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June 14, 1997


Abode of the Gods

... into Tibet

Text and photographs: Nilesh Korgaokar

Kailas range of the HimalayasAn arduous two day pilgrimage to Mount Kailas and Lake Mansarovar located high on the Tibetan plateau just under the roof of the world is said to be one of the most difficult yatras to undertake. To state that this gruelling journey is recommended for the indefatigable is an understatement. And when you finally stumble up to the shores of the chilly Lake Mansarovar and bathe yourself in its freezing waters, the experience can be counted as a heavenly moment. The raw beauty of the Tibetan landscape, the stark majesty of Mount Kailas and the surreal serenity of Lake Mansarovar... it is a heady package for the intrepid traveller who has travelled thousands of miles to experience its fabled magic...

Kailas range of the Himalayas

News of Lake Mansoravar's legendary charm has spread far and wide and tourists of all nationalities today visit its neighbourhood. Most of them are pilgrims intent on whitewashing their souls in preparation for some higher form of religious atonement. And with fewer travel regulations now, Tibet and this abode of the gods attracts trekkers and nature lovers.

It is not uncommon to see more foreigners than Indians on the parikrama, or pilgrimage on foot as I did when I journeyed to Mount Kailas. They can be seen unfurling Buddhist prayer flags at various gompas on the way. And they all arrive at the cold Mansoravar waters joyous at having completed this difficult yatra.

A Tibetan woman

But the aliens rarely alight from their yaks to admire the numerous colourful flowers that grow above the tree line despite the harsh environment. Many of them are too bored, or perhaps too tired, to notice the marmots vanishing into their burrows at their approach or the jungle fowl who stop chortling to each other or the rabbits who peek nervously from behind the short bushes and scamper away when the pilgrims close in.

Mount Kailas and Lake Mansarovar is about 150 km northeast of the Indo-Tibet border, well inside Chinese territory. It was forbidden territory till 1984. That year, the Chinese began allowing pilgrims into the area. Thus began the influx of bold-spirited backpackers who were by then simply starving for new areas to explore. The rigours of travel in Tibet,
A sunset at Lake Mansarovarthe harsh climate, and the remoteness of this destination only added to the romance of the location.

Until recently the only way an Indian could perform the yatra was to be part of a tour group under the aegis of the ministry of external affairs and travel to Mount Kailas between June and September. But now several travel agencies in Kathmandu and Lhasa compete with each other to get you there fast and quite comfortably. It is possible now to reach Darchen at the base of the sacred mountain in a big four-wheel drive vehicle.

To cover the rest of the distance, one has to be reasonably fit, both mentally and physically. The locals do it in one day, taking between 12 and 14 hours, carrying ever-revolving prayer wheels. For most others it involves camping for at least two nights and reaching the lake exhausted on the third.

When I did the yatra, I had no idea the place would be so rich in flora and fauna. It was only when I startled hordes of wild rabbits half an hour out of Darchen that I realised what was in store. A little farther up, the rabbits gave way to the larger, slower marmots. Resting to catch my breath in the thin, cold mountain air, I realised that if I kept still, these nervous creatures would move in quite close. Hearing the click and whirr of my first shot, one rose on his hind legs to get a better look. I got a great pic there.

mountain flowers

It was during another break that I got to appreciate the flowers. I had bent over, resting my hands on my knees to reduce the strain of the rucksack when I caught sight of the brilliantly colourful flowers, tiny and gleaming.

The second day began with an exhausting climb to Dolma La at almost 19,000 feet. Dolma is the Tibetan name for Taradevi, mother of Lord Shiva who legend has it lives on Mount Kailas. Numb with exhaustion and pain, I pressed on against a background of the cries of the wild fowl. I caught a glimpse of the fat, ungainly birds during one of my numerous breaks.
mountain flowers And the flowers, changing shade and shape all the way, made up a lot for the strain of the journey. and were really a wonderful treat for sore eyes. However a little short of Dolma La one comes across a sight that really made the eyes sore.