Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Kailash, Kailash, Kailash!

“Send your heart to Kailash and the rest of you will follow naturally” said Sadhguru. These were the exact words and the belief in them that carried me through the many turmoils and doubts that raged inside me during the course of my yatra to Kailash. Of course, in hindsight, I realize my fears were baseless, my health just fine and his grace limitless. Shambho! 

Unlike what I hear from most others, Kailash wasn’t really my long held dream or aspiration. I must have decided that I will attempt this journey only late last year or so when I chanced upon the Sacred Walks video on the Kailash Manasarovar yatra by Isha Foundation. One look at that video and I knew I must go to Kailash, and only with Sadhguru (Isha) at that and no one else. So it is really surprising to me, in retrospect, that I have gone to Kailash and am back sitting in front of my laptop trying to capture my experiences and journey so that I can relive them time and again. It is with a kind of disbelief, a kind of amazement, that I must say all of it seems like a fantastic dream one wakes up from suddenly. A dream one wants to continue being in, a dream one doesn’t want to wake up from actually, a dream one wants to get lost in forever. 

Kailash! am not sure to what credit I deserve this grace, to what goodness that I got to experience this rebirth, to what joy that I got this all so easily (or so it seems to me). I feel like a lucky winner who got a last minute chance entry to the most important event of her life!

The other day, about a week or so after my return from Kathmandu, when I was still in the daze of Kailash, two words leapt at me from a hoarding – Cosmic Womb – and I realized that is exactly what Kailash and the journey to him has been for me. A rebirth or an incubation of sorts where one gets to enter her mother’s womb once more – to feel utterly secure, cushioned, and loved to bits, to feel light and free of all the worldly burdens and responsibilities that one carries, to feel oh so close to one’s creator, to feel one with the divine, to feel bliss. The 7 day lead up journey to Kailash, the day trekking up to the North face, and finally the day spent gazing at wonder at his feet. I remember myself, desperately trying to commit every single thing to my memory - the magnificent face of Kailash, the cold Himalayan air, the sound of water gently rushing down by the river, the red monastery on the opposite bank, the yellow flowers at my feet, the ease of meditation, the feeling of a million blessings, and Shambho. Oh Shambho!

I feel at a great inability to capture it all into words, especially the feelings. I can only wish for a similar experience for you so that you can understand and feel the same blessings as I did (or more). You must attempt this journey definitely without fail – this journey which is more internal than external really, this pilgrimage that will make you question everything you believe to be true, this discovery that will bring things to a higher perspective. Please do try to undertake this yatra and feel it for yourself – that is the only thing of any significance that I can share by way of my experience. However, let me try to note down whatever I can in case they help you in anyway to plan your trip. 

At the onset, few details about the overall trip:

  • I went with Isha Foundation as part of their Kailash Manasarovar Sacred Walks program. No, Sadhguru did not travel with us as much as I would have loved that and wished for it :) He, however, did spend about 30-45 minutes with us at Darchen (Kailash base camp) for a brief Satsang.
  • We went to Kailash through the Lhasa route; we fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa (in Tibet/China, about 1.5 hours flight), halt and acclimatize for a day next day, and then day after journey by bus to Shigatse (6-7 hours), halt the night and then next day again by bus to Saga (8-9 hours), halt for the night and then the next day via Manasarovar to Darchen (base of Kailash; one can view the South face of Kailash also called the Aghora mukha). And finally, on Day 8 of our trip (after one day halt at Darchan), we trek up to the North face (also called the Vamadeva at Dirapuk), stay the night and a large part of the next day at his feet. We returned the same way next day (instead of proceeding further to Dolma Pass and completing the full parikrama) and follow the same route back to Kathmandu. Only, we halted for two nights at Manasarovar for a beautiful and magical experience on the way. 
  • The trip was a total of 15 days - from Day 1 afternoon at Kathmandu to Day 15 noon back to Kathmandu. We stayed at the best of hotels wherever possible (that's the Isha way) and had all the material comforts up until Darchen. After that, the accommodations become quiet basic and nature calls are in true nature! Though initially a bit difficult, one can quickly get used (and addicted) to baring and doing it all right out in the open :P
  • The reason why we did not attempt a full parikrama, as is typical for any Kailash yatra, are many as explained by Sadhguru/Isha - one of them being that what's more important (and easier) is to meditate and soak in the energies of the Kailash where its visible (I understand one will loose sight of the great mountain as one treks past Dirapuk onto Dolma Pass and further until one reaches back to Darchen); the other reason being that we have been taught kriyas and sadhanas that will enable us to benefit more by staying a day at North face and performing our kriyas than doing a parikrama. Though initially perturbed, I was perfectly alright with this plan once I saw Kailash :)
  • The trek up is through a pretty nice albeit looooooong route though of course there were ups and downs and hard to climb slopes once in a while. To the most part, it is a flattish kind of terrain with a gradual climb in altitude. We must have trekked about 12 - 14 km from Yamadvar (starting point of trek from Darchen) to Dirapuk (North face camp). It took about 6 - 9 hours for our group (depending on how energetic/calm/rushing/pausing one was!). The trek down the next day afternoon took relatively less time and was easier!
  • This trek up is not really hard (the harder part is the second day of the parikrama yatra when one climbs up really high to Dolma Pass) - that has not been destined for me this year. I shall write about Day 2 and 3 of the parikrama in the years to come :) For now, for day 1, the only difficult part is towards the very end - the last 1-2 km when the air gets very thin and your lungs work extra hard to pump oxygen (here I had to halt every 10-15 steps to catch my breath!)
  • In terms of preparation, the only thing you need is a belief in the first line of this blog post and a moderate to good health condition. It helps if you are used to walking a lot - I did walk 3- 5 km a day for 2-3 months ahead of my trip in preparation for the yatra. And yes, practice of deep breathing and pranayama. But if you are not really sure of the latter, not to worry - i.e. if you go with Isha, they will ensure you learn and practice to perfection. And most importantly, do not rush and take the time to savour the journey as much as the destination :)
Now, let me try to recollect the most memorable 15 days of my life :)

