Tuesday, July 31, 2012

4. A journey into Tibet - Kathmandu to Nyalam Mu

July 2012

Previous posts:

The much awaited D day had arrived. Today we will travel to border town of Kodari which 115 km from Kathmandu. We will cross the border and climb up to Nyalam Mu town in Tibet. On the previous day, a session was held to discuss about the schedules, do and don’ts and precautions to be taken during the trip. We were given a small backpack and a duffel bag. While we keep only the things needed during the day in backpack, rest of the items would go into the duffel bag. The bags would come in a separate truck and delivered at the end of the day.

Route from Kathmandu to Manasa Sarovar (Approx 900 km)
Everyone was ready by 4AM. The group size was 65 people. We will be helped by 13 Sherpas who would be the part of our group. I was bit apprehensive about big size of the group. While I was the youngest person at age 34, the oldest person was 83!! A difference of two generations!!

Scenery after Kathmandu

At 5AM we left Kathmandu. It had rained heavily last night and was still drizzling when we left.  Few people told that it is an indication of good omen!! The buses slowly moved through the dark and silent streets of Kathmandu. Then we were moving on a four lane highway. I thought that Nepal would have built a great highway till the border to match its Chinese counterpart. But after Bhaktapur (at the outskirts of Kathmandu), the road turned into a normal single lane road!!

Bhote Kosi River
After Kathmandu, green fields and hills started to appear. The beauty of Nepal countryside was bestowed on us. Being in excited mode, everything looked great and nice!! By 7AM, we had travelled about 70km crossing the small towns of Bhaktapur, Banepa, Dhulikhel and Panchkhal. At Sangachok, we were stopped at a roadside restaurant where we consumed our packed breakfast. It was a beautiful place where Bhote Kosi River flowed. This River would be our companion for rest of the day.

River next to the hotel

There are several check posts all along the way to border. A Sherpa gets down the vehicle and registers the vehicle at the station. Then a Police comes inside the bus and looks at us. We say “Kailash” and he is convinced!! No hassles.

Breakfast point

Until now the road condition was quite good and I expected that the remaining 40km to Kodari would be covered in no time. But Sherpas told me that we would soon be entering landslide area!! The next 40 km was really bad. The journey was slow as there were landslides all along the road. Luckily, none of them were fresh to block our way.

An old landslide

After about 2 hours of travel on that bad road, we were seeing a town on top of the hills. It was ZhangMu town on Tibet side. We are nearing the border I thought. And in few minutes we reached the border town of Kodari. The town was filled with vehicles and people carrying luggage. Lorries from Nepal would cross over to China, pick up the goods and return back. Here the Bhote Kosi River was the border where one side belonged to Nepal and the other to Tibet (China).

Kodari town

Our lunch was arranged at a hotel. It was too early to have lunch at 10:30AM but then we were told that the next food will only be at night. While we were having food, our passports were taken by guide for Nepal immigration. By the time we finished our lunch passports were back with departure sign. While Nepal was cool but things will not be so simple on the Chinese side.

Tibet side as seen from Nepal

We walked further and reached friendship bridge across Bhote Kosi River. This was the border between Nepal and China. Exactly in the middle of the bridge were Chinese authorities. We had to stand in the line in the same order as the names are listed in our group Visa. The Chinese person checks each and every passport and makes sure everything matches before letting us in. This was a preliminary check before the immigration point!! We cross the bridge and enter into the immigration area. The contrast between Nepal and Chinese side is easily seen. While it was all dull and old buildings on Nepal side, Chinese side had full modern looks.

Bhote Kosi River
People from another group who had arrived earlier were standing in the immigration queue. So, we had to wait for long time. Out of two counters one was reserved for locals and immigration people were not in hurry to let us in. Each and every person was scrutinized. The wait was painful especially for an impatient person like me. While we were waiting, our luggage (Bags, water cans, food items etc.) were carried by Tibetans. We were awestruck by the amount of weight they can carry. They had to carry luggage all the way from Kodari bus stand, cross the immigration and to the place where vehicles are parked on the Chinese side. It is definitely more than a kilometer. Amazing people!

