Slips and Stones…

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.

Peerless cook, Drolma could also unleash fire as she does here in the inevitable direction of Kandro

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.

Frosts touch the autumn forests before a more considerable of white comes down from the sky

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.

A plastic tent, surrounded by thorns, one forlorn dog and a huge landscape is what this one camp offered up to the eyes. Most often a single person lives up here for a season offering up only the most meagre of rations for pilgrims

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.

 

It is the under appreciated descents that warrant attention. Joints and ligaments are punished for their efforts and as a climbing mate once stated "these slips are often the last slip one ever makes". Here Drolma carefully makes her way down

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.

Depending on one's passions, sites like this either wither one or grab the blood vessels.

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.

A brief bolt of light, shoots down on a village that clings to the side of a mountain

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.

Draped along a portion of the root, the liquid green mosses moved with every breeze and created a soft canopy at surprising altitudes

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.

...and then the snow begins anew and I zip up for a fourth time in as many hours

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.

Our view as we make our way further into the four thousand metre mark. Looking back it reminds you to always keep an eye on what one's past

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.

Bleak and beautiful our path of frozen earth, prayer flags and gnarled roots leads on and up and down and up some more

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”.

Regardless of temperature, the end of most days had a foot bath thrown in to keep those underrated appendages in working (and respectful) condition. Here Michael and his formidable legs get covered up again before the inevitable numbness sets in

It can indeed.

About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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2 Responses to Slips and Stones…

  1. Pure poetry, both in the images and the narrative.
    (I wanted this comment to appear on the next post: ‘An Ascent, An End’, but the link wouldn’t work).

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