"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 6: Saga to Paryang, Wednesday June 30, 2010

I had dehydrated myself with not much food and water to deal with the non-water situation in Hotel Saga at Saga. Slept at 1, got up at 5 and had to wait till 6 to be able to brush my teeth. The hotel switched off the connection to the plug points, maybe too many people plugged in their chargers. I can only hope my camera has enough juice, and that the additional battery I have brought would work if needed.

We left Saga at 8am to drive 250 km to Paryang.
Amazing landscape from Saga to Paryang

Once on the road, I found out that the sand and dust of yesterday was nothing as compared to the sand and dust of today. The surroundings are spectacular but oh, look at the road we travel on. :) Many vehicles got stuck in the sand and had to be pulled. We stopped for breakfast on the banks of the Brahmaputra.
The surprisingly peaceful flow of the divine Brahmaputra, the highest of the seven male rivers in India
I got to touch the waters of the Brahmaputra river - one more unexpected delight, and I collected my quintessential shivalinga from the banks. Anywhere in the world I have gone, I have collected my swayambhu Shivalinga - naturally-shaped obelisks that are Shiva icons, from river banks and mountain tops. Last year in Denver, I was quite out of breath climbing at about 12K ft, when I saw the familiar shape in marble on the slope, that I scooped up immediately. Anish and Ash are highly skeptical my rock collection helps me move mountains but humor me and don't argue about it. The Tibetans call the river the Yarlung Tsangpo. The Brahmaputra seemed full of peace and serenity, somehow I had expected a turbulent gurgling flow - maybe faint memories from a middle school geography lesson that talked about flooding and destruction.

Deep-fried bread pakoras for breakfast on the banks of the Brahmaputra - again the question arises, must we binge and purge? I am sure Adi Shankara would have composed something sharp along the lines of "punarapi janmam punarapi maranam..." - again birth and again death, for the ritual binging and purging caused by fried foods before bumpy rides. For lunch, it was rice, palak dal, paneer sabzi and stir-fried karela. I ate my fill of the crisp karela - not sure that's a good thing before the drive but love it too much to ignore it, and then my two spoons of rice and dal water and the Frooti drink. People appear to enjoy the lunch, clearly our group had bouts of nausea in our near future.
The mud-house at Dong Ma where we will return on a magical afternoon 7 days later

The lunch place in Dong Ma was called "Yak House"- a typical Tibetan mud-house building with a good view of distant snow-clad mountains and of the sand dunes that regularly blow in sand. And again a couple of dogs roaming around the place, the icons of Kal Bhairav.
Kal Bhairav outside the kitchen at Dong Ma
As we left Dong Ma, we drove first to the gas station to fill up the car. This remote gas station that stands in the middle of nowhere had female gas attendants, some things are universal, I guess. They were fully-dressed, unlike the bikini-clad damsels at some car washes in Dallas. The driver shook the car to get as much gas in as possible while we used the restrooms - enclosed rectangular holes behind the gas station. Even that short walk was enough to get the heart beating faster. There was a strong wind that made it difficult to walk, and sand blew in little twisters across the expansive landscape. The post-bath feel of yesterday was long gone - my hair creeping out from under my cap felt like thick straws, my face was dry, my lips were parched, and there was sand all over me and my clothes.
Tibetan cowboy suddenly riding next to our car, on way from Saga to Paryang
An odd sight, a lone Tibetan cowboy showed up alongside the car. I will be returning to Texas soon, I needed to savor each moment and take back the memories of these days back with me.
Sand dunes changing shape as the winds blow across the desert, close to Paryang
Two hours before Paryang, is a beautiful aquamarine lake surrounded by grandiose sand dune formations that command respect. Even as I watched them, strong winds blew across the desert, changing the shapes of these dunes. After the hundredth diversion from the road into the dust trails, we were at the beautiful town of Paryang around 7 in the evening.

We were booked at the Sheeshbamba Hotel - a mud-house with four beds to a room and common bathrooms with non-flushable commodes - fill the bucket outside, and take it into the restroom with you. I live and learn. There was a dim light in the room. I am glad I had seen all the youtube.com videos and read all the travelogues and blogs I could before coming here - at least, the element of surprise was not there.

I think the most useful things that Bhavna and I had purchased in Dallas were flashlight headbands, and we had practiced wearing them while taking early morning walks in the dark around White Rock lake. From Paryang on, I had the headband around my head or neck at all times, even when I slept.

Satsang - discourse was at 9 pm. Our group's youngest traveler, Varsha sang a beautiful bhajan - hymn. So maybe I listen to bhajans when children sing them. A child invoking the Divine is positively angelic. The two pictures that follow are from Sairam Appaji's collection, he was the official photographer for this trip - again perfect selection of a volunteer by Swamiji.

Varsha leading a hymn in the evening prayer session at Paryang
After the bhajans, Swamiji read out the name of each traveler, and asked for Yes/No/? for the circumambulation of Kailash. I was hoping he did not have a ? to my name for any reason. I got a 'Yes'.
Waiting for a yes to my name as Swamiji announces Yes/No/Not Sure for each traveler to trek around Kailash
Some people were sick and nauseated and had fever and cough but wanted to go around Kailash. Swamiji suggested that they consider the option to stay at the Chiu Gompa guesthouse overlooking the Manas Sarovar lake. They would be able to see Kailash across the lake. People with "?" to their names need to have a private one-on-one with Swamiji to decide whether they should try the trek around Kailash or not.

