The road is covered with stones which slows my journey through the wilderness. The rocky terrain resembles a huge quarry and I am surrounded by mountains stretching towards the sky, rivers coursing through slate cliffs and a pyramid mountain in the background. Nomads walk towards the stream, passing tents made from yak hair, pitched beside a slate bridge. I stop the car to take a photograph.
Suddenly, a man appears at the window, his face pressed against the glass, peering inside. He wears an old military jacket, tattered and torn at the seams. He is a nomad, young, wild and free. His long, dark hair falls past his shoulders. Something in his eyes stirs the passion in my heart. I want to run away with him and wander the Tibetan plains by his side.
I am walking across stones, moving my body through time and space, the wind blowing my hair around my face. I can feel the fresh, crisp air trace its cool fingers across my skin. I connect with a wild, primitive part of myself, the strong, passionate, self-sufficient woman I know I am, deep within my soul. I want to live here and experience the challenge of having to survive in such a difficult and inhospitable environment. I want to leave my comfortable, predictable life behind and test my strength here in this harsh world.
I detour to Sakye, a very old, poor and ruined Tibetan village. On my way up to the monastery, I am greeted by a kind smile in a toothless face. The old Tibetan man does not want money, unlike the small boy who curses me when I give him bananas and sweet biscuits. I have a little fun with my camera and three Tibetan children, fascinated by the marvellous piece of modern technology I carry. They take photographs of themselves then peer behind the lens, trying to discover where the picture is hiding.
The Tibetan villagers are working by the river, scooping mud into wooden moulds and laying out clay bricks to dry in the sun. A nomad woman is guiding her goats across rough terrain, using a primitive stone slingshot to scare her herd away from the road. The yaks are feeding, balanced precariously on the earth, as surefooted as mountain goats. I learn that wild yaks are free-spirited and difficult to tame, so are crossbred with cows to render them docile and more suited to the steady discipline of farm work. I have always tried to resist attempts by others to shut down my free-spirited nature.
I feel a change in myself. Everything is shifting. My writing flows more freely and I express myself with ease. I am focused, present in my body and grounded to the earth. I feel open, less self-conscious and learn to be more in the moment. I experience a heightened sense of adventure. But I still cannot sleep and wake often, gasping for breath.
I leave Shegar early in the morning. Outside, the nomads are stirring, huddled against their bundles of meagre belongings. As I pass by curious heads with black hair unkempt and tousled emerge from inside sleeping sacks. Dogs burrow together, trying to keep warm, their bodies covered in frost, icy noses tucked into frozen paws. Buddhist monks ride into town on old bicycles, their colourful robes flapping in the wind.
Children stand by the side of the road waving as I pass, and I can hear my native language being spoken by Tibetan children reciting the alphabet. I am amazed at the sight of them standing in bare feet without clothing and I wonder how they do not feel the cold. There are suns and moons on every house, protective symbols representing wisdom and compassion, and scorpions facing each other above every door, shielding the inhabitants from harmful forces, clearing away obstacles and negative energies.
It is snowing heavily on the pass. Mani stones are balanced carefully on the stony ground. A ragged nomad family gather around my vehicle, begging for money and food. There are vast glacial rivers, their milky waters flowing down the slopes of the snow-capped peaks.
My first glimpse of Mount Everest is truly breathtaking. When I reach Rongphu Monastery, I abandon my four-wheel drive for a horse and cart. My Tibetan guide has the skinniest, slowest horse I have ever seen, and I wonder how we will make the six-kilometre journey to Base Camp. I want to say “Your horse needs a good feed” in Tibetan, but I don’t know how.
He has a handsome face, his braided hair tied to one side by red wool and a piece of bone. He makes sure I am comfortable and safe. We ride in silence to the top. I turn towards Mount Everest, the wind whipping my legs. I cannot walk more than a few steps without having to catch my breath, so I sit down and look upon the mountain in awe. Chomolungma, as Everest is known to the Tibetans, means ‘goddess, mother of mountains’, and she is certainly that, although today she is mostly concealed by thick cloud cover. I find a distinct heart-shaped stone, a symbol of my emotional connection to this beautiful land. My Tibetan guide waits patiently until I am ready to leave.
Our journey downhill is very slow. Deer and antelope are perfectly camouflaged against the surrounding environment. Prayer cairns are piled high at every turn, searching for the heavens. The rock formations and different coloured soils create a natural grey scale in the environment. The road is strewn with rocks and my guide carefully steers his horse to avoid them. I grab hold of the cart to centre my balance and the wood breaks off in my hands. He laughs and throws the jagged piece away. I am amazed he is not concerned at all that I have ruined one of his few possessions.
We reach the end of our journey, but he will not leave my side. I catch him smiling shyly at me. Even though we cannot communicate in words, a knowing passes between us. We are two kindred souls who share a silent understanding. He touches me gently, smiling and nodding as we say goodbye. I am sad to leave Mount Everest. The road back to Shegar is long and lonely.
