"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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Kailash 2014 Day 14 : Back to Delhi, Tuesday, Sep 17 2014

I was in the first bus out of the hotel to the airport in Kathmandu, for an early flight out of Delhi.

The experience of a trip through Tibet to Manas Sarovar and the parikrama around Kailash is indescribable though I have been babbling for the past 12 days about it. Shiva made it possible for me to make this parikrama around him. It took a group of people and their collective prarabdha to make it happen, but he made it happen. Overwhelmed as I am with gratitude to my über dad, the guidance from the Swamijis of Chinmaya Mission, the blessings of Gurudev, the support of the people who traveled with me, the Chinese guides and the Sherpas and others who helped at each step, I have also had the opportunity to see at close quarters the greed, lack of empathy, lack of honesty, the irresponsible and discourteous behavior of the travel agency operators and I would be lacking in my duty if I did not share the learning.

Here are some important lessons learned for future yatris:

Be physically prepared.
  1. Fitness - There are some people who are into fitness or at least, go jogging or running or walking regularly - they just need to take it up a notch. For the rest of us who live fairly sedentary lives, we need to be sure we exercise enough to be able to walk 5 miles 3-4 times a week.
  2. Breathing - Regular pranayama helps with living for a few days in the oxygen-depleted areas. There are products like chloroxygen - a green fluid, a plant extract -  a few drops in a gallon of water every day for a couple of months at home before the trip helps to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Not everyone reacts well to chloroxygen, so try it out. 
  3. Altitude sickness - Most people have rarely traveled above 10,000 feet, and a few may have trekked to 14,000 feet. Even if you have managed past treks successfully, it is possible that you not react well to this trip. Altitude medication like Diamoxx taken every day after a meal, starting from Kathmandu, at a height of 5000 feet is helpful. You can be impacted regardless of the medication, and you can be impacted even if you have not been impacted before. Also, some people do not react well to Diamox, so please do check with your doctor if you can take this medication.
  4. Medication - If you are on daily medication, think carefully about this trip. Ask our doctor.

Be mentally prepared. Besides physical prep, be prepared so you don't spend time obsessing on these lifestyle changes when you are there
  1. Comfort - Every year, the yatra gets more comfortable. The biggest change was that from not having a working phone from Nyalam onwards in 2010, to being able to post a picture on Facebook from Manas Sarovar. In 2014, there were hot water showers across the street from the basic hotel without showers in Nyalam. But, anyone used to as much as a warm shower does get a shock at the basic amenity hotels, limited hours of electricity, the lack of toilets, etc. Be mentally prepared so you don't spend precious time in Tibet thinking about toilets.  
  2. Logistics - Most living quarters will have 5-6 beds to a room, and if you are in a group like ours, there would be a quick division of the rooms, and you get assigned a bed in a room with a bunch of other people, some of whom you do not know. This is not a hotel room with a king bed and a chaise.
  3. Emergency care - Besides getting the mandatory travel insurance that includes evacuation by helicopter, know that helicopters do not come to the Kailash area. A couple that had to be sent to a lower elevation because of ill health was told by the Chinese guide to pay 1000 Yuan in cash for a car (not an ambulance) to take them to the Darchen hospital. And if they wanted to go down further to Zhangmu, they would have to pay 3000 Yuan (two-way fare) for the car to take them there. So be prepared to shell out cold currency in emergency situations.  
  4. Prepare for the worst - Be prepared for the worst. People have heart attacks, get paralyzed, go so low in oxyen that it impacts the brain besides physical damage, and some people do pass away on this trip - if any of this were to happen to a family member you have gone with, be prepared for next steps. Have clear next steps spelled out so you can carry out their last wishes.  

