Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 14 – Returning to Pasupathinath Temple, Kathmandu-(Final Part 14/14)

[To read the first part of this 14 Part blog series on our Kailash Yatra click here]

On the morning of Sunday 16th September, we took in one more lasting look of Mount Kailash at Darchen on our long drive to Saga. Tempting as it was to break journey at Lake Manasarovar, we decided that being on the road to reach Saga by sunset was prudent.

Given the good road in this stretch, there was little drama. We craned our necks for yet another distant peek of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. Our lunch stop was timed with a much needed bio-break coupled with the regulatory 20 minute stop. Saga was reached by sunset after driving past the now familiar sand dunes and the Brahmaputra river and its tributary. A routine dinner followed after settling down in our respective rooms. By now our logistics operations were honed to near perfection.

Our Tibetan guide worked his charm with his network of local Saga contacts and advised the group to be ready for an early morning departure at 6 AM the following morning (Monday 17th September). This was to avoid massive delays as the Chinese workers start work at 8 AM on the construction of a new highway parallel to the dirt track we had taken a few days earlier from Gyirong to Saga. Foregoing a little sleep if it meant we could reach Gyrirong early made sense to all of us.

If there was a Sherpa team who performed consistently above and beyond their assigned duties, our team of Sherpas were the ones who deserved our gratitude in spades. We cannot thank them enough. These men had risen early and even made ‘parathas and chutney’ for breakfast on the road!

With some well honed and safe driving, our Chinese driver reached the T-Junction heading to Gyirong in record time. The previous high altitude hillside of 5236m hardly excited any of us. ‘Yes, we have been to greater heights’ seemed to resonate in all of us!

Barring a minor delay nearing Gyirong (whispers had it that there was a local fight between the Chinese and local Tibetans!), we reached our destination safe and remarkably well. Relief was written all over our tired faces.

It was at one of our mandatory 20 min halts near Gyirong, I spoke to our leader that at lunch, we serve our Sherpas first before we have ours. Somewhat surprised but agreeing to my request, he wanted me to run this past the Nepali Sherpa leader, Wangchhu Sherpa. After explaining as to why I felt this was important for us 19 yatrikas to do this as a small act of saying thanks, Wangchhu Sherpa agreed. And with that perhaps for the first time in a Sherpa’s life, were they served food ahead of their Kailash Yatra paymasters!

Our team of yatrikas had all bought into my proposition and everyone did their part dispensing lemon juice and serving food to our Sherpas. The atmosphere within the Gyirong rest house was magic with beaming broad smiles and happiness writ large on one and all.

Post lunch, we had our formal thanks being said by our leader, gift monies given to each of the Sherpas, guides and Chinese driver. All that was now left to be done was to rest,  recover and finally say goodbye to Diamox!

Dinner that evening was a relatively tame fare. Some in our group set off to a nearby Nepali restaurant while the rest of us completed early our packing routines now that we had our two duffel bags returned to us.

Early on the morning of Tuesday 18th September, we set off for the 45 minute downhill drive to the Tibet-Nepali border of Rasuwagadi. Immigration processing went without a hitch with us lining up as 1-19 as at everyone of the Chinese check posts. Luckily for me, I was not hauled up for not leaving my backpack for X-ray checking on may way in!

It was time now to bid goodbye to our very dear Tibetan guide, Phung Tso and his mate Gamma. They were remarkable in their service and worked seamlessly with Wangchhu Sherpa and his men. Thanks gents, thanks for everything!

Crossing the so-called friendship bridge, we now re-entered the familiar world of utter chaos in Nepal. Trucks parked anywhere and everywhere, this was no ordinary place for pedestrians with no semblance of traffic control and order.

A pilgrimage such as ours does prepare us well in subtle ways, or so we might think. There was enough reason to be upset now as our minibus could not take us to the helipad on the road we had taken on our way out. No one seemed to know what needed to be done.

Some of us voiced possible options, including walking 20km to the helipad while others voted down every idea even before they were fully articulated. The idea of brain storming options sans evaluation was not for this mob! You could sense it was getting to us now having spent over two hours in limbo.

Situations such as the one we were in produce heroes. Ours that day was yet again the quiet ever smiling and calm Wangchhu Sherpa. He had managed to work his charm with the Nepali project manager on accessing the private road (project road of the Chinese construction site of a hydro-electric project in Nepal). Soon we were moving again, albeit at a snail’s pace through a maze of parked trucks on a narrow dirt track barely wide enough for a mini bus. At times, the vehicle was precariously close to one side slipping down a steep incline and into the river in full flight.

Another of our heroes that morning was no doubt the driver of the mini bus. Like his Nepali countryman Wangchhu Sherpa, this man remained calm and collected. His driving skills were truly exceptional with the ability to reverse against the slope between parked vehicles with hardly 10cm clearance on either side. Scary, but this man made it look so simple!

Lest I forget, once again our Sherpa team had anticipated that we would need a bite of lunch and at the right moment this seemed to land in our thankful hands. We may have expended our calories in those anxious hours of wait and hence this pack was all the more gratefully accepted.

