In the Abode of the Gods
Travel Stories: Jeffrey Tayler treks a Buddhist pilgrimage route through China's remotest, high-altitude domains
07.10.13 | 11:22 AM ET
Their sacred pleas released by winds to the heavens so near, swallowtail prayer flags of white, green, and royal blue, inscribed with the black curlicues of Buddhist scripture in Tibetan, fluttered against the clouds grazing the pass high above the Mekong River. I stood beneath them sweaty, panting from the altitude, peering down into Himalayan canyons with plunging forested slopes. With my Tibetan guides, Tenzin and his wife, Anadorma, I had just spent three hours ascending a punishing switchback trail from Yongzhi (their home village, at an altitude of 8,130 feet) on the Mekong’s stony banks. They paused briefly, exchanged hurried remarks in Tibetan, and, with sharp cries of yiip! yaaas! gaaa! prodded ahead the two mules carrying our gear and supplies.
This was no time to rest. Just after dawn we had set out from Yongzhi on a 15-day, 200-mile pilgrimage trek around the third holiest mountain in the Tibetan Buddhist cosmogony, the 22,107-foot-high Kawa Karpo, in northwestern Yunnan province. For Tibetan Buddhists, only Mounts Kailash and Nanja Bawa are more sacred. Tibetan lay Buddhists and lamas perform the pilgrimage to put themselves in good standing with Samsara, the deity who, depicted on their temples’ murals as clawed, fiendish, fanged, and red, turns the Wheel of Life and determines their next reincarnations on the basis of acquired sonam, or spiritual merit. (Otherwise in Buddhism samsara denotes a soul’s endless wandering through repeated deaths and rebirths, a fatiguing cycle ending only for the enlightened few, with the attainment of Nirvana.) Earn enough merit, Buddhists say, and your next reincarnation will be an auspicious one, as a human, and not, say, as a lowly scorpion or snake.
Tibetans hold that the deities Kawa Karpo and his wife Metsmo inhabit the mountain’s summit, while a host of lesser divinities haunt the vales below. Such beliefs have no real place in the godless philosophy of compassion, nonviolence, and renunciation taught by the Buddha in northern India, in the 6th century BC. There Buddhism flourished, providing the downtrodden with a refuge from the caste system and winning over kings, but eventually, Hinduism largely subsumed it (though it still draws Dalit converts). But when Buddhism reached Tibet a thousand years later, it changed, fusing with the indigenous Bon religion, an ancient animist faith that hallows nature and populates the landscape with gods, and still enjoys the loyalty of 10 percent of Tibetans. Bon influence, in fact, is what makes Tibetan Buddhism “Tibetan;” and the Dalai Lama himself has recognized Bon as one of the key religions of Tibet. We might expect him to: The concept of continuously reincarnated Dalai Lamas with a divine mandate to rule is a vestige of Bon.
If Kawa Karpo’s ridges rise and fall like the spine of a tyrannosaurus rex ready to pounce, its summit stands in northwestern Yunnan province, and not in the adjacent Tibet Autonomous Region (through which the pilgrimage route loops). This makes sense: Along with parts of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces, northwestern Yunnan belongs to historical Tibet (that is, Tibet at its most geographically expansive, before the Chinese occupied it in 1950 and redrew its boundaries), and is ethnically Tibetan. Yunnan is, in fact, the least “Chinese” region of China, and is home to 28 of China’s officially recognized minority peoples. Twelve hundred miles southwest of Beijing, Yunnan only became part of China in the 13th century, when Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty, annexed it. From its pristine heights, two of Asia’s greatest rivers, the Mekong and the Salween, cascade south into Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. The province’s remoteness and natural beauty have of late served as a cash asset: in 2002 the Chinese government grandiosely renamed it “Shangri-la” (from James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon) to promote tourism as a source of income following the abolition of commercial logging.
Long enamored of Buddhism and the compassion, nonviolence, and transcendence of desire and suffering it espouses, I decided to embark on the Kawa Karpo pilgrimage—an enactment of the allegory that life is a journey as steep and circuitous as those depicted in paintings in Buddhist (and Hindu) temples. If I could not bring myself to believe in reincarnation, I nevertheless relished the prospect of passing 15 days communing with a wilderness redolent of Buddhism and conducive to contemplating its enlightening doctrines. I’ve come to believe that these doctrines, with their stress on universal tolerance and renunciation, might offer us a way out of our current planet-wide crisis of diminishing resources, relentless consumerism, and terrorist violence.
