Silk Road by Nick Middleton
About the author ….
Nick Middleton is an intrepid traveler, an academic, documentary maker, and most importantly, a person with deep and abiding interest in other cultures. He derives great pleasure in speaking about his travels, and his understanding of the mind-boggling diversity of the world. Be it a group of school children, or an assembly of scholars, he is at home with everyone who cares to listen to his fascinating travelogue and his insight into the world that nurtures humans of such diverse traits.
His journey begins in Ravu, Tibet……
He is presently in a place called Ravu in Tibet and plans to go to Mount Kailash to complete his Kora. Kora is a Tibetan religious ritual that involves walking around a sacred place. He decides to travel in Tsetan’s car with Daniel as an escort. Tsetan plies his car in that mountainous terrain and is well versed with the road and the surrounding terrain.
It was quite early in the morning. The Sun was just rising from behind the mountains splashing its golden light all over the place. Lhamo, the hostess of the place where the author had put up graciously gave a leather jacket as present to the author as her parting gift.
For the author, the road they were travelling seemed somewhat perilous. But, Tsetan calmed him with his comforting words. He said, if it didn’t snow, the travel would be smooth.
The travelers took a short-cut route leaving Chantang behind. Vast barren plains lay ahead, where they could see only some stray gazelles grazing on the scanty grass that grew here and there. From here, Mount Kailash was a straight drive.
A vast empty land of stones all around, with very little encounter with humans and animals ….
As they drove on, the small grass patches vanished. What greeted them was just stone surfaces. Some wild asses appeared fleetingly. Tsetan pointed towards a distant spot, where he said we could see the entire herd of these animals. As we approached them, they ran away en masses, apparently out of fright. There were so many of them, and their galloping kicked off a small cloud of dust.
As the car raced ahead, they saw solitary shepherds maintaining a vigil over their flocks. These drokbas (shepherds) were either men or women who were thoroughly wrapped up, apparently to protect them from cold. They were quite curious to see the moving car. In glee, some of them waived at the passengers in the car.
A scary confrontation with black dogs guarding their nomad tents ….
Along the way, they came across some nomads’ tents, guarded by large ferocious black dogs. These dogs would come charging at us frighteningly, and barked loudly to scare us off their tent. For a certain distance, they would chase us as if to pounce on us, and then ease away on seeing we were reasonably out of the harm’s way.
More rocky mountains and a snowy river…
Peaks of snow-capped mountains began to rise from the distant horizon. The travelers entered a valley that had a wide river flowing through it. Large blocks of ice had virtually made the water still. With sunshine, the place sparkled in white. The road the car was travelling ran along the banks. The road winded through the terrain as the car began to climb higher and higher. They could see big pieces of rock to whose surface some hardy plants clung hard. The underneath of the rock pieces had deposits of snow.
The dreaded snow patches on the road …
A little later, Tsetan saw what he had feared most. There was snow on the road. He got off the car followed by Daniel. A little ahead of the spot where the car had stopped, fifteen meters of snow had accumulated on the road making it look like a white patch. After that, it was the normal road again. The two sides of the road were covered with snow too, and the banks were too steep for the car to climb and go skirting the huge patch of snow on the road. The author and Daniel ventured into the snow patch very carefully. The author’s watch showed they were 5210 meters above the sea level.
All three threw some loose soil on the icy surface of the road. Tsetan carefully drove the car on the sprinkled soil, and to their great relief, the car reached the other end.
Soon they encountered another such snow patch. This time, Tsetan could deftly drive his car around the patch and reach the other side.
The ascent to reach the highest point starts ….
The car continued along the road with an upward slope. The author’s watch showed they had climbed 5400 meters. He felt altitude sickness common at such height. He drank some water for relief.
Finally, they reached the highest point of the pass. It was at 5515 meters. The place had large boulders having prayer silk scarves wrapped around them. Tsetan took the vehicle to a petrol bunk and checked the the vehicle’s petrol tank. The petrol inside had started to vaporize due to low pressure.
The descent starts …
Now, the car began to travel along a downward slope. The sickness seemed to taper off. It was 2 o’clock. They ate hot noodles in a makeshift way side eatery. Relics of the far distant age in history when the place was covered by ocean were visible in the form of salt patches left over from the times the saltwater seas dried up. Salt plates and small lakes with brackish water were scattered all over the area.
A prehistoric site that has huge salt deposits left from the ocean that covered the land …
Salt mining was going on in brisk pace. Laborers broke the salt plates with their pickaxes and shovels. The trucks laden with the salt carted them off. All wore sunglasses to save their eyes from the blind glare of the reflected sun light.
A stop-over at Hor horrifies the author…
By late afternoon, the party had reached the small town of Hor, located on the east-west highway. This road used to link Kashmir with Lhasa in the bygone days. Daniel was to return to Lhasa and found a truck that was heading there. He bade the author and Tsetan goodbye and left. The car stopped near a tyre repairing shop to have two punctures fixed.
Hor wore a lifeless dry look . No trees could be found in its vicinity. It was grim depressing place. The twon was littered with garbage un-cleared for years. It was unfortunate to see such a filthy place located in the fringe of the famed Mansarovar Lake. This lake has a spiritual halo around it, and Tibetans hold it very reverentially. According to folklore, four mighty rivers, the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Sutlej, and the Indus originated from this lake. Actually, the river Sutlez has its origin in the Manasarovar Lake. Other rivers like the Indus, and the Brahmaputra have their origin in the nearby Mount Kailash. No matter, what geographers might say, Buddhists and Hindus, therefore, revere the lake so much as a life-sustaining water body.