Again, I was glad I had come with the Chinmaya Mission group here, Swamiji was leading, coaching, advising, recommending trip logistics. My own expectation had been that the travel agency would have this expertise, but my experience was that they were booking agents for flight, hotel, porter and pony. And they had a team of super-efficient Sherpas to cook food and load and unload duffel bags into trucks. And they gave a Diamox a day for each person on the trip.

Ultimately our planned group of 80 that dropped to 71 by the time the trip started, had 68 people wanting to trek around Kailash. I was concerned about my ability to trek and I was hoping I could make it. I was not sure how people with headaches or fever or nausea or diarrhoea or breathlessness were going to make it. Tonight we needed to make the payment to book a porter and a pony+pony driver - 1600 yuans for the 3-day trek around Kailash, whether we walked or actually sat on the pony. People who may decide tomorrow to not come for the trek would lose the money - there would be no refund from the Tibetan organization.

Tomorrow we will be at the Manas Sarovar lake.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 5 : Nyalam to Saga, Tuesday Jun 29 2010

Every day, we started our trip with a pooja - a worship ritual for the first bus or car that was setting off.  The plan for today was to drive 250 kms to Saga at 4640 m (15,223 ft). The Tibetan name for Saga is Kyakyaru. It is in the Shigatse district of Tibet.
Pooja of the first car as it leaves Nyalam (Yoga's collection)

In the days of old, Milarepa was the Tantric Buddhist monk who challenged the leader of the Bon faith in Tibet to climb Kailash. The story goes that while the leader of the Bon faith elevated himself through the air, Milarepa meditated in a cave. When the Bon leader reached the peak of Kailash, he found Milarepa sitting there, and this victory with Tantric powers established Buddhism as the dominant faith in the region. Milarepa's cave was closed and there was nobody around to open the locks for us.
Near Milarepa's cave, on way from Nyalam to Saga

Gateway to the Tibet plateau, half an hour after Nyalam on way to Saga

Buddhist flags fluttering in the breeze, on way from Nyalam to Saga
These Buddhist flags are just past Milarepa's cave about half an hour outside Nyalam.
Crossing a river by car, on way from Nyalam to Saga
The drive from Nyalam to Saga was a revelation. This was my first long drive through a desert. And it was my first drive in a Toyota Land Cruiser which is like a mini-Hummer wading through streams, zigzagging through loose sand, and once it actually went over rocks and crossed the river at a shallow ford.

The ride itself was like the drive to Yamunotri past Hanumanchatti, up and down and up and down and up and down on each bump on the road, so OK, I exaggerate, nothing beats Yamunotri but Tibet comes close. And for those who have not gone to Yamunotri and have no idea what I am describing, it was like driving through Indore, at least the way the Indore roads were in the winter of 2009. I have had a fruit-and-nut bar for breakfast enough to take medication - I have to wonder how people who eat the full breakfast served by the Sherpas before these drives react to these road conditions.

I had kept my face masks in a side pocket of the back pack, and luckily remembered that in time and pulled one on as clouds of dust rose from the ground. The Tibetans wear face masks all the time. They are an essential on this trip, and I ended up re-using 3 masks for myself, and distributed the rest to people who had not brought any. In Dallas, Anish had checked the Wal-Mart masks and the Home Depot masks and medical masks, and finally I had made the choice for myself and Bhavna, based on price alone. Super-economical masks from Wal-Mart it was, that did the trick. From today on, we would be wearing the dust masks every day till we returned to Nyalam.

Lalung La pass
Beautiful Tibetan girl, Lalung La pass
We stopped at Lalung La Pass, 5050 m (16,570 feet) above sea level, our entry point into the Tibetan plateau. The public restroom was an indicator of things to come. A rectangular hole with a full view of human waste below passed for a toilet. Reminded me of the famous scene from "Slum Dog Millionaire" where the kid is locked into the toilet and jumps into the hole to get out and rush through the fields to get an autograph of a movie actor. I had no idea these holes in the ground were for real - it is a day of education. From now on, my right jacket pocket would always contain paper napkins, tissues, wet wipes and antiseptic hand-sanitizer. All my candies and fruit bars would be in the inner upper pocket. And, medications, pills and alcohol swabs etc would be in the left jacket pocket.

Before I forget, a recommendation: the antiseptic hand-sanitizer is a must on this trip. Regardless of what research says and what experts opine, I have always used it during travel. In Tibet, it was vital to keep one in my jacket pocket at all times. I did not catch any infection during the trip, and considering the general hygiene, there was plenty of opportunity to do so. While it may be my own immunity with quite a bit of luck, I think the anti-bacterial hand sanitizer had a lot to do with it.

We had learned in Kathmandu that Tibetan girls like bindis, and this is the first time I saw evidence of this. If any blog I had read had mentioned this, I would have brought the hundreds upon hundreds of bindi packets that I have bought over the years and not used yet, despite the busy Indian social scene in Dallas. The girls looked happy to receive even a single bindi. One of them pointed to Kalpakkam-ji's forehead to ask for the bindi she was wearing, and was delighted when Kalpakkam-ji took it off and put it on the girl's forehead.