A small waterfall on the way

It took more than two hours for us to complete the immigration. We were now officially in Tibet. It was raining and we had to walk for another few hundred meters to reach the busses.

Until last year, roads in Tibet were in bad condition and only vehicles like Toyota Land cruisers would go. But now the Chinese have built a highway all the way till Manasa Sarovar. So, travelers now have an option of choosing bus instead of Jeeps. Each has its own pros and cons. Even though I had an opportunity to travel on both vehicles, I cannot say which is better. It is not the bus or Jeep that makes the trip a success but the weather, Sherpas, Travel agent, Chinese guide and drivers. The trip will be a hell even if one turns nasty.

Few points about bus:
- Buses have AC (At least the ones we got) and have nice push back seats with good leg space. It is important as we will be travelling on road for most of the time.
- Windows cannot be opened and hence photography from a moving bus is not possible. The last seat had open windows and I took that seat!! Thanks to smooth roads, I never felt any issue with last seat.
 - Bus goes slow when compared to Land Cruisers.
- It takes a long time for the entire group to get in and get out of the bus.

Now the land cruisers:
- No AC and is bit cramped especially for the person who had to sit in the middle.
- Possible to have quick stops but depends on the driver.
- Moves faster.

I did not face much issue with vehicles even though I was taking a lot of photos. Due to severe research (!!) I did, I knew the important places on the route and had clearly told the guide and drivers to stop at such places. Never faces an issue there thanks to good drivers and guides.

Heavy rains as we climb up to Tibet plateau
Back to the story. The clock was turned 2.5 hours ahead. Entire China follows Beijing time and hence there was a time difference of 2.5 hours between China and India.  It was 5PM (From now all timings I mentions will be Beijing Time Zone) when we started from the border. A series of hair pin bends brought us to the town of Zhang Mu which we had seen in the morning from Nepal side. Zhang Mu is a busy border town. The roads are narrow and filled with vehicles. It took quite some time to cross this town.

Immediately after the town was a check post. The guide gives the Visa list and other document to Police. One of them comes inside the bus and does a head count. And he randomly asks a guy to show his passport. Everything looks fine and gets down.

The road went up and up. Compared to Nepal side, the road from Zhang Mu is more dangerous as it passes though a steep and narrow gorge. But it is equally amazing to see how Chinese have built roads in this landslide area. It was raining heavily and visibility was less. We could clearly hear the sound of waterfalls everywhere but could not see them due to mist.

A waterfall near Nyalam Mu

There was one more check post. The person here looked into each and every passport. Chinese leaves no stone unturned to ensure security.

Hills seen from Nyalam Mu

Finally, at 7:30PM we reach Nyalam Mu town in Tibet. Rains start the moment we arrived. We had reached an altitude of about 12,000 ft. Organizers come and tell about the precautions to take. We will be having a rest day for acclimatization at Nyalam Mu. Anyone who falls ill would be sent back.

Our hotel at Nyalam Mu

The luxury of single and twin bedded rooms of Kathmandu was all gone. Everyone had to share the rooms. And no attached toilets. There was no facility to take bath. I would be sharing room with an elderly couple from Bengaluru and two guys from Calcutta. This arrangement would remain for rest of the journey. But the rooms were nice and clean. I was happy that the hotel had Indian toilets.

We settle down into our rooms and Sherpa’s served tea after sometime followed by hot soup. And dinner in the night. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

3. A journey into Tibet - Manakamana

July 2012

Previous posts
A journey into Tibet - Kailash Manasa Sarovar
1. A journey into Tibet - At Kathmandu
2. A journey into Tibet – Mountain flight

When I looked for a day trip from Kathmandu, several people suggested Manakamana Temple. At 105 km from Kathmandu it was ideal location for a day outing.

Trishuli River at Manakamana

It took us about an hour to cross Kathmandu city. Outside Kathmandu was a check post where all vehicles need to be registered. It must have been setup due to Maoist violence. Once we crossed the check post, it was a continuous descent into the valley where we reach the base of Trishuli River. The journey henceforth was along the river. The roads were in a good shape which helped us to make quick progress.