After some two hours of dare devil driving that kept us on the edge of our seats, we arrived at the helipad. A collective relief for all and now the long wait for the chopper and as many as four sorties to take us to Kathmandu.

In many ways, the helipad wait was a welcome relief. I had prepared a little skit the previous night at Gyirong and had co-opted another of our yatrikas to be my partner to deliver at an appropriate time. My wife reminded me that the atmosphere was perfect for some light hearted relief and sure it was.

The copter wait meant that we now had an appetite for a few rounds of fresh organic potato chips and masala tea with a dash of ginger. While waiting, we had photos taken of the locals and of us men sporting our beards grown during the yatra.

The choppers arrived and soon we were all in Kathmandu for a final night together for dinner at a restaurant that boasted wholesome freshness of local produce and traditional dance. The food was excellent and a fittingly perfect way to celebrate that evening.

But there was something far more important for the morning of Wednesday 19th September. Our Kailash Yatra leader, Doctor Garu as we called him, had composed beautiful verses in Telugu invoking the grace of Lord Pasupathinath to help us on our pilgrimage. We had sought HIS divine grace and promised to return to have HIS darshan on completion of our Yatra. There could not been a better way than this temple visit to Lord Pasupathinath.

Thank you Lord Shiva, Lord Pasupathinath!

Om Nama Shivaya

Note: Those interested in a Yatra to Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash can contact Wangchhu Shgerpa at www.acrossthehimalayas.com

 

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Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 13 – The Four Day Parikrama around Mount Kailash

Kora Day 1 Kora Day 2 – North Face

Kora Day 3- Crossing Dolma La Pass …

Kora Day 4 From Zutrulpuk to Darchen

Our four day Parikrama of the Outer Kora (some 52 km) commenced from Darchen on Wednesday 12 September and finished on Saturday 15 September. Successfully completing this Kora over four days was the very purpose of our Kailash Yatra.

On the night of Tuesday 11 September, we went about our now established travel and packing routines but with one major difference. Each of us had to repack all of our clothing and other essentials in such a way that we could only use half the volume in a duffel bag with the other half to be shared with your spouse (or rooming partner of those men and women traveling as ‘singles’ in our group). The other bag was repacked with used clothes. Both these duffel bags were now going to be the cargo for the sturdy Yaks on the Parikrama.

Driving a short distance from our Darchen guest house, we arrived at the Kora’s starting point called Yamadwar (Tibetans call this gateway ‘Tarboche’ ), the gateway of the God of Death through which one enters the abode of Lord Shiva. The wilderness of this place, the arid rough terrain, the many dry ravines and steep inclines and dancing shadows of low hanging clouds at times unleash colours that one cannot find in other places.

We spent over an hour waiting for our ponies (mules) to arrive with their handlers. Soon thereafter Yaks were sighted and a few men to herd them with their cargo of our luggage- duffel bags, groceries, gas cylinder, stoves, pots and pans.

It is worthwhile recalling here that from the very early planning stages of our Kailash Yatra, our leader had instructed us all to only carry our bare essentials in our backpack, trekking poles and at least a litre of water. He had also insisted that each of us should hire an animal (US$565/- cash!) as there is no way to fetch one at short notice should we sprain an ankle or feel too tired to walk some 15-20 km each day while on the Kora.

After what seemed a protracted discussion, the horsemen agreed to carry our backpacks and from a lottery system, we got an animal and its keeper assigned to each of us. Being number 19, I had no choice but given the last of the four legged one. A Tibetan name of the horseman was provided in the slip with instructions that we are to keep it safe and get acquainted with the size, colour and gear of the animal and its handler! This it turned out to be a tough call in my case with a difficult to pronounce Tibetan name while my wife got it easy to remember her three letter horseman, the lovely young man Uri.

The last time I had been on a horseback was in Alberta, Canada at a classmate’s farm. They were huge farm horses while these- ponies, mules in Tibet, were much smaller. I decided that I would conserve energy and not walk on Day 1 of the Kora. Having paid some significant cash, why not enjoy a slow ride is what I thought!.

Getting atop the animal and sliding our trekking shoes between the stirrups was a tough ask. The art of swinging your right leg over the saddle was one to master and stiff hamstrings did not help.There are no reigns as such and one holds on to a semicircular handle that sits in front of the saddle. To my discomfort and many others, we found that the handle was too small for our gloved hands to go under and that barely two fingers could be used from each hand to hold on to our dear life on these animals!

The ride though was pleasant despite people advising me to expect sore backs and bums. Perhaps my fitness was up to scratch that I experienced no such discomfort and even began to enjoy the slow pace. My only regret was that I could not take photos while riding but found a way out. Young Tsering Sherpa agreed to take pictures and was given a quick lesson on composing and shooting in the automatic mode.

This leg of the Kora on substantially long stretches of gentle climb and descents was very pleasant. The weather that day was kind to us and those who preferred to walk kept good pace while those of us on our ponies did well to avoid falls and keep our balance, both mental and physical.

A pre-packed lunch consumed and the animals having earned their feed and rest, we hobbled back on to our respective animals and went ahead. I realised that mounting the pony was a lot easier than getting off it! Thanks to large boulders along the way, these served well as stepping blocks where needed.