Shishapangma peak, Tibet
We stopped again at a place from where we can see the spectacular Shishapangma peak on the left side of the road. This is the fourteenth highest peak in the world at 8013 meters (26,680 feet), the shortest of the 8K-ers, and is one of the easier peaks to climb in its altitude range. Its name means "Crest above the grassy Plains". For now, we were content to watch it from the grassy plains. The snow had melted in a way that the exposed black face of the mountain surrounded by snow on the slopes looked like Krishna playing the flute. The mind sees what it wants to see. I can actually see the little peacock feather on Krishna's turban.

Further ahead on the road, about 80 km from Nyalam, our Tibetan driver pointed out the beautiful Peiku Tso lake on the right side of the road, alpine waters at a height just above 15K feet. The colors of the lake are beautiful shades of turquoise. This is a very remote area in Tibet, with no commercial establishments close by.

Picturesque Peiko-tso lake, Tibet
This spot reminds me of the many spots all around the world where Anish, Ash and I have pulled out of the car to soak in the ambience, and the most memorable tea break we had with Mama and Mami on a picnic bench by a mirror lake at the north entrance of the Grand Teton national park in Wyoming. At this point, Saga is 4 hours away.
Tibetan village, on way from Nyalam to Saga
Nationals of three countries battle with the elements to get the truck back on the road
We had been driving through sands with some tufts of grass. The driver kept trying to find the path of least resistance as the car waded through sand. We were a cavalcade of 18 cars and two trucks - one for food supplies and one for the duffel bags. Our duffel bags truck was tipping over in loose sand at one point, and we waited for a good thirty minutes trying various things before it was pulled back up on the sand track by people of three nations working together :) - India, Nepal and Tibet, and the driver breathed a sigh of relief. Every time, we came to a difficult patch of driving, our car driver would start muttering prayers under his breath, and then lower gears and struggle on.

The Chinese government is committed to building a road it started in 2009, meanwhile we drive along the many diversions to this road under construction. The cars have no air-conditioning, and the windows need to be closed because of the sand flying in. We were wearing four layers of clothing that now need to be peeled off, knowing that we will need to re-wear them as evening comes. Regardless of challenges, the Swamijis seem to be in a good mood all the time, which is enviable.
I can never be grateful enough to Swamiji

Hotel Saga, Saga
At Hotel Saga in Saga, the person at the reception was fluent in Hindi, had a Bachelor's degree in accounting from Hyderabad, and had returned to Tibet to work. Swarn told us that after everyone had freshened up, there were a couple of "discotheques" in town that people could go to. Saga is a small town with a huge military complex just behind the hotel. We were told strictly not to take any pictures from the hotel windows. As I peeped out of my room, I was reminded of my trips to the military campuses over the years to meet cousins and uncles. Young men running around their daily routine in fatigues - hardly top-secret material, but no cameras it is.
Kal Bhairav at Saga
It was in Saga that I first realized that many people were sick. This was just our second day in Tibet yet.

Two of the Swamijis are sick, a couple from Dallas is quite sick, 4-5 people had severe nausea throughout the day. People had headaches, have had nausea during the car ride - no surprise at this altitude after a breakfast of puris and pasta and a lunch of pulav and rajma - fried rice and beans, followed by a ride on bumpy roads. I can understand that the travel agency has to provide a full meal, I am not sure why anyone would want to eat it. Of course, people had health problems for reasons other than eating heavy meals, and maybe it is just that I cannot stand the heavy food. My personal recommendation is to play safe and stick to high carb foods and nutritive supplements only - cereal bars and electrolytes.

Usha-ji was one of my roomies today. Her car came very late, one of the last cars to show up but she did not miss the big bonanza. The promised hot water is yet to show in the bathrooms. So many people complained to the front desk that they shut off the phone connections in the room - that's smart thinking. At 8pm, there was a general commotion in the hotel - running water in the bathrooms and it was hot and only available for 3 hours!!! Many people rushed in, and within half an hour, we had horror stories - somebody is scalded, somebody's shower ran out of water in the middle of showering, etc etc which would make for a great comedy movie one day. For now, it is quite pathetic. People came up with their own creative processes on how to fill the steel drum that served as a bucket with cold water, and then pour in the hot water from the shower head till there is a bucketful of water at a comfortable temperature, and then take a bucket bath. Finally, a squeaky clean body to match my razor sharp intellect!!! :)

From the moment I had entered this "carpeted" room, my respiratory allergies had kicked in and I could not breathe. I did not want to take my allergy medication since it usually makes me drowsy, the last thing I needed at this altitude. My most important and useful discovery of the day - sniffing camphor actually gave comfort. This gem of traditional wisdom had come from Anish's cousin Ketki-ben in Houston, so I had bought packets for Bhavna and myself. As I breathed in the camphor, I found some relief. This new knowledge is going to be useful when I return to Dallas, the homeland of allergies, where I spend hours sitting in bed, trying to catch my breath.