Tibetan pilgrims have trekked the route since times as immemorial as the origins of Bon. The first Westerner to undertake it did so only 80 years ago, and foreigners are still a rare sight. In fact, people of any sort would be few when I chose to go—at the end of the (summer) typhoon season. Tibetans usually head to Kawa Karpo in the drier months of autumn, after the harvests are in. But I preferred the uncrowded time, the better to appreciate the wilds.
There would be risks. The route consists mostly of precipitous, avalanche-prone mountain trails, many of them above 13,000 feet, and marked, if at all, by piles of mantram-inscribed prayer stones in the lower reaches, or by prayer flags at the passes. Of their perils I had heard much sobering talk when I arrived in Zhongdian, the nearest town. In the previous year alone on Kawa Karpo, a Japanese hiker had died in a landslide, and two British travelers had succumbed in a snowstorm. Nuoji Zhaxi, the local entrepreneur who helped me arrange my pilgrimage, also told me of four Chinese crushed recently in a rockfall near the village of Yubeng, and, most infamously, of the party of 17 Japanese mountaineers who, in 1992, died in an avalanche with their two local guides while trying to scale the peak itself.
“The gods want us to worship Kawa Karpo,” Nuoji told me gravely, “but not to touch it. Those who touch it, die.”
Kawa Karpo remains unscaled. So dangerous are trails near its summit that some devout Buddhists attempt them in the hopes of accelerating their passage into the next life. Suicide pilgrimages on the mountain are a tradition—one of which I hoped not to partake. So, I took care to outfit myself properly, and arranged for experienced guides, Tenzin and Anadorma, both 36, who for most of the year are small-time farmers of Yongzhi’s scant arable land. Tenzin, an eight-time pilgrim, was tall, bony, and stoop-shouldered, with a frequently pained expression on his otherwise benevolent face; Anadorma, a veteran of five tours, was tirelessly cheerful and agile, and kept her long black hair bundled beneath a baseball cap turned backwards. They had loaded their two mules, white Hujya and brown Ramo, with provisions (rice, salted pork, green peppers, and tea, bought in the base-camp village of Deqin, a six-hour cliffside drive and hike from Yongzhi), utensils, and even dried corn for the high passes, where fodder for our pack animals would be scarce. Our common language would be spoken Mandarin, of which I have a working knowledge.
The trek would involve no technical climbs, so my equipment and garb would be basic: a tent, a lightweight sleeping bag and ground pad, trekking shoes, polarized sunglasses, and rain gear. A GPS module would let me check altitudes and distances; a pocket thermometer clipped to my expedition knife, temperatures. For spiritual sustenance I packed two key Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada (something like an extended Buddhist Sermon on the Mount); and the Bodhicaryavatara, a guide to enlightenment by the Indian monk of the 8th century, Shantideva. The Dhammapada belongs to the ancient Indian canon; Shantideva’s text holds sway in both Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.
Thus kitted out, we quit the pass above Yongzhi. We marched north, parting the clouds, along a mostly level, foot-wide trail. My heart and lungs pumped hard in the thin tepid air. But within an hour we were engaged in a loping descent through dewy grass toward a waterfall, a slit of froth and glitter tumbling from a cliff into the dark forest, with Kawa Karpo’s massif on our right, across a ravine, lost in the clouds.
Downward we strode, our mules’ bells ringing.
By noon we had descended to the Mekong’s headwaters, which roared blue-white at trailside, and found ourselves penetrating a jungle, stepping over mossy ledges, marching through tunnels formed by giant arching ferns and lushly leaved trees draped with garlands of phosphorescent gossamer moss. The route’s altitude varies from 6,000 feet to almost 16,000 feet, and cuts through three (of four) types of biogeographic terrain: humid tropical, humid temperate, and polar. The primeval forests of Yunnan, some of China’s last, support 7,000 species of plants and 263 varieties of orchids, plus 450 kinds of birds, as well as snow leopards, bears, and the elusive Yunnan golden monkey. But just when it seemed we were most alone, wandering through enchanted domains, skirted women in pink tassled headdresses would cross our path, smiling and hailing us in Tibetan, shouldering baskets brimming with wild mushrooms (one of the few regional exports). Then they, like sylvan sprites, would scurry up a slope and into the foliage, and be gone.
