The altitude in Darchen is just over 15,000 feet, 5,000 meters.
I had explained to Sarosh, who should know by now, and Tashi, who wouldn’t know, that I am that anomaly in the East, a person who cannot sit cross- legged. They found me a child’s folding chair. I adored it. I sat in it with my back to the sun all day writing outside the door of my Spartan room.
We are having magnificent weather and every time I go to the squat I gaze at Gurla in one direction and Kailash in the other. As I went to the john this morning a woman stopped me. She is Australian and has lived for twenty-five years in Mongolia outside of Ulaanbaatar. She teaches children with some religious organization. It sounds medium awful. But I was so impressed at her stopping and talking to me.
We also have new people in the guesthouse. I thought German but Tashi says they are Italian Swiss. What I’ve heard them speaking does not sound like Italian. The Swiss part I believe since despite smiling at them, they have refused to respond or communicate. They will zip around the khora being used to altitude. However socially handicapped, they are very handsome, personable people, fit and grey haired.
We had lunch at our usual place across the street. The Indian family was there. I sat with them whether they wanted me or not since there was nowhere else to sit. The wife/mother and I talked. The penny sort of dropped for her when I said something about finally catching up on my writing.
“Well, you should write a book someday,” she suggested.
“I have, “ I responded. “Five of them.”
They are vegetarians and are doing this khora on rice and potato curry. My hat is off to them.
I do my laundry. As usual I think my hands, due to the coldness of the water, will drop off at the wrist. I am rewarded by seeing a falcon overhead, wings stretched on a wind current in the blue.
We start late and begin the khora in the new fashion, which I disapprove of, but since it saves me hours of walking I sacrifice my principals. You are driven, crammed into a van with Mainland Chinese youngsters, to the tarbouche. The tarbouche is a pole, half again as long as a telephone pole, which, on Saga Dawa, the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment, is wound with prayer flags and hauled to an upright position by two Chinese trucks. From here you have a brilliant view of Kailash above her black ridges. You walk through a chorten on the path, the only walk-through chorten in the world that I know of, and, if you have the proper attitude, are forgiven the sins of this lifetime. It is odiferous with dead sheep offerings from Bönpos, the religious group that preceded Buddhism.
At the teahouse, over a yak butter tea I decide not to walk up to Chuku Monastery, a sad but wise decision. It is almost noon and I know it would take me an hour up, then time in the monastery before coming back down slowly. It is a tough climb. But there are no monks there either so it was doubly a good idea not to go.
The Indians, good pilgrims, arrive having walked all the way from Darchen in the proper manner. The wife/mother is wearing an extremely large necklace studded with a variety of stones. I have no idea what that is about, although the Tibetans always get dressed up to walk the khora.
Two boys in the teahouse, one of whom becomes our porter, hacks about in the international adolescent way, kicking, shoving, punching, those shy demonstrations of male affection.
As Sarosh and I start to walk from the teahouse two Chinese girls walk with us and try to communicate. Both Sarosh and I think, although we find this puzzling, they are offering to carry one of the bags Sarosh has slung over his shoulder. Slowly, hilariously, we realize they want to know where they can get a Sarosh to carry their bags. Since Sarosh had been politely refusing their help and I had been informing them how kind they were, we both had a fit of the giggles when we figured it out. Sarosh has a giggle with a little shriek in it that I am fond of.
We start out, Sarosh and I walking toward the dark cliffs and happily pass into the shadow of those ridges whose tops appear to have castles, mansions, villas, pavilions, gazebos and palaces along their edge. These residences are populated by fantasy inhabitants in my mind who gaze down thoughtfully upon the pilgrims walking by the river, assessing their merit, their mental and spiritual preparedness.
When the Indian family passes us I tell the young man that there is further on a narrower passage of ridges. This is a mis-remembering on my part but what is there is so spectacular that I’m sure he didn’t mind.