We reached Dirapuk around 5 PM and there was plenty of light before the sun disappeared behind the clouds. In front of our rest house (yes, freight containers making up our dorm accommodation), rose majestically Mount Kailash. We were just a few kilometers, perhaps 6-7km or so from the North Face of the mountain. The morning program would take us closer, really a lot closer.

A hard day’s trek does demand at a minimum sound rest overnight so that we are all well prepared for the steep climb to the North Face. For reasons inexplicable, a number of us were denied our booked accommodation as the Tibetan agent at Dirapuk had us double booked and hence our sleeping quarters remained with the previous night’s occupants!

While heated arguments and reasoning were not helpful, we resigned to our fate that we need to have our dinner and somehow manage that night clear in the knowledge that we would be better placed for the second night’s stay at Dirapuk. Despite our discomfort and cramped sleeping arrangements, we did manage to snatch some rest and accept it all as part of a divine play.

The morning of Thursday 13 September felt special as this was the day when many of us were going a lot closer to HIM. With the medical team advising who can go on the steep climb and who cannot, everyone of us knew his/her capacity to take it on and hence there was no real drama. A small group of men and five ladies walked varying distances towards a look out point while the remaining in the19 went ahead with a few Sherpas.

The climb towards the North Face presented many a challenge adjacent a gushing stream, large boulders, the odd Yak and here and there ice a few inches thick. With a steady, slow and measured step in full view of the holy mountain in front of us, we were all drawn towards HIM by an unknown and unknowable power. One felt HIS presence and guiding hand, step by step.

Some three hours into our climb, the majority of us stopped saying we should stop here, say our prayers for Shiva, prostrate and have a lunch break. Even to get to this vintage proximity to the North Face, we had dodged warning flags along the way and taken a chance as the Sherpa head was confident that we could push ahead.

Three men of mental resolve and physical capacity aged below the mid-forties had decided to venture further with the Sherpas, one of whom carrying an ice axe. The call of Lord Shiva must have been unstoppable for these men as they gingerly walked another 3.5km or so across frozen crevices beating the arrival of a potential snow storm to reach the North Face. These men along with their Sherpas were the chosen few to touch the mountain and return to base safely, some two hours after we had returned to base.

That evening we celebrated Ganesh Chathurthi much like how the puja would have been done at home. Our leader had planned every small detail and one can only say that it was a blessing indeed to witness first hand his ‘shraddha’ right through the two hour session that included offering of traditional ‘modakas’ for Ganesha and the Telugu custom of telling stories on Ganesha.

Timed to perfection, one of our young yatrikas who had braved it all to reach the North Face had returned to base and joined us at the puja. He gave us a first person account of his experience in Telugu (with a brief summary in English thereafter) on how he felt some kind of magnetic aura around the holy mountain and that he had totally surrendered to HIM in his quest to get to HIS proximity.

By any account what all heard was the most stirring and spiritually laden moment of our entire yatra. Moist eyes and visible tears of spiritual emotion were beyond anyone’s control. It was indeed the defining first person narration I had heard even if the finer points of an alien language had escaped me.

The puja completed and the prasad taken, it was time for our Ganesha to be sent off on his journey (visarjan) down the stream flowing down from the North Face. Dinner followed, our Diamox taken and a peaceful night’s rest summoned.

As for me, I too had HIS blessing, retiring on a bed where I could close my eyes seeing HIM to my left and wake up in the morning looking up again at HIS majestic presence. I could not have asked for more.

Friday 14 September, our third day on the Kora was by all accounts going to be a challenge taking on Dolma La Pass at 5630m. I had decided to ride the pony that morning and not to take any chance. Many of our more able men had decided to continue with their walk of the Kora.

Over many a steep climb and long stretches of sheer beauty and winds that suddenly roared and as quietly disappeared in silence, each of us had kept our focus, the walkers on the next step forward while the riders either leaning forward while climbing or leaning back while descending. Even the poor animal needed to pause every now and then.

Closing in on the Dolma La Pass, we dismounted and walked up taking in the little lake of Gowri Kund to our right. The many prayer flags there fluttered to wind swept music of their own while yatrikas from other groups slowly made their way through the Pass just like us after passing through the glaciers.

The descent from Dolma La Pass is not for the faint hearted and weak of limbs. It is very very steep with loose soil and gravel that easily gives way calling for extreme caution and attention to every step down the incline. Eventually one gets to substantially easier terrain and the sight of a campsite at a distance warms our hearts with the prospect of a well earned break for lunch, water and protein nibbles.

During the last stage of the climb, I had lost my horseman and with him my backpack, wallet tucked away at the bottom, water bottle and camera. I was a bit concerned that he may have bolted and anxiety got the better of me till being reassured by Tsering Sherpa that the backpack would be safe and I need not worry. On reaching the campsite, I sought out my lad and he seemed totally at ease as if nothing had happened!

Our lunch was a samosa, a piece of cheese, apple and fruit drink, all consumed gratefully while the chocolate bar was happily taken by my horseman alongside a few pieces of chewing gum and protein bars and nuts. The walkers were trickling in and soon the assembly of orange Down Jackets signaled the group’s safe crossing of Dolma La Pass.