That evening the skies cleared as we left the jungle and strode down the rocky path into Yonsiton, a sweeping, stone-dotted meadow overhung by jagged bluffs. Above the Mekong great trees rose like sentinels, silhouetted against drifting banks of fog. A pair of wizened cowherds in black boots, baggy brown jackets, and worn leather hats, welcomed us with few words and radiant smiles. My guides put up in an abandoned herders’ hut. I thought I would do so too, but, it was foul with dung. So I pitched my tent on a knoll just beyond it.
After we used chopsticks to down a meal of stir-fried pork and rice cooked over a campfire fueled with branches Anadorma collected, I retired. The sun sank behind the peaks, the azure empyrean flushed with lavender before darkening to star-studded cobalt. Gazing out through my tent’s gauze door, I watched meteors flit and flash, until I drifted off to sleep.
Sometime after midnight rain began pattering down. The sun never rose; the sky at dawn just shaded from black to luminous gray.
“Dogela Pass, Dogela Pass,” said Tenzin, standing over the campfire as we ate breakfast. “We must start now, because ahead, high above, is Dogela Pass.”
We were soon on the move, hiking back into a jungle invaded by drizzle and billowing mists, always skirting the Mekong. Now, for me, the charms of the trek gave way to its inevitable discomforts: fatigue and aching thighs; sweat soaking through my clothes; and shortness of breath that increased with our gain in altitude.
Just past a clearing called Dokin Lata, we crossed a wooden footbridge festooned with prayer flags, and found ourselves at the base of a steep tumble of boulders and bamboo thickets, riven by a waterfall plunging down over rocks from fog-obscured heights.
“Where’s the trail?” I asked Tenzin.
He pointed to the waterfall.
“No. The rains flood the trail now. It’s the typhoon season. Wait.”
He unsheathed his knife, dipped into the bamboo grove, and hacked about. A few minutes later he emerged clutching a stalk. He cut off a four-foot segment, honed the bottom end into a sharp V, and sawed the upper end flat.
“Here,” he said, “you need this to hike with, or it’s not safe.” He turned to the mules. “Yiip! yaaass! gaaa!”
“Yiip! yaaass!” echoed Anadorma.
Following the mules, we began climbing from rock up to slippery rock, hoisting ourselves a foot or two higher with each precarious step. Water poured down and the fog thickened, bamboo groves hedged in over the stream. Within an hour my thighs ached and my gait grew unsteady, and my (modern, waterproof) boots slalomed over moss and into puddles. Tenzin and Anadorma climbed on methodically, never pausing. Whenever I felt like complaining, I glanced at their footwear: cheap Chinese sneakers and shreds of socks.
My eyes stung with perspiration. I glanced up the trail. Two streambed switchbacks above me labored the mules, their loads wobbling, their iron-shod hooves clacking and slipping on the boulders, causing Anadorma to gasp. All at once I imagined the mules losing their balance and crashing down on top of us—a real and potentially lethal possibility. I knew from bitter experience that laden mules, like people, could misstep in the mountains and fall.
I dragged myself upwards, wondering how I was to experience the spiritual on a pilgrimage that might end up mostly a workout for the body. Then I remembered the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada: “The mantram is weak when not repeated; a house falls into ruin when not repaired; the body loses health when it is not exercised.”
Spiritual, in other words, should not mean sweat-free.
Around one in the afternoon, with the waterfall now far below us, we were trudging above timberline beneath looming anvil peaks, on a path zigzagging up an ashen scree, heading for prayer flags that flapped madly in clouds blowing through a saddle of barren rock: Dogela Pass, at 14,384 feet. Winds now chilled the sweat covering me, and I took baby steps to save strength, feeling as though a fiendish Samsara had wracked me all day me on his infernal wheel.
Anadorma, in the lead and till then spry, suddenly staggered and halted. She bent over double. Tenzin took out a pack of cigarettes, of all things, and handed it to her. Then he came over to me and proffered the pack.
“What,” I asked, “Are you crazy? We’re at 14,000 feet here! And anyway I don’t smoke!”
Looking grave, he pressed the cigarettes on me. They turned out to be a box of Chinese medicine for people with heart trouble; he wanted to share his pills with me, in case I needed them. Anadorma looked pale. She popped one and swallowed.
“Oh my God,” I asked her, “are you okay?”
Holding her hand to her heart and inhaling deeply, she averted her gaze. After a while she got up and started walking again.
