I've spun around carving a small hole in the sand with my shoe. There was nothing as far as the eyes could see, nothing but a flat pan of sand and stones. The vast space only ended in the distance by the line torn by nameless mountains. This was the Tibetan Plateau, east of Lo Manthang.
It was the 24th day of the expedition, the height of 4000 meters above sea level. Slowly the sun crossed the parched wasteland, and my guide and porter, Anima accompanied me. The afternoon sun warmed the air and was drying my throat. I had drank the the last sip of water from the water bottle few hours earlier. The effects of drought, which I heard in Kathmandu, were now being experienced by me. Leaving a small village in the morning, we hoped to run into streams, from which we could take fresh water. The reality was brutal.. Around noon Anima, carrying 30-pound luggage, picked up, leaving me alone. With every minute, his silhouette decreases, smaller and smaller; then it completely disappeared, as if fallen into the ground. Desert vultures were circling above me, acting badly on my imagination. Distance, in these areas, are not measured by mile and hours, but reaching the ravines, mountain passes, and valleys. In shaded ravines you can relax and escape from the burning sun. The pass has a tedious approach and the descent requires sweat and strength. The valley is a good bivouac.
MYSTERIOUS LAND OF LO
The several thousand meters are not that tiring during the first days of the expedition. A few hundred meter long trail took a few hours of marching. Buddhist kingdom Lo, also known as the Mustang, was an area larger than 3.5 thousand square kilometers, inhabited by about 5000. The region is hidden in the heart of the Himalayas. It is a fascinating place, cut off from civilization, of which was the existence of an almost forgotten world. The first mention of the Kingdom of Mustang goes back to the seventh century. In the late eighteenth century, the fief of Mustang was in Tibet. In 1951, protecting itself against the aggression of China, the kingdom became an integral part of Nepal. While retaining autonomy, however, it was forced to make an annual tribute of 30 bars of silver and a horse.
The northern part of the nation was under direct authority of a king; of which is now called the Kingdom of Lo. Two massifs, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, create a valley that contains the Kali Gandaki River. Along its shores, for hundreds of years, lived a route connecting Tibet with India. This way, the caravans from the Land of Snows, Tibet, that bore salt from the salt lakes, yak wool, minerals, and silk, could travel. In the opposite direction, Nepali rice, Indian tea, sugar, tobacco and spices were imported.
The Buddhist Kingdom of Lo is a world filled with monks and temples. A world that froze and has not changed for hundreds of years. It is a living history museum. This is where authentic Tibetan culture has survived. This is the end of the second millennium, but children there are taught that the earth is flat and the center of the world is the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. Numerous legends and the inaccessibility of the region fired the imagination of adventurers, and hence became known as the "forbidden kingdom". The first Europeans arrived at its borders only in the 50s of the last century. The Kingdom of Mustang officially opened to tourists in the 90s, but there is a limit on the number of visitors each year. Currently, only a thousand tourists a year will be allowed to go hiking on the land.
Aliens in the settlement Dhey
A sudden gust of wind blew the sand from sharp stones and threw it to me in the face. I gritted my scarf tighter protecting the mouth and headed towards the place where my porter disappeared. It was late afternoon when I stood at the point where the flat land was broken by several hundred meters to form a gap with steep walls of a canyon. I was stuck on the edge of a huge hole in the ground carved by millennia by the region's largest river Kali Gandaki. At the bottom of the river lay a small settlement in a green oasis, Dhey. I descended in a zigzag pattern, carefully placing each step, so as not to cause an avalanche of stones and biting the dust. Being on the roofs of the settlement, I stopped to take some shots and a video. At the river, between the green fields, the air smelled of grass and herbs. How different it was from the dry plateau. The settlement consisted of a dozen houses painted in white paint. Houses built of stone and clay and the flat roofs had waving flags, bearing prayers to the deities. Set on the outskirts of Orchy were hand-carved shutters that attracted the eye of my lens. Almost in the middle of the village was Gompa, surrounded by a row of prayer mills covered with copper. Before the temple was laid, the walls were carved with mantras. On the banks, a woman washed clothes and children ran after goats. There were vertical walls that were carved out of the cave. This is where the monks spend months, years, and sometimes the rest of their lives meditating and waiting for the state of nirvana, or enlightenment. It was secret practice of Tulp, which produces an object in the mind and then materializes it. I climbed up to the nearest cave. The inside smelled of cold stone and gravel walls. In the settlement, Anima introduced me to the hut where the hostess greeted me with a Tibetan greeting, "Tashi Delek!"