Manakamana cable car point

Earlier one had to trek up for nearly half a day from the base of Trishuli River to reach Manakamana Temple. That was long back. Now there is a cable car which just takes about 10 minutes to reach the place.  This 3.1 km cable car service has 31 carriers which handle 600 people every hour.  There are also few carriers to carry freight. In addition to human beings, goats are allowed in the cable car!!

It was 12:30PM by the time we reached the base of Manakamana. We had to wait for another hour as the cable car is stopped between 12 noon to 1:30PM. The heat was unbearable. I always thought Nepal was completely hilly but the place I was standing was just 800ft above sea level!!

The cable car was really a great experience. It crosses Trishuli River and climbs at an unbelievable gradient!! The increase in altitude can be clearly felt. The scenery gets better and better as the car climbs. The road that we came, Trishuli river, valley are all clearly seen.

One has to walk for about 10 minutes from cable car station to reach the Temple. The road is lined with eateries and shops selling pooja items.

The Temple itself is very old and simple. It is a place where animals are sacrificed in open. Now I knew why goats were allowed inside the cable car!

I decided to skip the lunch on that day and have only fruits. The eateries there sold oily stuff which I did not want to experiment just a day before my departure to Tibet!!

Friday, July 27, 2012

2. A journey into Tibet – Mountain flight

July 2012

Previous posts
A journey into Tibet - Kailash Manasa Sarovar
A journey into Tibet - At Kathmandu

Thanks to delay in Tibet permits, I got couple of extra days in Kathmandu. Having travelled so far, it was not fair on my part to sit idle and relax. This flight was always my dream and this was an opportunity to fulfill it.

Mount Everest and Lhotse as seen from the flight

What is mountain flight?
It is an hour long flight journey over the majestic peaks of Eastern Himalayan area of Nepal. Airlines like Buddha Air, Yeti air and Sita air provide this service. It is the easiest way to see Mount Everest!! What else you need? Travel agents charge between INR 5,500-6,000 which includes to and fro journey from hotel to airport. The best season is April-May and October-November when weather is clear. It is not very uncommon for the flights to be cancelled due to bad weather.

Flight that I travelled

At cockpit

My experience
While the experience viewing the snow clad mountains is simply great, the same cannot be said about photographing the beauty. First, a good zoom lens is needed. And you can only take photos from windows. The moisture on the outer side of the windows is a challenge for photographer. Luckily, tourists are allowed inside cockpits (only one person at a time) where it is easier to take snaps.

Shisha Pangma at the far end

Within minutes after takeoff from Kathmandu, the flight entered into clouds. The journey was turbulent and visibility was nil. But a new world opened once the flight came out of the clouds!! Snow clad mountains started appearing.

The left most mountain seen was Langtang  Lirung (7234M/23734ft) which is in the sub range of the Nepalese Himalayas.

Shisha Pangma
And the right most one was Kanchenjunga (8586M/28169ft) at Nepal-Sikkim border.


Out of 14 eight thousanders (The mountain peaks that are more than 8,000 meters), 6 peaks could be seen from the flight itself.

The peaks are:
Everest (8848 M/29,029 ft)
Kanchenjunga (8586M/28169ft)
Lhotse (8516M/27,940ft)
Makalu (8485M/27,838ft)
Cho Oyu (8201M/26,906ft)
Shisha Pangma(8013M/26290ft

Out of other eight thousanders, Dhaulagiri I, Manaslu and Annapurna I are in western side of Nepal. The rest (K2, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I, Broad peak, Gasherbrum II) are in Karakoram Range that borders Pakistan controlled Kashmir and Aksai Chin, India part of Kashmir under Chinese control.

The most beautiful sight was none other than Mount Everest. 

Mount Everest, Lhotse and Makalu (on the right side) in the same frame

Saturday, July 21, 2012

1. A journey into Tibet - At Kathmandu

July 2012

Previous posts:

Arriving in Kathmandu
The flight from Bengaluru to Kathmandu was a smooth affair. New Delhi was the stopover point where I had to cross immigration. The officials don’t bother much if you are heading to Nepal. All you need to have is either a Passport or voter Id (And none of the other documents will be accepted). And I was surprised to see the Delhi – Kathmandu flight filled with Kailash pilgrims with few of them chanting “Om Namah Sivaya”. And even more surprise awaited me when most of them started having beer (Allowed as it is an International flight). I think I should stop being amused about such stuffs!!

