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Tibet: Mansarovar Kailas Yatra: Preamble, Preparation, The Journey, Lake Mansarovar, Mount Kailas Parikrama
Mansarovar Kailas Yatra - Preparation
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Climatic conditions: The season to travel to Kailas and Mansarovar is limited to just about 3 months beginning mid-May through August. The route from Kathmandu to Kodari (Nepal - China border) is narrow and winds through the hills. From the border onward, the roads are plain. The high altitude Tibetan terrain is dry, cold, windy and dusty. Nights are pretty cold. Torrential rains, strong icy winds are common feature. Flooding rivers and landslides are frequent. The average altitude is above 4000 meters and the route covers many high altitude passes.
It’s important that you are in sound health. You should be able to walk comfortably. Before the trip, it’s a good idea to spend some time walking everyday and cutting down the alcohol intake and smoking. Consult your doctor for your fitness for the trip. Carry your prescription medicines as also other general medicines for fever, bodyache, cold, cough, dysentery, constipation, congestion, acidity, etc. In addition it will be of help to keep things like multi-vitamins, glucose, vaseline, band-aids, antiseptics, mouth freshners, chocolates & candies, masks, sunglasses, etc.
Barring undergarments don’t carry many pair of changes. Trust me on this. You will never get the opportunity to change. Even if you get one, either you will be too tired or it would be too cold! It would be a good idea to wear in layers. Essential for the trip are inner thermals, woolen socks, gloves & monkey cap, sweater, pants / jeans & shirts and a full body rain coat. Check with your operator. They would usually give you a back-pack, wind-cheater and down-jackets. They are quite of essence as are comfortable walking shoes. If you plan to foot the Parikrama, make sure your shoes are non-skid. I was with my regular Nike walking shoes which created some problems for me especially whilst climbing down the slopes… the lose sand was pretty slippery. I actually slipped on two occasions… thankfully, no bone was broken!
There’s less oxygen at higher altitudes. One may experience headache, nausea, breathlessness, lethargy, loss of sleep, etc. This is common across age, sex and physical fitness. Keeping away from sleeping pills is a good idea. Gradual acclimatization is the best answer. Keeping handy a can of oxygen cylinder is not a bad idea either.
A simpler option:
For those weary of the drive and short of time can opt for the helicopter tour. You would save 4 days of driving but would spend about twice the amount. You could fly from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj. Take a helicopter from Nepalgunj to Simikot (the border). And after acclimatization at Taklakot, drive on smooth tar road in under 2 hours straight to Mansarovar.
Only after the trip I realized that there could have been a third and a better alternative to driving both ways. Drive in. Fly out. I could have taken the helicopter after the Parikrama of Mount Kailas. That way, I would have saved a few days of return journey. Since it’s the same road that brings you back to Kathmandu, I wouldn’t have missed the view or the experience.
During my trip, roads were being made at rapid space. I like to believe that in the next few years fine tar roads would take travelers all the way up to Lake Mansarovar. 4X4 vehicles will become redundant. I shudder at the thought of hundreds of thousands pilgrims in the pristine region filling up land with plastic and other rubbish. I just hope the authorities take stringent measures to control pollution. And I urge every traveler to leave nothing behind except their footmarks. That’s the least we could do for the benefit of the generations ahead.
There are many operators based in Nepal who specialize in Kailas and Mansarovar tours. Bear in mind, that eventually all travel permits, transportation and hotels / guesthouses are organizes by independent Tibetan contractors. To put it bluntly, once you are in Tibet, there’s very little that an individual traveler can do. The drivers don’t speak any language other than Tibetan or Chinese. So you have to do with sign languages. Most of the places you would stay in are very basic. You would be lucky to find a clean toilet, if at all there’s one. Be prepared to venture out in the open. Water is a scarcity. Drinking water is carried all the way from Nepal. Water for washing purposes is picked up from local streams and boiled. Only the brave would dare to bathe. I remember taking a bath just twice during the trip. One at Saga (the hotel had attached facilities) and the other in Lake Mansarovar. Change of undergarments and a mug of hot water in the morning kept me fresh and going for the day. What the tour operators have under their control is the team of Sherpas and the rations that they carry for the trip. Most of the Sherpas are well trained. They are cooks. They are porters. They are paramedics. They are climbers. The Sherpas are your only bet during the trip. During my trip I was in good hands of Fishtail Tours & Travels. The owner, Narayan Pokhrel, a friend of mine, did a good job under the given circumstances. We had with us a team of 19 Sherpas. The leader was Dem Bahadur Mahat.
