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.

19 September 2007

Trek to Minya Konka - Day 5

I awake feeling completely rested, despite the fact that I have been beating my tent hourly all night long. By now, I am doing such things by rote so perhaps I never completely woke when I sat up to do my chore. Feels like it anyway. I really need to pay a visit, so I put on my coat and shoes and unzip my tent. About 15 inches of snow bank dumps into my vestibule. All I can see outside is snow and the coming light. I head to the toilet tent but it has disappeared over night. It must have fallen in early on and is now buried under several inches of snow. For this reason, I am forced to hide behind Bart's tent and pee in the snow, which makes me think of Frank Zappa. I begin obsessively singing "Don't Eat That Yellow Snow."

Despite the miserable weather, I receive my morning tea and bathing water by 7:00am. After partaking of both, I pack up my belongings and make sure all items are covered with plastic as it is likely to snow through out the day. I get to the tent by 7:30am and find my three trekking companions talking about the conditions over toast and coffee. Apparently, Bart has suggested that we turn back. The weather does not appear to be letting up and we are unlikely to see anything and highly likely to have to re-route ourselves again. I have to admit that his suggestion is a logical one. After all, I am the youngest person here by at least 15-20 years and you have to consider the needs and abilities of everyone involved. But then I remember the 20 hour flight and all the anticipation of coming here and immediately, I feel disappointed. So I am happy to hear Julia, Louise and Carol say unequivocably that they intend to move forward. The journey is the adventure after all.

As I spread peanut butter on my toast, Carol suggests that when going over the pass, we should all agree to defer to Bart's direction versus that of our local guide, Phillip. We all know Bart well after having trekked with him in Bhutan and other locales and from what we have seen so far on this trip, there is no one else here I personally trust more. Of course, Bart's direction will be prioritized.

I go back to my tent to switch out my fleece gloves for a pair of socks. I should have brought my ski mittens but who in a thousand years would have thought I'd need them? I put up my goretex hood and place my straw hat on top of that. With the gooped up lip balm at the edges of my lips I am starting to work the "all lady" look. Oh, yeah. It is precipitating still but it's of a variety somewhere between a "dusting" and "spitting," as my mother would say. We hang out in the dining tent and watch the staff take down our tents. That's mine there; the last one standing. When the staff makes sufficient progress, we head out of camp along a path that is defined only by snowy footprints. At first, we walk on loosely packed snow and as I walk along I am struck by the sense that all I can hear is wind and silence. Quickly, the snow deepens as we move further from camp so that most of the hike up the mountain is in roughly 10" of snow. Camp almost disappears from view only 500 feet away.
After an hour, we reach 14,200 feet. I am walking with Bart at the head of our group and we stop for a moment to take note of the trail, which we can see moving to the left and upward toward the pass. We continue walking the snowy path for another 200 feet, our feet sinking all the way down to the muddy earth beneath with each step. Unfortunately, I have no gators to help keep the snow out of my pants because REI said they were "out of season" when I went there before I left. I am praying that the velcro on the ankles of my snow pants will endure the hike. We continue on through knee high, then thigh high snow drifts and suddenly, we lose the trail. We look up to where the pass should be for guidance but there is nothing there. It's a white out and there is absolutely no distinction between the horizon and the mountain below. We can only see 50 feet or so ahead of us. We start moving in the direction of the path that sincs with our recollection of the trail but because we are "lost," we head straight up the mountain, rather than along a diagonal. At this altitude and in snow this deep, this is a huge physical challenge. But we must find a cairn or marker of any kind that will indicate where to go, so we just do it.

Standing in snow up to my hip bone (knee high for your average height person), I finally stop and wait as Bart climbs up beyond our present location to scout things out. I definitely do not want to hike up this thing just to come back down it in a few minutes.That would be a huge expenditure of energy for nothing. As I wait for him, Louise and Carol make their way to me. Julia and Phillip are not far behind them. Louise is calm and takes some water as she waits. I'm certain she has seen some pretty hairy situations while tracking animals in the swamps of Bolivia, although they would have been decidedly warmer. Carol, on the other hand, immediately starts asking where Philip is. He's the local guide, she says. He has been here many times. We should ask him where the trail is. (errrrrip...that's the record skipping) I gotta tell ya, I could care less about Phillip's opinions on topography. This is a guy who led me through holly bushes on my knees and called it a hike. I tell Carol to give Bart a moment. I am sure the white out will dissipate enough so that he can relocate the path. We could not have wandered very far from it. At that very moment, Bart yodels to us and points at something just below him. We all look over to the spot he has indicated and there, sticking out of the snow is a cairn. We have relocated the way, if not the trail itself.

