Lake Manasarovar

Tibet, China

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Mansarovar may not match your expectations of a sacred lake. Rather than a mistily numinous world of deadened sound, its icy waters lap its stony shores under a fierce, astringently beautiful light. The air could not be clearer, or, at 4,560m (15,000ft), much thinner. It is not a kind place, rather one of pure contemplation and sharp ecstasies.

Mansarovar's beauty and magic are justly famous, and a traveller's expectations can be high. The first view of the lake, whether from the windy pass, festooned with prayer flags, on the long dirt road from Lhasa, or coming up from the old trading town of Purang (Talikot) after walking across the Himalayas to the south, can initially disappoint after the long build-up: the sheet of dappled blue water under arid brown hills can seem a little underwhelming, despite its backdrop of snow capped mountains. But you get attuned to the extraordinary beauty of its varied light and colours, and it subtly enchants you: you never forget your time at the lake.

Mansarovar is the most venerated of all Tibet's many sacred lakes. It is especially sacred to Hindus, who have been walking round it for approaching 2,000 years. In Hindu mythology, the lake was formed in Bramha's mind for his son to bathe in after meditating on nearby Mt Kailash, the navel of the world. Buddhists associate the lake with Maya, Buddha's mother. Jains and followers of Bön, the ancient pre-Buddhist religion, also revere the lake.

Mansarovar was reputed to be the source of four of Asia's great rivers: the Indus to the north; the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) to the east; the Sutlej, a major Ganges tributary, to the west; and the Karnali, up which we trekked through the Himalayas from the south. Western explorers, those from the British Raj in India in particular, underwent incredible hardships in search of the source of these rivers, finally establishing that, while all the rivers rise in the area, only the Sutlej actually has its source at the lake – and even that only occasionally.

There used to be eight monasteries around the lake, representing points of the Dharma wheel, until the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Five of these have been rebuilt, in part at least. This has always been a poor, utterly remote area, inhabited by nomads and brigands, many months from the civilised world. The lake's monasteries are, as a result, basic affairs compared with the riches and beauty of the Tibetan heartlands, but no less moving for that.

Mansarovar is said to be the world's highest freshwater lake. It lies, on the high west Tibetan plateau, between the massif of 7,694m (25,300ft) Mt. Gurla Mandhata and the many-named range which runs, for some 1,000km, parallel to the Himalayas, sacred Mt Kailash presiding in full pomp at its heart some 40 km to the north. It is separated by a strip of low hills from Rakshas Tal, the Demon Lake, its cosmological opposite. Mansarovar is associated with light and life, and is famous for its healing qualities: it has been said that to drink its waters erases the sins of 100 lifetimes. Rakshas Tal, on the other hand, is associated with darkness and death, and is reputed to be poisonous.

The cold mountain light is extraordinary here. Unmediated by the dust and pollution of lower altitudes, it is utterly different from, say, the Matissean golden haze of the Mediterranean. Distances are shrunk and the water can be uncannily clear. While views and colours are flattened during the day, they are superb at each end of it. The lake can shift from angry indigo, to dull pewter, brushed steel or polished silver, to wonderful lapis lazuli, all within 10 minutes.

The area is semi desert and the winters are deadly, so it is surprising what lives up here. We saw Tibetan Asses, Mongolian Antelope and a range of migratory waterfowl. The tufts of coarse grass, delicately shaped desert shrubs and shoreline heaps of rotting waterweed, with their insect inhabitants, sustain a wider range of life than you would expect. Down by the lake, batteries of sand mouse burrows dot the beautiful red grasses. The lake is said to be teeming with fish.

Pilgrims come here to perform the kora, the sacred clockwise walk around the lake, and Hindus ritually bathe in it. A pilgrimage here is an important life step for Hindus, albeit hard to achieve. Swami Pranavananda, the great mid 20th Century mystic and writer, the source of much information about the area's history, made the laborious journey here numerous times.

You meet groups of Indians, huddled and suffering in the cold, thin air, and tough, wind-burned Tibetans in their heavy fleece coats, trudging remorselessly around the lake, oblivious to things of this world such as startling natural beauty. As always in Tibet, you are moved by their devotion to their beliefs and way of life. Although dirt poor, they will have struggled their way for thousands of kilometres to get to this desolate place.

