Travels in Nepal and Tibet

* Travel in Nepal - Where is a Girl Who Speaks English?
* Travel in Nepal - Lighting Butter Lamps in Kathmandu.
* Travel on Pilgrimage to Tibet - Walking through the Himalaya then Around Mount Kailash.
* Books: on Nepal; on Tibet.

Travel in Nepal - "Where is a Girl Who Speaks English?"
[Copyright © 1997-2015 by J. Zimmerman]
Published in A Woman's Passion for Travel

"Do you paint your hair?" a small boy asks me in English. It's midmorning at 10,000 feet in northwest Nepal. The boy and his friends have skipped school to check us out.

"How old are you?" queries another boy.

"Where is your husband?" asks a third.

I sit in a Himalayan field in Simikot with a dozen trekkers. About twenty schoolboys have found us.

"Where are your sisters?" I ask them. "Where is a girl who speaks English?"

The boys shrug. They ask, "Camera?" I let them look through my telephoto lens. I make the camera pull a mountain, then a grazing horse, then one of their friends toward us. The boys shriek and laugh.

Then our group starts hiking up into the Himalayas, toward Tibet. It will take us a week on this steep mountain path, an old and active trade route that follows the Karnali River.

Nearby, girls sing in harmony while they cultivate the wheat and barley sprouts in the terraced fields. This region is newly opened to Westerners, but open only if they buy the expensive trekking permits.

At Kermi village, we rent a tiny schoolyard, a pocket of rare flat land etched in the side of the ravine we hike through. Eight schoolboys scramble onto the little school roof, where they perch to watch the pitching of our little yellow tents.

When the boys come down to look at us more closely, I dig our a phrase book. I try, "Tapaaiko naam ke ho?" ("What is your name?"). Then I venture, "Kati janaa didibahani?" ("How many sisters do you have?"). They giggle and chatter, and do not understand me.

The English teacher arrives. "This school is just for boys," he explains. As men so often tell us on this trip, he too says that girls only want to work in the fields and help at home. We hear yet again that the girls don't want to go to school and that their families don't want them to go to school.

Two days later we visit another school, a monastery. The young apprentice monks shine in their clean maroon robes and saffron undershirts. They are beginning 23 years of education. "How much education do the nuns get?" we ask. None at all, we are told.

It goes like this for a whole week as we climb to the prayer flags and painted skulls and snowy mountains of Tibet. We are scheduled for 3 weeks in Tibet. We begin by walking around the great pilgrimage mountain of Kailash.

However, after 11 days the Chinese cancel our visas and escort us out. They won't let us take our trucks to Lhasa. They force us to an unexpected extra one-week hike, through the Himalaya and back down into Nepal.

When we get back to Simikot, we are greeted by local children, all boys. They play Frisbee and soccer with us.

I have still not found a girl who speaks English, and we shall fly out first thing tomorrow.

By late afternoon, most of my friends are in their tents. Some nap. Others write in their journals. I look for an elusive pair of clean underwear.

Suddenly I hear a little girl's voice. A tiny face smiles at my open tent door.

"Elbow," she says firmly, and whacks one of hers.

"Head," she says, and bops herself on the side of her head.

"I've been looking for you," I say.

"Mouth," she says, and slaps hers.

"Here you are," I say, getting out the pens and paper I brought for her. "Here you are at last."

Travel in Nepal - "Lighting Butter Lamps in Kathmandu"
[Copyright © 1997-2015 by J. Zimmerman]
Published in Travelers' Tales Nepal

Bouddanath at dusk is breathtaking. The courtyard entrance is filled with trays of lit butter lamps, trays of fire, gesture upon gesture of remembrance.

When you lose someone, someone who loves you, there is no consolation except the wheel of time, which continues to turn, carries you away from the moment of loss. Walking around a place like Bouddanath helps push the wheel forward a little.

Which is why, when I learn of my mother's death, I come here to the softening light, to walk and to light butter lamps.

A most auspicious number, some Buddhists say, is 108. So is 1 or 3 or 13. In the generosity of Buddhism, any number is in fact fine. She lived 83 years. I would light 83 lamps.