The journey from Delhi to Kathmandu took about 1 hour 20 minutes.  Coming from T3 terminal of New Delhi, Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International airport looks extremely small. But what I liked was the traditional touch in the airport. That was something missing in huge T3.

The immigration was done in a jiffy. Indians are treated with respect!! They just see the ID card and let you in. No suspicious looks or questions!! I started liking Nepal!!!!

Thamel area in Kathmandu

Delay in plans
Out of the airport, I was greeted by the representative of the travel agency. Very soon, I was on the streets of Kathmandu. The drive was bumpy thanks to the bad road conditions in Kathmandu city. And it is dusty and polluted. If you are coming from Bengaluru, it is Home feeling as similar situation is present back in our city!!  

It was here I first came to know about delay in entering Tibet. The permits and Visa required have not yet arrived. Obviously, I did not like it.

Let me digress a bit here to explain about the process here. Though Tibet is in China, having a Chinese visa does not give you the rights to enter Tibet. First a permit from Chinese Embassy mentioning the places that you will visit in Tibet is required. That is only issued to a group and not for single person. For Kailash Manasa Sarovar, China has allowed two travel agencies in Tibet to conduct this trip. The travel agents from Nepal tie with these Tibetan counterparts to conduct the yatra. So, first travel agents get the list of people and submit to Chinese Embassy for permits. Once the permits are issued, Visa process starts. And there are restrictions on the number of people who can enter each day.

Hotel I stayed

Back to the story. The hotel where stay was arranged was called Thamel which bears the same name as the area. It was good as it was at the center of tourist place. I was told that I would be shifted to a better hotel next day. In fact I found this hotel itself good for me!!

The hotel was mostly filled with Kailash yatris. And most of them had arrived few days before me and were still waiting for permits. I was lucky, I thought. My trip is only postponed by couple of days while there were people waiting indefinitely for the permits. Few people who could not afford the wait had returned back. That was bad. People were blaming Chinese authorities, travel agents, Guru Poornima etc.

Here I was joined by few yatris. A large group would be joining on next day.

Kathmandu sightseeing was part of the package. The first place we visited was Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most important Shiva Temples.

One is not allowed to take the camera inside. Photography is allowed only outside the Temple.

It was less crowded and hence we could peacefully walk in the Temple complex and see the deity and surrounding areas.

The Temple has pagoda style of architecture with copper roofs. It has four doors in each direction which provides the view of the deity. A huge bronze Nandi is at the entrance of one of the door.

Outside the Temple were some steps that led to a place where one can get a good view of the Temple.

Pigeons were abundant outside the Temple complex.

We then moved to Jal Narayan situated at the other end of Kathmandu. We had to reach the base of the hills situated at the end of Kathmandu valley. It is a simple Temple with Lord Vishnu sleeping on a bed of snakes.

We then visited Swayambhunath situated on top of a hill. One can climb about 350 steps to reach to the top or use the road built almost to the top of the hill.

It is a major Buddhist site with a stupa surrounded by several Temples.

Also, one can get great views of Kathmandu valley.

Narayanhity Palace museum was not in the itinerary. But I visited it during one of the free days. It was originally the Palace of Nepal King. After monarchy was disbanded, King was ordered to vacate the place. Later it was converted to museum. The museum gives an idea on the lifestyle of Nepal Kings. This was the place where 2001 Nepal Royal Massacre tool place. The building where the tragedy occurred has been demolished but the remains are still seen.

Few points:
- Indian Rupee is widely accepted in Nepal. The current exchange rate is 1.6 Nepal Rupee for each INR. Note that 500 and 1000 rupee denominations are not accepted.

- Narayanity Palace Museum only accepts Nepal currency.

