Following on from Part 1 of my mother in law’s personal account of her journey to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar, here is Part 2 of 3.
DAY 4 Wednesday
Nepal-Tibet border. Khosa port.
An early start after a steaming cup of tea and breakfast in the hotel. We pile into 2 buses and head out of town. We pass a bungee diving spot along the river Kosi. Very primitive – the locals seem to live without modern conveniences, and the huts look as though they expect to be demolished at any time. Landslides are a common occurrence in these parts and the mountain roads are often blocked for long periods at a time. We experience the delay of one such landslide. The drive to the border normally takes 4-5 hours. But we are stuck on this narrow road, way above the river now, with a steep valley on one side and a sheer rise of mountainside on the other. The buses stop in tandem with several more 4WDs and Jeeps stretching in a long line to nowhere…We cannot see the block from where we are. We just have to be patient and wait. This is only the first and least traumatic of unforeseen events to occur.
We arrive at the border very very tired and hungry. It is 7 pm, dark and drizzly . A few small , typically rustic, hotels with bare facilities are on offer for a night stay. Our tour operator and guide takes care of the formalities and soon we are ensconced in this small hotel waiting for our food. The food is surprisingly good, hot and tasty or maybe we are just too hungry to really care. The sight of a single western toilet gladdens my heart and the night is spent 4 to a room. We have been warned against the use of torch lights at night. The Chinese across the river do not like it and potshots are known to have been taken. I think to myself – the travails have begun…My body is weary, bones are aching, but I am asleep in no time, the sound of the Kosi river in my ears.
DAY 5 Thursday
We are given a fantastic breakfast. Hot puris and potato curry. Excellent tea. Spirits are high.
The mountain air is bracing as we troop across the friendship bridge linking Nepal to Khosa port- the Nepal- China border…Tibet having been annexed by China …it is now officially in China that we find ourselves. The bridge reminds me of the East/West Berlin border shown in the movies. Strangely people waiting on the bridge seem tense. This is peace time…why then this peculiar sense of ‘kolaveri’. We are told by our team leader to ‘behave’ , stand in line and move slowly, avoid looking at the Customs guards and Immigration officials and not to at any cost attempt a smile!! Our passports are collected…Our guides seem nervous. We also have a Chinese interpreter with us.
The immigration hall is impressively quiet for such a huge crowd waiting for clearance and entry into Tibetan territory. The daily labor force consisting of Nepali women, men and children, many carrying huge loads on their backs, gas cylinders and the rest of the paraphernalia required by the likes of us for the journey to and back from Kailash, file past us through their regular channels in what seems to me an unbelievably orderly fashion. What is this special magic that the Chinese have in their means to induce such order and discipline in an otherwise chaotic and noisy crowd? Fear…of what?
The Immigration officials are smartly dressed, the women are young…girls just out of school maybe…but already wearing stiff and rigid countenances with a ‘ no nonsense ‘ look.. They are remarkably efficient and we quickly finish formalities and walk through… to Tibet.
Here we await our vehicles. From now on we are to travel by 4WDs – in groups of 4 per vehicle. The groups will remain the same till the mode of transportation changes to mules. I am with a doctor couple and another elderly man who is soon to be known as ‘young man’, the oldest in the group. Onwards to Nyalam. Height approx. 11,000ft. – our first stop for acclimatization.
We reach Nyalam after a drive of about 5 hours through country that is arid plains and mountainous backdrops not unlike the out-of-Muscat drives (when I lived) in Oman. It is cold, we don’t feel the cold as we have the car warmer on. The roads are very good. No potholes. The Chinese have done a very good job getting roads to this remote area of Tibet. All the better to march into and annexe Nepal with- the cynical observation is made by my fellow travelers.
We reach Nyllam. The accommodation here is clean and we are 6 to a room. A few hours of rest and small walks before bhajans (group hymns) and dinner. Swamiji keeps morale up. Many of us by now are getting headaches, nausea, vomiting and other signs of mountain sickness. Tamilvaanan and Shakku are kept busy handing out analgesics and antiemetics (drugs to prevent vomiting). We are also started on Diamox. We will be spending tomorrow also in Nyalam for further acclimatization.