A half-hour later we reached the prayer flags, a mess of ragged banners strung from poles leaning every which way, many collapsing. Wind-driven clouds poured through the pass like steam from a locomotive’s smokestack. Anadorma’s eyes had lost all their sparkle. She and Tenzin dropped to their knees and began erecting tiny huts from stone slabs—“for a dead person’s soul to live in,” explained Tenzin. Tibetans believe that, after death, our spirits spend 49 days on earth before reincarnation, and so need a temporary dwelling place. The yak-butter candles the bereaved burn in Buddhist temples are meant to light their way.
Anadorma stood up, her hands trembling, swallowing hard and rubbing her eyes. Finished with his hut, Tenzin pulled a rope decorated with prayer flags from our white mule’s side pack, and tied it to a stake. Anadorma did the same, driving her walking stick into the ground and attaching her own banner to it. As mists flooded over her, she turned and faced the pass. Tears gushed out and she began choking through a recitation of prayers. She then dropped to the ground and prostrated herself three times, touching her forehead to the earth.
Then she stood in silence, looking down.
“Are you okay?” I asked softly after a minute or two.
Her face screwed up. “Papa!” she cried out, her voice cracking, tears streaming anew down her red cheeks. “He died two years ago!” She sobbed and wiped her eyes again, and turned away.
We stood for a while longer saying nothing, and then made our way up over the pass and into Tibet. From here to the horizon, peaks of 19,000-20,000 feet rose like slumbering Titans of gunmetal rock, their heads hidden in clouds.
We spent the night at Tsisonton, a meadow at 12,200 feet, alpine and fresh with conifers, and traversed by the Salween River, our new aqueous trailside companion, one tamer and less voluminous than the Mekong.
Tending another meal of rice, spicy green peppers, and gristly pork, Anadorma sat by the cooking fire as its embers dwindled, her face drawn, and occasionally daubed away a tear. Even Buddhists as devout as she could, at times, find less than perfect solace in their faith.
Fog slunk down from the surrounding crags and enveloped us in a milky gloom that turned leaden as the light failed; and our breath puffed white as we huddled around the fire, saying nothing. Later, as I settled into my sleeping bag, now and again gasping for breath in the chill damp air, I could do nothing but wish for the morning.
“This place is called Kanuma,” announced Tenzin in a hushed voice, dropping back from the mules and stopping under a canopy of dripping deciduous trees. He stared reverently at a stream bubbling out from a waist-high cave, at the mouth of which shiny rocks lay plastered with one-yuan notes. He pressed his palms together, bowed, and recited prayers. “The god Tsukya lives here. We must honor him as we pass his home.” To ignore the deity might invite his wrath—not all Bon’s gods are kindly—which we could not afford in this wilderness.
He drew a one-yuan bill from his pocket, dipped it in the stream, and smeared it on the rock; he cupped his hands and took a drink. He stepped aside to let me do the same. He then pressed his palms again together and prayed. We grabbed our walking sticks to rejoin Anadorma up the trail.
With Kawa Karpo always a powerful presence mounting into the clouds, we traipsed on through jungled lowland ravines dank and dark, save for the glowing lime-green of vine-draped boughs, or errant phantoms of fog pierced by solitary spears of sunlight. The forest teemed with hidden life, often signaled by rustlings from unseen corners, the cries of secreted birds, the chants of invisible insects. It was easy to see why the votaries of Bon populated these redoubts with deities: every rock and fallen log seemed alive, every dell the home of concealed beings espying our progress through their domain.
The trail worsened, degenerating into a swath of muck, ankle-deep puddles, and slippery stones; we stumbled upward, with Anadorma lashing ahead the frightened, often stumbling, mules. Somewhere far beneath us the Salween boomed, growing mighty with tributaries rushing down the slopes and investing the trail. As we pressed through the foliage, fat black slugs affixed themselves to my bare hands and neck. It was hard for me to get a grip on their squishy, slimy, annulated bodies and remove them. Then I realized that they were leeches, capable of cutting a Y-shaped incision in skin with the razor-thin teeth of their sucker mouths. I scraped them off, disgusted with the sores they left behind.
We finally emerged beneath cliffs by the river, at a grassy clearing named Gaituchyeta (altitude 9,940 feet), and halted for lunch. Here we found five or six garrulously cheery, scruffy-haired pilgrims, strapping their provisions to their backs (no mules for them) in burlap bags, readying themselves to depart. They left behind no litter; most pilgrims are too poor to throw away anything.
