Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Photo Corner: Nandi Parbat and Serlung Gompa

This is the spot where we got off to trek up the hill.

Kailash hiding behind a thick cloud cover

Nandi Parbat squatting in front of Kailash (a small portion seen on the left side)

That's me with Kailash still under a thick cloud cover.

We see both Kailash and Nandi Parbat here and the clouds have still not stirred. Nandi Parbat was about forty five minutes from where we stood and Kailash maybe an hour or two further.

Resting after a strenuous climb.

Another angle to the whole thing.

That's the Mumbai team with Autar and Neema our Sherpas.

See that!...Our jeeps are small specks (right central of the photograph) and we climbed all the way up.

One final look before we descended and the clouds were still there. :-(

A small consolation. Nandi Parbat was clearly visible.

Serlung gompa

Stupa outside the gompa.

Guru Rinpoche is worshipped here.

Another view of Guruji.

Lo and behold...clouds clearing up revealing a stately Kailash.

There it is.....with no clouds to hide its grandeur.

Descending down to our jeep park.

A close-up of the royal Tibetan beast.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Second Acclimatising Trek

The second day at Darchen was meant to push ourselves a little further and acclimatise ourselves to heights above 5000 mtrs (above 16,500 feet).

We were to go further up and visit Serlung Gompa and climb upto Nandi Parbat. This is uncanny. Nandi Parbat is a small rock hillock that squats opposite Kailsh. Infact, this hillock almost touches the base of Kailash. It looks so much like "Nandi" the bull in a Shiva temple. The folklore and stories from yore associated with this place must be having an element of truth.

This is also the place where Bhagwan Rishabdev, Jain tirthankar, walked up along with his ascetic disciples towards salvation and is known as "Ashtapad". The exact spot seems hazy and many believe that it was Mt Kailash itself.

Thanks to our 4 wheel drive jeeps, we passed through some very steep ascents on very narrow paths and the some very rough terrain over small boulders and streams. Finally, we reached a clear flat spot where the jeeps would halt and then onwards it was us all the way.

The Serlung Gompa was to our left and Nandi Parbat straight ahead up there. Our sherpas advised that we complete the climb and complete our Kailash and Nandi Parbat "darshan" and we could go to the Gompa on our way back.

We had a steep climb up almost 500 metres up and upto a point where we could get some fabulous view of both Kailash and Nandi. As we reached the the top, we had a spectacular view of Nandi Parbat but Kailash was hidden behind clouds. This was the closest we would ever get to Kailash but the clouds were adamant. They seemed hell bent on denying us our "darshan". Our prayers went unanswered and inspite of stiff breeze blowing up through the valley, our white cover refused to unfold. We were up there for about forty odd minutes and we had to return disappointed.

Finally, we bowed down and commenced our journey towards the Serlung Gompa. This Gompa has a beautiful idol of "Guru Rinpoche" also known as Padmasambhava. Guru Rinpoche is credited with the introduction and spread of Buddhism in Tibet. For more on Guru Rinpoche you may refer to The Lotus Born or this Wiki post.

I offered my prayers, lit a diya and meditated in the inner sanctum sanctorum. I was not in a hurry to move away. Actually, I had spent just about twenty minutes here. That small dark room seemed so peaceful and time seemed to stand still. All the disappointment of not getting "Kailash Darshan" seemed to melt away and there was nothing else that mattered.

Slowly we moved through the gompa to the exit door. As soon I was out, a stunning sight greeted us. There was Kailash standing tall in all glory and the clouds seemed to have beat a hasty retreat. It struck all of us at the same time and some one remarked that we should have first visited the gompa and prayed there before we proceeded to Kailash. Was it just a co-incidence or was there some message? I will not speculate and believe that a moment spent in prayer and contemplation cleared all the clouds...literally and symbolically.

After a beautiful darshan, it was time to descend and make our way back to Darchen. The trek was not very strenuous but we were not very fit. I was breathless most of the time and it required much effort and will to go through my paces. I was determined to complete the trek and had complete faith that this would happen inspite of my breathlessness.

After some rest we bagan packing. Much of the stuff has to be left behind at Darchen and we have to carry just what we needed for the parikrama with us. This meant hard logic and ruthless pruning down. Realised that 80% of the stuff was not required and we just carried the bare essentials.

The next day would see us drive down to Tarboche - the starting point of our parikrama.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Darchen - The Last Outpost

Darchen is a small hamlet and is situated on the highway connecting Eastern Tibet to the western extremes, Aksai Chin and further into Sinkiang. Once reputed to be an important trade centre, it has lost all its former importance after the collapse of Indo-Tibetan trade.