After our lunch break, some of us were back on our ponies while a few took to walking along with those who walked all day. Our evening destination of Zutrulpuk was some three hours away with us now on substantially low gradient climbs and descents. Though somewhat tired, one could not afford to go to sleep while on a saddle.

I must mention that it was only at the lunch break my wife advised me that she had taken a couple of low degree falls prior to Dolma La Pass and that she was fine despite a severe headache. The fear of falling off the animal had its upside effect on me of banishing sleep of any duration off my mind. Safety first, safety always were the rules to be adhered to at all times on a Kailash Yatra.

Speaking of safety, our leader now on his fourth Kora had the benefit of prior experience and had insisted that we all wear a helmet while riding the pony. My wife unbeknown to me had removed her helmet as it was aggravating her persistent headache. I was none too pleased with her defense as you would expect protective spouses to be!

We arrived at Zutrulpuk a little after 4.30PM and our logistics folks had their task cut out, thankfully this time with adequate beds averaging four per room.  Of the two places with bare minimum overnight accommodation- Dirapuk and Zutrulpuk, this place came a distant second! Even the Tibetan public facilities were obnoxiously filthy and hence the call for our private toilet tents were made at the earliest.

The Yaks in their wisdom had decided to give our bags a rough treatment. Several of our duffel bags arrived with completely ripped sides and smeared with dung, dust and grime. Thankfully, most of us stuck to the discipline of packing our belongings in plastic storage bags which endured rather well their ride on Yaks. Finding replacement or spare duffel bags we were advised was not going to be a show stopper.

Dinner that evening saw the welcome return of our soup laced with garlic that we had missed earlier. With a few still enduring a relentless headache, the medical team advised that where possible, the spouses must be with each other. This no doubt was more of a well thought through recipe for recovery and it worked well.

My wife outlined her rationale now for not wearing a helmet saying her two falls took her sideways and that her head was not anywhere near the ground! Our rooming partner, calm and collected at all times offered just a few words: ‘I happen to know a little about head injuries as a neuro-surgeon’. You can bet your bottom dollar that my wife’s helmet was now going to be on her head for the last leg of the Kora!

The final day’s trek from Zutrulpuk to Darchen was relatively easy with the hills to our right and the river to our left with steep gorges at many places over the 14km stretch.The Kora path reduces significantly in width with sign posts urging people to dismount and walk.

I had decided to walk the entire distance given that I had had enough of riding. Besides, I wanted to take a few pictures now that we were on the home stretch back to our starting town of Darchen.

On arriving at our finishing point, we parted with the animals and handlers who had to return for their next Kora. With the four day trek now complete, our phone/cameras were on overdrive with pictures being snapped of the now successful 19 yatrikas and accompanying team of Sherpas.

A few in our group were not done yet and decided to walk back to the town of Darchen which was a few kilometers away while the rest of us were content with our mission accomplished and to get sooner into the relative luxury of a more acceptable place of overnight rest.

At Darchen we discovered that we needed to find alternative accommodation as the plumbing was a problem at the place we stayed earlier. Luckily, an alternative venue was found shortly after we had taken our packed lunch.

The evening saw us celebrate our leader’s birthday. It was only fitting that it also doubled up as as an evening to rejoice given  the successful completion of the four day Kailash Outer Kora.

(Continued .. Part 14 -Final Part ..https://turtledge.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/australian-kailash-yatra-part-14-returning-to-pasupathinath-temple-kathmandu-final-part-14-14/ )

 

Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 12 .. On the shores of Lake Manasarovar (4590m)

Another beautiful morning it was, Sunday 9 September, the day that would soon mark of our first sighting of both Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash. Hence it was inevitable that a quiet expectation was building up within us. Even a mere sighting, let alone being in their close proximity would be counted as a blessing for us Hindus in this lifetime.

The well laid road, unlike the track that brought us the day earlier to Saga, was a sheer delight to travel. Barring a few unexpected pot holes and the occasional swerve to avoid an obstacle or stray goat, it was what we might call a routine drive past many scenic vistas.

Our eyes were now used to the many hues of blue skies and snow clad mountains along the route that was now the new normal. The mandatory diesel refuelling and bio breaks aside and 20 minute stoppage to comply with road speed regulations, there was nothing that disturbed our inner peace.

The sudden appearance of many sand dunes to our left hugging the shores of a tributary of the Brahamaputra was intriguing as was elaborate civil engineering effort to keep the dunes confined within square concrete enclosures along side pieces of rock to prevent soil erosion.

We took a break for lunch during one of our enforced 20 minute stoppage. At a distance, large Tibetan dogs huddled by the roadside, perhaps in quiet anticipation of some food being tossed their way.

Road trips such as ours can upset stomachs and lead to varied incarnations of what we simply call ‘Delhi Belly’. While the environment is often the cause, one of our fellow yatrikas discovered to his discomfort that indulgence of spicy chillies sauce on his pasta lunch were giving him the runs. And to him goes the honour of inaugurating our mobile toilet seats and biodegradable collection bags. Surely he is well within his rights to be remembered for other things!

