"The Long Hike Out"
When I first heard Rick speak of the "Yosemite of Tibet" I thought for sure he was exaggerating. Yet now, I believed his claims were understated. Troy and I would stop and marvel at the cobalt blue, cloud-speckled skies, the jagged snow-capped peaks skirted with lush green forests which blended into the bouldered canyon below and finally punctuated by the foaming Yarlung Tsangpo. It was truly spectacular. Somehow we drew energy from this landscape.
And then off in the distance, I think Troy sighted it first, was a Buddhist prayer flag flapping lazily in the breeze.
A Buddhist prayer flag - our first sign of living civilization.
On the roof, Rick & Troy peer into the courtyard. There must be food!
In anticipation of the ubiquitous snarling mastiffs, we all picked up sticks and rocks and approached the stone structure. Our route took us onto the roof. We then descended a ladder into a courtyard. Soon a small Tibetan child peeked from a doorway. Then another above him and then two more - each a little taller. When the mother and father appeared it looked like a Tibetan totem pole peering from the gap of the open door.
We suddenly realized we were standing there armed with sticks and rocks. We put them down and in unison clasped our hands, bowed our heads and offered an enthusiastic, "Tashi delek!" Starring at us disbelievingly, they came out into the courtyard offering their own, "Tashi delek's" They were stunned.
Unabashedly, Rick started bringing his hand to his mouth gesturing food. Without hesitation the wife brought us tsampa and yak butter tea.
Tsampa is ground barley. Since barley is one of the few grains that grows at high elevations, it's a staple of the Tibetan diet. Tsampa is often mixed with yak butter tea to form edible dough balls. The greasy texture of the butter helps bind the barley flour. With no refrigeration, the yak butter soon turns rancid. Though the Tibetans love it, most westerners find the heavy rancid smell and taste unpalatable. I know we did. But out of courtesy we usually choked it down or discretely passed it off to a nearby dog.
As hungry as I was the tsampa still tasted like sawdust. But I ate it nonetheless. And I could feel my energy return as I gulped the high-fat, yak butter tea. Soon the shock of our unannounced arrival evaporated and everyone was smiling.
Rick and I revel in outside human contact.
I could feel my energy return as I gulped the high-fat, yak butter tea.
I found it curious. Though surprised, there was no hesitation with these people - there was no mistrust. Their minds - unadulterated by technology - welcomed us as family. "Try this in Scottsdale." I whispered to Troy, "We'd be locked up."
Their minds - unadulterated by modernization and technology - welcomed us as family.
This was a herder family with a few pigs, chickens, goats and yaks scattered everywhere. They even had a small pet monkey who was equally astonished at our appearance. We felt a need to explain our arrival. But no matter how hard we mimicked we couldn't get them to understand that we had floated down the river. The absurdity of that act was beyond them.
The father invited us into their home. I noted that everything in the small cabin was handmade. The beds, blankets, chairs, everything. The home and its inhabitants held a smell that we would get to know all too well in our Tibet travels. It was that gamy, smoky, earthy odor of sweat, cooking fires and rancid yak butter. The pungent aroma attaches to everything. It takes some getting used to. We never quite did.
The father beckoned us into a small side room and proudly pulled back a tattered curtain. There were five thangkas (Buddhist cloth paintings). I recognized Buddha, White Tara and Padmasambhava. The remaining two I didn't know.
(Little could I imagine that in three years White Tara would appear to a Buddhist/Bön shaman in a dream granting us unprecedented access into the Inner Gorge of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo.)
Rick saw some eggs. He mimicked boiling them over the open fire and the wife gladly obliged. They were delicious.
Then they broke out the homemade rice wine and the party began. They poured the concoction from a rusted kerosene can and in pure Tibetan style - the second you took a sip they would refill your glass. In other words, you never finished your drink. "Khampe!" was shouted with each new sip. Soon we were all laughing and pantomiming like long-lost friends.
I had a high-tech river knife. It could slice through an entangled bow line in one swipe. I gave it to the father. He was astonished. Of real use to him - I thought he was going to cry as he cradled it in his hands.
I gave my river knife to the father. He was ecstatic.
Here Troy shows him how to remove it from the plastic scabbard.
His boys look on in wonder.
It started to get late. Exhaustion was enveloping the three of us. We readied to set camp. And then the most unexpected thing happened. They insisted we sleep in their home on their bench beds. They insisted! Too tired to argue, I climbed under the thick yak skin blanket. It was heavenly. Drifting off to the dwindling flames of the cook fire, I remember the wife coming in and tucking the blanket under my chin. She did the same for Troy and Rick. "The human family." I thought as a deep sleep washed over me.
The next morning we woke feeling much better. The husband and boys had left. They were herding in the highlands. The wife packed us some eggs and tsampa.
