When a memory of a memory inevitably isn’t quite what one expected there is a kind of exasperation, a kind of disbelief that one cannot actually recall a place, a feeling, or even a person. It is hard to acknowledge that the mind has ebbed perhaps a bit.
Aniè stands with his homemade pack in the face of winds which blast into his eyes which tear under the cold wind’s force but he does not move. Ngawa and I wait beside him as he scans the horizons around him looking for something familiar, something to stimulate his memory into an affirmative. It doesn’t come. Ngawa is gentle but firm with our elder statesman urging him to move and reminding him that as the skies darken and time passes we are losing precious momentum. Aniè though, is fixated and seemingly unable to move. I wonder at what goes on in his mind and how that feeling of knowing you should remember but cannot affects him.
Aniè tells us of how so much has changed in the decades and that the landscapes before him simply don’t register. Trees have grown, the season’s colors and tones have created a different geography to that which he remembers…and of course what he doesn’t mention (and neither do we) is that his memory over time has perhaps faded slightly.
Ngawa gently takes charge and moves out to lead instinctively as the winds pick up for another inevitable onslaught. His short powerful form cuts northwest. We are bushwhacking through waist deep scrub brush and rhododendron that rip at every loose end and are keen to get out of their grips. We’ve spent a good portion of the day on trails that ‘seem’ right but don’t necessarily ‘feel’ right and Ngawa is carefully adamant that we must continue plunging northwest.
Our day comes to a close in a small cup of a valley as the temperatures plunge to -12 degrees Celsius the moment the orb of a sun disappears. We’ve chosen a summer wooden shed for our sleeping quarters and not for the first time its ability to fend off the cold will prove helpful. Clearing out the fire pit Aniè shakes his head and immediately searches his pack for the comfort of his bottle of Mao Liang white whisky.
Ngawa and I take turns making the ten minute walk to a glacial stream which lies nearby burbling under a layer of ice. Water and fuel are the two ‘musts’ for any camp, and the spring waters here make their way from inside the earth and flow like clean white torrents. Ngawa and I carry small shards of resin-heavy pieces of pine so that lighting a fire – even with rain or snow pelting down – is possible.
Mountains have this wonderful but rather ominous ability to become silent at night, as the winds die down to let it in a kind of deep quiet cold that penetrates every corner and space. The moment the sun disappears behind the distant mountains, it is as though another world with its moods has taken charge.
Our dinner is identical to our lunch and breakfast: pieces of pork laid upon the fire bare, butter tea, and biscuits…and of course the necessary little sip (in Aniè’s case multiple long slurps) of whisky. As always, I have a stash of green Puerh, and tuck into multiple bowls of tea to satisfy both a need and a desire.
Journeys through nature’s grand elements – and particularly those by foot – are as much about the relationships and the decision making process as they are about physical efforts and fortitude. Our entire dinner within the little wooden enclave is taken up with what tomorrow’s plan will be. Ngawa’s judgment and strength of character is slowly taking hold on our journey and it is his calm but forceful suggestion of the following day’s direction that eventually is agreed upon. Though Ngawa has never been to these elusive Sacred Lakes, he knows the area and more importantly isn’t affected by memories. His instincts are what drive him and his instincts are precisely why he is on this journey. Ngawa, I’ve often thought, has retained a kind of primal element to living. He isn’t swayed too much by so-called logic but nor does he ignore it when it ‘feels’ right. He doesn’t suffer that potentially fatal flaw in the mountains of ‘over-thinking’ or doubting. He simply ‘does’. He goes with his gut feelings on most things in life and in my experiences with him, he’s almost always correct. Ngawa still feels the land and its pains and he still pays attention to its every breath.
A humming fire rings in an early sleep, our sleeping bags tucked close to the flames and in Aniè’s case this means almost ‘in’ the fire pit. He lights his pipe as he lies back and his lean face stretches into a lion-like yawn as he hums something from long ago to us and the dark welcomes us down into its depths.
Next morning’s frost has left our entire mountain world under a sheen of ice. Ngawa hasn’t slept well and is puffy but that doesn’t stop him from running around with his rampant energy. He speaks little this morning but he is intent that on this day we’ll start early and get within striking distance of the lakes, if not to them.
Aniè gets up slowly, growling about how his bones are not used to the cold. He wonders aloud why this route that used to connect Xiao Zhongdian and the high grassland valleys to that of the deep warm Yangtze River towns of Wujing County had been forgotten. Xiao Zhongdian, known to the Tibetans as Yong’no, and its inhabitants that we had spoken to, said that the elders had spoken of precious lakes but that no one now had any use for nor knowledge of the routes.
