We awake with a shudder to mountain cold and the realization that something has changed overnight regarding our ‘team’. Clear air with a hint of blue in the sky as dawn gives way to day waits…. while by the fire a strange figure coaxes more heat from the coals. Our canine friend is stretching out his little limbs to rid them of cold. The larger mastiffs have all disappeared – home I guess. It is the figure near the fire that holds me as I emerge from our tent. Where is our guide Neema?
The figure, however, is clearly not that of our guide Neema, but rather his wife whom we had met upon our arrival to Xiadawu. An ‘exchange of bodies’ has taken place in the night. Little Neema has left in the dead of night and in return his sturdy, bullet-proof wife and her pink turban have arrived.
She explains in a soft voice with the requisite hand signs that Neema the previous day had succumbed to chills, headaches and fever as the cold had been too much for him and as the day and night wore on. He had found enough phone coverage to convey the need for a substitution, so here we were. As she speaks there is the slightest smile around her eyes of apology, as though she has long been aware of his susceptibility to the cold. Looking at her wrapped in her wools with one arm free I suspect that she suffers no such issues.
Michael and I react with shrugs and a bit of disbelief that Neema’s constitution could not hold up. The deep cold that we have encountered thus far, while not extreme, is unseasonal and the fresh snow hints that winter is not yet done with its sermon. Perhaps it is better that this happen now rather than later on.
Moving on from camp each individual body of our group spreads out in a staggered line as we ascend from over four thousand metres ever higher. The snow is deep and heavy and the light in the sky seems content to hang behind a body of low lying cloud. Snow from the sky feels imminent and I am thankful for the litre of bitter tea that now streams through my body warming limbs and insides.
No bodies appear on the horizon, no migrating nomads and no mythic trade caravans, we are utterly and happily alone. It is too early in the season and there is a feeling that our little group is at one with the elements. As time passes I note with a satisfaction that our present guide, Gamzon, is managing the yak with a gentle precision that her husband lacked. The animals respond to her competence and sanity with more kinship than they did to Neema’s slightly jittery personality. This coupled with the fact that she strapped our tent and gear to the yak’s backs in half the time it took Neema suggests to me that this has been good fortune to have her taking over.
Winds whip up, ice pellets drive into us and the sun plays peek-aboo as we ascend the 4,600 metre Darde Lhatso pass. Mountains are in the foreground, the background and the sky.
Atop the winds howl and we are gifted a view of the greater Amne Machin range. It appears as a violent white canvas that has been cut with a stained knife. Winds obscure the entire sky but there are brief peaks of a brooding mass rising up above us.
Prayer flags whip about in gusts. Below us an entire landscape of glaciers line the valley floor. The look ancient and powerful and utterly patient. Once they ruled here cutting up landscapes in slow unstoppable movements. Now only their icy bodies and scars remain.
Our gradual descent from the wind bludgeoned pass is met with sun and with its arrival the world changes. Heat powers into the shoulders, snow melts into rivulets and a space of Amne Machin’s great white length opens up before us. The Mountains here instruct and the locals have long followed valleys and passes through the spine of the ridge lines.
A primordial valley lies heading east stretching into a distant black horizon of stone. Here, for the first time we are offered a scale of the mountains and I feel this mountain’s character start to emerge for the first time. It is a massive corridor running a deceptively long way with shoots and carved troughs emptying its melt water into cavernous valleys. No longer does the mountain brood.
Caravans carrying goods would have passed this way later in the season when they were still active, as will nomadic communities on the move in a week or so. Summer grazing awaits higher on the mountain.
Gamzon our guide, and our faithful yak are slow but unrelenting in their pace – tonight they will need to access grazing lands to feed tonight. Passing over ice-cold torrential rivers our yak’s eternal appeal is their unremitting pace and sureness of foot. They do not hesitate, finding secure footing on every surface, at times showing nimbleness and lightness of touch that is ‘almost’ (but not quite) elegant.
Michael and I must also find ways to launch ourselves over these rushing onslaughts of water, at times making it by mere centimetres…and in a case or two ‘not’ making it by centimeters.
Lunch consists of some muffins, an apple, half a flask of tea and a couple of leaves of dried seaweed that I have brought – something of the sea loaded with potassium, sodium and iodine – to provide precisely what I am burning at these altitudes. Mountains bring their own stresses and warnings, but they shelter as well.
Eventually the snow carpets that we have tread on for days are no longer. Descending onto dried turf and rock basins, yak herds spot the slopes and even a forlorn tent or two become visible. We have moved from one realm to another.
We are offered the option of staying either in a camp or traveling another three hours to our guide’s mother’s home. A smile is passed between Michael and I and it is quickly decided to continue on to “mother’s” village. While some of the delicate and brutal beauty might be missed, live bodies and the warmth of people (and fire) are always welcome.
At this juncture there lies an enormous valley that cuts directly into the main range to our right but we will not take it, instead pushing one further east – we are approaching the 30 kilometre mark – all of which has been above 3,700 metres – we will easily do over 30 kilometres today. The teasing promise of a warm bed and warm water can fuel the will like few things in the mountain.
For Gamzon our guide, who has been quietly titanic this day it will also provide her a chance to see her mother and grandmother – a rare treat in these desolate lands.
The town that we eventually arrive to seems a confused collection of huts randomly put up in the crucible of three valleys that meet. Nomads, fungus pickers and some random workmen erecting a structure add to the melee of bodies here.
Gamzon’s mother, a tiny woman with a huge smile and pleated hair, comes out to us shuffling along in a thick collection of robes. Grabbing the yak she takes them and our chestnut mare to a corral and us to a collection of small huts.
Gamzon is twice the size of her youthful mother, and when her grandmother appears I marvel. Each woman shares almost no similarity with eachother. The grandmother seems immortal with luminescent beauty and a vitality that is stunning. Her missing teeth, strangely enough do nothing to diminish her beauty and her laugh is a universal sort to stir up the soul.
We are bid welcome by a collection of relatives to sit in a cosy little room. Mountains though, even in shelters are never forgotten. They loom as much in the mind as in the backdrop. All that is their’s is offered up in the way that the truly generous do. A huge woodstove dominates the area and soothes the bones. Beside an ageing grandfather’s bed sits. Common space to Tibetans is the only space (besides the prayer room) that really matters.
Gamzon and her mother sleep together across the room from us chatting long into the night. The chirps, tweets and tones of happy gossip and catching up bid us farewell, and welcome us into the world of vivid mountain dreams.