Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Kailas Mansarovar Yatra

I write this post to inform you that my wife, Lalitha, & I recently successfully completed (on 12/6/2016) the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra with the blessings of our Gurus Periayavas (past & present) of Kanchi Mutt; the positive & favourable grace of Lord Kailasanathar & family and the the good wishes of all our friends & relatives.
I take the opportunity to pen a few lines to describe our experience and share our learning for future yatris to refer to while planning their own yatras. We had used the able guidance & support of M/s Shankar Treks based out of Bengaluru for the trip and we wholeheartedly endorse and recommend the tour operator for other yatris too (esp. from South India).
The best time to go on this yatra is when one is young and fit. However, we found that most yatris were senior citizens who had various health issues which made the yatra physically stressful to them. Ideal seasons to go on this yatra is early spring before the onset of monsoon or immediately after monsoon has withdrawn. Monsoon time can be very tricky and also risky and best avoided.
The itinerary of our trip was as follows:
Muktinath Darshan (31/05/16 to 03/06/16) - Mumbai - Khatmandu - Pokhra - Jomsum & Muktinath - Pokhra - Khatmandu - I will give details on Muktinath trip in a separate note. A trip to holy Muktinath is a must-go for all travellers to Nepal and is helpful to acclimatise before the Kailash trip.
Manasarovar & Kailash Yatra (04/06/16 to 15/06/16) - Khatmandu - Nepalgunj - Simikot - Hilsa - Taklakot - Darchen - Manasarovar - Kailash Yatra - Darchen - Taklakot - Hilsa - Simikot - Nepalgunj - Lucknow - Mumbai
Due to the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, road routes were not fully functional / available and therefore, we had taken the air route. Most of the flights are in small aircraft / helicopter within Nepal and are very uncertain due to dependency on favourable weather conditions. Best time to fly is early in the day when the winds are still. From noon onwards, it becomes very windy (especially in the space between mountains), cloudy, rainy etc. making it almost impossible to fly. On many occasions, groups get stranded due to this and this can create havoc in their schedules.
Road travel also has hazards in form of traffic congestion, jams, landslides etc. as also a higher amount of time for travel along with accompanying issues like nausea, back pain etc. One also has to be aware of the risks of road travel in mountainous regions.
Preparation - It is best to have a reasonable amount of physical fitness for the tough Kailash yatra. One can practice brisk walking (8-10 kms a day for about 45 days), swimming (couple of hours each day for 45 days), horse-riding, diet (to achieve ideal weight), yoga for flexibility, pranayama for lung efficiency etc. I personally walked. However, be aware that no amount of activity can prepare you for the high altitude related circumstances. At the high altitude, one faces a variety of new issues (described below) and it can become very challenging. To a large extent, the blessings of one's Guru & grace of the Lord is critical for a successful yatra.
Methods of doing Parikrama - One can walk the approx. 45 kms around Holy Kailash or even avail the services of a Pony (approx cost Rs. 30000/- for the 3 day parikrama). If the back pack is not too heavy, one can carry it or avail the services of a porter (approx. cost Rs. 9000/- per bag for the 3 day trek). There is a compulsory 6 kms downhill trek to be done by everyone - Pony will not carry you in this stretch. So, please be prepared for it. Ideally carry very little personal belongings for the 3 day trek as described below. The lighter your luggage and you are, the easier it becomes to do the parikrama. This parikrama of 45 kms is called the outer parikrama. There is also a shorter & tougher inner parikrama which is available for only seasoned mountaineers and where one can see the holy mountain from much closer.
Health issues - The high altitude can cause a variety of health related issues. I describe a few of the common issues and this may not be an exhaustive list. Nausea, Headaches, Breathlessness, Cold & Cough, Nose bleeding, Sleeplessness or extreme sleepiness, Constipation, Indigestion, Dehydration, Disorientation are some things to be wary of and prepared for. Ideally, it is good to acclimatise well before embarking on this trek. Spend 2 days at Taklakot (high altitude) and 2 days at Darchen and you will be able to assess yourself whether you are physically ready for the trek. Our tour operator also tested each one personally for oxygen level, pulse, heart beat, blood pressure etc. to assess the condition. People who are unable to cope are advised to stay back at Darchen and be content with a darshan of the Holy Kailash from a distance. One is advised to have a medication of Diamox every day during acclimatisation and the trek. Also drink plenty of warm fluids (water, tea, coffee, hot drinks etc.) to keep the body hydrated and prepared.