Pack smart. Pack enough but pack light. All we carry is a backpack and a duffel bag per person.
  1. Duffel Bag - Each person will be allowed a duffel bag, so think again how much you want to pack. Pack multiple slim layers - thin undershirt, heat-efficient Underarmor, warm slim fleece jacket, ski jacket, heat efficient leggings, light stretchy jeans, raincoat, rainpants. You want to be able to layer up and layer down as the weather changes. Get 6 pairs of regular cotton socks, one pair of woolen socks so you can change the cotton socks every other day.    
  2. Backpack - The backpack becomes important in the Kailash parikrama where that is the only bag you can carry. Some groups will allow a duffel bag between two or three people, but if you are stuck with a group like Travelorg/Travelorg India who does not care for your comfort, the travel agent will not even bother to get that option for you. The backpack for 2-1/2 days needs to have a pair of dry socks, dry undershirt.  
  3. Disposables - Try to pack things that you can trash - trash the cotton socks, use disposable underwear,
  4. Plastic bags, vacuum bags and Ziploc bags - Constrain volume and organize contents of your duffel bag and backpack into transparent vacuum bags, Ziploc bags and plastic bags. Not only does this keep the daily sifting through contents, packing and repacking easy, it also keeps the contents dry when duffel bags and backpacks are in the rain.
  5. Stay hydrated - You need 2-3 liters of water a day, depending on your condition. We were only given one bottle a day by Travelorg/ Travelorg India - 1 liter of water, and hot water to fill in a thermos that most of us did not use because of hygiene concerns. 1 liter of water a day is not enough. Stock up from the towns of Tibet - water is expensive, but necessary.  

Choose the right Travel agency. Choose with care, ask for references, form your own group if possible.  
  1. Form a homogenous group - If you are ready to join a group, be very selective. If you go through a travel agent who is putting a group together, you are likely to have a disparate group of people with different priorities and habits. In 2010, we had gone as a Chinmaya Mission group of 80 people, and in 2014, we had a group of 48 people - the entire group with the same priorities, the same discipline and punctuality, the same deference to Swamiji's instructions, the entire group worked as one person. The 2014 travel agency Travelorg/Travelorg India added people to the permit, without getting our approval and suddenly we had a second group traveling with us, questioning why Swamiji is served first, picking up fights with the Sherpa team, wanting to grab the front seats in the bus - a completely different mindset.    
  2. Have doctors in the group - We had 8 doctors in a group of 48, and these were doctors willing to take care of the group with them. These will be the only qualified personnel in the yatra with you - from both my trips in 2010 and 2014, I know that the Sherpa team and the travel agency for sure, has much more tolerance for ill health.
  3. Find out about customer experiences with the travel agent - If the guy is just trying to add people to the trip till the last moment like Travelorg/ Travelorg India was doing, you are going to have our experience of planning with 48 people for 4 months and his telling us a week before the trip that he had additional people on the permit so we had no option but to include them in the group, and then finding out in Kathmandu that there were 20+ people that he had added to the group though this was planned as a Chinmaya Mission trip. You want to use a Travel agency like Countryside from Mumbai - we met a group of 25 people in Nyalam who had come with them, Countryside prefers to take small manageable groups, and the travel agent walked the Kailash parikrama along with his group. Our Travelorg/ Travelorg India travel agent stayed at Chiu Gompa while we went for Kailash parikrama, and he was among the earliest to reach the hotel in Kathmandu to have his lunch in time while most of our group stayed without lunch the whole day.
  4. Get references on the travel agent's experience with Kailash yatra - Travelorg/Travelorg India advertises itself as having the agent who had been to Tibet 38 times. Mr. Bharat Trivedi was not able to give a single group briefing to our group in the entire trip - other than saying he will be collecting money or passports, he had no knowledge of the region or places to stop at or things to see, he had absolutely no information to share with the group despite asking him many times to have a daily briefing. Now after a trip with us, he will be able to say he has been there 39 times and lure others. In our group of 48, 3 people had been to Kailash twice before, and 8 of us had been there once before - so we were able to fill in the rest of the group. Mr. Bharat Trivedi basically took a 13-day trip to Tibet at our expense. The Countryside travel agent saw me on the day before the Kailash parikrama, touched my cheek and said my face was swollen, I was showing signs of altitude sickness, I needed to increase the dosage of Diamoxx from half a tablet in the morning and half a tablet in the evening to a full tablet in the morning and evening for the two remaining days of the parikrama. Mr Bharat Trivedi of Travelorg/ Travelorg India did not have the courtesy or the knowledge to inquire about my breathlessness, or have my oxygen level checked.
  5. Subcontractor or true travel agency - Travelorg/Travelorg India is basically making a margin between collecting money from us and paying some agency in Nepal. The Travelorg person neither has the travel knowledge nor the attitude of helping the yatris. He let the Sherpa lead work directly with us, and was only seen at mealtimes, unless we specifically sought him out at meals to talk to him.
  6. The Nepali agency - The agency in Nepal that your travel agency partners with, needs to have references too. We had to call the police on Travelorg/ Travelorg India and the Nepalese partner Explore Kailash Trek to get our passports back to catch our international flights in time - see yesterday's blog. A couple from our group had to return to Kathmandu earlier for health reasons, the Travelorg/ Travelorg India travel agent told them that their room was booked in Gokarna Forest Resort in Kathmandu, but when they reached there, traveling at their own cost, there was no open room in the hotel. In Kathmandu by themselves, they contacted the Nepali partner, Explore Kailash Treks, for support who were extremely discourteous and told them - you just show up and expect to get a room?? Never mind that Explore Kailash Treks is talking to a customer who has traveled half the world and spent upwards of $6000 for a 12-day trip, half of which has been collected directly by the travel agency. It was the Gokarna hotel employees who realized the plight the couple was in, and made calls to the Hyatt to accommodate them. Our group was asked to pay 2500 Yuan for a pony each, and the pony driver would be the porter. Two persons were not given a pony and had to walk, we have yet to see the money back, though the Chinese guide and the Sherpa lead had agreed at the time that money would have to be returned. Also, when we reached the place where we would get ponies, the board showed official rates so that we should have paid 1300 Yuan each, there is no explanation from Explore Kailash Trek why they took 1200 Yuan extra per person.  

