ZHO BA! We are walking at last in the land of the lotus, looking for the jewel, or something, anything really, after the ordeal of getting here: the warp journey to Shanghai, then west again to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, and then the twelve-hour trundle on a train painted the green of a placid dragon, south through miles of tunnel to Xichang, where we spent the night by a lake and sucked intestine-friendly yogurt through straws and started west in the morning in a convoy led by a six-wheel equipment truck laden with gear and supplies like rice, extra gasoline, and two magnums of Chinese champagne, which were wildly overpriced at seventy-five cents a bottle. One of the trio of four-wheel-drives was a Chinese Bai Luo that ran dutifully as long as Mr. Deng kept the fuel pump cool with mud packs. West and west and west on roads lined with masonry tombs and rice paddies that looked like golf greens.
Plains yielded to bleak hills, hills heaved into mountains. Hour after hour, for two days, we skidded and jounced and swayed around switchbacks, six mountain ranges, a measureless world of gorges and forests and epic rivers flowing off the Plateau of Tibet. Dust sifted into everything; it got behind your eyes, it came out on the floss when you cleaned your teeth. This was April, the dry season. The roadway straggled onto a hacked-up cobble creekbed that looked like the mouth of an ogre with the tongue chopped out; by late summer, runoff would be thundering in the stony gullet. We skirted the wreck of a bus in which four people had died. Blue and pistachio green log trucks came rushing around blind one-lane bends. There was no margin for error; our white-gloved drivers worried their horns, and at rest stops they spit on the wheels to gauge how hot the brakes were. When the Chinese feel anxious, they say, “There is a tiger in my heart.” None of us who leaned toward Buddhist teachings were such masters of non-attachment that we could keep the tigers out of our hearts on the drive in. It was 1,100 crooked, ragged kilometers from Chengdu to Beiyangping, the lumber camp on China’s frontier where the road ended and we began—hallelujah!—to travel under our own power. Perhaps this is the jewel in the lotus: a new pair of boots and solid earth under foot. Zho ba! Let’s go!
Our leader, fittingly, was bringing up the rear; his assistant had forged ahead to leave little blaze orange strips of supposedly biodegradable tape wherever the trail forked. Five thousand feet below, the foamy blue-green water of the Shou Chu glittered in a V-shaped river valley.
“Dabney, this is Peter. Do you copy? Over,” said Peter Klika, fiddling with his prized two-meter-band walkie-talkie.
“Peter, this is Dabney. Over.” “Where are you?”
Those of us who had followed Dabney Eastham out of Beiyangping had to blunder through the thorns in the wrong direction for a couple of minutes, unwilling to trust the amused villagers who were gesturing vigorously in the other direction. Dabney, a former patent lawyer who’d taken up gold mining, was down by a stream and didn’t have much to report after a scant fifteen minutes on the trail.
“OK, Dabney,” said Peter. “I’ll talk to you at six. Over and out.”
The trail dived into the woods, picked up a logging road, and then plunged back into the pines again. The juncture was marked by fluttering Tibetan prayer flags and mani stones. The Tibetan writing on the flags and stones repeats a central mantra of Buddhism, om mani padme hum, “the jewel is in the lotus.”
Peter is a free-spirited, forty-six-year-old, Chinese-speaking former State Department diplomat and onetime robber of Inca graves. When not tending his Los Angeles real estate law practice, or expanding his collection of sexually explicit pre-Inca pottery, or adding to a store of adventures on seven continents, from hitchhiking across Afghanistan to a solo traverse of Baffin Island on foot in celebration of his fortieth birthday, he runs China Trek. He founded the company in 1982, and after twenty-five trips he’s become fairly adept at sidling through the Middle Kingdom bureaucracy. “We’re not backpackers,” Peter said. “We’re cultural voyagers.”
It was a distinction his recruits could appreciate during the luggage weigh in before the flight to Chengdu. Big, bulging duffels tipping the scale at … two kilos! What the Commerce Department might wish to believe was ultralight American backpacking technology in action had actually been Peter with his foot discreetly wedged under the scale.
The trail dropped through a dappled forest of spruces and pines and blossom-splashed rhododendrons. The land looked like Colorado. Anywhere else, one gray, 14,000-foot limestone mountain would have been the main attraction, webbed with trails and climbing routes. Here, it was a nameless extra making way for the stars, the sacred peaks of the Konka Risumgongba range, still offstage. We’d had but one glimpse of them on the way in: Shenrezig, Jambeyang, and Chanadordje, the holder of the thunderbolts, their sharp, unclimbed 20,000-foot snow summits glittering in the distance like the sails of giant schooners.