We started a fire in a makeshift hearth of castaway stones. The sun flayed us with fierce yet welcome rays; a rainbow limned prismatic colors into the azure. But our mule Hujya, once divested of his load by Anadorma, was unimpressed. He promptly lay down, his belly distended. He showed no interest in all the succulent grass around.
“He’s been overeating,” said Tenzin. “I’ll cure him.”
From his bamboo walking stick he cut a stilleto sliver four inches long. Hujya took alarmed note and clambered to his feet, neighing as his masters approached. They grabbed his head and pried open his mouth, exposing teeth encrusted with yellowish-green cud. Tenzin inserted his fingers between them and yanked out his bulbous, pink-gray tongue. He jabbed the stiletto into the tongue’s underside. Hujya, to my astonishment, offered little resistance. At least the first time. The stiletto somehow went awry, so Tenzin had to jab once more, twice more, and twist it in hard. On the third try blood spurted out, Hujya bucked, and they released him. He loped away, dripping blood, shaking his head and snorting.
But within an hour he was standing by the Salween, tearing grass from the muddy sward and chewing. Tenzin’s folk treatment had somehow cured him.
The subtropical damp seeped into everything we owned; a warm mist floated in the air, settling clammily on our skins. Surely this was 100-percent humidity: I huffed onto my camera lens and the moisture would not evaporate. It was therefore with consummate relief that, at noon on our fifth day, we stopped for lunch in a fire-heated tent kiosk of sorts that sold Pepsis and (un-Buddhist) beer and the usual buckets of instant Chinese noodles to pilgrims. A grizzled smiling elder, who, despite his age, had just fathered a son he kept swaddled floppily to his back, offered us his hearth to cook lunch over.
The fire lifted ours spirits. I took the chance to dry socks I had washed two days ago. I draped them on my walking stick and hung them over the flames.
The elder sat back, his smile fading. Anadorma stopped stirring her pot and regarded me with cold eyes.
“Ah, what’s wrong?” I asked.
Said Tenzin solemnly, “Please remove the socks from the fire. Fire is sacred to us, and may not be used to dry socks or underwear. It could offend the gods.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!”
I did as I was told. Everyone smiled again. How alien Tibetan Buddhism was proving to me! The rational precepts I so admired took second place to Bon-inspired superstitions. My pilgrimage around this holy mountain was not enhancing my belief, strongly held, in Buddhism’s possible role as a potentially saving (rational) ideology, but was rather driving home the fact that once in the hands of man, it had been encumbered with all the trappings of local religion and thus unsuited for universal application.
An hour later we slipped through a tangle of prayer flags and crossed over Nantulaka Pass, out of fog and into light. The sun straightaway burned off our sweat. Gone was the jungle. Dry pink gravel, not mud, now skid underfoot as we descended through groves of pines, looping down toward the village of Abe. The temperature rose into the 90s, wearying us, slowing us down. Ticks now replaced leeches, skittering toward us, hungry for blood, over the pebbly ground whenever we stopped.
Perched on a promontory jutting above the valley floor, Abe was all stone houses and cornfields occupying terraces of dry earth. As evening fell we marched in, covered with dust, and made for the pilgrims’ shelter (a concrete veranda under a wooden roof) on the outskirts. Clamorous gangs of rag-clad children skipped by; women in chupas (traditional pink woolen shawls) and floral skirts trudged along, sweating under baskets of produce. Goats, sheep and donkeys snooped through refuse heaps, prodded by toddlers scarcely udder-high.
Soon two Buddhist monks, smiling dusty fellows dressed in robes of burgundy and saffron, stopped and peered into our courtyard, studying me with amazement as I set up camp. I went out to greet them. Li Qi Zhaxi was 27; Zhaxi Jansu, 36. They belonged to a monastery of the Nyingmapa (“Old Order”), the Tantric school founded in Tibet in the eighth century by the Indian monk Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche, in Tibetan), who allegedly converted Bon’s gods to Buddhism. Tantric Buddhists recite the Sanskrit mantram, Om mani padme hum, or “Hail the jewel in the lotus,” in meditation as a means to enlightenment, and to invoke the deity of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, the patron saint of Tibet.