We were lucky to have a lady doctor (Dr. Meera Vijaykumar Nair) in our group of yatris and she was available for any emergency. Luckily, by God's grace, our group did not have any major untoward incident or emergency.
Precautions - One should carry sufficient clothing for the trip. As bathing & washing clothes is not possible in many places, one should carry sufficient fresh clothes and enough plastic cover to keep soiled clothes. One should carry one set of thermals (top & bottom), sweaters (one full & one half), gloves (one cotton & one wool), monkey cap, muffler, woolen socks or alternatively two pair of cotton socks, optionally one woolen shawl, raincoat, sunglasses, good pair of trekking shoes and optionally one extra-light pair of rubber slippers. One should also carry medication for all known ailments and refer to 'Health Issues' above to prepare in terms of what medication to carry. Ideally, please have a list from the doctor which prescribes what medicine to be taken (& how much) for what kind of problems. Many of the tour operators provide some stuff like duffel bags, raincoats, caps etc. and it is useful to check this out and carry only balance stuff.
Food - During the yatra, normal food will be prepared by the Sherpas team. Early breakfast and a packed lunch will be provided to you. Packed lunch will compromise an apple, a sandwich / samosa / couple of puris and one soft drink tetrapack. Trekkers may carry a small quantity of other food like assorted dry fruits (not more than 50-100 gms per day), a bar of chocolate & a small biscuit packet. Please carry water (approx. 250 ml) in a sling bottle. Anything more than this will be excessive and a waste. Mostly, one would not have an appetite to eat ravenously during the trek. Also, at the high altitude, digestion is difficult and therefore one does not feel like eating much.
Packing - Clothes (T-shirts, jeans, track pants, undergarments, towels, handkerchiefs, tissues ), footwear (shoes, socks & light slippers), sweaters, thermals, gloves (wool & cotton), monkey cap, vaseline, skin moisturiser, sunglasses, food in small sachets / pouches for yatra & bus rides (snacks, chocolates, chikki, dry fruits), sling water bottle, sling pouch, small flask, tooth brush, paste, scissors, knife, eating plate, spoon, bowl, plastic mug, plastic bags for soiled clothes, small diary & pen, mobile + power bank, international adaptor, camera & spare batteries, currency (Indian & Chinese), credit / debit card, puja books & materials, music gadget (optional), medicines (vicks, iodex, crocin & other medication for possible ailments), spare plastic bottles to carry water from Mansarovar, foldable aluminium walking stick... Please pack everything in carry bags alone (duffel bags & back packs - usually provided by the tour operator) and do not carry heavy suitcases or strolleys etc.
Mansarovar Trip
From Kathmandu, we took an hour long flight to Nepalgunj. This is situated at Nepal border near the Indian city of Lucknow. Nepalgunj is hot as it is in the plains. The airport is small and caters to very few passengers. We were put up at a nearby hotel (called Siddharth) which was an average hotel with a lawn and a small swimming pool. The rooms were decent and wifi was available as was a TV with mostly Indian channels. At the hotel, we saw people who missed the previous day flight due to bad weather and there was a shortage of rooms due to excessive tourists. Food was also a mad scramble in view of the rush.
The next day, we reduced our luggage somewhat and discarded some clothes etc. in a spare bag and left it in a room reserved for our group. We then left for the airport with our fingers crossed hoping for good weather so that we could fly towards the destination.
Fortunately, the weather was fine and we took a small flight (only 9 passengers) towards Simikot. Our group of 52 got accommodated in several sorties and we all finally landed at Simikot. This is a picturesque place in North Nepal surrounded by mountains. The flight took about 45 minutes. At the airport itself, we were transferred to helicopters after a short wait and took a 20 minute flight to Hilsa. Hilsa is in the border of Nepal & Tibet and is a very small town. As it is a transit point, not much arrangements are available here.
From Hilsa, we had to walk across a rope bridge over a river and entered Tibet. There was a quick verification by the authorities with our permit and passports and we were allowed to board a bus to a place called Taklakot which is a 25 minute drive away. We were driven straight to the immigration center where no paperwork was done but our passports again checked along with a screening of our luggage. There was also a 5 second physical check using some instrument behind the ear.