LIVING IN THE RHYTHM OF THE SUN
The woman was dressed in a typical long black Chupa, a wide waist belt with a silver buckle. She wore turquoise jewelry and coral earrings. With the exception of her baby, of a couple of months and which was sleeping on a wooden bench, the house was empty. The men work in the fields and oversee the herd of goats and the children recited pujas, or prayers in the dgon. As it turned out, the Tibetan had three husbands. They were brothers. The oldest of them had chosen her for a wife, and to avoid division of land and herds of goats, his younger brothers were her auxiliary husbands. Polyandry, the practice of having several husbands, is a very common phenomenon in the Mustang. A woman offered me a traditional dish of the region, dal bhat, or rice with lentils. They put me in a room where the walls were arranged around a carved bench. Covered with colorful carpets, it serves as a resting spot at night. Inside there was twilight. In one corner of the set was a sacrificial altar. Beside it was the statue of Buddha, a bowl of water, and the Dalai Lama's picture lit by butter lamps. Just as everywhere in this land, there is no electricity or running water. The people live very modestly and the days of work and rest are determined by the movement of the sun. After the meal, I went to the village water supply. The black rubber pipe spit water directly on the stone floor. The water was brought here from the nearby river. For the past four days my bath consisted only of washing my face and hands. I experienced fatigue and lack of hot water. The smell of what was around my person became a turning point for me. Even though the water temperature was still close to zero, I removed my sweater and pants and plunged into the icy stream. Refreshed, I put the clothes back on, and then climbed the hill, during the last rays of the sun, to see the panorama of the Himalayas and the raw beauty of the mountains without blemish of modern civilization.
Up the river Kali Gandaki
A few months ago I learned from Mark Romanowicz that he organized an expedition to the Kingdom of Lo. That is when I knew I had to go there. The plan was interesting: to explore the whole kingdom and finally make the first Polish entry onto the highest peak in this region, Saribung, which was 6350 m above sea level. The summit was only recently made available for mountain climbers. I joined the group in Kathmandu, from where the bus took us to Pokhara. Next we flew to Jomsom, but as it appeared on the site, due to bad weather, the plane could not fly for several days. Instead of waiting for better weather, we decided to get to Jomsom by substitute measures. At the bus stop, it turned out that there was no passable road. Swollen rivers had jumped bridges and the monsoon rain had eroded the asphalt, but we were assured that the repair crews were on their way. The choice was to either stay and wait for the launch of the scheduled flights or to move on. We chose the latter. The distance which divided us from Jomsom seemed to be small, about 100 kilometers in a straight line. In the worst case, our trip could take 10 to 20 hours. But the reality was not so kind. To get to Jomsom, it took us three full days. After losing three days in the calendar of the expedition, we left Jomsom and went up the river of Kali Gandaki. The path was riddled with wide valley arms of the river. After several hours of walking, we saw Kagbeni.
This town is a symbolic border of Upper Mustang Nepal. Almost in the center, was an old building with a red square Gompa Buddhist Monastery. The narrow cobbled streets were surrounded by two-level small huts built of stone blocks. The wooden doors were decorated by goat skulls. Here, I found a fun way of cooking. The profiled aluminum sheeting makes as a stand for a pot. Metal concentrates the sun's rays and warms the pot. Boiling water in the kettle with the sun takes a few minutes. We checked in at the local police station, where they checked our permits for hiking in the Kingdom of Lo. Then the gateway to the ancient world opened up before us. We moved to the north, an adventurous trail. We travelled deep into this realm. Sparse grid covered the steep path to the whole kingdom, bringing together the village and Selo, where you can move only on foot or horseback. To date, the area has not run a regular route. Paths lead through the boulders, descend to the river valleys, and climb the mountain passes, all in the dry thin air and at an altitude of nearly 4,000 meters.