The truck with our duffel bags had just arrived, and Swarn announced that we may not get them again till Chiu Gompa two days away, after our dip in Manas Sarovar. I set aside four sets of clothes for my backpack : one to wear tomorrow morning when we set off, the spare (all my excellent fall-back planning is why my bags always get bulky), the nylon sweatsuit for dipping, and the set of clothes to wear after the dip in the lake.

I think the Sherpas of Nepal need to be renamed Devganas - people of God. They have been created to help the world. If it were not for these extremely hardy, tenacious, ever-smiling, polite, soft-spoken people accompanying us on this trek, half the group would be half-dead already. They were our porters, cooks, and general helpers, and would be personal porters for some of us when we trek around Kailash. When we reached a place, while most people collapsed on the bed and moaned and groaned about the drive and the bathrooms and the water, the Sherpas would off-load duffel bags, deliver them to the rooms, get the kitchen started, serve tea and soup in the rooms, call us for dinner, pick up our duffel bags left outside our rooms by midnight and load them in the truck for the next day.

Swarn announced that dinner would be at midnight. (The Chinese time is 2hr-15 minutes ahead of Nepal which is 15 minutes ahead of Indian time - makes not much sense since we are traveling west from Kathmandu but the clocks have to be set to whatever time the Chinese say it is.) The Sherpas served delicious tomato soup, and told us to unpack and pack and have the duffel bags ready for loading in trucks after dinner.

Tomorrow, we will be a day away from the Manas Sarovar lake.

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 4 : Acclimatization at Nyalam, Jun 28 2010

The morning started with Vedic chanting - it always amazes me how so many people from Andhra have all these chants memorized. They all had books in the Telugu script which helped me not at all. All of us who read the Devnagari script don't appear to read much Sanskrit. Whereas bhajans - hymns, help me relax to the point of dozing off that I really do need to keep a check on, the vigorous chanting invigorates the mind and energizes me to a higher consciousness. And, it always feels like the chanting ended too soon.
Cattle on the mountain we will climb for the acclimatization trek, Nyalam

Starting from Nyalam, along with morning tea, we were given a 2-liter bottle of distilled water each for the day from the travel agency - NOT ENOUGH. In walking around White Rock on hot Dallas days, while Bhavna would barely sip from her first 1-liter bottle, I would have finished three bottles and sipped and splashed my face and hands at every water fountain along the way. Everyone has a different capacity and need for hydration, and people need to buy water from the Tibetan towns and keep it in their cars to supplement whatever the travel agency is providing.

Also, one of the essentials on this trip was a thermos that we filled daily with hot water from the Sherpas. Bhavna had brought a thermos for me, one thing less that I had to worry about. Drinking hot water is a healthy habit that keeps one going in Tibet. Again, more is better, but you make do with what you get. The cleanliness of the water is an issue. Though I was carrying tablets to clean the water during this trip, I did not use them. Some people who fell sick suspected their non-bottled warm water was the reason. I would recommend water-cleaning tablets as a requirement on this trip.

Also, highly recommended to start from Delhi, but definitely starting from Nyalam, frequent application of sunblock, vaseline, moisturizers, lip balm and chap sticks is a must.

The one topic that shall stay on every traveler's mind, and needs to be mentioned is the multi-storeyed restrooms at the Shesha Bangma guesthouse in Nyalam. Free from gender bias, everyone was to use the common restroom with the five stalls at the end of the passage. I was freaked out on seeing a man entering the restroom. The toilets were Indian-style, yet the doors had a fascinating 8-inch clearance from the floor as if these were commode stalls. Perhaps commodes are a part of the future plan, and the doors have already been installed. Why people will not maintain cleanliness is a bigger mystery than where mankind has come from and where we are headed. I set the alarm for 4 am so I would not have to go near the restroom when others were awake. Swarn warned us this was good as compared to what is to come, I could hardly wait.

Around 10 in the morning, Swarn took us for the acclimatization trek to the top of yonder hill behind the guesthouse. After the first 15 minutes, my heart palpitated and I had to stand, breathe slowly and walk really slowly for another 15 minutes. I was fine after that, other than having to catch my breath every 30 steps or so. I had climbed a hill at 12K feet. It was a feel-good exercise, and should not be taken as an indication of my ability to circumambulate Kailash. But if you cannot manage this, please do not plan to walk around Kailash.
View of the hill for the acclimatization trek from the guesthouse, Nyalam

I did not have my camera on this little trek, these photographs are from Rajeev's and Seema's collections.
Before the acclimatization trek (Rajeev's collection)

People behind Rajeev climb for the acclimatization trek (Rajeev's collection)

Rajeev with Swami Shivayogananda (Rajeev's collection)

Seema with Swami Shivayogananda (Seema's collection)
Back in the hotel, Swamiji had a good collection of pictures.

Checking out Swamiji's pictures
Param-ji after the acclimatization trek
Having seen the fascinating toilets, I was not enamored of the idea of a heavy meal. Also, I will never again complain about sweetened yogurt. There was no fresh yogurt to be had in Tibet. Going without yogurt for twelve days was an added challenge for me. For meals, I was now determined to eat a bowl or less of steamed rice and a couple of spoons of dal water for flavor. The group appeared to appreciate the heavy food, more power to them.