Explore Kailash Treks of Nepal was a level removed from us, we were not impressed by them, but we were not their customers.

We were direct customers of Travelorg/ Travelorg India whom I definitely do not recommend for any yatra.

The people who would unanimously receive praise from the group -
  1. The Sherpa team - they worked hard, woke up early and worked till late to cook and pack for us.
  2. The Gokarna Forest Resort staff - though a bit reluctant to create any issue for the travel agencies that book their rooms, the employees of this hotel have helped the yatris with food, meeting rooms, loading and unloading our bags, lockers etc.
  3. The Chinese guides - these were young men and women, who stayed with us the whole trip in Tibet, answered all questions, helped with evacuating people with oxygen issues, checked the general health of the yatris during the parikrama, and were accommodating enough when we asked to take pictures of mountains or lakes or asked for a stop at Milarepa's cave.
  4. The governments of Nepal and China - There is definitely bureaucracy. But these governments do work to make the Kailash yatra more amenable to tourists each year. When Explore Kailash Treks and Travelorg/ Travelorg India was making excuses and not returning our passports in time, we had to call the police, and we had a policeman to help us within 20 minutes of our call. We got our passports back at midnight in police presence to be able to catch our international flights.
  5. People who have travel blogs and youtube videos of the Kailash yatra - these are very useful to prepare for the next trek. Watch as many videos as you can, read a bunch of blogs to get a balanced opinion from the spectrum of experiences before making your own trip.     

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kailash 2014 Day 13 : Back to Kathmandu, Monday, Sep 16 2014

We started at 8 in the morning from Nyalam. The bus drivers and the Chinese guides who had supported our yatra, were honored by the Swamijis with white sashes and a cash gift before we started our day.

Honoring the Chinese guides

Honoring the bus drivers

all set to return to Nepal

the beautiful waterfalls in the Tibet countryside as we go towards the Tibet-Nepal border

last view of the hundreds of waterfalls falling thousands of feet

last view of the hundreds of waterfalls falling thousands of feet
By 10 in the morning, we were at the Chinese consulate again, this time to cross the border from Tibet to Nepal. After ten days of the mind being in complete immersion in Shiva, one feels like a fish out of water, gasping for breath. Coming back into the world is like entering a new dimension. And though it is the same world that we came from a few days ago, now there is a heightened awareness that there are higher levels to be scaled, in a dimension beyond the mundane life we live.

We were required to line up by number on the group permit. The backpacks and camera equipment had to pass through a scanner, and then each person had the passport checked. The Chinese consulate officer had a few basic questions - what is your name, can you say your name again, where do you live, etc - and looked hard at the picture in the passport and at me a couple of times, before returning my passport. Once outside the consulate, still standing in Tibet, we waited for the rest of the group to come through. Once the last person's passport got processed, we started our walk across the Friendship bridge - halfway across the bridge, we were in Nepal again.

After crossing the Friendship bridge, we walked half a kilometer into Nepal to reach the buses. This was a downhill walk, much easier than the uphill one the other way 10 days ago. There were no buses - what was the travel agency doing? - they have known since morning exactly where we were, and how far we were from the border. We waited for about an hour, a few people who had to leave that night by air from Kathmandu had the additional concern that if we did not leave for the helicopters soon enough, they would miss the flight back to the US.

