Mornings can ease in or they bump in. I wake in Gebo and have somehow managed to roll not only off of my matt but make it a good three metres from where I first lay my head the night before. The night was not one of the better in terms of rest and I wake in one of those very human but deadly conditions known as the ‘don’t-even-speak-to-me’moods. The night’s unfortunate events included hours of scurrying bodies throwing themselves every which way above, beside and under our sleeping facilities. To add to this the rumbling rodent population in the ceiling were at their brash best – their midnight forays managed to kick (I suspect deliberately pushed) dust, stone and refuse onto my sleeping bag in little droppings of sound and spray. They were on some sort of stimulant or perhaps they are simply heartier beasts than rodents I have known. In my messed up mind I pictured the small beasts discussing the various ways the punish the mind and body while taking drags off of the rodent cigarettes.
To add to this little nightly symphony, we slept within closed walls without windows, which never does my brain nor body any favours. On this morning I need silence and I need my tea and I need my tea at nuclear strength and in record amounts. The silence and the tea manage to get me back to an agreeable state, while an unexpected comment from Kandro does the rest.
The day is ugly grey and there is a new dampness in the air which Kandro sniffs in that very Kandro way. Nose flared, eyes rolled into his head, and an unlit cigarette at the ready he looks to the mountains beyond and whispers ‘kawa’ (snow). This lights up the last dark smoldering parts of my brain.
Pilgrims make their way by in the early morning shuffle and in the morning damp their collective breaths shoot out into the air. Gebo’s roughly 2400 metre altitude is low but around us grey fogs of air are being blown around. The day’s weather will be interesting.
We begin our ascent almost immediately and Kandro is in bullish form leading his pack and saying little. We pass three pilgrims who stop in a little hut drinking their breakfast of butter tea. Tseba’s knee is bothering him and I can only imagine that if he is actually admitting it (albeit to Drolma, who in turn tells me) it must be grinding. We are making good time but it is the brutal descents that are shaking up our family’s bones.
Briefly the skies clear long enough to show off a ragged old beast of a mountain covered in snow that is being hounded by wind-blown snow crests.
Our diet thus far has been noodles, onions, chilies, the odd bit of chocolate and when we can find some pork fat it is thrown into a soup. My 357-gram cake of raw Puerh is being consumed at an almost record rate as Michael too has discovered what I like to refer to as the “Green Leaf God”.
Sites and senses here in the heights are inextricably entwined, but the air and the way it rifles sharply up into the sinuses makes the body wonder if it has ever taken breath before, so clear and cold it is.
It is Tseba that is carrying the pace of the family behind us, and when we wait at a split in the path it is he who smiles and motions upward. His knee and his small agonies are put away. I admire the stoicism that isn’t quite stoic…there is emotion in him but it is ‘honest’ and there is always a magnificent smile. No bravado here…just an ability to push on.
We have come up close to a thousand metres and still our path heads almost straight up. At a lonely rest stop we are gifted a stunning but slightly ominous confluence of the sky’s powers. Sun bolts through clouds and snows begin, all while a black smoldering sky sits upon our path setting the backdrop.
Mid-afternoon we pass over the four thousand-metre level, making it almost two thousand metres of ascent from Gebo’s distant dot. As so often the case with ‘summits’ one world gives way to another upon arrival and we descend into an utterly still cold forest of mosses and scattered patches of cold. The path is wrapped in prayer flags and lined with gargoyle-like roots which along with the earth is frozen and unsympathetic.
Down I plod, until I come upon two pilgrims who have lost their third member. The two young women sit and ask if I have seen a man along the route. I haven’t seen a soul in hours besides our group. There are the first signs of panic running over the one woman’s face, as the man in question had been suffering from blackouts and headaches and along these paths, one misstep can lead to a pitch drop without warning.
The day and its unusual currents of damp air, still valleys and slate coloured skies has the tang of something heavy about it and I too wonder if this man has gone missing. Both women have sun-scrubbed faces and cleavers for hands. I’ve long admired the capable thick hands of the mountain people as they seem (and in most cases are) capable of all of the world’s trials.
Skipping off at a reckless pace the two women are off until one of them slips on a frozen patch of earth sending her off in the air to land with brutal thud. In falling she rarely misses slamming her head back onto an exposed rock. She is up in a flash and is off once again with barely a notice. Then she stops and whatever damage the fall did sets in and she bends over clutching her back.
Off in front of the ‘family’ I wait alone until the woman seems well. In the back of my mind and certainly theirs is their compatriot. Finally they move off, once again skipping with speed down into the forests.
Later we camp on a small peninsula of soft mosses and pine needles. As I explain the tale of the women Kandro flashes a look, “it isn’t only nature that takes people”. He explains how people, which include us occidentals, do go missing in these passageways and mountains.
He recalls of how a skeleton was found only because a dog had sniffed out some remaining wafts of flesh left on the bone. All money and identification were gone, but it was later determined that it was in fact a westerner. How the person had died was never determined but as Kandro surmises “the mountains can take you in many ways”.
It can indeed.