Before the Chinese reoccupied the feudal theocracy of Tibet in 1950 (the current Dalai Lama was then its ruler, and remains the head of the government in exile, in India, to which he fled in 1959), an estimated 25 percent of Tibetans were monks, and monasteries numbered around 2,700. The Chinese, especially during the Cultural Revolution, destroyed large numbers of monasteries, perhaps leaving as few as eight (though many are now being restored). Li and Zhaxi told me that monks in their monastery outside Deqin numbered about a hundred, and everything there was fine. They buttressed the impression I had that at least in the remoter parts of historical Tibet, the authorities did little to interfere with traditional Tibetan life.
“We’re doing this pilgrimage for the second time,” Jansu said. “We’ve taken two months to get this far.” He glanced at our mules. “We carry all we have on our backs.”
Two months! Surely they traveled following the path laid out by Shantideva in the Bodhicaryavatara, “taking [their] rest and wandering as [they] please . . . a clay bowl [their] only luxury.” With my pack animals and GPS, I felt like a profligate on a luxury tour.
“Are you begging for alms,” I asked, “as Buddha’s disciples did?”
“No, we’re buying our food,” said Zhaxi, showing me a wad of yuan.
I told them of my interest in Buddhism and queried them about their practices. Had they read the Dhammapada?
“The what?” both replied.
Neither had heard of it; they read the Nyingmapa texts. I sensed again how deeply the (Indian) Buddhism I studied differed from theirs. I felt an even deeper alienation when they pulled out their Pö Bas, thumb-sized leaden statuettes of the Buddha on what looked like stout triangular knife blades. Good luck charms, they said, asking me to show them mine. I had none, and told them I didn’t believe in such things.
“What, you don’t carry a Pö Ba?” said Li. “Aren’t you worried on such a pilgrimage? With my Pö Ba, I know no harm will come to me!” Tenzin looked equally alarmed. What the heck was I doing out in these dangerous mountains without a Pö Ba?
We were picking our way along a narrow trail circumventing a wall of rock and packed earth. A drizzle was falling—bad news.
“Weixian!” (dangerous), Tenzin declared, slowing and pointing to cracks in the trail. Boulder-size stretches of it, sodden by rains, often broke free and slid down the mountain during the typhoon months, which were also avalanche season—that is, now.
The next morning had come on foggy but torrid. We had left Abe kicking up dust, following a tenuous, foot-wide path; one slippage of earth, and we would tumble hundreds of feet into the Salween below. Death could strike, in Shantideva’s words, like “a shattering thunderbolt from nowhere.”
Floods had washed out the pedestrian bridge we needed to cross, which compelled us to detour up along the Yakura (a river as frothy and violent as the Salween), our destination, I assumed, another bridge.
But no. Between steel fixtures on opposing banks, 50 yards apart, a pair of rusty cables hung over the water.
“We’ll have to cross by pulley,” Tenzin shouted above the currents’ roar. “I’m afraid now. This could scare the mules and hurt them.”
The wild-haired pulleymasters, a man and a boy as wiry as they were grimy, allowed for little ceremony. Anadorma presented herself at the cable first. The man swung the “saddle” (a loop of doubled-over canvas dangling on a chain hooked to the cable) around her behind. He grabbed a mess of weeds (to protect his hand), settled into his own saddle, embraced her tightly with his free arm, and kicked off. The two zinged down over the rapids—he controlled their speed with his weedy grip on the cable—and landed with a bounce on the other side. The boy transported our gear the same way. The man then zinged back over to us from the second, higher pole-and-cable arrangement.
“Bring on the mules!” he shouted, switching the cloth saddle with heavier tackle.
Tenzin led unsuspecting Ramo to the pulleymaster. Without ado, the man looped and locked him into the tackle, placed his foot on his flank, and shoved the poor beast bug-eyed over the edge. The mule, whinnying insanely, swung out three-quarters of the way and lost momentum, halting above the rapids, where he hung kicking and neighing in blind panic.
A frenzied exchange of shouts ensued, with the man issuing commands to the boy on the other bank; the lad strapped himself into his saddle and pulled himself along the cable, stopping well clear of the lethally flailing hooves. He swung a hooked cable that latched onto the mule’s line, and then pulled himself and his terrified charge back to the other bank. He nearly caught a horseshoe in the face releasing him from bondage.
Hujya and Tenzin went next, leaving me last. “Cross the river bravely,” said the Buddha, referring to the torrents of fear and desire one must ford to attain Nirvana. I managed to be brave enough, though the cable somehow scraped my shirt, shredding it and singing my chest. But I alighted otherwise unharmed.