The Sherpa team asked a bunch of people to sit in a pickup truck, the group who had early flights tonight were asked to jump in, and a few others who would be willing to stand at the back of the truck. Soon, another pickup truck left the same way, with 8-12 people. The rest of us were then asked to sit in a bus that was standing there all along - so basically a second bus that should have been there had not been hired, instead people had been sent in a couple of pickup trucks. There is no end to the number of ways in which a travel agency will shortchange you on services, knowing that people are on a dharma yatra - a pilgrimage, and will put up with hardship.

The bus brought us to the restaurant where some people from the group had lunch before leaving Nepal, 10 days ago. From here, it was a steep upward path to the "helipad". Many children were running around, offering to be porters for the uphill trek, which was probably half a kilometer. I gave my backpack to a boy, 10 years old perhaps, and he patiently walked slowly with me, or walked and waited a few steps ahead for me to catch up. Raju garu carried my flask of Manas sarovar jal. My allergies and altitude sickness had not subsided yet, it was a significant challenge to reach the helipad - a school playground. As we entered the school gate, the security guards started reprimanding my porter. It took a minute to realize what they were saying - apparently he was a student, he had not been seen at school today, but now he was showing up as my porter. The guards started discussing with me how wrong that was. Very impressed by the professional commitment - the personal interest they took in their students, considering the meager earnings one must get for this was a school in a little hill outside of Kathmandu. I agreed, but I was not sure how the little guy would learn his lesson because I was going to pay him what he had asked, which was probably more than what his parents made in a day, unless they were porters for foreign tourists too.

We walked beyond the school grounds to the back of the building, and a slight drop below was the playground that worked as the "helipad". This is where we had landed 10 days ago. After waiting for an hour, we asked Mr.Bharat Trivedi of Travelorg/ Travelorg India to ensure there was food for the group, becuase it would take 6 hours for the entire group to reach the hotel. He said simply there was no meal. Wasn't the restaurant we walked from, just half a kilometer away? I have said before, and I say it again on this page as well - I do not recommend Travelorg/ Travelorg India for any travel because of their shabby customer service.

Finally, a helicopter arrived and the first group left for Dhulikhel. The travel agent left in the next helicopter, saying he would reach the other side because he had some work to complete in the office. It took another hour before the first helicopter showed up again, and some more people left.

the mule helicopter that stands within a few feet of the steep slope

waiting for a helicopter
Meanwhile, it started drizzling. The Travelorg/ Travelorg India guy had long gone, but the Sherpa team from Explore Kailash Treks was still around. They brought black tea and some cookies for the group. They said there was no other food. People started fishing around in their backpacks, and pulling out the remains of snack packets from the yatra. All kinds of Indian regional flavors could be enjoyed in moderation. Hungry and tired, we waited patiently till finally a second helicopter showed up - now, we would have two helicopters ferrying us so we could get to Dhulikhel  quickly enough,

the Nepal countryside near the "helipad"

Chinmaya discipline

we made a new friend
It started raining quite hard, and the helicopters took a long time to return. Anup and Anish went in search for any shop that would sell some warm snacks but came back fifteen minutes later, there was nothing edible that could be trusted to be hygienic. The group stuck to its snack packs.

Chinmaya volunteers working in the rain to re-order the bags as the helicopters get delayed
Standing in this beautiful country in the rain, the hum of the panchakshri always in the back of the head, we still had to take care of the situation on hand.

As the probability of not all of us getting to go over the landslide in a helicopter in time got higher, Swamiji re-ordered the people in each 5-person and 6-person group. Only those who could possibly walk across the mudslide in a rain needed to stay in the last two flights, the rest of us were to be scuttled up in earlier flights. The helicopters did start returning when the rain reduced a bit, but when we took off in clear weather, we still hit rain at some point during the flight. It is a unique experience to be flying, relying on human visibility without seeing much. The picture below still gives an idea of the landscape, but at times, I wanted to reach out and clean the windscreen from outside.

in the helicopter through the rain

landing in Dhulikhel
The landing in Dhulikhel was in good weather again for my flight, and we walked to a waiting bus. We had to go through a security check of our duffel bags - some policemen would ask a lot of questions, and sift through all the contents, the policeman who checked my bag passed it after a cursory check without any question. Not that there was anything except stinky clothes in vacuum bags, some rudraksha and some atmalingams from Manas Sarovar.