I merge with the crowd, walk three times around the outer wall of Bouddanath, spin the little quintets of wall-set prayer wheels. Near the Sakyapa temple, I find an upstairs room with wall-length windows. Walkers outside, whether on the ground or on the roof of the Bouddanath stupa, can see the lamps burn. Wooden benches at the windows hold hundreds and hundred of brass bowls. Each contains butter and a small wick. A few are already lit. Most are not.

With a slender wax tamper the length of my forearm, I light the first lamp, the one for the year she was born. I hold the taper beside the wick for a long time.

This is a new ceremony for her spirit as well as mine, and there is hesitation in the room, a need for her agreement to this gift.

When I pull the taper away, the lamp remains unlit. The seconds breathe by.

Then suddenly the lamp flames. Who is to say that her spirit came there then? Who is to say it did not?

I light the lamp for her second birthday. Its flames leap at once like an opening eye.

Then I bend my clumsy head and hand to attend these little lamps, to praise her days, to the growth of light and warmth. One by one, each in its own way, each year of her life catches fire.

Travel on Pilgrimage to Tibet - "A Mountain, a Flag Pole, A Test of Sin" -
The Himalaya and Mount Kailash.
[Copyright © 1997-2015 by J. Zimmerman]
Published in part in Pilgrimage: Adventures of the Spirit

"You must leave Tibet," the Chinese soldiers tell our group. They are cross and they carry guns.

We are furious. For a week, we have climbed through the Himalayas from Nepal. Months earlier, we paid the Chinese government thousands of dollars to make this visit.

The first goal of our journey is to walk the khora, the pilgrimage path around Mount Kailash, the mountain at the center of the world. Tibetans say, "That journey wipes out the mistakes of any lifetime. It wipes out sin."

Kailash is the most sacred mountain in Asia. It is the spiritual pivot of a billion Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and the worshippers in the older shamanistic Bon tradition.

Very few westerners have seen Kailash. Its immense 22,028-foot pyramid shines alone, peaked with snow, above the vast high plains of western Tibet. Even fewer western pilgrims have been here at this time of year, to attend the annual festival of Saga Dawa, the most important Tibetan celebration of life and death. At Kailash, Saga Dawa climaxes with the ceremonial lowering of the 50-foot flagpole, the redecoration of the pole with brilliant banners and prayer flags, and its careful raising.

Tibetans, Indian, and Nepali pilgrims do not come to climb and conquer Mount Kailash. They come to pay their respects.

Kailash is so very remote that pilgrims arrive only after they walk for weeks or months through dust storms, icy nights, and diamond-sharp sun. At best, they might travel part of the way in an uncovered truck, tossing and jarring across the high desert.

The pilgrims bow to Kailash, and they walk 32 miles around this luminous peak. At night, they sleep outdoors, or they simply continue walking under the moon.

Our group of 16 westerners has approached Kailash on foot. Aided by 60 sherpas and porters, we have climbed through northwest Nepal along the just-opened Upper Karnali River Gorge. It has taken us a week to climb to the Tibetan plateau.

Finally, we wobbled over a rickety footbridge. "One person at a time, please," advised a sherpa. We entered Tibet.

We hiked another half-day. Then we were picked up by small trucks that drove us to the Tibetan town of Purang, garrisoned by the Chinese army. This brings us to our confrontation.

It takes two days to reach compromise with the military. Before the soldiers toss us out, two officers keep all our passports in their garrison in Purang. Then they will let us go to Kailash and back. Our passports are hostages to ensure our prompt return.

We re-board the trucks and drive across the high desert to the start of the Kailash pilgrimage circuit. We walk west on the khora to Tarboche on the shoulder of Kailash, for the Saga Dawa festival in honor of Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death. Saga Dawa begins on the full moon in the fourth lunar month. We arrive just in time.

The solitary flagpole appears to be the height of eight or ten men. Hundreds of men in teams ceremonially lower the flagpole, with a few bleached prayer flags clinging to it.