We were then moved to a hotel at Taklakot where we stayed for two nights for acclimatization. The hotel was impressive structure managed by the government. Rooms were decent but housekeeping was poor. Toilets were stinking and no warm water was available. There was TV in the room but all channels only beamed Chinese programmes. Wifi was available for only WhatsApp. All across Tibet, one needs an international adaptor to charge the phones. In some places, we could not get charging points also.
We did some shopping at Taklakot the next day for foldable walking sticks (Approx. Rs. 250) and some fruits, dry fruits etc. Although we wanted to buy chocolate bars, we didn't as they were all of Chinese make and we could not be sure whether they were veg or not. It is ideal to carry all food stuff from India to avoid such purchases at Tibet. Our food was prepared by our team of Sherpas which was pure veg and served with a lot of love & care by the team.
After two nights of acclimatisation, we left for Manasarovar by bus.
The holy lake Manasarovar is reached by road and one can also do Parikrama of the lake by using a vehicle (bus / jeep). Enroute, you can have a stop over at the beautiful Rakshastal and take pictures. Then, we had to go towards a Chinese official center to purchase parikrama permit. At that place, we all sat down and took ‘Snanam Sankalpam’ under the guidance of our tour operator, Anand.
Ideal time to reach Mansarovar lake is around noon when the weather will be favourable for a quick dip. We were greeted by the elements with a light drizzle when we reached and our dip at the holy lake was colder due the rains & winds. The lake is huge and is as big as a Bengaluru city. The water is clear and deep blue. The bus driver took us to a suitable place for the bath & pooja. The water was sweet & cold but not as cold as the water of Holy Ganges at Gangotri. A bath at Holy Mansarovar is supposed to rid one of all sins. We had a nice bath by going under water thrice as is the Hindu custom. Usually, the pooja is done immediately after the dip, but in our case, due to the rains & the winds, our pooja was postponed to evening.
After the dip, we collected water from the holy lake to carry back with us. Some of us also collected pebbles from the lake as mementos to give to our relatives / friends.
We had a quick lunch at the lakeside and then drove over to the hotel which was situated close the shore. Hotels are usually only rooms with beds. Very basic. No toilets / washrooms, washbasins etc. Even if there is a toilet, it will be not very clean or maintained. Most of us (from Mansarovar till end of Parikrama) had to attend to nature’s calls outdoors in the open. The best time to attend nature's calls are either after sunset or early before sunrise as it will be dark at that time.
In the evening, we went to the lakeside and did a Shiva pooja facing the holy Kailas mountain. This was very well conducted by Anand and participated by everyone in the group. It was quite an experience as it was very windy and cold and all of us huddled together with the puja & abhishek happening at the center. All of us had carried the materials required for the pooja including honey, milk, vibhooti, bilva leaves etc.
It is believed that during the Brahma-muhurtam (between 3 am to 4.30 am), the Sapta Rishis come for bath at the holy Mansarovar lake. A few yatris in our group ventured out at that hour to see if they can have darshan. They did not see the Rishis but had a fantastic view of the stars in the sky and also saw a couple of shooting stars. The rest of us were fast asleep.
I had some ‘Theplas’ (a kind of Chapati) which we had carried from Mumbai and decided to feed the birds in the morning. It was quite an sight when the birds came flocking together to eat the pieces that I threw towards them. I was wondering who feeds the birds there and how do they survive in such high altitudes. It is truly wonderful that God has created a mechanism of ensuring that every creature gets its nutrition & meals wherever they live.
Kailash Trip
In the morning after breakfast of Upma & Kanji with some pickle and tea, we left for Darchen. The drive took us about 2 hours. We checked into a hotel at Darchen. Rooms similar to Manasarovar - dormitory. Six / seven to a room. Slightly better common toilet but woefully few in comparison to the number of passengers. They also had a couple of bathrooms to have a bath. From the hotel at Darchen, we could get a good view Mount Kailash - South face. We stayed here one night to get further acclamatised.