But some good came out of this man’s unfortunate experience. Sauces of this kind, hot pickles (our dominant tribe love them!), water melon and vegetable salads (mainly cucumber and carrots) were summarily banned from the menu by our leader at least till such time our main mission of the Kailash parikrama was completed.

This turned out as good a time as any for my wife and I to plead for milder spices and ‘satvic’ food given our constitution being different to those accustomed daily to Andhra spices and hotness. The absence of yogurt now that we were in Tibet was another of our problem. A daily intake of probiotic tablets seemed to have helped us both on these days.

Before long, our leader had spotted Mount Kailash on the right side of our bus and soon thereafter Lake Manasarovar to our left. At the earliest opportunity, we disembarked, and looked towards the snow clad South Face of Mount Kailash with hands folded in prayer. It was verily a sight to behold, picture perfect like the many seen on Youtube videos and photos adorning living rooms that yatrikas proudly display.

The customary group photos taken with a variety of phones and assorted cameras, we left soon thereafter to our guest house at Lake Manasarovar. By all accounts this was minimalist, with six ladies in one room and four gents in the other rooms. The holy lake was right before us with its deep blue waters a calming influence while Mount Kailash appeared to play hide and seek from a distance as clouds caressed her in bursts before the setting sun.

With dinner and the night advancing rapidly, medical needs were a priority for our caring team of doctors. Injections, oxygen and other medications were administered with such care that one can only dream off.

In private huddles, folks teamed up for a walk to the lake’s shores and witness shooting stars pop into the waters and/or other mesmerizing light shows that only nature can offer at such heights.

The following morning, Monday 10 September, our leader had us all have the holy waters of Lake Manasorovar rationed for a 3 mug sprinkle, the water duly warmed by our ever efficient team of Sherpas. Within a tent on the shores where we could see the calm waters close by, we sat down for our Shiv Puja that was masterfully conducted by our leader.

Prayers completed, lunch followed and then a short ride to the nearby Chiu Gompa Monastry. This place contains the meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche, embedded footprints in rock of the Guru and that of his disciple, a wishing rock and ancient Buddhist scriptures that have been spared of the loot and destruction by the Chinese during their annexation of Tibet. We then drove on to see the smaller Rakshas Tal lake where no one risked tipping their feet in waters deemed evil and unholy by both Hindus and Tibetans.

The night was to be our second one in cramped quarters and a final opportunity for some star gazing and sighting of phenomena unique to Lake Manasarovar. This night did test the resolve of a few as they were medically challenged and hence kept our team of doctors busy providing care.

Tuesday 11 September was special too. Yet again our leader patiently outlined the rituals and helped us perform the ‘Tarpanam’ for those who had lost a parent (or both). That we could do this at Lake Manasarovar made us all feel truly blessed in remembering our forebears.

The rituals done and a quick lunch, off we went to nearby Darchen. After sorting out our room allocation and figuring out the complexities of a Wifi connection to shoot off messages to near and dear ones if needed, another night and yet another place to sleep was becoming our new normal.

On Wednesday 12 September we would know how well placed we are in both mental and bodily strength to take on the four day parikrama around Mount Kailash. And of course, Diamox by now was a routine intake both morning and evening.

(Continued .. Part 13 ..https://turtledge.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/australian-kailash-yatra-part-13-the-four-day-parikrama-around-mount-kailash/ )

 

Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 11 – On to Saga (4700m)

Each morning before we set out on our walk or long journey by road, our leader would have us assemble for prayers and the refrain Shambho Mahadeva would rent the air. These prayers gave us both individual strength and team resolve that together we were on a higher purpose and that HE alone is our goal. Words are woefully inadequate to describe how each one of us felt in these collective satsangs.

Saturday 8 September was going to be a long day on the road to Saga. There were reports that we had come across that the highway was cut off with landslides between Gyirong and Saga. Not to be deterred, our leader was steadfast in his faith and resolve that we pray and push ahead and that is what we did. Faith they say moves mountains, and we now saw how they do.

The road to Saga unfurled undulating rolling hills and waterways with green pastures rapidly fading into a distant memory. The landscape was brown, dusty and winds often kicked up a mild dust storm. Villages were far apart while a monastry here and there stood out in the bare landscape. There was a surreal calmness arid beauty with mother earth’s blue roof ever present as witness to happenings below.

Our journey took us onto a very steep climb and peaked at 5236m, a compelling spot for a few photos and stretching of limbs. These heights would become our new normal in the days ahead and hence any time spent, however short, was all part of our altitude acclimatization.

The time tested mountaineering rule is climb high and sleep low! And that is precisely how our yatra was planned. Over many a steep hair pin bend we made a rapid descent and soon arrived at a fork and a road closure of the stretch that takes us to Saga via a shorter route. After some phone calls by our Tibetan guide, he instructed the driver to follow a motorable dirt track that tested our ability to accept pitching and yawing of a bus on land like a craft on water!

