Into the Polar Night

IMG_2018

2. To the Arctic Tundra

Before we left for the cabin, I’d asked Susan about going snowmobiling as the boys were keen to have a go.

“Well, we could snowmobile up to the tundra to see the reindeer herd if you like,” she said in her southern drawl.

And so at midday next day, nine of us, our family of five, volunteers Ben and Hans, Susan and Bjorn, set off on snowmobiles down the road and onto the ice road. Featured in a season of the TV show, Ice Road Truckers, the Inuvik ice road is the Mackenzie River. It freezes over in October and is then groomed and maintained for vehicles to drive on it up to the Arctic Ocean. It was in its final year of operation when we were there as a land road had been almost completed that would provide access to the coast year-round.

IMG_1981

I found the snowmobiling hard from the outset. I’d never even ridden a motorbike before. It was pretty simple, just hold the throttle down to go, press harder to go faster, but the ground was hard and rough, and at times I bumped so hard I feared I’d fall off and I had to go fast to keep up. Although Susan stopped at intervals to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, I still feared being left behind and getting lost. At first I was right behind her, but when we rode down onto the ice road, which was much wider, the others were able to get ahead of me. The constant noise of the engine meant you could hear nothing else, I was breathing fumes from the exhaust at my left foot the whole time, and it was cold. It was bitterly cold. The exhaust outlet happily kept my left foot warm, but that vicious cold bit hard at the rest of my extremities. Despite the hand and foot warmers, the thick socks, gloves, mukluks, and beaver fir mitts, they still rapidly grew cold. The thumb of my right hand, stuck out on its own, pressed against the throttle, became painful and then went numb. I tried to endure it but just couldn’t and signalled for help. Hans ran up and we changed gloves, him giving me his warmer inner glove and and extra hand warmer which he told me to shove into the thumb of my glove, right against the skin. That worked, but the constant worry about my fingers and toes would not leave me.

It would take two hours to get to our destination, we’d stop for lunch there, and then two hours back; we’d be out for about five hours in -30 degrees. I wanted to just relax and enjoy the experience, it was once in a lifetime, something I’d always wanted to do, but the anxiety wouldn’t let me. After about an hour, we stopped on a lake to gather everyone together. By this point I was desperate for the toilet.

“How much further, Susan?” I asked.

“We’re just over half-way,” she replied.

“I really need the toilet,” I said. I got the only reply I expected.

“Well your gonna have to just take off whatever clothes you need to and squat down behind the last snow-mobile.” 

The others drove off the lake and up onto higher ground leaving Neville and I alone. He helped me pull off my thin wind-cheater, heavy coat, and down jacket, so I could then undo my overalls, pull them down and expose my bare arse to the frigid Arctic air. My yellow piss drilled a hole in the ice next to my snow-mobile and I laughed at the thought that it would stay there now for several months. Then it was back on with the layers and we joined the others. 

IMG_1983
The Arctic tundra, full moon just above the horizon

The snow-coated trees gave way to stunted snow-coated bushes which grew more and more stunted until the landscape opened out in one breathtaking 360 degree expanse of ice right to the horizon in every direction. We stopped our snowmobiles and wandered, turning our heads from the tiny full moon hanging just above one horizon, to the hard orange edge of the sun just above the opposite one. Olav told us this was a mirage, the sun reflecting off ice crystals in the air, cruelly teasing. The sun had disappeared below the horizon two weeks ago; it wouldn’t return for another two. At intervals across the expanse, fish had been pushed tail down into mounds of snow, frozen markers to show the way, and we now followed these, pushing on to find the reindeer.

After a short time we came across a small cabin with smoke pouring from its chimney. I hoped we were stopping here so we could go in to thaw out, but we just sat waiting on our snowmobiles while Susan disappeared. This, it turned out, was the reindeer herders’ hut where they live some of the time. Susan had gone to ask them where the reindeer were. She eventually reappeared, remounted her vehicle, and we were off again. 

IMG_2020

The light had already begun to dim when we came up a rise to see a vast grey blur in the distance, a thin fog hanging above it. 3000 reindeer huddled in a mass, grazing on the straggly bits of snow-covered growth. They are wild, but the herders protect them from bears and arctic foxes in exchange for their meat which is sold in Inuvik. As we sat huddled around the fire that Bjorn had hastily and skilfully conjured on the ice, one of the herders rode up on a snowmobile, a rifle slung over his shoulder. Susan introduced us as her visitors from Australia who’d recently come from 30 degrees above zero.

“You’re lucky there’s no wind today,” the herder said with a short laugh. “Wind is cold.”

As the cold seeped up through the reindeer pelt I was sitting on, through five thick layers of clothing, and frigid air poked at every part of me that faced away from the fire, my mind stalled trying to imagine the cold being colder, tried to imagine what it would be like to be out there in a polar wind. And leaving us with that thought, the herder sped off down to the reindeer and we soon heard, one, two, three, four cracks of the rifle.

IMG_1995

Susan had packed several toasting irons with cheese and tomato sandwiches and we sat toasting these over the roaring fire. She then handed out paper cups and produced a thermos of hot chocolate. And it would have, should have been, cosy, all huddled around the fire with our hot lunch, but the light was fading fast and the cold pressed at my back and all I could think was that I still had to survive, with all fingers and toes intact, the two-hour ride back to the Chalet. Having finished eating, Susan stretched herself out by the fire and smiled.

“Couldn’t you just lay here for hours?”

By the time we reached the herder’s cabin again it was completely dark. Again we stopped while Susan disappeared. A small pile of severed forelegs lay on a patch of bloody snow; Susan had gone to ask the herders if she could have them for the dogs. I watched the smoke still pouring from the cabin chimney and felt like crying.

When I saw the lights of Inuvik in the distance I thanked God that we were almost there, but we rode on and on. Finally we rode down and onto the ice road where Susan stopped everyone and hopping off her snowmobile indicated that we should line up next to each other. She walked up and spoke to each of us in turn so she could be heard over the engines.

“We’re gonna be kids again,” she said with glee.

