In the hundred ages of the gods I could not tell the glories of the Himalaya…There is no mountain like the Himalaya, for in it are Kailas and Manasarovar.
- From the Hindu epic RAMAYANA
Mt. Kailash (6,741 m), located in far western Tibet, is one of the most scared mountains of Tibet. Together with the two lakes of Manasarovar and Rakas, the region is one of the natural “Wonders of the World”. Four of the orient's greatest rivers; the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej, the Indus, and the Karnali, all have their sources within a hundred kilometers of this " Snow capped jewel" and has attracted Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bon-po’s from the four corners of the globe for centuries. Mt. Kailash - also known as Tise or Khang Rimpoche (Jewel of the snow) in many eastern cosmologies is referred to as Mt Meru, the axis mundi (the center of the physical and metaphysical universe). For the Hindus, it represents the abode of Lord Shiva while for the Buddhists, a terrestrial projection of the cosmic Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas & The Wheel of life. The Four great rivers springing out of Mt Kailash organize the cosmology of the world and are stylized in the swastika, sacred symbol of good fortune in the four religions.
The Mapcha Khabab (River from the Peacock’s mouth) is the source of the Karnali. The Tamchok Khabab (River from the Horse’s mouth) is the source of the Brahmaputra. The Langchen Khabab (River from the Elephant’s Mouth) is the source of the River Sutlej and the Sengge Khabab (River from the Lion’s mouth) is the source of the River Indus. The River Sutlej and the Indus merge in Pakistan, the Yarlung Tsangpo becomes the Brahmaputra and the Karnali flows into Nepal and is a major affluent of the River Ganges.
The Karnali River is the longest river in Nepal stretching 507 Km in length and is a perennial, turbulent and undisturbed river of the Himalayas. The Mapcha Khabab (River from the Peacock’s mouth), the source of the River Karnali is located south of Mt Kailash near the Nepali border.
From Darchen, we headed south on a 2 hour (84 km) drive to Khardung (4145 m), a small but pretty Tibetan farming village of about 50 families located 6 km away from the turn off on the main highway south of the Gurla La. Here we hired horsemen and porters to assist in carrying our camping gear for the 4-5 hour trek. The actual journey from here to the source was 21 km but the road has been extended beyond the village and so we drove on a very rough terrain for another 30 minutes to arrive at an open ground before a small river crossing thus reducing our walk to a pleasurable 4-5 hours (9 km). Here everyone (porters/horsemen and participants) assembled and after sorting out the load, we set off on a dirt trail along the hillside that descended and ended on the left bank of the Karnali river. It was followed by a very adventurous river crossing. The water was freezing cold and the fast flowing river could have swept us away but we held steady and made it slowly across. After changing into our trekking gear, we scrambled up a steep rocky ill-defined path using our hands and feet to arrive at the ridge on the south side of the river.
The valley opened up and the hike which followed was relatively easy as we ambled along. Then the trail went through scrubs and thorny bushes through a canyon. The thorns grabbed our pants and we saw that the horses had leg wraps to help them negotiate this path without bruises. We put on our gaiters which provided much relief. Small herds of Kiang or wild ass were seen grazing in the distance and seemed to be avoiding human contact. We found plenty of pug marks of the elusive snow leopard along the trail but of course, didn’t see one.
After walking for about 4 hours, we were delighted to arrive at the Mapcha Khabab, the source of the Karnali. It is located in a spectacular desert canyon where the river gushes out in a sizeable flow. At 4341 m, it is located much lower than the other river sources (we found out later after visiting all the other three sources) and so we were surprised to find that this area has considerably more vegetation than the other sources despite being very arid. We knew we had arrived when we saw prayer flags that marked the ridge-top above the Mapcha Khabab. A steep trail led us down the ridge through bushes to the Peacock’s Mouth, which was a very large volume of water gushing out of the hillside. Surrounding it is a mass of vegetation in colorful hues of red, brown, blue, green etc, thus the name ‘Peacock’.
The MAPCHA KHABAB or the “Source from the Peacock’s Mouth”, the source of the River Karnali was by far the most impressive of all the river sources. It was indeed a very joyous moment and after a year of planning - a dream fulfilled. We had reached our first source of the great rivers and now it was time to find our way to the other three as well.
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