- Indians just need either a passport or voter ID card to enter Nepal.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A journey into Tibet – Kailash Manasa Sarovar

July 2012

It was hard to imagine that I needed rest for every ten steps walked. With altitude above 18K feet compounded with a steep climb did not help matters. The cold penetrated into the body notwithstanding five layers of clothing I had put. Having gone so far there was no question of heading back. The only way was to march ahead.  During such times, the comfort of staying in Home flashes into the mind. But it is not the time to think such stuff. People on horse happily wave at me as they overtake. “Your tough time will start now”, I silently say and continue my climb.

The greatest trip took to the heights unknown to me, never ending plains above 15k feet, holy lakes and the mountains believed to be the adobe of our Gods. A trip that needs a lot of preparation and determination (and money of course).

My dreams
I had first heard about Manasa Sarovar during childhood days. I thought I would visit this beautiful Himalayan Lake sometime during my life. The dreams were later subdued when I realized that Manasa Sarovar was in China. How naïve that I believed that entire Himalayas was in India!! The next time I heard about this place was during 1998 when 60 pilgrims were killed in a landslide in Uttarakhand. It is a dangerous place to go I thought.

The turning point was in 2010 when I read a travelogue on Manasa Sarovar via Nepal route. The article had profound impact on me. 2012 will be the year for KMS (Kailash Manasa Sarovar) for me. Lot of such plans gets diluted in the course of time but this was an exception. After my trip to Ladakh last year I announced that 2012 would be Kailash Manasa Sarovar come what may.  I found that none of friends were ready to join but that did not deter my determination to go.

About Mount Kailash and Manasa Sarovar:
In Hinduism, Kailash parvath is considered as adobe of Lord Shiva and Manasa Sarovar symbolizes purity. So, it must have a long time since people started visiting them as a part of pilgrimage to religious sites. It is unique in the sense that there are no Temples in this area. Mother Nature itself in the form of hill and lake is worshipped here. Not just for Hindus, but it is also a sacred place for Buddhists and Jains.

The Yatra was stopped from 1949 to 1981. The Chinese invasion of Tibet followed by Indo-China border disputes put a break to the yatra.  Dr. Subramanian Swamy was instrumental in convincing Chinese to re-open the route for Indian pilgrims.

There are three ways to go to Kailash Manasa Sarovar.

·         Through Indian Government: MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) conducts this pilgrimage every year. 16 batches of 60 people each would be selected by lottery system. The duration of the yatra is about 29 days which involves lot of walking. One needs to pass medical tests to undertake this yatra.

·        Land route through Nepal:  This is arranged by private tour operators. The route is along Tibet plateau and takes about 13-15 days from Kathmandu. Most of the journey is by road.

·         Helicopter: Some operators conduct helicopter trip from Nepalgunj in Nepal to Taklakot in Tibet. The distance from Taklakot to Manasa Sarovar is about 100km which can be covered on road. This is the costliest option but is worst for acclimatization as one quickly gains altitude. Better to avoid this option.

This is one of the most expensive trips. The Government route costs around Rs 75,000/- from New Delhi. Nepal route costs between Rs 70,000/- to Rs 1,00,000/- from Kathmandu. Helicopter option requires more than 1.5 lakhs. And then one needs to pay for travel from your Home town to New Delhi/Kathmandu.

Which option I chose?
I decided to take the land route from Nepal. One reason was that I could afford 15 days of leave while 29 days for Government was too much for me. Another important reason was that I had made my mind to go this year and did not want to miss out due to lottery system of Government.

Who can go?
Manasa Sarovar and Mount Kailash is situated at high altitude of above 15,000 feet. Acclimatization is the key factor that can make or break the trip. Remember that there are no proper medical facilities in this area. While passing medical tests are compulsory for Government route, no such requirements exist for Nepal route. It is very important that one needs to be fit to undertake this trip. The fatality rate is quite high in this trip as lots of elderly people come for this yatra. I have seen lot of old people struggling that keeps me wondering whether one should risk their life for religious purpose. My later posts would justify these points.

This trip is certainly not for the people who demand luxury. Though you are paying a fortune for this trip, the facilities are minimal. One need to share the room with others, use open toilets, live without taking bath for several days and have basic food.

If you are fit and ready for adjustments, a new world would open in Tibet!!

Enough of screed. Now it is time to start the travelogue.