TOILETS. Capitalised because we will not have toilet facilities with running water once we leave Nyalam. There are two designated toilets, each is partitioned by half walls into two, so that makes 4 toilets in all and if you happen to have a fellow user you can actually see his/her face while you are both sitting on your respective thrones…But no complaints. Running water in plenty and what a luxury that was in retrospect.
DAY 6 Friday
Acclimatizing in Nyalam
Acclimatization is happening. More people are well than sick. Mood is upbeat. The evening bhajans are especially lusty and loud. A couple of people have returned to lower plains as the sickness did not leave them, it was that or being left behind in Nyalam. So 2 down – we are 34 in all. I have time to sit and make a few notes. And my jottings do not seem to make all that much sense now:
Mountains sitting in clouds.
Simplicity of life
Congeniality in purpose.
Gods messengers on earth
Holy places – places of pilgrimages- magnetic resonance- vibes- alignment of electrical forces, Electromagnetic fields
Walking with the Guru: Impersonal concern,unconditional love and acceptance, power beyond self, glimpses of a swami
Self enquiry, faith and belief, No denial of Nature and Nature’s laws or Natural Laws but where does divinity fit in? Is there no place where divinity is not, and, as a corollary, is there no place where god is not? Do Nature’s laws bend? Are these miracles? Can laws be bent by mortals? Can mortals cause miracles?
What is destiny? Is there free will? Have I been here before? Will I be here again? What is karma? Does it exist outside of this life? Do I have a soul which is before and after me? Do the same souls connect through millenniums of births and deaths or is this all an illusion created in the minds of men, for men, by men?
Swami says this trip will give to each of us what we expect to get. You will see what you want to see. Your longings will be translated into reality. You will see Shiva on Kailash. You have longed for this all your life, you have believed this all your life, and you come with that longing and hope. You will not be disappointed. You may in a similar manner see Jesus or any form that you worship (Was that for my benefit?) Or you may see nothing at all – just the mountain in all its majesty.
DAY 7 Saturday
Nyalam to Saga
We have breakfast and go for a walk…uphill. The mountains are green, the air is clean and bracing. Swamiji initiates a ‘jam session’. Group activity can be fun if you are willing to let go of yourself. The dancing and singing loosens me up and there is a sense of oneness with the crowd. Swamiji keeps us in a happy and carefree mood with his jokes and his laughter. He also joins in the dancing. We return to the hotel and get ready to leave for Saga (click here for a photo of the road)
A long drive. Still the same scenic panorama. Good roads and cold weather. We stop for a packed lunch. We are surrounded by locals- women and children. We have been expecting them. Swami had told us to come armed with knick-knacks like bindis, bangles, necklaces, sweets etc . Red cheeked (polycythemic) children and women. At one point we go off road and up dunes to get past road blocks. Reminds me of the desert adventures of Muscat. Its so strange ,the terrain here is so much like Oman. Yet Oman was desert country and this here is high mountain country. There is no mistaking one for the other- one only has to step out of the car to know where one is.
We reach Saga at 6pm. The hotel looks good . There is a reception area with clocks depicting world time. There is TV – some game is going on. Our rooms are allotted. There are toilets (Yay!!) but wait a minute: Indian toilet and no water!! OK. Lets see what the others do. A strict regimentation seems to be in order. Running water between 9-11pm we are told. One bucket per room. 4 to a room. But enough about toilets. This is meant to be a spiritual journey.
It is turning into a journey to self realization of a kind I guess. Not for me I know now are the privations of the saffron robe and the renunciation of creature comforts. Its only 5 days into the yatra and all I can think of is ‘Oh shit…How much more humiliation can one’s ego take?’ I – the ‘one’ on the path cannot even subjugate my physical being enough to go back to my primal being ..let alone go anywhere close to my sublime being. I am Mortified, Ashamed, that I even dared think that I could. My whole being shrinks into nothingness. The journey has been extremely tiring so far and my body is protesting the physical hardship that it’s being put through. It has become soft through years of comfortable living and is now in no position to accommodate this strain. Body discomfort leaves little time for any mental or spiritual thought. Swamiji’s presence comforts one and all – the trip would have been doubly strenuous without him (if not impossible). Dinners now have become corridor affairs. The food is still good. And after a hearty meal I am ready to drop. Our room is small and accommodates 2 beds. So Tamil and Shaku share one bed and I have the luxury of one whole bed to myself. There is supposed to be a fourth person whose identity remains unknown through the night.
