The LAST PLACE on EARTH
[Published in the 1997 premiere issue, the events in this story took place in May of 1994.]
In June of 1936, an Austrian adventurer disguised as an Indian pilgrim lay belly-down on a temple roof in western Tibet, concealing a Leica rangefinder in his robes. Herbert Tichy risked life and limb that day to photograph a group of Buddhist lamas praying before the sheer face of a holy mountain—a mountain considered to be the very axis of the world. It was known by many names, among them Gang Rinpoche, "The Sacred Snow Mountain" and Kailash, "The Golden Throne of Shiva."
Nearly forty years later, Tichy's photograph would change the direction of a young writer's life. Enraptured by that image, Tom Joyce spent the next twenty years preparing his own pilgrimage to the most astonishing of mountains in the most inhospitable of places. The trek took him through the Humla region of northwestern Nepal, up the Karnali River gorge, across the great Himalaya, and into the remote Zhang-Zhung plateau of Tibet. It was a journey shadowed by the ever-present specter of Chinese devastation and the inspiring courage of a proud dying culture—an eye-opening voyage to a legendary but sadly forgotten outpost Joyce describes as The Last Place on Earth.
May 14, Simikot
The porters keep to themselves, comfortably segregated from the white tourists, and even our Sherpa guides maintain a polite distance. We have five of these venerable denizens of the mountains, one Brahmin, a Rai who cooks for us, and sixty porters, mostly Thakuris, who have been traveling for 17 days with supplies to reach our trail head. It seems like an absurd number of people to tend a group of 15 trekkers, but I'm told we need that many to carry the kerosene, food and gear that will eventually get us as far as Shigatse in Tibet. There is virtually no chance of getting supplies until then, and we are required to carry all of our own fuel, as firewood—like oxygen—grows more and more scarce the higher we ascend.
May 14, Tuling
It is logistically challenging, to say the least, dealing with the amount of waste produced by an entourage our size. Human waste alone is formidable. We burn our toilet paper and bury degradable refuse, but any solid inorganic material that cannot be burned will be packed out. In this respect, our group will have less of an impact on the environment than most. What our porters do with their excreta remains a mystery none of us have the inclination to contemplate.They do not seem to be the least bit hesitant to drop aluminum foil, plastic or paper debris all along the trails of their beautiful countryside. Nor can they understand why we foolish Westerners stop to pick up the trash when we see it. But the sight of an environmentally-correct sahib stooping to retrieue a candy wrapper that has just been insouciantly discarded gives the porters something to joke about as they slog our duffels, food and fuel up and down the steep ravine trail.
Romance aside, I am cognizant of the fact that we are still tourists—an exclusive,
self-contained, mobile village, snaking sluggishly up the Karnali River gorge for the sole purpose of escorting 15 North Americans to a remote corner of the Tibetan plateau, affording us the opportunity to view, and circle in relative luxury, what every Buddhist, Bön-po, Hindu, and Jain considers to be the single most sacred mountain on Earth—Kailash—mythical throne of Demchog and Dorje Pangmo, abode of the passionate ascetic Shiva and his consort in ecstatic union, Parvati. And even though we've all read the right books, we sybaritic Western pilgrims really haven't a clue why thousands endure untold hardships to reach this holy mountain and perform the ritual kora [circumambulation], or for that matter, why the Sherpas and porters at our disposal trekked for 17 twelve-hour days, carrying back-breaking loads in their wicker baskets to meet us in Simikot, and then walk for another week.
May 15, Kermi
Our entourage is camped in a schoolyard surrounded by structures with open stone walls and roofs of corrugated steel. We haue been visited by half the town as we set up camp. Natives of the upper Humla Karnali region come from Tibetan stock, a striking contrast in their dress and Buddhist traditions to the Thakuri Hindus we encountered further south in Simikot and Tuling, yet every bit as delightful and curious. They are amazed and bemused by the pale-skinned Martians in high-tech Gore-Tex outfits who sleep in portable domes of rip-stop nylon, eat strange food called "gorp" out of plastic bags and shit in canvas tents.
May 17, Munchu
We are granted an audience with Pema Rigtsel Rinpoche, a Gelug-pa monk, and learn that he is trying to raise capital from the Beijing Government to rebuild a very old monastery toward which he holds spiritual responsibility. Called Shepaling, the monastery is located near Taklakot, or Purang, just across the border in Tibet, but Pema Rigtsel has never been granted permission by the Chinese aurthorities to visit its ruins.