Farther and farther from civilization
Behind the north wall remained the Annapurna massif. We passed villages with exotic-sounding names: Chele, Samar, Ghem, and Tangmar. They offered primitive conditions of existence. They were without electricity, running water, or a sewage system. Metaphysical peace marched in the rocky ravines to sometimes interfere with the horses and mules. The days of trekking in the direction of the capital of the kingdom did not differ much from each other. Harsh desert landscape has changed only near the settlements along the river, where green fields contrasted with brown vertical walls of the canyon. There were very faithful people, living in harmony with nature and the world around them. It seemed a rule that the natives had to travel with a prayer akszamala, the Tibetan rosary of 108 beads, and they were always whispering mantras. In the vicinity of each village is a ritually chosen place where, according to Tibetan tradition, dismembered corpses of the dead shall be cast to be devoured by wild birds, mostly vultures. During the journey, we passed numerous symbols of Buddhism. They were always with a defiant contrast to the severity of the area, as they were painted black, white, and red. The cliffs and the fork in road were filled with chorten and stone mounds covered with plaques and men waving flags and praying. The chorten symbolize the four elements that are in all of us and we must defeat them to gain full enlightenment or nirvana. Inside are the sacred texts, relics of Lamas and ritual objects. The chorten are always celebrated in the direction of the sun. But most of the prayer mills are different sizes. All their orders are placed at the entrances to villages and at monasteries. The outer cylinder is often carved and painted. Turning the mill releases mantras written on strips of paper placed in the cylinder. The next day in one of the deep canyons, we came across a cave, a hermitage called Randżung. Inside was a stone monolith chorten, as stated by centuries-old tradition, made in a miraculous way. Around it were the walls of Buddhist statues. Legend says that if a chorten is damaged, it will recreate itself. In a nearby cave is the source of the water that has the power to heal. This part is visited by many pilgrims and famous sages who spend years in meditation here.
The daily march episodes were determined from the terrain and location of the villages. I always wanted to spend the night in the village and this condition has forced the situation of our porters, because they simply did not have tents with them. Sometimes, when the path was lost, we descended into the valley to continue the march of the Kali Gandaki riverbed. Sometimes it was the only opportunity to reach the next village on our route. We were wading up to our ankles in muddy water that contained ammonite stone cobbles with cephalopod shell fossils from over 160 million years ago. Hindus believe that they represent the god Vishnu, and bring you happiness, health and wealth. One day I found a very large specimen of ammonite pyrite coated with gold dust.
The capital of the Kingdom
The canyons were adorned with fantastic forms of tall chimneys and towers. Where the vertical walls looked at the dark mouth of hundreds of hermitages, they reminded us of the transience. In the second week, we got to the first objective of the expedition, the capital of the kingdom, the city of Lo Manthang. At the high-pass of Lho La, we saw the city surrounded by a red barge wall and the lunar atmosphere of the "Valley of prayer" which was in contrast with the green fields. I sat in the shadow of the wind plucked prayer flags. I watched the altimeter, which pointed at 3800 m above sea level. I looked at the medieval walls of the towers, which look beyond the Buddhist houses and the palace of the king. A rider in a fur coat ran across the compacted road. He flashed past me, glanced and struck the horse whip, and soon died in the valley. During that moment I felt like I was transported back through hundreds of years and the excitement ran through the body. I got up and headed toward the capital. I marched in green pastures tucked into terraced plots where barley, mustard, and turnips grew. The name "Lo Manthang" in Tibetan means "long valley". The town was founded in 1390 by the king of Ame Pal. Today it is inhabited by about 150. As before, the city has only one gate. Before it, stand a giant mill and a large chorten with a prayer. The installation is very cramped inside, with a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, which young monks walk on dressed in red robes. Street cavities are used by residents as querns. Above the door hang homes with goat skulls and ghost traps or heads of yaks and small wooden houses, decorated with window mosaics of bright colors and a belt of black margin.