We had to wait in the bus for a couple of hours till the rest of the people arrived. Meanwhile, a bunch of local kids stood at the door of our bus and riddled us with questions - Money? Food? Money? Money? Candy? Chocolate? Money? Finally, I told them - why don't you go finish your homework? They said they had already done it, actually there were tests on, so not much homework that day. I told them to go study, they said they had already studied for the next day. Balakrishnanji told them to use the language and say something other than Money? Candy? So each of them said -  My name is ..., what is your name? Finally, one of them asked Balakrishnanji - are you married? And then all of them collapsed in giggles. They had exhausted their small talk, and went back to Money? Money? Candy? Money?

The weather held up, everyone had been able to come by helicopter, and we were in the Gokarna Foresh Resort by 7 pm.  In the bus, the Sherpa lead, Katak, had told us we would get our passports back in an hour when we reached Gokarna.

Dinner was served at 7, some of the people who had reached earlier had already started dinner. Hungry, but overwhelmed with gratitude for a trip blessed by grace, we sat down for our first full meal since we had our breakfast at Nyalam. The duffel bags had not reached our room yet, so  most of us had to sit down for dinner without a shower or change of clothes. The travel agent from Travelorg/ Travelorg India was nowhere to be seen. I had to organize a meeting room for our final satsang with Swamijis. The hotel had one room upstairs that they could open for us.

When I was sitting down to eat, a couple of people from Explore Kailash trek - the Nepali agency that Travelorg/Travelorg India had tied up with, came to me to ask for an airport departure plan for the next day. I told them to ask Bharat Trivedi, the Travelorg/Travelorg India agent who had this information for a month before our trip started, he needed to have consolidated the information he got from people to put a departure plan together. They just stood there, looking sheepish - they did not know where he was. They were just trying to do their job, so I circulated their traveler list in the group to re-submit their flight details. They looked relieved, and went away.

After dinner, we had the satsang with Swamiji - the last few words on this trip, lasting words for life. Everyone lined up to touch their feet and offer guru dakshina - a token of gratitude to the guru for all that he gives us. Besides the trip and the guidance and the direct learning, there are so many imperceptible changes in our thought patterns because of satsanga - the company of the good. And these may not be immediately known to us or immediately shown in our behavior, but the seeds have been sown that will bear fruit through our lifetime.

As we were dispersing, we discussed getting our passports back, the travel agent would probably be in the lobby of the hotel with the passports. Many people returned to the rooms, some representative ones came to the hotel lobby but there was no sign of Katak from Explore Kailash Trek, nor of Bharat Trivedi from Travelorg/ Travelorg India. As it was already past 10, people needed to get back and pack their bags, so we asked the hotel to call the travel agent in his room - they said he was not picking up. After a few minutes, we asked for his room number and went to knock on his door - there was no response. So we asked the hotel to check on him since he was missing with 60+ international passports.

The Gokarna hotel has their own tie-ups with the travel agencies, and it took some convincing for them to finally send someone to the room. He came back and said there was nobody in the room. We had a person standing in the passage to check on the hotel person, and we knew he had not even entered the room, he had just knocked on the door and come back. Another ten minutes of forceful requests to the hotel, and finally someone actually went with a key and opened the room, the travel agent was not there. Some people from the group who had come on the same helicopter as him, had last seen him eating lunch at 3pm. And now he was missing with our passports.

We made several phone calls - Mr Bharat Trivedi of Travelorg/ Travelorg India would not pick up his phone - neither his US mobile nor his Nepal number that he had given us. Someone had Katak, the Sherpa lead's number, and called him - he said he would return the passports at five in the morning and hung up the phone. We called again several times after that, he would not pick up the phone. About twenty people needed to leave for the airport at 6 in the morning, the travel agent was missing, and the Sherpa lead mentioned having the passports but would not bring them till the morning.

Several other people who had packed their bags in their rooms, came into the lobby wondering when they can get their passports, so they would go to sleep after getting their passports. Around a quarter to 11 at night, Mr Bharat Trivedi of Travelorg/ Travelorg India showed up at the hotel, reeking of alcohol.  He was surprised to see so many people in the lobby. He did not know where our passports were - this was the guy we were paying to support the 12-day Kailash trek. He called someone, and then told us nonchalantly that the passports were with Katak, we would get our passports at 5 in the morning. We told him that if Katak could not come to the hotel right away for any reason, a couple of us could go and get the passports. He said - Katak had gone home, and nobody knows where he lived.