The Chinese have built a dirt road along here and there are just enough cars using it to be a nuisance in your trekking life. There are plenty of Chinese, mostly but not all young, not any Europeans at this point and lots of Tibetans.
We meet a young Chinese man holding in his arms a wobbly, this plastic bag full of apples and other fruit. He asks us for a better bag which we don’t have. This is his idea of how to survive at 18,600 feet.
It has been a wet year in Tibet. The river is full and chattering. Plumes of waterfalls arch off the cliffs swinging into the wind that channels this narrow passage.
Later a Tibetan man with a limp and a cane catches up with us walking with his wife and daughter. Despite my catatonic slowness they want to walk with us. They are doing a real Tibetan khora, all dressed up and carrying practically nothing with them. When I finally got too hot and had to take of my pink sweater, they stood around and watched me. When we stop for lunch, a Snicker bar and an apple–I haven’t eaten this badly since my first trip around Kailash—they wait for us for a while and then decide they really have to keep to their schedule and off they go.
A herd of good-looking yaks comes by. They are followed by over-weight, middle-aged Indians astride strong little horses. Tashi tells me that some are already heading back to Darchen, unable to deal with the altitude. One of the Tibetans attending the Indians asks Sarosh about me and when he finds out my age makes a gesture toward his heart with a frown, obviously asking if mine will stand the strain.
We turn a corner of the ridge and Kailash rises directly above us on our right varying her forms as we walk by her. In one she is curved so that she is a layered, snowy amphitheater. This is just before a group of tea tents. I am really done in at this point, exhausted, feet beginning to hurt. But she is sublime. One of her layers curves like an embracing arm. I am so glad I am doing this.
Outside the tea tents, there are three of them all run by women, I see a pair of eagles, surely not courting in October, but doing magnificent maneuvers on the rivers of the wind.
I have a can of salmon for dinner with some tea and bites of a spicy, crisp chapatti. The can of salmon is large and I eat it all.
The teahouse is pretty dreary and dirty. The wind has already, before we arrive, become tumultuous. It is battering away at my unoccupied tent and is now slamming it with me in it. But I am happily ensconced in its yellow walls. Sarosh has arranged it so that I can look out a sort of window and see Kailash.
The wind has an unfortunate effect on the john that belongs to the tea tents. It blows anything loose right up through the hole. Do I need to describe more?
I love being in the tent but have had to learn again how to exit. I do it without any suggestion of grace.
We breakfast in the tea tent, the usual littered disaster but the woman, as Tashi points out, operates the place utterly alone. She dresses her baby, who is a bit fractious, in four layers of clothes, most of them dirty. It is lovely to put your feet under the stove and feel your toes thaw.
It has not always been so that the women run the tents. Each year in Darchen there is a lottery among the inhabitants and the winners get to set up tents for the season. One year when I came, maybe eight years ago, I was doing it on the cheap with a Tibetan guide only and we slept in one of these tents having no other shelter.
The tent in this location was that year run by a family. The father managed things and ordered people about. The tent was impeccably clean. The children swept and went down to the river for water. The wife cooked. He stoked the fire and supervised. There were motorcycles that delivered vegetables and whatever else was needed and available from Darchen.
As night fell someone among the Tibetans asked me by motions if I had a picture of the Dalai Lama. By motions, putting my wrists together, I explained I would be jailed for giving out a picture of the Dalai Lama. The husband, a handsome, robust man, explained my gesture. Everyone nodded. Among those in the tent was a nun. She came softly up to sit next to me. Silently she unwrapped a sort of small paper package, an amulet I thought, she had on a string around her neck, revealing finally a picture of the Dalai Lama.
When we settled down to sleep, she sat before the family altar in the tent and chanted us into the night.
As we eat breakfast people pass the tent’s door, Chinese and Tibetans, including the man with the cane with his wife and daughter. I wish I had gone out to say hello to him. Then I see a herd of yaks coming down the road from above and realize they are the Indians’ yaks. They soon follow, slumped over their mounts, unable to deal with the altitude.
