05 October 2007

7 (More) Days in Tibet

Photos above: The flight into Lhasa is famously spectacular with views to the snow capped Himalayas in the distance and the rugged, rocky dry mountains that line the valley. The valley itself is actually a riverbed and in the summer, it swells with water that in some places is up to a mile wide.

I went to Central Tibet in search of my inner Buddha and I found a Chinese Disneyland instead. My response was conflicted, ranging from anger to repulsion, disappointment to sadness. I arrived in Lhasa expecting to witness the very essence of the Dalai Lama, to spiritually sense the manifestation of the Buddha of compassion. But the Chinese have made it a challenge, having all but eradicated Tibet from its own land, destroying 99% of its religious buildings during the Cultural Revolution, connecting Tibet to China via highways and high speed rail, building pagoda roofs atop traditional Tibetan homes and lining city streets with a maze of Chinese style garage fronts and kiosks operated by government subsidized Chinese émigrés who sell souvenirs of the very culture their government has worked so diligently to destroy.

Despite this harsh reality, Tibet remains defiantly and indisputably alive in its people, its pristine and truly remarkable environment and in its peaceful traditions. Less than 60 years ago, Tibet was for those outside of it, a mysterious and exotic land intentionally isolated from the world. Its altitude and its desolate climate is why it is still referred to as “The Roof of the World” and why in places, it feels like the moon, or at least the end of the earth. It is at once extraordinary and utterly unique and looking back on the experience, I am reminded that it will take far more than a “China” designation on a world map to erase this beautiful country, culture and people. At its core, Tibet is still and will forever be the true manifestation of the Buddha. You have only to look in your own heart to recognize it.

I wrote that on my flight home to the States. I was trying to reconcile my love for Tibetan culture, spirituality, faith and family with what their country has been transformed into under the Chinese occupation. Tibet isolated itself because of its faith and because of its faith, it could not defend itself against its oppressors. It remained steeped in the past and in tradition rather than embracing new technologies designed to make life faster rather than simpler. This is understandable to me. I mean, how do you achieve detachment in the modern world which is defined by what is outside us rather than living within? The Dalai Lama understood the need to modernize and introduce Tibet to the world at large. While he may have come to age too late for Tibet the land, he was right on time for Tibet the people, who continue to revere and love him from all over the world.

Years ago, my Dad took me and my sisters Karen and Julie on a vacation to Ixtapa, Mexico. It was a new resort at that time and expected to become the next Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta. At that time, my Dad spent a lot of time in Mexico because of his International role with the West Company so he had a lot of friends and colleagues all around the country. Plus he really dug Latin culture in general. He used to listen to sambas ("do you like to samba, yes I do, do you like to samba, yes I do") and salsa music and we shared a love for Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass. Anyway, while we were at the beach resort, it was my father who ironically was the one of us to come down with Montezuma's Revenge which resulted in his spending much of his vacation miserable and in his room. When he was finally feeling better, we dragged him along with us into Zihuatanejo to a great pizza place we had found. As we were walking around town buying papier mache animals and taking pictures, Julie, Karen and I were very excited. We loved it there - so colorful and different than Villanova, Pa! So we turned to Dad and asked eagerly, "What do you think?" His response was, and I quote: "Just another stinking Mexican shithole."

When we first stepped out onto the street in Lhasa, I looked around, took a couple of shots (below) and thought with such sadness to myself, "just another stinking Chinese shithole."

After a delicious Nepalese lunch, we headed over to the Jokhang Temple, the most revered religious structure in Tibet. The square before it features prayer poles with prayer flags wrapped around them and incense burners. Note: The photo of Jokhang Square, above, was taken from the roof of the temple. You can see the Potala in the upper right. There is a constant stream of pilgrims at Jokhang, but today is especially busy due to an upcoming auspicious day of the year. There are many people seated in prayer and spinning hand held prayer wheels as well as those who prostheletize themselves before the Temple. All around the square are pilgrims circumambulating the Jokhang's outer walls, known as the Barkhor. At the front door of the Temple, there is a large Stele which is inscribed with the terms of the Sino Tibetan Treaty of 822 which guarantees a mutual respect of the borders of China and Tibet.

The building before the Temple houses an altar pertpetually flickering with yak butter candles. The Jokhang was founded by King Songtsen Gampo in 639 to house a Buddha image called Mikyoba, which was brought to Tibet as part of the dowry of his Nepalese wife Princess Bhrikuti. It was completed in 647. Tibet's most revered Buddha image is called Sakya Thukpa and was brought to Tibet by King Gampo's Chinese wife, Princess Wengcheng. It was moved to Jokhang to protect it after King Gampo's death. It is said that Princess Wengcheng chose the sight of Jokhang, which was once a lake known as Lake Wothang. While the lake was filled in, it is said that a well in the precincts of the temple still draws its water from those of the old lake. Over the centuries, Jokhang has undergone many renovations but the basic layout is ancient and differs from many other Tibetan religious structures, most notably by its east-west orientation. This was said to have been done in order for the temple to face toward Nepal in honor of Queen Bhrikuti.

04 October 2007

The Long Way Back from Minya Konka - Days 12-13

Trek to Minya Konka - Day 11

Trek to Minya Konka - Day 10

Trek to Minya Konka - Day 9

Trek to Minya Konka - Day 8

The great room we are sleeping in has little natural light given that there are few windows and those dotting the walls are small and covered in a heavy, dirty plastic pocked with rips and holes. The room remains dark until late in the morning so we are not disturbed from our sleep until about 7:45am. When we realize the late hour, we dress quickly and pack our gear so it can be loaded directly onto our horses. We eat a small breakfast of hot chocolate, coffee and toast around the hearth while the children of our hosts watch us closely. Clearly, we are an appreciated break in their otherwise routine days. The kids in particular do not want us to leave.

