Destiny levels with you in ways neither strange nor unpredictable. Strange and unpredictable are the ways Fate tempts you. Living is what is caught in the line of these sparring two. And travel is the referee, drawing a line between the clash of the mind craving for head-on collisions with rare experiences and the body set to an assuring routine. The cruelties you come across will harden you, the wonders will humble you, the hardships will embolden you; nothing will leave you untouched. Travelling through Tibet, I was travelling across time frames: I, with a complicated life, was traversing a region that basked in glorious past, revered for millennia. Tomorrow seemed fuzzy, at best. That was the kick of travel.
Darchen is a small unkempt town which marks the starting point of the parikrama. As I arrived late evening, I was greeted by a strange sight – people on the street. Normally in Tibet everyone goes to bed quite early. But here life was spilling out on to the streets. The gaming parlours were teeming and a jovial air prevailed. Most of the guys were porters and guides whom the pilgrims hired for the parikrama. For rest of the travellers, the town doesn’t offer much else. It was a very basic town, an overgrown village actually, with not much stock given to hygiene and basic facilities. Individuals or groups have to get their travel permits stamped from here on arrival.
Pilgrims and other travellers usually start the 54-km trek which forms the crux of the parikrama from a point called Tarboche on Darchen outskirts. But nonstop rains of August had made the road inaccessible. So I was told to proceed to Sirchun further ahead – an overflowing mucked up area with miniature knolls poking their heads through. The Kailas Mountain was hidden somewhere behind clouds sluggish with rain and struggling to keep afloat. Sure-footed yaks, plangent with the tin bells hanging from the shock that was their necks, descended from the surrounding hills. Your last chance at hiring beasts of burden.
I followed a semblance of a trail flanked by canyon walls like brown stilettos pointed towards the sky. The first day would be easy compared to the second and the third days; I will be covering just 14 km till Dera Phuk which stood at an altitude of 4900 metres. There was a smattering of snow at the peak of this red and rust curtain – from everywhere else it had been washed or blown away. Clutching the hood of the windbreaker against the icy gale which had started to skim away from the glacier above only to shower it on me, I started the arduous part of the climb. Scattered shrubs gave way to ochrous red disarrayed shale.
The closest view of the Mount Kailas I got during the parikrama was from Dera Phuk. The thrill of journey usually keeps me awake or I am up early morning. Even before the sun, I was on the balcony of the room, staring intently, unblinking at the north face of the Mount Kailas.
‘Of excessive height and great circumference, always enveloped in cloud, covered with snow and ice, most horrible, barren and bitterly cold.’ This was how Ippolito Desideri, the first Westerner to see the holy mountain Kailas described it. While his words were of ardent wonder, it was also tinged with a bit of inconvenience. Though Desideri nearly lost his eyesight to an inflammation by excessive snowfall, I wasn’t half as unlucky. Yes, save for each gust of wind that froze me over each time and seemingly unrelated diarrhoea and hunger, I was better off. There stood the holy mountain, revered by one fifth of the world, smouldering in a grey blanket and breathing out large gusts of snowy winds. A far cry from the photographs I was so used to seeing on books and the internet – where it is shown like a cloudy diamond, so white and stately it is both painful and humbling to look at. Between me and the holy mountain hung a single strand of prayer flags as if put there to speed up my supplications.
I cut across the Lha Chu towards the east, climbed the Valley of Incense; my ascent to the Drolma La, the highest point of the Parikrama, had begun. After almost an hour of steady climbing, it started to rain again. By noon, I passed the Shiva Tsal, which the Buddhists call the Vajra Yogini burial ground, a venue for sky burials. Of the entire parikrama, the two hours’ climb from the Shiva Tsal to the Drolma La is the most spellbinding. The effect it had on me was narcotic. I had visions from my past – which even spoke to me, I saw my dreams wash through porous sand and darken the pristine blue waters of a lake, sound of crying babies shattered the still air, I flinched under a blow from a soft hand, and many a time I had this strong sensation that somebody was following me. If not walking behind me along the path, it was looking at me from over the maze of the boulders that were strewn all around. I kept looking over my shoulders. I had this feeling that it could be anything, didn’t even have to be human.
The third day was trot: I had to cover just 14km that too over mostly grassy plains. Towering on my right, almost touching the holy-blue skies, was an uninterrupted cobalt-coloured canyon. On a jutting purple crag was a gompa from where prayers fluttered out. Holes, quite deep ones, were dug out across the wall face. Exploring them with all the enthusiasm of a spelunker, I was told that these were made by pilgrims hunting for stones – to take home in memory of the parikrama. Somebody offered to dig out one for me.
No, I didn’t want to take anything with me. My memory of the parikrama was what I was leaving behind.
Thommen Jose is a writer, director of travel programmes and is a communication consultant for development sector. An avid adventurer, and distance biker, he also contributes travelogues for leading national and international publications. His blog, Wanderink.com, promotes rural tourism and responsible travel.