Two Tibetan women come in, friends in their forties I would guess, to have a tea break from walking the khora. They are both dressed in what I think of as Lhasa fashionable out fits, chubas with blouses in complimentary colors and jewelry that chimes in. The one I remember was in a robin’s egg chuba with a blouse figured in blue and orange. Her necklace and earrings were turquoise and amber. Very tasteful.
A group of over a dozen Mainland Chinese appears, almost filling the tent up. Tashi brags to them about my age. They unanimously give me the thumbs-up sign but then they all have to have their pictures taken with me. I work my way through the entire group. I will be in many Chinese family albums. “The Westerner we met when we went to Kailash.” This was the last time Tashi bragged about my age to the Chinese. Indeed, he apologized to me. He continued to brag to Tibetans.
We encounter these Chinese a number of times during the day. They walk faster but then have to stop to rest and recuperate so that I catch up with them. I am amazed that I catch up with them as I am walking incredibly slowly. Although this means that I rarely have to stop. It is hard. Only my determination to see her north face keeps me from giving up. Also I can go on because I know it isn’t going to be a long walk.
But what a walk, mountains on either side, some with snow. As we come along, approaching her north face, although it is not yet visible, I see the young Indian coming toward me. He tells me that his mother and father have had a difficult night, sleepless with breathing problems. I can understand, although my breathing problems occur as I walk.
I am made joyous by this young man’s eyes shinning with the delight of having seen her and his exuberant exclamations about her beauty.
Over and over he said to me, “But she is so beautiful. So very beautiful.”
I am made happy when other people love and admire her.
His mother comes up and says to me as she heads back down to Chuku monastery, “I have a good life and a grandchild on the way. I don’t have to do this.” She is no longer wearing the dazzling necklace.
I suggest to the young man that he might want to come back someday. He greets this idea with real surprise. It has never occurred to him. His wife very sweetly strokes my arm as we part.
Shortly after that we passed the Mainland Chinese sitting down to recover. Sarosh pointed out Drira Phuk, red with gold roofs ahead on the left hand side of the river. On the right hand side is the ugly sprawl of a complex of buildings the Chinese have put up.
It takes me fully 15 minutes to get my bearings. Part of this is because I am mesmerized by the sight of her great dome, snow running down her layers like icing, as she stands monumental against a sky of hard turquoise. Slowly I recognize the two paths up to Drolma La, the pass at 18,600 feet. One branches off before you reach the Chinese buildings and one is on the other side of the buildings to the left.
As we approach and settle into our campsite six or eight cars, mostly white, all official, pass us going up to the monastery. One wonders what their business is. They do not stay long. I did notice, however, that there are no Chinese flags flying from the roof of this monastery. This is the monastery that is attached to the Karmapa of Tsurphu who walked out of Tibet when he was eighteen, just a few years ago.
Lunch is cheese, good yak cheese, apricots, a nasty sweet cupcake and a little dark chocolate from the Paragon in Bangkok washed down by cups of tea. I am without hunger. I have to force myself to eat mechanically. I am in the grip of the altitude.
I am desperately exhausted and ready to go back down. I want to take a nap but Sarosh wisely has urged against it since the tent being in the sun, will be very hot. That could be disastrous.
Tashi and Sarosh take off to get their lunch at the hostel cum dormitory near Drira Phuk, leaving me with our porter, Nema who is eighteen, a real kid. Tashi complains about him but I keep telling him that Nema is not an adult. He’s still a child at eighteen, very much an adolescent. He loves music and breaks into song from time to time. He misses his friends, calls them on his phone, is bored by our adult company and is happy when there are lots of people about. Once Tashi and Sarosh leave, he curls up in a ball in the dust for a nap, pulling his hood over his face to protect himself from the sun. This did not surprise me as I have seen Tibetans of all ages on the khora suddenly stop, step off the path, lie down among the stones and take a nap.
