"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.     

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