May 21, Purang
This is a thoroughly wretched place, as are any Tibetan towns where the Chinese have garrisoned their military. When we arrived at the police station yesterday, our passports were confiscated and our bags searched—for what, we haven't a clue. And we have been informed this morning that the border crossing from Humla has been closed. Our group is apparently the last to be allowed through, which leaves us with an uneasy feeling of isolation from the "free world." To make our situation even more tenuous, an unnamed authority in Beijing has forbidden us to proceed to Gyantse, Shigatse, and Lhasa as planned, and there is much speculation about the reason: the anniversary of the "peaceful liberation of Tibet" by the People's Republic of China, the Buddhist festival of Saga Dawa, and the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre are all occurring in the next several weeks; troops are on full alert in Lhasa. But, there is a silver lining in this dark cloud of political intrigue—we are permitted to proceed to Kailash.
Further up the trail, at the mouth of a small cave dug into the crumbling walls of the cliff, I encounter an old man whose eyes are glazed over with milky cataracts, so prevalent in this part of the world due to the ubiquitious yak dung cooking fires. As he spins his copper prayer wheel, I speak to him in English, sensing somehow that he can comprehend the emotion in my voice. I tell him how I have just scaled the ladders at Tsegu, crossed a catwalk to a tiny chapel excavated from the solid mountain wall, and knelt beside the 100,000 teachings—strips of hand-printed paper neatly bound and stacked into an alcove. There, before statuary of the Tantric trinity of Chenrezig, Jambayang, and Changna Dorje, I felt my heart rip open.
Envisioning the garrison of Chinese troops below, and the utter devastation they had wreaked upon the Tibetan people, I felt nothing but loathing in my heart for these oppressors. I recalled the litany of atrocities: since 1951, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese invasion, occupation, imprisonment, torture and work gangs; 6,000 monasteries, temples, and chapels like this one were destroyed; there was a wholesale attempt to smash Tibetan belief in the Buddha Dharma along with the theocracy that espoused it.
And then, just as I have worked myself into a frenzy of anger, I remembered that the Gelug-pa were originally fundamentalist reformers of what they considered to be a "corrupt" Nyingma sect, that the pre-invasion theocracy of Tibet was indeed a feudal and sometimes oppressive state itself, and that it was a Chinese man who wrote the Tao Teh Ching—probably the single most profound collection of wisdom ever to appear on this planet. Nothing is ever as black and white as it first appears.
May 21, Shepaling
On a ridge above Purang, about a kilometer to the north and close to 15,000 feet above sea level, lies what remains of Shembaling monastery, the place which Pema Rigtsel Rinpoche has never been permitted to see. Once an enormous structure where thousands of monks studied and meditated upon the sutras, Shepaling appears to have been deserted for at least half a millennium. In fact, it was destroyed after 1966, during one of the blackest horror shows of recorded history—Mao Zedong's "Cultural Reuolution".
May 22, Darchen
In mid-afternoon, our caravan arrives at the pilgrims' encampment at Darchen. There we pitch our tents on concrete blocks above the garbage choked stream flowing through the bleak village. I can no longer contain myself and climb ninety minutes to a ridge well over 16,000 feet, obsessed with a desire to watch sunset on the south face of Gang Rinpoche. Finally, after years of fantasy and impossible anticipation, pumped full of adrenaline from the strenuous ascent, I cast unobstructed eyes upon the golden Throne of Shiva. Steadying myself against a cairn covered with mani [prayer] stones, skulls, flags and a few wooden poba [tea bowls], I drink in the last warm rays of light that bathe the surface of Kailash.
May 23, Silung
A plume of snow avalanches from the long vertical cleft in the mountain's south face, known as the "Stairway to Heaven" long before Led Zepplin was a gleam in the eye of the universe. It was carved—so the legend goes—by the sorcerer Naro Bön Chun as he fell from Kailash's summit after losing a psychic duel with the Buddhist saint Milarepa, reputedly the only human being ever to stand on the mountain's peak. But Milarepa did not climb to the top of Gang Rinpoche; the tale is told that he flew—like one of the great soaring lammergeiers that float in endless meditation on the thermal currents. Among The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa is found the ascetic's paean to Kailash: "This snow mountain is the naval of the world, the crystal-like pagoda where the snow leopards dance," he wrote. "There is no place more wonderful than this."
