Every year, about a thousand Indians get an opportunity to cross the Himalayas into the Tibetan plateau through Lipulekh pass for the ultimate pilgrimage to Lord Shiva's abode. I was fortunate to be one of them this year. Our batch of 56 yatris (pilgrims) enthusiastically set about the 21-day journey that involved a few days of road transport and significant high altitude trekking. A large part of the trek—150km out of the 200km—was in the Indian Himalayas.
Inside the camps, we lived frugally and found happiness in camaraderie; outside we felt like celebrities...
The drive through the mountains was pleasant despite a rickety bus. Once we started trekking and went higher and deeper, the population decreased and so did the plastic waste, which had been interrupting nature's beauty in the populated hill towns. Soon, the luscious greenery and the dancing clouds enveloped our senses. We had to balance our desire of getting lost in the serene environment with the need to watch each step for our safety. There were narrow slippery trails, overhanging cliffs, streams running through the rocky path and a roaring river right below in the valley. Some stretches where mountain-cutting was in progress to build roads were especially tricky due to the danger of falling rocks and landslides, a concern that I have voiced before in "Development is turning deadly for the Himalayas." An additional advice was to be careful of the mules and horses that were sharing the same path.Interestingly, I found the stubborn mules more orderly than the chaotic traffic we had encountered while driving.
Unlike the norm of being late in India, our schedule used to run on the dot. Our body clock had gotten set to wake up at 3:30am and start automatically walking at 5am sharp. The thrill of experiencing raw nature and a passion to reach the sacred destination propelled us.During our stay, I was surprised that a finicky person like me, who does not like to share even a bathroom, had adjusted to sharing a bed with six others and was able to live off a backpack. The appreciation of inhospitable terrain made me more accepting. Inside the camps, we lived frugally and found happiness in camaraderie; outside we felt like celebrities, due to the respect and affection from The ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) and the villagers all along the way.
Crossing the border gave us a sense of accomplishment, yet there was a feeling of loss as the friendly faces of ITBP bid us goodbye at the border.
We were dreading crossing through the Lipulekh Pass, as apart from the difficult climb through the night to 16500 ft, we were to wait in the chilly winds for the Chinese authorities for immigration. I drew inspiration from thinking about the ancient pilgrims and traders who had braved this route for centuries. The MEA (ministry of external affairs) and ITBP had prepared us well for this day through rigorous medical tests, gradual acclimatisation, and multiple briefings.
Normally, we do not consider government machinery as the epitome of planning, but in this yatra, they were immaculate. Crossing the border gave us a sense of accomplishment, yet there was a feeling of loss as the friendly faces of ITBP bid us goodbye at the border. In less than 5km, the landscape became flatter and barren. Despite the wilderness, a high-quality road and a luxury bus greeted us. The small towns of Taklakot and Dharchen where we rested for a couple of days were friendly and eerie at the same time. The residents greeted us with a smile, but the plethora of cameras, cops, and signboards saying "no photography" felt odd. Ironically, the infrastructure and hygiene at the camps in Tibet fell so short that the facilities back home that we used to complain about felt like heaven. The anticipation of the legendary "Kailash Parikrama", which involves circumambulation of the sacred mountain over three days, helped us maintain our spirits.
After a long first day of Parikrama, I mustered my reserves to climb another optional 1000ft to an altitude of 17,500ft for the "Charan Sparsh" which means touching the feet of the holy mountain. I was physically exhausted yet exhilarated to experience the mighty Kailash and its many glacial streams. I tried not to think about the most feared Dolma Pass crossing at 19,500 ft. the following day, and hoped that the night's rest would give me another packet of reserve energy. Indeed it did! It was a strange feeling to be at a place where the oxygen level dips to less than half and even the yaks and the horses were panting. While I was struggling to get oxygen into my lungs, the porters were enjoying their smoke! Clearly, oxygen requirements are also a relative concept.
Completion of the Kailash Parikrama culminated in tears of joy for many. We continued our journey to the sacred Mansarovar Lake in a state of bliss. The crystal -clear water, mesmerising hues of sand and rocks with the mystical Kailash emerging from the clouds had a calming aura. Some prayed silently, some listened to discourses, and some sat there for hours, absorbing the atmosphere. There was no shrine, yet we could experience the divine.
We were such a diverse group that it would be difficult to imagine many of us even talking to each other, yet there was an unknown glue...
The wider surrounding area was so pristine as though no human had ever visited, despite getting over 15,000 visitors through multiple routes via Nepal and China. The clean, primeval environment permeated our beings and helped us declutter, cleanse and find peace. One more supporting argument for the "Swachh Bharat" campaign!
When we returned, apart from assimilating a bit of Kailash and Mansarovar, we were also enriched by many deep bonds with fellow yatris. We were such a diverse group that it would be difficult to imagine many of us even talking to each other, yet there was an unknown glue. There was an abundance of selfless acts, sharing and caring. There were also minor skirmishes and glimpses of egos as a reminder that we were still humans and far from salvation.
Personally, this was a journey of discovery and becoming one with nature—an invaluable treasure!
Pictures' credit: Ashish Chandra