and they towed us back to Saga.
The year after this adventure, I had occasion to meet one of the tour organisers, and he told me that the road to Kailash Manasarovar had been completed and no longer were there SUV convoys driving through endless grassland, fording streams and braving sludge. I couldn’t help but think, how lucky I had been to have made it, in that last year before the road got built...before the romance of adventure got sucked out of a trip to Kailash Manasarovar.
Author’s Bio: Sujay Bhattacharyya, who now goes by the name Shoejoy, is an award-winning TV producer and documentary director based in New Delhi.
From HT Brunch, December 11, 2016
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