Butterflies in our stomach made their presence known for many of us. A lunch halt was called and our excellent Sherpas had lunch set up, paper plates, hand sanitisers and serviettes readied and served us the usual mix of food. With close to an hour taking in the open spaces, we boarded our vehicles Saga bound.

We passed many a crew engaged in roadworks and soon we were to discover that our bus driver, despite his excellent skills, had ploughed our bus into ground with the wheels half buried in unrelenting clay and mud! Disembarking to lighten the load and try as we did, the bus was in one of its stubborn unrelenting moods. But help was close by with a bulldozer now commissioned with pleas for help. Extricated and free, what better way than to cheer our bus driver and give him another round of applause.

Approaching Saga, we had our first glimpse of the mighty river Brahmaputra and a few of its tributaries. Passing a few roadblocks and back alleys, we finally arrived at Saga which appeared very clearly as a military base with red flags fluttering. The Saga Hotel was to be become our overnight home. Again, steep steps to the second floor tested our ability for climbs and thankfully, all 19 passed this one too. Our new normal it appeared had set in. Or had it?

Given a few hours before sunset, a few of us walked around Saga CBD and its many shops including an open cart selling Yak meat. A local, drunk to his bones was totally unaware of his whereabouts while young soldiers went about in their off duty attire shopping provisions. A pharmacist did some brisk business with our folks buying up some face masks while the more adventurous of appetite ventured into spiced bamboo shoots for their gastronomical delight!

Back at the hotel, it was time for dinner and the usual nightly routine of packing and leaving our duffel bags and the by now regular intake of Diamox.

(Continued .. Part 12 ..https://turtledge.wordpress.com/2018/09/29/australian-kailash-yatra-part-12-on-the-shores-of-lake-manasarovar-4590m/ )

 

Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 10- The high altitude test at Gyirong

Friday 7 September was planned as our first real test at high altitude. Over the next few days we would learn from each other and that it was our attitude that predetermines our ability to cope with any altitude.

With our morning Diamox swallowed, the routines of the morning including breakfast, we set out in the cool crisp air for a longer walk. A banner ‘Kailash Yatra 2018’ with Australian Flag at two corners was to have been on prominent display on our bus. But better sense prevailed that such displays may tantamount to questioning Chinese authorities and hence we posed for group photographs with the banner as backdrop and had it tucked away never to be seen again.

Wangchhu Sherpa and his Tibetan colleague led us on a long walk past what would be ‘downtown’ Gyirong over well laid broad roads punctuated with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings clearly marked at each intersection.We walked past many a closed shop, street hawkers of fresh fruit and vegetables and the occasional stray dog. Birds if any were few and traffic was mainly of three-wheel all purpose vehicle- the locals ute of choice.

Our walk leaders took us across a paddock up a gentle incline to observe our pace and satisfied that we were all doing well, they stepped throttle and took us to a construction site and a deep gorge and suspension bridge that became a major attraction. Some of us ventured across the bouncing bridge with enough legs for a longer walk to a nearby monastry. But that was ruled out as being too far and demanding of around three hours to return.

We lingered around for sometime and took our time walking back to our rest house in Gyirong. A family of locals had their fruit stall open where we bought a selection of apples, plums, bananas, grapes and other fruits not uncommon in India and Nepal.

Two things that readers, potential yatrikas may want to note:

  • The rooms are pretty basic and the washroom/toilet is cramped with leaking faucets and wet floors. The shower hose sits over the commode and flushing off toilet papers causes blockages too!
  • The local Tibetans would just walk in selling their wares or offer money exchange. Intrusion into what we regard as private space is not an issue for these folks.

Lunch, afternoon tea, evening prayers and dinner followed with clockwork precision and as with the other days since our first intake at Rasuwagadi, each of us took our Diamox, packed our duffel bags and left them outside our rooms. That we had all passed both individually and collectively with our first real test of walking at high altitudes, albeit ‘only’ 2700m was indeed a great relief.

(Continued .. Part 11 ..https://turtledge.wordpress.com/2018/09/29/australian-kailash-yatra-part-11-on-to-saga-4700m/ )

Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 9- Gyirong (elevation 2700m) inside Tibet

On Thursday 6th September, we 19 were at our orderly best rising early and walking up in some slush to the border crossing for its opening at 9.30AM China time, This was 2 hours 30 minutes ahead of the local Nepali time where we all stood in wait. Little would one have thought that a mere walk across a fence would make so big a shift in our clocks and more importantly for our daily routines over the next 11 days in China occupied Tibet.

Remember we were all leaving the freedom and associated chaos of a rural democracy and entering a regimented totalitarian space where we knew there would be data gathering devices tucked away in decorative flower pots and festooned flags at every post. Or so we imagined you may well say, but our experience suggests otherwise.

Breakfast done and now our mandatory Diamox timed not to let our waterworks intrude seriously into our waiting game at the border, we surrendered our passports to the agent and waited somewhat nervously to cross the so-called ‘friendship bridge’ (note it is China’s way of saying that the bridge is essentially in their interest alone!).

Treading gingerly over the bridge and peering through slits of sleepers, we could see and hear the gushing river below. Within five minutes, we made it across to an expansive concrete building that boasted modern technology, including finger printing devices and scanning of our passports.

