Mount Kailash, located in western Tibet, is a huge mass of black rock soaring to over 22,000 ft. According to legend, it is the abode of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati and so, for Hindus, it is a sacred pilgrimage site. The Jains call it Astapada (the eight-stepped mountain) and it is believed that Rishaba, the first of the 24 Tirthankaras (enlightened humans), attained salvation here. It is believed to be the seat of the Sky Goddess Sipaimen by followers of Bon (a Tibetan pre-Buddhist belief) who call the mountain Tise. And it is known as Kang Rimpoche (Precious One of Glacial Snow) by Tibetan Buddhists who regard it as the dwelling place of Demchok (the wrathful manifestation of Sakyamuni Buddha) and his consort Dorje Phagmo. For them, too, it is a sacred pilgrimage site. And for all of them, Mount Kailash represents the mythical Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain at the center of the universe.
Ancient texts refer to it as the center of the earth. Within its 30-mile radius are the sources of four mighty rivers: Indus (called Sindhu in India), Sutlej, Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsang-po) and Karnali (the largest tributary of the Ganges). On reaching the site, pilgrims have to make a circumambulation of the mountain, which by itself is an arduous task. Known as a kora, or parikrama, this walk around the mountain covers a distance of 53 km and takes about three days to complete. It is believed that those who complete 108 journeys around it are assured enlightenment. Buddhists do it in a clockwise direction while Bon adherents walk counter-clockwise. To make a circumambulation of Kailash is to cleanse oneself of the sins of a lifetime. At its foot lies the cobalt blue Lake Manasarovar, believed by Hindus to have originated from the mind of Brahma. Most pilgrims also take a short plunge in this highly sacred lake. The name Manasarovar means ‘Lake of Consciousness and Enlightenment’. Nearby is the Rakshas Tal, the ‘Lake of Demons’.
There are various land routes to Mount Kailash: From Xigatse (accessible from Lhasa or Kathmandu) via Saga to Manasarovar. Organized jeep tours take you from Kathmandu to Tibet, then west to the eastern shore of Manasarovar, a four-day journey. Travelers disembark at the small settlement of Darchen (14,000 ft), which is the traditional starting point of the Kailash Parikrama. Other routes are: from Xigatse to Ali and on to Darchen (6 days’ drive); from Kashgar via Ali; and from Simikot in Nepal via Purang. The route from Simikot in Nepal’s far northwestern district of Humla carries on to the western border at Hilsa, crossing over into Tibet and finally reaching Manasarovar via Taklakot in the Purang Valley. One has to first get to Nepalgunj in western Nepal (via air or by road). From here, one flies to Simikot from where the trek follows a trail beside the Karnali River up to the Tibet border. After crossing the Nara-La pass, the trail drops steeply down to the Tibetan border town of Hilsa. Then one can drive to Purang and proceed onwards to Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash, crossing the 18,417-foot Dolma-La peak on the way.
One trekking agency has the following itinerary: Kathmandu–Nyalam (150 km): Drive to the Friendship Bridge (Nepal-China border) and on to Zhangmu and then, Nyalam. Nyalam–Saga (232 km): Drive to Saga through the Labug-La pass (16,568 ft) and cross the River Brahmaputra to reach Saga (15,091 ft). Saga–Paryang (185 km): Drive to Paryang. Paryang–Manasarovar 14,954 ft (277 km): During this trip, you can have your first view of Mount Kailash and Manasarovar. Manasarovar–Darchen (40 km): After completing the bath at the sacred lake, head for Manasarovar Parikrama by land cruiser and continue driving towards Darchen. Darchen–Tarboche (13 km)–Dirapuk (7-km trek): Drive to Tarboche - the starting point of the Kailash Parikrama. Dirapuk–Zuthulpuk (18-km trek): Climb to Dolma-La and then descend gradually to Zuthulpuk (15,617 ft). Coming down from the peak, you pass Parvati-sthal and Gauri Kunda on the way.