And remounting her snowmobile, she dropped her hand and we were off and racing. I pressed my thumb as hard as I could on the throttle, more because I just wanted it to end than out of any desire to win, but I was quickly left behind. As we approached the turn off I slowed to make the corner. The others had already ridden up the slope and were stopped at the top. As I went to ride up and join them, my snowmobile stopped, and no matter how hard I revved it, it couldn’t gain any traction on the ice. I waved my hand to signal that I needed help. No one moved. I went to get off the vehicle so I could walk up to them, but as soon as my foot touched the ground it started to slide out from under me. I sat back on the snowmobile and waved both hands furiously. Still no reaction. Then they all remounted their snowmobiles. I screamed at the top of my lungs. It was like in dreams when you’re trying as hard as you can to call out or stop something and you just can’t. And then they were gone, and I was left sitting in the dark, completely alone.

I turned to look behind me and up and down the ice road; all was still. I crossed my arms on the handle bars and rested my head on them. “They’ll come soon,” I thought, but seconds had become hours and no one came. I felt myself shrinking as the dark and cold pressed in on all sides. Then a small truck came driving down the ice road and, to my horror, turned to drive up our road. I thought they wouldn’t see me and I’d be hit. I gave the snowmobile another vicious rev, but it wouldn’t move. The truck pulled up alongside me and a man got out. “I’m stuck,” I said redundantly, almost apologetically. And as the man was trying to push the snowmobile forward, the gang reappeared. Bjorn strode down and taking hold of the vehicle, yanked it hard to the side. Then he indicated I should ride back, circle around and then gun it up the slope. I did and roared across the ice and up onto the road speeding faster than I had all day, turned into the Chalet, pulled up next to the others and killed the engine. Then I climbed off, stamped up to my husband and shoved him as hard as I could in the chest before running inside and slamming the door. It was petulant, it was unreasonable, it was embarrassing and it was an overreaction to what was probably not even five minutes left sitting there, but the tension of those hours of trying to stay warm, trying to keep up, sheer exhaustion, and, I suspect, a primordial sense of vulnerability in such a hostile environment, bubbled over and my poor husband became the target. Because of the headlights on the snowmobile they couldn’t see me waving, and the noise of the engines meant they couldn’t hear me screaming, he tried to explain, over and over. 

After much swearing, crying and recriminations that no amount of reassurance from the bewildered man could stem, I calmed down enough to realise that what I really needed was a drink, and we set off for town in silence.

Into the Polar Night

IMG_1941

I. A Cabin in the Woods

(Some names have been changed)

Our flight from Whitehorse to Inuvik was a “milk-run”. At Dawson we had to leave the plane while it was refuelled, giving us the chance to feel what minus 40 (Celsius) felt like. That brittle air caught in our throats. We photographed the road and ran back inside. We landed in Inuvik at 1pm, the lightest part of the day. And it was light, but a weird translucent light, a predawn light, amplified by the all-white landscape that reflected it back on itself, a clear, pale blue.

Inuvik, high up in the Canadian Arctic, is home to around 3000 people. By the time we arrived in mid-December 2016, the sun had been set for two weeks. It would lurk just below the horizon for about three hours each day but it would be another two weeks before it rose again.

We were collected by Susan, who runs the Arctic Chalet with her husband Bjorn. She whisked us, with barely time to catch our breath, on to our first adventure. Judi was tall, thin, wiry, and full of energy, but her good humour could quickly tip over into petulant impatience.

“So we’ll get you ready to go out dogsledding after you get some lunch in town,” Susan said as we drove away from the airport.

“Are we going up to the cabin tonight?” I asked.

“Yes. Is that ok?”

It was getting dark again by the time we began dressing for the expedition. Neville, our three sons, and I were provided with heavy jackets, thick overalls, beaver fur mitts, and mukluks because nothing we owned would be warm enough. After a quick briefing, during which we were told to yell “chee” if we wanted the dogs to turn left and “chaw” for right, and not to let go of the sled under any circumstances, we were led out into the dark where five dog teams stood, or rather jumped and pawed impatiently, harnessed and ready to go. I stepped onto mine, Joe, one of the staff, pulled the anchor out of the snow, and with a frightening jerk, the dogs pulled me into the night, down and onto a frozen lake. Judi went ahead on a snow mobile with Kiera, another staff member, and Joe following behind, also on snow-mobiles.

It would take about two hours to reach the cabin. It was like a roller-coaster ride, but with more bumps. A foot pad worked to slow the dogs and you could stop them by putting all your weight on the brake, but they were strong. At one point I hit a tree root and was thrown off into the snow, but still held tight to the sled. At another I lost my balance, the sled slipped from my grasp and the dogs took off. All of this with only head torches for light in a vast cold darkness on the edge of the world. We bumped roughly along paths between snow-covered trees before barrelling down and into the open again as we crossed yet another lake. I wondered what the vast rumbling was I could hear in the distance and found out later that it was the ice cracking and groaning beneath us.

As we were pulled inexorably up another rough trail, the one thing that all who travel in the dark and cold crave finally came into view: the golden, warm glow through the windows of a cabin. As Kiera and Joe unharnessed the dogs and chained them up for the night, we hurried inside to the blazing wood fire. The floor became wet with the snow from our boots and jackets. Pairs of mukluks lined up by the fire to dry.

A tall man with rosy cheeks appeared and welcomed us to the “Arctic Loon” cabin. Bjorn was originally from Norway, but has lived in the Arctic for more than thirty years.

He’d been busy getting the wood-fired hot-tub going so we could do the traditional Nordic thing of sitting in the hot-tub, hopping out, rolling in the snow, then quickly hopping back in the tub.

The cabin was completely off-grid so cooking was done on a gas stove, the fridge was gas-powered, light was delivered by a gas lantern plus portable battery lanterns, and the cabin was warmed by a wood-fired stove in the living room and an oil heater in our bedroom. In the kitchen there was a container of water with a hand-pump attached for drinking water, and another for hand-washing. The toilet was a “honey bucket”, separate ones for solid and liquid, although the boys were directed to the verandah out the side for their liquid waste.

After dinner we put our swimmers on, were given a robe and a towel each, then braved the run down the steps and into the very hot tub. Where our hair got wet it instantly froze. The boys took turns jumping out, running off the verandah and throwing themselves in the snow, and, with high-pitched shrieks, making their way as fast as possible back to the tub, trying not to slip on the water that had already frozen on the steps. We thawed out with hot chocolate before turning in for the night, a night which had actually begun at about 3pm and would end at around midday next day.