I write, slowly and with difficulty, because my mind is drifting away to her, as are my eyes. This is the last time my mind says. This is the last time. A little grey and white bird comes to see what there is to eat. There is a little. I stay still. He comes with his bright eye and fluffy breast within two feet of me and finds his crumbs.
Some nomad women pass along the road, their men in front of them. One has a line of six silver bells hanging from a cord slung around her hips so that her walk is gently musical. Her friend wears the nomad chuba of wide stripes of red, green and yellow around the hem. It is made of very heavy wool and will not make your steps lighter.
Many of the young Tibetan girls who walk by with their friends top off their outfits with what I call Lhasa Lady’s hats. These are frothy confections of some kind of thin, stiff material. But this year there are many more substantial, quilted hats that come very close to being bonnets. Unlike the confections they protect against the sun.
Sarosh and Tashi return. I have been able to write enough to preserve my self-respect. I tell them both that there was no earthly way I can do the pass and that tomorrow we will start walking back down. I have another can of salmon for dinner, eating it while watching the sky darken around her whiteness and the stars, which at this elevation are a white blanket over the night, begin to appear.
It is incredibly cold. I wear my Patagonia heavy underwear and my cashmere leggings and socks. But my hands and feet are freezing. When you are cold you go to the bathroom more frequently so I spend a lot of time slithering ungracefully in and out of my tent. Once, when I am wrestling with the zipper, Sarosh comes out of his tent to my rescue. I am desperately grateful.
It was then that I discover that Tibetans, perhaps particularly citified Tibetans like Tashi, don’t like tents. Sarosh is alone in the other tent while Nema the kid, and Tashi sleep in the dorm up the hill near the monastery.
In the morning we go there for breakfast. It is a dreary, dirty, big room with many beds. Off of it is the kitchen/dining room with a picture of Xi Jinping on one wall and a picture of the Potala on the other. The stove keeps it pleasantly warm but it takes me a long time to warm up. One of the girls sweeps up as we eat breakfast. It is the openness and the friendliness of the Tibetans that always makes you like them. One of her brothers comes to give me a really intense stare, as though memorizing my features for some future exam.
As we start down I say good-bye to the north face knowing I will have other views of her as I go toward Chuku monastery. But this is the last time I will see her north face, which is spectacular. Once on the path there are lots of people going both up and down. Farewell. Farewell. I think.
Tashi had wanted me to walk all the way down to the tarbouche today. I thought at first I might be able to do it, as I am able to walk more quickly, but I am exhausted. Ten hours of sleep perks me up for a couple of hours and them I am down again, although today I have had a fair appetite. But my hands are stiff and a bit swollen. I had forgotten that symptom of altitude, which I have had before. Also, this is unrelated to altitude, my fingernails are filthy.
Tashi also suggested that I might want to drive down from the north face. I would never do that. Never. Never.
As we came down the path a young Tibetan man stopped us to hand out plastic bags for trash, explaining the importance of not leaving trash behind. I told him he was wonderful to do this. Unfortunately, the bags he was handing out were much too thin. He explained that he had had woven ones but he had handed all of those out. This young man is a miracle since the Tibetans have never shown any interest in picking up their trash. Nema just lets Kleenex drop out of his hand. In Dharmsala, even when the Dalai Lama lectured them about picking up trash, there was no change in behavior.
Sarosh and I walk together and just before the tea tent he points out a corpulent, unafraid marmot waddling along the side of the path. I like them best when they lean out of their holes on their fore arms like women at tenement windows.
When we come to the tea tent we have it to ourselves for a while. Then a flood of at least twenty chattering, but not excessively loud Chinese, arrives. I have been making friends with the slightly older of the little girls, the daughter of one of the women from another of the tents. She may be five.
