Kailash Manasarovar Yatra 2004

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On the way to Nyalam-mu
Spot the red double axle tanker on the serpentine road! It gives you a feel for the distances! Nature's beauty is at its best in such places.

Near the 'Gateway to Hell' or 'Nyalam-mu' in Tibetan
The mountains are with sparse vegetation at these altitudes. The river 'Bhode-Kosi' runs below. Back down the ages, the Tibetans, used to wide spaces and no vegetation would not venture beyond this gorge to get down towards Zhang-mu. Very dangerous and steep gorges! Hence the name. Alas what heaven Nepal is!

Sishma-La : The highest motorable pass enroute from Nyalam-mu to Saga.
At 5120 meters and at about 6 am with thick fog, we stop at the Sishma La pass welcome arch. Adjacent is a Buddhist prayer flag mast with a lot of fluttering prayer flags.

Tibetan Plateau
Much of Tibet is plain wasteland - desert that looks green during the rainy season in August. I had the privilege of being captured on the photo. Look at the multiple tracks on the 'road'.

The Horsemen of Tibet
On the journey one hardly comes across any human being. Very rarely do you see a nomad grazing his stock of yak and sheep. And when a couple of Tibetans cross you on their horses - it is like getting transported to their exotic worlds!

The Greening of the Tibetan Plateau
When the rains come during July end and August, everything turns green. This year the rains were bountiful in Tibet.

The Mountains in Nepal
All most all the mountain ranges visible from Tibet are in Nepal. These two peaks are also seen in the distance in the photo above.

The Crossing of Yarlung Tsangpo or the mighty Brahmaputra
A simple non-motorized barge carries four vehicles at a time across the River Brahmaputra near the Town of Saga. With a 20 minute round trip time and only daylight operation one can get stuck on the banks if you do not reach in time - especially during the peak pilgrimage season like ours with about 60 vehicles travelling that day.

First Night in the Tents
Pitched past the town of Saga, along a stream, the night was spent with the rains showering intermittently. My tent is in the centre (light blue). And to the right are the large kitchen tent and the dining tent.

The Royal Ruins Along River Brahmaputra
This three storeyed structure along the Brahmaputra enroute Paryang speaks of the desolation and care of some of the cultural artifacts of Tibet.

Desert, Grass, Lake, Mountains
Much of Tibet is like this - vast deserts surrounded by mountains, with huge lakes that collect the waters.

Kicking up the dust driving at 70 kmph
Typically all vehicles kick up the desert dust with the result that most pilgrims visiting Kailash during the dry times wear spectacles and surgical mask to keep the dust out!

The Fearless Birds
Closely observed there is plenty of flora and fauna unique to Tibet. Here is a sparrow that dug out its food from the gravel. And close enough for me to capture it on photo. Other creatures that we saw included, (sea) gulls, big black crows, rabbits, mountain deer, dogs, yak, horses, rodents - tibetan mormet, crickets, large mosquitoes.

The Yatra Diary

Day 3: Wednesday 28th July 2004
From Nyalam-mu to Saga

After a keenly fought tug-of-war (very civic) with the chinese guides we got to choose the place of stay (a simple decent hotel with a common 'decent' toilet) for the night at Nyalam-mu. The effects of high-altitude showed on every one. Strain a bit and you become breathless immediately. Completing hardly 12 hours of the mandatory 24 hour acclimatization period we were heralded into our vehicles very early in the morning (4am) to start for the town of Saga in the Tibetan plateau.

Yes, there is a competition with all the tourist operators kick starting this early, so they can reach the outskirts of Saga early in order to cross the River Brahmaputra - using the four-vehicles-at-a-time day ferry, manually operated with a round-trip time of 30 minutes to cover the less than hundred meter river span. So in the day-break hours of the early morning, we get to see the headlights lighting up the barren mountain side the hugging 'kaccha' road leading to the highest pass (5120m) in the vicinity of the Sisha-pang-ma mountain range. Was it the 'Sishma-la'? It was very foggy.

As the day progressed, the scenes were fantastic - rolling mountains and wide plateau'd valleys with no trees or human habitations for the tens of kilometers around! Occasional nomadic family camping around or yak herds livened up the terrain. The drive was strenous, bumpy, dusty and for all the sales pitch of the Nepali agency ("Land cruisers give the best of the comforts and reliability!"), we had several vehicle breakdowns during the day.

We realized that we are moving in a moving garage in a group of four cruisers and two trucks. The chinese in the group were very helpful of each other - any problem in any of the moving garage and the whole caravan can stop! In the middle of nowhere! Somehow they will fix the vehicle and we move on - this happened every day of our journey - the incredible drivers know how to rip apart and put together their land cruisers and the truck - you can find the most weird of contraptions made up to hold things together!

If the group were big, lunch could be decent and better organized. Small groups might have a bad fare! We had something packed in plastic carry bags and given to us early morning. Not worth remembering about. We did drink a lot of mineral water we carried (I carried 25 liters of one-liter bottles for the trip - it did not last long!) Per day consumption in the high altitude with Dimox can be about three or four liters. Mineral water is better than the stream water (polluted? muddy?) that might be boiled and given (chemically treated I was told). Better to be safe than to be down with dysentry.