The dogs needed two hours to digest their breakfast before they could pull us back to the chalet, so to fill the time we strapped on snow-shoes and went out for a walk in the pale light.

IMG_2695

A trail led up behind the cabin, which we now saw overlooked a large, frozen lake. The light glowed pastel pink and blue, illuminating the brilliant white of the snow-coated fir trees and the vast, flat lake below. I found the snow-shoeing hard going so soon turned back, reasoning that there was only more snow and trees to see and we’d see that on our way back to the Chalet. With the others gone on I was left in the absolute silence. No birds, no wind, no sound of machinery. I had experienced complete silence in mountainous desert in the rain-shadow of the Himalayas but that silence stretched across the barren landscape, old and timeless. This Arctic silence was a muffling of sound. Anticipation was held within it because it was temporary. Summer would eventually come to thaw this landscape and for a few months life would return to break the silence. I stood still and listened; all I could hear was my breath.

IMG_1973

By 3pm we were underway back to the Chalet. It was better to be travelling in the light, but it was much, much colder. At the cabin, the thermometer outside read minus 28. When we sledded down onto the lake the temperature dropped further. The toes on my left foot began to hurt and then they turned numb. At one point I accepted that I might just have to lose them and tried to distract myself by imagining the procedure at the hospital. In the end I raised my hand to signal that I needed help and we stopped and Joe ran up to me. Susan followed.

“Ya know, if you’re really gettin’ frostbite, you need to take off your boots, sit opposite someone and put your feet in their armpits,” Susan said, while Joe, ignoring her, produced more foot-warming sachets and I took off my mukluks and stuck a sachet to my sock. All I wanted was to get back to the Chalet as quickly as possible, not sit on the ice with my bare feet in someone’s armpits.

“Come on we’re wasting time,” she then added.

When the Chalet finally came into view, I could have wept with relief.

My Last Meal

When I messaged a friend who lives in Indonesia that we were going to Ubud in Bali he said, “Book a dinner at Locavore. Do it now.”

So ten days before we left I got on the Locavore website to find they were booked out for dinner for the next month, so I tried lunch and managed to book on our last day in Ubud.

To describe what we had as a meal would be to insult everything and everyone in the restaurant. What we had was a culinary experience so exquisite as to defy the laws that command the use of fire and knives.

From the moment I sipped my pre-lunch iced tea I knew we were on hallowed ground.

“It’s like you can taste all the individual flavours separately and together at the same time,” said Neville, after taking a sip. This summing up defined everything that followed.

The first “snack” came in a ceramic jug with a projection out the side like a tiny plate. In the small opening at the top sat a green betel leaf cone filled with flavours of peanut, ginger, coconut, lime, and chilli. On the projection at the side sat a tiny perfect garlic crisp. We were instructed to place this on top of the cone. The leaf had a slightly bitter but aromatic taste, something like a kaffir lime leaf that blended with the salty, garlicky crunch.

Next was a mushroom “fritter”, but to call it that would be another insult. On a large nest of twigs sat shreds of crisp mushroom formed into smaller nests. Inside each sat perfect dollops of mushroom mousse. Our waiter sprayed a vinegary topping over the nest and into our mouths exploded sweet, crunchy, mushroom flavours.

Two little “Oreos” then arrived, thin wafers of sweet potato with a mousse inside, followed by triangles of scorched pineapple topped with something salty.

Before the main event began, a palate-cleansing tomato sorbet arrived, one quenelle on a slice of tomato. Around this was poured a tomato consommé, a clear liquid with the merest hint of pink. What looked like hot water exploded with complex, tomatoey flavour. Where had they hidden those flavours?

Now began the meal proper. We had elected to have the five course meal (the alternative being seven) and I chose the accompanying mini cocktails tailored to each course.

After caffeinated fish sashimi (“coffee cured Himachi, ginger gel, kecap crème”) a large, grey plate was set in front of each of us upon which sat a lonely, crimson disc topped with crimson and green leaves and surrounded by a crimson powder. This was goat tartare surrounded by fermented cabbage powder.

Next came Triple C: crab, white corn, and coconut. A bowl of white foam was placed in front of each of us, then a plate with two small bites of puffed corn were placed in the middle. Under the foam of roasted coconut, lurked the crab meat.

After the waiter took these plates away she returned to supply us with two large daggers, announcing that the main course would be served next.

“I thought they’d have to serve something like a main course,” said my husband, “or people would go away feeling like they hadn’t been fed.”

I was skeptical. I looked out the window at people in a cafe opposite eating mere food. I couldn’t help but pity these poor philistines, ignorant of the fine art of eating, unconsciously pushing burgers into their faces, thinking about whether to get a massage after lunch or do some more shopping. In less than an hour I’d become a colossal food snob. Locavore, I was sure, would never stoop to serving (ahem) a plate of food.

IMG_3771

What arrived next was a white plate decorated with bold swishes of brown, and tucked up against one edge was a disc of meat about two inches across, topped with little pieces of vegetables and green nasturtium leaves. I fell about laughing as my husband stared in confusion at his main course. It did need to be cut, but the wood-handled dagger was more theatrical flourish than necessary equipment. In less than a minute it was finished.

Now for dessert, but before that a pre-dessert of apple sorbet encircled by translucent wafers of apple. Actual dessert was a celebration of rosella and rambutan, “sorbet, creme, praline, gel, and spiced tea”, shades of red and crimson with dots of white and specks of black. The accompanying cocktail was “rosella infused vodka, frozen rambutan, berry shrub, and hibiscus soda”.

Would we like coffee? We would. But it must be taken black.

A wooden platter was placed on the table with a kettle, clay jug, grinder, ceramic filter holder, and a bowl of coffee beans. And so the beans were ground, the filter and jug warmed with hot water, the grounds added to the filter and more hot water delicately poured over before being strained into our cups. The platter was removed and in its place a long tray with indentations in the form of the ancient mancala game.

IMG_3775

These were the copious petit fours, but again, to call them such seems blasphemous.