As dusk drew down, a crumbling masonry tower loomed in the inky light. It had been mortared together about 1,000 years ago by the Naxi people, one of China’s many ethnic minorities. From a series of watchtowers joined by strategic lines of sight, the Naxi could keep an eye peeled for enemies and summon help with signal fires. We meant to camp in a nearby field but were waiting for our gear. China Trek trips have a history of getting to camp after it’s too dark to clear the yak dung away from your tent site. Soon enough, however, the ridge we’d come over began to ring with a cacophony of tinkling bells and wild, half-sung, half-yodeled cries—and down through the willows and the prickers snaked a train of Tibetan horsemen and nineteen duffel-laden mules and donkeys. The pasture was suddenly as hectic as a train station at rush hour. The animals were unloaded and set loose to graze; tents sprang up. Mr. Zhang and Mr. Wang, our assigned Chinese “liaison officers,” uncrated the kitchen. The cook, an unhappy urbanite exiled to mountain duty, started chopping turnips. Kerosene lamps were lighted, and Dr. Nie Ming, a Chinese urologist, listened to knee complaints. With some passes near 16,000 feet, we were more likely to come down with elevation-related disorders than kidney stones or urinary tract infections. But Dr. Nie was so aghast that a dozen Americans were heading into one of the most remote mountain ranges in the world with no medical support that he volunteered to take his vacation from surgery duties at Chengdu Hospital No. 4 and serve as our unpaid expedition doctor.
We were a curious bunch, those of us from the States preparing beds in a Chinese pasture. It was a West Coast group with pronounced New Age tendencies and plenty of mystical experience. Jasmine Lutes, who runs a personal-growth training company with her husband, Tom, once had a vision of him as a golden energy field. And one time in Hawaii, Joan and Jim Channon — she’s a filmmaker, he’s an artist — ate some mushrooms and started speaking Japanese, which neither one of them knew a word of, ordinarily. Sybil Malinowski, well versed and seemingly grounded in real estate law, confided to me that she aspired to elevate her vibrational level and ascend to heaven without dying, à la the Virgin Mary. As the only easterner — worse, the only New Yorker — I was quickly stereotyped as the cynic in the lotus.
The other couple was David and Susan Stone, an accountant and teacher, respectively, from Seattle. David, a tall, shambling fellow, knocked over the rice at dinner and then got on his knees, prepared to pick up every last grain. Zhang waved him away. There was plenty of rice.
“I don’t want to get a reputation for spilling things,” David said. “Too late,” said Peter.
Peter can talk New Age in a pinch, dropping quotes from Milarepa about the “stony fastness of the mountains where there is a secret marketplace where one can barter the vortex of life for eternal bliss,” but in general he prefers to do his celestial navigation with a sextant. He made an exception once, when he went to a monastery in Taiwan to see a monk said to be adept at reading past lives. “Can you tell me what I was in my previous incarnation?” Peter asked, expecting to hear something grand about his karma. The old man wrinkled his nose and said, “You were the elbows of a worm.”
The three couples had new North Face domes, the nylon equivalents of honeymoon suites. Dabney shared a Kelty tent with his young climbing partner, Steve Thompson. Sybil was tenting with her Walkman. And in what the Chinese might call Documentary Tent No. 1, I was billeted with Rob Mackinlay, a San Francisco photographer. The jewel in Rob’s lotus was a magazine cover shot that would earn him the bonus he needed to feed his wife, Mimi, and their poor hungry kitten, Ansel. Ansel mewed needfully in Rob’s thoughts with every lens change.
The Chinese team had its own camp of nylon tents; the bronze-faced Tibetan packers bedded down under horse blankets and a gray canvas tarp. And Peter retired to his “Minstrel Hut.” Cursed with a deafening snore, he considerately segregated himself from the rest of us. Not far enough away, however. Our lullaby that first night in the wilds of western China was a three-part fugue of trilling sinuses, ringing donkey bells, and the mercifully soothing murmur of the river below.
Faint though they were, we were traveling in the footsteps of Joseph Rock, the Austrian botanist who, under the aegis of the National Geographic Society, was the first Westerner to explore the Konka Risumgongba and to visit many of the remote villages just to the southeast in the kingdom of Muli. Muli, about the size of Massachusetts, was set up under the reign of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. It was one of several autonomous states in the region and served as a politically expedient buffer between China and Tibet when Rock made three expeditions there between 1924 and 1928. He took extensive notes on geography, plants, and Tibetan and Naxi cultures. He endured the considerable hardships of crossing mountain passes and traveling during monsoon season. In places, his mules had to be pushed through snow and hauled on lines across rivers. There was the ever-present danger posed by bands of murderous outlaws. All the more reason to travel in style: Rock loaded his huge pack trains with such ultralight items as iron bedsteads, bath tubs, and camp tables. He had himself tendered into some villages on a sedan chair. He introduced his muleteers to the phonograph and the voice of Caruso. His cooks prepared multi-course Austrian meals, which the moody explorer ate with real silverware and capped with a nice liqueur (no Chinese champagne for him).
Until Rock’s exploration, the Konka Risumgongba was a mystery to the outside world, glimpsed from a distance and mentioned but in passing by missionaries and travelers. Many of Rock’s maps and photographs were published in his epic July 1931 National Geographic article, which for many years was the only detailed description of the area and is still the most informative write-up.
Lacking a road to Beiyangping, Rock started his journeys into the Shou Chu drainage 130 kilometers south at the Muli monastery. In those days the monastery, at the foot of 15,000-foot Mount Mitzuga, was a thriving walled community of 700 monks; it served as the capital of the theocratic state and as a way station for pilgrims intent on circumambulating the sacred mountains. Muli has been off limits to Westerners since Rock’s day — hidden behind political sensitivities after the 1949 revolution and the Chinese invasion of Tibet ten years later, and the fact that authorities didn’t want foreigners poking around the gold mines in the area. The kingdom and the Konka Risumgongba disappeared into one of those blank spots on the map; despite numerous trips in four of China’s mountain provinces, Peter Klika had never heard of the place.