We travelled around 200 kms along faint vehicle tracks on a shortcut - there is no direct 'road' between Nyalam-mu and Saga. We reached the ferry point around 4pm and after an hour or later we crossed the river using this interesting contraption. Barges guided by a thick guy-wire tied across the river - the river current makes the barge move - the river pilot controls the angle of the barge - the guy-wire ensures the barge does not get carried away. Saga is a mix of a few very modern buildings and mostly traditional structures. We crossed Saga and pitched the tent along a stream!

The first night in the tent! One for each person. Kitchen and dining tents separate! And it rained! Dinner was european fare. Toilet tent with a trench was put up at some distance! You are back to the basics when living with Nature! City folks - be prepared for such! Breathlessness was common even for small tasks! Running or climbing a hill quickly produced the obvious reaction - giddiness and a slide down ones knees. The night was interrupted with the visits of the grazing Yak and the yak-herd dogs sniffing around - you could hear the sniffing around near your head on the otherside of the tent cloth (perhaps a few inches away?). Dog howls and dog fights punctured the windy night calm. Sleeping was not an easy proposition!

Day 4: Thursday, 29th July 2004
From Saga to Paryang

Next morning after a quick morning breakfast, packing up the equipments and tent we were off to the next stop about 250 kms away - Paryang - a quaint little village. On the way, in the few habitations that we came across and stopped by, we were crowded with little children - very rustic - very clear about what they want - pens and 'bindis' and chocolates. Anything is received happily. The journey became 'interesting' - the very same spatial landscape - broken perhaps by different himalayan peaks on both sides of the 'road' with the vast plateau in between and perhaps the occasional huge lake! A very meditative state for the pilgrim. Sri Ramakrishna used to go off into 'bhava samadhi' seeing anything with a strong spiritual ambience.

Any unexpected river was negotiated either upstream or downstream where it was wide and shallow. Road breaches were not uncommon. Paryang is a small village with mud houses some of which are hotels rather way-side inns. Again we camped on the outskirts near some small lake. The vast rolling stretches of plateau, the distant mountains and the gathering dark rain clouds made our tiring evening interesting. For, we had heavy lightening, thunder and hailstorm challenge us in our tents for an hour into the night. A big question was - what if the lightening struck our metallic tent pole? We were within few inches from it most of the time. Post dinner, we called it a day!

Choosing a Travel Agency - Do's and Don'ts.

     Here are a few thoughts that could help one in picking up the right agency. After all, your experience on the yatra depends on who is running the show as well:
* Talk to several tour operators - remember most are sales folks who absolutely have no idea of what the yatra is like (from what you would like to experience) and will talk promising the moon at times. They will have no clearcut itinerary ('somehow adjust' types). And yatra pricing could be high because each of the pilgrim aggregator (the travel agents) in the chain take their cut. So choose to directly interact with the main agency to get the best pricing and deal. In fact our travel agency's managing director deliberately put in a wrong mobile number (typo) in his visiting card - so that access is difficult! Cornered he sheepishly corrected it.

* Book your air tickets early! I had to postpone my trip because getting confirmed reservations was difficult. The Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Bangalore was found to be unreliable - so check the past history of flight arrivals as well.

* On the one side doing the Yatra alone is great. Nothing like it! On the other, you might want to have good company. If you can get like-minded folks to come with you - in multiples of four, you are better off in having a vehicle for yourselves during yatra. Bargain this out with your travel agent.

* Do not buy into the sales pitch about buying yatra accessories - you can hire them cheap or borrow them. Or you can buy locally too on your own. The key is in bargaining and enquiring in several places. Many get ripped off when lax.

* If you are a vegetarian, then opt for the vegetarian cuisine and ask that it be cooked and served appropriately. Many times, the cook and the helper sherpas get to cut short their cooking chores by combining the cooking (Ex: frying is done is the same pan; and with the same used oil; and cooking spoons are interchangeably used). Eating together with trekking folks who like to appreciate their non-veg cuisine should be welcomed - it is nice to see them respect your sensibilities - the trouble sometimes is with the sherpa cooks. This happens when doing the yatra with international groups. You can pleasantly convey your requirements to the cook and others during the yatra and ensure that it happens.

* Bargain on the price upfront. Year 2004 prices were around INR 53000 all inclusive ex Kathmandu. (Add another 50% for other expenses). Along with the price, ensure that the standard aspects of the trip are as agreed upon (in writing). Do not pay any money in advance before reaching Kathmandu (no need for wire transfers). Pay after visiting the travel agent in their office (checkout that they are not fly by night operators). Ask for receipts ('What receipt?' is typical).

If you wish to get in touch with several travel agencies in several cities of India or in Kathmandu, search the Internet with right keywords. Ask for a quotation and possible dates. Here are some big organizers:
* Kailas Tours - www.neelkanthtoursandtravels.com
* Karnali Tours and travels.
* Ecotreks - www.ecotreksnepal.com
* Atma darshan from Mumbai
* Arun Treks Nepal
* Parikrama Treks Nepal - the one I used.