The next morning, after a quick bath & Sandhya prayer, we took our small bags with only enough stuff for the trek and left our big bags at the hotel. The big bags were stored inside a truck. Couple of people were found to be not healthy & fit for the trek and they were advised to stay back at the hotel. Rest of us moved to the point from where the trek commences by bus. Lalitha and I packed just only small backpack between ourselves. It had the essentials for the 3 day trek - spare clothes (one set), toothbrush & paste, torch, power-bank, medicines, raincoats, flask, some food packets etc. It is better to be as light as possible.
At the commencement point, we handed our backpack to our porter (Sherpa. Name - Akal Bahadur) who could speak Hindi (some others got local Tibetans as porters and had a huge problem communicating with them) and we set off. At first, we come to a small gateway called 'Yama Dwar' which we circumambulated and then set off slowly. Lalitha immediately had problems in breathing was making very slow progress. The trek by itself was not tough but the height and consequent low oxygen levels was making it look difficult.
We slowly trudged our way. Many yatris who started after us overtook us and the people who were on horses were moving briskly. We saw a number of Tibetans also doing the pradakshina of the holy Kailas mountain. We greeted each other with a namaste & an “Om Namah Shivaya”. All along the route, we kept chanting our favourite mantras like “Om Namah Shivaya” or “Jai Shri Rama’ or “Jai Shri Krishna” - some chanting silently and some not so silent. We hardly wasted any time or breath chit chatting with each other about mundane issues.
We were essentially walking in a rough path between two rocky mountains which had hardly any vegetation. We saw a few dogs along the way. I also saw the sight of two dogs trying to hunt a few wild goats but were unsuccessful as the goats quickly moved into the rocky mountains where they had a good foothold but the dogs couldn't chase them there.. There was a fresh stream flowing by which was fed by the melting glaciers. Everything looked different & divine here. The mountains looked like they were alive, the clouds were unique and even the rocks on the path looked special. Many of the small pebbles had some inscriptions on them - I don't know whether they are natural or man made. I saw a small stone, about the size of a cricket ball, which had an 'Om' inscribed on it..
Along the way we had the first darshan of the holy Kailas - The West face of the Lord. The West face is unique and one could see several special formations of the snow. I could see outlines of several Shiva Lings on the snow on the mountain face. Anand, who was near us at that time, also pointed out the amazing outline of Adi Shankara on the West face. On close inspection, one can also see several possible cave openings on the face of the mountain. They were rectangular in shape. I imagined that several Rishis might be having their abode there. At one spot, Lalitha looked dazed and disoriented and I didn't know what to do. Her blood pressure and oxygen levels seemed to have plummeted. Fortunately, Anand was around and gave her a can of 'Red Bull' and told her to sip it slowly. It seems to have worked and her condition improved. Red Bull drink can be purchased for about Rs. 90/- a can in Darchen. It is also available in the roadside restaurants at about Rs. 110/- per can.
At one spot, Anand and I sat down and did Rudra-Abhishekam along with chanting of Sri Rudram. Abhishekam was done on a small Shiva lingam carried by Anand and we did it facing the Kailas mountain. It was a very fulfilling experience.
After walking about 6-7 kms, we had a break at a roadside restaurant. We ate half an apple and had a fruit juice from a tetra pak that we were carrying. We also had some warm water from the restaurant. It is good to keep having warm water in that altitude. It keeps one hydrated. Warm water is available in flasks and is usually free if you are buying something else. Sometimes, they may charge a sum of Rs. 110/- per flask. All payments in Tibet are to be done in Yuan only - Indian currency is not accepted here unlike Nepal.
We then set out to trek the remaining distance of about 8 kms. By around 4.30 pm we reached our destination - a hotel on the way. These are not real hotels but just lodgings where we could sleep on a bed. Each room has 6-8 beds and has decent warm blankets. The beds are not very clean and the sheets etc. may not be changed for many days but as we were very tired, we didn't care. Lalitha looked slightly better by the time we arrived and one lady, Saroja mami, in the group was kind enough to give her a quick rub on the temples & soles of feet with a balm which helped her greatly.
We were served soup and dinner in our beds. Dinner was very light and we weren't feeling very hungry in that altitude. It snowed and rained that evening and we were worried about our next day’s trek. As the lights were switched off by 8 pm, we had to use torches for everything. Our tour guide did a quick check of our health to see whether we were fit for the next day's trip. Some 6 people in the group decided to go back for various reasons and they were sent back the next day. They went back to the hotel at Darchen and awaited our arrival there.