And then one Saturday in 1983, in a used-bookstore in Pasadena, California, Peter stumbled onto a copy of Rock’s article. He couldn’t reconcile Rock’s descriptions and coordinates with his own maps. The more he looked for information about Muli and the Konka Risumgongba, the less he found. So he began worming around for information about the area and elbowing the Chinese for permission to visit the range. Five years later he received a letter from the Chinese Mountaineering Association saying it would grant a permit and sponsor a trip to Muli if Peter could obtain permission from two other branches of the bureaucracy. With the help of his Chinese law partner and a Chinese word processing program, Peter wrote to each pertinent bureau, saying the other two had granted him permission to visit Muli — would they do the same? He got his permit.
He made his first trip with a party of climbers in 1989. Everywhere he went, Peter inquired about the fate of the Muli king, whose reign had ended in 1949, and every time he got a different answer: The king had been killed by the Chinese; the king had died a natural death; the king had voluntarily abdicated and was living in Muli with his family. “What king?” one man said. Even the whereabouts of the monastery were in doubt. What was marked “Muli” on the map was not the monastery Rock had described, but a raw administrative capital filled with Han Chinese loggers and foresters. The monastery was another three hours up a ragged road.
A year later the second expedition met with abysmal fall weather. The four wheel-drive trucks sank up to their axles in mud; it rained relentlessly; and one of the expedition members, a California state senator, whined so much that it became difficult for the others to barter the vortex of life for eternal bliss.
Ours was Peter’s third expedition to Muli. He had put forth the possibility that we would circumambulate the range, but when it became clear that most of his trekkers didn’t have the time, the stamina, or the desire to undertake such a venture—and that the Tibetan horsemen were loath to risk their ponies in the snowy, avalanche-prone passes—he improvised a less ambitious plan: We would proceed along a route new to Peter himself into the village of Garu, which Westerners had last entered, officially at least, when Joseph Rock passed through sixty-four years earlier.
Tibetan Buddhism distinguishes eighteen varieties of void, but the maps of Muli and the Konka Risumgongba surely constitute yet another. We were relying heavily on Rock’s article and the maps compiled from his field notes. Maps from the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency were worse than bad, misplacing rivers and omitting towns and leaving whole sections blank or shaded with a bizarre “reliability index” that offered travelers the cold comfort of being able to quantify the number of Buddhist voids they were experiencing simultaneously. Peter had obtained a Chinese military contour map that gave survey heights for some mountains, but it couldn’t have been more obscure if it had been designed to disinform NATO tank crews. Between the pictograph place names and the blurry lines, it was like trying to read a palm through a shower door. So, cartographically at least, it was hard to get a fix on Muli; the place seemed to shift and dissolve like the juniper smoke sent up each morning at the monastery to underscore the illusoriness of life.
There at the monastery, before the leg to Beiyangping and the start of the trek proper, we spent the night with the lamas at the heart of the once and former kingdom.
The convoy climbed the foothills of Mount Mitzuga at dusk, a winding drive past green rice fields and groves of walnut trees and tidy homes with Shiva’s tridents poking up from tile roofs. Dozens of young monks in crimson robes stopped in their tracks as we pulled in. One of the younger ones ran for the main temple. Peter, twice a visitor here, advised us to stay by the vehicles until it was clear that we were welcome. A moment later a senior lama emerged in his blood-red robe, arms extended in that cradling wave with which Tibetans greet one another and that makes them look like they are trying to gauge the weight of an imaginary watermelon. The lama greeted Peter in Chinese, clasping his hands and bowing slightly, a breakaway smile lighting his face. And then he greeted each of us in like manner. “His eyes were so full of love I thought I was going to burst into tears,” Tom said later. Indeed, the lama had the most astonishing brown eyes, radiant and serene. It seemed he could see into you for a thousand miles—could see what there was in you that was also in himself.
Why, why, why is the West's great mantra. Even after a little while in China you begin to see how unimportant why is.
All but destroyed during the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and again during the cultural revolution, the monastery was being resurrected next to the ruins of the old buildings whose shattered walls and roofless rooms stood as haunting testimony to the campaign of repression. Peter had counted just thirty lamas and novices during his first visit, and only a handful of elders left to lead and teach the arcana of the religion. Now the community had grown to fifty, and the main temple, a handsome tile-roofed structure with white plaster walls and red and yellow eaves, had been finished. Spanking new banners billowed in the cool evening air.
We were shown to one of the rooms off the courtyard, three spare beds under a dangling lightbulb. A young novice toted in a pitcher of jasmine tea. We were welcome to stay the night, we learned. “We’re like pilgrims,” Peter said. “They are moved that we have come so far to see them.” Zhang advised us to be careful not to give the monks pictures of the Dalai Lama. However much they might have appreciated photographs of the Tibetan leader, the monks might be arrested should the photographs be discovered by Chinese authorities.
