The harder thing in Tibet
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 over 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 bananna, three rubbery carrots, and a bag full of the Tibetan staple Tsampa. Opting for the latter, I mixed the powdery-barley in a camp pot with water, and was spooning it into a sticky gray concoction when I noticed something unusual.
Three sizeable 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 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.
Stray dogs gathered in numbers, as if they’d rained from the sky – the majority of which appeared to have landed in midreproduction. As a child approached to beg, I heard someone call from behind.
“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 enduring 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, a Tibetan 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 alit.
Then, without a word, he simply reached for my hand and held it.
As he did, my mind raced backwards. Back to a letter I’d received from a relative nearly a decade ago. In it was included a disturbing parable.
A short story of a Christian missionary, who, having recently converted a lifelong Buddhist, celebrated tearily while the convert burnt his Buddhist paintings, books and scriptures. Scriptures rooted in the essential characteristics of all other religions: Loving-kindness, pacifism, forgiveness, and compassion.
When the thought cleared, I looked back up at the man before me. As I did, I pondered the thinking of those driven to uproot the spiritual beliefs of another, only to replace them with their own.
A practice that seemed less about god, and more about ego.
As for landing myself in hell, I had no worries. I was already there. It was Highway G-219, the rock-strewn, pot-holed purgatory that stretched out 600 miles before me.
After saying my good-byes to Darchen, I moved on down the road.
Several nights later, as I’d reached the wind-blown canvas of a traditional Tibetan herder camp, I was readying myself for sleep when the matriarch of the camp arrived at my tent, and set down a large pitcher of frothy white goat yogurt.
Instantly gobbling the first dairy fat I’d come across in months, it finished on my tongue with the taste of lamb chops. A disturbing culinary experience at best.
A day later, I awoke in the hamlet of Payang, feeling as though I was about to give birth to a squirming herd of porcupines. Within moments, I was up and spraying vomit across the landscape like a Rainbird sprinkler. This alternated with split-second timed dashes to a nearby pit toilet – a classic “two exits, no waiting” sort of affair.
When I finally gained the strength to pedal out of Payang, I was struggling to push my bike up the slopes of Mayum La Pass, when I finally got my shower – a thunderstorm that dropped silvery liquid bullets sideways from the sky. Fearful and tired, I dropped down the other side seeking shelter from the storm.
Instead I found a boy.
He waved me out of the storm, and into his simple mud-brick home, where he showed me to a bed. There I fell asleep that night to the sound of his 16-year-old mother roasting and grinding Barley into Tsampa. Just before I slipped into unconsciousness, he approached my bed and began to beg, revealing two-thumbs protruding from his extended right hand.
A day later, 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 over 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.”