We set out to rejoin the Salween, traipsing through barrens where prickly pear cacti replaced pines, with the sun hot on our necks and the temperature rising into the nineties. Now and then Tenzin severed cactus leaves with his knife, split them, and offered me the icy, pulpy green fruit within—a cooling consolation as the heat mounted.
By late afternoon, caked in grit and mightily tuckered out, we reached the shepherds’ huts of Wencuan, a clearing by the river at a mere 5,800 feet, where we would rest for a day—our seventh on the trail, and the halfway point in the pilgrimage.
The Salween eddied and seethed beyond our camp, which stood beneath tawny serrated cliffs, 15 or 20 feet from the water. After pitching my tent, feeling filthy after having taken only occasional bucket baths for a week, I grabbed my soap, shampoo, and towel, and climbed across boulders to a secluded cove, fed by a spring, where a depression of stone, ringed by ferns and flowers, formed a thigh-deep pool emptying through a tiny channel into the river.
I stripped and climbed down into the pool, expecting the shock of frigid water. But it was warm! (Wencuan, I later learned, means “warm springs.”) Nothing could have raised my spirits more. I soaped and splashed, heated further by the bronzing afternoon sun, my aching joints soothed and loosening. A week’s worth of dirt swirled away into the Salween. Bathing here seemed like a sacred ablution.
I finished and spread out to dry my clothes, money belt, and boots, all of which had been damp for days and smelled of mildew. Then I climbed up the main boulder and stretched out on its hot surface, to let the sun heal me further. Above me dangled prayer flags, and someone had carved Tibetan verse around a pair of open eyes etched into the rock wall above me, reminding me of the Buddha’s words: “The disciples of [the Buddha] are wide-awake and vigilant, rejoicing in meditation day and night.” Avoiding intoxicants, ever wary of desire’s deceits, one strives purposely for Nirvana—the state of truth and bliss beyond self, passion, and cravings.
I meditated, my thoughts gradually disappearing into the river’s entrancing roar, until I surrendered to the Void. Or, more succinctly, fell asleep.
Back at camp a while later I found that Tenzin and Anadorma had also bathed. They sat, spiffy and burnished, by the fire sipping cups of bai jiu (moonshine), enjoying the evening cool.
“Like some?” asked Tenzin.
I wanted nothing to interfere with my senses’ imbibing all such a healing evening had to offer.
The moon soon waxed, bats circled and dipped in the gloaming. We chatted, really relaxing for the first time, and stayed up late. (We were to rest the next day.) They told me about their daughter and how she has to study in another village because remote Yongzhi has only a (poor) primary school. Though belonging to a minority people exempt from the one-child law, they found one child was enough—all they could afford, in fact. The politics of repression never came up. Villagers in remote areas such as theirs had little to do with the Chinese authorities.
Tenzin said, “I’m happy with my work. I get to make the pilgrimage over and over; the more times, the better.” The merit he gained would return to him. He had chosen what the Buddha called the “right livelihood”—a prerequisite for enlightenment.
On a black stormy night two days later all notions of bliss had passed. We found ourselves beyond the village of Tsana, struggling up another splashing cataract-path, never having recovered from the previous day, when the sun broiled the mercury to a hundred degrees, the earth turned ashen and sterile, landslides had destroyed stretches of the trail, and not even servings of cactus fruit could quench our thirst. Trekking in the dark here was madness, for obvious reasons; but, having no Tibet permit (which Nuoji had lacked the time to arrange for me in Zhongdian), I could not afford to be seen by the Chinese authorities in Tsana. So we crossed through it after midnight, encountering no one.
Now we clambered up and up, slipping on the rocks. My headlamp cast enough light for me to see, but not, of course, for the mules, which often stumbled. Stone walls soon hemmed in the watery trail—we were, it seemed, cutting through a village. Finally, on hearing Tenzin’s plan to forge ahead to Sondula Pass all night and all the next day, I objected. Tsana was behind us, and now we had to rest and wait for dawn.
He assented. We turned off the gutter and into a village home’s courtyard. Relieved, I got careless. I took two steps and fell over a pile of firewood, landing on my hands. As I pulled myself up, my left hand burned with pain. I trained my lamp on it to discover I had dislocated my ring finger, knocking it out of joint at the main knuckle, leaving the last two phalanges nearly perpendicular to the first.