At each end a round, white delicacy on which had been piped a white cream sprinkled with green powder, called “Kemangi financier, fennel crème”. Then two by two beautiful sweet things: jackfruit gel, peanut and chocolate, rice cookie and coffee crème, miso and caramel, tamarind candy, pineapple and chocolate and chilli. Each dissolved in our mouths and was separated with sips of the smoothest coffee. Of course.

I felt like every meal I’d ever eaten up to this point had been a vulgar indulgence, where the aim of filling one’s stomach had been more important than the flavours, the textures, and the uniqueness of each ingredient. I vowed to never eat again.

 

The Day of Silence

We accidentally arrived in Bali on the one day when no one is allowed out on the streets.

After a few beers with mates at the pub one Friday night my husband came home and booked two flights to Bali. I had never had any intention of going to what I always considered a boring destination where bogans with no imagination to help them think of a more interesting holiday destination went to get drunk and buy cheap stuff.

“If I see cheap flights will you come to Bali with me?” my husband had been asking me.

“Mmm…maybe,” I replied. Bali. My previous trips had been to the Tibetan plateau and the Canadian Arctic. How could I now stoop to Bali? I was an adventurous traveller, not some sybaritic philistine looking to buy a cheap Rolex.

I think it was the tiny, cold, sweet lemongrass drink that began to thaw my cold-hearted cynicism. These were set in front of us as we sat at the front desk checking in to our resort, along with a cool wet washcloth to sponge our hot brows and necks. I’ve never in my life been on what many people consider a holiday, where you sit by a pool and drink cocktails and have massages and do a bit of shopping. It always seemed like a colossal waste of time and money.

IMG_3562

As we drove from Denpasar airport to Ubud we passed monsters. These great bamboo and styrofoam creations, called “ogoh ogoh”, were everywhere, mounted on grids of bamboo so they could be carried through the streets for that night’s festival celebrating the Balinese New Year’s Eve. To the clash and clang of gamelan music (traditional Indonesian music) they paraded down the main street of Ubud. Some were so big men with forked sticks went ahead to lift up the powerlines. A group of school children carried their own mini ogoh ogoh. They ended their journey at the soccer ground where people wandered eating snacks, children carried balloons, and drones hovered overhead. Trying to get back to our hotel we were blocked by an elaborate, noisy and completely unintelligible performance being played out in the street. Orange light lit up billowing smoke as a voice thundered through a loudspeaker and the strange cadences of the gamelan rose and fell and crashed and gonged. Monsters ran at each other and away again, taunting, threatening.

The sound receded as we walked through the darkness of the monkey forest, back to our soft king-sized bed, now turned down by unseen hands, curtains drawn, and lights switched on. We made tea and went to bed.

There must have been a few tourists taken by unpleasant surprise when they discovered they were under no circumstances (except medical emergencies) allowed out on the streets next day. In case they needed reminding, men in checked sarongs patrolled the streets carrying long sticks, ready to escort escapees back to their accommodation.

For the Balinese Nyepi, the day of silence, is a day for meditation and reflection on one’s relationship to God, others, and nature. A Balinese must show gratitude to God by doing good deeds for they owe their existence to him/her. They must help others and treat them as they would like to be treated. And they must remember they are made from the same elements as the earth and that if they care for the earth it will care for them.

An article by Anak Agung Gde Agung in the Jakarta Post the previous day (no papers on Nyepi) stated that a Balinese person must:

…ask himself in silence if he can truthfully close a year of his life satisfactorily in line with the dicta required of him as a Balinese. Simultaneously, he makes resolutions as he opens a new chapter for the coming year about what he must do to make amends for his shortcomings and what deeds he must perform for his God, fellow man and natural environment for the betterment of himself, his society and the world.

We were told there would be no internet and limited TV, but even though we found there was we avoided it in keeping with the spirit of the day. We also made the most of our surroundings.

After our buffet breakfast, we both had a one hour massage, at the end of which we were served sweet cups of ginger tea and a plate of painfully sweet chocolates. The only thing to do after that was lie by the pool and read while we waited to eat lunch. After lunch? More reading and a sleep before dinner which had to be consumed by 5.30pm as no lights were allowed that night. We could put our lights on in our room, but there were no lights on around the resort and no street lights.

“Remember to look at the sky tonight,” one of the staff told us. “There’ll be lots of stars because no lights.”

Before dinner I leant on the front verandah rail and looked out on the street. The pecalang, as the street patrollers are called, still wandered up and down. A young child, followed by his mother rode his bike up and down in a small space. The pecalang left them alone, perhaps understanding how hard it must be to keep a child in all day. Another man followed an elderly man strolling along with his hands behind his back. Maybe the man had dementia and couldn’t be convinced of the need to forgo his afternoon stroll today. The pecalang left them alone too.

Nyepi began at 6am and finished the following 6am, meaning the staff at the resort that day had to stay overnight. Those finished their shifts for the day gathered by one of the pools, just outside the rooms they’d been assigned, drinking Bintang, laughing, partying.

IMG_3601

We stood on the roof terrace and remembered to look up at the stars. We tried to find the Southern Cross but failed. Were we no longer south enough, we wondered. Except for the voices of the staff enjoying themselves all was quiet, all was dark over Bali, and I had fallen in love with it.

 

 

 

 

The Dead Hand of Tsarang

IMG_0760
The entrance chorten, Tsarang.

A photo of Tsarang is on the front cover of my copy of Michel Peissel’s book. When I showed it to Jit he said, “I think you will see more trees now.” He was right. The village in Peissel’s picture shows numerous, bright green, walled fields but few trees, but now trees grow all through and around the village. Two buildings dominate Tsarang: the monastery and the huge, five-storey, palace.

IMG_0730
The monastery

Michel Peissel spent a lot of time in Tsarang where he stayed in the monastery at the invitation of the abbott. The abbott was the son of the Raja of Lo; he left his monastery to marry and had a son. His wife died when the boy was only four-years-old and the monk decided to return to his monastic way of life, confining himself within the royal apartments of the Tsarang monastery.