Pilgrims redecorate the pole with the traditional exuberant five-colored sequence of cotton prayer flags. Each color is one of the elements (earth, air, water, fire, and clouds or the ether). A prayer in black Tibetan characters embellishes each flag. "The cheapest cotton is best," Tibetans say. "It gives up its prayers the fastest."

New braids of plaited black yak hair encircle and reinforce the trunk. Huge banners are attached, each one white or yellow or scarlet.

On a red-rock plateau nearby, a startling Tibetan ritual progresses. Clusters of 30 or 40 people lie together on the rock. They are still as granite. For a half-hour, a priest plays a heartbeat rhythm on a small hand drum while he chants words from what westerners call The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The ritual leads the participants through what can only be a death rehearsal. They experience symbolically their own dismemberment, sky burial, and journey into the afterlife.

Meanwhile, teams of men strain at a dozen logs braced to support the decorated pole as they lift it. "So-so-so," shouts the gap-toothed leader in his fur-lined, gold brocade hat. "So-so-so," echoes the crowd. The men mutter prayers, perhaps to the guardian of pole raisers, that nothing slips, nothing crashes down upon them all. This goes on for hours, as the pole inches back to vertical.

Women in long, black skirts and striped aprons walk continuously around the pole, at a radius of about 50 paces. A tiny girl bows, touches her forehead to the dust. She stretches forward and marks the earth, then stands and steps to her mark. She repeats this energetically, travels in a huge circle around the flagpole again and again and again.

Eventually the flagpole is raised. We all praised the pole and its raisers, and then we walk back to our tents, an hour's walk up the valley from Tarboche. Each afternoon the fierce, southern wind blows down our two toilet tents. The sherpas hope this happens when the youngest lady trekkers are inside. But the startled occupants are always men as they drink more chang, the Tibetan beer.

Our group continues the journey around Kailash, toward the highest pass, the 18,600-foot Drolma La. Ahead and behind us, a thousand other pilgrims continue, travelling from Tarboche in small groups.

The trail steepens. Beside it, pilgrims cast off some of the precious and few things that they own. They leave some of their warmest clothes, cloaks and jackets, scarves, shirt, and hats. Women cut off and scatter locks of their glistening jet-black hair.

To the left of the path, three big rocks fit snuggly together. A slender passage snakes among them.

"Sin test," says a sherpa. "If too much sin, you get stuck." I am one of the larger woman trekkers. I cannot resist the challenge. I crawl in.

Then I stick. This excites the onlookers. Pilgrims and porters smile. Onlookers sit down and talk to each other while they watch, doubtless speculating about my personal life.

They offer advice in Tibetan, Hindi, and Nepali, none of which I understand. Some gesture me to advance, others to retreat. I exhale, grunt, and wriggle. Finally, I slither through. My audience is cheerfully disappointed.

Our group struggles into snow and ice as we ascend the Drolma La. We climb in the company of wizened elders, barefoot women, young and old priests, cripples, delicate girls, militant-looking youths, and our strong sherpas and porters.

The pass blazes with thousands of prayer flags in brilliant primary colors. Pilgrims tie flags to the big rocks. They daub yak butter on the huge boulder at the summit. They attach ceremonial scarves, money, beads, and safety pins. They scatter rice and coins.

Some of our group crest the pass, barely pause, and hurry down the other side in search of oxygen. But several of us enjoy the finest symptom of altitude sickness, which is euphoria, and we stay at the pass for hours. We walk around, leave photos, coins, and poems on the boulder. We sit down, share food, talk. We cannot stop smiling.

Eventually, too soon, we do leave. We must ransom our passports from the Chinese army barracks that holds them. We head steeply down, east past a frozen lake, then south.

In the last miles, we visit the Zutrul Puk Monastery and the cave built there by Milarepa, Tibet's patron poet-saint. In the Monastery, a tall wooden frame of 108 niches holds long Tibetan prayer books.

A mother arrives with her son of about seven. She pushes his forehead into each hole. He is learning by proximity, simply by being in the presence of the knowledge of Tibet.

And finally we realize that perhaps we are too.

The fine print

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