The next morning is cloudy, overcast and cold and the ground is covered with frost and ice. Snow has fallen on the lower peaks. Beads of glistening dewdrops gently cling to the thin, green threads of grass scattered across the ground. The clouds almost touch the earth. The Tibetans are out early, collecting their daily water supply from nearby rivers, bursting from the rain overnight, their backs bent and stooped from the weight of the urns as they carry them home.
I pass through Tingri and head towards Choy Oyu, but it is concealed under rain and heavy cloud. Everest and Xixapangma are barely visible in the distance. Hot, dry deserts of sweeping sands merge with snowy peaks, thousands of metres high. Tibetan mantras are scratched into the earth like giant crop circles written in an ancient alien language. The mountains are pocketed with small caves. White, purple and yellow flowers bloom in the sparse earth. Abandoned fortresses from ancient times when the Tibetans were a warrior race stand guard against a modern enemy.
The descent into Nyalam marks the end of my journey. Massive, wide mountain ranges grow taller and straighter and suddenly I am surrounded by cascading waterfalls and pine trees growing vertically out of cliff faces. Desert transforms into rainforest and the air becomes thicker and denser. The humidity is rising. I am enclosed by gorges and steep chasms, covered in lush vegetation. The open spaces of Tibet where my spirit was free to explore and fly unbounded are gone, replaced by steep, rising mountains that close in around me. I imagine I could soar through the valleys, riding the winds, perhaps as a desire to escape the limits of an old life perspective that has become too narrow and confined.
The maps of old Tibet recognise Nyalam as the original border between Tibet and Nepal, but the Chinese have slowly crept their way southward another thirty kilometres to Zhangmu, the ‘official’ border. I wait in line for an hour to get through customs, after a sleepless night being kept awake by the residents of Zhangmu who were partying outside my window until well after midnight. I am sad to leave, but I want to go home. I am tired and angry. I love Tibet but I am deeply troubled by what it has become and what the Tibetan people have been forced to endure.
It is a perilous journey down the mountains. Primitive dwellings line the narrow roads, barely able to provide their inhabitants with adequate shelter. Abandoning my four-wheel drive, I walk the rest of the way, while the Nepalese porters fight over who will take my bags across the border. Scrawny white ducks splash about in streams beside the road and mangy dogs sleep with their heads on the kerb. The children wave and shout at me as I pass by. Tibetans with red wool and bone in their hair lie idly by the roadside and already I am homesick for Tibet.
But I know it is time for me to go. I have seen enough, of what is unfolding in this beautiful land. I have seen first-hand the oppressive forces at work in Tibet, yet the resilient spirit of the Tibetan people is stronger. I feel inspired and positive about the challenges ahead. Tibet gives me the strength and the determination that I need to survive everything that has brought me to my knees. I understand what the Tibetans have faced, that has been reflected in my own experiences, only my persecutors are not the Chinese, they are my fears and insecurities and the crippling emotional pain I have suffered. I find the strength to rebuild my shattered life.
Being in Tibet, alone in a vast wilderness with nothing to distract me, I am faced with stark reality. I am able to experience myself as I truly am and reconnect with my deepest truth. I listen to that still small voice within my heart, the voice of my inner wisdom and I know what is right for me. Tibet helps me to see my strengths, the qualities I can draw on within myself when times get difficult. I learn to accept myself as I am, with all my flaws and shortcomings. Tibet is the catalyst I need for the healing process to finally begin.
I realise I need to give myself the love, attention and support I crave before I can be open to receive it from someone else. I am aware the qualities I seek in another are those I most need to cultivate and express in myself – strength, confidence, compassion, sensitivity, independence and trust. Tibet taught me the most important relationship you can ever have is the one you have with yourself. And even though my heart is broken, I still believe in love.
Back in Kathmandu, I spend a few days alone gathering my thoughts. I remain inside my hotel room, meditating, packing and preparing for the long flight home. I leave the sanctity of this inner domain only to eat and walk by myself in the early mornings, before the noisy crowds and humidity are at their worst. The day before I am due to leave, I return to Thamel market and somehow end up in the place where I started, as though my journey has come full circle. The handmade Tibetan rug that caught my eye a few weeks ago is still there. I know it belongs with me, as does the authentic Medicine Buddha thangka painted in rich, dark, deep, healing blue pigments, with splashes of grounding crimson red.
As I prepare to leave and return to my old life, I know I have been changed forever. I know my hardest work lies ahead of me, not just for myself and in my own life, but for what I know I must try to do for Tibet. I make a silent promise, to myself and to Tibet. I will become an activist and help free this beautiful land and its people. I will learn all I can about the history and culture of Tibet. I will fight for truth and justice and for the rights of the Tibetan people to live their lives in peace and harmony, as they did for thousands of years before the Chinese invasion. I will give Tibet back its spirit as Tibet has given my spirit back to me. Tibet is my spiritual home, my land, the place where I belong. I know I will return one day.
Words © 2005 Environmental Warrior
Images © 2004 Environmental Warrior