“Back to Lhasa”
We stayed with a young Monpa family in Zachu.
We spent two nights in Zachu with a young Monpa family. They were a delight and it elevated their community status to have us in their home. The husband stood around 5’2”. The soup bowl cut of his black hair framed an oval face with delicate tribal features. He was thin. There were no fat Monpas, Lopas or Khampas in the Hidden Lands. He wore a stained dress shirt, frayed gray trousers and the ubiquitous Chairman Mao tennis shoes. His hands and forearms were thick from work.
His wife was smaller with rounder features. Her soft skin gave her an angelic countenance. Her lips were full. She was pretty. There was a Chinese scarf balanced on her head. She sported hoop earrings and no less than ten brightly colored hoop bracelets on her left wrist. She wore a long sleeved light blue blouse and a dark full-length skirt. She, likewise, had on Chairman Mao tennis shoes.
Their two small boys were dressed in home sewn jackets and shorts. Neither wore shoes. They had colored yarn bracelets and each had a small photograph of the Dalai Lama worn on a string necklace. We noticed the matriarchal family dynamic and the children had the run of the roost. Not once did we see the mischievous boys disciplined.
Our presence was a major curiosity for those two days and a gaggle of children followed us everywhere. Troy and I had brought some “glow in the dark” florescent pens to hand out and they were a resounding success. This idea of distributing modern gifts wasn’t shared by all in our group.
Expedition Member Chris Grace’s 1994 journal notes:
I am never sure that contact with these remote, isolated peoples is beneficial to them, though undoubtedly inevitable. I can already discern some impact we have had by exposing them to a way of life so unlike the one they have had virtually for a thousand years. There is little here that would not have been available at the time of Christ. But now you can see glimmers of envy, the children, now familiar with us are far more aggressive with us and each other. Though my practice is not shared by others in the group, I try to stay somewhat aloof and never give things to them. I want there to be no more fascination with us than necessary.
Troy showing his camera and zoom lens to a young Monpa boy above the village of Zachu.
Another Monpa boy from Zachu.
Note the Dalai Lama portrait on a string around his neck.
Even in the Hidden Lands they love their God King.
Our final night sticks in my mind. We cooked dinner in the log home where we were staying. The family gave us some home-grown chili sauce that was nuclear hot. It went well with our rice and noodles. I relished this exotic meal. Looking around the room from my seat on the floor I saw Buddhist prayer flags and white khatas* mixed with the animistic masks of the Bön religion. “Soak it in, Gil” I told myself. Soon we were ready for bed and we climbed a creaky ladder up to the loft. There was a straw mattress and Troy, Jerry, Chris and I laid out our sleeping bags.
*The khata is a traditional ceremonial scarf. Over the centuries it has become an indispensable part of Tibetan life. Usually made of silk, it is white in color symbolizing purity and compassion. To present a khata, you first fold it in half length-wise. This represents the interdependence of the giver and receiver. Taking it in both hands you lift it up over the recipient’s head and with a bow place it gently around his or her neck.
This would be our final night in the Hidden Lands and I was enjoying the cacophony of native noises. The rain was pattering on the wood-shingled roof above, the young family was speaking their sing-song tongue below, and the yaks were lowing from their pen under the stilted home. It was a patch-work of sounds that felt like a warm quilt comforting me as I drifted to sleep.
An hour later I was awakened by a tremendous gust of wind. It blew straw and dust all over us. The rain had increased ten-fold, streaming through the roof cracks. Flashes of dazzled lightning were chased by explosions of thunder. The straw mattress had itching fleas. Monpa relatives had dropped by with chang (barley beer) and rice wine and both children and adults were singing, screaming and laughing at the top of their lungs. Not to be outdone, the yaks were mooing constantly, now accompanied by crowing roosters, bawling goats, and snorting pigs. And this went on for hours.
The next morning I recorded the following thoughts. They speak to one’s choice of perception in creating reality:
It was just a miserable night. But it’s funny because you’re so excited to be here. I am. I’m so excited to be in Tibet that even the miserable times aren’t miserable to me. I enjoy them. It’s like I’m totally energized all the time. In fact, I’m sitting here right now looking up into these Himalayan Mountains, at the blue sky and the big white clouds and the jagged snow-covered peaks. And this beautiful green valley with the yaks grazing and the stupa on the end of town and the little pigs. And the Tibetans are walking by staring at me like they’ve never seen anything like me before. What an adventure!
Our twenty mile hike back to Pelung was relatively uneventful but for one incident. Troy, Jerry and I hiked together. Two thirds of the way up the long hot trail we crossed a bubbling stream. The setting was idyllic. We called a rest stop and slung our packs to the ground, splashed cool water on our faces and sat on a nearby log in the protective shade of a Rhododendron tree. What happened next was right out of a horror film.
Expedition Member Jerry Dixon:
The hike out of the lower canyon was hot and humid. I was in the lead followed by Troy and Gil. We were all aware of the leeches that were everywhere and we watched for blood stains on our companions. About an hour into the hike I stopped to dip my bandana into a pool of water. When I put it back on my head I thought a lump of mud got on my eye. When I could not remove it I asked Troy to take a look. He cried out "Oh my God it’s a leech!”. Gil ran up and with his Harley Davidson bandana and twisted the leech off before it could suck all the optical fluid out of my eye. It left a small dent next to the pupil but I was able to see OK. I asked Gil if I could keep the Harley Davidson bandana after I thanked him for saving my eye.
Gil & Jerry above the stream where Jerry had a leech attach to his eye.
