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/ )