Around 7:15 P.M. two dozen novices seated themselves under the temple portico and began to chant. A few shouted at first in counterpoint. More voices joined in. Melodies emerged, and the chanting modulated on unknown cues, swelling and resonating through the courtyard. One of the lamas walked among the novices, observing and instructing them as they swayed and rocked. When darkness fell, he turned his flashlight on them. They chanted on. A dog in the village below barked in answer. After an hour and a half the chanting abruptly ceased, and those of us who had been listening in—and mumbling along—could feel the force of the silence: a spirit-laden hush flowing from religious discipline. A headlamp came bobbing across the courtyard. It was our driver Mr. Deng. “Chr ba!” he shouted: Let’s eat! The horrified Americans shushed him furiously. Peter jumped up, put his arm around the driver, and smoothed him out of the courtyard.
We were woken the next morning by conch-shell blasts and the shivery din of gongs, and shortly thereafter were ushered inside the monastery. Rows of monks sat cross-legged in front of golden effigies of Buddha, his attendants, and incarnations of various lamas. We were given sticks of incense and took seats behind the last row of young monks, who had a hard time keeping themselves from peeking at the hairy giants in their midst. The lama who had greeted us the evening before punctuated the chants with deep bass overtones. Prayers were chanted for each of us. The abbot, dressed in a flowing crimson robe and a yellow crescent-shaped hat, draped muslin shawls and thin red scarves around our necks.
Peter wanted to make a donation to the collection box. A sum of 600 yuan—about $110—was presented, but it was a contretemps: The monks could only accept odd sums. Peter kicked in another yuan to make it 601. As the little monks filed out, one of their older brethren stood by the door and gave each of the buzz-cut little shavers a bit of pocket money.
Two days after we struck the tents under the Naxi watchtower, we established a base camp in a pasture at 10,260 feet, overlooking the green barley terraces and the mud-masonry houses of the village of Garu. We had come about twelve miles through three other villages and regained most of the altitude we lost dropping into the valley. We crossed the Shou Chu on a rickety swinging bridge of cables and planks strung between two stone piers. Tattered prayer flags fluttered over the torrent. By midday we’d made the first village, Lama. Some of us who dawdled were invited inside a house. The ladder up from the wood-chip barnyard was hewn from a log. It was as cool and shady inside the main room as it was hot and bright outside. Our host directed us to sit by the smoky hearth; he filled china cups with a yellow barley wine called chang and demonstrated how to take a pinch of toasted barley from a pot and sprinkle it in our drinks. The chang was sweet; we sipped it carefully, worried about bacteria.
“I think it’s just alcoholic enough to be safe,” Peter said.
The man said something in Chinese that Peter could make out despite the dialect.
“He says his heart is bitter because he does not have more to offer us.”
When Peter brought the Polaroid camera out, our host and his wife went off to change. Heaven help the trekkers who venture into the Shou Chu valley without Polaroid cameras. Take only pictures and leave only footprints are not the watchwords of modern cultural voyaging — leave footprints and pictures is more like it. Peter’s two previous expeditions Polaroided most of the valley, and now when a camera clicks people there expect a print to materialize immediately. To meet a demand he created, Peter was carrying dozens of packs of film.
Our hostess returned in a magnificent, long, black skirt with red and yellow stripes and a top fashioned of gold brocade. Her wrists and neck were ringed with silver and nickel-brass jewelry. Tufts of green and yellow yarn swung from delicate silver chains attached to her ears. Her husband looked equally resplendent in a chartreuse tunic, his ornately sheathed foot-long knife gleaming across his waist.
We trooped up to the roof on another notched-log ladder so our hosts could pose. Rice straw was drying in the sun. Every house in the valley had a small furnace built into the wall, from which the family sent sacrificial smoke into the sky void. A boneless pig was hanging from the rafters of a rooftop shed. It had been gutted, cleaned, salted, sewn back up and hung out to dry, perfectly intact—tail, snout, ears, everything but the squeal.
We went on through Woati toward Turu, six miles up the trail. Whenever we would stop to fill water bottles and shake in the little iodine tablets, people would gather, wave, and smile. Occasionally Jim would sketch their faces. All was right with the world: Men were fascinated by gadgets, women by fabrics. Kids got Joan to repeat Tibetan phrases and nearly fell down in the dirt from laughing. “I’m probably saying something like ‘I am the daughter of a pig,’” she said.
We stayed that second night at the house of a Turu villager, sleeping on his roof. Peter found a little store, run by a Mongol, where pijou in big green bottles could be bought for five yuan-less than a dollar; he later learned that the price for locals was two yuan. The beer was strong, and after a bottle, Stoney the rice-spiller lost his glasses. (He saw them for sale in the Mongol’s store on the way out and bought them back for forty yuan.)
On toward sunset our spiritual aspirations gave way to a gross eruption of materialism, as the cultural voyagers did land-office business, trading cash for horse blankets, knives, money belts, bracelets, chunks of turquoise, and stirrups. What jewels Turu villagers couldn’t pluck from the lotus they stripped from their fingers and offered for sale. A better mantra for Shou Chu mani stones would have been, Do you want to buy? What one of us might spend on dinner for four in Manhattan is a good year’s salary there. The shopping frenzy finally cooled when Peter and Zhang discovered that they had drained most of the expedition bank. A big sum had gone to have Jasmine’s hair braided in the Tibetan fashion. It took many hours that night and the next morning to complete the job; expensive as it was, the effect was priceless when Tibetan women who had never seen Westerners came face to face with a gorgeous black American wearing her hair like theirs.