May 24, Chöku
We climb first to Chöku, a gompa directly aboue our camp site. There, pilgrims perform
mini-koras of the structure, like slow electrons whirling around a mud brick nucleus. A separate shrine, called gönkhang, is dedicated to Ghangri Lhatsen, a "protector" of demonic appearance. But to our dismay, no women are allowed to enter this chapel. Spiritual chauvinism is apparently non-denominational.
A few of us continue to a cleft slashed into the wall of a mountain called Nyenri. Scrambling up the steep talus bleeding from that gash for a thousand feet, we are rewarded with the glorious sight of a cairn, fitted with fluttering prayer flags, which marks a cave that gave shelter to Milarepa 900 years ago. The repa, a thin white cotton garment was all the mystic wore, even in the dead of winter. Up in this lofty aerie, Milarepa commanded a view of Kailash to the north and Gurla Mandhata to the south. His cave was constructed of tightly-fitted stones and a packed sod roof, but we suspect these were later improvements made to the site.
May 25, Tarboche
Today is Saga Dawa, the combined celebration of Siddhartha Gautama's birth, enlightenment, and death. On a flat escarpment overlooking the frenetic celebration at Tarboche, another, more austere ritual is taking place. This is a sky burial site, where rojolpa—lamas specially trained for the task, cut up human corpses [after the former inhabitant has been escorted through the bardo], roll the meat in tsampa [barley flour] and feed it to golden griffon vultures and lammergeiers, who are all too happy to accommodate the recycling.
Although no one has died today, a group of lamas beat drums, ring bells, chant, and confer blessings upon those who request their ministrations. Celebrants bring articles of clothing to leave on the flat rock, where cleavers and knives are everywhere in evidence. Some of the more devout pilgrims pull out a tooth and leave it at the sight, spitting their blood to mingle with the dust, a symbolic reminder of their ultimate return to that medium. It is the perfect synthesis of ecology and religion, the point at which the food chain loops back upon itself and spirit is freed from imprisonment in maya [the material world].
May 28, lake Manasarovar
Due south of Mt. Kailash are the twin lakes of Raksas Tal [Langa Tso] and Manasarouar [Tso Mapam], an enormous yin/yang emblazoned on the Earth. Raksas Tal is the dark sapphire repository of female energy, and its water is reputed to be poisonous—an intriguingly misogynistic but apocraphal myth. Manasarouar, on the other hand, holds male energy, and it is claimed that full submersion in its icy depths ensures enlightment for Hindus; a mere drink promises the same for less intrepid Buddhists, who feel that dunking one's body would only befoul the water. Buddhists generally settle for a sip and a splash ouer the head—hence the name of the local gompa: Thrugo, which as near as anyone can figure means "the holy head-washing gate."
May 30, Chiu
Of the eight gompas encircling Lake Manasarovar—representing the Wheel of Dharma with its Eight-fold Path—certainly Chiu is the most spectacular. As I wander through this Buddhist Disneyland, a labyrinth of twisting stairways, recessed doorways, and towering stone chöten [reliquary monuments] strung with fluttering prayer flags overlooking the wind-whipped lake, I feel as if I am suspended between two worlds. To be sure, Tibet is a magical place, but its sorcery has frozen it in time. In these isolated rural areas, the world remains in the Middle Ages and the local inhabitants regard us as if we come from another planet. Perhaps we do.
Here in Tibet, the questions are not so complicated. In 1950, the absolute feudal theocracy, under which these people had lived for centuries, was replaced with an absolute secular totalitarianism. What's the difference, one might ask? Clearly, the majority of Tibetans favor the mystery of what they know as the Buddha Dharma to what they have come to know as the destructiue "socialism" of their Han Chinese overlords. But it is equally clear, to a heretic such as myself, that what Tibetans practice—a strange and incredibly complicated mixture of Brahmanic and Tantric ritual, Bön shamanic sorcery, and Mahayana doctrine—is a long way from what Siddhartha had in mind that morning he got up off his duff from beneath the Bodhi Tree.