My nose began slow bleeding at that height and it resulted in blocked nose which made it difficult to breathe & sleep at night. Somehow, we managed to pass the night. In the middle of the night, I went outside the hotel along with one other yatri for answering nature's call and it was very cold & dark outside. We could see millions of stars in the sky and it was quite mesmerizing. The next morning, we woke up early by 4.30. After a quick brushing of teeth and some tea, we left by 5.45 am for the day 2 of the trek.
We had been warned that day 2 is the toughest part as we had to cover 22 kms and also reach the highest point of the trek - some 19500 feet above sea level. In comparison, the Everest base camp is 17600 feet above sea level. At that height, Dolma pass is very dangerous due to extremely low oxygen, strong winds, rains, snow, fog / clouds etc. Many people with weak lungs etc. even pay with their lives at this pass. We heard of 5 deaths a few days before our trek. We also heard of many deaths in subsequent groups due to this altitude related problem. Fortunately, our group didn’t have any such problems.
With full faith, we went ahead that day. After covering about 3-4 kms, when we were approaching Dolma pass, we found our breathing laborious, every step was exhausting and felt like a thousand steps. We made very slow progress. Anand, our tour operator & guide, chose to stay with the laggards and, based on his assessment, advised 8 of the 14 people who were walking to take horses for a part of the journey. 4 refused and continued to walk. 3 immediately got ponies by luck and got on to them. Lalitha got a horse a little while later and after some persuasion agreed to use the pony for about 1.5 kms of the climb to Dolma pass. This cost us Rs. 4400/- for the short trip but was well worth the price. We were extremely lucky as we had near perfect weather - sunny and no major wind problem. God's grace.
The rest of us continued to trudge our way. Towards the last kilometer of the climb, I also decided to drink one 'Red Bull' and felt some amount of relief. On the way up, we saw the holy Ganesh kund - a small pond of fresh water where Lord Ganesha is believed to have created by Parvati Devi. Further on the way, after crossing Dolma pass, we saw Gauri Kund, a fresh water lake, which is believed to be Parvati Devi Herself and where She has bath every day. This is also the lake where Lord Kartikeya was born through the effulgence of Lord Shiva. One of the Sherpas kindly consented to go down to the holy lake and collect some water for us. It was a long climb down and we were too exhausted to attempt it.
At Dolma Pass, we saw many Tibetan flags & cloth banners tied to rocks as a sign of respect & worship. Several people waited there to offer special prayers but we did not as we were advised that it is risky as the oxygen levels are very low there. After crossing Dolma Pass, we had to trek down a steep hill. Everyone who had used horses had to climb down on their own feet as the climb down is steep and not advisable to be done on horse back. As we kept going down, the breathing became less difficult. To conserve our breath, we spoke very little all through the climb up and to some extent down also. After walking down some 5-6 kilometers, we reached a roadside restaurant. It was around 11 am at that time. We decided to have our lunch which was one apple (Lalitha ate only half) and had some warm water. We had no appetite to eat anything more. We rested for about half an hour and then set off to cover another 10-12 kms towards our destination.
The next leg of the trek seemed like a never ending trudge. On the way, we saw a few Tibetans doing the parikrama by doing prostrations. They would do one prostration and then mark the place where their hands reached and then do one more prostration from there. It seems they take anything from a week to ten days to complete this type of parikrama. This was a phenomenal effort and requires a huge amount of time, energy, dedication & commitment. When we looked at them, our effort looked very simple and easy.
We kept walking till around 5-5.30 pm when we finally saw the hotel where we were to rest for the night. Slowly we reached there. One lady in our group, Saroja mami, was so relieved to see Lalitha reach safely that she openly wept and hugged her. She was worried and anxious because Lalitha seemed to be vulnerable. Thankfully, with God's grace and support, we reached safely and in good time. That night, we had minimal dinner and retired early. As usual, we slept in a dormitory accommodation - 5/6 in a room. Toilets were in open air although there were some constructed toilets, there was either no water or no drainage.