From then on, however, money would be tight. The Chinese were counting on supplementing the trip larder with local produce, maybe a chicken or two, and if we didn’t rein in the acquisitions we might be testing the claim of some Tibetan lamas that it is possible to get all the protein you need simply by breathing airborne bacteria.
We set out for Garu early the next morning, a long uphill haul. We turned out of the valley of the Shou Chu and into the valley of the Konkaling River, a rollicking green flow in a bed of ginger boulders, then left the river quickly, angling up a ridge on long switchbacks. Rain squalls damped the dust in the afternoon and put a chill in the air. The group strung out, each of us moving at his own pace. Jasmine, beginning to feel dizzy and nauseated, fell to the rear. When I reached the village, a crowd of fifty people had gathered around Rob. I took off my hat. The eyes of the villagers went wide, some gasped, some laughed uproariously. They had never seen blond hair before. Or maybe they’d never seen thinning blond hair before.
It was getting close to sundown when the rest of the group arrived. Jasmine was experiencing mild hypothermia and was faint, possibly from altitude sickness. Peter and Zhang arranged with a local homeowner to let her lie in a sleeping bag by a hearth. Mr. Su, our Yi guide who had been all over this country hunting, had taken the horses up to the pasture above town, another half hour of walking. Jasmine was weak, but after a few hours of rest she felt able to ride up on a mule and made a quick recovery over the next twenty-four hours. Tom said later that she’d been overwhelmed by the blessing at the monastery, the exertion of the travel, the intensity of the reception she’d received. “She feels like she has a responsibility to be an ambassador of her race,” he explained.
“Aw, come on,” said Steve. “Nobody feels a responsibility to be the ambassador of their race.” At twenty-three, Steve was half the age of most of us. He was a chain smoker, aghast that the New Agers were supplementing their meals with blue-green algae. He’d been grousing loudly about the donkey bells, and several times Dabney had to chide him to keep his thoughts to himself.
The village of Garu, home to about 350 people, sits on a shelf above a deep defile with mountain walls to all points of the compass. It’s too high to grow rice; the billowing green fields, cleverly irrigated by culverts that bring water down from the mountains, are mostly planted with wheat and barley.
The pasture that was base camp for us also seemed to have become the village green, as people flocked up to eyeball the circus. We were getting an idea of what it’s like to be Michael Jackson. Crowds gathered around our camp table to watch us drink coffee and hot Tang. When they heard the sound of a tent fly unzipping, they would dash over to see the new arrival. They knelt over duffels, mating and un-mating strips of Velcro. They rubbed Gore-Tex like tailors taking the hand of gabardine. An old woman found an empty Evian bottle in my duffel, unscrewed the top, and pocketed it. Her face was as leathery and worn as an old catcher’s mitt, but there was something in her eyes that made me think of the light in the middle of the ocean. Everyone had large, liquid eyes, and most flashed smiles when you met their gaze. As Rock had remarked, the people of Garu bear a startling resemblance to the Apache. A few were dressed in Mao jackets and caps and the rubberized sneakers that are ubiquitous in rural China, but many wore traditional clothes—the men in skin vests, their calves wrapped in woolen leggings tasseled with colored yarn, the women in brilliant flowing skirts, their hair woven into thin braids and tied with pieces of turquoise and yellow bulbs of amber and strands of wool — 108 braids in all, one for each chapter of the Kanjur, the most sacred book in Tibetan Buddhism. In the mornings old women marched their flocks up to the threadbare pasture where our tents were pitched — pigs, sheep, goats, and black cows all tangled up together. At night, the people of Garu built fires and invited us to dance, men with men, women with women. Step, step, kick, circle right, arms interlocked. The evenings of song and merriment and cross-cultural rapport were so similar to Wildman weekends and women’s Esalen workshops that the New Agers floated out of their sandals. The lotus was spitting up jewels.
Treasures of cultural voyaging aside, Dabney, Steve, Rob, and I wanted to get up into the realm of the snow and ice, if only for a look. Dabney and Steve had an extra week and were planning to explore the Duron Valley on the other side of the range. The four of us left Garu in mid-afternoon, accompanied by Su, who spoke Chinese, some Tibetan, and even a little English, and Wang, the assistant liaison officer, plus three Tibetan horsemen. We trudged uphill for three hours, through sweet-smelling pine forests. The trail was a daily commute for sawyers from Garu who humped the ridge to cut beams for construction in the village. We pitched tents that night at 13,250 feet, just below a pass slung between two wind-sheared hills. Here at last was our gate into the high country where the thunderbolts were stored. I could feel the air getting rare in my lungs, and the strange pull of the pass, still in the light when the camp was dark.
