- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

I like saying I’ve been to some of the world’s best-known pilgrimage spots: Jerusalem, Rome, Medjugorje, Lourdes and Haifa (for the Baha’is).

But a letter from a local Hindu minister revealed that I’ve missed the big kahuna of them all: Mount Kailash, a stunning 22,028-foot peak in the midst of the Himalayas that Hindus say is the abode of the god Shiva and his wife, Parvati.

The place, considered a pillar of the spiritual world, is sacred not only to Hindus but also Jains, Buddhists and the indigenous Tibetan Bon religion. There have been no recorded attempts to climb its sheer walls in deference to those religious beliefs.

Located in a southwestern Tibet, it lies near the source of some of Asia’s longest rivers. I began Googling the mountain, amazed at its beauty and that of the surrounding tableaux, especially two gorgeous high-altitude lakes: Manasarovar and Rakshastal. Hindu scriptures say those who take a dip in the ice-cold Manasarovar and undertake the 32-mile path around the mountain become one with Shiva and are rid of their sins.

Buddhists say you gain nirvana if you circumnavigate the peak 108 times.

The most devout do it on foot but the more preferred method is by yak, with two nights spent camping at the base. If you’re lucky, you can stay inside some very primitive monasteries on the trail.

An itinerary for the pilgrimage posted by a Mumbai tour agency describes a daunting 17-day expedition of rigorous overland driving, trekking and camping, all done on a vegetarian diet (as Hindus eat no meat). One lands in Katmandu, Nepal, then takes a land cruiser to the Chinese border, then rides through high Tibetan plains past gorgeous panoramas until arriving at Manasarovar, the world’s highest freshwater lake at 15,400 feet altitude, nearly three miles above sea level.

I talked with Amarnath Gupta, 74, an Annandale resident who heads up the Rajdhani Mandir temple in Chantilly, about his trip to Mount Kailash this past May. He took along his wife, Santosh, 70. He thinks he’s the first Hindu cleric in the Washington metropolitan area to make the trip.

His mission was to pray for world peace in that windy, grassless and treeless place where the typical temperature was 25 degrees on a good day. Altitude sickness and dysentery plagued many members of his 125-person tour group, he told me, and five people actually died during the trip.

For Hindus, this is a good thing, he explained.

“We think if we die there we will go straight to heaven,” he said, adding that he and his wife made out their wills before the trip. “We were going to meet God. We were not afraid at all. We went with the inclination that we might not come back.”

Despite the obvious dangers, Indian and Nepali tour guides are bringing in pilgrims by the truckload during the summer months for a fairly cheap fare of $4,000 a head, he said.

His advice for other travelers? Take loads of sanitizer, toilet paper and sunscreen. Avoid drinking local water and be generous in use of oxygen masks. Non-Hindus are welcome but be prepared for plenty of time given over to prayer and meditation.

“God gave us courage for our journey,” he said. “I got a lot of self-realization of what I am and from where I came. We are getting a lot of blessing from this.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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