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.


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