The evening satsang - discourse, was given by Swami Shivayogananda from Madurai. He had a hypnotic effect on the audience. His personality, his eyes, his voice, the way he weaved the discourse connecting abstract concepts and stories from the past - suddenly it did not matter that the group was large, that it was not homogenous, that not everyone was a Chinmaya Mission member, I think everyone present would agree that he successfully reached out to each and every person that day. He appeared to know so much that it was overwhelming to receive, and his message was very simple - that knowledge comes through contemplation, each person needs to realize the Truth for himself. If we were to quietly meditate and tune in to the Supreme Consciousness that is the Brahman, we will become aware, conscious and filled with the knowledge that is all around us.

One more night in the guest house at Nyalam, with my alarm smartly set up for 4am. Tomorrow, off to Saga where Swarn has said there will be hot water from 8 am -12 noon and 7-10 pm. Oh yes, forgot to mention earlier that there was no facility for showers in our Nyalam guesthouse except if you went down to the market to the public bathhouses. Travelers need to read such blogs and catalogs and be mentally prepared for psychological hardship, besides the physical challenges.

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 3: Kathmandu to Nyalam, Sunday Jun 27, 2010

The plan is to go by bus from Kathmandu to the border at Kodari, about 123 kms. We will have lunch on the way before Kodari. After the immigration formalities, we would enter Tibet, where cars would be waiting for us. These Toyota Landcruisers will take us around in Tibet. Today, we would drive about 30 km to Nyalam, 3750m (12,300 ft).

We started the day with the morning pooja. I remembered to give Amma the prasad - offerings, from Pashupatinath. Her helpers cut the coconut so that slices could be distributed to everyone in the buses.
Br Vinayak Chaitanya, Br Uddhav Chaitanya, Br Suved Chaitanya, Swami Shivayogananda, Br Jaganmitra, Br Anshuman Chaitanya - the magic of yellow and ochre
Our backpacks and duffel bags are the sea in red

Getting ready to leave Kathmandu
Srini and Usha Amble, the Diamox man and his woman
We started off from Kathmandu looking out at one of the most scenic countrysides in the world. Each view from the bus window is one in a sequence of picture post cards. A group of people in the bus started chanting - the energy of the vigorous chant was infectious.
Enjoying God's view of the world, driving from Kathmandu to Kodari
View of the valley, on way from Kathmandu to Kodari
Statue of the hermit Shiva, on top of a mountain, on way from Kathmandu to Kodari
An hour outside of Kathmandu is an amazing tall statue of Shiva, on a mountain top that has a commanding view of the valley as the buses make their way through the roads spiralling upwards towards the Chinese border.

Amma and others at  a chai ki dukan - tea stall, Nepal countryside
Step farms for paddy in the Nepal countryside
Yoga pointed out a hydro power station on the Bhotekosi river - should it be so close to the Chinese border?

And finally, the 180 m tall bungy jump site I have researched so much, about 12 km away from the Tibet border. When I jumped in Taupo in New Zealand, it was over the Waikato river - very peaceful and scenic site, and I had looked around one last time before I jumped in case my head hit the water or I went blind - rare but possible. Nothing of the sort happened, it was a fantastic sensory experience of free fall and then bouncing up and down over the river, my ankle tied to the elastic rope. But six years ago, at Lakshman Jhoola in Hrishikesh, I could not walk even 50 steps on the suspension bridge as it shook over the raging river Ganga. I have wanted to jump off one of these suspension bridges towards a raging river since then. I hope we can stop here on the way back for a jump from Nepal's longest steel rope suspension bridge over the raging Bhote Kosi river. I wanted to put all my fears of heights, deep water and shaking structures into this one jump in Nepal, hopefully on the way back from Tibet.
Bungy jump site over the Bhotekosi
Our truck is about to get stuck
After a 3-hour drive, a couple of short breaks, and a lunch break preceded by an exciting stuck-in-the-mud situation where the Sherpas, other bus drivers and the locals all helped push and pull to get us unstuck, we reached the Kodari border.

Six months ago, after offering the beverage of choice at the highest seat of tantra, the temple of Kal Bhairav, the fierce form of Shiva used for annihilation, I was delighted to know that the dog is associated with him. Taking care of dogs is a form of worship of Kal Bhairav. Not that I need one more visual icon to remind me of Shiva.
A man and his best friend

Once we reached the border town of Kodari, there was a 1 km uphill road to the Friendship Bridge that we needed to cross on foot into Tibet. Mallik is my perfect bade bhaiya - big brother, walking every step with me along the way and within 20 steps convincing me to hire a baby porter for my camera equipment. The 15-yr-old porter put me to shame, walking eagerly with me carrying my camera equipment, and talking enthusiastically about how he could also cross the border and help me till my car in Tibet. Once at the Friendship Bridge, there was an imposing Chinese building from which people watched over us. Nobody from Nepal appeared to be watching, which is why the Chinese side was so intimidating. A lot of chaos about who stands in what line, sorted again thanks to the Chinmaya discipline with the appointed volunteers and personal instructions from Swamiji, and finally I was in line for my entry into Tibet. I paid 50 INR to my ecstatic baby porter who appeared to be bragging to other baby porters. After the passport check in the middle of the bridge by the Chinese authorities, I carried my bags into Tibet and stood in the slow-moving lines at the immigration counters. It was now an hour since I had got off the bus.