There are 2 types. The 3500 cc and the 4500 cc. Make sure your operator gives you the latter. They do have the power to cut across the rugged Tibetan plateau. 3500 cc ones do the job but have the tendency to get stuck in muddy waters. Nothing to worry though… as the vehicles travel in groups… help from fellow drivers is always at hand. Also, the 4500 cc vehicles are a little broad giving that much more room for the passengers.
Travel in group:
I recommend traveling in packs of 4. Every vehicle will take 4 passengers and one Sherpa who sits behind. Being with your own group comes in handy. As per my information, travelling on your own will make it difficult for you to get necessary travel permits / Visa. When travelling with a tour operator, you are assured of your well-being… especially with the accommodation and the food. You will be served bed tea. Breakfast would consist of a combination of bread/toast, preserves, corn-flakes, upma (semolina), poha (puffed rice), puri-bhaji (Indian bread-veg curry) etc. Lunch would consist of chapatti (Indian bread), vegetable, dal (lentils), rice and salad. Dinner would consist of soup followed by chapatti, vegetable, dal and rice. Yes, it’s always wholesome vegetarian meals. It’s almost impossible to find food of your liking when travelling on own. Of course, you will have access to small restaurants in towns but the cuisine would be limited to Tibetan and Chinese fare.
Those who can’t foot it, have the option to hire the services of a pony or a yak. Avoid the yak as its quite uncomfortable sitting on one. They smell a lot too! The cost for a pony for the 3-day journey was Yuan 1200. At the time of writing US$1 fetched about Yuan 6. During high season, ponies are in short supply. Make sure to let your operator know at least a day in advance. You may also need to hire the services of a porter. Bear in mind that you won’t be allowed to carry any back-packs whilst riding the pony. The cost of the porter for the 3-day trip is Yuan 450. I hired the services of a porter to carry my camera bag. I carried other essentials (water, some snacks, medicines, wet swipes, etc.) in my back-pack. Those footing it would have an advantage with a walking stick. I bought an adjustable one in Nyalam for Yuan 30. Tourists should learn to bargain.
Fortunately, nothing serious happened to the travelers in my group… just a fractured hand… a guy fell off from the horse. However, those in other groups had two fatal casualties. Sadly, cardiac arrest after the Parikrama took its toll. One traveler became unconscious due to very low blood pressure just before the beginning of the Parikrama. She had to be evacuated. Thankfully, she survived. It’s absolutely a must that you pay attention to your body language and adhere to advise given by the Sherpas. Avoid the Parikrama if you have asthmatic conditions or other issues. One more thing, please insure yourself for the trip adequately. Make sure your insurance policy has the evacuation clause included.
The drive isn’t comfortable. It’s bumpy as bumpy can be. The vehicle air-conditioners won’t work (drivers refuse to turn them on); you can’t open the windows as the dust and chill become unbearable. The trek is moderate but can become hard especially on the 2nd day of the trek route (it’s 22 kms but feels like 44!) and the return journey seems to be unending as the excitement of discovering new terrain is all over. “Why do the trip?” is a common question. “Why not?” is my answer. I firmly believe that people with normal health can certainly make the trip and enjoy it too. There’s only one rule to follow – approach with a positive attitude. If you believe you can do it, you will do it for sure - trust a man who is 54 years old, has high blood pressure and elevated sugars.
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