With a slow, tentative effort I was down, mules included; though I’d no idea how? My feet and ankles were swollen; every part of my body ached from the tension. I was dusty, knackered, dishevelled but I brimmed with a deep sense of pride. After navigating the ancient salt route, I was stood at Hilsa, where Nepal meets Tibet; the start of my Mt Kailash pilgrimage.
With one step over the border I was scenically met by a land of striking contrast. Gone were the deep gorges, the rich lush terraces, the breath taking valleys which lay cradled beneath mighty peaks; here I entered a desolate, barren land, a land where even the gentlest of breezes felt wickedly harsh against my skin.
The trail began on the south shore of Lake Manasarovar (Mapam Tso) passing close to Rakas Tal. These two Lakes formed a significant part of the pilgrimage and for millennia recognised as a place of worship.
To me, Manasarovar was simple & unobtrusive. On a superficial level it was neither exquisite nor ostentatious; to here pilgrims travelled from great distances, in harsh conditions to bask in its water & rinse away a lifetime's culmination of sin.
For many Manasarovar represents life, vitality, forgiveness but as with all aspects of life & humanity to have one side is to also have its opposite.
Rakas Tal was visually divine. Set against a backdrop of sand colour peaks my breath was literally captured by the calm serenity of its still, turquoise waters. Its external beauty exquisite but this was merely an illusion. Like a precious gemstone it lured me and only upon closer inspection did I realise how barren were its shores.
Nothing grew or lived here; its shores & surrounding areas were desolate. A force of evil; a lake feared amongst the people here.
As dawn rose, I found myself at Tarboche, the foot of the Lha Chu Valley & the start of the Kailash Kora. This place was adorned with hundreds, if not thousands of colourful prayer flags; from the flat plateau I imagined an invisible gateway, an energetic portal into an alternate world. Here I was shrouded by shadow; besieged by vertical walls of a deep black rock. The air was frigid.
Camp was pitched at nearly 5,000m, just below the North Face of Mt Kailash. As I stood captivated a blizzard erupted, icy shards chaffed and snarled whilst the wind shouted.
It seemed that by absolute chance, my crossing of the Drolma La pass (5,630m) coincided with the Tibetan Full moon, a particularly auspicious time. The trudge up was arduous & emotionally charged. I was amazed at how many pilgrims had gathered. With disbelief I watched as people incapable of physical exertion somehow discovered, through faith an inner will and determination to proceed.
The pass was covered with hundreds upon hundreds of multi-coloured prayer flags, the rocks dressed with different items of clothing. To sacrifice ones clothes here meant that they would be available during the transition period after death.
As I crossed the pass and descended passed the Thukpe Dzingbu (Lake of Compassion), a surge of emotion enveloped me. From behind my sunglasses ran a thousand tears, as I watched small Tibetan children (five/six yrs old) gently guide, support and nurture elderly members of the Hindi, Buddhist & Bon communities over high altitudes and challenging terrain.
I found it difficult to restrain myself as infirm pilgrims took out their frustrations on those guiding them; the atmosphere was intense.
After experiencing the Tibetan full moon and a night of severe wind buffeting, I awoke to complete & utter stillness. Under a cloudless sky appeared an expansive Valley; the final leg of my Pilgrimage, circumambulating the Eastern face of Mt Kailash. The valley mouth gaped opened, displaying a riot of grass and wild flowers, the etched hillsides appeared vibrant & fresh. The gentle birdsong had returned to fill the air.
As I stood overlooking the barren Tibetan moonscape, there was a sense of inner stillness about me. To a land that was often inhospitable and oppressive, I found myself drawn. I bid farewell to Whitey and Darky, my two Yaks and without a backward glance strode out into the great world beyond.