Another hour later, finally somebody in Immigration was looking at my passport and he called his supervisor. They talked quite a bit in Chinese and started laughing, and looked at me and laughed again. I was hoping they were not laughing at some missing stamp on my passport - ha ha, she needs to go back to Nepal to get that. Then the supervisor asked me in English where I lived, - Dallas, I said. And where was I coming from? - India and then Nepal, I said. With his fingers, he pulled his eyes into further slits, and said - we think you are Tibetan. They were both hysterical now. I get the joke - I appear to be a Tibetan who lives in Dallas and is coming to China through Nepal on an Indian passport. I was fervently hoping this was not a prelude to an interrogation. It was not, they probably realized by then that they had made me quite nervous, they were very warm and cordial and made some small talk to put me at ease, and wished me a good trip. To them it did not matter that I called myself Indian, I looked like one of their own. Swamiji told me later that he has not seen the Chinese officers get so friendly with anyone. It is strange how affectionate people get with perceived apnewaale - own people.

Yoga near the cars in Tibet

We waited another hour and a half till all passports were processed. And then off to the cars waiting for us. Swarn from Shrestha had warned us very helpfully that the cars may not be parked close by and we need to be prepared to walk another kilometer. Luckily for us, they were parked close by, and again, Jay Ho to the Chinmaya discipline - in no time, we had four passengers alloted to each car, and we were given car numbers to search for.

The car drivers were Tibetan, ours could not speak English or Hindi - we would have to communicate with sign language, this was going to be an interesting trip. The driver knew the Sanatana Dharma chants though - and started with a vigorous Aum Namah Shivaaya - obeisance to Shiva, Kailashpati ki Jay - glory to the lord of Kailash, etc etc. Then he started his own prayers, and for 15-20 minutes chanted under his breath.

After a hair-raising drive for maybe half an hour through dust paths and cement blocks on a road that is still being built, we stopped at ZhangMu, we did not know why. It was stuffy inside the car, and as we sat on the ground under the awning of a store, the local residents looked at us curiously from balconies. Some of them came up much closer to check us out - reminded me of my Pooh bear co-traveler in the flight from Chicago. I am now getting used to being stared at.

Curious onlooker at Zhang-mu
Curious passer-by at Zhang-mu
An hour later, our driver appeared and we set off for Nyalam, an hour away. Later, we found out from Swarn that there is a check post in ZhangMu, and the drivers had to collectively get a permit. The vast landscape, the winding roads, the waterfalls, the step farms, the sheer drop on one side and the risk of landslides reminded me somewhat of the road to Badrinath, which is decidedly much riskier. At a couple of places, the road had a roof on which fell a mountain stream, and at another place, the mountain stream passed under the road - either way, the car is not splashed and the road is not wet - some engineer with an aesthetic sense is building these structures.

Mountain stream, on way to Nyalam

And finally, Shesha Bangma hotel in Nyalam
In Nyalam, at the Shesha Bangma hotel that is really a guesthouse with basic facilities, we were four or five or six or even seven to a room with little space between the beds to keep our duffel bags. Again planned order brought in by Chinmaya volunteers. It took one quick announcement from Rajeev to scuttle people into rooms. This was the first time I got to meet people from India - Seema from Delhi and Niveditha from near Bangalore. I would be sharing my bed with my two backpacks and my heavy jacket.
I share my bed with my stuff
The Swamijis announced that they would be serving dinner. There is nothing more awkward than being served by men on the path of renunciation whom we should be serving hand and foot. This lasted all of two meals with protests from many people in the group. After that, we had volunteers to serve the food when the Sherpas brought it in. The food ran out for the first couple of meals - either the Sherpas did not cook enough, or we served too much, or we ate too much, or we got served too much and wasted it. Additional meals had to be cooked for the volunteers for two meals in a row, after which the calculations appear to get corrected. There was an assigned volunteer for each Swamiji to make sure they were served before we were.

Being served food by Swamijis, awkward
Again this evening, more bhajans - hymns, rather than my preferred satsang - discourse, but it was a group and whatever worked for the larger number was what I needed to go with. 

Tomorrow, an acclimatization trek, I hope I can make it.

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Kailash 2010 Day 2: Acclimatization at Kathmandu, Saturday Jun 26, 2010

Mallik and I did not go to the Shiva temple of Pashupatinath at 4 am, as we had hoped to do for many weeks in Dallas.