Day 1: Our journey started at Kathmandu, Nepal, the land of the Buddha and Temples. We were pretty excited as we would be checking into a five star hotel (Radisson) and enjoying its luxuries after over 10 days of shifting from hotel to hotel in our trip across Nepal. Of course, the excitement and anticipation of actually kicking off the second part of our trip, i.e. to Kailash, was always on top of our mind too. A wonderful lunch spread later, the 55 of us in our A4 group gathered together for our first Satsang where Sadhguru addressed us through his videos on Kailash and how one should prepare for the journey ahead. He uttered the words that was to carry me through the entire trip - I am eternally grateful for that and that I had the sense to register and place my entire trust and belief on them. An early dinner and 'some socializing with the rest of the group to get to know each other' later, we heard the news that the Chinese Govt has prohibited any flights in and out of Lhasa for the next three days. A nervous few hours followed before we were told that we will indeed be flying out to Lhasa the next day ...hopefully! But the silver lining in the cloud? We would get to visit and take the darshan of Pasupathinath temple before we kick off our yatra.

Day 2: We woke up early morning for an awesome breakfast and a quick visit to the Pasupathinath Temple. Though, for me personally (and my two friends with me), it was the second visit to Pasupathinath within the last two days, it was a wonderful experience at the temple and we had the time to linger for a few seconds in front of the main lingam before being ushered off. That time enabled us to seek his blessings in peace, to help us all complete our yatra successfully. By 12 noon, we had to depart to the Kathmandu airport to catch our flight to Lhasa - lo and behold, the Chinese had changed their mind and are allowing flights into Lhasa after all. Hooray! But our rescheduled flight which was to depart by 2 got further delayed which resulted in a waiting time of about 3 hours at the airport lounge - but not to worry. Shiva Shiva Shiva Shiva Shiva Shiva Shivaya was there to keep us on a high - we danced to the Sounds of Isha (yes, right there in front of all the other passengers - we must have looked like zoned out shiva bhaktas or whatever - they were all busy taking videos of us!) and then to add more merry, we even played musical chair! Oh, what fun that was. It was also the last day when we were allowed to run and do anything fast - as after Lhasa, we will literally be out of our living depth - at high altitudes that none of us have been used to, with lesser oxygen that our lungs have to try hard to comprehend and quickfire changing situations! Our flight finally took off around 4 PM Kathmandu time and after an hour and half of flying time, we must have arrived at Lhasa around 8 PM China time (as they are 2.5 hours ahead of us). We all huddled into our jackets, caps and what not in anticipation of the "really cold weather" outside - only to find out it was only as cold as Bangalore's colder days and not any more :P