Everything in China it seems is made easier for their immigration staff. For instance, by affixing a label with our number (19 in my case) on our passport spares the officer any fumbling with our name and going straight to the page with our photo and passport number. Chinese genius at work, sort of!

A small point to note here. Yours truly at number 19 and his wife number 17 (don’t get me wrong- she is number one and only wife!) were separated by a charming young man 18 in the queue! Whether this was arranged to keep our arguments if any down or to provide first hand medical care for both of us, we don’t know. But it was wonderful company all through, whether in lines or at other times on our yatra.

At the immigration counter, we witnessed a minor breakdown of one of the scanning devices and within minutes we moved to a parallel line (100% redundancy planned in systems!) and the processing continued. Unlike the security personnel at the Kathmandu helipad, these folks were meticulous looking for what we don’t know. My camera was turned on and given a complete look over, all 82 pictures taken since landing in Kathmandu!

I had a few books of our Hindu scriptures and a little notebook featuring a picture of Sri Bhagawan Ramana Maharishi. I was tempted to say about HIM but silence, the teaching of Sri Bhagawan took its hold on me and I was asked to move on. I was the last in our group of 19 (yes the Chinese don’t like random numbers and firmly believe 19 follows 18 and so on), to collect my bag and join my group who had by now and moved out of the building.

While I could see our folks outside, I was a bit perplexed on what I should do with my backpack. Should I just walk past the large X ray device for bags without disturbing two officers who were in some serious discussion or should I put my camera and bag through the now idle machine and seek help? In a whim, I decided that I would walk past and join the group!

Outside, it was getting warmer and the regimented Chinese establishment was at near its orderly best in contrast to what we had just seen in Nepal the past few days. We waited for our Tibetan bus and travel guide (no one can travel within Tibet without a guide) and with our bags now safely across with the team of Sherpas, we were now ready for our long road journey deep within Tibet.

With a few introductions and a well pitched welcome by our Tibetan guide, we were now on the move with 19 of us, one Sherpa, the Tibetan guide and Chinese driver and a spare seat while the remaining Sherpa team of 10 and two Tibetans drove in two four wheel drive vehicles with our duffel bags, food supplies, gas cylinder/stove, pots, pans and plates.

The drive to Gyirong (spelt Kirong, Kirung by some) took a little over an hour up steep winding concrete roads with hillsides slammed with concrete retaining columns to forestall landslides that are not uncommon in these places. We could feel the climb and associated decline in oxygen levels. As in the brief drive within the Nepali countryside, the drive to Gyirong was picturesque with lush green and tall trees, the occasional snow lapped mountain and waterfalls.

The Chinese do like testing our propensity to stand in line from 1 to 19 every now and then. It does appear they do not have much faith in their own tight security system that they now feel compelled to check our passport yet again before reaching our accommodation in Gyirong. And one more thing: No Photography at any of these checkpoints of anything let alone their officers doing the routine checks.

I suspect that local party officials can demonstrate their loyalty to the powers that rule by engaging in what appears to us as a meaningless ritual. But then, it provides employment and gives us some stretch time to walk a few hundred metres and soak in the free air and low oxygen!

We reached our hotel (call it Rest House) around 2.30 PM local China time. Our Tibetan guide formally welcomed us with their traditional white silk scarf placed around our necks and looked forward to working with us over the yatra. A tall man with a reasonably sound grasp of English (far more articulate and superior in spades than my knowledge of our dominant tirbe’s Telugu!), he gave us confidence that we had the right man to work alongside our Nepali Sherpa leader.

Our rooms in two levels of floors meant that we had our first real taste of what it is to live in high altitude, be it only at 2700m. Our leader was very clear that none of us carry our backpacks and that the Sherpas will have them delivered to our rooms. Needless to say, many puffed their way to their rooms with a few showing signs of exhaustion. One among us needed an oxygen boost but was otherwise fine as were the rest of us.

In quick time the Sherpas had our lunch ready and we enjoyed our meal and obviously relieved that we had crossed into Tibet with no serious drama with our permits and possessions. After a short rest, we devoured some hot lemon drink that was tonic to our system.

Our leader and his medical team took a look at our blood pressure and oxygen levels. Yours truly registered a somewhat higher reading of blood pressure and hence a second check was made later in the evening. Needless to say, I was touched by his care and his medical team’s oversight of the health of all members. No doubt we all felt truly blessed to be part of this group of 19 where 17 of us were first time Kailash yatrikas.

With the medical checks done, we were issued our Down Jackets to brave the cold that helped us venture on a short 30 minute or so walk of the town to gauge first hand what a little town like Gyirong has to offer and how our legs and lungs coped with a lower level of oxygen relative to the previous day at 1600m or so at Rasuwagadi.

A light dinner of the mandatory soup with garlic (even my wife who dislikes garlic took a liking for it when told that it is a MUST at high altitudes!), chappatis, rice, dhal and vegies completed the menu with a gulab jamun or rassagolla included for completeness!