This was the day of the first morning pooja - worship ceremony, at 7. Wore salwar-kameez and did not know it then, but the next time that I was to wear salwar-kameez again would be on the last day of the trip, back at Kathmandu, fourteen days later. Which basically means, I had a few sets of salwar-kameez in my duffel bag that were never used. :) My recommendation to travelers - you only need mountain gear in Tibet. 
Morning pooja in Kathmandu (Sairam's collection)

Amma, waiting to leave for the temple
The group trip to the temple of Pashupatinath started at 9 in the morning, after a heavy breakfast. Private citizens are allowed to perform rituals in the sanctum sanctorum of the 12 main temples of Shiva in India, the Jyotirlingas. At the temple of Pashupatinath in Kathmandu - the only Shiva temple in the world equivalent to, or even higher than the Jyotirlingas, only the temple priests are currently allowed to set foot in the sanctum sanctorum. I would not get to perform the rudrabhishek - the worship ritual that I have been performing at the Jyotirlingas. So be it. But after standing in line for half an hour, when I finally got a glimpse of the deity, the priest asked me - pooja karni hai? - do you want to perform the worship ritual? The face of that priest is etched in my mind - I sometimes get this feeling that Shiva has come to me as people who have helped me along the way, probably my reaction to Jim Carrey's character in Bruce Almighty never recognizing God.

The priest had to ask me twice because I was not sure this was happening. After I nodded yes, he collected all the pooja material from within the temple - the coconut, milk, yogurt, honey, sugar, ghee, fruit, nuts, bilwa leaves, flowers, garland, rudraaksh necklace, water, lamp, plate, and the list goes on. For each step of the pooja, he would ask me to touch things that he would then take to the deity and perform the rituals, and finally, he asked me to perform the aarti - the final ritual to end the worship ceremony. I know there were security guards and other temple volunteers very loud and actively keeping the line moving. I am not sure what happened during the time that I stood at one spot, performing the pooja - it should have been a good 20 minutes or more. I was too engrossed and heard nothing till the priest gave me the rudraaksh necklace and also the coconut, sugar cubes and fruit, that had been offered to the deity. It was exactly six months to the day Anish, Ash and I had performed the rudrabhishek at the Mahakaleshwar temple in Bhopal after the bhasma-arti - the worship ritual with ashes. Perfect start to a perfect day and a good sign for a perfect trip!!

It was June 26, a full-moon day, and also the day of the first lunar eclipse of 2010 - a partial eclipse was to be viewed from some parts of the world. For those who know far more than I do about the import of the lunar calendar, today was Jyeshtha Poornima - the full moon day in the Hindu month of Jyeshtha. From the little I know, Ashad, the fourth month of the Hindu calendar would now begin, per the north Indian Hindu calendar - an auspicious month for worship ceremonies and pilgrimages. Per the calendar from south India that the Swamijis follow, the second-half of the month of Jyeshtha had started, the fortnight of the waning moon. A fortnight later, we would have completed our trip and I would be in Ahmedabad in time for the rath yatra - the chariot ride, for the divine Krishna and siblings, that takes place two days after the new moon in the month of Ashad.

The statue of Nandi, the bull, outside the temple of Pashupatinath is gigantic. The face of Nandi has a look of longing and ecstasy as it looks at the temple - Mallik and I both noticed that emotion on the bull's face, my regards to the unnamed sculptors who built this for the millions of piligrims to visit through the centuries. No pictures, my camera equipment was in the hotel, and I now recall everything from memory.

In the temple campus, they had opened up a hitherto-closed section where there are 108 Shivalingas. Behind the temple are the ghats, - the banks of the river Baghmati. As I looked down from the temple and saw the water, I did not understand what I was looking at, till Kalpakkam-ji pointed out a cremation in progress. And then I saw two more bodies waiting in line. This is the first temple I have seen where funerals can be seen from the temple premises.

Adi Shankara re-established Sanatana Dharma, called Hinduism by the Persians and later by the rest of the world, more than two milleniums ago as the mainstream faith practice in India when the population was getting divided into sects and sub-sects, and getting lost in rituals without the knowledge-seeking activity that is essential to sustaining Dharma. I see his lifetime of 32 years as a bright light in the midst of the blackness and mist of the centuries. He renounced worldly life at the age of 8, learned from gurus, and spread the word of Dharma. He established Advaita as the dominant school of philosophy in Sanatana Dharma. Advaita is the philosophy of non-duality (of the nature of Brahman, the supreme consciousness). He traveled the length and breadth of Aryavrata, what is currently the Indian sub-continent and re-vitalized countless temples and re-established Vedic practices.

In remote temples, I have always been humbled by the presence of Adi Shankara's padchihna, - footprints. These ancient temples for which I book flights, cars, drivers, porters and ponies, were visited by Adi Shankara on foot at a tender age many centuries ago - in Badrinath where Adi Shankara dove to the exact spot in the river to retrieve the idol of Vishnu as he had seen in his dream, in Joshimath where he meditated in a cave for several years, in Kashmir where he re-established the worship at the Shiva temple outside Srinagar, Kedarnath at 12K ft in the lower Himalayas where I have so far felt closest to Shiva and where Shankara re-established worship and ultimately passed away there. And now I was hoping to see Kailash where I would hopefully experience Dakshinamoorthy as described by Adi Shankara - the glory of the formless Shiva imparting knowledge in silence as the students sit in quiet contemplation. The highly complex philosophy of Advaita cannot be taught, it has to be experienced - repeated chanting of the Dakshinamoorthy stotram is an aid to this experience for the students of Advaita.

