The Himalayan Rhapsody

Nayanna Chakrbarty 

© Copyright 2011 by Nayanna Chakrbarty   



Photo of Mount Kailash.

The journey to the Himalayas was a monumental expedition of hardships, challenging nature’s severities and a conquest of wits. This has aligned life’s purpose, goals and the gallant ego in such way that Nayanna Chakrbarty can never be the same.


“Are you living your life on the edge?”

Not long ago, I preferred leading mine with a safety net. My outlook towards vacations took a U-turn from beach resorts, jungle adventures and spa packages when I was hypnotized by the golden hue radiating from the pristine, snow-capped mountains. The Himalayas have always looked picture perfect in paintings and artworks but I had never imagined that it would be transformed into reality.

A friend wanted to go to Mount Kailash and was seeking company. Initially, I didn’t give it much thought and agreed to the trip. Only when I informed my family and saw the delight in their eyes, I realized it was more than just a trekking adventure.

“The one who travels to Kailash Manasarovar is a chosen one,” said my mother.

I was overwhelmed with everyone’s reactions and then did some research on this sacred mountain. Mount Kailash is revered in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism including the Bora faith. The Hindus regard this place as the abode of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and regeneration while the Tantric Buddhists believe this to be the home of Buddha Demchok. According to the Jains, their founder Rishabhadeva had attained his enlightenment here. The Bon religion predating Buddhism in Tibet considers this location as the center of their spiritual power.

It was evident that Lord Shiva had bestowed his grace and I was summoned for a reason. Months of preparation, planning and maintaining a fitness regime paved the way for heightened levels of endurance and stamina but this over enthusiasm caused a ligament tear of my right foot. I learnt the art of tying tight bandages and had to buy a larger sized trekking boots to fit in. Disappointments added on as my friend changed his mind and decided to back out. But I had got my calling and such hurdles couldn’t deter my journey. With this faith, I packed my gear and limped ahead to Tibet.

Nepal was my first stop. I had booked the tour with an operator specialized in such expeditions. His package included complete travel itinerary along with lodging, food and medical assistance. The most important of all this were handling of the visas and permits to cross Nepal and China border to enter Tibet. He had a pack of twenty helpful staff, the Sherpa. These simple folks are adaptable to extreme weather and have inborn mountaineering skills.

The capital city of Nepal, Katmandu, had its own charm with its lively ethnicity and heritage. But sight-seeing wasn’t much of an option. The moment I checked in, I was informed, I was the last to arrive and everyone was waiting to meet me. I was introduced to the group, my new family, with whom I would be traveling for the next two weeks.

At dawn, groups of four were packed in four wheel-drive vehicles and we made our way to Tibet. An overnight halt was at a small lodge and the following morning we crossed the Nepal border. The weather was refreshing and everything seemed so peaceful. Life was different… almost surreal.

Another day passed through the deep valleys and hills. My fellow travelers were curious seeing a young, single woman traveling alone. One of them couldn’t resist anymore and finally broke the silence.

“Why are you going to Kailash? You are so young.”

I then noticed that most of the people traveling were above fifty-years-old. The oldest of them all was a ninety-year-old man who was accompanied by his granddaughter. In India, many believe that pilgrimages should be carried out at a later stage in life mostly after retirement. It is assumed that performing pious deeds at this juncture is ideal as their life would soon come to an end. But I disagree.

The route got treacherous after we crossed the China border. Stony gorges and gigantic boulders made it clear that we were distant from civilization. As we traveled ahead, the rugged terrains made me feel that I had lost control over my sense of balance. My head bumped on the car roof and my knees grew sore with the constant knocks from the old fashioned, roll down window handle. If I didn’t hold on tightly, I would surely land up on someone’s lap. To overcome the unnerving rattling nerves, I pretended that I had transformed into a character of a video game. A kid was maneuvering my actions and every time I hit my head on the car roof, he would get one step closer to winning a high score.

On the way, the rock-strewn ground slashed the tyres, creating a sense of despair while other times, it was fun to see how the four-wheel vehicle would pass over small streams splashing water, leaving a trail for others to follow. At sunset, we were huddled in shanty settlements shared between several people. There were no heaters or hot water. The door of the small shelters didn’t have any bolts so we used our backpacks to keep the extreme weather at bay. Overcooked food was rationed to get the body going. I would shiver under the covers, unsure if it was the frigid Himalayan winds or the nerves finally settling down. It was truly a tough expedition that was lonesome and far away from familiarity. But then again, it was a small price to pay because reaching Mount Kailash was once in a lifetime opportunity. If one can make it there and back, we are one step closer to getting liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

The journey continued each morning at 7:00 am and ended close to sunset. I hardly looked at my wristwatch because time was immaterial. These few days of travel played with my memory. I had almost forgotten how I juggled my time and space in a congested urban lifestyle. Earlier my ringing cell-phone used to annoy me and now I longed to hear a musical ringtone.

The high altitude made my head woozy with an occasional nose bleed and the silence all round created a bubble around me. My fellow travelers were suffering from altitude sickness and needless to say it did concern me. They couldn’t eat and that made them weaker. Watching them suffer, I gulped down pills to make sure my body got accustomed to it. Was it paranoia? Maybe, but I couldn’t afford to suffer from poor health.

The evening of the seventh day was special. All the cars stopped in a row and everyone gathered around. Most of them started crying, hugging one another, rejoicing, while others bowed down in prayers. We had the first glimpse of Mount Kailash. Finally, we were closer to the abode of Lord Shiva. I wasn’t crying, was I supposed to? I stood away from the crowd with a silent sigh of relief and feasted my weary eyes on the majestic mountain in humility.

