Mount Kailash and West Nepal Trek 2000

Mount Kailash and West Nepal Trek 2000

Mount Kailash and West Nepal Trek

The clouds part to reveal the summit, and a football tourney ruins our plans.

Mount Kailas, seen from the Manasarovar Monastery. Photo: Jon Otto Collection.


Meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal: On July 25, after much deserved rest, and frantic visa negotiation with Tibetan authorities, Daniel Mazur, representing Bristol, England, and Montana, USA, Robert Goetz, of Portland, Oregon, and Howard Levaux, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, flew by jet from Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet. During the flight, we were just able to see the tops of Mount Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu. Our goal was to drive into western Tibet, trek around Mount Kailas, then walk across the border into West Nepal, and trek down to the nearest airport, then fly to the city of Nepalganj, eventually returning to Kathmandu by bus.

Departure from Lhasa, Tibet: Jon Otto, having flown in via Urumqi and Chengdu, met us in Lhasa, and during the 26th we made last minute arrangements and toured the city. On the morning of the 27th, we departed early, and drove to Shigatse for lunch, where, finding the famous Tashilunpo monastery closed, we went on to the seedy junction-town of Lhaze. Our goal was to drive across the breadth of the Tibetan plateau, from east to west. We were barely comfortable in a land-cruiser, four wheel drive vehicle. Also, our caravan included a large two wheel drive lorry-truck, which carried 3 staff members and our 800 liters of petrol (there are no fuel depots in western Tibet). On the 28th of July, we made it to the tiny hamlet of Gyatro.

A bulldozer pulls our truck out of a mudhole. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright:

Drive across Tibet: That day's drive included several mudholes, one of which required a bulldozer tow, to drag our two-wheel-drive truck out of the ditch. On the 29th of July, we made it to the farming community of Puryang. Once again, forward progress at times required a variety of heavy machinery, to haul our lumbering lorry from the muck. In some sections, there was no sign of a road, but rather, we drove right up the middle of river beds, which were, in late July, being well-used by swollen streams.

At times, the road follows a river bed. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright:

Arrival at Mount Kailash: Finally, on the 30th of July, our now splattered entourage pulled into our road head and jumping-off place of Darchen, perched on the flanks of Mt. Kailas. That day's driving had required not one but two bulldozer-extractions of our wallowing lorry, and finally, in a pelting torrential wind-whipped downpour of cold rain, we abandoned our truck in the middle of an impromptu waste deep river which had sprung up on the plateau near Lake Manasarovar. Everyone was somewhat hypothermic by this point, and we welcomed the warm dung-stove and attractive figures of our hostesses at the local inn, when we finally arrived in Darchen, after sunset. We spent the evening drinking tea, trying to converse in five languages, admiring the manageress' fine jewelry, and trying (to no avail) to convince our hostesses to eat some of the smoked salmon which Bob had so kindly brought from the Pacific Ocean.

Bob, in front of our guest house. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright:

Meeting our "porters": On the morning of the 31st, our trek leader: Lobsang, informed us that our yaks were stuck in the mud, 7 days walk from here. He mentioned that he would not be able to trek with us, as he needed to organize the logistics behind getting the truck out of the river (which apparently took several days and a bulldozer brought from a 100 kilometer distant army encampment) and we should rather be forced to do the trek alone, with a minimal amount of kit being carried by two porters. After waking up the local innkeeper, (who apparently does not normally arise until after 9:30 am) and a spot of breakfast, Lobsang produced our two porters. We were incredulous when two petite women with nearly-shaved heads, wearing maroon robes, sandels, and Dalai-Lama amulets padded into our room. Lobsang introduced them as Anila and Dolma, said they were Buddhist nuns, and announced that they would be carrying our luggage and guiding us on the trek. We three visitors were stunned by this development, and our hosts, laughed uproariously at our reaction. To them, the concept of two nuns carrying our luggage on their backs for three days was apparently not at all out of the ordinary.

