"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

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!!

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