The next morning, we woke by 5 am and prepared to depart on the final leg of the trek. After having a minimal breakfast of Upma / Cornflakes & milk, we left for the destination. This was some 8 kms of flat land (with some ups & downs) alongside the Indus river. We could not view Mount Kailas during this day as it was blocked by other mountains. After walking for some 3 hours, we reached the end of the trek.
We could see buses waiting to pick up the yatris. It was a welcome sight indeed. As we neared the end, it was also an emotional moment. The heart was filled with gratitude to the Lord for having given us the opportunity and showered us with His infinite grace during the journey. The eyes got filled with tears at the thought that we will soon move away from the holy land. The mind prostrated to Him a thousand times to thank Him for the divine experience.
I personally felt that my ‘worldview’ had changed after this experience. I felt my mind had expanded and I could see everything and everyone with a new eye & perspective. The Kailas yatra is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I wish each one who reads this gets the experience and is enriched and blessed by the same.
The bus whisked us away to the hotel in Darchen where we picked up our luggage and the other co-yatris who were awaiting us there. Then, after a small refreshment, we left for Taklakot. We reached the same hotel where we had stayed earlier. We had a quick lunch prepared by the ever helpful Sherpas. Post lunch, we had an emotional farewell & Thanksgiving session with the Sherpas. Besides thanking them profusely and giving them tips, we also hugged them and expressed our gratitude to them.
Then we left for the Chinese immigration center to sign off. They again looked at our passports, permits & luggage and quickly cleared us for onward journey. We then went by bus to the border where we were given final clearance by the Chinese authorities.
We then crossed over the rope bridge into Hilsa, Nepal. That night we had to stay at Hilsa.
Hilsa was overcrowded because of many stranded groups. The place had no infrastructure to manage the crowd of some 250+yatris as it is only a transit point. We somehow managed the night. Lots of difficulties in getting food, bed etc. Some of us stayed in makeshift tents and had to bear the brunt of midnight rains. Morning was also difficult without any breakfast and we left for the helipad to catch the flight to Simikot.
By noon, we reached Simikot only to learn that we could not proceed onward due to weather conditions. About 40 members of our group could proceed to Nepalgunj and the rest 12 of us stayed at Simikot. We had a hearty lunch at a restaurant near the airport run by a single Nepalese lady who cooked a wonderful meal in less than half an hour. During the wait time, we were entertained by her mischevious 2 year old son who was full of energy and enthusiasm and was doing all sort of antics. A lovable kid.
Post lunch, we moved to a hotel nearby to stay the night. We were all pleasantly surprised by the quality of the hotel and the rooms. This is called Hotel Mansarovar. There was only one bathroom to a floor but it was neat and we all enjoyed a refreshing bath after 3 days without a bath. We also used the opportunity to wash a few clothes as we had moved with only the small bag and did not have change of clothes. The bigger bags had moved to Nepalgunj with the others.
That night we had a wonderful dinner. One of our group members, Saroja mami, prepared Rasam and it was so delicious that we all had a hearty dinner. The next morning we woke up early and left for the airport. By around 9 am, we got our flight to Nepalgunj. After arriving there, we moved by bus to the hotel where our other group members were put up for the night. We had bath in one of the rooms and had breakfast there. We then collected our bags (including the one which we had left behind while going to Kailas) and then boarded the bus for the journey to Lucknow. Locating the bag we had left behind was a nightmare as the hotel had moved it to a different room and there was utter confusion with so many bags of so many groups and all mixed up.
We left around noon and quickly crossed over to India. Everyone was happy to be back in our beloved country and we all raised slogans of "Bharat mata ki jai" upon crossing the border. In India, we could see vibrant life, crowds, bustling markets etc. Enroute to Lucknow, we stopped at a Dhaba for lunch and reached Lucknow by 6 pm. We were booked in a decent hotel at Lucknow. After a bath etc. we decided to have dinner outside after some shopping. It was crowded and hot and we quickly finished our activities of shopping, dinner (at a South Indian place - we had dosa and then we had lassi at a local shop) and then moved back to the hotel.
The next morning, we left for the airport early. Our flight was at 8am. By 10 am we had landed back in our home town - safe and secure and blissful and happy.
That is the brief of the yatra. We were indeed lucky to get a great tour operator, friendly & helpful co-yatris and a smooth yatra. I will be happy to answer any additional doubts, questions, clarifications that any of you may have. Please write and I will respond.