Darchen now acts as the base camp for all Kailash Parikrama yatris. The settlement springs to life in summer and goes into hibernation in the winters. It is at the foothills of the Kailash range and one can see the mountain very clearly, provided clouds do not cloak it.

Our Allievation of Poverty hotel was a fairly decent place with three beds to a room. If one can ignore the "hole in the ground" toilets, you actually get comfortable and you always have the great outdoors. China Telecom has towers in every such settlement and we wireless connectivity till here. Calls and SMSes back home kept folks at home updated on our daily movements. After this spot we would be incommunicado for the three days of parikrama.

Yatris can cover the parikrama on foot or they could hire a pony to ride the entire distance. Additionally, one may need to hire a porter for your backpack. The union here insists that you may sit on the pony only with your camera and water bottle. Your bag, therefore, needs to be with the porter. Decisions had to be made so that the required numer of ponies and porters could be hired.

A pony or porter hired from Darchen stays with you for the three days and drops you back. The rates are non-negotiable - you take it or leave it. A pony costs CY 1050 and a porter costs CY550.

Out of our group of twelve, six opted to walk and six opted for the pony. I opted to walk through the parikrama. This was settled and we looked forward to our hot soup and a truly delicious meal before it was time to say good-night. We had a two night halt at Darchen.

We just had a day before we would commence our parikrama and there was a sense of expectation, thrill and a little fear at the back of our minds.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Photo Corner: Mansarovar

Southern expanse of water seen from Gotuk Gompa

The Lake waters to the north with the outer walls of the Gompa seen at left.

That's me just before getting through a small doorway. Need to bow down while entering.

Inside the main prayer room.

Diyas lit by us. The use yak butter instead of oil.

The Lama explaining about monasteries that ring the lake at various points and their importance.

A view of Rakshas Tal

Entering the lake for our bath. The water was icy cold. The one you see right inside is the Russian co-yatri and for them water was luke warm.

Meditation cum puja cum dining room at the Mansarovar guest house.

Preparations for the puja.

Puja in progress

Monday, September 21, 2009

Exploring Mansarovar and onward to Darchen

The guest house at Chu-Gompa/Mansarovar is very basic. Just four mud walls and a roof and five beds to a room. The walls were covered by a bright printed cloth to make the room look cheerful. Yet, and strangely enough, it seemed so comfortable as if it was our own home. By now all yatris had become friendly and a special bonding had developed. All most everything under the sun from philosophy, religion, spirituality, politics, history, culture, education, health, travel, treks....were discussion topics. This also helped us to divert our mind from dwelling too much on the parikrama that would begin in two days.

That evening, we took a long walk on the banks of the Mansarovar. It begins to cool down in the evenings and a stiff wind starts blowing. It is not cold but the wind makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. Our Russian friends were in the water and enjoying themselves. We decided to postpone this adventure to the morrow.

The next day after breakfast we were ready to travel along the banks of the lake to another monastery. The Gotuk Gompa lies about 15 kms away and is at a height of about 200 metres nestled amongst rocks. A small but well maintained monastery and a small group of lamas there. This Gompa is also "green". Equipped with a solar panel they generate their requirements of electricity and have no external connection for power supply. We prayed and lit "diyas" which used yak butter instead of oil.

There were eight gompas around the lake and all were completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Only five have been re-built.

Viewed from a height, the vast expanse of the lake looks beautiful and a gentle breeze blew across made the hot morning a little pleasant.

The next stop was the Rakshas Tal, another huge lake adjoining Mansarovar. (Please see Google Earth. Co-ordinates: 30deg39.23N and 81deg09E and onwards to the east lie both these large waterbodies). Both these lakes are visible even from a height 5000 kms. Rakshas Tal is associated with Ravana and pilgrims do not spend much time at this lake. Bathing in this lake is considered inauspicios and a strict no-no. The Sherpas and locals will advise you not to do that. RT is little unique in the sense there are two small islands in the lake, Topserma and Lachato.

Incidentally, Rakshas Tal is the origin of Sutlej and Karnali, a major tributary of Ganga later across the border.

It was time to go back to Mansarovar for our holy bath and some puja. The water was cold but we set out taking each step tentatively. I spent almost fifteen minutes in there much beyond what I thought was my endurance. I stepped out cleansed, lighter and, perhaps, with a clean slate as all my "sins" should have been washed away. We then went to our dining-cum-meditation-cum-satsang hall for the puja. Our yatris from Trichy had come prepared and we had puja and a satsang.

Having expressed our gratefulness, it was time for lunch and soon it was time to move towards Darchen - literally the base camp before the parikrama. You have to give it to the Chinese for some amazing and hilarious names. Our place of stay was called the Darchen Alleviation of Poverty Hotel. Now you see....we also contribute to removal of poverty in Tibet. A leisurely evening and a walk around Darchen and we retired to our rooms for one more of our lively sessions.