In the temple complex of Pashupatinath, there is an Adi Shankara temple as well, and oddly, there was a cow standing on the temple steps. I tickled the cow quite a bit, I missed Snowy so much. Snowy's role in our Dallas household is to increase awareness and affection for the animal kingdom. We believe she was a cow in her previous life who has taken this birth just so she can wag her tail and lick people. From Adi Shankara to Snowy in 2 seconds, such is the attention span of people like me that the Swamijis have to deal with.
Rudraksh and other purchases at the store outside Pashupatinath temple
At a store near the temple, people went crazy buying perfect-looking rudraaksh - prayer beads. It is the seed of an evergreen tree that grows in the Himalayan region in India and Nepal. There are many varieties, I have no ability to recognize genuine rudraaksh, and these beads looked too perfect to be natural products. My concern was not that I would waste money, it was that I already had lots of wannabe-rudraksh at home.

Last year, at the Sandeepani ashram in Bhopal, as I was leaving the Shiva temple, a man sitting in the sanctum sanctorum had offered me a single rudraaksh bead which he explained was exceptional - I forget the reasons, I am quite sure he was cashing in on my naivete. I looked around for Anish to pay up, but he had already left the temple. I looked into my purse and all I had was 1000-INR notes. Surely, the man expected much less. After a moment's hesitation, I gave him 1000 INR. It did not feel right to ask for change back while standing inside a Shiva temple and receiving rudraaksh. And as of today, I had the rudraksh garland from the priest at Pashupatinath. I did end up buying 3 basic rudraaksh garlands - after Srihari suggested I could buy garlands and dip them in the Manas Sarovar waters - one for us at Dallas, one for my parents and one for my parents-in-law.

Stupa in Kathmandu (Sairam's collection)
Our next stop was a Buddhist stupa. The intolerable June heat of Kathmandu did not allow us to enjoy much. It was a hurry-scurry around the stupa, talk a bit and rush to the bus that had fans that did not work. Hopefully, if the bus moved quickly enough, there would be a breeze.

Vishnu lying on a bed of snakes in cosmic waters, Budhanilkantha temple (Yoga's collection)
The last stop was the temple of Jal Narayana or sleeping Vishnu, better known as the Budhanilkantha temple. It has a striking statue of Vishnu, the benefactor aspect of the Divine, lying on a bed of snakes in cosmic waters. Legend has it that the royal family of Nepal is cursed not to see this idol of Vishnu, else it will destroy the family. And local rumor has it that the massacre of the Nepali royal family in 2001 by the crown prince Dipendra was caused by his visit to this temple in his college days.

After lunch at the hotel, Mallik and I made a trip to the temple of Bhadrakali, the destroyer-of-evil form of the Divine Mother. There is a definite Asian influence in the building, as seen by the sculpture of the lions that surround this little temple. The maintenance of the temple appears to be done by a family who lives close by, there were children scrubbing and cleaning the whole time that we were there. Right after Mallik and I had completed our worship and came out of the temple, there was a quick and heavy downpour for about two to three minutes and just as people ran for cover, it stopped as suddenly as it had started. Both of us had the same thought - that somebody had showered blessings on us. It is the best day of my life, a visit to the most holy Shiva temple in the world and a visit to an ancient Bhadrakali temple on the same day - Jun 26, 2010.

Bhadrakali temple, Kathmandu

We went shopping in Kathmandu's shopping area, Thamil, to buy T-shirts to give as gifts to the Sherpas and the porters. Another recommendation: we found T-shirts for INR 150-200 in Nepal, but if I had known this earlier, I would have bought better ones from home, and would have saved an hour that I spent searching for T-shirts in Kathmandu. I had wanted to visit the palace of the virgin goddess that I did not have time to go to.
Marketplace, Thamil, Kathmandu
We had our first satsang - discourse, this evening, quite short with most of the time taken up by bhajan - hymn singing by assorted people. In my humble opinion, singing hymns helps the mind focus on a deity. It is not my experience that it uplifts me spiritually. Listening to songs and music does rest me physically by sometimes putting me to sleep as Anish discovered after I slept through a classical music concert for which he had purchased premier seating. He goes alone to music events since then, and I respect that. :) A lady singing in Tamil was an amazing singer, she sounded like a recording - even my tone deaf ears could figure that, I understood not a thing except that she was a devout worshiper. Actual intellectual debate would clarify my understanding of subjects. With six swamijis, I was hoping I get to hear a couple of days' words of wisdom from each.

And after a super-heavy dinner with the sweet yogurt, finally it was 10pm. We had to turn in all bags including my veteran international bags. My roomie Kalpakkam-ji - worrying and careful - is the perfect complement to my I-can-handle-anything-and-manage-everything attitude. She lives in Phoenix, and she had joined the Dallas group for this trip. We had to furiously pack everything into the duffel bags we have been given. I am glad I did not bring the $$$ duffel bag and the $$$ back pack we had bought earlier, I would have looked like a Saks commercial in this sea of basic bright red pizza-box-carrier duffel bags and bright red I-love-kindergarten backpacks.

I sent my last e-mail to Anish and Ash, my parents and my in-laws, saying I will be leaving Kathmandu the next morning, and will catch up with them when I get back. Swamiji had told me that one's life had to be sinless to find a final resting place in Kailash, the conclusion being - no worries about my dying there. I fully agree with the evaluation but I have hope. One day my ashes will be sprinkled on the Himalayas, why not take the body when I am bringing it there?

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!