The yatra to Kailash-Manasarover can test your endurance limits but at the end of it awaits spiritual fulfillment.

In a hundred ages of the Gods, I could not tell thee, the glories of (the Himalaya)... For, there is no mountain like (the Himalaya), for in it are Kailash and Manasarovar.

The Ramayana

Since time immemorial, it has been the fervent desire of every devout Shaivite Hindu to undertake the ultimate of all pilgrimages, a visit to Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. In its vicinity is the sacred lake Manasarovar, hailed as the lake of ‘Consciousness-and-Enlightenment', said to be conceived by Lord Brahma. The Celestials are believed to descend to this lake even to this day, at pre-dawn hours for their ablutions.

Having the unique distinction of being revered profoundly by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpo-Tibetans alike, the snow-clad mountain, amidst a picturesque landscape, stands majestically in all its grandeur and unsurpassing beauty, soaring to a height of 22,000 feet in the remote corner of Western Tibet. Circumambulation of this Holy Mountain, known as ‘Kora' in local parlance, is believed to bestow one with Enlightenment.

Arduous

The inhospitable climatic conditions, rough and treacherous terrain of the mountain range, gruelling overland journey make the travel very arduous and demanding. Both the Indian Government and private tour-operators conduct tours from June till September every year. The registration process followed by the former is quite cumbersome and stringent, and the itinerary being lengthy, I opted for the latter though a bit expensive.

The 16-day trip typically starts with a sightseeing tour of Kathmandu on the first day, covering some of the important temples like the Pashupathinath, Swayambunath et al. The yatra begins the next morning amid fervent chanting of Jai-Bholenath, invoking Lord Shiva's grace for a safe, hassle-free travel. We head towards Kodari, through the lush-green Nepalese countryside. On completing the immigration and customs formalities, we board Landcruisers in groups of four at a place called Zhangmu.

Vital acclimatisation

After 150 km enjoying the beauty of nature, with waterfalls dotting the hills, we reach Nyalam, a small hamlet at a height of 12,000 ft, for the first overnight stay in the Himalayas. The next day is reserved for acclimatisation. One has to start accepting the abysmal sanitation facilities and poor hygienic conditions as daily routine. The availability of hot showers on a rental basis comes as a saving grace though! For the pretentious urban class that we were, these conditions were only introductory indications of what it takes to reach the most revered peak of the Hindus. The marathon drive continues for the next two days, with overnight halts at Saga (14,700 ft) and Paryang (15,000 ft).

The much-awaited D-day finally arrives. Past noon, we reach Manasarovar, where one catches the first glimpse of the sacred and captivating Mount Kailash, which truly is awe-inspiring. It is a moment of overwhelming, unbridled joy. Words possibly can't adequately describe this hair-raising experience. Not to be outdone, the serene, extremely cold and placid blue waters of Manasarovar too proved to be a mesmerising visual treat. We camped on the banks of the calm and graceful lake and savoured the fleeting moments the rest of the day. The night was numbing cold as we slipped into our sleeping bags inside the cozy tent.

After the ritual bath and prayers the next morning, we start Manas-Parikrama by jeep, covering nearly 3/4th of the 88 km peregrination before reaching the base camp at Darchen. En route we come across the eye-catching Raksash-Taal Lake (strikingly similar to Manasarovar), created by the legendary Ravan.

Kailash circumambulation generally takes three days, although a few tough and hardy locals can accomplish the feat in a single day! The total distance is 54 km, part of which is covered by jeep. The remaining 45 km could either be covered on foot or on a pony, encamping for two nights en route.

Fascinating view

Traditionally, one first visits Yama-dwaarat Tarboche. A slight detour leads to Astapad (held sacred by Jains). Nandi-parvat can be viewed from close quarters here. The first day's trek is 12 km long. Numerous brooks and streams alongside with pristine cold water not only quench the thirst but also soothes one from the tiring walk. The overnight halt is at Dirapuk. The Seshnag view of Kailash here is fascinating.

The second day's trek is the toughest, with a steep six km ascent, followed by a four km descent and a 11 km trek on a fairly plain surface, covering a total of 21 km, before halting at Zhutulpuk. The spectacular early morning golden rays of the Sun makes the mountain appear golden hued for a change, which otherwise is hailed as a silver mountain. One is advised to cross the pugnacious Dolma-La Pass, which is the highest point of 19,500 ft well before noon due to lowering level of oxygen as day passes, and the region being infamous for its rarefied atmosphere with sudden bouts of blizzards. Descending is an equally tough task. Trudging through the glaciers, or gentle marshy slopes with no well-defined trail, or over a mass of loose tumbling stones with water gurgling beneath, without losing one's balance or getting the socks wet is indeed a Herculean task! Slightly off-route is Goddess Uma's ablution spot, Gauri-Kund, an emerald-green, oval-shaped frozen lake.

Easy finish

After the rigours of the first two days, the third day's trek is a mere child's play. It was completed in no time with the yatris celebrating the successful accomplishment of the pulsating Parikrama which many people dream of, but only a few realise! We then complete the remaining 1/4th portion of Manasarovar-Parikrama, and finally return home carrying loads of everlasting memories, and the Holy Manasarovar water along with Rudraksha beads to be shared with family and friends.

Touted as the world's toughest pilgrimage, the yatra cannot be successfully completed without the grace of Shiva, the time-tested hospitality of the affable Sherpas and the tour captain, and the highly efficient Chinese Landcruiser drivers in one of the most inhospitable terrains of the Planet.