Night envelops camp, carrying the first bite of winter. The old woman begins to chant and her leathery voice reverberates off the large boulder that is our shelter. She rocks forward on her sit bones and back again, arms clasped about her knees. The shadows dance across the valleys of her face as it sails in and out of the fire’s light. Fat flakes of snow fill the air around us, falling thick to the ground. My anxiety about the next day’s journey is dispelled in the aura of this pilgrim’s song. The three younger travelers join in the mantra and the vibrations saturating the air are intoxicating. My lids flutter as I finger my prayer beads and gaze into the fire. In the darkness above lies the high pass Duge La, the portal that will take us into Tibet and around the sacred mountain Kawagebo.
The four pilgrims hail from the small village of Yongdri, on a tributary of the Mekong River in Yunnan Province, China. It is the gateway for the circumambulation of one of Tibet’s four holiest peaks, a village I had left that morning with blessings and warnings of the journey ahead. Beyond the buildings tendrils of water snaked down cliff faces and the subalpine forest burned bright crimson, flush with fall.
Higher still sits a giant boulder amidst a braided stream. Reams of prayer flags join features of the landscape, marking this stone as exceptional ground. Fluttering green. Flickering blue. Orange waving and yellow wafting. The stone is charred from the fires of many pious passersby and broad Tibetan script is scrawled across the overhanging face in charcoal. All now draped in darkness.
Under its generous cover huddle five pilgrims. Elder mother, son, wife, cousin, and me, our gear cluttered around us. Their belongings bundled on pliable wooden frames, lashed down with twine. Thick bedding wrapped in a tarp; a sack of pulverized roasted grain called tsampa; balls of yak butter; a bag of loose black tea; several bowls and one large kettle. With these provisions they plan to trek for eight days, from pre-dawn to dusk, crossing two 4500 meter passes to earn the blessing of the mountain, Kawagebo.
The humming dissipates and I materialize in this world once again. Over creamy spicy yak butter tea I am invited to join the family, to navigate Duge-La as a team the following day. I warmly accepted and we retire for the night.
Dawn. A foot of snow and unease in camp. My morning haze turns to disappointment when I see little movement from the others. It’s over and we haven’t even started. I fidget in my sleeping bag while the snow falls harder. Suddenly there is chatter in the air as a festive party of ten more Tibetans approach camp. Greetings and laughter are exchanged. I am poked and prodded as my nylon and Gore-Tex is examined, ridiculed, and promptly dismissed. With a few shouts and shoves, we pack up and climb into the storm.