That said, we remain perplexed, fascinated and sometimes awestruck by the Buddhist capacity for compassion. In her film, A Prayer for the Enemy, Ellen Bruno interviewed a Buddhist ani , a nun who had been imprisoned in Lhasa and recently escaped to Dharamsala, India. Beaten daily by a Chinese guard, the woman nevertheless attempted to practice the ideal of compassion. Raising her broken body from the floor, she would visualize the man who had just brutalized her returning home to his family, holding his children in loving arms, caressing his wife with the same hands that had caused her so much pain. How, we wonder, is such forgiveness possible? Our Christian tradition exhorts us to "turn the other cheek," but the magnitude of virtue displayed by this nun seems far beyond the moral grasp, let alone the physical ability, of even the most deuout follower of Jesus. Perhaps many of us come to Tibet in an attempt to understand how such astonishing forbearance still shines through the dark devastion these people have endured.
Conversely, it should be noted that not all Tibetans are saints. The drivers from Lhasa who pilot our Land Cruisers refuse to allow Sherpas to ride in the same vehicles as them, exhibiting a bigotry uncomfortably reminiscent of our own white Southern gentry. Who would have ever guessed that the noble Sherpas are considered the "niggers of Tibet" by their own Buddhist brethren? Even more appalling, I have heard rumors that some of the most fearsome torturers in the ghastly and overflowing Dhrapchi prison in Lhasa are Tibetan collaborators. I suppose this is consistent with history's ironic twists: the Nazi Gestapo often employed local talent in their persecution of "undesirables."
June 1, Sher
We bump along the rutted road toward Khojarnath and the border, and I feel sadly relieved to be leaving Tibet. Totalitarian oppression hangs heavily over this country, like the dark cloud of a nuclear winter, but one does not appreciate its full weight until out from beneath it. The Chinese system may have redistributed land and material wealth, and improved health care for peasants, but it has just as surely killed creativity by demanding and glorifying conformity. As I watch the Han destroying Tibetan buildings to erect their cinder-block monstosities with faux Tibetan façades, I remember with a sardonic bitterness a quote from Chairman Mao Zedong: Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting the progress of the arts and the sciences, and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.
Ironically, the Chinese aesthetic sensibility was crushed by the man who wrote those words, and despite its post-modern trend toward capitalistic excess, China has never recovered. And that is incredibly sad, considering its erstwhile magnificence produced the political savvy of K'ung Fu-tzu [Confucius], the logistcal brilliance of Sun-tzu, the philosophical illumination of Lao Tzu, and the poetic articulation of Chuang Tzu.
In the morning, we greet Sherpa Dendi and our new porters who will lug our gear back down to the Karnali gorge. After breakfast of barley hotcakes and sweet tea, we saddle up and pay our final respects to Tibet. Green-uniformed border guards disdainfully check our passports, then escort us to the edge of Chinese-occupied territory. One young soldier roughly taps the bharal [Himalayan Blue Sheep] skull strapped to my rucksack and laughs heartily as I descend toward the Karnali River crossing. I don't need to understand Mandarin to know they are ridiculing the absurdity of my souvenir.
They anger me, these cold-eyed army ants, arrogantly displaying their automatic side arms and tough teen-age attitudes. But then I remember that they really are teenagers who, given the choice, would prefer to be somewhere other than the Tibetan border waiting for the appearance of an errant trekker, or an unlikely invasion of Indian troops. Everywhere, it is the same appalling story: we program the young ones to do our killing—and dying. What purpose does it serve to be angry at these pawns of an octogenarian bureaucracy in Beijing? Compassion cannot be conditional; either it is what I live, or something I am forever studying from the outside looking in. Either I am doing the dharma—or it is doing me.
The people who have lived there since the beggining call it Bhöt. The rest of the world calls this place Tibet. The current politcal situation has worsened considerably since the Third Work Forum, held in Beijing in July of 1994, made it official policy to consider Tibetan religion, cultural development and language a fundamental threat to Chinese power. The tacit but obvious solution is eradication of the Tibetan identity through what Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, calls "genocide by demographics"—colonization [monetary incentives for mass migration of Han Chinese into Tibet], abandonment of long-held agricultural and ecological imperatives [the draining of sacred lakes for hydroelectric power and replacement of barley crops with rice to support the migratory influx], and the ultimate marginalization of native Tibetans as a politically impotent minority. Even the death of Deng Xiaoping is unlikely to mitigate the severity of this policy, as even the pro-democracy forces within China consider Tibet to be a rather backward and superstitious province, something of an embarrassment to their "progressive" political agenda. In fact, the situation has become so bleak that even Tenzin Gyatso, Fourteenth Dalai Lama, has accepted the political expediency of Tibet remaining a part of the People's Republic of China.