At first she toddled around in her chuba using a length of plastic pipe as a horn. I took out a balloon, blew it up part way and made it squeak for her. She was delighted. I gave her a balloon but she was too young to figure out how to make it squeak.
A Chinese man comes in to eat and gives her a towelette but she cannot open it. None of us are sure she should have it so she has to wait for her mother to open it. She certainly knows what to do with it. She even goes into her ears. At the end the towelette is quite grotty and her face much cleaner. She then decides she is too warm in her chuba but tries to take it off by main force, pushing it down her body. I help only to discover that the overalls she has on underneath don’t fasten over the shoulders. Then she reverses action and starts pulling everything that was down up.
At this point I give up and go to have a nap in my tent whose flap faces Kailash.
Dinner is tsampa, ground roasted barley mixed with yak butter tea, yak cheese, dried apricots and dark chocolate. Again I have to force myself to eat and to drink. I had no desire for either. An unfriendly group of Europeans comes in and without asking permission takes pictures of the nomad women in the tent an action that reduces people to animals in the zoo.
This night, Oct. 1, was probably my last night in a tent. I love sleeping in a tent, although it was not something done in my family. It is cozy and some how makes me feel connected to the landscape I am in. I am sorry to give it up. But it was, as a last night, not ideal. It was frigid. The water in my water bottle froze. My hands and feet were again freezing.
When we start from the tea tent in the morning we head into a bitter wind that freezes my mouth so that when Tashi takes a picture of me I can do a rictus but not a smile.
A Tibetan woman stops me to offer a piece of candy but I cannot manage to unwrap it. My fingers are numb from the cold, as is my mouth. She unwraps it for me and then offers it to me in the cup of the wrapper. That I can just manage. I am very grateful to her.
I am not just cold. I am in an agony of sadness combined with altitude sickness. The sadness is like a weight in a backpack. I have known for many years that as you approach death, it reaches out and takes from you what is most precious to you. I saw that with my mother for whom driving a car was the essence of life, of freedom. Years before her death her eyesight became so poor that she could no longer drive. It must have been agony to be driven by my father who was a terrible driver.
As we walk the valley we come to a point where you can see Gurla Mandata at one end of the path, at the other Mount Kailash.
Further on a Nepali man recognizes Sarosh as a fellow Nepali and we all stop to talk. His parents had been from Amdo, although he had been born in Nepal. He asks my age and the number of times I have circumambulated Mount Kailash. “Eight times but this time I could only do half, less than half.” I tell him.
He tells me his mother is 80, his father 85. Then he says something precious to me.
“It does not matter that you could not do the whole khora. I understand. You have a love of the mountain in your heart.”
As we approach the teahouse below Chuku monastery we pass a line of glum Europeans, a few of whom responded unwillingly to my hello. A number of the women have their hair loose, a bad idea in this dust-laden wind. The last woman on the line, a long way behind the others already, looks desperately miserable and this is just the beginning.
I am amused when we get to the building to find that the eco bus driver is not there but up at Chuku. We wait for him to come down. He reports that there are no monks, only two caretakers.
I do feel rather proud that I have done the walk in two and a half hours until Sarosh points out that you walk faster when you are cold. We had a nasty wind in our faces, and no sun for most of the walk. I couldn’t feel my mouth or fingers those two and a half hours.
The driver of the eco bus takes us into Darchen delivering us to our no name guesthouse. The owner comes rushing out to greet me, beaming and hugs me and hugs me and presses his cheek against mine and then hugs me some more. I am a bit overwhelmed. When he brings me my thermos of hot water there are more hugs and cheek pressings. I am astonished that I matter to him. The girl at the restaurant is more restrained but she beams and beams at me. The next morning when we leave she strokes my hand. Again I am astonished that they care that I had been able to get to the north face, that they care that I love this mountain in Tibet.
We leave Darchen the next day, stopping to put up a string of prayer flags and a khata at a place with a fine view of Kailash. We continue to see her out the back window for a long time. I don’t know when I had my final look.