Annie and Dolma, Buddhist nuns, and the sweetest two porters you'll ever meet. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright:

First day on the trek: Nevertheless, in three hours, we had packed, and were following Dolma and Annie, in a clockwise direction around Mt. Kailas. We were all impressed with the charming behaviour of these women, as they coaxed and coached us around the mountain, carrying some pretty heavy bags all the while. Because all of our heavy trekking equipment was still in the stuck truck, we only had one tiny tent and one leaking one, so we hoped to stay in monasteries and guest houses along the route. After a day of easy walking, followed by a last big hill, Annie and Dolma led us to a curious affair: a frame of pine poles strung with patched tarpaulins, a "guest house" located at 4500 metres, across the rain-swollen and uncrossable river from the Drira Phuk Monastery. We were surprised and pleased to see our cook, Dorje, who ran-walked all the way from Darchen, arrive that evening, carrying some food, to look after our needs. We spent that night, July 31st, suffering through a cold, damp, rain, and wind storm; Howard and Bob stuffed into a tiny tent, and me in a communal bunk with 13 Tibetan pilgrims, many of whom mumbled, chanted, and prayed regularly throughout the night.

Howard ties off his prayer flag in the pass. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright:

Crossing the pass: The morning of August 1st dawned gorgeous, with sunlight and puffy clouds highlighting our ascent to the Drolmo-La Pass at 5630 metres. While Bob, the consummate speed-walker, sprinted ahead, Howard and I hung out in the pass for many hours, soaking up the sunshine, views, and magic of this place. We hoped to see Mt Kailas reveal its secrets from behind the veil of clouds, but it was not to be, as the uppermost reaches remained untouched by our eyes. However, while we waited, we were accosted by pilgrims walking in the opposite direction to us: anti-clockwise. The direction of circumambulation apparently indicates one's religious affiliation. Clockwise people are Jains, Buddhists, or Hindus. Anti-clockwise people are Bons. This Bon religion was supposedly superceded by Buddhism, but according to our own observations, the "anti-clockwisers" outnumbered the "clockwisers" by about 9 to 1. Some grad student should go over there and find out what is up with that. Interestingly, our guidebook's author had observed the same thing when she did the trek. Nevertheless, we noticed that our idleness in the pass was drawing a crowd of "anti-clockwise" people, who stopped to demand, with a certain level of determination, money, food, and everything we had . We were not always sure we understood what they were saying, but their outstretched hands and hungry eyes certainly belied their intent to have our possessions as their own.

Dan poses in the Drolmo-La Pass with some tough-looking anti-clockwise pilgrims. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright:

A long night: Tired of and frustrated with receiving so much attention, we headed down the other side of the pass in a sudden and unexpected marble-sized hail storm, and made it to another tarpaulin guest house about 3 kilometers up-river from the Zutrul Phuk Monasery, at 4500 metres. That evening we dined on instant noodles, drank Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer which was being sold by our host, who was perhaps the toughest person we encountered that day. Early in the evening, when we still had the place to ourselves, the three of us opted to stay in the communal tent, when there was no one else there, and not to put up our own tiny or leaking plastic caves. Later that evening, entire families, clans, and villages arrived, and the communal tent was now jammed to bursting. I was upset to witness the guesthouse manager, named "Chimi" shout at, and bodily and violently push and shove a group of pilgrims including women and people who appeared to be elderly, out of the tent. Chimi, it turned out, slept with a large sword next to his bed. It did not look as if he would hesitate to use it. That evening, our tent mates spoke in loud voices in a mysterious language until late into the night, perhaps arguing. Finally, a member of our party of three hollered at the top of his lungs, into the night: "Would you people please SHUT UP, some of us are trying to sleep!". Although I am nearly positive no one understood the exact words, I am certain that the tone of voice was understood, as the talkers laid down and went to sleep nearly immediately. Score one point for the stressed-out foreigners.

Leaving Mount Kailash: The next day, August 2, we gratefully hiked down in sunshine to the road head. The weather was clearing, and we hoped to see the summit, but today it was not to be. Annie and Dolma were their usual cheery and encouraging selves. At the end of the road, we found Lobsang patiently waiting with the Land-Cruiser, and we gratefully piled in, but not before redistributing some of our wealth to Annie and Dolma, perhaps the sweetest two porters I have ever met. We had made our first complete circumambulation of Mt. Kailas, known as a "Kora", thus wiping away the sins of an entire lifetime. During our three day trek, we had seen not a single foreign tourist.