We trudge on through banks of snow and within 100 feet ascention from the cairn, we can actually see Gyazi La (15,000 feet) marked by three giant cairns and wrapped in prayer flags. 500 more feet of ascension and we are at the pass. Check out this view at Gyazi La! I forgot to pack my prayer flags so I watch as Louise and Bart wrap their flags around one of the cairns and Julia poses perfectly with Louise for a photo. I will hang all four flags at the one remaining pass for Dad.

About 5 minutes after we arrive at Gyazi La, our horses catch up to us. This is fortunate timing as there is no path ahead, even steeper snow and limited visibility. The horses can readily cut (snow-whack) a trail for us to walk along by placing our feet down into the holes they leave.
About 10 minutes down the slope from Gyazi La, I look to the mountain along my right and can only see a hint of light subtly highlighting the horizon and barely differentiating it from the mountain. I take out my camera and stop to take pictures. Everyone thinks I'm crazy because I'm taking a picture of nothing. But perspective is subjective, as is art. The image reminds me of the Tony award winning play called "Art." I saw it in London with a friend at least 10 years ago. It's a musing on the definition of art as well as the question of it's financial versus intrinsic, real versus perceived value. The story centers on a man who has just made an enormous acquisition for his collection. He has spent a $1MM on a painting and is eager to share his prize with his friends. But when they arrive to view the canvas, all they "see" is a stark white, unmarked void. This, of course, leads into a philosohical debate: Is something more valuable merely because of the status society attaches to it? Is a thing elevated to "art" because Sotheby's said so? Or because someone "famous" created it? Is it "worth" what you paid for it? I think some of the answers are fairly obvious, but I was an art major (therefore, I have an opinion...which is not necessarily correct!). It's art when you behold it as such and it's worth is directly related to the extent to which you value it, financially and emotionally. The market side of the question is just economics. Unfortunately, we are a culture that ascribes financial value, and therefore stature, to anything tinged with celebrity. Where else are people famous for being famous and therefore able to generate significant cash for their trash on Ebay?

We slip slide our way down from Gyazi La. We walk for an hour or so and see little more than the river to our left cutting a dark line through the snowy mountains. We are all starting to get hungry for lunch, but there is nowhere to rest. We continue on until we reach what appears to be two stone foundations for yak tents. Some of the rocks have been blown free of snow so we head to them for lunch. As we pick through an assortment of foods packed in our lunch bins (Granola Bars from California, fried egg sandwich, pear, Chinese muffin), it starts to rain very softly. We put our hoods up and finish lunch just as we see someone coming. It's a man. He is walking along our path from the valley we are walking into. He has both hands behind his back and appears to be on a little stroll in his sweater and pants. We are literally miles from any tent or yak village in either direction so he is a curious sight. When he gets closer to us, he stops, turns to face us directly and waves. "Hallo!" he says, "Tashe Dale!" We respond in kind. And then he turns back to the path and continues on his way.

We don't have too much further to go until we reach our camp so we dawdle a bit before setting back out. We quickly reach the valley floor, which is relatively clear of snow but is now very muddy. It is a relatively flat path and easy to walk especially after trudging through snow banks. I can see the pass behind us and a beautiful mountain range to my left. As I walk along, the fog parts across the sky above the mountains and reveals a blue sky. I am so excited that I take a picture. It's the first blue I have seen for 4 days. It's fortunate that I take this picture because no sooner do I release the shutter than the fog rolls in like a giant wall. We walk the rest of the way in a hail storm.

Once at camp, the hail turns to rain. Non stop, unrelenting, hard core rain. After dinner, I lay in my bag and wonder how it is possible that we have encountered such persistent terrible weather. Surely, it has to stop. Even the Tibetans are taken aback by it. They say they have never seen anything like it, especially at this time of year. And the Republicans say there is no global warming.

I try to focus on my book instead of the pounding sound on the roof of my tent. I started a new Amy Tan book called Saving Fish From Drowning. It is amusing but definitely not her best work. I laugh out loud as the main character (who is narrating events as a ghost watching them unfold) describes her Chinese funeral in San Francisco. The procession before her coffin is comprised of 10 or 12 people and each carry a tall banner featuring her portrait, smiling but decidedly unkempt. She notes that the picture was taken while she was on trek in Bhutan after more than ten days without washing her hair. This is why her face is dirty, freckled and make up free and her hair is smushed up in greasy bunches on top of her head. I am starting to feel as though I am sporting a similar look: happy but a bit rough around the edges.