In the evening, I wandered through the one main street of Saga looking for a phone. Saga is a clean town. No garbage or litter around. Shops lining the street selling all kinds of wares. Smells of Chinese food, no crowds. If they are so keen on cleanliness, why the disregard for personal cleanliness. I cannot believe that water is scarce. There is water in abundance, just not in the towns! I called home. The house seemed to be full of people. My mother sounded upbeat, her 90th birthday was drawing near and she was surrounded by her beloved nieces and nephews, all planning on a grand celebration in her honour. Swami had told me that morning before we left Nyalam that he had spoken to Amma the night before. I couldn’t help counter checking with her. Also Swami had asked me to ask her if she had received his call. She did not seem to remember. So much for telepathic communication.
DAY 8 Sunday
Journey to Mansarovar
Again another non-stop drive for 8 hrs. Breakfast, packed lunch, long discussions in the car with Tamilvannan and Shakuntala. We reach Mansarovar at about 4pm.
The first view of Kailash. Cries of “Bhagwan”(God!), “Om Namo Shivai” (Praising the name of Shiva)… Everyone scrambles out of the cars including the Tibetan drivers who are equally fervent in their faith. I see the mountain. In the distance it stands out as the only snow covered mountain, isolated from the range of mountains around. Shaped like a lingam, it brings the believers to their knees, prostrating and touching their foreheads to the ground. This is hallowed country. People of many faiths count this mountain amongst the holiest. Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Tibetan Bonos. Today the world is full of symbolic religion despite the tremendous change in mindset of people brought about by education. It seems that rational thought flies out the window in the face of religious mumbo jumbo. I feel uneasy when I can’t quite identify with people in my group and have frivolous thoughts. I think to myself: “Stop thinking.”
I had heard so much about this lake. Set high amidst snowcapped mountains the lake lies deep and serene . At night the stars come down from the heavens and touch the waters of the lake. Once seen never to be forgotten. Holiest of holies…one dip and your sins are washed away. My uneasiness at my disbelief grows.
The astonishingly deep deep blue cannot be for real, but it is and in the light of that evening, the lake shimmers with multitudinous diamonds .The blueness of it is blinding. We drive around the perimeter of the lake. It’s huge, 120kms.We get a view of the west face of Kailash as we drive . Someone points out the steps which seem etched into the side of the mountain …the steps which Yudhistira is supposed to have ascended up with his faithful dog.
My thoughts begin again. I think about faith and belief. I think about holy places and people. I think of the gods of the various religions. And I think we will never know the truth. Even if I experience it, it will still only be my truth. The whole truth or the one truth will remain illusive.
Faith and belief are so unique that they need have no basis for existence. They are the basis for existence. Reason comes along and muddies up the waters of faith. The waters are clear no longer. Debates and doubts and uncertainties begin to cloud perception, the mind which until then was clear as to what it believed starts to falter in its steps and begins to question its beliefs. The cloud of unknowing is dark and doomed are we who have no faith and no belief. I pride myself on my reason but it takes me nowhere except to shores where the horizons are beyond reach. Knowing this I have undertaken this journey. If I surrender my thoughts completely, will I change?
The accommodation at Mansarovar is a thatched house with mud walls. The rooms have beds which look as though armies of people have used them- the quilts and the sheets are smelly and dirty but we are tired and don’t care. By now the weather is cold enough for us to have four layers of clothing. We also have on our balaclavas and two pairs of gloves. Our feet are warm with a double layer of woolen socks and we have a place to sleep. Food is served after bhajans. I am too tired to keep up and see the stars coming down to the lake. Two of our group have been transferred to the nearest health centre with intractable vomiting, headache and fever. The rest of us will go on to Darchen tomorrow.
(the journey continues in Part 3 tomorrow)