The Morning after Tibet
A Himalayan journey to 19,000ft and back
What are men to rocks and mountains? Jane Austen
When I signed up to go to Mount Kailash in Tibet, I had little knowledge about what I was about to encounter. In hindsight naïveté was a gift. Had I known what it takes to get to altitudes of 19,000 ft across a Tibetan plateau, I might have reconsidered. In the end, it was to be one of those experiences that, though I have attempted, prose does not do full justice to.
I had decided fairly last minute to join the trip — along with my mother. We were joined by 40 others in a group of Brits, Americans, New Zealanders with the expedition or “Yatra” led by a Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian team.
We first arrived at Kathmandu and flew a day later to Lhasa. At 11,000 ft above sea level, Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world and the first of the several towns we travelled to in Tibet. The region’s history has been a tumultuous one. Less than half a decade after its declaration as an independent state by the Dalai Lama, in 1951 Tibet ceded its territory to China following the Battle of Chamdo. Today it is referred to as the “Tibet autonomous region” — but the words hold little significance in reality.
China’s influence is hard to miss. From a positive perspective, the infrastructure is fully fledged and allows accessibility to places that might only a few years ago have been impossible to get to. On the flip side with the scale of building we saw along the route from Lhasa to Mount Kailash — you couldn’t help but feel there are few precious years left of its relative sanctity.
As we hit Lhasa, for our bodies to acclimatize in preparation for hiking at altitudes around Mount Kailash, we began taking diamox twice a day and drinking water at intervals of 5–10 minutes. The thing about drinking that much water is that you need to constantly go to the loo. And I am not understating “constantly” here.
When you are travelling distances of over 2000km, this is an entirely incompatible and inconvenient situation. We managed but I will tell you that was the least ‘epic’ part of the journey and its associated management strategies consumed at least 60% of conversation topics. I say this also so that you will be better prepared than I was should you take this journey.
Our route from Lhasa to Lake Manasarovar of 940km seemed infinite at times broken up thankfully by the vastness of the Himalayan landscape and the Brahmaputra river flowing through it. We passed through Shigatse, Latse and Saga, through a minor flooding and more Chinese army checkpoints than I care to remember.
Reaching Lake Manasovarar at 15,000ft above sea level was a relief. Nestled in the remote deep Western region of Tibetan plateau, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Mount Kailash where we were to begin to trek the following day, stood under clear skies to its North and Lake Rakshastal to its West. At midnight, we ventured close to the lakeshore. The sky appeared in its full natural element. Without filthy light pollution muddled with smog — lit with stars, the big dipper and the milky way. Had we not had a 5am start, I would have remained staring up at that canopy for a few more hours.
For Hindus as well as Buddhists and Jains, Manasarovar- Kailash is a sacred place. According to Hindu mythology, Lake Manasarovar was created by Lord Brahma and it is said that bathing in its waters relinquishes sins over several lifetimes. Mount Kailash is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Shiva, one of the three major deities in the Hindu religion often referred to as Trimurti. Where Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer/transformer. Buddhists and Jains whose core values lie in non violence believe it was the birthplace of their “founders” — Lord Buddha and for Jains the first Tirthankara Rishabhadeva who attained Moksha there.
I have always been and much more so recently, more spiritually inclined as a Jain. Though the significance of this journey for me was less about religion, the deep faith and resulting determination of those around me was inspiring and a source of strength. Traversing Mount Kailash is not for the faint of heart. Thousands of pilgrims travel each year to attempt the “Parikrama” or “Kora” of 54km around Mount Kailash and not everyone makes it.
Ahead of the first day of the hike, we were briefed on what lay ahead. The average elevation for the next few days would be 16,500 ft (5000m). Starting at Darchan and then climbing to 18,471ft (5630m) to the Dolma La pass followed by a steep descent to the end and returning to Darchan. Most people take several days to complete this trek but many Tibetan Buddhists do what they call full length prostrates. This means that the pilgrim first bends down, then kneels, prostrates full-length, makes a mark with his/her fingers, stands, prays, and then crawls forward on hands and knees to the mark made by his/her fingers before repeating the process.