I remember gagging as Jerry held his eye open and I saw a squirming leech. “We have a major malfunction here…” I told Jerry. The greasy leech had attached to his cornea and was squirming to and fro securing its bite.
I tried to think of what to do. I couldn’t use a match that close to his eye. And pulling it off would leave the head lodged in his eyeball - guaranteeing infection. Then I remembered the “enlightened” circular technique the Monpas had shown me. I pulled off my bandana and began rotating the leech - in the Buddhist clockwise direction. I was worried about scraping off Jerry’s pupil but what the hell - this thing had to come off before it sucked all the juice out of his eyeball.
Sure enough, it finally plopped off. In Buddhist style, we placed it gently back into the jungle. Jerry’s vision was somewhat blurred for a while but it eventually healed. He asked me for the bandana. He said he wanted to frame it and hang it on a wall at home.
Troy makes some new friends on our hike back to Pelung.
Gil & Bill Bacon give the porters a break on the hike back to the Leaping Rat Lodge.
Arriving at the Leaping Rat Lodge in Pelung, we bade our porters goodbye and jumped in the waiting vehicles. It was a long three day drive back to Lhasa.
Gil, Jerry & Troy finish the trek and pose at the Leaping Rat Lodge.
Just outside Bayi one of the land cruisers broke down. We got to watch the driver - in his cheap suit and tie - rebuild the carburetor on the side of the road.
Taking the shorter northern return route (the bumpy dirt roads were equally deplorable), we drove up an exquisite canyon and stopped for the evening in a small Tibetan village called Kading. Here we had dinner. It was the best meal we’d had on the entire trip. Afterwards Rick, Eric and Jerry decided to drive on towards Lhasa. Jerry was having post-leech vision problems and Rick told us he had some marital issues to address. Eric wanted to go with Rick. But Mr. Luo was adamant that the rest of us stay to visit a sacred lake the next day.
We said our goodbyes and Troy, Chris and I decided to take an evening walk. It was almost a full moon. At 12,600 feet, the forested canyon and surrounding snow-clad peaks appeared ghostly. We followed a meandering track out of town. Clouds overhead raced by, latticed with the glowing moonlight. The evening took on a heavenly air. We turned off our flashlights and continued walking.
“Did you hear that?” Chris whispered.
Stopping to listen we weren’t sure. We continued our walk. And then, as if on cue, we heard the faint drifting melody of a female voice. The further we walked the louder it became. It was hauntingly beautiful - both angelic and operatic. As we continued the voice grew louder. Soon we were within fifty feet. The funneling moonlight washed the valley, illuminating a female form. Advancing, the voice began to screech. We backed off and it softened.
Retreating another 100 feet into a thicket we stood and listened. The pure elegance of the lilting melody is hard to describe. Like the sirens of Greek mythology, this alluring voice was enchantingly hypnotic. Enraptured, we stood motionless for an hour. Finally leaving, the voice floated into silence.
“I bet she was a simple herder,” Troy said, “and that was her protection song to keep us at bay.”
I have never heard such a sonorous voice before or after this Himalayan angel.
Returning to our lodge we were shocked to find relatively clean rooms. Following a bottomless night’s rest and three different kinds of deep fried dumplings for breakfast, we were on our way to the picturesque Basong Tso Lake.
Tashi Island and its Tsozong Gongba Monastery appear to float as the crown jewel
on the emerald Basong Tso Lake.
Built in 1400 A.D., Tsozong means “castle in the lake”.
Here we boarded a hand-pulled log ferry for the short crossing.
Troy, Chris and I each receive a special blessing from the head Lama in the monastery’s inner sanctum.
Here we boarded a hand-pulled log ferry for the short crossing to the enchanted Tashi Island. We wanted to visit the Nyingma, Tsozong Gongba Monastery. Built in 1400 A.D., Tsozong means “castle in the lake”. It was truly a marvel on the emerald water. Here we participated in a Buddhist blessing ceremony. When the head lama learned I had met the Dalai Lama he insisted Troy, Chris and I follow him into the monastery’s inner sanctum. He gave us each a special blessing and placed sacred khatas around our necks. As he draped the scarves we would touch foreheads.
We later learned that this touching of foreheads held special significance. In Buddhism the “all seeing” third eye is symbolically located on the forehead. This represents the sixth chakra of expanding intuition, wisdom and spiritual insight. By touching foreheads the lama was transferring awareness and forming a mutual and lasting bond. We thought of it as a “spiritual download”.
Ferrying back to the mainland we were immediately surrounded by a throng of Tibetans in traditional dress. The men were distinguished and the women elegant. Both were garnished in glacial turquoise. Children raced like dressed-up dolls and the Khampas tucked their curved daggers neatly in their bright red sashes. An expansive white tent with colored Buddhist motifs had been erected. There was quite a celebration underway.
A Buddhist ceremonial tent had been erected next to the lake.
Horns were blown and blessings bestowed.
Troy, Chris and I jumped in line for a 2nd set of blessings.
Many were tipsy on chang and they offered us glass after glass. Not to appear unsocial - we enthusiastically accepted and soon we were as lubricated as they were. The smiles and slaps on the back were infectious. In the grand tent attendants in brocade blew long brass horns and a row of monks sat cross-legged along a low table. They offered blessings to a continuous line of pilgrims. Trusting our inebriated state would not dilute a blessing’s power - we jumped in line and were duly anointed.
Not to be rude, Troy, Chris and I got just as drunk on chang as the locals.
Sooner than we wanted Mr. Luo announced it was time to go. We gathered a brightly clad group of locals on the ferry landing for a parting photograph. To this day it remains one of my favorites.
Truly a day to remember.