…he took a vow to devote himself for three years to solitary meditation, and to study the Tantric paths of enlightenment in atonement for his past behaviour. He also vowed that he would not eat during daylight…

The son was living there with him and about a dozen elderly monks when Peissel came to stay. That boy is now the Crown Prince of Lo, or Gyalchung, as the current Raja* has no surviving children, and while he is often described as being the Raja’s son he is in fact his nephew.

IMG_0724
The old palace

We climbed the rough stone stairs of the old palace and a monk unlocked a wooden door. It had been one hundred years or more since the Raja of Lo used this palace as a residence and it is all but a ruin. Still, the chapel has lamps lit and the seven bowls of water set before its golden gods each morning. I marvelled that it hadn’t fallen down in the earthquake and prayed there would be no tremors as we clambered up a rickety ladder and onto an internal balcony which railings were long gone (if they ever existed). The whole place was dirt, dust, and crumbling stone walls and timbers. One room appeared to have been the “bathroom”, two timber-framed holes in the floor falling the three storeys to the ground below—the traditional style toilet still used by Loba, the waste mixed with hay to become compost. I followed Jit into an adjoining room but he quickly turned and ushered me out saying,

“Is dirty.”

It stunk, and not of animal dung.

The monk then unlocked a door to another small chapel filled with ancient, mediaeval-looking weapons all hanging on the wall or sitting on dusty shelves as though they’d sat there since being put away after the last battle. In 1964 Michel Peissel visited the same room and, from the way he described it, nothing about it had changed. To my amazement even the most gruesome object was still there:

Fumbling around the altar among the swords, our guide eventually gave me a dark brown object that to my disgust I recognised—by the light of the small window—as a dried up human hand!

Hanging on a hook alongside some of the other implements was indeed a black, shrivelled human hand, its dirty, yellowed nails curved, hard and smooth. Peissel was told, or assumed, that it was the hand of a thief which had been cut off as punishment, but when Jit asked the monk he had a different story.

“One who is building this, err, working,” Jit attempted to translate, “then, err, same king is thinking—this very bad thinking—same palace not other place, err, build. For that they cut so after he is not going to work other.”
“Oh, they cut off the builder’s hand so he couldn’t go away and build another palace for someone else?”
“Ee, yes!”
“It must be very old,” I said.
“Yes. Not less than, err, more than two centuries old.”

Very bad thinking indeed.

Neville had found a box covered in skulls and asked Jit what was in it. Jit asked the monk.

“Somethings very dead,” said Jit, and laughed.

Hanging on the wall above was a suit of chainmail and I lifted part of it. It was very heavy.

“Is iron, I think so,” said Jit.

Next to it was a helmet and then what looked like a breast plate made of some kind of thin bone.

“Yes I think so one, ee, animal,” Jit tried to explain. “What calling, err, maybe this area I don’t think so. This found, err, lower place.”
“Is it shell?” I asked
“This, you know, err, is skin. Is out of skin this kind of, err, things.”
“Like a crocodile?”
“Err, not crocodile. Other is, this kind is very similar. Is walking like the crocodile in the forest. In some place they find now also. From our village also they found also, mm, like a lizard.”
“Like a big lizard?”
“Like the, err, I don’t know so English name.”

I really had no idea. Nepal has a creature called a gharial that lives in the jungle rivers. It is just like a crocodile, but has a long, very narrow snout with a bulbous growth on the end. Maybe it was a gharial skin.

IMG_0726
The only photo I was allowed to take inside the palace

The monk told us it was too dangerous to visit the rest of the palace and anyway, Jit explained, there was not much else to see, just a whole lot more empty, dusty, rooms, but we were allowed to climb up to the next floor from which we’d get a good view of the village as long as we didn’t stay up there too long. We were now on the fourth floor and through frameless window holes we could see all of Tsarang spread out below us, its neat white-washed houses, their roofs lined with stacked timber, surrounded everywhere by green trees. We even looked down now on the monastery over on its high ridge. On the far side of the village was the large entrance chorten from the cover of Peissel’s book and, beyond this, brown plains where the wind was whipping up the dust towards the dull hills beyond. Jit told us we would be heading that way the next day. He then pointed out a hole in the floor where the earth was crumbling away, and so we quickly climbed down and out.

IMG_0728

*The Raja of Lo (king of Mustang) sadly passed away in December 2016, aged 86.

To Tsarang

 

img_0697

 

As we set out for Tsarang, first we followed the rough road high above the river. Opposite were the fluted cliffs honeycombed with caves and at the top, completely flat, dark grey plains. It was impossibly dry and barren. Even the stunted bushes grew sparse on the yellow hilly desert spread before and behind us. Then Neville, Jit, and Netra took a narrow track, leaving me at the mercy of Dabendra with whom I descended to the river bed and criss-crossed the river back towards Dhe.

Since the brown horse carried our packs, Dabendra wasn’t riding and couldn’t gee my horse up, but at some point we became separated and I found myself alone on a horse determined to get to Dhe. I had no idea whether Jit intended for us to head through Dhe, but I just had to let the horse go and it climbed up the river bank and into the village, ambling along the paths between houses and by the stone-walled fields and groves of trees, passing a wall of prayer wheels on the left as though it knew the protocol. The place was deserted but for an old woman and a little girl washing clothes at a tap. The old woman replied to my “Namaste” with little enthusiasm and the little girl stared up at me with a serious face.

I realised the horse knew exactly where it was going when it suddenly stopped at the doorway of a walled yard, turned and entered. As my head hit the top of the doorway I finally had cause to be thankful for the wretched helmet. I don’t know whether the horse had smelled it or made a note of it on our previous visit, but it must have felt very pleased with itself because the yard was filled with cut grass spread out and drying in the sun. But before it could set about eating the village’s precious store of winter feed, I dismounted and managed to turn the creature and pull it out of the yard. I was terrified someone was going to see me and think I was stealing their hay. Dabendra eventually turned up and we sat and waited in silence for the others. They soon arrived. As it happened we did need to stop in Dhe so we could be registered at the check-post. This was the first time I became aware this was necessary. All foreign trekkers had to be registered at checkpoints throughout Upper Mustang.

img_0704

Jit decided they would once again take the narrow track along the cliff while we would travel along the river bed, so we doubled back while they went on and travelled along, criss-crossing the rivulets once again, with Dabendra whooping and calling to hear his voice echo off the cliffs.