The ground floor of the houses is reserved for animals and the first floor is the living area with a kitchen, home chapel and toilet, which was a hole in the earth floor, with an outlet to the stables. The kitchen is burning dried yak dung and goats. On the walls hang pictures of the Dalai Lama and the inherent capital of Tibet, Lhasa. The flat roof was made by means of stairs carved in a tree trunk. Roofs are good for drying of cereals, spices, goat droppings, and precious wood. Among the rooftops, were three gompa, which were currently being renovated. The oldest is Champa Ghang Iha. It lead inside the massive wooden doors. Inside there is butter lantern that illuminates the walls from floor to ceiling and the frescoes that cover the intricate mandala from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the background stands a huge statue of Buddha, which is set on the ground floor and the head reaches the roof and has hanging, colorful, linen sacred images. External stairs lead up to the roof gompa, which offers a view across the capital and the nearby ruins of the fort Duck, the first seat of the king of Ame Pal in the fourteenth century. We spent three days in the capital. Hiking to nearby monasteries and villages diversified our time. We visited an old monastery, Lori, attached to rocky slopes like an eagle's nest. Stone steps surrounded by prayer flags led to the elaborate branch of the bridge spanning the chasm. Inside are several chambers made from the natural cave, which are a facade and one room, with split stone walls. Returning to the capital, I discovered a cave village. Low walls with wooden doors were set against the natural caves to protect them from the wind. Progression of time, for the inhabitants, stopped not dozens, but hundreds of years ago.
After these days of relaxation, we went to the hardly accessible region of Mustang, near the border with China, where we rose to the top of Saribung. It was a grueling and arduous march, climbing he mountain passes with steep slopes into the valley. On reaching the summit area, we found the local deities. It is sacrilegious to kill and consume a goat. The shepherd, from whom we bought a goat, warned that not a single drop of blood may fall on this sacred ground. He instructed that all the spaces in the mountains have the same law, the law of ahimsa, a beleif of not harming and not killing living beings. Our cook is likely to try to not drop the blood, but what happened in the kitchen tent, only he knows. The angry sky god brought rain at night in the snow. The guide got the directions mixed up and led us to the wrong valley, which resulted in severe ordeal by giant glaciers. We were victims here, especially our porters who did not have appropriate shoes to conquer the snow and ice terrain. It rained continuously for two days. The third morning, Mark called a general meeting and announced that everything was completely soaked, so we preferred to stand in a circle than to sit in wet sleeping bags. In my case, with each passing day at the summit, the possibility of safe return in time for the plane to Kathmandu was dimisnishing. So I decided to go back to Kathmandu alone. The rest of the group, with a longer vacation, decided to wait for improved weather conditions and then attack the summit.
The return to Jomsom
Anima, with my porter, went way back. To avoid getting caught for the law that prohibits the lone wandering around the kingdom, Anima led me on his way. We determined the direction of the peaks on the horizon and embarked on the trail before sunrise and ended the hike at sunset. The road through the almost forgotten land was fascinating. The view of the giant mountains aroused admiration and fear. Huge cliffs and boulders about the size of houses are scattered around giant pipes and rough brown-red walls. This space extending in all directions stimulated my imagination to the absurd conclusion that I reached the corners of our planet, and one of the hidden canyons we passed by entrance to Ancient Shambhala was the wonderful land of eternal bliss and wisdom. The next day, the final section of the march coincided with a Hindu pilgrimage route, which runs through here from India and leads to the sacred lakes of Damodar Kundu, on the border of Tibet. By bypassing and swimming in lakes, called the cortex, the followers of Hinduism receive deliverance from their sins. Built along the route are small stances, where pilgrims receive care, accommodation, and meals for free. It was late afternoon when we reached one of those. The exhausting march in the fleeting rain, made us collapse at twilight. I sat on a boulder, sipping hot tea with gloves, while the shepherd ran out of darkness. He was waving his arms and shouting loudly. The fear in his voice and restless eyes proved that he was scared of something. He spoke quickly in an unknown dialect. Anima looked at me and said, "The pastor lost his two companions, who were torn apart by the yeti, and he fled in fear, leaving a herd of goats on the slopes and wants to spend the night here." Everyone accepted his story with admirable stoicism. Only I got up and stated, "Yeti! It's impossible." "Yes, the yeti." Anima confirmed. Shocked, I came out from under the canvas and looked in the sky. On the face of frozen drops of rain began to fall. "I really am in the forbidden kingdom", I thought. The next day, I met a photographer from India, which, for several years, was photographing wildlife of the area. When I told him the story, he confirmed that many of the natives believe that the yeti is not a myth or legend. I stood at the pass. As I was coming up the valley toward the clouds on the horizon, I saw the mountains that sliced the white blue sky. I threw the backpack and entered the pearly mist. The following day I got to Jomsom. Again, there was no appreciable cross over the boundaries as I entered into another world.
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