Ask for and get the travel agency commit to the following:
** Stay in decent guest houses, Inns, and hotels in all the places enroute. Typically the good places would include a clean and modern toilet perhaps common to all rooms as well as ventilated window within the rooms. (Some cheaper rooms will not have any ventilation). Ask that you would inspect before selection at every place.

** All costs due to any delays in starting or in completing the itinerary will be borne by them fully - this should include the costs of staying at Kathmandu as well. Similarly, any disruptions in the itinerary will be fully compensated for by them - and all incidental expenses borne by them (Like the truck not arriving so the chinese guide will arrange to serve food in the local hotel wherever at his costs!).

** The group and the sherpas will not be split. And that the sherpa guide will accompany you in the land cruiser and will not come in the truck. We had several occasions were we did not know what to do because the sherpa guide got struck in the truck. Campsite location and other decisions just got held up when this split happened.

** The chinese will provide good vehicles - sometimes most are hired off the streets of Zhang-mu. Ask for the new versions (less than 5 years old) of the 4500 Toyota Land Cruisers - these might add to your overall costs perhaps by another INR 4000 but could be worth it. Remember, the agency will promise for such vehicles and take the monies but will not deliver! So pay separately on return in case you get these vehicles. Also ask that vehicles be cleared off garage junk (spare parts fill up the vehicle)!

** The Chinese guides should be committed to: a) being helpful in all communications b) listen to what the group members have to say; c) resolving all issues in a meaningful and professional way; (when the chinese guides overshot their meagre permitted budgets they put several travellers accomodation and food preparation into jeopardy). Ask that all these will be conveyed - you will receive a lot of big assurances! But insist.

** The chinese drivers will: a) stop the vehicle during the drive when you request them - during the diamox therapy you will have to relieve yourself several times during the day (Ironically, ours coincided many times with the vehicle breakdowns!) b) They be courteous in their interactions with you c) understand and respect your religious sentiments d) will not smoke during the drive (especially with the window panes up). e) will not put on their pop music loudly (though you might be playing your personal stereo) - sometimes obnoxious pop even though it could be Hindi. f) that when ladies wish to attend the natures call - the driver takes a long walk away - especially on the flat plateau where there is no rock to use! (Ladies, pack your private toilet tent gadgets (bedspread etc) - several unprepared ones do things clumsily and become the objects of joke and derision for the chinese!)

** Mineral water will be packed and served as part of the general package and none shall be charged for it separately. Remember that mineral water bottles that each individual is asked to get along (24 liters+ in my case) were either used up by others or damaged or dirtied up.

** During the parikrama, the guides will take you to Chuggu Gompa, Chiu Gompa and its hot springs, Rakshas Tal, Darchen Gompa, Ashtapad, Tar-po-che, Dheer Puk Gompa, Gauri kund, Zutul Puk Gompa, Thirthapuri hot springs etc. The parikrama should include that of the Lake Manasarovar too - many of these are skipped if you are lax. (Invariably they get to disappear at critical times).

** Price for yak and horse rides during the parikrama will be capped upfront. Many times, after reaching darchen, pilgrims get a shock with the price tags. There is a lot of unpleasant arguments - and finally the 'tough bargaining' happens! The hapless ones succumb to this tactic and get ripped off!

** The sherpas will bring on the yak, the toilet tents and mineral water bottles on the parikrama of Mt. Kailash. Optimizing on the yak to be hired by them for bringing the rest of the camp equipment, they skip these! You are asked to 'use the rocks' - i.e., relieve behind the rocks in the open!

** Any monetary tips that you will give to the sherpas or the drivers will be based on your satisfaction only - there shall be no compelled tippings! This builds into the incentives for their good behaviour and performance.

** All medical emergencies are carefully and appropriately handled - ask the agency what procedure would be adopted if one is: a) acutely ill with food poisoning b) acutely ill with High Altitude Sickness c) down with broken limbs d) down due to flu / fever / cough. In case you wish to remain in darchen for the three parikrama days, what happens and how will it be handled? e) how are refunds (how much of it) handled? (Clarity and commitment here will help handle the chinese folks appropriately!)

** Your luggage will be handled such that it is always clean and dry while bringing it in the truck! Typically such baggage gets dirtied up and becomes drenched, exposed to the elements (rain) and the fuel drums! It can also get squashed because some guy decided to use it to cushion his/her bumpy back-of-the-truck ride! My baggage was pretty dirtied up.

** Every member of the group gets to have a separate tent! You live in your private world within during rest and meditations! Also ensure that the tents are rain proof - mine dripped in the middle and we did something ingenuous with another plastic sheet spread over the tent - ofcourse the billowing winds made for a noisy night with this sheet flapping intermittently. In other groups, ladies and gents were packed 8 members to a small tent - all cramped up!

** Every day menu will be shared upfront the previous day! Oil used once for frying will not be used again? Non-veg cooking will be separately handled with no interchange of used oils, pans or spoons. Though you will face assurances galore, tell them that the cooks who will be introduced to in the office, will comply enroute!

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© 2004. T S Mohan, Bangalore. All Rights Reserved.