We pull on our gear and thank our hosts for their tremendous generosity. We are followed to the courtyard door by Jemma, Eekay and the neighbor kid. I hug each of them and say goodbye. As I head across the courtyard, I hear a small voice say “Amy. Cuckoo.” I turn back and see Jemma waving to me with a smile and I say “Jemma. Beautiful.”

We are delayed briefly by our abandoned campsite as the horses are packed but we manage to head out along our snowy trail by 8:45am. We have changed course once again. There is no possibility of going through the originally planned three remaining passes but there is a pass called Tsemed La that sits about five or six hours walk from Yulong Xi village. The pass sits at 15,000 feet and would allow us access to the valley in which the Gongga Temple is situated. The path on the side of the Temple is expected to be a good deal rougher than the trail going in but we are excited for the opportunity. As a result of all these changes to our itinerary, we have lost a lot of time so we will have to travel the same way back from the Temple and we will now have to be picked up by a van and driven back to Kangding.

Soon after leaving the village, we come to the turn off to the pass that we should have taken out from the Temple and back up through Yulong Xi Valley and over Gyazi La pass to Kangding. It is difficult to see it because it is covered in snow and there is still so much fog that it is difficult to discern mountain from sky.

The added advantage of the path we are taking today is that it runs directly through the area in which Arthur Emmons and his companions traversed and lived back in 1932. We are likely to see several of the sites and houses that are photographically featured in the book Men Against the Clouds. Clearly, this means a great deal to the Emmons sisters as they literally find themselves now walking in their father’s footsteps.

The first such sight we see is a Mani cairn or monument. It is believed among Tibetan Buddhists that by saying the Om Mani mantra (prayer) out loud or meditatively ~Om Mani Padme Hum~ the powerful benevolent attention of Chenrezig, or the embodiment of compassion, is invoked. Viewing the written form of the mantra is said to have the same effect and for this reason it is often carved into stones, which are then placed where people can see them, often in cairns. Spinning the written form of the mantra clockwise (always to the right) in a Mani wheel (or prayer wheel) is also believed to give the same benefit as saying the mantra, and Mani wheels, small hand wheels and large wheels with millions of copies of the mantra inside, are found everywhere in the lands influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

Across from the Mani cairn stands a small chapel containing a single large mani wheel clad in brass embossed with the Om mani prayer. We each enter the chapel and walk around it several times while spinning the wheel. A picture of the 14th Dalai Lama is taped to the top of the wheel next to an image of the Chinese designated 11th Panchen Lama. The Tibetan Panchen Lama, a 6 year old boy from Kham, was identified by the 14th Dalai Lama in May 1995 but was forcibly removed to a government compound in Beijing where he remains confined and has come to be known as the world’s youngest political prisoner. I guess the identity of the real Panchen Lama is still a sore subject for the Chinese.

When we come out of the chapel, we stand for a moment at the door and enjoy the warmer temperature. We all take off a layer or two and then wander back to the mani cairn without our packs. Louise stops for a moment to take a photograph and I am overjoyed to see her distinct shadow contrasted against the white snow. I think this is the first shadow I have seen in 8 days. On the other side of the Mani cairn, one of the longer such cairns in the area, stands a lean-to with several long shelves holding little clay Buddha statues, each perched on its own lotus. I am told that these sculptures contain the ashes of locals who have passed on mixed with the ashes of a local revered lama. The structure looks a bit like a manger to me, which seems appropriate when I think about it. There is something so simple and peaceful and pure about the tradition. It is a testament of respect, a spiritual remembrance of those loved and revered and like the mani wheel itself, an enduring, constant prayer.

The path we are taking is flat and at times snowy, slushy or muddy. It’s an easy though messy walk. We come to an old chorten, probably built in the early 1920s that appears to be under construction. Bart wonders out loud if the Chinese bulldozed the original or if they are just stripping it of the most essential Tibetan elements and adding a needed Chinese tone to its design. I shush him not because I don’t sympathize with his frustration but because it has become clear over the last week that our local guide, who is of equal parts Tibetan and Chinese in descent, has discernibly come out on the side of the latter. Personally, I have found the positive spin placed on any discussion of the Chinese “liberation” to be the most grating but witnessing the ongoing methodical destruction of a culture, as expressed through its architecture, religious reliquary, infrastructure and natural resources is extraordinarily difficult to simply pass by. Sometimes, you just have to say what you really think, even if you really probably should do it in code. I channel my frustration by raising an angry fist to the “F.C,” the government, not the people of course. I also find myself shaking my head at times and thinking, oddly, that I need to get in touch with Richard Gere. As though he hasn’t already tried.

I take a picture of Julia and Louise standing in roughly the same position in front of the chorten as their father did in a photograph in the book. There is a lot more snow in my picture but other than that, very little else has changed in 75 years. Other than the chorten, that is.

We meet a variety of people along the road, locals heading out in search of herbs, entire families on a single motorbike waving boisterously as they pass by, a woman with a large basket strapped to her back heading to the mountains to gather bramble, yak herders - at last one on horseback looking just like the Marlboro man - and locals who run out from their homes just to wave and say hello. A lama wearing western clothesrides rides up to us on a motorcycle featuring girlies on the mud flaps. He looks more like a pimp than a monk. Dorji tells him about the house we are looking for and shows him the picture of it in Men Against the Clouds. As often happens in small communities like this giant valley, the lama turns out to be the grandson of the current owner of the house. He tells us that the original owner, who hosted Mr. Emmons for several weeks in 1932, was “liberated” of the house in 1949 by the Chinese. He gives us guidance as to where exactly the house sits up ahead and we make our way there with some more help from Dorji who can freely communicate with the locals.

The house is set among four or five other houses, roughly three houses in from the path we are walking. These are traditional homes so they are largely identical except for minor details so we are unsure which is the right one at first. As we walk up and down the hill along all of the houses, we are greeted by a group of men and women who live here. They are curious about us and eager to help when we show them the old photographs of the area. They immediately point to the correct house, out of which walks a man asking if he can help. Julia and Louise explain who they are and who their father was and the significance of his house to them. The man is eager to invite all of us inside to see it though he cautions us that it has been updated since Mr. Emmons was here. I have only been here a week and a half but I am pretty sure that a renovation in Kham is likely to be on a very different scale than one in California. I do not expect many changes.