Aniè and a few others when they were younger had come not only to pray for rains but they had also come to source the high altitude plants and herbs that rest up in the heights. Medicines from the area were (and still are) precious commodities that are trusted. Aniè though had most often come up from Wujing, in the opposite direction to that which we now follow.
Ngawa leads along a flat corridor that ascends ever-higher and our day blazes with the dual prongs of relentless wind and heavy sun. As always the struggles come when we must literally cut our way through the dense underbrush while scaling invisible moss-covered rocks and stones. Hours lead us to a dead-end valley where we are literally encased in three sides that stretch straight up around us. To retreat means a three hour trip and a huge loss of time. I scale a ridgeline to get a view of our surroundings, or what there is to see. We have been gifted one little piece of precious information by locals, which Aniè confirms from his recall of the route. We’ve been told about a single peak of stone that we must find and head towards; that the lakes we seek lie in dark seclusion beyond and below this spire of stone. I find it hovering a distance to the west…a long distance but it is there.
Upon returning I find our old lion sipping some of his whisky with a desolate smile. He asks, “so what have you seen up there”? He is more content to be led now than at the beginning and it is a bit sad to see him losing faith in his memories, though I suspect that such a man never really loses his strength.
I mention this peak being visible in the distance and slowly a fire glows in his ancient eyes. He looks off into the forest before us exactly where the peak lies, but invisible to us now. Slowly a finger raises and points to the distant peak.
“Is it that way”? he asks knowingly, without taking his eyes off the invisible spot.
“Yes”, I tell him.
Slowly a long smile spreads across his face and he quickly puts the cap onto the bottle of whisky. His entire countenance has reassumed the figure of command and slinging his bag onto his shoulders he issues us the command “dro” (“go” in Tibetan).
“I remember the route. It is through this forest along a valley”, Aniè tells us. The “forest” he speaks of is a vast green world that is thick with overgrown trees and mosses, and we must ascend up an almost vertical pathway. Ngawa looks at me with a smile and in that expression secures in me that faith that he trusts that Aniè does in fact finally remember.
At one point after slogging through and over thick underbrush, the ever-present rhododendron, and slick damp stones which lie in wait for us, we empty out onto a high ridgeline which oversees a whole world in front of us. Sightlines stretch in every direction, rendering all of us still with its magnificence. Not even Aniè’s penchant for a sip of firewater can interrupt the stunning vistas.
Ngawa’s tough face softens as he drops his pack for the first time in hours to savour this view from above.
“My home is around that bend”, he tells me, pointing far off into a western valley along the Yangtze which snakes its muscular flow below us.
Moments later, Aniè’s relentless energy is urging us onwards as the lakes – joined by his almost manic hand-pointing – are just below us. Aniè is surging ahead of us, stalking downwards and then, like many final rewards, the first of the two lakes, Tso Ka (White Lake) simply is there. No drama, no brilliance, nothing overstated as we arrive. The lake itself is smaller and less grand than my mind had imagined it, but it carries something in its stillness, something that transcends words. Still, flat, water shimmers in the fading light between the thick branches and the breath is almost rendered still by the site. Aniè flings his bag to the ground crouches close to the edge and lights his pipe like an animal sniffing the ground. He turns to us and smiles with that great handsome head of his as if a small victory has been scored.
An hour later we sit beside the sister lake, Tso Nga (Black Lake) unpacking our gear which smells of smoke. It is about a 10 minute crash through the forest from its sibling. Ngawa and I collect dead wood for our fire, which is always our first priority. Aniè rinses his face and hair in the sacred lake, not heeding Ngawa’s warning not to treat the sacred lake in such a way. Ngawa collects water from another nearby lake – which isn’t one I’ve heard of up until now – Tso Ma (Red Lake), which apparently isn’t sacred.
When I ask Aniè what designates a lake as being sacred he looks at me and gives me a simple answer which is typical of him: “It has been sacred for as long as anyone knows, and so it remains sacred, but now people have forgotten it.”
The lake rests just off to the north of us very still and dark and our little camp rests under a low canopy of rhododendron. I keep silent, but I wonder if our coming here will inspire the deities to send down snow or rain.
In the ancient world of spirits, lakes were sacred places and to enter them or even to speak too loudly within their reach would bring calamity, rain, or thunderstorms. Aniè says little and keeps looking at the forest around us and soon, only smells and sounds of the forest are present.