Saturday, August 25, 2012

7. A journey into Tibet – Zhongba to Manasa Sarovar

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
3. A journey into Tibet - Manakamana
4. A journey into Tibet - Kathmandu to Nyalam Mu
5. A journey into Tibet - Rest day at Nyalam Mu
6. A journey into Tibet - Nyalam Mu to Zhongba

The D day for Manasa Sarovar had arrived. Most people had acclimatized which was clearly visible from their faces!! With high spirits we started our journey to Manasa Sarovar that was still 450 km away.

The road went next to Brahmaputra River.

It would have been another monotonous journey but Tibet brings springs out surprises at such places. This time it was in the form of sand dunes. They were huge giving a feel of desert.

A lake like formation was seen on the other side of sand dunes. Guide mentioned it as the source of Brahmaputra River.

By 12 noon we reached a check post. This would be the Mother of all check posts. Our passports were taken by the guide and submitted to Police at the check post. The Police were taking their own time to verify them. People in the bus were frustrated when things did not move even after 30 minutes of wait. The fact that we were asked to put inside the bus irritated a lot. “Why so much check here? What were the people at immigration doing? Were they cutting the grass?” were the comments from angry people. Few used this opportunity to bash communists and their policies.

For me it was a matter of safety for the country. Better be safe than sorry.  Make sure that the border and entry points are well guarded and protected. Then there is no need to invest on keeping police at each and every monument, mall, Temples, bus and railway stations. I really appreciate the way the Chinese administration handle such things. It may seem draconian but benefits the country.

Little after the check post, drivers decided to have lunch on a road side Chinese restaurant as there were no hotels further. While drivers and guides were busy having Chinese food, we silently munched our packed lunch.

After lunch, we crossed a pass that was 17,000 ft altitude. A lake was seen while getting down the pass. Looking at the size, I mistook it for Manasa Sarovar but it was Lake Kunggyo Co.

We were now seeing a snow clad peak of Gurla Mandhata on our left side. At the height of 25,243 ft it is one of the formidable peaks in Manasa Sarovar area. Now I was sure that we were nearing Manasa Sarovar. Within minutes we saw the first glimpse of the lake!! A sherpa shouted “Manasa Sarovar” and everyone in the vehicle jumped their feet to see the lake. It had taken quite an effort to reach the place and we were emotional.

As per wiki, “Lake Manasarovar lies at 4,590 meters (15,060 ft) above mean sea level, a relatively high elevation for a large freshwater lake on the mostly saline lake-studded Tibetan Plateau. Lake Manasarovar is relatively round in shape with the circumference of 88 kilometers (55 mi). Its depth reaches a maximum depth of 90 m (300 ft) and its surface area is 320 square kilometers (120 sq mi). Manasarovar is near the source of the Sutlej River which is the easternmost large tributary of the Indus. Nearby are the sources of the Brahmaputra River, the Indus River, and the Karnali River (Ghaghara), an important tributary of the Ganges River.”

Manasa Sarovar with Kailash Parvath at the background

The lake has religious significance for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. As per Hindu theology, Lake Manasa Sarovar is a personification of purity, and one who drinks water from the lake will go to the Abode of Lord Shiva after death. He is believed to be cleansed of all his sins committed over even a hundred lifetimes.

Gurla Mandhata background

Buddhists also associate the lake with the legendary lake known as Anavatapta in Sanskrit and Anotatta in Pali, where Queen Maya is believed to have conceived Buddha.

As per Jainism Kailash Mansarovar is associated with first Tirthankar Lord Shree Rushabhdev. Ashtapad Mountain which is near to the Kailash Mountain is a place where Lord Rushabhdevji attained Nirvana (Moksh) with crores of his disciples.

Though the lake seemed very near to us, it was still a km away. While we wanted to directly run into the lake, Sherpas asked us to wait for sometime where we can get better spot to touch water.

And then the parikrama of the lake started. The distance of 80 km on the periphery of the lake is covered by vehicles. Today, we would be doing only half of the parikrama and settle down in the camp. Few people also do parikrama by walk which would take about four days to complete.

The beauty of the lake started appearing as we started the parikrama. At each turn, the lake looked different. The Kailash Mountain was partly visible under the clouds.