We enter through the ubiquitous courtyard, which contains a few pieces of equipment and a yak. The presence of a couple of crazed dogs tied to either side of the entryway requires us to walk to the center of the courtyard and straight into the door to avoid coming in contact with them. The stairs to the great room are an advance over the ladder in the Renzen home but the basic layout of the house is identical. The great room features beautiful wood paneling and is sectioned off in the same way into the same living and working areas. The few differences I note include built in cushioned wood benches around much of the paneled walls, a significantly larger hood over the hearth to draw the smoke outside and electrical outlets and a lace draped television. There is an in/outhouse box in the same location as in our last house although the box here is more finely crafted, offering greater privacy to the user. Perhaps its construction has everything to do with the close proximity of this house to its neighbors.

We are invited to sit in the living area adjacent to the hearth and kitchen. There is a beautiful metal bowl filled with ashes on the table; it is clearly used for cooking though not today. We are offered yak butter tea, which I try to graciously avoid as Dorji shows our hosts the pictures of the house from Mr. Emmons’ book. They are deep in discussion as we realize our hostess has started to cook. We realize we are interrupting their midday meal so we move to leave. Our host jumps up and waves his hands in protest, motioning for us to sit back down on the couches. Dorji tells us they are preparing us a snack. We are taken aback, mortified in fact. We are imposing on this family, boldly knocking on their door as one might a childhood home long ago left behind, walking in to see how things have changed and to remember what was, perhaps, only subconsciously known. We thank them profusely as they set the table and refill our tea bowls.

A little girl comes in and sits on the hearth. Because there is no heat other than the fire in the hearth, she keeps her hot pink parka on with the hood over her head. Her mother gives her a bag of candies, which keeps her entertained as we eat. The food we are served is without a doubt, the most delicious I have had since arriving here. I don’t want to stop eating, a sentiment shared by my companions because quickly, all the food is gone.

As we leave the village, we meet another lama carrying a metal, lidded bowl. He tells us that he is heading out to bless another yak, which has recently died. Just another day in Kham.

We pass another chapel with several large prayer wheels; we each take a couple of turns around them. A Chinese police or administrative facility sits ahead next to a couple of small chortens that buttress a mountain stream. The chortens have barbed wire around them so you cannot approach them for prayer or any other purpose. The water running between them is clogged with trash. The police station has several cars in front of it. They are filled with electricians who are wiring the valley, forcing it into the 20th century despite its preference to stay rooted in its simple past. I feel disappointed that I was not able to come here years ago, before the Chinese had made such incursions into this Tibetan world. The police station has signs in front of it, all printed in Chenglish, Chinese and Tibetan. One of the signs directs passers by to “dispose of waste properly” right next to a large pile of trash strewn across the ground: baggies, cigarette cartons and plastic bottles. I am reminded of Julia’s son Eric who devotedly picked up all the trash he found on our route in Bhutan. Each day he disposed of a plastic supermarket bag full. Sadly, here we would need a 10-count box of 13-gallon bags just about every day. F.C. Will the F.C. ever accept any responsibility for the extraordinary pollution that is one of their greatest legacies?

The path we are walking on is gradually widening and though it is still wet and muddy, it now resembles more of a road. There is increasing traffic as well, motorbikes and small cars occasionally speeding by. We come across a traditional house with a lean to in front covering a pool table. A group of young men are engaged in a game but once they see us, they quickly lose interest in their game. When they approach us in their traditional garb, a photographic frenzy is triggered as though they are models posing on location for Vogue. They flip through Men Against the Clouds and get visibly excited when they recognize places and people.

As we continue down the road, we are blessed with a hint of blue sky. It is close to 3pm and for the first time in 8 days, it is warm enough for me to walk in a tee shirt. I can hear the tractor before I see it plowing the sides of the road up ahead to widen it. It’s likely, I htink a bit sadly, that this path will eventually be paved.

A truck filled with bramble comes down the mountain to my right. There is a kid on top of the pile and I wonder how he can possibly stay put as the truck pitches left and right. The front of the truck is open, like a horse drawn carriage. The man seated in front waves and motions for me to join him for a ride. I thank him and motion that I am going to walk. He drives up the road another 200 feet or so until he comes upon Bart. I see the red of Bart’s pack disappear into the carriage and watch the truck continue down the road. It stops after about a quarter mile and I see Bart jump out and wave to the departing truck. Camp is just up ahead.

My arrival in camp is met with loud enthusiasm as even our staff is noticeably more positive now that the weather is so clear and the sky is tinged with deep blue. For the first time, I am feeling sincerely hopeful that we may yet get to Gongga Temple. Sunset is beautiful with the soft light highlighting the verdant green of the valley, the white mountain tops and the pink, yellow and orange that is brushed across the sky.

We eat dinner enthusiastically, anticipating our successful crossing of Tsemed La. To increase the odds of a successful passing, we agree to take only the portion of our gear that will be needed for the 2 days ahead. This will ease our horses’ load. We agree to double up in tents and pull aside all unnecessary gear, which will stay behind with a couple members of our staff. If Tsemed La is impassable, we agree to turn the horses back and make camp roughly halfway up the mountain to the pass.

When I leave the dining tent, all happy and hopeful, I feel a couple drops of rain. By the time I am making myself comfortable in my bag for the night, it is pouring rain and the wind is howling so hard that I wonder if the tent will blow away.

