A road journey to the Kailash - Mansarovar region in Western Tibet. A trek around the Mr Kailash on foot and a campsite on the banks of the sacred Masarovar Lake.
10.07.1993 - 20.07.1993 15 °C
A PLETHORA OF TOURISTS OF ALL NATIONALITIES – Indian, Tibetan and other foreigners visit the Mt. Kailash-Lake Mansarowar area in Western Tibet. Most visitors are pilgrims with the sole aim of cleansing their souls and attaining some form of higher religious atonement. But the raw beauty of Tibetan landscape, the stark majesty of Mt Kailash, the surreal serenity of Mansarowar coupled with the increasingly relaxed travel regulations in Tibet now attracts the trekker and nature lover in seeking something different, from lands afar. It is not uncommon to see more foreigners than Indians on the “parikrama”, on foot, and even unfurling Buddhist prayer flags at various gompas on the way.
Plenty of people come to this pristine pilgrimage. A lot of them perform the “parikrama”. A lot of them cleanse themselves in the freezing waters of the Mansarowar. Almost all of them return with a sense of having achieved their aim of performing one of the most difficult “yatras” of all. What a lot of them don’t do is to stop and ponder over the adverse effects of their visits and how they could leave the place, fragile as it is, as clean as possible. A lot of them do not get down from their yaks to adore the numerous high altitude flowers that grow above the tree line in all their glorious colours and contours in spite of the harsh conditions. A lot of them are too bored to notice marmots scampering into their burrows at the approach of their group, the jungle fowl who stop chortling to each other out fear of detection or the rabbits who stare nervously from behind the short bushes and hop away, kangaroo like, on being startled.
The Kailash-Mansarowar is located about 150 Km north east of the Indo-Tibet border with western Nepal inside Chinese controlled territory. After they invaded Tibet in the office, the Chinese simply forbid any visitors to the area. I can’t help thinking that it was this single measure that must have given a lease to the wildlife of the area for us to enjoy now. It was only in about 1984 that, as part of their liberalisation policy, they started to allow pilgrims into the area, This provided the impetus to intrepid back packers and others who were by then simply starving for new areas to explore. The rigours of travel in Tibet, the harsh climate, the remoteness all only added to the romance and glamour.
Until recently the only way an Indian could perform the yatra was to form part of a group under the aegis of the Ministry of External affairs between the months of June and September. But now there are a variety of choices as travel agencies in Kathmandu and Lhasa vie with each other and dream of making the trip more fun and easier. Now it is possible to reach Darchen at the base of the sacred mountain in a big 4 wheel drive. Darchen is the place where even the local Tibetans who come to perform the parikrama in their own tents.
One has to be reasonably fit, both mentally and physically, to undertake the journey around the mountain on foot. The locals do it in one day taking about 12-14 hours with their ever revolving prayer wheels. But for others it can involve camping out at least 2 nights and completing it on the third tiring day. When I did the yatra in July this year, I had no idea the place would turn out to be a sanctuary for a variety of flora and fauna. It was only when I began to startle wild rabbits a half hour out of Darchen that I realised what would be in store. A little higher up and the rabbits were replaced by another class of rodents; the marmots with their slow, clumsy, otter like bodies. While resting to catch my breath and battling high altitude sickness, I realised that if I kept quite still these unsuspecting creatures would come quite close whilst foraging for whatever it is that marmots forage. The click and whirr of my first shot startles one of them to rear up for a better pose and a second shot.
It was during another such rest when I had bent over with my hands on my knees to ease the weight of my rucksack that I noticed what the ground had to offer in spite of the chill and frost. Tiny flowers resplendent in their colours, shapes and variety caught my attention. That such beauty could exist at such an altitude almost distracted my attention from the religious aspect of my yatra which was not turning out to be a trek. But then admiring the bounties of nature and doing my bit to preserve it is another way to serve God.
The second day began with an arduous climb to Dolma La at almost 19,000 ft. It was the constant cacophony of wild fowl that kept my mind away from the ache in the lungs and legs though I was now feeling much better otherwise. For a very brief while I was able to spot the fat birds during one of the rests and moments of solitude. Flowers kept changing in their appearance and were really a sight for sore eyes. However, a little short of Dolma La one comes across a sight that really makes eyes sore.
In an act representative of purification pilgrims discard their old clothes after they cross the Dolma La in the opposite direction. The result is a virtual garbage of pile of old clothes, footwear, headgear and other items that, as they degrade, will do no good to the fragile ecology of the area.
The relief on reaching Dolma La is palpable and one must relax there to absorb the atmosphere and the sanctity of the place. If you have the will and energy you can make the ritual three rounds of the prayer flags fluttering in the chilly winds and unfurl one of your own. I would recommend a simple prayer rather than add to any foreign material already there. That way you can do your bit to preserve the area’s environment.
The descent down to you second night out is comparatively easy, passes through a ‘valley of flowers’ and compel you to cross many rivulets, some of which are a result of the melting of the snows of Mt. Kailash. At one time I was walking down a trail that was surrounded on both sides by many gurgling streams and was dotted by a carpet of flowers of all colours. It took all my dexterity to avoid trampling such beauty. Each exquisite flower growing under such trying conditions was probably God’s way of decorating His Abode.
After the parikrama we proceeded to the Mansarowar where I expected to only see various shades of blue and green of the pristine waters of the holy lake. We had reached late in the evening which, in Tibet, is still light enough for good visibility. I was delighted to see a plethora of migration birds and other fauna that were enjoying the serenity of the lake as much as I was. On my jaunt down to the lake I startled a juvenile rabbit who to my utter astonishment tool only a few steps and did not hop away like his other brethren. Obviously he had not seen many humans and thought me his friend. By being very cautious and cooing him to him encouragingly I was able to cajole him into posing for some very close pictures. Prancing about in the freezing waters of the lake were Pintails and other wild ducks. I also encountered a couple of pigeons who had made a home for themselves in an old abandoned gompa right next to the waters.
All these experiences with so much flora and fauna really made my yatra an experience to be treasured. However, I hope the Chinese government realises that unbridled tourism to the area can destroy a sanctuary that has survived for so long at such an altitude. Due to increased liberalisation by the Chinese government people from all over the world are now coming to this area. Also we can expect to see a virtual exodus of tourists to such out of the way areas in the foreseeable future. TIME magazine has forecast the Travel and Tourism will be the Industry of the next century. Travel agencies in Lhasa and Kathmandu provide powerful 4 wheel drives to groups and they drive across Tibet to reach here. On the way they discard beer and wine bottles, aluminium cans, plastic water bottles and wrappers, and other material foreign to the area. There is also an area on the eastern bank of the Mansarowar where pilgrims ritualistically discard clothes.
The area being closed to tourists, because of winter, for most of the year, probably helps it rejuvenate itself. Not being an expert on environment management I cannot make any estimate in this regard nor can I claim to make any specific recommendations to help preserve the area. But the earlier the authorities realise that it is better to pre-empt a disaster than to indulge in expensive disaster management after it has occurred, the better. For one, they should ban sale of beer, wine and water in the area. Water in Tibet is not contaminated. Stream water sterilised by tablets should be able to fulfil the needs of the tourists. Also they can set up some sort of garbage collection centres in places like Darchen where tourists can deposit their garbage for a small token payment.
The authorities should also realise that in the name of religion, as I have described, a lot of pollution is caused. They should educate the people that God is happy with their having come all the way to the area and a simple prayer is enough to appease Him. In the end all I can offer is a prayer of hope that the Abode of Gods remains as beautiful and bountiful for aeons to come.