We got down at a nice location to enjoy the lake. People used this opportunity to take bath in the lake. I shivered at the thought of getting into water at such cold conditions. But the clear water was irresistible and I ended up getting into water. This was the first time I had voluntarily taken bath in a religious place. I kept wondering what made me to do so. Was it the religious feeling or clean waters that attracted me or the fact that I was without bath for past few days? Anyway, taking bath was a refreshing exercise. I also liked the fact that people strictly avoided the use of soaps and shampoos.

The parikrama continued and we were now climbing up from the lake. Another lake was visible now. It was the lake Rakshastal. The Lake looks more beautiful than Manasa Sarovar. But while Manasa Sarovar is considered as pure and holy, Rakshastal symbolizes the daemon. The fact that Ravana, the hated figure in India had performed penance at this lake has not helped the matters!! Even the lake is considered as unholy by Buddhists.

Even though it is just next to Manasa Sarovar (in fact connected by a short river), the water of Rakshastal is salty.

Rakshastal has four islands. The source of Sutlej River is also near Rakshastal.

Until now the parikrama was on kutcha roads. But here near Rakshatal, we joined the highway coming from Taklakot to Darchen. The road again was stunningly smooth. Taklakot is the place where pilgrims from Indian Government side would enter Tibet.

Our place of stay was a guest house near Chui Gompa. The guest house was just opposite to the lake. The Gompa itself is situated on top of a hillock.

During night, my roommate from Bengal started having troubles. He had a slight gas trouble on the previous day but now it had become severe. Severe acidity accompanied with pains worsened the matters.  His refusal to take food had made him weak. Sherpas gave medicines like ENO but they were not effective.  Concerned by his state, I suggested consulting doctor. Luckily, one of the members in the group was a doctor. And good thing was he had the right medicines for the illness. I hope that it solves the problem. During night head of the tour organizer comes and force feed him with food. If his condition shows no sign of improvement he has to return back.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

6. A journey into Tibet – Nyalam Mu to Zhongba

July 2012

Previous posts:

Today we will be travelling from Nyalam Mu to Zhongba via Saga which a major town in the area. The total distance would be about 340 km.

After breakfast, we started from Nyalam Mu. The weather was cloudy but there were signs of clearing up. The road after Nyalam Mu passes through the mountains with river flowing to our right side. The land was mostly barren with few green patches near the water beds.

After about an hour the climb to Lung La started. With altitude above 15,000 ft this would be highest pass in our journey that we cross on bus. Thanks to good road, the climb to Lung La was never felt. From top of Lung La, vast plains of Tibet can be seen. The good part was that the weather started to turn bright.

After Lung La, road passed though plains.

I was seeing a massif of snow covered mountains on the left side. It was the range of Shishapangma. Shishapangam at the height of 8,013 m (26,289 ft) is the fourteenth highest mountain in the world. It is the only peak above 8000 meter that is completely in China. It was the last eight thousand meter peak to be climbed due to the restrictions for foreigners to visit Tibet.

A huge glacier at the base of the mountain.

We passed though a check post where the guide has to show some documents to Police. No passport verification for done here.

I was seeing a blue lake on the far right. It was Paiku Tso, also called as Hanuman Sarovar by Indians. It do not know the why it is called Hanuman Sarovar but I assume it has something to do with Hanuman taking bath in this lake. The lake is about 27 km long and 6 km wide. But its water is brackish.

There is a stretch of road where asphalting is not completed. Though this part of the road passes through mountain area, it is still drivable on buses.

The drive on mud road would have lasted for about 1.5 – 2 hours. We were seeing a river flowing. It was Bramhaputra River (Also called as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet). The ferociousness and vastness of the river was not seen here as it was still in its infancy. Here we cross the river to reach the town of Saga.

Few years ago, there was no bridge across the river. The vehicles and passengers had to be ferried across, process that used to take a very long time. Now the bridge has made life easier.

At 1:30PM, we were in the town of Saga. Until last year Saga was the second halting point on the way to Manasa Sarovar. Saga is a major military town having range of good hotels with private restrooms. But due to good road people proceed further for halting thus reducing the importance and hype of Saga. Many people stay here during return journey.

We had our lunch at Saga. The lunch served was prepared and packed in the morning. It was simple but tasty. One cannot be finicky about food at these remote places. It is very important to have regular food to keep ourselves fit at high altitude. And drink lots of water even if the weather is cold as high altitude cause dehydration.