Mt Kailash, seen in the light of dawn. Photo and Copyright: D.L. Mazur

A view of the summit: The following morning, August 3, I was up early digesting the previous night's grand feast, and noticed that the mountain was finally clear. I awoke the land-cruiser driver, Pasang, and asked if it would be possible to drive out onto the plateau, even at this early hour, so that we perhaps might be able to get a better view and take photos of the summit of Mount Kailas. He understand immediately, and I awoke Bob and Howard, and we drove far out onto the plains, where we had an acceptable view of the mountain, before the day's clouds arrived.

7800 metre Mount Gurla Mandata, seen from Rakas Tal. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright:

Gurla Mandata, seen from a bit further down the valley. Photo and copyright: D.L. Mazur

An exotic border town: That afternoon, we drove leisurely along lake Mansarovar and lake Rakas Tal, and marvelled at the fine weather and sunshine we were having, providing wonderful views of the 7800 metre Mount Gurla Mandata. We arrived into the little town of Purang, also known as Taklakot, late in the afternoon. This was a cultural milieu of Tibetans, Nepalese, and Himachalis. In the early evening, I was treated to a wonderful visit to a gompa carved into a series of grottos high on a cliff face, when I met a drunken pilgrim, who motioned me up a broken stairway high into a smoky, dark, cavernous room. Rounding a corner in the cliffy, blackened chamber, I was accosted by a blast of golden light and heat pouring off of at least a thousand butter lamps, as a small orchestra of monks blasted on trumpets and rumbled their throats in low gurgling chants, repeating something which sounded like: "om-mani-padmi-hoam". After the worship session, a monk who said he was visiting from Kathmandu came out and put a white piece of fabric around my neck, and we chatted for a while, enjoying the view of the verdant green valley sprawled out below our cliff-face perch.

Butter lamp flames illuminate the Buddha statues and paintings inside the caverns of the Purang monastery. A monk stopped worshipping long enough to give a blessing for our trek. Chief Lama (seated, right) leads the monks in a chorus and trumpet session, in front of the butter lamp-lit altar. Photo and Copyright: D.L. Mazur

Entering Nepal: On August 4th, we drove to the end of the road, and hiked to the Nepalese border, where our staff from Nepal were waiting to meet us. We said goodbye to Lobsang and company, and were sad to be leaving Tibet, as we walked down to cross a bridge over the Himla-Karnali river. There were no more roads and suddenly we were surrounded by an entirely different culture, and subjected to a completely different diet, as we were now in the Nepalese state of Humla. We camped there at the tiny hamlet of Hilsa, at 3700 metres, really just a group of shacks.


Crossing the bridge over the Himla-Karnali. Photo and Copyright: D.L. Mazur

Crossing the Nara-La pass: On August 5th, we arose early to hire porters for our journey. It was difficult to find porters here, and our staff, not being from Humla, but rather from Kathmandu, had a challenging time understanding the local dialect and convincing the locals they should give up their day jobs and sign on with us. Eventually, after quite a bit of wrangling, the deal was closed, and the porters went off to have their breakfast. After 90 minutes, they came back, and shouldered their loads. We had'nt been too sure what was happening, but we did notice that time, and the pace of life moved rather slowly in this region. That day we walked high over the 4550 metre Nara La Pass, where we were treated to beautiful green views of an immense series of valleys of pine trees, topped by spiny grey rock ridges. That evening, we made it to East Yari, a beautiful Buddhist farming village, where there are many empty houses, as the poverty of the land and the aggression of Maoist separatists has driven the locals away from their homes and down to other villages and Kathmandu.

Donkey and goat caravans ply the trade inside the Nara La pass. The idyllic village of Yari. Photo and Copyright: D. L. Mazur

Meeting the first tourists: On August 6th, we walked all day in gorgeous sunshine through pine woods and over small mountain passes, generally following the Karnali river valley, to the 2900 metre village of Muchu. On August 7th, we made it to Kermi, and on August 8th we reached Dhara Pani at 2400 metres. We found the trails rugged but passable, the villages beautiful, the people shy, and the days long and strenuous. In the final day of our trek through west Nepal, we began to meet the first western tourists (who were ascending the trail) we had seen in several weeks.