Day 3: A day at Lhasa, the "City of the Gods". It was a day meant for acclimitization where we were supposed to take things easy and light. Due to our excitement, I don't think it turned out that way! We visited the Sera Monastery after a light breakfast. The highlight of this monastery, for me, were the many Lhasa Aposo dogs there that steal your heart the very first sight - and the many beautiful doorways! The monasteries were lovely too that gave you a sense that all Buddhist gods resemble Hindu gods in some way or another! For instance, the buddhist god Rinponche sits on a Lotus - much like our Lakshminarayana! He is also called Padmashambhava - while his Hindu counterpart is called Padmanabha! Well, I do not know much about it so can't really comment in depth but that's what I felt that the Gods seem to have the same origin and but were just given different names in the two religions (this was later confirmed by Sadhguru but I will not go into it!). Post a simple lunch that had Potatoes playing the hero (which was to haunt us every day for the rest of the journey!), it was a visit to the famous Jokhang Temple (also called the Qoikang Monastery at Barkhor Square) where we also did a bit of shopping for last minute supplies (well, the other's did last minute shopping while I shopped for some nice Tibetian bracelets and a lock and key for my luggage which had a perfectly nice number lock that stopped working after going through the Lhasa security check!!). It became quiet tiring by dinner time - I guess the altitude caught up with us (what kind of phrase is that, altitude catching up :P ) so we retired to our rooms for an early bed time.

Day 4: This was the day when we spent most part of the day in the bus to Shigatse. This was also the day when my blood pressure started climbing up, up way up - right with the increase in altitude - causing me great worry that I might get rejected or told off not to attempt the parikrama and be left in the Kailash base camp or even worse be left at Saga itself. Isha has a team of volunteers and Doctor(s) that travel with us and are based out of major stopovers enroute who take our vitals every morning and evening - including Blood pressure and Oxygen Saturation levels in the blood. The latter is supposed to be above 90 (it was a fantastic 99% for me at Kathmandu (I love the plains!)) - it will tend to go down with the increasing altitude and subsequent decrease in Oxygen in the air. One needs to compensate this decrease in Oxygen by improving one's breathing by deep breathing and few other exercises - this is pretty manageable. The blood pressure though is not so easy to control (for me as I have a high tendency towards excitement and activity, phew! can't change one's personality overnight!). So if either of these parameters or other vitals are off, and you get an onset of the dreaded altitude sickness (only because of want of trying and you did not do Kriyas and breathing exercises properly), Isha might very well detain you at any point in the journey. This was a very scary thing for me - I just could not afford to even entertain a thought of "not going" to Kailash. So though till this day, I was putting off and not taking any Diamox (the diuretic allopathy medicine recommended to combat altitude sickness which also incidentally helps reduce BP), I bit the bullet so to speak as my worry increased as we got closer and closer to Shigatse. And that didn't help my BP either. The next two days, personally for me, were a blur of worry and stress - though the passing nature was so so beautiful - but my heart was in Kailash and I had no eyes for any scenery on the way.

Day 5: A long drive to Saga - also a day that will really test one's altitude tolerance or acclimatization as Saga is 14,400 feet or so; Kathmandu is at 4600 feet (same as Bangalore I think) - so you can imagine the hard work your body has to put in to get used to this sudden increase in altitude over the last two days (Lhasa is at 11,990 feet and Shigatse at 12600 feet). So everyone really did take it easy on this day as medical checkups became all important and all of us focused on keeping our bodies healthy and stress free while keeping our thoughts and heart at Kailash.

Day 6: From Saga, we were to set off to Manasarovar and spend a day there before staring to Kailash. But as our luck would have it, a bridge enroute from Saga to Manasarovar broke down and we were forced to go through a different route that took more than 12 hours on bus. We also got the news that Sadhguru was waiting for us at Darchen for a satsang that evening - so instead of going to Manasarovar, our group was asked to proceed directly to Darchen to meet with our guru. But again destiny had other plans - throughout the journey that day, we met with delays after delays as the road was pretty bad and vehicles were getting stuck in mud. A nice thing that we noticed here is the wonderful helping tendency of the Tibetian drivers and Sherpas that traveled with us from Nepal - instead of going past the stuck vehicles without bothereing, all the vehicles stop and help each other out. It felt very good to get down from our vehicles and observe our troupe of Sherpas help the others who are stuck. So due to the multiple halts enroute, we reached Darchen pretty late at night - and missed the scheduled Satsang with Sadhguru in the evening. While we were heavily disappointed with this turn of events, we were heartened to hear that Sadhguru will meet us early the next day morning at 5.30 before he leaves back to India.

Day 7: Meeting with Sadhguru - a great highlight of our trip. Though the time we spent with him was less, I felt as if I was meeting a long lost acquaintance or relative or someone I knew! I can't really explain! And before we knew it, it was time for him to go. Alas, a brief satsang it was. The rest of the day was spent taking a walk around Darchen and enjoying our first views of Kailash. One can view the South face of Kailash from Darchen - the face which is famous for its deep ridge in the middle and the horizontal lines that crisscross it resembling perhaps that of the Shiva's face.

