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.