We were to depend on the word of a drunk man that we would get our passports an hour before leaving for the airport in the morning, to be delivered by another man who is holding 60+ international passports at his home whose address nobody knows.

At the group's insistence, for another half hour, Mr Bharat Trivedi made some phone calls and kept saying that nobody knew where Katak was, or where he lived, and the office had no record of his residential address. Finally, we asked the hotel to call the police, and told Mr. Trivedi that the police was coming. Fifteen minutes later, Katak - the Sherpa lead whom nobody was able to reach for the past two hours and whose residential address was not known to his own employers, reached the hotel with passports even before the police arrived.

We insisted that we would take our passports back in police presence. The policeman did his own processing of information. Katak's story was that he had deposited the passports at the Explore Kailash Trek office, where they were going to photocopy them. But the photocopier went down and he went home. So when we called him, he told us he would bring us the passports at five in the morning. But fifteen minutes ago, he got a call from the office to say that he needed to pick up the passports and deliver them to the hotel, so here he was.

Travel tip for the yatri - Choose your travel agency with care. This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but do not let anyone take advantage of you because of your emotional state on a pilgrimage. And, be aware that the authorities of China, Nepal and your home country are there to support you. We did not go in the poor-me mode when stuck without passports six hours before international travel, we called the police on these travel agency folks, and forced them to behave.

The day that had started midnight with gratitude for the Sherpas, and this morning with the gratitude for the bus drivers and the Chinese guides, had ended with calling the police on the travel agency.

Once the passports were distributed to each person, we asked Mr Bharat Trivedi for a departure plan, He obviously had none. He had lunch at 3 in the afternoon and had now returned drunk at 11 at night, thinking everyone would have gone to sleep. How had he planned to give us back our passports and drop us off to the airport? We gave him the sheet on which we had written our flight information and asked him to put together a plan and tell us what time the buses would be at the lobby, he came back with something that did not accommodate everyone, but by now, people had given up on expecting any service from him. Finally he got his act together, a departure time was communicated to all, depending on their outbound flights.

We came to the rooms to pack. One cannot have water in the carry-on bags, one cannot have the rocks either, when leaving Nepal. Someone had their atmalingam confiscated at the airport on our last visit here. The currency needs to meet India requirements in terms of how much a person can carry, and one cannot have denominations of 500 or 1000 rupees - those will be confiscated in the immigration check in Nepal.

And, most importantly for me, there was just too much to fit into the two bags, we would have to pay some penalty to get these bags into India.

Tomorrow, Delhi!!!!!

AUM Namaha Shivaaya!!


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kailash 2014 Day 12 : Back to Nyalam, Sunday, Sep 15 2014

Today we would go back to Nyalam, back where our yatra had started in Tibet.

As we left Dongma, I fell asleep in the bus, and suddenly woke up to find we had stopped. Even the shortest of stops is beautiful because of the exotic colors of Tibet. I  have often wondered if people who live in the desert make up for the monotony of color in natural design with the color combinations in manmade design. Every Tibetan establishment - a shop, a restaurant or a mudhouse is decorated with beautifully hand-painted designs in primary colors, the brighter the better.

a road stop at Saga

what is a mutual benefit supermarket? a co-op?

getting ready on the street

the roads of Tibet

our Chinese guides at extreme left and right, our bus driver - the movie actor Johnny second from right, with three Sherpas

The bus started again, and the lulling motion put me back to sleep. The exhausted body was healing as we rested in lower elevations each day, and it badly needed sleep.

lunch stop
In the middle of flying sands, the Sherpa team would have spotted this photo spot, and stopped for lunch. This mudhouse looks suspiciously like the one I remember, with the same beautiful furniture, from Dongma/Zhongba where we had lunch four years ago but I could not be too sure.

photographer photographed

photographer photographed
cows in the meadow

sheep in the pasture
The sheep in the pasture remind me of the Zhongzhung, whose descendants live as nomadic herders in this region. I wonder what the ancient Sanskrit name is, because this was all Vedic culture in the Indian subcontinent of Bharatavarsha. Some name has been "apbhransh-ed" - corrupted into Zhongzhung, like Chandragupta becoming Xandracoptus in Greek literature.

burned tire in the bus in front
The bus in front had slowed down and stopped, and our bus driver, the action hero Johnny stopped behind it, and went running to resolve the issue. The policeman from our bus went close in tow. The driver and policeman from the other bus came out as well. Johnny was under the bus, the other driver went there as well to check out - I suspect they took time to lie down for a bit, because it was after the better part of an hour that they came out and said the tire was burned out - we had been smelling that burning smell sitting in the bus.