03 October 2007

Trek to Minya Konka - Day 7

View from the Kitchen - Afternoon Day 6
View from the Kitchen - 7am Day 7

After a busy night of beating up my tent, I finally fall soundly asleep at 5am but am abruptly awoken by Bart screaming for everyone to pack immediately and get out of the tents. "The snow is too heavy," he yells, "The tents are about to fall in." He then tells us that we are moving back up to the local house we visited yesterday to wait and see what happens with the weather. I feel a mixture of relief and trepidation, but mostly about the tent falling in on me again.

I drag my hastily packed bags to the vestibule of my tent and open the outer flap. About a foot of snow has fallen during the night but there are deeper banks pressed up around the base of our tents, placing significant tension on them. They look taut and ready to pop. When I look down at the valley we walked through yesterday, all I can see is a thick blanket of white; the mountains are completely fogged over so the naked eye has no sense that they are actually there. Bart tells us to take only our daypacks and head up to the house. It is only 6am and I cannot remember ever arriving at anyone’s house so early, expected or not.

It is strangely beautiful outside, so magically serene and fantastic. It makes me think of the sleigh rides through time in A Winter's Tale, which in turn, reminds me of New York. When I was growing up, we used to have snowstorms like this one fairly routinely. Maybe the actual size and frequency of them is exaggerated somewhat by youthful memory, to the extent that when we are small, everything seems so much bigger than it really is. Or maybe we really did have big snowstorms and now have fewer due to global warming. Regardless, one winter when I was living in New York City when I was definitely old enough to remember a storm for what it was, a really big storm hit the city and literally shut it down. It was one of the most awesome sights of my life to witness W72 and CPW blanketed with virgin snow and not a car in sight. Even the parked ones were hiding under the storm. I walked across the park the first afternoon of the storm en route to my friend Dan’s apartment on the east side. It was so quiet and pristine and completely untouched and I was in awe that I was standing in the center of a city with 8 million residents and there was not one other person anywhere in sight. The only thing I could see were my own footsteps in the snow behind me, just like I see here in Yulong Xi Village, Tibet.

Other than our tents, the only color flutters up ahead in the form of prayer flags strung across the river. They stand in stark contrast to the countryside. The fences built to contain the yak fields are made of kindling and bramble found in the mountains. The wood is so soft that the fence must bow to the weight of the snow. In the courtyard of the house, there is a mother yak standing beside her sleeping calf in the path. I cut them a wide berth and head into the warmth and security of the house. The same yak that lay in the entry is still there this morning. I think this is strange, but at this hour I make little of it.

When I enter the great room upstairs, I am greeted by my hostess who wears exactly what she did yesterday including a broad, welcoming smile. When I look around the room, I realize that the rest of her family is still in their beds bundled snuggly under layers and layers of covers. I put my pack down at the back wall and sit on a bench by the hearth. My hostess comes over and offers me what looks like a cylindrical Hibachi as she points at my feet. I realize that she is offering me additional heat for my wet shoes and toes. “Tashe Dale,” I say with a small bow as she sets the container on the floor and uses a pair of long tongs to move some large, flat, dried lumps from a basket into the container. She lights a piece of kindling in the hearth and sets the lumps on fire. Ah! So this is what they do with all those yak terds, I think to myself as I warm my feet by the burning poop.

I sit with my friends reading a book as the family around us begins to awaken. Children emerge from another room off the central hall and disappear through a door in the woodwork, pulling on their clothes and brushing their dirty but tidy hair. With no running water and freezing temperatures, showers and freshly cleaned laundry are rarities. We try to be as quiet as possible so the family can go about their morning rituals with a semblance of privacy. It is clear even at this early hour, however, that there is a fairly rigorous routine to the family’s collective life. Everyone moves about the house with a sense of clear direction and purpose. Only we have no clue as to what is going on.

Phillip arrives with the staff and some food that we craft into a breakfast by 8:00am. I have green tea, peanut butter toast and a frozen Kashi bar I brought from home. And so begins a day of sitting and communicating with parodied words, hand gestures, personal demonstration, drawings and digital replay.

A children’s book is sitting on one of the leather chairs so I start skimming through it. It appears to be a lesson book for school filled with pictures of plants and animals with blank spaces next the pictures for the student to write in the appropriate label. The boy and girl who live here sit down on either side of me and start pointing to images, making the sound of each animal followed by my telling the word in English. “Neigh,” they bray, “Horse” I coax, “Howse,” they respond. “Ooof, oof” they offer, “dog” I translate, “dawg,” they respond and so on. Eventually, they point to a bird and say “cuckoo, cuckoo.” I say “cuckoo” in English and they laugh, pointing at me and saying “cuckoo.” I guess the secondary definition of the word is the same here in Tibet.

I point to the letters across the front of the boy’s jacket, "M i A O." I point to it and say “Meow” and he laughs. He and his sister tell me their names and I repeat them over and over again as they laugh and I forget. The boy is named “Eekay” (phonetic) and the girl is called something that sounds like “Jemma.” They are pleased when I finally remember and say the names correctly. They want to know my name so I tell them “Amy.” “Emmeh” they say over and over again. Good enough, I decide. They want to know my whole name so I tell them “Amy Beautiful.” They seem to catch my joke because Jemma laughs and shakes her head. “Amy Cuckoo!” she declares while pointing at me. We move on to other phrases and gestures such as “dude” and “peace” said with a Hawaiian hang loose sign. The kids slowly teach us the Om prayer and show us how to spin a prayer wheel (always to the right).

My friends start to play silly games with each other like hangman and Tic Tac Toe to pass the time. I really am not a big fan of party games like these so I do a crossword instead. The elder ladies of the house pull three giant bowls from the kitchen shelves, place them on the kitchen floor and fill two of them with ground barley and water. They kneel on the floor and kneed the cakey mixture with their hands until it blends into a smooth batter that looks like Toll House cookie dough without the chips. The batter is molded into large balls, which they place in the empty bowl before starting another.Ultimately, the balls are divided evenly into all three bowls and are carried outside by the younger sister, our hostess’s husband and her mother. Standing at the open kitchen window, a colorful wood frame with ripped plastic sheets tacked to it, I watch the mother walk out into the courtyard first.