The next day, we had planned an acclimatising trek to Nandi Parbat and the Serlung Monastery. That was the nearest we got to Kailash till then.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Photo Corner: Paryang to Chu Gompa - View of Kailash

The road taken to the final destination. We are just a short distance away from our first view of Kailash.

A slightly closer view of Kailash as soon a we turned around a bend. Note this mountain towers above every other mountain in the entire range.

First view of Lake Mansarovar...conveying a sense of tranquility.

The closest view yet on our way to our place of stay. The left ridge looks like an arm of the Divine throne.

The massive Gurla Mandhata range opposite the Kailash (a good 75 odd kms away). Its glaciers feed the Mansarovar.

Chu Gompa - a beautiful monastery on the banks of Lake Mansarovar.

Lake Mansarovar seen from the compound of our guest house.

Our guest house just beside the Lake.

A full moon shining down on the still lake and creating a surreal atmosphere.

Another view of the shimmering lake.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Paryang to Chu Gompa - First View of Mt Kailash

We were a little tired of the long journey and wished that we reach K-M asap. This was the last day of a long drive and today we would get our first look at the holy mountain and lake.

We met many groups returning and so much unnecessary information would get exchanged. I exhorted my group yatris not to enquire about the parikrama as we would only sap our determination to complete. Unfortunately, some of returning yatris started advising caution and there the seed of doubt had been planted. Soon every one started imagining the worst and started their fight against imaginary monsters. One yatri even announced that he would drop out from the parikrama and atleast two others began wavering.

I could see this was a perfect recipe for disaster. I had to shake out of this first and proclaimed loudly that I was comfortable and would definitely go ahead the parikrama. Soon we had to convince only one yatri. An important point for all planning a yatra hereafter. Do not ask any returning group about their experience. You will definitely meet atleast one person who has had a bad experience. That feedback may just ruin your trip.

We were driving through vast plateaus watching the road construction crews working at a frenetic pace to get a decent road in place. The landscape had returned back to being dull.

After a drive of over five hours we were just a mound away from our first view of Mt Kailash and there it was. What a sight....towering head and shoulders above the other high-rises, majestic, wearing a snow robe and reclining in deep meditation.

I shall upload closer views in the Photo Corner. The sky was overcast but cleared as we got nearer.

It was soon time to get the first gimpse of Lake Mansarovar. A huge waterbody with an area of almost 115 sq kms, it has a magic like quality. Very serene it transports you to another world.

We crossed an outpost at Hor Chu (spelt differently by Chinese, Tibetans and Indians) and then wonder of wonders we joined a superb highway which extended all the way to the Indian border just about 100+ kms from Lake Mansarovar. We sped to one corner of the lake where we would be camping near the Chu Gompa, a beautiful monastery.

It was a beautiful spot with Mt Kailash towering on one side, the lake on the other and the monastery in between. We were there and that is all that mattered.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Photo Corner: Saga - Paryang

Hotel Saga was a welcome relief to us but is a civil engineers nightmare. The steps are irregular and was probably constructed by students whose foundations were not yet cemented.

A view of the entrance and the reception within. The only proper hotel on the entire circuit.

A one street wonder with a huge military camp. Soldiers keep strutting around with over-sized miltary caps.

The spot where we stopped for lunch. The grounds beyond the street were once withness to the unholy massacre of Tibetans whilst the mountains at the very end hid the Tibetans on their escape to Nepal.

Lunch being unpacked for the not-so-hungry yatris.

These structures have witnessed the bloody past but have gone silent now.

A stupa sitting pretty on top of a hill near about the same spot.

The Divine Spectacle.....What an amazing phenomenon?

Note the clear skies all around and the sun partially hidden by the roof at a petrol station.

A slightly more audacious attempt. The sun shining brightly and it was pure light....only light.

Grasslands after miles of desolate landscape...the second surprise.

....and sand dunes against the backdrop of a completely bald hill.

See the Creators magic. His imagination ran wild...shrub land followed by sand dunes and then a river, hills and mountains.

A closer look at this was enough to send us to the high heavens...I was ecstatic.

Our jeeps in the distance dwarfed by mountains on the other side.

Authentic sand dunes....reminds me of Rajasthan or the Desert Safari at Dubai.

That's me spending a quiet moment and contemplating on these rare sights.

That was perhaps some unfortunate yak which landed on some poor villager's table.

It now serves by scaring away all "evil spirits" from the vicinity.

That is the traditional Tibetan house built with stones, clay and dung.....

Our guest house whose claim to fame was a shower facility, though kept locked and away from any visitor.