You can seek out mountains all your life and strive for summits and all the time not know what you want or why you do it, beyond the bald explanations of the challenge or the need for some dimly understood sense of renewal. So few things ever said about mountains seem equal to the intensity of being in them. I’m no clearer about my motives now than I was twenty years ago; in fact what I wonder about now is this compulsion to know why, this restless impulse to dig out the logic of a life, when what anyone ought to do is wage it unselfconsciously, without equivocation, as a cat leaps or a flower blooms, or lightning strikes. Why, why, why is the West’s great mantra. Even after a little while in China you begin to see how unimportant why is. Chinese consciousness is organized not around causes, but around balance and order and, above all, harmony. One strives to wear fate easily and not moan and whine like a state senator for its rationale. It’s one thing to meet the principle of the Tao in a book; it’s another to draw it out of the air and drink it down when you sip from the streams that run from the mountains in the land it came from.
I spent three days on the far side of the gate, released from the need to make a coherent story of my being, adrift in the paradoxes of Lao Tzu: “He who strides forward does not go.” I wanted to climb, but my lungs burned and my head throbbed. “Galling limitations,” the I Ching had prophesied. I rejoiced in my aspirin. Much of the time I was alone—Dabney and Steve had cruised on into the Duron Valley, and Rob was off taking pictures—and it was a kind of bliss to barter company for solitude, to get clear of human voices. There is no premium on privacy in China; in the mountains I had all I wanted. Snow fell each night and melted in the afternoon. My companions were crows, rocks, silence, and a jar of aspirin.
On the first of May Rob got up at one in the morning. He wanted to hike to the Duron Valley divide and climb one of the peaks for a view of the sacred mountains in the light of dawn. Our camp was at 14,350 feet, and the pass into the Duron Valley lay four miles and some 1,500 feet above. It was pitch dark, about 20 degrees, and the fresh blanket of snow was ankle deep.
A line from the I Ching came to me. “Rob,” I said, “in all his transactions, the superior man carefully considers the beginning.”
But Ansel was mewing. Rob marched into the darkness, his headlamp lighting the way. I went back to sleep and rose just before sunrise. I had not planned to again attempt to climb the nameless 17,000-foot castle of gray slate that sat astride the divide. The day before, I had turned back at the pass, exhausted, sunburned, and nauseated. But for a westerner there must be some higher harmony in fulfilling goals, because I found myself plodding uphill again.
Rob’s boot-trail stretched across the snow. The valley was a staircase of four giant steps. Wending my way up the third, I walked in the tracks of a lone brown wolf and, in a brilliant basin of snow, met Rob coming down. Clouds swirled downvalley. I turned back to the labor of ascending, cutting up onto the shoulder of the peak and scrabbling up a steep chute of gray stones, I leaned over to rest on my ice ax. It made me ill to look too far up the talus slope, Just before the summit there was a band of rock. I ate an aspirin and worked up through a chimney, breaking off icicles with my shoulder, feeling every heartbeat in my temples. Ten feet and rest. Ten feet and rest.
And here was the top. It was noon.
Mists rose from the abyss on the north face, obscuring the distant massif of Minya Konka, but south and west and east the weather was clear. Endless ridges ran to the ends of the earth, and the white giants glittered as if rinsed in liquid steel: Shenrezig, Chanadordje with its chisel-shaped summit, and Jambeyang, half again more beautiful, an immense fang of ice and snow and rock bared against an azure sky.
I ate another aspirin and started down on my own version of the Long March. The snow had melted. Leaping from tussock to tussock was like hopscotching on the heads of blond owls. I passed the witchy pinnacles and the couloirs and the empty stone yak-herder huts at our camp, and curved around the dramatic ravines and saddles, and dropped through the high-country gate we had breached three days before, the seam between realms. Down to 13,250 feet, where there was supposed to be a tent and some supper but wasn’t because some crucial piece of information had been lost in the translation from English to Chinese to Tibetan, and so there was nothing to do but ignore the cries of Mayday! Mayday! that were coming from my knees and plow on, through the rhododendrons and the piney air to the camp at Garu, twelve miles and 7,000 feet below the aerie where I had stood at noon.
And so in reverse. We descended from Garu, each of us a bit wistful to be coming down. We pitched camp outside Kana Radja, a little monastery mentioned but never visited by Rock, where we had stopped on the way in. There were just four monks, three of whom were really novices, ages thirteen, nine, and eight. I had slipped them some Chinese cookies. Had they ever tasted cookies? From their expressions you would have thought they were awakening to the glory of Mahler or reading Joyce, especially the littlest fellow.
A Tibetan man who lived below Kana Radja invited us to his house that night. Galoom, a trader whom we had met on the way in and who had sold practically everything but his horse to Tom, tagged along. We went down before dark, crossing the crib of animals inside the gate as our host gripped the collar of his mastiff even though the dog was already held back by a thick chain. As I passed, the animal lunged and furiously exercised his jaws. I had the very New Yorkish thought that it was not going to be easy to escape the party with that dog around. We all found seats to the right of the hearth, sitting on pads or cross-legged on the plank floor. Evening light filtered through the few glassless windows and slanted down the smoke hole in the roof. The smoke in the room was not unpleasant. Our host, a tireless, agile man, could not do enough for his guests. He circulated continuously with a kettle of chang. When the light was gone from the windows, he pulled a piece of pitchy wood from the fire and set it on a hanging metal stirrup; it cast a lovely light. Zhang and the cook arrived with a butane lantern. Our host doused the hanging fire. Oh, no, no, we said. Zhang snuffed the bleaching light. Our host left the room and returned with a lantern of his own — cultural wire-crossings had become a trip motif. The room was a babble of languages — who knew what was being said. It didn’t matter, really. The party was made not of dialogue, but of presences.