A couple yaks stand in her path but about twenty more are clustered around the perimeter. When they see her walking out along the path, they rush toward her exactly as my dogs would when I am holding their dinner bowls.

She feeds each yak several barley balls by hand. When they have all been distributed, she lets a yak lick the bowl while she pets his head as though it were a house cat rather than a 1,200-pound high altitude cow with 12” horns.

The husband and a younger sister move to the field to the south of the house where another fifty or sixty yaks are gathered. They repeat the same feeding process as I take their pictures while standing on a bed in the corner of the great room.

This entire process is repeated in the evening. Yaks are a significant form of currency in Tibet so when we are told that our hosts own almost 200, we understand that they are a fairly prosperous family.

In the afternoon, Bart teaches Eekay and a neighboring boy how to make and fly paper airplanes while the horsemen/woman and our staff warm themselves by the fire. I am forced to pay a visit to the box and wonder if there is anyone out there watching me go about my business through the giant spaces in the boards. All I see are yaks and I don’t think they are especially interested.

When I return to the great room, there are some new visitors. A group of young men have dropped by to take a look at us. Bart pulls out Mr. Emmons’ book and the enlarged maps and photos he has brought along and shows them to the group of men. They laugh and nod as they recognize houses and people featured in the book. They ask Bart if they can keep some of his blown up images and Bart happily complies. Through Phillip, we ask the father for his family name. We want to send them photographs upon our return to the states, we explain. He writes his information in my journal in roman letters followed by Chinese characters: Rangka Renzen. At this point, the men seem to have satisfied their curiosity in us so they move to the kitchen side of the hearth and drink pints of potent rice wine and spit sunflower seeds on the wood floor. It’s as though we are not here.

The ladies are gathered in the bedroom section of the room, chatting and tidying their hair. It looks just like a cocktail party at home or a Junior Debutante dance with all the girls on one side and the boys on the other. Jemma calls to me to join them but when I do not, she comes over and takes my hand, leading me into their clique. She has decided that she wants to plait my hair. I do not worry about how dirty it is (it’s been a week since I have showered) because relatively speaking, it is looking pretty clean. She divides it into two sides but can’t make a braid long enough to get any higher than the top of my ears so she gives up. The older ladies unbraid their hair and reveal manes that reach all the way down their backs. My hair wouldn’t grow that long even if I wanted it to plus I have equated long, flowing hair with womanhood and romance since I was about 6 so their hair is impressive to me. I learn that when a girl is born in Tibet, her hair is shaven and then never cut again. Each lady brushes her lustrous hair carefully and then braids it with colorful silk strands, tying the braids around and around the crown of their heads. Jemma, who is about 12, does not participate. The children wear Western style clothing including jeans, sweaters and sneakers. The boys have their hair trimmed short and the girls pull their growing hair back into a ponytail. Neither gender dons the more traditional garb and styles until they marry, which typically occurs by age 18.

I riffle through my toiletry bag and pull out a couple of sparkly clips from my collection of hair holders. I give them to Jemma who immediately places them in her hair. I give her mother a tube of facial crème that I was given on the flight over. My horsewoman sees the crème and approaches me with great interest. On first glance, she appears to be an athletic, rugged girl but a second, longer look reveals that she is a very pretty girl and is clearly a girl’s girl working in a boy’s world. She has shown much curiosity in all our girly potions and pedicures along the way so I give her my Neutrogena hand crème. She would prefer facial crème but this is all I have left and I didn’t bring my Darphin all this way to cede it in a snowstorm.

At 3pm, Bart pulls out a bottle of red wine. He says he brought it to celebrate the completion of our fourth and final pass, which in fact is our first and only pass at this point. He thinks we could use a little celebrating now despite the fact that we are at 12,500 feet. Or maybe because of that fact. A bottle split between the five of us is still a glass a piece. We all cheer one another and spend the next couple of hours feeling slap happy and a little sleepy.

At 4pm, we are told that the yak that was sleeping in the entry downstairs has died. The husband leaves to find the local lama who comes to bless the animal before he is buried, both as a demonstration of respect for the animal and to prevent the spread of any potential disease. Our hosts do not know what killed the yak. The animal’s death makes me feel a little sad but they continue on with their day. Death is part of life, the Tibetans believe, it should be welcomed, not feared.

We are hoping to return to our camp but by 6pm, the barometer appears to be moving in the wrong direction. It has snowed on and off all day but still we are wishing for the weather to pass. We decide to make dinner before making any final decisions. We crowd around the hearth and Phillip cooks us vegetables and a handmade noodle soup. He makes enough soup to share with the family who sit along the kitchen side of the hearth and eat their own dinner at the same time. This is the one thing they have done all day as a single family unit.

By 8pm, the barometer is still falling so we decide that we are better off staying in the house than returning to our tents. Louise, however, says she would prefer the privacy of her tent so she returns to camp with the staff for the night. Julia, Carol, Bart and I are offered the family’s beds but we politely refuse and point to the floor. We carve out a space and lay down our bags atop our Thermarests. We are four pods in a row: Carol against the wall, then Julia, me, and then Bart. At least this time, Bart and I laugh, we are sleeping together in health rather than with an emerging case of altitude sickness. In Bhutan, I developed a non-responsive headache at 14,000-feet that left me feeling so outside of myself that I started to cry. All the ladies gathered around me, cooing over me like earth mothers, each of them offering to sleep with me in my tent so I wouldn’t have to be alone. Minnie, Jean, Dr. Jean, Cecily, Katrina, Julia and then Bart. Hmmm, I remember thinking as I looked around at their nurturing faces, if I’m going to sleep with anyone, it may as well be a man!

We all lie down and read books with our headlamps, a row of spotlighted pea pods. I try to go to sleep at about 9:15pm, but the family remains awake and highly audible until 10:30pm. Once they go to bed, the house is completely black; the fog is so dense that there is no moon. The only sound we hear is the scratching of rats as they run through the walls and under the floor.

