Heavenly heights
Marlon Saldin ascends Mt. Kailash, the abode of the gods in Tibet
Tibet, situated on a plateau averaging around 14,000 feet, is one of the most isolated regions in the world. With the Himalayas on its southern border, its northwest has the reputation of being among the least explored regions on earth.

Smiling, friendly natives, even nomadic tribesmen who roam around this vast plateau always welcome strangers. Their beliefs were such they never used anything with wheels in the past as it represented the Buddha chakra. Nothing was killed as it may have represented a loved one who had passed away. Nevertheless, living at altitudes of 4000-5000m has its price. Tibetans age quickly and 50 years are said to be the average life span.

Bad roads, delays and bureaucracy take on a whole new meaning especially if you're travelling overland. Once across the border however, one is moderately comfortable and can spend the rest of the time absorbing the surrounding beauty while wondering in the back of one's mind the consequences of any driving lapses, that will see you end up in some of the world's most difficult to access gorges. I, however was seated in the luxury of a Toyota land cruiser, the best seat that money can buy, but also wondering as to how, my fellow travellers in an ancient Toyota car, managed to keep up on roads that indeed looked like muddy paddy fields, probably worse.

Anyway, after Nyalam, the road divides with the right heading to the once forbidden city of Lhasa, while the left gets you to Lake Manasarovar and Mt. Kailash. This was the time the great pilgrimage around the sacred mountain was taking place and we were a group of 10 pilgrims from around the globe.

Lopsang, the fine man he is, was unfortunately not a driver of any repute. We firmly believe that he should get an award of sorts for getting a land cruiser stuck seven times in one day, especially when the day is under six hours. It does not get funny when one has to get off into the snow and dig out a heavy machine that we all know is going to get stuck again.

We finally arrived at the base of Mt. Kailash with our truck that was bringing our camping equipment, foodstuffs and our fellow pilgrims who came by car. We were ferried across the Brahmaputra River, where a pitched friendly battle between the truckies and the jeepies took place. How no one fell overboard still remains a mystery.

Mt Kailash, a 6714M snow-capped mountain with solid granite near-vertical rock wall surrounding its virgin peak, is considered a holy if not the holiest mountain in the world. It is a pilgrimage of a lifetime for Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and those belonging to the ancient Bon religion, who make the 53km circuit, yatra or kora around this mountain to erase theie sins.

This mountain is geographically important too as from it the Indus, Brahmaputra, Karnali and Sutlej flow, draining the huge plateau of Tibet. No matter what the prevailing conditions are, sunny or snowy, this mountain does radiate its sacred name as "The abode of the Gods". Some devotees crawl to the foot of Kailash, from its first visible point, where rocky pagodas, prayer flags and silk scarves are carefully placed. Pilgrims also do believe that this is the centre of the world.

After tying our prayer flags and scarves at the Serlung valley, we were ready for the kora. Snowy conditions underfoot did not make the going easy. Visibility here is phenomenal, like one's eyes have finally cleared up. Our camp looked like 60ft away, but I was later told the distance was around four miles.

Up on the plateau the day is governed by the weather where cloud cover means very cold and everyone steps out in layered clothing. Sunshine means that everyone wants to strip off all those layers but cannot do so due to dangerous sunburn and sunstroke that can result. A couple of sunny days does wonders as it melts the snow and turns the plateau into vivid green, making you to look out of your tent and feel like Alice in wonderland.

The kora or circumbulance of Kailash is by no means an easy task as pilgrims do suffer from altitude sickness. We too did have our moments of breathlessness at the Drolma-la pass, as conditions here can get pretty harsh. A Hindu family from Southern India had saved for over 10 years to make it here. Repeated requests to assist the family, as they were absolutely shattered, was firmly rejected as they said it was in the hands of the gods whether they would make it through, this at 5500M. We were later quite relieved to hear that the family had made it across.

On completion of the kora, we were asked if we would like to undertake the trek around Lake Manasarovar, as a part of the sacred pilgrimage. Lake Manasarovar I'm told, is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It is also one of the most beautiful places to be, designed to drive a cameraman mad; a vast lake which has rolling hills on one side, snow-capped mountains on another, grazing yaks and horses besides a shoreline, a gompa on a mountain's edge and a line of trekking pilgrims.

Mist covers and uncovers it all like some giant amphitheatre. Our Belgian cameraman did not know whether to shoot left, right or centre and most of the time ended up filming almost nothing. When conditions are perfect, which is not quite often, the blue sky, gleaming white mountains, green rolling fields, vividly blue waters of the lake and little coloured flowers that pop-up amongst the grass make it easily one of nature's greatest spectacles.

The grand finale of the pilgrimage is a bath in the lake, which I was told is the final part of washing away your earthly sins. The waters of Manasarovar are bitterly cold and pilgrims just fall down, although they are in ankle deep water, like someone had just pulled the carpet from under their feet. It all looks funny but not when tried. This concluded our sacred pilgrimage and we were reluctantly ready to leave the heavenly heights of Tibet and travel down to our respective countries in all probability to restart our sinful lives.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.