Jana is one of those towns that looks to be embarrassed with itself, somehow inward looking with its newly built homes falling into disrepair and a winding dusty road that is littered with refuse. We one depart it one happy morning marching up once again and I for one am happy to be rid of its dusty and confused presence.
The Kawa Karpo pilgrimage can be described as a cultural odyssey of relentless ups and downs; a journey of one unending stream of effort amidst ever shifting heavens – in some cases brutal heavens.
Smoke from morning incense drifts sideways in slow dense fog away from Tandu Pass (Tibetan: Tandu La) where we head. Tucked into the valley is the town of Zena awaking the way a dream village awakes…tiny sounds, a sun gently touching everything and nothing registering beyond a soft
Tseba this day is full of strength and indeed we all need it. Tseba’s slow but steady pace is formidable and our big bear is slowly revealing more of himself. More expressions and more grunts are being issued from his big body. Watching our team respond to him, I have the feeling that we are all reveling in his gradual but realtime unfolding. I feel fortunate to be travelling within such a group as there is no greater force of destruction amidst an expedition or journey than dissent or permanent personality clashes. They can eat the heart out of a journey and they are the ultimate shame when in surroundings which are glorious and unpredictable as they take from the senses.
We are climbing almost 1500 metres and the sun’s potent rays beam into our backs turning the morning into a sweaty endeavour with dust being stirred up with every step. Our ascent is broken by a tea break where the needed salt and butter mixture brings an increasing joy to my body. My own potent brew which I make in my thermos every morning is just leaves that get ever more nuclear as the day wears on. It provides my bitter stimulant but the butter tea brings with it the calories that we are burning through.
Tandu La brings respite as once again winds pick up at the 3500-metre pass and with every gust, a layer of heat is wiped away. Winds snap and rip around us. As we rest a woman of indeterminate age, carrying nothing but a bamboo cane, prostrates upon the pass dirtying and sanctifying her dress simultaneously. Though I do not bend to the earth with her, there is the stirring of understanding within me for her need for faith. If anything could warrant a bow from me it would be mountains (and the odd cake of Puerh tea). I do bow in respect to the mountain, though I do it off to the side.
As the woman stands she gives a smile that is so devoid of sadness, effort or any wear and tear that I am bolted to the ground. It is a moment, which in a second clears the peripheral of all things and movements. There is only her smile. Michael mentions that the smile has something ageless and pure about it…as if to counter these words and thoughts, there is a grunt from behind us as Kandro stalks off in that wonderfully ungainly way of his.
By crossing over the summit of the pass we are entering a new series of landscapes, which open up vistas, which were not there moments before. We plummet down once again to into carved hills and minuscule paths.
Zigzagging we go until we pass a bend (the kind of dramatic bend that true mountains offer up in quick succession) and there to the right as though suddenly unveiled, is the blue-green flow that is the Tsa-Yu River. I feel like I’m seeing an old friend again, though it has only been but a day without its bends being seen. “It bends every kilometre”, Kandro tells me confidently. I watch it from above wondering how long it has taken to carve this path through the valleys and I wonder too at the massive stones, which sit as though pitched down from the clouds.
Here the mountains heave upwards and drop with more extravagance than we have seen. The pitch below us would send a body shooting down two hundred metres, but what a glorious way to end…if I had to go that is. Making a comment of this to Michael gives me one of his very expressive arched eyebrows.
The sun carves behind mountains to the west and one whole half of our vast valley is cut into dark. A little way up, a tent with Tibetan motifs stitched along its white side is visible and beyond it, up a striating path, a huge natural gate of rock leads to a small entry – another exit, another entry. That is how the mountains draw you in…they have always felt to me as being entirely infinite. In passing the gate I feel that tightening of the body that occurs when one is entering an entirely new landscape where the senses sharpen by reflexive action.
Michael and I are now moving at our own pace and we make stops to wait up for (and respect) our ‘family’ – which I’ve now come to refer to our group as. Drolma is a fierce presence, seemingly indestructible and issuing up high-pitched squeals of delight that ricochet around the hills. When displeased she is the embodiment of a dragon from long ago, but as quickly she can vent, her laugh can break apart the darkest moment in a flash. Kandro meanwhile – almost impossibly – has increased his cigarette intake but it fits ‘Kandro’ well and as he mentions one night to me, without the sips of whisky and deep inhalations of tobacco, his body aches. Tseba plods on and ‘Leke of the forearms’ continues in his patient, gentle way.
They too take time to marvel at the geography around us and at one point I notice Kandro draw deep from his smoke and just nod his head with a grunt of approval at that which he surveys.
We will bed down in Geba, which sits down in a valley now taken by shade. Our path ahead to the town whines with the sound of engines and it feels slightly eerie hearing these man made noises in these mountains, which are so tucked away. Then, from around a bend the unexpected shape of a motorcycle comes towards us, and then another, and then three more. Motorcycles, (with clinging passengers aboard) move along our metre-wide path at a fair clip of speed. Three degrees off, one stone, one momentarily lapse and the bike and its passengers are gone. We move up to the mountainside to let them pass as they lurch by.
Geba’s two-dozen homes are big square things with a central shop and a central spring water basin. Michael and I get our appendages formerly referred to as feet into the silver mountain water in quick time and try to find our missing toes which look like freshly harvested potatoes. All of a sudden the entire town seems to appear to clean, scrub or find some reason to be at the spring. A few smiles at the state of our feet and they are gone, only for another group to move in.
“Geba is full of thieves”. Kandro has had his nightly drink (or six) but his comment to closely guard our things is growled out. Not 10 minutes after arriving back from our foot scrub, a woman slips into our simple wooden room without so much as a glance at us. Kandro almost explodes off of his perch, formidable hands at the ready. Just as I am moving into the room I hear a low growl, or maybe words, from Kandro followed by a hasty retreat out by the woman. To crown off his act of protection, he pours a big drink of the clear potent liquor we carry at all times, and takes a huge pull, while giving me the benefit of one of his glorious vulpine smiles.