THE LAST TIME I wrote about my adventure in northern India I had gone as far north as I could get by bus. I acclimatized for eight days at the Buddhist monastery in Leh at 11,500 feet. The altitude was not affecting me. Altitude sickness can make you feel cumbersome and headachy. I felt great this time. I was taking my time because my next move was going to take me to 18,000 to 20,000 feet. I may never know exactly how high because there are no maps of this area’s trails.
For decades, India, Pakistan and China have warred over whose land this is. Currently the war has gotten nasty. I don’t know if it will ever be safe to go to this region again. Because of the skirmish, maps would only make things worse, so I had to pick my route using sheperds’ trails. There was a place I wanted to walk to about 150 miles away and I knew the general direction I needed to go was north towards Tibet. I had room in my pack for some provisions hoping I might come across a village or two to get more along the way. I talked to a few other trekkers up there to get an idea of what I’d be getting myself into and any directions that would help.
I was so excited to get up there I couldn’t wait to get going. I kept reminding myself to go slow. I was going to have the time of my life, plus there wasn’t much oxygen up there once I get to the highest point of the pass at around 18,000 feet. I had no ropes, no oxygen, no experience at these heights and best of all no one to talk me out of this.
My first few days I walked in a moonscape. There was no plant life in this beautiful desert. I followed tracks through the desert steadily on an incline towards the snowcapped Himalaya. I would go from monastery to monastery every day and sleep on the rooftops at the invitations of the Buddhist monks. The invite usually included a bowl of soup, some tea, and a very friendly exchange with the monks. We could not converse with each other, but the monks seemed thrilled to show me around the monastery they lived and studied in.
The last monastery I came to before entering the high mountains was one I will never forget. I could see the monastery in the distance. It seemed like a mirage. The more I walked towards it the farther away it seemed to get. The thin air and intense sun were playing tricks on me. It reminded me of the scene from the movie “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” when Sir Lancelot was racing towards the castle on a horse and every time he looked up he was farther away than before.
WHEN I FINALLY reached the lonely building, I walked around the outside perimeter a few times hoping someone would call out to me like usual. It seemed like no one was there - I could hear the silence. Just as I was thinking I’d have to set up my tent elsewhere on this rocky desert floor, I heard someone approaching the entrance. The monk who motioned for me to come in was the only person there. I think he had taken a vow of silence because he never made a sound. We spent hours together as he showed me around the monastery. He made some tea, smiling all the time. I was thinking he was glad to have some company.
After a while he motioned for me to follow him down some steps to the cool underground room that was lit by oil lamps. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see a statue of Buddha, that was probably 20 feet long and in the laying down position. The Buddhas I had seen at the other monasteries were all in the sitting cross-legged position. I don’t know the meaning of this one, but it is unusual to see one like this. He was there to guard it from looters I suppose. We spent a few hours down there in silence except the buzzing of a few flies. It was an amazing moment that I hope never fades from my memory.
After a good night’s sleep under the most starlit sky I’ve ever seen I was ready to start a much more abrupt incline into the Himalaya. The deeper I got into the mountains, and the desert began to fade away, the more relieved I felt to know there was plenty water flowing from snowmelt. Also, I could walk under some trees. From here on, I would follow shepherds’ trails. Sometimes there would be a fork in the trail that would split in two or sometimes three directions. When I encountered a fork, I would not stop and think about it, I would go with my gut and take the trail that felt right. I figured in a way they were all the right direction so how could I go wrong?
At times I would be walking across great expanses of open country covered in snow and other times I would find myself shaded by groups of giant cedar trees. At one shaded rest stop I took, I was approached by two hunters. As they got closer, I worried about the tales I was warned of about bandits who wandered around at night. They had a shotgun. Upon closer inspection, it was a blunderbuss which I didn’t know still existed. You may have seen one on an Elmer Fudd cartoon, they have a short barrel that is flared at the muzzle. It’s hard to look menacing with a blunderbuss.
I figured the best thing to do as our paths were about to cross was to sit down and act cool. They were ready for a break also. They sat with me smiling and looking and wondering about this person wandering around in their mountains. They had two rabbits tied to their waist, so their hunt had been successful. We said our friendly greetings and goodbyes and that encounter was over without any problems.
ON THE SIXTH DAY of walking, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me again. After seeing almost no one, I looked down in the valley below me and saw a girl probably around 14 years old who was beckoning me towards her family’s tent. It was a shepherd family who roams continuously. They stay in valleys where there is a little grass for their sheep to munch on, I guess for maybe a week, until they have munched it down to nothing then they move on. She was with her grandparents, I guessed. They each looked like they were 150 years old. The old woman appeared completely blind and the old man had some serious cataracts. I guessed the girl was in charge or there was someone else out scouting for the next place to camp.
When I entered their tent for yak milk tea they were offering, I could see where the eye problems were coming from. The tent was filled with smoke from a slow, smoldering fire made of dung. I could hardly see through the smoke, much less breathe, while acting friendly and grateful for the tea and rest. We sat around and stared at each other for about an hour. I was allowed to take some great photos of them. I will post those pictures on the constant contact version of the story. If you care to see these photos go to our website and join our email club to get the E version of the story that includes photos each week.
I felt like a National Geographic photographer at that moment. I got some great photos of that family. Unfortunately they certainly had no address for me to send copies. I guess their address would be “Planet Earth.”