Tom had Peter lie face down on the floor and began to massage his scoliotic back. Jim took a place in support at Peter’s head. And though no one explained it to him, Galoom held on to Peter’s feet.
“Breathe into the tension,” said Tom, performing slow and subtle maneuvers to get Peter to release the physical and mental stress locked in the curvature of his back. The process was as much concerned with emotions as with the body and very much rooted in the Eastern principle that physical disorder reflects frictions on the higher planes of the mind and spirit. However, it was too slow and subtle for our cook, who jumped up, shouldered Tom and the New Age out of the way, and had at Peter’s back like it was a cutting board of fresh vegetables. Galoom frowned, and Jim retreated. The cook pounded, kneaded, and chopped with the sides of his hands. He gulped a mouthful of chang, and then, with a loud rasp such as can be produced only by a race of people who are ankle-deep in hocked phlegm, he spit it all over Peter’s back. Oh, what a stunning move! The fan of aerosol chang gleamed briefly in the hanging fire. The cook gulped another mouthful and spit again. Peter sighed pleasantly. Later he decided that Chang Expectoration Massage was the essence of cultural voyaging, and he resolved to mention it in China Trek’s promotional literature.
We ended that night with Galoom leading a session of chanting. Long om sounds swelled and subsided. I decided to start looking for a wholesale deal on blue-green algae. It was hard to know what our host and his family made of the performance, especially as the volume grew and the oming was overtaken by freelance forays into stranger sounds and harmonies, chang fired bird calls, percussive mouth noises. Maybe to them this was the anarchic cacophony of free-market capitalism, the cult of the individual. Maybe it was just the music of a zam blowout.
And so in reverse: Turu, Woati, Lama. The rice crop was being harvested now. Women trudged uphill under bulging sacks of grain. I hiked with Sybil, who insisted that it was only our belief in the firmness of the earth underfoot that kept us from plunging through the molecular interstices of the trail.
We camped along the Shou Chu short of the swinging bridge. And then we made the 5,000-foot grind uphill to Beiyangping. How different the place seemed now, shocking in its contrast to the neat harmonious villages, an oozingly raw, rip-and-run boomtown of tar-paper shacks and palpable boredom.
I was in a sour mood anyway. Some spiritual heir of Joseph Rock’s Konkaling bandits had stolen my brand-new boots out of my duffel; my property was going up like sacrificial furnace smoke. (My sleeping pad and shaving kit had already been filched.) The boot theft seemed to reflect the foot of karma kicking me for disdaining to join the shopping spree on the way in.
But Beiyangping didn’t need any help appearing hateful. A black-haired boy was jerking a lesser panda around on the end of a rope, to the amusement of a desultory crowd. The animal looked like a cross between a ferret and a raccoon. It kept trying to get away, and the boy couldn’t have been having more fun jerking it back. He picked it up by the tail and flung it at some dogs. When the exhausted animal quit fighting for freedom and lay in a shivering heap, near death, the boy dragged it around on its back. Men laughed. The town was mostly men — men with ill-fitting dentures and grinning, mask-like faces. We found a store where we could draw up chairs outside, shell peanuts, and celebrate the end of the trek with tall green bottles of Chinese beer, but the boy dragged his prize over to our circle.
“Maybe we could buy it from him,” said Peter. “That’s a great idea,” said Joan.
“How much?” asked Peter in Chinese. A murmur ran through the sea of bystanders: This was a twist! The boy named a price, Peter named another. And then it was agreed: forty yuan for the animal’s freedom. The villagers were tickled silly, as no doubt any of us would have been had twelve Chinese backpackers materialized in New York and offered $8 to ransom a cockroach. The boy removed the rope, nervous about being bitten. The animal scuttled into a ditch beside a shack, and ran around the corner; the townspeople ran after it. It stopped to drink some water under a stoop, then huddled in a hole. Joan got up to check on it. Another kid ran up with a stick and threw it at the creature. Five grown men watched.
“If you throw that stick again, I’m going to throw a stick at you,” Joan said in a level voice, even though she could not hope to be understood. Five minutes later she checked on the creature again. The crowd had doubled; there was a wicker cage over the hole, and a drunken man in a black sweater was jabbing at the animal with a stick. Joan picked up her own stick, went to the man, and yanked the prod from his hands.
“Get out of here!” she said in a steely voice, brandishing her stick. “You people deserve what’s happening to you! You people deserve to live under communism! You deserve Tiananmen Square! You deserve to be killing each other!”
Incomprehensible words again, but there was no mistaking her meaning. The drunk in the black sweater backed off, and the crowd dispersed. One man came forward and by a mix of translation and gesture made it known that if the animal was to go free, it had to be prodded out of the hole first. He helped Joan coax it out. She led it nervously to the forest’s edge and watched the creature flee. When she returned she found the same man approaching with a thermos of hot water for tea. He was a tractor driver. He’d been living in Beiyangping for twenty years. His wife was in Chengdu. He was allowed to see her once a year. He ventured to hope that his countrymen’s attitude toward animals had not offended Joan irreparably. He gave her a small silver dagger a present, he said, on behalf of friendship between their two countries.