img_1245

It was easy to see how the area had once been an ocean. In places the water ran clear blue over white sand. I wished we could have stopped and waded in the water, even though it was freezing. In that bright sunshine it would have felt like being by an ocean inlet and I wanted to see what was in the wide deep pools. It was peaceful travelling along that wide river bed with huge cliffs towering either side, but as the morning wore on our old friend the wind came up. But before it became too ferocious, we rejoined the others and rounded a point before heading up the Tsarang Khola. We crossed a wooden bridge and began ascending a track that climbed along the side of the cliff. As the track went on it became stonier—large slippery stones that clinked under the horses’ hooves—but then we turned and began to climb a very steep slope, straight up the cliff, covered with the same large stones. It was very hard going. The horses eyes bulged and they breathed heavily and frequently slipped and threatened to lose their footing. I think they were scared; I certainly felt more afraid for them than for myself. When we finally reached the top I dismounted and hobbled to a ledge to sit down and rub my aching knees.

Netra, who still hardly seemed out of breath after the steep climb, came over and sympathetically rubbed my knee as well.

“Very steep,” I said to him.
“Yes,” he replied, “very dangerous.”

img_0707

When Jit and Neville arrived, we waited while everyone recovered before continuing on into Tsarang. We travelled along a pathway between stone walls enclosing groves of poplar trees. Some horses were penned in one walled yard and in a field also surrounded by a low stone wall a man was working with two strange looking beasts, like black and white cows but with large yak horns.

“Yaks?” I asked Netra.
“Dzos,” he replied.

Dzos are a cross between cows and yaks. The females, actually called Dzomos, are fertile while the males, Dzos, are sterile. Yaks are rare in Upper Mustang now.

Jit led us through Tsarang and almost out the other side before stopping for the night at the Kailash Guest House.

IMG_0734

 

A Flying Monk and a Dangerous Goddess

With apologies for a long hiatus, here is the next post:

img_0654
Luri Gompa (red building high up)

We were about fifteen minutes into our trek to Luri Gompa when I realised I had left the pouch I always carried with my passport and phone, back at the lodge Yara, where we were staying a second night after Luri. I needed the phone for photos and I never liked to be without my passport, no matter where I was. So Netra, generous and tireless soul that he was, went back to get it for me.
Jit called, “Bistera, bistera,” to Dabendra as we continued on—“slowly, slowly,”—to give Netra time to catch up, but we’d been travelling for about half an hour and he still hadn’t appeared.

“Rose, you are sure it is in your room?” asked Jit.
“Yes. It’ll be on my bed.”
“Ok.”

And we ambled on. I got off the horse, because my knees were killing me, and walked for a while. We were travelling upstream along the northern bank of the Puyung Khola which joins the Kali Gandaki at Dhe and Surkhang. It was just a thin trickle in most places. There were many caves high up in the cliffs, as well as at ground level with dry stone walled enclosures built around their openings. There were also some freestanding enclosures with very basic, rough shelters attached, which I imagine are for goats or sheep and their shepherds to take shelter.

We reached Luri and still no Netra, but neither had the guy with the key arrived. Jit found he had phone coverage over on the rise above the river so walked over to call him. Meanwhile, Dabendra mounted the brown horse, bareback (it was carrying no packs because we were returning to Yara for another night), and took off to find Netra. He found him waiting at the small village of Ghara. Netra had taken the high road and, not being able to find us, had decided to wait there. And he had my pouch. Having found Netra, Dabendra turned and rode back to Luri, while Netra walked, arriving at the same time as the key holder. Jit, Neville and I were sitting on the ground waiting when Dabendra came galloping at full tilt. He pulled the horse up sharply and, with no saddle to hold him, pitched head first over the horse’s head and onto the hard, rocky ground. We rushed over to see if he was ok, but he promptly picked himself up, tossed his head and said he was fine. He spent the next two days limping.

img_0653

While Dabendra slept on the ground by the horses, the man with the key took us first to a small gompa on the flat ground high above the river. Strings of ragged prayer flags criss-crossed above it and fluttered in the breeze. Jit told us this gompa was only about one hundred years old. The guide unlocked the door and we entered a dimly lit room. It was like the other monasteries we’d visited but clearly little used. Statues stood at one end and in front the altar were butter lamps and bowls of water. The guide lit a butter lamp and quietly intoned some prayers. Jit told us that someone comes early every morning to do this, or if there are visitors, will wait and do it then. After a quick look inside we followed the man out and waited while he lit a small fire in the courtyard using some of the aromatic plant that grows all over the hills, and said some more prayers.

Across the river the high red cliffs had been eroded into sharp pointed flutes, the eroded earth piled against the base and falling away into the narrow gorge. They resembled giant termite mounds. Caves dotted the lower parts.

img_0655

“Ah!” cried Jit, pointing at a very sharp, high flute. “I see this when I come here last time, but I thought in the earthquake maybe it has fall down, but still there.”

The flute had a flat disk-shape that appeared to balance on top. It protruded high above the rest of the cliff. The guide looked up as well and then spoke to Jit, explaining something. Jit translated:

“He says, mmm, there was very powerful lama living in a cave here,” he said, and turned to point at the many caves in the cliffs behind us. “Every morning, he is fly across the river, and build this, ee, stone here on top.”

I pictured the lama calmly leaving his spartan cave each morning and flying across in the thin, cold air, his maroon robes flapping, to place another piece on the point he was building.

img_0657

There was a stone wall enclosure that had been built out from the base of the cliff on our side of the gorge, which Jit said had been used for monks who wished to meditate for long periods. People from the nearby village would bring food each day. The walls were now crumbling, the stones falling away down the slope.

“The monks looking for the quiet place with nobody disturbing. And ça monks are powerful,” said Jit with awe.

img_0661

We now began the climb to the cave gompa. We passed three crumbling chortens with poles stuck in their tops and prayer flags strung between them. Little remained of the paint and engravings on the sides. One had completely collapsed and was just a mound of yellow clay with some stones sticking out. A square red building sat perched high up on the cliff but the gompa itself was inside one of the many caves. To reach this we had to follow a steep track up and across a metal bridge, covered along its length with prayer flags, and then up higher still until we reached a cave below the building. We entered and climbed a wooden ladder. Beside the new ladder sat the old one, a notched log such as we had seen in Lo Monthang and many other villages. We huffed and puffed in the thin air.