Day 8: Finally, the day arrives - the day we trek up to the North face of Kailash at Dirapuk. The day we were all looking forward to in much anticipation (for some of us, it has been a decades long dream). By now, all my worries and concerns about my BP and health fell away like thin wisps of cloud in front of a summer sun. I was in front of Yamadwar and nothing could stop me! Oh, what a feeling that was - I literally wanted to run all the way up! But I also wanted to spend the maximum time climbing up and enjoying the journey :) So, while we (four of us formed mini teams to walk together) started off as one of the first teams to trek from Yamadwar at around 10.30 AM, we were also one of the last ones to reach the hotel at Dirapuk at around 7.30 PM!! We enjoyed the trek up immensely - we stopped frequently for breaks - nature call break, catching our breath break, meditation break, mantra chanting break, pranayama break, lunch break, nap break (yes! one of my team members even managed to catch a few quick winks to recover her energy, hahaha!), just sitting and seeing Kailash break, photo break, sit by the river break, oh that's a nice rock break, feeding birds break, and what not!

Oh, what a day that was - tiring but oh so so satisfactory on a deep deep soul level. Every bend in the path presented a different view of the surroundings - there were mountain streams, monasteries, buddhist flags, prayer spots, waterfalls in the distance, rivers, streams, and then there was Kailash standing tall amidst them all. If I could, I would love to vanish from wherever I am and reappear on that path - any day of my life! The last kilometer or so was very killing - but that was also the most beautiful part of the trip offering us a clear, unobstructed view of the North face of Kailash flanked by two mountains in the front. There was also a river or stream that seemed to be coming straight from the melting glaciers of Kailash - I was so tempted to take a sip but also remembered the warning by our group leader that mountain rivers are full of minerals that our urban bodies may not really take a liking to so I refrained (I did drink from the river while on the way back :) ) We were warmly welcomed by our Isha volunteer Mr. Padam as soon as we reached the hotel - he was so kind and even fetched us warm water and hot tea - God bless him! A cold night followed but no one minded - we were at Kailash!!

Day 9: The day started early at 5.30 or so with the excuse of Nature break - but it turned out to be a magical time for me as I got to sit in complete darkness and stare at Kailash in all his glory - with no one around for company. It was like the mountain was lit up though there was complete darkness around - perhaps the moonlight, perhaps the snow reflecting, perhaps the day was already breaking - whatever it was, it was a beautiful and sacred sight to behold. I did have to miss the actual sunrise and the sunlight that falls on Kailash turning it golden - as we had a scheduled satsang at around the same time. Oh, well next time then Golden Kailash! After the satsang and breakfast, off we went to the river side for a beautiful clearing from where one gets a clear view of Kailash - for our meditation and other practices of Isha. Shambho, it was so beautiful! I could slip into meditation so so easily. One wished to stay there forever and ever - but one had to trek back down the same day. I wish we had stayed for one or two more days there :(

After lunch, we set off on the trek back down to Yamadwar around 2 PM. It was also one eventful trek as me and a friend decided to take a different route (well, at places only not all the way through) than the one came by. We somehow thought that going by the riverside will be more fun than climbing up and down the mountain paths - however that turned out to be a bad decision - we ended up climbing more ups and downs (hahaha) to skirt the river water when it became too deep in places. But we did have loads of fun. While our trek up was kind of serious and we concentrated on chanting and our prayers, our trek down was all about playing with Mother Nature and what she threw at us! We came back to Yamadver pretty quickly (around 5.45 PM) and without any delay proceeded to Manasarovar after one longing gaze back at Kailash. Till we meet again, old man, till we meet again :)

So, that night, as is expected, I made sure I woke up two of my friends and set off on a secret midnight tryst to the lake side (so as not to wake the rest of the gang as we were warned not to attempt this and take rest on our first night at Manasarovar; we were asked to do this the second night but hey I was there and I could not take any chances of missing them even for one night!). Our desire was to witness the magical beings that were supposed to visit the lake everyday between 2.30 - 3.30 AM. But it was drizzling like crazy, cold like crazy, and the dogs were howling like crazy. All in all, it made for one eerie night but I wasn't perturbed. One of my friend commented that the dogs howling is a good sign - they are sensing the alien beings, she said. The other one wanted to huddle closer to me so that we can share our body warmth! And I had my eyes fixed to the horizon - and hooo, I think I hallucinated that they were there :P - before being pointed by the station doctor (who also joined us on our secret tryst) that the lights belonged to a hotel on the other side of the lake and not really to any alien beings. Some disappointment later, we decided to wait somemore and all three of us ladies huddled closer and closer together as the weather got more drizzly and cold. Lightning started striking and put a beautiful show on the horizon - in beautiful shades of Orange and Yellow. I fancied that they were not really regular lightning but the alien beings! My friends didn't agree :P After waiting for over two hours, we had to return to our room as it started raining in earnest and we decided there must have been interstellar traffic hold up on account of Krishna's birthday (yes! it was Krishna Janmastami which we celebrated at Manasarovar wonderfully - my friend had thoughtfully packed and got Butter all the way from Bangalore and I had some dry fruits I wanted to offer him). Okay, one more try the next day night then was our resolve.