The walk around Mansarovar is nearly 90 km (56 miles) and takes four or five days. Given the debilitating altitude, it is fortunately mostly by the lakeside. Few westerners do the whole walk; having travelled huge distances to get here, their time is tight, and they are often exhausted and ill after toiling round the nearby Mt Kailash kora. Given that the walk is tough and a bit repetitive around the southeastern side, travellers often do day walks in the best areas, especially around Chiu Monastery. We were short of time after circuiting Mt Kailash, so we concentrated on the most beautiful areas.

At this altitude, and with marshy ground to get round, you may well want ponies and a guide, or a lorry to meet you with your kit. You can start the kora anywhere, and Chiu Monastery in the north-west is popular, but the dirty little village of Hor Qu in the northeast is the most likely place to find support and supplies. Hor Qu is redolent of the old Tibet: wild, rough men limp out of the teahouses, squinting at you passing in the sunlight. You can imagine them cutting your throat a hundred years ago.

Quite a lot of the walk is scrunching on the lakeside shingle, with an excursion over hills to the east of Chui, cutting inland to avoid the marshes of the northern shore. It is not all easy, with boggy areas and streams to ford, which can get full in summer. May, June and September are as a result the best time to walk the kora.

We first saw the lake from a rough track off the road from Purang, down (if 3,900m (13,000 ft) can be called down) near the Nepalese border. A heap of prayer flags indicated something approaching: this was not an obvious pass or other special place, so it had to be the first view of Mansarovar. The great lake suddenly appeared below us as we reached the forward edge of the ridge: a vast expanse of prussian blue, ruffled by the midday breeze, surrounded by the brown hills of the high Tibetan plateau, snowy peaks topping the skyline behind the lake. The immensity of Gurla Mandhata dominated our right.

As we dropped to the junction of the western hills with the flat southern shore, a pair of surprisingly graceful Tibetan Asses lolloped off, leaving a trail of dust in the breeze, setting off again as the track's long meanders brought us up behind them.

Then we finally reached the lakeside, and walked. A weird garden of low wind-sculpted shrubs – some dense and rounded as if clipped – populates these stony shores. We skimmed flat, slatey stones out into the waves, but even this innocuous activity was exhausting at this altitude.

Gossol Monastery crouches above a cliff dotted with meditation caves. From the drowsy warmth of its dusty little courtyard, a shuffling old monk led us through its simple, lovingly tended little chambers. Statues gleamed in the dim light of a few yak butter lamps. On the flat mud roof, up some steep, slightly greasy stairs, a pair of brass deer flank a Dharma wheel silhouetted against the radiant cobalt of the lake. It was stunning. The distant shore looked deceptively close: you feel you can see the whole kora, round this vast lake.

The monastery's own rough little kora – every sacred place has one – took us back to the beach. The waves were muffled by heaps of rotting weed. A pair of Crested Grebes, in a migratory interlude, perched on some piles out in the water. A heron strode purposefully through the shallows.

A steady three hour trudge along the beach, which swings round so it is leading straight toward Kailash, takes you to a valley where it is said that some of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were scattered in the lake. Another couple of hours beneath the hillsides gets you to Chui.

Tibetan villages can be deeply depressing, and Chiu village is typical: dreary mud huts overlooking Ganga Chu, incipiently rabid looking dogs and a candidate for the world's most disgusting crapper (my next book, perhaps?), where you have to thread your way through the turds outside it before you cope, breath held, with the horrors of the interior. Were it not for the cleansing cold, this would be the epidemic epicentre of the world.

The usually dry waterbed of Ganga Chu, dividing the village from its famous monastery, links Mansarovar and Rakshas Tal. Very occasionally, water flows between the lakes, a cause for celebration as this is deeply auspicious for Tibet; after many dry (and disastrous) years, it flowed again in the early 1980s, when post Mao China's slightly less malign Tibet policy began to emerge. Lets hope. It just about justifies Mansarovar's claim to be the source of the Sutlej.

A hot spring gushes out into a while tiled bathhouse, its glass roof creating a tropical fug in this desert landscape. We washed, feeling almost Japanese as we splashed ourselves with the searing water, although a little less grime and a bit of sake would have helped. The run-off tops up an open sewer on the bed of Gangha Chu. Definitely no healing qualities there.