Standing in the courtyard, we marveled at this family's magnificent view of the snow-covered peaks. It was like the Alps. We'd never seen a more picturesque setting for a home.
We said our goodbyes and walked out to the trail - an actual trail! About a hundred yards down I remembered I left my water bottle on the table. I ran back and grabbed it. As I was leaving the wife followed me to the gate. Thanking her again I headed down the path. I walked about twenty feet when something told me to stop. I turned around. She was still standing by the gate. She waved at me. I waved back. Our eyes locked. It was one of those moments when time stands still. I knew her somehow. And she knew me. We just stared. "Perhaps in another lifetime." I said to myself. Then I turned and walked away.
That day's hiking was steep and hot - quite hot. But at least we had a trail.
Around 4:00pm we came across an enchanted hamlet they called Dabucun. This was one of the most extraordinary and serene places we had ever seen - completely lost in time. Tucked on a hillside, the twenty or so primitive homes were made of stone and beams. They were stacked up the hill like we'd see on the Hopi Mesas in Arizona.
The hamlet of Dabucun reminded Troy and me of the Hopi Mesas in Arizona.
They all had prayer flags and bright, decorative painting around the window sills. There were goats and sheep and pigs and chickens and yaks. And all of this was surrounded by emerald green fields of barley. A couple of well placed stupas* were the candles on this fairytale cake. It was truly bucolic.
*Stupa is Sanskrit for heap. The stupa is to Buddhism as the cross is to Christianity. Though the stupa predates Buddhism, it is an important form of Buddhist architecture. The shrine is shaped like a bell. It has come to represent the seated Buddha when he achieved enlightenment. A stupa is generally a place of burial and a depository for religious objects. The worshiper does not enter the stupa - it is a solid object. Rather, as a meditational practice he or she walks around it in a clockwise direction focusing on the Buddha's teachings.
There was a peace here I had never found before or since.
If ever there was a Shangri La, this was it. As we approached we were met with the same shock and instinctive hospitality that we'd experienced the night before. The locals offered us tsampa, yak butter tea and hard boiled eggs. That night we slept in an enchanted garden.
As we were laying out our sleeping bags Troy said, "Look at this, on the log, it's a carved message from Eric!"
It read, "5/13 Waited for a while. Moving on."
"That was this morning!" exclaimed Rick, exacerbated. "What in the hell is this guy thinking? He knows he has our food. I specifically told him we had to all stay together. This is inexcusable."
We could feel Rick's boiling frustration. Eric's desertion really was a bone-head move. There was no logic to it whatsoever.
Prior to the trip Rick touted his friend as the ultimate outdoorsman. Troy and I knew the two of them were close. Out of respect for Rick we'd held off maligning him. But this message was the last straw. For the next hour the three of us would extol his stupidity. We concluded that he just grossly underestimated the distance out. But that still didn't explain his absconding with our food.
Expedition Member, Chris Grace's 1994 journal notes:
Eric showed up about 5 PM. They abandoned the raft and some equipment at a big falls in the upper third of the river. Soon after they separated. Eric elected to follow the river and they apparently attempted to climb higher to find a trail. Eric is a little unclear on the details. He has a way that almost makes him appear stoned. When you ask him questions his eyes look distant and he smiles or laughs without saying anything. When he saw the cook he swam across the river and followed the trail back to the village.
The cook returned later this afternoon. He is a hardy man knowledgeable of the country. He traveled past where Mr. Luo and I turned back. He crossed the river at the second village where there is a boat. There was no word on the remainder of the rafting party and he travel on about half way to the first village. At that point the trail heads up the mountain some 3000 feet and he elected to turn back.
We had considerable debate over our next course of action. Most of the group wanted to split up, sending one jeep back to Sangri under the assumption that the boating group had elected to return west, the shorter distance. The rest of us would then continue on to the confluence, where supposedly we would all be rejoined. There are two problems with this approach. First the rafting group may not be there at Sangri and if they are we may have difficulty finding each other at the confluence.
Bill Bacon prevailed with better judgment and we remained another night. Our fourth, while sending one vehicle back with a driver, Mr. Luo and Eric. I cannot help but have some concerns about Eric's story. His account of abandoning the boat and the manner in which he became separated is troubling. For an experienced group to have allowed themselves to be split up in that situation seems unthinkable to me. The other fact that I find confusing is that Eric is very vague on their plans upon abandoning the boat. It would seem to me that they would have discussed a game plan extensively. We do know that they abandoned their wetsuits, all their rafting gear and the metal camera box. While they had adequate gear to walk out it was not ideal, particularly their footwear. Eric stated that he thought they had headed up the mountain instead of following him along the river course. If they went back Mr. Luo should be able to pick them up at Sangri and return here by early afternoon.