20 September 2007

Trek to Minya Konka - Day 6

When I wake this morning to pay a visit to the toilet tent, my frustration is palpable when I discover that the pouring rain has turned to snow. The good news is that the sheer volume of rain has melted all the accumulated snow that we trudged through for the last couple of days and it has caused the grass to turn a remarkably verdant shade of green punctuated by tiny hot yellow, pink and purple wildfowers. Additionally, as of right now, the snow is not accumulating, just melting into the soggy earth. The bad news is that all the water has turned our terrain into water filled rivulets, mini lakes and squishy, muddy messes. I put on my rain gear and dodge large puddles all the way into the squatter.

At breakfast, Bart tells us about last September when he did this trek with another group. Even though GeoEx supposedly weeds out those unable to partake in highly strenuous travel such as this, we are told that one of the ladies was apparently so fat that she had to hire her own horse to do the walking for her. She rode through Kham like an obese Mary Magdalene. This woman also paid a significant fee in order to accomodate her additional duffle filled with 15 days of Jenny Craig packaged food. 45 meals plus 30 snacks in total. Apparently, the food went bad somewhere around day 5 so the staff disposed of it and the woman ate rice and latke potatoes along with everyone else. She did not do much walking to work off the additional calories, although Bart tells us she did walk some of today's trail, which will be largely flat and open. Bart then tells us that the hike we are doing today, they did coming from the other direction a year ago on their return trip to Kangding. He says it was a beautiful warm, sunny day and he wore Tevas and shorts for the walk. Rat bastard.

Once again, we have to repack all our gear, which is all fairly wet by now. My duffle is completely soaked. When I press the canvas in between my thumb and forefinger, I can see the water pushing away from the pressure point. I do the best I can to protect everything from getting any wetter but I know that placing wet clothes in sealed plastic is not an optimal long term option. I hope for the best: slightly damp but mold free clothing.

We head out fairly promptly, lured by the knowledge that we are headed to Yulong Xi village in which lives a local family known to our horseman, Dorji. He tells us that they will happily have us for a visit and some tea this evening. The thought of a warm fire at this point is a powerful enticement. Within minutes of our setting out, the light snow turns to a misty rain. I pop open my umbrella and press on, consciously deciding not to be troubled by the weather. The path we are following has been carved up by the wheels of tractor bikes, the transportation of a new era of yak herders. More often, we see yak herders busy at their work atop motobikes, motorcycles or tractor bikes, which are the most practical because of their ability to haul needed resources, such as brush, people or tools. It is a rare sight to see a yak herder on a horse. I make every effort to avoid the mud and water in the path by walking along the grass, which rises upward from the trail like small berms.

We walk in the rain through several herds of yak and I note the vast quantity of dung dotting the fields. Yak terd is not an especially common sight in the West, so as a means of description, let's just say that it gives a whole new definition to the term "cow pie." When I was in Bhutan, I took a picture of a terd sitting outside of the toilet tent. I was completely astounded by its mass. It must have been 14 inches in diameter. I don't see anything that grand here today but I have a lot of time to think so I start to wonder if it ever bothers the yaks to be walking and eating amongst their own shit. This, of course, makes me think about my cats and how I really need to be more attentive to the litter box. It really must be offensive to them to have to poop on top of poop, some of it not even their own. This thought makes me wonder if anyone ever comes out here to clear the poop, which reminds me of Shamus and Clodaugh, my Irish Wolfhounds who lived with me in Pennsylvania. I had about 3.5 acres there and the dogs roamed the property freely. Every weekend, I would place plastic baggies over my hands and head out to fling their poop into the fields of pachysandra where it could decompose out of sight. Do they fling poop here in Tibet?

I take out my little camera which I am able to protect from the rain under my umbrella because it is so small. I try to take a picture of yak poop next to a beautiful mass of wildflowers but the lens will not permit such a tight shot. I would have called it "Beauty and the Beast." The wildflowers grow in wide podlike masses so they appear as one large flower with thousands of miniscule petals. As each tiny flower dies, it dries up and flutters away, eventually leaving an empty grey pod casing punctuated with a mass of small holes. These casings are everywhere, sprinkled between live flowers, grass and poop.

Ahead of us, we see a yak tent and Bart suggests that we stop and dry off for a bit. A brief visit will also give our horses a chance to catch up to us. As we make our way toward the tents, several herders emerge from it and wave to us, welcoming us in our approach. I stay outside briefly to call back to the rest of my group to let them know where we have gone. I wave my pole in the air and whistle as best I can and finally Julia waves her pole back in acknowledgement. I turn to the tent, bend down while taking a deep breath and crawl inside. Fortunately, it is not nearly as smokey in here as it was in the last yak tent I visited. I can actually breathe without coughing. We are welcomed by four herders, all with beautiful Tibetan faces and all very curious and happy to see us. Once we are seated on "couches" made of blankets, clothing and carpets, one of the herders offers us the tea pot. He points to our packs and gestures for us to pull out our cups from them. We explain with a mixture of hand signals and shrugs that we have no tea cups with us, which our hosts clearly find perplexing. Considering the importance of tea in the Tibetan diet, this is certainly understandable but we still think their reaction is quaint.

Julia, Louise and Carol join us within about 15 minutes and after a few moments of warming up, Carol shares her photo book and the rest of us take photos of the Tibetan men, showing them the images on our digital screens. They find this very amusing. We don't stay long in the tent, just long enough to dry off a bit and have a few moments out of the rain. As we move to depart, our Tibetan hosts jump out of the tent before us. They are gesturing back and forth between their tractor bike, motorcycle and each of us. All of them have big smiles on their faces. While admittedly, a motorcycle ride across these bumpy, lumpy hills with one of these guys would be quite an adventure, we all politely refuse. We want to walk, we tell them, even if it is raining. One of the men then runs to his bike and pulls out a pair of gloves. He tries to give them to Julia who he has noticed is wearing socks on her hands. Of course, Julia is intentionally wearing socks today because they keep her hands warmer than the gloves she brought from home. We are all taken aback by this man's generosity. Here we are, a bunch of highly equipped Americans and one Dutchman, clearly not in need of anyTHING much at all, and this man who retrospectively I realize has EVERYthing he needs is offering us his gloves. We all feel humbled and tentatively bow, hands clasped prayerfully at our chins as we attempt to say Tashe Dale, Tibetan style.