Tenzin and Anadorma gasped, aghast. Straightaway urgent thoughts assailed me: How could I go on like this for another week? How could I endure even the three-hour hike back to Tsana and whatever crude medical center they had, a hike that would probably end with my expulsion from Tibet and the failure of my pilgrimage?
I grabbed my finger and wrenched it back into joint.
I fell dizzy onto the logs, stars spinning before my rain-pelted eyes. A wave of nausea swept through me. I closed my eyes and tried to blank my mind.
Several minutes later, I timidly tried to flex my fingers. They all worked. I lay there panting for a while, under my guides’ distressed gaze. Then I rose, and we set up camp. Until sunrise we slept.
A true pilgrimage must involve suffering, I reasoned, watching my finger swell and turn blue.
Three days later, in the shadow of soaring arrowhead peaks, we hobbled into Jaka (altitude 8,275 feet), a meadow where pilgrims rest before the last, grueling two-day ascent through alpine forest to confront Kawa Karpo at its closest near Shula Pass, the highest of the journey (at 15,764 feet). After this comes the descent to Meili, the terminus village back in Yunnan province. Fatigued, still addled by the thin air, and my finger hurting and increasingly stiff, I felt in sore need of comfort. But Jaka was a mournful place. By the turgid Wei Chu River a deserted chorten, messily adorned with prayer flags, occupied a gravel courtyard scattered with yellowed leaves from a shaggy-branched tree; next to the temple stood a whitewashed stupa, emblazoned with protecting images of the snow lion (Tibet’s symbol). Between the two structures prayer wheels, metallic cylinders embossed with mantrams, stood idle, their gilt exteriors catching the sun’s expiring rays.
After hailing the disheveled caretaker, who had emerged from a stone hut across a fallow field to greet us, tugging at his gold earring, my guides set themselves up in his spare room. I pitched my tent by the chorten’s barred entrance, noting, on its door frame and cornices, yellow and blue geometric designs, and pictures of the Buddha in his various manifestations seated in the lotus position.
About the shrine hung an air of loss and abandon, as if pilgrims would never again cheer this spot. The Buddhas, impassive in their portraiture, gazed down at me in the cooling air. The lapidary lines introducing the Heart Sutra in A Buddhist Bible sounded softly in my mind:
Everything changes, everything passes,
Things appearing, things disappearing,
But when all is over—everything having appeared and disappeared,
Being and extinction both transcended—
Still the basic emptiness and silence abides,
And that is blissful Peace.
Such cold solace! Buddhism posits the Void, boundless eons fore and aft, the continuous death and rebirth of worlds, worlds in which our presence is fleeting and, in effect, doomed—if we chose to perceive our own failings and successes, our self-made sound and fury, as lasting and meaningful. The way out is to transcend our concerns for Self into compassion for the Other.
But as the final sliver of orange sun slipped behind the mountains above, a plump-cheeked teenage herder ambled into Jaka, prodding her two cows with a switch. She saw me and raised her hands, palms pressed together, in a lively greeting, and smiled, instantly raising my spirits. She then skipped around the prayer wheels, spinning them (each squeaky rotation represents a mantram recited), thus invoking Avalokiteshvara, the deity of compassion, the “Glorious Gentle One” who watches over Tibet.
She waved goodbye to me and poked her cattle up the trail. From on high she looked back at me and, laughing, waved some more. Her laugh rescued me. I climbed into my tent and fell asleep listening to the Wei Chu’s throaty riverine song. In the Void only compassion and human warmth provide relief.
“Kawa Karpo!” declared Tenzin and Anadorma reverently two evenings later, as we and our mules stumbled to a halt at the edge of a ledge. “Kawa Karpo!”
Across from us at Meiju Buguo (a cloud-level bluff at 13,751 feet) the Great God Peak towered 9,000 feet higher still, reaching into the stormy ether, its summit wreathed in churning cumulus, its tarry black slopes streaked with sugary snow and sliding down into an abyss of mist beneath us. Bon legend has it that Kawa Karpo was once a hydra-headed evil deity who reigned in terror over the Tibetans. The Buddha defeated him in battle, took him as a disciple, converted him to compassion, and, finally, gifted him with this mountain in reward for his transformation.
But as Zhaxi had warned, proximity to the godhead comes at a price. Deprived of oxygen, beset with chills, I collapsed on my haunches, my eyes trained upward. In this Tibetan world of rock and sky and ever-thinning air, I faced the awesome Deity on his own lofty terrain, craving, for the first time, the intercession of the Glorious Gentle One.