We entered a small cave where there were several smallish statues set against the back wall. Behind these were silk thangkas. In front was an old cabinet along which were some small bowls, and beside this a low table with a couple of butter lamps on it. On the left was a small chorten. Large tea pots and other vessels sat on other tables and on the uneven floor. Everything was grimy with dirt and soot. The guide lit the lamps and stood chanting prayers in a low voice while we waited quietly. He then unlocked a door on the left and we entered a small cave that was almost entirely filled with a polished, ornately painted chorten. Jit pointed to the outer wall where there was a section made from mud.

“This was open, but now block,” he said, “because people is coming to take things. Maybe Khampas. This area many Khampas. Maybe Khampas destroy and find the gold or something.”
“Gold?” I asked
“Inside the chorten they put in there normally gold or many valuable things. And mantra also.”

Michel Peissel describes how on leaving the chorten cave, which he likened to “Ali Baba’s cave” they were indeed “assailed by the ‘forty thieves’—some two score Khampas, who wanted to know if we had arms, saying they ‘needed them badly’. I persuaded them with some difficulty that I had none.”

Of all the chortens and paintings we had seen in the monasteries we’d visited, this one was unique. It is known as the “Hundred Thousand Dragons Chorten”. Luri belongs to a sub-sect of the Kagyu school of Buddhism, a sect which came after the Nyingmapa and Sakya sects of Lo Gekar and the monasteries of Lo Monthang and was established in about the twelfth century. The Kagyu sect has a heavy emphasis on tantric meditation, believing that enlightenment can be reached in one lifetime if meditation is practiced enough, which I guess explains the meditation cell and the possibility of powerful flying lamas. Nobody knows who built Luri Gompa but it is estimated to have been built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The paintings on the highly polished chorten and on the domed ceiling and walls around it resembled the art of central Asian countries and was quite different to that seen in the monasteries of Lo Monthang and the other monasteries we had seen in Mustang. Images of high lamas were painted on the domed ceiling above, and below these were white flowers, something like chrysanthemums, on curling stems and with white leaves on a green background. At the very top of the ceiling above the chorten was an intricate mandala. The chorten itself looked and felt more like enamel than the clay from which it was built, so smooth and polished was its surface.

Along the inside wall something had been painted in large Tibetan script.

“Is this ‘om mane padme hum’? I asked Jit.

He consulted with the guide who read the script quietly muttering some ‘oms’ and ‘padmes’ under his breath. He then explained to Jit who translated:

“Is different mantra. ‘Om mane padme hum’ normalment but little bit mixed.”

Next to the door a sequence of vertical lines had been painted, like someone keeping tally and the guide said he thought it may have been someone keeping count of the circumambulations of the chorten, but he really didn’t know.

Stooping through the low doorway again, we returned to the room with the statues. Opposite was another small wooden door.

“What’s in there Jit?” I asked. He spoke to the guide then turned to me.
“This is a little dangerous,” he explained in a low, serious voice. “When-ça ceremony time they open, but is, ee,…like the goddess.”
“It’s dangerous for us because the goddess doesn’t like to be disturbed?”
“Ee, yes.”

img_0669

We climbed another ladder and emerged onto the roof of the red building to find a small solar panel. From here we looked down through a hole into an adjoining cave where the guide had again lit a fire in a small hearth in the middle of the room and was intoning more prayers. There was a shallow depression in the inner wall that looked like a small fireplace but with no chimney, which would explain the blackened walls and ceiling. Above it a ledge had been cut like a mantlepiece, and on this sat some rocks and a tarnished vessel with a very narrow neck. A copper bowl sat on a battered, broken, wooden, table, which had a thick coating of dust. More caves could be seen through holes in this cave. The cliff was honeycombed with caves.

“I think so, many house before; many room, many house,” said Jit.

He was guessing. Not much is known about any of Mustang’s caves. They’re estimated to be around 3000 years old and it’s assumed people lived in them at some time. Maybe Luri’s caves were inhabited by a community of monks, maybe the monks took them over after they had been long abandoned. I like the fact that the caves, the monastery, the extraordinary chorten and the unusual paintings are still a mystery.

We joined Dabendra, lying on the rocky ground enjoying his sleep, and ate some of Netra’s dried fruit and nuts and I pulled out the apple I’d save from Dhi. I ate half and gave the rest to the white horse. There was not another soul around. The guide had locked up and gone back to his village. We sat and relaxed in the sun. Across the gorge, the sharp fluted peaks that formed the cliff were topped with a completely flat, plain. There were many of these plains high above the river gorges and Michel Peissel described them as being “so level that a large aeroplane could have landed without so much as one stone needing to be moved out of the way.” The barren hills rose beyond them rolling away to the south in yellow-brown waves, and far away on the horizon, peaks topped with patches of snow.

img_0658

Yara

img_0693
Yara

We arrived in the late afternoon in Yara to find there was only one lodge open and it was full, so our guides had to share a tent, which they pitched in a walled yard just above the lodge.  I decided to rest before dinner and for a long time I sat watching out the window next to my bed, as the light slowly faded. The ubiquitous small brown sparrows hopped about amongst the wood piles along the roof edges. Opposite, a barren hill rose, dotted with clumps of spiky bushes.

img_0692

Three young guys came sprinting and laughing down the steep track that ran along the base of the hill below a solitary house. Below us was the walled dirt yard by which we had entered, the horses laboriously pulling themselves up the several steps. Now as I watched, several men came galloping effortlessly up the steps on horses, pulling them up sharply in the yard where they quickly dismounted. Jit told us later that they were here on a pilgrimage to take their horses to bathe in the holy lake, Damodar Kunda.

That evening, as we sat drinking in the dining room before dinner, a young woman came in to tell us that there would be Tibetan dancing and singing after dinner. We sat around the perimeter of the small courtyard and half a dozen women gathered in a line and began, quite self-consciously at first, to sing for us. They sang in nasal voices, swinging their legs in synchronised fashion, arms around shoulders, laughing at themselves when they briefly forgot how the song went, joining in with gusto when someone recovered the faltering song and it got going again. Between songs they would discuss amongst themselves what they should sing next, but we were never told what any of them meant.

