The harder thing in Tibet | NevadaAppeal.com

The harder thing in Tibet

Rick Gunn
Special to the Appeal
Bone-thin, Gunn celebrates life.
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I was living like a rat.

Teased back home for taking up to two showers a day, I awoke outside of Drongpa having not properly bathed in more than a month. Camped in a ditch off the side of the road, I rummaged through my tent with matted hair – everything that surrounded me either dirty, dusty or broken.

I swished through a clump of plastic bags eyeing my options for breakfast: a squished-brown banana, three rubbery carrots and a bag full of the Tibetan staple, Tsampa. Opting for the latter, I mixed the powdered-barley into a camp pot with water, and was spooning it into a sticky gray concoction when I noticed something unusual.

Three sizable chunks of luminous green mold.

Although I was supposed to be gaining weight, I cursed the intestinal wallpaper paste and chucked the bowl out the front of my tent.

My stomach shook.

I opened my first-aid kit, grabbed my water bottle, and tossed back the same breakfast I’d consumed for the last two days: A 500-milligram tablet of Flagyl – the potent self poison meant to snuff out Giardiasis lamblia, the single-celled organism that had laid me flat, scrambled my insides, and cost me the better part of 25 pounds.

But this third morning, I awoke to something different.

It was determination. And with that, I climbed back on my bike, pedaled 72 miles over the rockiest of terrains, and landed myself near the Nepalese border – a 12-hour effort that would ultimately have me urinating blood. The price I’d have to pay, it seemed, to escape from Tibet.

It all began a month earlier, beneath the sacred shadow of Mount Kailash.

Pedaling into the nearby village of Darchen, I found it hard to believe I’d reached one of Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest spots. It looked more like a post-apocalyptic playground.

Ringed by the ever-present threat of the Red Army, and monopolized by a flood of government-sponsored shop owners, Darchen’s Tibetans roamed the streets like animals within a cage – all of them seemingly oblivious to the feces, garbage and car parts that surrounded them.

“Rick Gunn!” a voice shouted, and I turned to discover the smile of my former riding partner Christoph Fladung. He’d arrived several days earlier.

Reunited after being separated for a month, we spent the night feasting, celebrating, and catching up.

The next morning, I awoke early, eager to create images of the Tibetans who’d come on pilgrimage. Most of them endured untold hardships on their way to complete the Korma – a simple loop around Mount Kailash that was believed to erase a lifetime of sins.

As I was sitting on a rock wondering how I’d approach a Tibetan, one approached me. Wrapped in traditional maroon and saffron, he stood spinning a prayer wheel. The Buddhist monk smiled, and took the rock next to mine.

“Desh-dee-delay (Hello),” I said in Tibetan.

“Hello,” he said in English.

After he’d given me the nod, I raised my camera to make an image.

When I did, the monk became fixed on a bracelet that hung from my wrist. On it were the words in Sanskrit that read, “Om Mani Padme Hung (Behold the jewel within the lotus flower)” – the Buddhist mantra celebrating, among other things, the miracle of consciousness, the attention to thought and action, and the balance between the head and the heart.

Returning his gaze, I quickly motioned from my head to my chest. When I did his eyes lit.

Then, without a word, he simply reached for my hand and held it.

After I had completed my 72-mile hell ride into the town of Saga, I came upon the first Internet shop I’d seen in a month. Scanning quickly through 94 e-mails, my eyes landed immediately upon a title that made my heart sink. It read, “My sympathies for the loss of Tucson.”

It was my beloved Labrador.

Seconds later, I read the account of a close friend who’d spent the last few moments in a veterinary hospital holding my precious dog’s head in his hands.

Holding it until the last of my Lab’s life was gone from his body.

I hung my head and began to cry.

As I made my way back to the dingy solitude of my tumble-down hotel room, a growing void crept from within. All of it spurning memories. My mind flashed back to the image of a small puppy moving clumsily about the snow. Then a grown dog standing on his hind legs as we “danced” in the front room.

Nine precious years of memories passed through my head that night, all of them of a creature telling me how much he loved me without saying a word.

Then I remembered our last night together.

It was on the shore of his beloved Snow Lake, beneath a blaze of stars. As the evening came to an end, I pulled my boy close and looked him dead in the eye.

“I will be back,” I said to him emphatically. “You hear me? I will be back, and when I am, I promise you I will be there for you until the end.”

When my attention finally returned to the confines of that tumble-down hotel room – it came to me that I had broken that promise. And with that, I aged a hundred years.

Rolling tears broke into open sobs, until the darkness within merged with that of the night.

A week later I finished my ride across Tibet, and approached the border of Nepal. The sum of my thoughts distilled into a longing for change. I wanted to change everything surrounding my recent reality: the ride, the garbage, the road and the pain.

I longed to change the Chinese government, to return to the Tibetans their sovereignty, and with it their dignity. I longed to change those who would oppress, or uproot the heartfelt spiritual beliefs of another.

Most of all I longed to change back the hands of time – to return to those last few moments with my beloved Tucson, and make good on my promise.

I carried those longings to the crest of the Himalaya, where they were replaced by the comfort of a long-held belief. A belief that in order to change the world, I had to start by changing myself – to first purify my own heart, my own thoughts, my own actions.

And as those thoughts settled in my mind, I descended 13,000 feet down the Friendship Highway, across the border of Nepal. And as I did, I recalled the words of the Buddha, who was born here more than 2,500 years ago:

“Love yourself, and be awake, today, tomorrow, always. … Before you can straighten the crooked, you must first do the harder thing; that is to straighten yourself.”

• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.

To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHEN: Sept. 5-30, 2006

MILEAGE LOG: 11,315-12,002

ELEVATION: 14,030-16,906 feet

WHERE: Darchen (Mt. Kailash), Horcha, Mayum La, Satsang, Nikchak, Payang, Drongpa, Lhaktsang, Saga, Drolung Tso, Palhku Tso, Mento, Thong La, Nyamalu, Zhangmu, Kathmandu (Nepal)

To read more and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.