Saturday, July 21, 2012

Travelogue: Kailas Mansarovar

A few years back, my father undertook the Kailas Mansarovar Yatra. From then on, I had it in my mind to make it to the Yatra. And due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, I found myself in a position to take up this trip last month.

Details: I took the private route – which takes about 15 days to and fro. The trip I took was a road trip where one drives down from Nepal to Tibet. There are helicopter services available too that greatly shorten the trip duration (while reducing the total landscape you see). The total cost of the trip will come to little over a lakh or so – depending on how much you need to “buy” stuff like shoes, sleeping bags, clothing et al. The agents by themselves will charge anywhere in the range of 70-80k depending on when you book and what is included etc.

Is it worth it? In a nutshell, this is a one in a lifetime kind of opportunity - with very few making it to Tibet more than once in a lifetime. This makes the trip all the more daunting or enjoyable, depending on how you see it. Also, since there is a rare chance of a repeat customer experience, that leaves some gaps in what one sees as customer service. But, if you can keep it aside and focus on the positives (and there will be many of them) and focus inward, the trip is worth it.

How does it work? There are essentially two ways. There is an Indian Government Yatra for which nominations are invited every year. But this is by draw of lots and leaves very little scope of flexibility (take it or leave it kind of thing) - and requires a good 30 odd days to complete. The other route is what is called a private route (which is the one I took) via Nepal - which is shorter and I would think physically less taxing as well. The yatra route incidentally was re-opened thanks to the efforts of one Dr. Subramanian Swamy (yes, the same one)

How to go about it? Assuming you take the private route (which is what this piece will be all about), there are two ways to go about it. I will come to that in a moment. This trip is arranged by 3 separate "agents". First there are service providers across India - indeed, almost all tour operators provide customised tours (Maharashtrian, Gujarati, Kannada, Tamil etc) with food choices etc.

These Indian agents aggregate their customers and then hook up with Nepali agents who in turn hook up with Chinese-Tibetan guides et al and arrange the whole trip. It is possible to cut out the first set of agents and contact the Nepali agents directly. Possible, but not desirable as we discovered. It is better to go with the Indian agent -since the agent does facilitate a lot of things (like money, passports, visa arrangement).

Also, the Indian agent typically accompanies the group so you can hold him accountable for everything - which is required considering the vagaries of the trip. You are best left not worrying about these peripheral things which the agent will take care of. And these guys are experienced - so it is better to go along with them. If you go by yourself to the Nepalis, they will tag you along with one such group - and since you are not from the "agents" group, you will be treated as the tail of the dog. Also the whole part of making payment to Nepal, while simple enough, requires some amount of patience. Having an agent takes care of all of these.

The obvious downside of going with a homogenous group is that it will take away any space you need as part of the trip and you could find yourself sucked into a reality show kind of environment. So, choose carefully!

In any case, it is not possible to go on this trip as an individual (from India atleast ) since the Tibet Group Visa is issued only to groups and only to authorised travel agents.

Highlights In my view, there are two highlights to the trip. A dip in the Manasarovar lake and a 3 day 40 km parikrama (kora) around Mt. Kailas (Kang Rinpoche). There are other sidelights - like an Ashtapad or a Pashupatinath/Swayambhunath or shopping or something else in a Kathmandu half day tour, but they pale in comparison with the main ones.

How to prepare for the trip? Be prepared for reasonably harsh and varied weather conditions. And be prepared for all seasons. Sunlight, Rain, Snow, Wind are all equally possible. And for all terrain - a bit of snow, lots of gravel, mud, rocks, water. So, invest in the right footwear and clothes - especially if you intend to walk the parikrama. Buy good hiking shoes and break them in. Walk around a few kilometers each day for a few weeks atleast. If you can do more and get physically and mentally fit, go ahead do it. It is worth it.

Carry a good medical kit. Have a smallish day pack for carrying snacks - even though much of it will be provided by your tour agent. You surely need strong sunscreen. Two layers of head protection. Thermals are a must. Gloves are a must. Carry a lot of pairs of clothes - which can be layered. Forget washing clothes or having a bath each day -when you are back, all these luxuries can be appreciated better. Carry a bottle or thermos to carry water and a small tiffin box – both are again appreciated while on the trek. A trekking pole is useful - a stick works as well.

Notes of caution: This is not a walk in the park. This is a trek at upwards of 4000 m altitude where there is just enough oxygen for grass to grow. At the highest point - Dolma La pass - even grass doesnt grow. So, there is a serious shortage of oxygen - it is like being breathless every minute. After all the preparation, how your body reacts in high altitude wont be known until you reach there - and believe me, in this there is no one size fits all. Your body may see it through without any issues or it may behave in weird unpredictable ways - regardless of your levels of fitness. There is one way to figure out - which is to get there and see.(And there are medications available - google Diamox)

During the trek, do keep yourself hydrated – with Electral water if required. Have dry fruits to snack on while walking. Have good sun protection (70SPF types), cap, gloves, anti-UV glasses, good hiking shoes (like the Forclaz 500), multiple pairs of socks (woolen+cotton combo) etc.

In Nepal: Nepal is a lovely place. Foodwise, weatherwise, you will find yourself at home in Nepal. Best masala tea in the world ever. The easiest leg of the tour in my view. In Nepal IC(Indian Currency) is 1.6 times NC (Nepal Currency). While 1000 and 500 rupee notes are illegal – we found that it is possible to exchange them in many (if not most) places. Better to carry stacks of 100 rupee notes.

In Tibet: Great scenery. Amazing landscape. Breathtaking drives. Panoramic vistas. Nothing unlike anything you have ever seen in your life. Reminds you of your own insignificance in the world. If you have a good camera, you wont regret, but more than that, enjoy your moment there – there isn’t anything like this on earth. And by the way, Indian credit cards don’t work here (for some reason), so you are dependent on local yuan changers – some bargaining is possible here as well, if you can manage the language.

What facilities are available? Roads are good. Networks and calling facilities are there everywhere to remind you of the civilization you left back home. Toilet facilities are not great. Bathing facilities are expensive - but good and worth it. Electricity is available everywhere as well – though I had initially heard this would be a problem – it did not seem to be a problem during our trip. A word of caution here: The facilities we got were basic – dormitories, shared toilets (or too filthy to use), one lamp per room. Overall facilities are clean, but don’t expect anything great once you cross Nepal.

The Sherpa team that accompanies you will be your best friend for these days and they do put out their best given the conditions – ours was fantastic and could save the day multiple times. Most likely, yours will be as well. What to carry? I wont dwell on this since each travel operator/agents has their list and it is presumably updated by them so it is best to depend on them.

Tips: I saw many of the yatris carry bindis, bangles and the like to give away to Tibetans. They are surely a better option than junk food and yes, the Tibetans love them. There were others who carried small childrens school bags, pencil boxes and school related things to give them away. Pity we had none of these things, but yes, they love them and in any case it is better than handing out cash or junk food.

And if you have more questions, I will attempt to answer them…

(Cross posted in CRI)

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