We continue through the Xulong Xi Valley for a couple more hours. Our visibility is limited because of the fog, and very different from the images of the valley featured in Bart's pictures from his trip here last year. As is typical for much of Tibet, the mountains and much of the terrain is usually quite dry and brown. I almost think our flower dotted green perspective is more beautiful, despite the weather. We see many mani stone monuments along the way as well as cairns of mani stones. All are homages to local lamas who have passed on.

We see a house up ahead and decide it is our best potential for eating a sheltered lunch. After hiking diagonally up the lumpy field before it, we are dissappointed to find the front door padlocked and the window, paned with plastic, closed. I presume that if no one is home, no one will mind if I drop my bag in the doorway and sit under the eave to eat my lunch. I am joined by my trekking companions and soon thereafter by our staff and horsemen/woman. I have more than enough to eat and I see that Dorji has nothing so I offer him my peanut butter sandwich. He accepts it with such gratitude and with the same broad smile he has worn since day one. When a yak herder approaches the house on a motorcycle, we each quietly hope he is the home owner so we can dry off inside. But he is just a curious passer by, riding up to us to say hello. We chat for a couple minutes and we all move on.

I hike for the rest of the afternoon through the flat valley with our horses. I try to focus on them rather than the rain but it's no use. I cannot get my mind off of how wet I am. After several hours, I see the Yulong Xi Village running along the other side of the river. There is a large chorten surrounded by several beautiful examples of traditional Tibetan homes. It's a veritable city after these days in the middle of no where and yak herder tents. And it's a true sight for sore eyes, especially the smoke rising from each roof. Fire! Warmth! The possibility of drying off! We slow down and allow our horses to move ahead so the staff can make headway on pitching our camp at the base of the village. When we arrive in the camp site 15 minutes later, we are met by a woman who lives just over the river. She is joined by Dorji in signaling to us to follow her up to her house. I am feeling very happy indeed to follow her lead.

We enter the house through an outdoor courtyard with three or four yaks grazing in it. A lean-to is built along the wall to the right and shelters equipment and wood planks. The ground leading to the house is completely saturated so that puddles of water have formed small ponds. I walk right through them and into the lower floor, which is pitch black. I put down my umbrella at the door and wait a couple of seconds to allow my eyes to adjust. As I step into the space, I realize there is a large black yak laying on the dirt floor to my left. He holds up his head to acknowledge me and just as quickly, puts his head back down.

The woman of the house beckons me toward her. I step forward tentatively because it is very hard to see and the floor is bare earth, dried and uneven. I see that my hostess is motioning toward the entrance to the living quarters, which as in all Tibetan homes, is situated on the second and third floors. To get there, she points to a staircase, which is actually a wide ladder positioned at about 80 degrees relative to the dirt floor. I grab both sides and pull myself up one rung at a time until I step off the ladder into a central hallway with four doors leading into different rooms. Another staircase (actually, more of a log with chipped out steps) is leaning in the corner in front of me and leads to the third floor. Under it is a pile of wood and kindling and behind it are empty beer bottles, brooms and other supplies. To my left, is a door which leads to the bathroom, a misnomer if there ever was one.

Is it a restroom? Powder room? No, even WC does not apply. And loo is too sweet a term to adequately describe the room before me. There is no bath in that room. It is in no way restful. I won't be hanging out in there to powder my butt, much less my nose. And there is no water in that closet. It's a crapper. An indoor outdoor outhouse. It's literally a box nailed to the side of the second floor of the house. Looking at the box makes me wonder why Americans use such evasive terms to refer to the toilet. We "go to the bathroom" or "the restroom" but we never, ever go to the toilet. Some would suggest that that is too much information. It seems the word "toilet" is too crass for our puritanical sensibilities. I wonder, does the word conjur more vivid images of what we actually DO in it than, say, the word "restroom" does? Why is that? Right about now, one of my favorite words in the English language is toilet and if I could, I would tell everyone that I am going to use it and exactly why. But that is not an option. One nice thing about the box is that when you are in it, you can see through the large gaps in the planks around you and enjoy a great view of the mountains and fields while you go about your business. It's a decidedly better view than the one under the box. I decide that for now, I'll stick to the toilet tent, which by comparison seems like a tremendous luxury. Ironically, the box is a luxury for these Tibetans.

Across from the box are two doors and I am led through one into a large open room that is paneled in pickeled pine. Most of it is actually built in cabinetry with door after door hiding cabinets and closets for storage. The paneling is decorated with geometric and floral paintings as well as colorful paper cut outs and a giant image of the Potala. The room is divided into distinct sections, which strangely reminds me of an office I once visited on the Columbia Pictures lot. A mutual friend had arranged for me to meet with the head of Worldwide Productions for networking purposes when I first moved to LA. I was escorted into a tremendous room, larger than my apartment at the time, and seated on a big cushy couch. If the size of a man's office is an indication of his importance, I thought, this guy must be invaluable or better yet, a god! I had been seated in what appeared to be a living room and from my vantage, I could see that there were three other distinct sections to the space, each roughly the size of this one (25x25). There was an office proper, a media/viewing room and a dining room that seated at least 12. The guy was incredibly generous with his time and tried to help me out by arranging a meeting for me with his publicity group. But those people were so crazed and coked up, insisting that to be successful there, my life needed to be MOVIES, MOVIES, MOVIES. I was so freaked out by them that I ran from the building and cried for 20 minutes in my car. But the office, that was impressive.