We texted people in the other two buses that had gone ahead and would have to stop at the checkpoint because our entire group was on one permit, and we needed to cross the checkpoint together. The new rule from August 2014 (after a couple of accidents in Lhasa) said that regardless of the size of the bus, a maximum of 18 people could sit in a bus with a police constable and the driver. Good sense prevailed, and with the two policemen in agreement, the people from the other bus came to sit in our bus. Our bus now had 36 passengers instead of the legally permitted number. We set off with the other bus carrying only the policeman besides the driver. Our little episode had a local audience below.
pretty locals gathered to look at our bus with the burning tire

We caught up with the other buses, and stopped at the Thong La pass, which is close to the Lalung La pass - at an elevation of 5,120 m. 

this is new - the Chinese government is promoting tourism in Tibet bigtime

Thong La pass

This was a long sleep day for me, except for the photo opportunities now and then. Close to 6pm, entering Nyalam, the buses stopped again at a bed-and-breakfast kind of place that seemed to have a nursery within - we could see a lot of plants grown against the glass windows on the upper floor. There were cows grazing peacefully - I wonder often how cows ever lived without domestication. Or did something evolve into cows after being domesticated? It is pretty much inconceivable to think of cows without human protectors - there is no animal the cow can attack or intimidate in any way.

a stop to wash the buses before entering Nyalam, cutie cows outside the bed and breakfast
A lot of people had been excited about taking a hot shower again. We reached Nyalam after 8pm - the distance by road and time estimates do not mean much when we take frequent rest stops for the buses, on top of security checks and meal breaks. Today was the day the travel agency Travelorg/ Travelorg India had said we would have rooms for two, then yesterday the travel agent had told Swamiji that there was a problem with the booking so we would have to accommodate one person on a mattress in each room. So far so good - when we reached the place, the Sherpa team asked to accommodate 5 people in the room - basically 2 in a bed meant for 1 - and one person on the mattress on the floor. The Travelorg/ Travelorg India travel agent was sitting in the lobby unapologetically - while we were running around trying to figure how to best make this work.

The women in the group got adjusted to this cramped arrangements easier than the men who would not sleep two to a bed four feet wide. I asked the hotel desk if there were other rooms, and they said they would swap out a 2-bed room that had an attached bathroom, with two 4-bed rooms without an attached bathroom - so we could have eight beds instead of two beds and a couple of extra mattresses on the floor as long as the persons would use the common restroom at the end of the passage.

Travel tip for the yatri - Why would the travel agent not be running around facilitating this for us? Why do I need to run up and down the stairs, breathless with altitude sickness and with increasing respiratory allergies from the dust to arrange this for the gropu - and this is just one of the many reasons I personally recommend not ever using Travelorg/ Travelorg India for any travel.

As we finally settled in, we at least had a few private bathrooms to take hot showers in. This was not the greatest - some rooms did not get hot water, some ran out of hot water. I guess my room was one of the lucky ones, we heard the horror stories from the others later. Well, we had our own challenge, the toilet flush did not work, so we had to fill buckets from the shower to flush the toilet. There was fungus on the bathroom walls, which was slightly better than a couple of rooms that had widespread fungus on the ceilings. We knew we had paid a pretty penny for accommodations that were surely not that expensive.

We booked a room to honor the Sherpas after dinner. After a delayed dinner that nobody was complaining about - the Sherpa team had been working since early morning, helping with the burned tire, and now had reached late and cooked dinner - the Swamijis honored them with a white satin sash and a cash gift (our collective Chinmaya tip divided among Sherpas, drivers and Chinese guides).

the post-dinner gathering to honor the Sherpa team

the post-dinner gathering to honor the Sherpa team

honoring the Sherpas

honoring the Sherpas
As Swamiji thanked various people for making the trip possible, he thanked Bharatbhai, the travel agent as well. This was the first and last time the Travelorg / Travelorg India agent addressed the entire group. Most people whose money he had taken for this trip, got to see him for the first time in the trip. The less said here, the better - suffice it to say that we do not recommend this travel agency for any travel, I would not wish this level of lack of customer service on anyone.