Some of the men, who had been drinking raksi for a couple of hours by the time the singing began, joined in at certain points, yelling drunkenly and clapping enthusiastically and seeming to call out requests. The locals carried on for some time after we went to bed. Having lost all track of days of the week, I realised it was Saturday night—a wild Saturday night in Yara, high up on the Tibetan plateau far from everywhere. I guess this is how most of the world amused themselves before reliable electricity enabled TV, radio, recorded music, and computers to stop us from singing and dancing together.

That night I was woken about midnight by the ferocious growling of the lodge-owners’ dog outside my door. I sat for a long time at the window looking up the hill, lit up like day by the full moon, hoping I might see the elusive snow leopard, but nothing moved. The next morning I told Jit I’d been woken in the night.

“Yes, I hear jackals last night. First far away, then close to our tent,” he told me.
“Jackals?” I replied. “Like a wild dog?”
“Mmm, no maybe more like a fox. They eat chickens, maybe small goat.”

IMG_0699.JPG
Caves in the cliffs near Yara

So perhaps it was not the snow leopard, just a pack of Himalayan jackals raising the hackles of all the village dogs. Evidence of brown bears has also been found in Upper Mustang as high as 5500 metres. They live on small mammals, mostly marmots, and birds, but between 2005 and 2008, herders in the Manaslu area of the Annapurnas reported losing twenty-nine animals, mostly yak calves, but some horses and mules, to bears. They aren’t often seen, but bear scat has been found around Lo Monthang, in the Chhosar region and near other villages and they have been spotted in the Damodar Kunda region to the east of Yara. They tend not to come too close to villages although some researchers believe livestock reportedly taken by snow leopards may in fact have been taken by bears, judging from the hair samples left behind. A Himalayan wolf was seen in Upper Mustang in 2004 and their scat has also been found but it’s believed there are fewer than 350 of these wolves in existence.

To Dhe

img_1239

Next morning we ambled out of Lo Monthang and quickly began climbing to the top of the Lo La, the pass above Lo Monthang, and, after stopping for a last look back at the walled city, we headed to Dhe en route to Yara.

img_0622

We were heading south again but would soon turn east and cross the Kali Gandaki. We followed a rough track of loose, sandy soil along a ridge. As we ambled along I found myself looking down at the horse and footprints in the sand made by other travellers, not thinking about much at all, until I realised that I was no longer seeing horse and footprints but also large paw prints. They were heading in the opposite direction, back to Lo Monthang. I turned around to Netra and Dabendra walking behind me and holding my hand in a claw shape, shook it towards to the ground.

“Paw prints,” I said, and pointed at the ground.
“Ya, tiger,” replied Netra.
“Snow leopard?”
“Ya, ya. Big one,” he replied, and laughed.

img_0619

My eyes were now glued to the ground and the prints continued until we reached the turnoff to Dhe, where they gave way to small goat prints. They continued along the track that led to Tsarang, not far from Marong, where 120 goats had been killed by a snow leopard, just a couple of weeks before.

We now turned to descend towards the river, but the horses decided that they’d rather not. The brown horse, carrying the packs, took off running way off the track. Dabendra set off yelling abuse and throwing rocks at it, trying to steer it back onto the track. Meanwhile, Netra motioned to me to dismount because the descent was too steep and slippery for riding. Let go, my white horse took off too and try as they might, Dabendra and Netra could not get it back. It was headed back to Lo Monthang; it had clearly enjoyed its time there and decided it would prefer to return. The brown horse tried to follow it, but Netra managed to stop it in time. It kept stopping and trying to turn but we all managed to keep it going in the right direction. Netra turned and ran back up to help Dabendra.

img_0627

We were a long way down when we finally spied Netra far above us walking down alone. There was no sign of Dabendra or the other horse, so we all just carried on, slipping and gingerly making our way down the very steep, slippery, sandy slope.

img_0635

Below us emerged the patchwork quilt of the fields of Dhe, stretching to the edge of the river bank. On the opposite bank was the village of Surkhang, but it is only accessible from Dhe when the river is low enough to walk across as it sits where the Puyung Khola meets the Kali Gandaki and there is no bridge between the two villages. A suspension bridges crosses the Kali Gandaki river upstream of the meeting point between the two streams.

We had just arrived at the bottom, outside the village of Dhe, when to our amazement here came Dabendra on the white horse, galloping it down the same track we’d just inched our way down.

Like the village of Samdzong, which is moving due to lack of water, the village of Dhe has been struggling with the same problem, and has begun the process of relocation. Some outside of Dhe believe the village’s troubles have been caused by the selling of saligrams, others because they killed and skinned a yeti.

But as we sat in the warm dining room waiting for our noodle soup, we were oblivious to all of this. The room was much like all the dining rooms, with its mud benches covered in carpets running around the perimeter behind low, ornately painted tables. The walls were a blue-green and covered in the same pictures as in many of the other lodges: the panorama of Lhasa, a large painting of the Potala palace (the former residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa), photos of the Dalai Lama and Sakya Trinzen, some family photos, and a large silk thangka. Wires were strung loosely around the tops of the walls and ran down to two car batteries. One appeared to be for lighting, the other to power a small television inside a glass-fronted cabinet.

img_0637

Kitchen noises could be heard from behind the piece of fabric hanging in the doorway. Otherwise the place seemed deserted. While we waited, Dabendra was put to work carrying lunch out to the workers in the field, baskets of food and a thermos of tea. Netra came in and gave us an apple each; here as in most of the villages there were plenty of apples.

Lunch over, Dabendra took the horses down and across the river, while the rest of us went via the long metal suspension bridge. Below us, a thin milky blue stream ran. Clumps of poplars huddled close to the water’s edge.

img_0639

Upstream, where the gorge narrowed, stood a small red chorten, its edges crumbling, towered over by the weathered cliffs, with horizontal layers of red, yellow, grey, and brown. Over all arced the hard, blue, cloudless sky.

img_0641

We were in remote country now.