Many of the pilgrims that do this are very poor — they use cheap slippers to protect their hands as they kneel down. They are clothed in thick robes with for the most part, improper footwear. Yet they do it for up to the 45 days it can take to complete the circumbulation. I remember seeing the first pilgrim and thinking directly of Nietzche’s “He who has a why can live to bear almost any how”. How was a minor technicality.
Each day of the trek had its own challenges. Mirroring what I learnt about the “Trimurti” the journey for me was a cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. I set out with a creators instinct, the ferver of the new and conquering venture. The first day, we were told was the easy day. The combination of the blazing sun and oxygen poverty left me feeling weaker and at the end of the “easy” day, wondering how I would face the next two.
We woke up the following day at 6am. Renewed energy and after a reasonably good nights sleep, ready for the toughest day. My intention was to complete the whole day by foot as I had the previous but that was not (entirely) to be. For a short stretch of the hike to the Dolma La Pass which we had to complete within a short timeframe before the weather turned, my lungs felt heavy. I was pushing beyond my physical capacity and I was forced to intermittently get on a horse for a few km to get to there quickly enough.
Days earlier a few people died at the Dolma La Pass due to the lack of oxygen from the ascension. To put it in context, Mount Everest is 10,000 ft higher at 29,000ft. Still I was disappointed but there was no time to lament. The descent from Dolma La was very steep and required full concentration to prevent falls. At this point though, I took some time to fully absorb the scenery. Ahead were blue streams, lush greenery and a vast expanse of unspoilt nature. It was alive and utopic.
There is something sacred and healing about being out in vast open space. For me there became no separation of mind and body — no Cartesian duality — or conflict. In contrast to my wired and distracted twin cities of London and New York — this corner at the “roof of the world” as Tibet is often referred to, was a gift of presence. I think this is what Henry Beston meant by reclaiming humanity and relearning to be nurtured by nature:-
“Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man.” Henry Beston
The remainder of the trek following the descent that day felt eternal in parts. I could have sworn it was 50km rather than the less than 10km quoted. By this time the lack of oxygen was not as palpable but the sun was strong and unforgiving. Finding an extra reserve of energy and some creative nut mix snacking — most of us made it through unscathed to the final day. We had started the day in darkness at 5am with torches and ended it looking onto the great valleys and Himalayas interrupted only by the occasional Yak carting around gas and water.
The feelings of creation, preservation and destruction ebbed and flowed like going through 4 seasons in a matter of a few days. It was also reminiscent of my entrepreneurial journeys — perched on a Queen’s throne one day and at the bottom of a pile of mud the next. But then you learn faster, are more grateful for the good parts and are able to face the rest with equanimity.
Something I have purposely left to the end to talk about but was equally as impactful as the Mount Kailash journey itself — the team that looked after us. It was led by SKY and its leader Vaishali. She spends 6 months in the Himalayas every year and her team had been working together for 15 years. Some have climbed Everest several times others were approaching 100 times on different yatras.
Many were Nepalese and I learnt that a few had lost their homes in the earthquake in 2015. The long term economic and emotional destruction that earthquakes leave is often underestimated and something I have previously written about. Despite all of this, the level of service of each and every single member of the team was far beyond anything I had expected.
Vaishali and her team’s energy and dedication kept me going. Despite many challenges, they had an astute attention to detail (the logistics and responsibility on a trip like this are mind boggling) handled things with grace and were never complacent. I saw Vaishali in particular as a role model and took that spirit, energy and gratitude back with me to New York.
Speaking of role models, many had asked me what my motivation was for going on this trip. It was primarily to accompany my mum — it had been a dream of hers for many years. As our parents age and our lives drift in and out of busy and more busy, the time spent with them become more precious. The days we had in Tibet will stay with me for a long time to come.
All that remains to be said is a sincere thanks to the Bhiren Patel who coordinated the trip from London and the incredible SKY team. To those of you reading this far and those that encouraged me to take this trip, my thanks and I hope you have a chance to experience a journey like this in the not too distant future.