This room is not quite so large. Maybe 30x20. Directly in front of the door is the kitchen, which includes several shelves of pots and bowls, a large vat for water that is carried up from the river and a table under the window for preparation.

Our hostess moves to the corner and begins to churn the butter for our tea.
In the middle of the room next to the kitchen area is the hearth, which is lined all around with low wood benches. It has a cooktop space on it and is set atop two steps which are used as a serving and dining table. Above the hearth, yak meat hangs drying in strips on some wood poles that have been rigged there for this purpose. In the far corner next to the hearth is a living area comprised of a couple of couch/beds and two leather arm chairs. On the far wall to my right is a bedroom area with two beds and a dressing table with a mirror attached. This appears to be the living and sleeping area specifically for the ladies of the house.

We are met by our hostess's sister and several children, all of whom gesture to us to take off our coats and have a seat. We are very happy to comply and hang our soggy jackets and outer layers from the paneling hardware. Our packs are strewn across the back floor as we take our seats along the benches and in the leather chairs, which are pulled up to the hearth to accomodate us. Within minutes, our hostess has placed bowls in front of each of us along the hearth and poured each bowl to the brim with steaming butter tea. We each wrap our hands around a warm bowl, some of us sipping the brew, until it cools and we place them back on the hearth. Can you guess which is mine? We are offered a Tibetan flat bread as a snack while pictures are passed around. The Tibetans look at Carol's photo book and pull out a stack of 15 or so worn photos of their own. Many of the shots are of our hosts seemingly positioned in front of the Potala Palace, the Tibetan Mecca. Everyone dreams of one day seeing it for themselves, of making the journey to Lhasa and circumambulating the koras in prayer. In the meantime, they have their photos taken in front of a giant photo of it so it feels - on some level - as though they have already been there. Our hostesses point to the men in the photos and we learn that they are sisters and the one who led us into the house is the lady of the house, married to the home's owner. Her sister, who lives here too, is engaged to be married to a young man in one of the photos. She blushes when she tells us so.

About an hour after we arrive in the house, our horsemen/woman and staff arrive to dry off by the fire. We decide to return to our newly erected camp at that time and give them the seats around the hearth. The younger sister takes my hand and leads me down the ladder/stair. I don't know what it is in me that brings out the maternal side of even those who are younger than I. In Jamaica years ago, I stayed at a family friend's estate overlooking Montego Bay. My sisters and my mother tagged along, as did my now former asshole of a brother in law who was then my sister Karen's dorky boyfriend (I'm being a little creative with history here. The truth is, he wasn't really a dork but he has become such an excruciating jackass that it's easier to think of him as always being a loser. It's a sister's perogative). We were 6 in total and cared for by a staff of 8. The head of staff was the sterotypical Jamaican lady, heavy accent, head wrap and all. Her primary responsibility was as chef so it was also her duty to do the marketing. One day, she asked if I would like to join her in this task and when I agreed, she immediately took my hand and held it from the moment we left the house to the moment we returned. I wondered if I should let her know that I was not 13, I just looked it. She was so happy to guide me around as though I was her baby. And now, in Tibet, I am being mothered by a girl who could be my daughter. She smiles at me the entire time, encouraging me down the ladder but looking as though she would really rather I not leave. I am a sort of novelty, I imagine, a toy she could pet and play with. At the door to the outer courtyard, she grabs my soaking wet straw hat and plunks it on my head. As I make my way across the courtyard, I turn to look at her staring at me leave. She waves one more time. All around me, I see nothing but snow. A wet, heavy, thick snow.

It is late afternoon when I crawl into my tent. I put on my headphones in an effort to drown out the incessant sound of precipitation on my roof. Being from Southern California, the sound of rain and the sight of snow or any other form of precipitation is generally a cause for celebration. It's definitely a great reason to grab my camera. When it rains at home, I can actually hear the grass saying "Ahhh." A thunderstorm, even at 3am, is an excellent reason to jump from my warm bed in order to stand at a window just to watch. But here, right now, I just want to make it stop. There is moisture accumulating across the roof of the tent and I repeatedly wipe the tent's surface with my personal toilet paper supply. I am running low as a result, even though I use each wad until it is soaking. The tent is simply too wet to withstand any more moisture so I am caught in a tap dance of drying the surface and then whacking the roof with my pole in order to remove the snow that has accumulated there. I do this about every 20 minutes or so. Julia is in the tent about a foot from mine and I hear her scream for help. I jump from my tent and see nothing because her entire tent has caved in on top of her. It's white with little spots of orange showing through. I remove the snow as the staff runs over to re-pitch the tent. She is laughing, but it sounds more like frustration to my ears.

Since I am outside, I decide it is a good opportunity to pay a much needed visit. The toilet tent is privately situated behind a bush and the path to it is now covered in a good 6 inches of snow. I bang the snow off the top of the tent before trying to open the zippered door. I have to rub the zipper with my gloves because it has frozen in the storm. When I get into the tent, I opt not to zipper the door closed for fear that I will get stuck inside. I go about my business as quickly as possible but it is tricky since the floor of the tent is filled with snow. As I am readjusting my garments, I hit the nadir of this adventure when I slip and fall into the hole. Fortunately, my foot is preceded by a large mass of snow but I am not assuaged. I am officially sick of this weather.

At dinner, we all express our disappointment and frustration. We admit that if the snow does not let up, there is really not much point in continuing with the trek. All the passes will surely be impassable. We eat our dinner quietly and try to ignore the fact that the dinner tent is leaking badly and falling apart before our eyes. We head back to our tents and wake each hour for snow removal duty. Bart and Phillip take hourly turns to supervise our efforts and ensure that we are all reasonably well. There is so much snow that the sound of their hourly sentinel duty is squeaky and muffled, as though I am listening to them while under water.