Night was upon us as did a volley of Diamox reminders from across our rooms. The first night of sleep and snoring (including one with exclusive rights) had arrived at high altitude and it was time for a well earned rest to welcome a new dawn.

(Continued .. Part 10 ..https://turtledge.wordpress.com/2018/09/29/australian-kailash-yatra-part-10-the-high-altitude-test-at-gyirong/ )

Australian Kailash Yatra: Part 8- Overnight at Rasuwagadi at Nepal-Tibet Border Crossing

Information had come in early on Wednesday 5th September that the helicopter option was the only one and that travel in a convoy of jeeps was being ruled out due to anticipated long delays that could easily double a 8 hour road trip and make us travel weary before the more arduous yatra at high altitude.

There was little doubt that a copter ride would be exciting. Yet we wondered whether the scenic beauty of rolling green hills and its many waterfalls, landslides and slushy terrain under the wheels would rob us off a particular kind of travel excitement. Perhaps it was ordained that our cameras needed a rest as did our trigger happy fingers!

With helicopter travel now confirmed and some of us a touch nervous given it was going to be another first, we braced ourselves and set off to Kathmandu airport and its helipads. Our travel gear meanwhile had left early in the morning to make its way to Rasuwagadi, the border town in Nepal a few kilometres from theTibet border.

In mid morning, Kathmandu roads are very much a slow moving car park. Being the third morning in Nepal, we were all getting used to some fancy U-turns and driving on the wrong side (mind you whatever one does is right if you can ignore the rules!). Some in our group even began enjoying the ride adorning face masks to ward off airborne dust that infiltrated inside our vehicles.

The so-called Royal Estate looked desolate and barring a few pictures of the once royal family in our hotel, that lot seemed to be consigned to the dustbin of history. It was all their karma, or was it just cold blooded murder that young Communists instigated a love torn prince? Or was this all woven in a traveler’s fabric of stories, each version embellishing its previous one and hence moving even further from its epicenter of what really happened?

One could not miss observing that essentials such as security checks of our backpacks at Kathmandu airport were for all practical purposes a ritual act. We had to weigh ourselves with our bags to ensure that each flight of five passengers plus pilot was not overloading our helicopter. We felt good about this that this aspect of flight safety was being taken seriously.

Over four sorties, our 19 yatra members arrived at a helipad that was some 20km inside Nepal. Apparently the Chinese would not want even a helipad located any nearer its Tibetan border with Nepal. This was our first taste of China exercising its clout in the region with its slow and steady inroads of strategic influence in Nepal. Seen another way, India appears to have surrendered its role in Nepal and surely this to many of us again showed India’s lack of a serious strategic narrative in South Asia.

Once the copter had landed and its whirring blades rested, a crowd of locals swarmed the craft and even before we could take our backpacks and gear, a few were busy scrambling to get in while young mothers with babies in their arms peered into us new arrivals radiating an innocence that only simple village folks untainted by the woes of commerce can provide.

From the hillside helipad to our overnight accommodation in the border town of Rasuwagadi would take us close to 90 minutes (or more if you had a burst tyre as one group of five experienced). This bumpy ride on what here in Australia we would call a motorable dirt track opened vistas of sheer hillside beauty, steep overhanging cliffs kissed by low hanging clouds and many a silvery waterfall.

One of our fellow yatrikas in our four-wheeler had just discovered that he had lost his wallet (and thankfully his cash and passport were secure). It was probably lost while disembarking at the helipad while whipping out his phone/camera. Given the melee on landing with many locals, and perhaps the compunction for photos with the chopper and pilot, you can well picture what happened.

We pulled aside to a wider area in the dirt track. A series of frantic calls were made, to the helicopter company in Kathmandu and to our members yet to board at Kathmandu as well as to those who may be just landing at the helipad. Search we did inside our vehicle but nothing faintly resembling a wallet showed up. In short, we were learning another thing or two on how to keep our key possessions better secured.

Our many phone calls were broken by a loud noise like a nearby thunder. Our quick reflexes took our eyes towards a falling rock, a large one, that merrily rolled down kicking up dust in its free wall. Fortunately, it was on the other side of the stream running along the track.

Arriving in batches, we were treated to some hot tea while our logistics people sorted out rooming arrangements. Obviously there is a price for late arrivals on who gets the last accommodation while the rewards for early arrival could be a room with better facilities! With little choice and a lot of warm hearted cooperation, we found our rooms. Our bags arrived well before sunset that evening allowing us the luxury of a change!

Sunset was a few hours away and this gave us time to walk towards the Tibetan border and take some pictures of the many hues of green and grey in rapidly receding light. A roaring water fall on one side and a brown silt laden murky river in full flow on the other side was music to our ears.

Our Sherpa told us of an hydro-electric project that the Chinese were building for Nepal and that no photos should be taken of the massive Chinese Immigration facility where their red flags swayed at a distance.

The walk completed and our appetite worked up, a sumptuous local dinner was gratefully consumed as was our first intake of Diamox to combat high altitude sickness.

(Continued .. Part 9 ..https://turtledge.wordpress.com/2018/09/28/australian-kailash-yatra-part-9-gyirong-elevation-2700m-inside-tibet/ )