“Easier to climb to heaven than to take the Sichuan road,” wrote Li Bai 1,200 years ago. The Tang Dynasty poet knew of our present-day travail. The Tao can count dust and ruts among its verities. And bandits. Our drivers were nervous, for they had heard reports of highwaymen rolling rocks into the road and robbing people when they got out of their cars. The ace at the wheel of the Nissan was in such a hurry that he crashed into a log and crumpled the bumper. Not long after, we skidded around a hairpin—and lo! Rocks in the road! Before our driver could say anything, the Cultural Voyagers, who knew nothing of bandit reports, had jumped out and were shouldering boulders aside. I’m convinced the outlaws had abandoned the ambush when they got word that my boots had already been stolen. Rocks cleared, we resumed the trip, composing limericks to kill the pain:
Dr. Nie said I’m no normal GP.
I lug bags, boil water, make tea.
Vacations are clover
But if this one’s not over
I’ll soon need a doctor for me.
And so we made our way back to Chengdu along the Sichuan road. And what I remember now is this: not the dust, not the headaches, not even the feeling of being in the mountains, but the afternoon on the way down, when we were approaching the monastery at Kana Radja. I had been thinking of the littlest monk and the power of cookies. All of a sudden here he was, scurrying up the trail as fast as his legs could carry him. He was wearing his oxblood robe; no shoes; hair growing back from a boot-camp cut. “Lama!” he shouted. I took it as an invitation — Come to my place! — not an appraisal of my spiritual station. “Lama!” He was beside himself with happiness. The circus was returning to pitch its tents nearby and slip him sweets and take his Polaroid as he wobbled under the weight of the sacred books. “Lama!” he said again, and then he took my hand and skipped and ran me to the homely little temple that was his home.
There is rapture in mountains, but none like what I could see on the face of that little monk beaming up at me with his big Tibetan eyes and clinging to my hand as if it were all that he could ever want of fortune — this happiness that I had come back. I gave him a Frisbee later and showed him how to throw it to his pals. They sailed it into Void No. 19, and I was sure it was gone for good, but they went in after it, and when they came out they had it in their hands and held it up for me to see, as if it were the jewel itself.
Chip Brown was born in New York City and grew up in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. He graduated in 1976 from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he studied biochemistry and literature.
A portion of his thesis on nature writing was published in the now defunct outdoor magazine Mountain Gazette. In 1977 he was employed as a writer in Washington D.C. for the Living Wilderness magazine, then moved to Alaska where he worked as the managing editor of the Homer Alaska News from 1978 to 1979.
From 1979 to 1985 he was a staff writer with the Washington Post, assigned variously to the Metro section, the Investigative desk and the Style section. In 1985 he moved to New York, and began a magazine freelance career. He has written for over forty national magazines, among them the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Outside, Vanity Fair, Men’s Journal, Vogue, GQ, Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian and National Geographic Adventure.
He is a former contributing editor of Esquire, a correspondent for Outside, a contributing editor of Men’s Journal, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor of National Geographic. He has won many journalism awards including the Pannell Kerr Forester Award in 1984 for financial writing, the 1992 Lowell Thomas award for travel writing, and the 1989 National Magazine Award for feature writing. He was also nominated as a National Magazine Award finalist in feature writing in 1990 and 1994. His articles have been anthologized in “Out of the Noosphere” (1994), “The Best of Outside” (1997), “Wild Stories: The Best of Men’s Journal” (2002), “Paris Observed” (2002), “Esquire’s Big Book of Great Writing” (2003), “Committed: Men Tell Stories of Love, Commitment and Marriage” (2004), “Best Food Writing” (2006), “Best American Sports Writing” (2008), “The New Age Adventure: National Geographic Adventure” (2009), He contributed a long article “Fear.com” to The Project for the State of the American Newspaper series which has been collected in “Breach of Faith, volume 2.” He is the author of two nonfiction books, “Afterwards, You’re a Genius: Faith, Medicine and the Metaphysics of Healing” (1998) and “Good Morning Midnight: Life and Death in the Wild” (2003) – both published by Riverhead Books.
Robert Mackinlay’s initiation into outdoor photojournalism came at the light table of the late climber and photojournalist Galen Rowell. He went on to become the The North Face’s photo editor. He has been an assignment photographer for a variety of magazines such as Outside, Summit, American Airlines, Mountain Travel- Sobek, Backroads, The North Face and other companies. His work has ranged near and far, from the summit of El Capitan in his home range of the Sierra Nevada, to the summit of Turkey’s Mount Ararat. More recently Robert has focused on landscape photography with a personal project on classic California landscapes. His home base is Walnut Creek, California, where he lives with his wife. Their son is an engineer at Synapse in Seattle and their daughter travels the world with Backroads Travel Company. He is the recipient of the Capitan John Noel Award for excellence in photography presented by Summit Magazine. A collection of Yosemite Valley images, a subset of his California book project, is featured on his web site, robertmackinlay.com