Day 10: The previous evening, when we came to Manasarovar, it was a clear and beautiful evening - with the sky and clouds putting on multi-color presentations above a beautiful serene lake. But alas, it decided to remain ominously overcast and rain from the word go the next day. We were to go through our special Isha process and kriyas before taking bath in the lake - a ritual that involved working with our Surya nadi and chantings to make us receptive to the lake's blessings. While I had the most most magical experience during this session (can't really go into detail on that one!), by the end of the process, it started becoming really dark and the sky looked like it might start pouring any second. So the doctors and our group leader had no choice than to warn us not to venture into the lake and take a bath - instead we were asked to just get in and wet our hands and legs if we so wished. But after that powerful process, our bodies were literally jumping of their accord and was raring to get into the water - so no instruction or warning could stop us. So in inspite of the impending rain, all of us jumped into the lake one by one and had the best experience of our life. Though the water must have been freezing cold, I don't think any of us really felt the temperature beyond our skin. It was a beautiful experience  - for me, it was almost like taking bath in a river that my mom used to take bath - it felt so secure and sacred. It did start raining as soon as we stepped out of the lake - but hey who cares? The clouds did clear later in the day and gifted us a beautiful day - which we spent by the lake side. Again, one wished to stay there forever and ever. Sigh! That night, I was woken up at 1.30 AM by my friend (she mistook the time to be 2.30!) and both of us ventured out alone sans our other friend and the doctor - repeat of the same situation as last night - cold, drizzle, dogs, clouds! Sigh, we came back inside quickly and resigned ourselves to our destiny - we were not to see the divine beings after all. Next trip, then!

Day 11 - 15: Well, nothing really stands out - we followed the same route back to Saga, Shigatse, Lhasa and Kathmandu. Lhasa and Kathmandu felt literally hot like Chennai - after spending so many days in colder climates! I already missed Kailash :( Well, after a closing satsang and another visit to Pasupathinath temple later, we officially closed our yatra. This time around, I had a really magical (I know this word is getting repetitive but there's no other word I can use) experience at the Pasupathinath temple. By some luck or fate, I got into the outer premises of the inner sanctum sanctorum on the Eastern side (which opens only during the evening river aarti time - the aarti happens like that of Kashi/Haridwar/Rishikesh at the river Bagmati that runs next to the Pasupathinath temple) and got to spend close to an hour locked up inside (not literally but surrounded by the crowd inside). I witnessed one of the most beautiful aarti ever - and did not regret missing the supposedly grand aarti ritual that happens at the lake side for a single second. I felt really blessed and grateful. Thank you, dear Shiva, for everything.

So that brings me to the end of my trip - the grandest and the best ever I had undertaken so far in my life. I only wish all my near and dear ones (and you the reader) get this beautiful experience that I got. Blessings to you for the same. And I also wish he calls me again and again and again :) I am hooked now and can't wait to return already! I want to do the full parikrama next time - perhaps even go via the inner kora. Let's see - I hope his blessings will surely enable me to do that. 

Before I conclude, I must offer my heartfelt gratitude to Sadhguru and Isha Foundation without whom this rebirth wouldn’t have been possible for me. To the many volunteers and sherpas who sacrificed their life and sadhana during this time for us all yatris, for my fellow travellers and of course my family which let me take this break without one word of opposition. Thank you and may god bless you all.

If you have any specific questions about the trip, feel free to reach out to me.

And before I sign off, here's a poem that came to me right after we left Manasarovar. It about sums up my journey in as few a words as it can. 

Oh Shiva!

Drinking from the streams of the Kailash
Bathing in the waters of the Manasarovar
Oh almighty, I lost myself in your grace
Humbled and insignificant, I stand in front of you
And wonder, to what reason I deserve your benevolence
Here a moment, covered the next, Shiva, you are my eternal aspiration
Gazing at your magnificence and delighting in your beauty
I wish, I could spend eons at your feet, a day or two is just not enough
But am a mere mortal, and as I return to my dwelling far away from you
I carry with me, memories of hope and happiness and blessings
Shiva...oh Shiva

Oh Shiva.....

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