Even the short trudge up to Chiu Monastery, perched almost impossibly romantically on a rocky spike high above the shoreline, is exhausting. It is built over a cave where Guru Rinpoche, a leader of the introduction of Buddhism in the 8th century, is said to have meditated. The monastery had to be heavily renovated after the depredations of the Cultural Revolution, but, like them all, it has aged rapidly in the harsh climate, and the prayer hall felt centuries old, despite the cool patterned lino under my somewhat sweaty socks, as I padded around it in the company of a low-browed monk with a heavily patched tunic.

A vast panorama unfolds below the monastery. That afternoon, the lake was bright sparkling silver under a thin layer of high cloud, the mighty Gurla Mandhata enshrouded to our right. Away from the lake, at the Monastery entrance, is a huge mani wall of inscribed slates, topped by bleached yak skulls; beside it, a bank of golden prayer wheels was framed in the perfectly complimentary deep blue of the lake. Sacred Mt. Kailash gleamed in the distance. Even when it is hidden by the hills, it is always immanent.

We spent the night in a basic, windblown little compound in the village. The sundown from the hilltop above the village was one of the best of my life: to the south, Gurla Mandhata's snowfields slid through subtle gradations of pink and mauve every few seconds; to the west, less famous mountains glowed in the dying sun. Ahead of us, the lake sank into its nightime indigo behind the shadow of our ridge, the hills on the far (eastern) side dimly reflecting the last rays. To the north, Kailash's mantle still caught the sun's full rosy attention against a clear, pale sky, a single incandescent little cloud hovering directly above it. We had to throw rocks at the famously fierce Tibetan dogs in order to get back into the village in one piece.

The next morning was rapturously beautiful as we set out, under the monastery, round to the northern shore, our shadows stretched behind us. The prayer flags around the monastery sparkled in the early light, the short red grasses of the lakeside sands glowed and Gurla Mandhata and the clouds around its flanks were indistinctly reflected in waters stroked by the gentlest of breezes.

The next four hours, across a rough, arid plateau that ends in cliffs pocked with meditation caves, can be pretty tiring if you are new to this altitude. In a small valley are the ruins of a monastery. The track comes down off the plateau at Langbona Monastery, back from the lakeside in order to avoid the marshes of the northern shore.

The four hours across the marshes from Langbona round to the lakeside to the southeast of Hor Qu can be dreary or delicately beautiful, depending entirely on the weather and the light. We were lucky when we were there, with bright, showery weather at one minute casting a thin veil of rain, illuminated by a strong burst of the falling sun, across the Kailash range, at the next leaving it reflected, between patches of dwarf reeds, in the still marsh pools.

We camped on a close-cropped little meadow at the mouth of the swift Samui river, south of Hor Qu. A sharp afternoon breeze demanded a coat, despite the glaring sun between the scudding clouds: at the same moment, the left half of the lake was menacing dark prussian blue, and the right a refulgent, blinding sheet of silver. We had a long, cold night accompanied by the barking and whining of the dogs from the dingy hut nearby.

South from here, the path rejoins the lakeside. Here the fortunate can pick polished black stones, sacred for their association with the ancient Karmapa (Black Hat) order.

After a tramp at the water's edge under a cliff, you reach Seralung Monastery. This has been rebuilt nearer the lake than the original building, which was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, its chattels thrown into the lake. A lama-shaman and his family run the monastery. Some walkers camp in this area.

The next stage follows the shoreline for a while, turning inland to a bridge over a larger river. A plain opens up, often giving good sightings of antelope and other game. You pass the sorry remains of Yerngo Monastery and eventually, footweary after some 23km of sandy trail from Seralung, arrive at Trugo monastery. On a still day, Kailash is perfectly reflected from this side of the lake.

Trugo is the only monastery on the lake controlled by the Gelugpa (“Yellow Hat”), Tibet's most recent, and dominant, order: the other monasteries' links with the older orders demonstrate the area's ancient sanctity. Trugo is the lake's most active monastery, and a key site for Hindu ritual bathing, particularly Nepalese Brahmin, who will have walked across the Himalaya to immerse themselves in Mansarovar's agonisingly cold waters.

The path from Trugo to Chiu winds through marsh and mosquito, then on sand, then shingle, crossing a spit between Mansarovar and a smaller lake. The hills of the Rakshas Tal isthmus eventually sweep in and you are back under cliffs of smooth ancient river boulders and dry loose earth, at the place where we joined the lake.

You flop with a disengaged, altitudinous fatigue at the end of walking on Mansarovar; unlike other walks, however, it lingers with you, a gradually strengthening distillation of something profounder than a merely beautiful high lake.

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