As I read, I hear a cat meowing. I am in the middle of no where. It can't be a cat. But then I hear it again. MEOW. It is right next to my head out in the pouring rain. All I can think about are Isabella and Gracie.I imagine them sitting in a thunderstorm and begging someone to let them in. I wish I could help this cat, but I can't touch the animals here so all I can think to do is unzip a section of the outer tarp in case the cat wants to sit in the vestibule and wait out the storm.

18 September 2007

Trek to Minya Konka - Day 4

It rained all night and melted most of the snow that accumulated over the last two days, but the fog is still so dense that the mountains around us are only barely visible. Everything is white dotted with black; there is very little color at all. When I leave my tent to brush my teeth, the fog is parted as it was yesterday so I get another brief glimpse back down the valley to the Five Sisters. Just as quickly, the mountains are obscured once more.

We are leaving this campsite this morning and heading to a camp that sits at the base of our first pass, Gyazi La, so I pack all my gear being careful to fold things tightly so everything can fit within a plastic bag. I brought about ten baggies which can fit smaller items and Carol gave me a giant 14x14" baggie that can fit all my tops and a couple pairs of pants. I wonder where such big baggies are sold. Gallon freezer bags are about as big as they get at Ralph's. They must have them next to the GIGANTIC cereal and laundry detergent boxes at Costco. Bart gave me a large trash bag that I insert all the smaller packages into including my sleeping bag so I am fairly confident that my belongings will stay dry today. After some tea and completing my toilette, such as it is, I make my way over to the breakfast tent for peanut butter toast and green tea. Strangely, this is something of a treat for me. I never eat toast at home.

We are ready to leave by 8:30 am but our staff has only made a small dent in the packing of the kitchen and other gear. For this reason, we decide to kill a little time by walking back down the valley that we walked through the day before yesterday in the snow. We stay on our side of the river and wander along it for about 30 minutes. The terrain is very rocky but without the snow, I can see where I need to place my feet to avoid loose rocks, mud holes and large bodies of water that have formed as a result of the weather. About half way out, we can see across the river to the yak herder tents which hosted us the day before yesterday. A couple of them are outside going about their business. They wave to us and call out a friendly Tashe Dale (Hello!)!

By the time we turn around and meet back up with our staff, they have made a lot of progress in packing the horses so we are confident that we can move forward on our path knowing that the team will not be far behind us. The walk today begins with a very steep climb up the mountain at whose base we have been camped for the last two nights. I am walking a lot faster than my group this morning, so I stop to watch them at several intervals just to be certain that everyone is progressing. A fair amount of the valley I am leaving is increasingly visible as I ascend, though still white and dotted with yaks. It looks like the weather could be turning but I don't dare to hope!

About half way up the roughtly 1,400 foot climb, I meet a group of three young herb hunters. This is a little off-putting to me only because I am truly in the middle of nowhere, looking down at my feet as I make my way along the rocky path and believing myself to be completely alone when I look up, and they are standing right in front of me. Thank God I wasn't picking my nose, although I doubt this gang would care. When you live in nature as they do, bodily functions and bad habits are meaningless. I take a look at all three herbers and realize that not one of them could be older than 14. I think there are two boys and one girl, but I am not entirely sure because their "look" is fairly androgenous and all of them wear earrings. One of them wears a single earring in his left ear, a long feather. It reminds me of a gold "feather" earring I used to wear in the second piercing of my right ear just about every day in my early 20s. Most people would wear a tiny stud so I thought the dangle was a little different, like it gave me an edge. Eventually, someone asked me if I knew that a second piercing in the right ear was an accepted indication of homosexuality. They told me that the left ear denotes heterosexuality. There are signs? Is there a handshake too? Just two years ago, my neighbor in San Francisco told me he had assumed I was a lesbian because I drove an SUV. Huh? I have dogs! Since when did an earring or a car mean you are gay? Somewhere around age 24, I removed the third earring when I decided that maybe it wasn't so hip after all. Unless you are a 14 year old Tibetan herber, that is, who could care less what anyone makes of it. He does look pretty cool.