Travelers from India journey to the Indian border near Uttarkashi and move on to Darchen. An excellent account is given by an Indian, Shailesh Pathak, who in his, ‘Kailash Manasarovar Trek from India: Mount Meru: Centre of the World’ (http://traveller.outlookindia.com), describes the journey of a group of pilgrims from Delhi to the sacred site. They travel to Darchula (on the Indian side of the Nepal border) from where they climb steadily upwards to Gala, Budhi, Gunji, Kalapani, Navidhang and cross over the Lipu Lekh Pass at 17,828 ft into Tibet and finally reach Taklakot (13,123 ft).
These excerpts from his account, perhaps, represent the experiences of all yatris (pilgrims) to Kailash irrespective of the routes they have taken:
Day 11: Taklakot to Lake Manasarovar
Brilliantly twinkling stars gaze down upon us as we embark on our journey. It is 6 am. The all-weather road crosses the Gurla Pass (16,125 ft). On our right is Gurla Mandhata (25,354 ft). And then, we wait with bated breath. A glimpse of Mt. Kailash and a resounding cry of ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ exults through the bus. The vehicle goes down to the banks of the Rakshas Tal (14,815 ft/ 70 km/4 hrs north of Taklakot) and stops. The bus skirts the Rakshas Tal and crosses over to Manasarovar. At Qihu Gompa, we get down to walk by the shore of Lake Manasarovar (14,954 ft/ 98 km/ 5 hrs north of Taklakot). The holy lake has a motorable road around it.
Day 12: At Qugu, Manasarovar
We are well acclimatized as we prepare for a ritual dip in Manasarovar. We do this early, before the winds take over. Later that night, the more enthusiastic among us stir out in the chill to see what is believed to be the hour of gods and goddesses descending to the holy lake for a bath.
Day 13: At Qugu, Manasarovar
We remain at Qugu and marvel at the changing moods of the holy lake during the day. Those interested bathe at the hot springs nearby (20 yuan).
Day 14: Manasarovar Parikrama — Qugu to Darchen
We transit to Darchen, further north (57 km/3 hrs by bus/7 hrs if part trek and partly by bus), the base for the Kailash Parikrama. But first after breakfast at Qugu, we complete the Manasarovar Parikrama on foot (15 km/5 hrs). We then travel (42 km/2 hrs) across the Barkha Plain, getting closer to Kailash. We find comfortable rooms at Darchen and we call home to share our joy.
Day 15: Kailash Parikrama — Darchen to Deraphuk
The Kailash Parikrama begins. We take a bus to Yama Dwar (5 km from Darchen). The trail to Deraphuk (17,000 ft/14 km/5 hrs) is not very steep. The best view of the north face of Kailash is from here. After reaching Deraphuk, the more adventurous yatris climb up the stream to touch the base of the holy mountain.
Day 16: Kailash Parikrama — Deraphuk to Dolma-La to Zutulphuk
This is the toughest day of our yatra (pilgrimage), when we cover 25 km in 15 hrs. We cross a stream and stay on the trail till we come to Shiv Sthal. Tibetans make offerings, lie down and feign death here, to be reborn. I leave behind a few strands of hair. We climb up a ridge and behold the highest point in the entire yatra, the Dolma-La. A huge boulder at Dolma-La is said to represent Tara Devi. Immediately after Dolma–La, is Gauri Kund where Parvati comes to bathe. The taxing descent thereafter is on rough trails over scree and boulders. We clamber down to a valley, where we rest awhile before starting the 10-km trek along the river to Zutulphuk/Zongzerbu (15,715 ft). This is the hardest trek in the entire yatra.
Day 17: Zutulphuk to Darchen
Darchen is just four hours away and the rest of the trail is over level ground. At the conclusion of our parikrama, we greet Darchen like a long lost home. We phone our dear ones and share our good fortune at having completed the parikrama.
One can well imagine the joy of the yatri at completing what is said to be, one of the most difficult of all pilgrimages in the world. And, like Pathak says, the pilgrim comes back not only spiritually satiated, but physically transformed too. Which I guess is natural, since he/she is usually guaranteed a loss of at least 5 kg of excess weight due to the exhausting but stimulating trip!