That night, we camped at the banks of the lake Manasarovar. This lake has a lot of significance in the ancient religious texts. The wind grew intense as the gleaming full moon rose. It almost felt like my tent would swallow me, as I lay awake, with chattering teeth and chilled bones. Five layers of woolens still couldn’t keep me warm. The howling wind spared no mercy and the only hope of survival was that the morning sun would filter in some warmth.

It rained heavily the next morning. We waited for a while but that didn’t provide any relief. We had to move on as daylight was vital to our journey. Slowly through the slush, we drove at the threshold of heaven, Darchen. From here, we had to start the clockwise trek around Mount Kailash. In Hinduism, walking in a clockwise direction around a temple, a sacred mountain or a river is known as Parikrama or Pradakshina. It is said that this should be done in humility as a sign of respect towards the presiding deity. Most members of the group couldn’t move on. The precarious journey had taken a toll on their physical and mental well-being. Twenty-six people opted out and decided to camp at the lakeside. While, nineteen of us continued to move on. An old couple blessed me and said that they would pray for my safe return. Another senior gentleman asked me to carry his family photograph in my backpack. He complained of knee pain and wouldn’t be able to travel ahead even on horseback. The rest waved us teary-eyed thinking that their fate stopped them to reach the pinnacle when the final destination was so close.

It was fifty-two kilometer (thirty miles) trek that was divided into three days. Horses and guides were available on hire to make this journey easier. I decided to take a guide along who would be able to take me through the perilous trail and make it to the campsite by dusk. Three yaks followed us carrying our food and cooking tools.

A beautiful woman, Prema, her five-year-old son Thantri, and their dog Ouna were my guide. We really hit it off well despite the language barriers with our hand gestures and facial expressions. This was Prema’s ninth trek and was faithfully by my side, carrying my backpack. Whenever I stopped to rest, she handed me my water bottle and food packet.

It was so easy to get mesmerized by the clear, blue sky and the glowing beauty of the snow-capped mountains in the bright sunlight. The clouds seemed to pass at slow pace, exchanging pleasantries with the snow. The icy wind pinched the skin and yet there was gentleness in its touch when it ruffled my hair. Prema made sure that I did not rest long and usually pointed at her watch, signaling, “Time up, keep moving.” Little Thantri skipped over stones and streams almost like a mountain goat. Their dog walked ahead, barking at times when we lagged. He seemed to be the captain who didn’t like his troops slacking.

At sunset, the Sherpas assembled the tents and cooked dinner. Fellow travelers huddled in their sleeping bags to catch up on their rest while I sat gazing at the twinkling stars, the bright moon and Mount Kailash. Divinity had spread its arms embracing those who acknowledged it. The aura of the mountain was of unparallel beauty. It was beyond something that I had ever experienced maybe this is what is called ultimate peace.


The following day, we had to climb to the Dromala Pass which was at 5650 meters (3.511 miles). Within, ten minutes of the upward hill climb, I was breathless. The icy wind parched my throat and the hot water in my flask was already half. The boulders were high and stones jagged. I rested every five minutes. Then I realized that I couldn’t do it anymore. But Prema’s actions renewed my spirit. As she climbed, she cleared the path, placing the large stones to one side thus performing a great service for the future pilgrims. Finally, I reached Dromala Pass where prayers were being offered. The place was adorned with multi-colored flags and the fragrance of incense filled the air.

The next hurdle was going down the mountain range. It looked like an impossible feat. There was no trail to follow. The steep decent would surely lead me somewhere but where? I couldn’t see the end and it made me very nervous. I tightly held Prema’s hand and plunged ahead. The small stones crunched under my feet and the larger ones loosened, rolling down rapidly. I slipped several times and soon lost count. I wished that I could tumble down in greater speed and cover more area. In one of my falls, I grabbed a bush for support. Little did I know that those wild shrubs were adorned with thorns. They deceived me with their soft and velvety appearance but when I looked at them closely, they had a mesh of spikes. The sting was excruciating. Few thorns had embedded in the flesh. My palm swelled and began to itch. Prema quickly pointed to a stream. I washed my hand but the melting ice water made it worse. I sat on the jagged stones, wrapped my arms around my body and buried my head between my knees. It was impossible to motivate myself to move on. The harsh sun’s glare made it harder. Sweat trickled through my layers of woolens and as I started to take off my jacket, the chilly wind swept across my fatigued body, almost pushing me to move on. The melting snow made the ground slippery and crawling on fours, didn’t affect my ego.

Most of the time, fellow travelers were never walking together. Some were way behind, some ahead. There was no road to follow, only boulders and hillocks to conquer. The guides knew the way but they didn’t know English. It was a silent journey, where you can only hear your breathing and look within yourself.

After walking endlessly for ten hours, I managed to reach the camp at sunset. Every joint in my body ached and nerves shriveled in pain. My mind was blank, devoid of any mundane thought. The biting wind overpowered my weary body while my itching palm was a reminder that I was still conscious. At a distance, Mount Kailash gleamed in the divine light, making me realize how fortunate I was then all the anguish and exhaustion melted away.

The trek on the final day was fairly easy. My mind and body were accustomed to the hardships and the trek ended in just three hours. At the end of the trail, the driver was ready with the car to take us back to the Manasarovar campsite. It took us another week to reach Nepal and we all departed back to our own world.

Today, tears trickle down when I look back on those weeks. I cannot stop to wonder how I managed it all. It was all His grace. I strongly believe - If you seek … you shall find.

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