All three of the herbers are clearly fascinated with my gear, as well they should be given that they are scurrying up the mountain in a sweater and shoes that look like Keds. They have bags at their waists to stash whatever they find today and no tools of any kind. Each of them touches the altimeter that is hanging on my pack at my shoulder. I have it here so I can read it easily without having to do anything more than turn my head. I take it off the pack and stop to show the herbers how it works and what information it provides. They are rapt and put their hands out to stroke it as though it is a gem or an auspicious prize. After I clip it back on, they begin touching my straw hat, which I brought to shield me from the sun and haven't actually used yet. They touch pretty much everything on me from my water bottles to my camera to my sunglasses to my peace sign that is pinned to the back of my pack. This is getting ridiculous! I feel like I have to give them something so I take off the pack and offer them my gorp. They are very pleased with this and each take a handful before we start walking again. For some reason they want to walk behind me, as though they are shepherding me, but I am not comfortable with three unknown people in my butt so I indicate for them to walk beside me. Two of them walk ahead and the feather boy walks to my left, at the very edge of the path which is now about a 1000 feet above the valley. He has snot running out of his nose and occasionally tries to sniff it up. I do the same and we laugh. It is our only shared language, similar to the language you might share with a toddler when you fake sneeze after he sneezes. Babies think that's pretty funny, too. After this "conversation", the feather boy takes my hand. Now he wants to lead me up the mountain, which at this point is a fairly obvious path. I let him hold my hand for a moment and then thank him before reclaiming it.

As we approach the top of our ascent, the three herbers grow tired of our non-communication and move on ahead of me. It is remarkable how quickly they move at more than 13,000 feet. Within a couple of minutes, I am completely alone again. Just me and the yaks. There are a lot of baby yaks in the valley I am now walking through. I wonder if this will make the mother yaks more defensive so I decide to make every effort to cut them a wide berth. The yaks in Tibet are a lot calmer than in Bhutan but you still don't want to push it. This is their world I am in. I take a picture of a little black baby yak and continue on. A minute passes and I hear a scamper of footsteps behind me so I turn around and see that the baby is following right behind me, kind of like a dog might do when you pass their house. I try to shoo it and tell it to go back to its mother, but it just stares and blinks at me. So I start walking back toward her mother myself, expecting the baby to follow. But the baby just stands there, staring at me. She does not follow so I walk back toward her to start this process all over again. Apparently now she gets my message and sort of romps around me and back to her mother, as though this was all just a game. I feel the same way I have felt after finding a lost dog and successfully returning it to its home.

With everything in order, I continue through the valley for another hour. It begins to snow again so there is very little visibility. But still, I can see how immense the valley is with walls of mountains on either side. The river is running along the left side of me, white noise on white. There are herds of yaks dotting the mountains, black against the white. I come upon a large grouping of herber tents about 1000 feet up the mountain. They come running out of their tents to wave to me as I pass by. I wave back like the celebrity I am in these parts. Tashe Dale!

I start to feel as though I am too far ahead of my group. I look around to make sure that I am on the right path. I must be, I think, but I decide to stop and give others a chance to catch up. I sit on a rock and listen to the quiet. After about 10 minutes, I see Bart pop up over the hill down the valley. And then the others follow. He says that the horses are coming so I decide to wait some more so they can pass. Here they come:

And there they go

Look how much faster they are than us!

We all walk together for the rest of the valley, which takes us another hour or so. At this point, it is about 3pm. I can see our tents going up in the distance atop a field of snow that sits in a bowl of more snow that sits before Gyazi La pass, although I can't see it. The horses are fanned out across the camp, digging away at the snow to uncover the soil and look for food. When we reach the camp, we sit on our packs and wait as the tents are all pitched. I have to keep my snow pants on in this camp, even after a path is shoveled to the toilet. There is a lot of snow.
At dinner, we discuss the continuing snow which is coming down heavily now. We worry that it could affect our ability to make it over the pass. Dorji insists we will be okay. The horses can make it. Bart is concerned about our tents. They are not all weather tents and we have consistently had problems with condensation. They are not designed to withstand a big snowfall and because they are not A frame, the snow sticks to them and accumulates until they fall in. We decide that we need to clear the tents roughly ever 30-60 minutes at the rate it is snowing. Bart says he will sleep with a timer and get up and do this for us but our tents are in a cluster so we all hear the alarm every time it goes off. We wake at even intervals through out the night to clear our tents of the fast accumulating snow.