It started raining the moment we finished our lunch making us run for cover. The rain lasted for few minutes and the sky was clear again. The guides and drivers who had gone out for lunch (They do not take Indian food!!) were not to be seen. For some reason, Sherpas asked us to walk for a km where the bus would pick us up. By then clouds had vanished exposing us to scorching sun. For few people the walk for too much to handle. No other explanation can be given for the difference of 30 minutes between the first and the last person who reached the bus.

Prayer flags on top of the pass
It was again the barren landscape of Tibet again. We crossed a pass that was 4920 meters above sea level. Plain lands started again.

New Zhongba town
At 6PM we reached New Zhongba town.  Stay was at Namla Monastery hotel. The rooms were good (In fact I got a King size bed!!). The rooms had televisions but no power!!  The generator was not working. The sad part was that the hotel had common Tibetan toilets. Tibetan toilets are unbearable and beyond any imagination!! Seeing my worried face one of the Sherpa told “This is the better one sir. From tomorrow, it will be even worse… this is a new one. So it stinks less!!” . Not sure whether it was a good or bad news. 

I should here say about the role of Sherpas in this trip. They are the most critical members of the team who can make or break the trip. The activities done by them are:
·         Pick up duffel bags from all rooms and put it in the truck. And in the evening, give it back to the respective people.
·         Prepare food – Morning tea, hot water to wash face, Breakfast, lunch, evening tea, soup, dinner and hot water for drinking. And everything is served inside room (sort of room service!)
·         Unload and load all items (Utensils, water drums, gas stoves, groceries, vegetables) from truck.
·         Carry oxygen cylinders during trek.
·         Help people during trek.
·         Washing utensils.
·         Arranging ponies and porters for trek.

A mountain seen from Hotel
Basically they are the ones who run the show. Majority of them are simple people who always keep smiling. They just sleep for couple of hours. Their service is simply unmatchable.

View from my hotel room
The truck carrying food items reached late due to breakdown. So the dinner was served at 11:30 in the night. 

We would be seeing Manasa Sarovar on the next day!!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

5. A journey into Tibet - Rest day at Nyalam Mu

July 2012

Previous posts:

Nyalam Mu town

It would be an easy day. We will be resting at Nyalam Mu for acclimatization. The rest day was important as the trip can be ruined if people are not properly acclimatized. People from another group who had arrived with us were leaving. They cannot afford acclimatization due to their tight schedule. They had come to Kathmandu earlier than us and were delayed due to permit issue. Since the return flight from Kathmandu was already booked resulting in tight schedule. They were even thinking of just visiting Manasa Sarovar and drop Kailash Parikrama. That was bad considering the amount they had already spent and the distance they had travelled to reach there.

Other group ready to leave

Two developments had occurred during night. One was about a person in our group who had developed some urine complications. As medical facilities in Nyalam Mu were inadequate/non-existent, he was taken down to Zhang Mu for further tests. Another update was about heavy rains during night. Water had got into some rooms in ground floor. People in the affected rooms were being relocated to the ones vacated by the other group. Bad part was that water had crept into their luggage.

After breakfast we set out for a walk on the outskirts of Nyalam Mu. We were already in Tibet where the green mountains had given way to brown ones. We just walked on both sides of the highway enjoying the scenery. Some people were of the belief that China was building these good roads for pilgrims from India. That was a foolish thought. This road would connect Lhasa in Tibet to another sensitive province of Xinjiang passing along the borders of Nepal and India. The road goes though Aksai Chin (Chinese controlled Kashmir) the construction of which had triggered 1962 India-China war. The upgraded road would definitely help in quick mobilization of troops when required.

It was very cold and windy.. and hence this attire!!

The only snow covered peak that we saw in Nyalam Mu.

I got down to a view point where the river flowing down the valley could be seen.

At 12,000 ft we could clearly feel the lack of oxygen. Walking for an hour in Nyalam Mu was really refreshing. But then the weather started to become windy, I decided to return back to the room.

In evening we came to know that the person who was not well has to return back. Good luck and bad luck for him, I would say. Bad luck because he will miss out this trip and good luck that he fell ill during start of the journey. Evacuation becomes difficult as we go deeper into Tibet.

The only close up shot in Tibet!!

Nyalam Mu has internet and international call facility. A call to India would cost about 4.6 Yuan per minute. Tibet has extensive mobile coverage. A person can be ‘connected’ always with international roaming SIM card. But charges are prohibitively expensive (Incoming call at Rs 100/- minute). For status updates, ISD booths are sufficient!!

Weather at Nyalam Mu was worrisome. I rained a lot. I hoped things would get better in the coming days.