The lower Himla-Karnali wends its way past Simikot. A waterfall with rainbow graces the trail. Photo and Copyright: D.L. Mazur

Flying out of Simikot: On a sunny and gorgeous August 9th, we climbed over yet another pass, and arrived at our destination, the 2800 metre high town of Simikot, from where we were scheduled to fly out the following day. We noticed, however, that the airfield was being used as a football pitch, and that there were gaily decorated people marching around playing band instruments. It was not clear that a plane could land in those conditions. The following morning, August 10th, it was raining, but we went to the airfield with our 5 nepalese staff and our luggage. Finally, at noon, the weather cleared, and the sun popped out, and things were looking pretty good for our flight, but just then, the authorities closed the airport, and the decorous bands and football players ran out onto the field and a crowd of spectators gathered, and the airstrip became a festive football pitch once again. On August 11th, it rained all day, and there was nothing to do except be miserable. On August 12th the weather was foggy and drizzling, but the authorities decided to open the airport anyway, and our little Twin-Otter propeller plane finally landed, bouncing and splashing its way down the runway to us. We boarded the flight, with all of our bags, and suffered one of the most spectacular and terrifying 40 minute flights a person could ever have. The country outside of our tiny windows was extremely rugged, kind of a vertical jungle, and there were mountain passes, canyons, waterfalls, lush green foliage, and raging rivers to be seen in every direction. Then, we bounced into a cloud bank, and the plane rolled and shook and dipped, and dove, then pulled out of it, then rolled again. At that moment, I felt like vomiting, and looked out of my window to notice the wing and engine flapping up and down as if they were made of rubber. Then, we were past the clouds, and we came down safely on the tarmac at Nepalganj airport. Upon exiting the plane, I noticed our pilot had been an attractive young Nepalese woman, approximately 28 years old. Bob was on a tight schedule to return to Kathmandu, so he immediately boarded a flight on a different airline to Kathmandu, without leaving the airport.

Woman weaving on a lap loom in Simikot. Photo and Copyright: D.L. Mazur

Bus ride across Nepal: Howard and I, on the other hand, were going to take a bus across Nepal to Kathmandu. We found ourselves in Nepalganj, the boiling hot fourth largest city of Nepal, and we set off in an extremely rattly old bucket of bolts that afternoon, which turned into evening, and the moon came out, and the lush rain-fed countryside rolled by. Almost like clockwork, the front spring of our vehicle broke while crossing a wash that made the road look more like a boulder field than the main highway of this nation. The driver and his crew worked late into the night to repair the bus, and we passengers milled around, drinking tea, chatting a bit, and enjoying the cool moonlight. We were parked at a sort of cafe/truckstop, and a busload of Indian pilgrims arrived, all clad in orange, on their own bus. We left after several more hours, and two days later I read that the Indian pilgrims had been robbed at gunpoint shortly after we departed.

Running through a rockslide: We rolled through the night, and into the sunrise of August 13th, and the passengers were thoroughly passed out. Our bus came to a halt near another roadside cafe, and I got out to take a look at the situation. Our guide Krishna and I walked about 3 kilometers up the road, passing perhaps 800 parked vehicles, of every known type. Finally we were able to see that here was an active landslide blocking the road, with two ways around it. One way was to walk up and around the huge blown out hillside, for several hours and several kilometres, and the other way was to run, for several minutes, straight through the rockfall, where a bulldozer was working.

I chose the rockfall, and hired one of our staff, an athletic Nepalese/Tibetan named Dorje to carry my bag. Howard and Krishna and the rest of the crew would take the slow way, up and around the mud slide.

It was a thrill for Dorje and I to run across the rock fall, and several times, we hid behind large boulders, while laptop computer sized stones pelted around us and splatted into the pile of wet rubble and ripped-out mud holes where the highway used to be. Finally, we made it to the other side, where the bulldozer was cautiously pushing bits of earth around, trying not to fall into the drink, and we ran for it, trying to watch for the bulldozer's blade. Blue shirted policemen shouted and waved their arms and blew their whistles and scolded us, but Dorje and I would have none of it, having just run for our lives. We switched loads, and I carried the large duffle bag the rest of the way, down to the end of the traffic jam, where we purchased less than a square metre of space on the roof of a very overloaded bus for ourselves and our luggage.

Return to Kathmandu: 3 hours later we were in Kathmandu, and we left the bus when it got into an accident with a ladder toting truck. As we boarded the final taxi to our hotel, I looked back to see the two drivers shouting and pushing each other, and we were glad to be away from that mess. Howard arrived later that evening, and we relived our adventure over dinner. We determined that we would like to return to Mount Kailash and West Nepal, a truly beautiful area.