The town Hor has no sign of a thriving bustling urban center. It has just one restaurant will a dull and decrepit interior. On advice of Tsetan, the author went there to have a cup of tea. The good view of the Lake through one of its broken windows cheered the author’s mood.
A Chinese waiter wearing a military uniform wiped the table top with a dirty mop, and then put a thermo flask and a glass. The thermo contained the tea.
The journey to Mount Kailash starts ..
Tsetan came after half an hour, and the two resumed their car journey. They left behind rocky barren lands, and piles of garbage along the road. They headed towards Mount Kailash. The tea shop and the town Hor left very unpleasant memories in the author’s mind.
The author ponders how earlier visitors spoke so glowingly about the place ..
He recollected the experience of a Japanese monk named Ekai Kawaguchi who had visited the Lake in 1900. The pristine beauty of the Lake and its surroundings had left him spell bound. He was so overwhelmed with the heavenly experience that he broke down in tears. Another traveler, Sven Hedin, a Swede, had also recorded his moving experience of the beauty of the Lake very eloquently. In contrast to what the author had gathered from these two accounts, the filth and squalor of Hor came as a dampener for the author.
They arrive at Darchen …
The author and the driver Tsetan continued their onward journey. They reached a guest house in Darchen around 10.30pm. The putrid air of Hor had caused some minor infection making the author struggling to breathe with his blocked nose. He had taken some herbal tea had no soothing effect. His watch showed they were at 4760 meters, not too much up than Ravu. Anyway, the author braced himself for another restless night.
A nightmare night in the guest house …
With both noses blocked, he struggled to breathe in. His sleep became disturbed. It made him feel more tired and hungry. In great discomfort he sat up on his bed, and strangely his noses opened up and he could breathe normally. The author was pleasantly surprised.
But, the problem returned again as soon s he lied down on his bed. Again, he sat up, and again he felt instant relief. He felt both queer, and scared. For the rest of the night, he remained awake.
A visit to the Tibetan hospital ..
Next morning, Tsetan took the author to a nearby hospital that looked like a monastery. A Tibetan doctor with traditional clothes examined the author, and diagnosed his sickness as cold coupled with altitude effect. He gave some medicines. The doctor assured the author that he would recover soon, and his plan for doing his kora (ritualistic circumambulation) wouldn’t be affected.
The medication given by the Tibetan doctor had to be taken for five days, with different medicines for morning, noon and night. With some degree of suspicion and incredulity, the author took the medicines, because he had no other recourse. Happily for him, just after a day, he got complete relief. He slept very well that night.
Having dropped his passenger in the destination, Tsetan returned to Lhasa. He had a light-hearted comment to make. He told, it is good the author didn’t succumb to his cold attack, but even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered. So, went the Buddhist belief. However, the author’s death would have meant loss of business for him.
Darchen, better than Hor, but no tourists…
Danchen was not as squalid as Hor, although not so spick and span. The Sun shone brightly in the morning sky, and the previous night’s sound sleep had left the author quite cheerful. He could see the snow-capped peaks of the majestic Himalayas in the horizon. The mountain Gurla Mandhata stood there with its peak touching the clouds.
Darchen, sadly for the author, had no pilgrims, although it bore the marks of being placid, typically Tibetan community township. A stream hurried down close to the guest house where the author stayed. Women washed their hair in its waters, and men folk played some game leisurely on a old-fashioned wooden table kept on the yard.
An empty Darchen saddens the author …
The author’s hope of seeing the place bursting with tourists was belied, because he hardly found any. In the peak of the tourist season, the market, the lodges erupt into a frenzy as droves of visitors mill around the place. Even some come with their tents and pitch them in large vacant spaces. It presents a very fascinating sight, but the author’s hope of seeing all these were belied because he had arrived before the start of the season.
No English-speaking person complicates matters for the author …
The author was clueless about his next course of action. He mulled over the idea of going on his kora alone, but he was fearful of the snow that could have blocked the trail. In Darchen, he could see snow pieces here and there, and that added to his fear. Since Tsetan had already left, and he could hardly find any one with rudimentary English knowledge, he felt all the more perplexed.
A chance encounter with Norbu in the cafe …
The author spent his time in the only one restaurant in the town. It was not a smart or swanky place. The inside was dark, and large pieces of plastic sheets adored the ceiling. The plastic was scavenged from used shopping bags that China produces in humongous numbers for its own use and for export all over the world.
When he was peering into the pages of his diary, a stranger came near him. His name was Norbu, and he knew English. Soon, the mood of the author lighted up, and a lively chat started between the two. Norbu was a scholar who worked in the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
To the great delight of the author, Norbu had come for the same purpose of performing the Kora. The duo made a perfect pair. Norbu stayed in the same guest house as the author. However, he knew very less about the complexities of going on the kora.
Norbu kept telling the author that the place was very high up, and it would be an uphill task for a fat man like himself. He was not a practicing Buddhist, but being a Tibetan knew something about the value of the pilgrimage.
The duo decide to go together hiring a yak to carry baggage ..
Norbu’s suggestion to hire a yak was readily accepted by the author. That would lessen the difficulty of carrying their luggage. Norbu was not a devout Buddhist and was not the ideal partner that the author had dreamt of, but accepting his company was the best choice under the circumstances. Quite jokingly, Norbu told that he was not going to prostrate as is mandatory for the kora devotees, because he had a bulging tummy.
Question answers will be posted soon.