To the very end, giving more than they receive, the Sherpas had baked an eggless cake saying Thankyou. It is amazing how this community is so hard-working and humble.

The short function ended with each of us paying $250 for the helicopter trip the next day. According to the Travelorg/Travelorg India agent, there was no other option, there had been a second landslide. By now, I knew better - I messaged a few friends to search on the Internet for a fresh landslide in Nepal, they texted back there was no such information.

The logistics do not allow time to stop and think, but there is a constant chant inside to my über dad - Aum Namaha Shivaaya.

Tomorrow, back in Kathmandu.

AUM Namaha Shivaaya!!


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kailash 2014 Day 11 : Back to Dongma/Zhongba, Saturday, Sep 14 2014

Today was an early morning for most people in the group. Many people had stayed awake most of the night, watching the happenings over and around the lake.  Raju garu had seen some lights moving on the surface of the lake. My room mates except for one who was feeling sick and low, had been sitting outside, braving the biting cold breeze for most of the night.

Anish had woken up at 3, watched over Manas Sarovar from his room, till he saw a couple of lights. Then, he stepped out to walk by the lake, and found the leader of another group that was staying at the guesthouse in Chiu Gompa. This person has visited Kailash more than 80 times and shared his experiences at Kailash with Anish, as they walked by the lake.

Tip for the yatri: The group leader whom Anish met, is the kind of person you want to plan your visit to Manas Sarovar and Kailash with. Our connection with Travelorg/Travelorg India was a major disappointment - and this is an understatement. Not only that the person who had supposedly traveled here 38 times had nothing to tell us during the entire yatra, but he was not seen by the group except at mealtimes when we had to approach him to talk while he ate. Knowledge about the Kailash/Manas Sarovar trek, customer service or courtesy are not the strengths of Travelorg/ Travelorg India.

Rashmiji had seen some lights move on the surface of the lake, and so had many others. As I had thought last night - where are you?, my question this morning was - why will you not show yourself to me?  I saw a few signs of the presence, but not as clearly and spectacularly as on my last visit. Maybe another time, another place, I will be waiting.

By the time breakfast was served, many people had morning walks by the lake, knowing that we would soon be leaving this physical form of the mind of Brahma. Just like the lake had changed colors and appearance at sunset last night, the sunrise was no less eye-catching.

Soon, the buses arrived, and we took the ride back to the government bus station complex, where we changed into our original buses.
our buses, and food supplies

the Sherpa team spotted a beautiful spot for lunch

the Sherpa team setting up tables

couldn't be a better place for lunch

Within a couple of hours, we had again reached the stretch of sands that had mesmerized us on our way in. And an hour later, just like that, in the middle of the desert, we spotted a beautiful lake, set up tables and had lunch.

The enchanting beauty of the sands felt like a designed distraction now, while a few hours behind us was the ultimate destination, the home of Shiva.

As we reached Dongma, the hotel wsa just past the checkpoint. After getting down at the hotel, some of the group went to visit a monastery close by.

There were two monks who appeared to be newbies - not really the officiating monks for the place. Outside, another photo opportunity - a good-looking local couple out for a walk.

a grandfather-grandson moment

Back to the same hotel in Dongma. The smell from the toilets was coming down the passages into the rooms. The travel agent from Travelorg/ Travelorg India was nowhere to be seen. I had to ask the Sherpas to get hold of the hotel owner to have the toilets cleaned, soap kept in the basins, have phenol tablets placed in the rest rooms. The Sherpas said one of them would do it, and sure enough, in half an hour, our quarters were livable again. The travel agent had told us that on the way back, he would get the Swamijis a room with an attached bathroom so that at least their quarters were somewhat nice, but he was nowhere around when we assigned rooms. Later, a couple of people asked the hotel owner if such a room was available, and found that the room was available and vacant. Travelorg/ Travelorg India had not asked for it - one more broken promise.

Tip for the yatri: Your yatra is going to be pretty much you doing all the work that you should be able to ask the travel agent to ensure, if you are unfortunate in your choice of travel agency like we were with Travelorg/ Travelorg India. Look for a good reference from multiple people. Select a travel agency who will have an experienced traveler and travel guide with the group.

Tomorrow, back to Nyalam, where the travel agent had said finally we would get rooms for two people each. He came by at dinner time and told Swamiji that there was a booking issue, so there would be an extra mattress in the room for a third person - we would have to accommodate an additional person in each room.

 AUM Namaha Shivaaya!