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Tibetan pilgrims and omens

... a fellow traveler, some unwelcoming herders, then some pilgrims save the day

After our first night in the tent on the kora trail (circumambulation around the sacred mountain) we woke up stoked to start walking and see the mountains. We'd seen the massive snow-capped mountains from different cars we'd been riding in but hadn't seen it up and close yet and that was our goal this day. We just didn't know what a cold, hard (but interesting) day it was going to be. After breakfast in the tent we hit the road and not long after ran into Vito from Taiwan. He would become our off and on trail mate, hitchhike mate, negotiator and companion for the next few days.

Vito, our fellow traveler and hitchhiker

Vito had been camping not far down the road from us and when we discovered he was walking the same route as us we ended up hanging out.. although our different paces meant we would leapfrog a few times. Before that happened though, we had a long walk in some crazy weather.. cold one minute, snowy the next, hot and sweaty a few minutes later...

The first time we played leap frog with Vito was when he walked way ahead of us with a plan to just meet up at the end of the day. But it wasn't long after that we got a ride with a super friendly Tibetan guy and his wife and baby. It was pretty fun riding past Vito and there was really no room in the packed car for him. Dilemma - pick him up and make him fit in the car or just pass him by and risk not seeing him to camp that night as promised.. when our driver saw him and we told him that we knew Vito he didn't hesitate to get him in the car.

Problem was he had to sit in front with the mom and infant because the back seat was full of us and a huge tractor tire.... We were pretty surprised when the man's wife in the front seat practically threw her cute little few-month-old baby to us to hold. Little guy didn't make a peep on the long and bumpy dirt road.

One of the problems with hitchhiking is that when you get a good, long ride you have to pass up some amazing things you might have seen otherwise. Such was the trade off this day, but it was still worth it because 1) the driver was super kind, 2) he drove us through a river we could not have crossed without a car, and 3) you usually end up in a cool place or situation or with cool new people that you might not otherwise have. In this case though, we did drove past mile after mile of a beautiful river valley full of nomad camps that we would have loved to visit... (not pictured).

At one stop where we approached a tent to ask for some hot water for tea, a throng of women carrying babies came out to greet us. One of the group without a baby was a young woman who spoke good English. She told us we were invited in for water and some food. The gaggle of young kids stared at us and hid behind mommies and the mommies held infants and talked about us in Tibetan. We all refrained from taking pictures because they seemed so shy and cautious (while still offering us the typical hospitality Tibetans usually show. They completely stuffed us with homemade traditional bread, yogurt and yak milk tea.

Yak mil tea with yogurt & bread

Amne Machin river valley panorama

and we ended up meeting an unsavoury local...

The swindler

After the driver dropped us off so he could ride up into the hills and tend to his yaks and sheep, we kept walking, higher and higher and colder and colder. Because of the long ride we'd gotten we had climbed a lot higher than we really wanted and I started to worry about altitude sickness kicking in again. And it was getting damn frigid and dark was setting in. We debated walking back down to a lower altitude or going on up where we saw some tents or homes that may or may not be welcoming or even occupied when we arrived. That's when we met our first slim shady. We had seen this guy moseying down from the slopes towards us on the road. He walked up along side us with a bit of a glower. Vito, being Taiwanese, started to chat with the guy to suss out if there were places to camp nearby. I thought the guy was shady as hell because despite our pleasantries he just refused to smile or make us feel welcome in his territory. A first among all the Tibetans and Nomads we'd encountered so far.

One rule of thumb in the area is you can camp pretty much anywhere you want. And 9 times out of 10 if some locals are nearby they'll welcome you and offer up some hospitality. This guy was all bad news from the start. Can't camp there. Can't camp here. That's too far. There's nothing up there. I didn't understand him but I knew he had no good news or intentions from his face and body language and I wanted to just get away from him. But Vito finally said hey, the guy is offering one of his extra tents tonight if we don't mind waiting until he goes to get his livestock. No mention of money and seems like there was some mention of not having to pay.

Since it was freezing cold and almost dark we decided to take him up on it even though we didn't really trust the guy. I figured maybe he thought he was duty bound to help us.. part of the Nomad code or a need for some karma in his karma bank. So we go to the entrance of his compound which had several tents but no people around, and waited, and waited, and waited.. until finally a couple of cars of his friends or family show up, also glowering at us with what looked pretty much like disgust. It was almost scary.. I was thinking Tibetan Deliverance. These guys didn't speak any Chinese so nothing was said but it was clear that we weren't welcome.

When our friendly host finally showed up, after demonstrating his aggressive prowess with a slingshot as he herded his yaks and sheep back to camp, it was dark and we were chilled to the bone... the coldest we'd been on the trip. He held a little pow-wow with his friends in Tibetan and then came to us with a whole new offer, delivered in Chinese to Vito. If we want to stay there we have to pay.. and we have to make an offer. This is after we'd wasted at least an hour of precious warmth and daylight.

A short NO was all the answer he got and off we went in search of a campsite and if lucky, a Nomad tent with some hot water for cooking and tea. One of the great ironies of this encounter was that of all the Tibetan's we met, this guy may have been one of the richest and least in need of money. He had a huge heard of yaks and sheep, several nice cars and a compound that was luxurious compared to most we saw.

The pilgrims

Just a few hundred meters away we saw a tent with smoke rising up out of it. We'd gone well past it earlier for some reason but now it was the only option for flat ground and maybe some hot water. As it turns out the tent was full of some ancient old women pilgrims who had spent the day doing the kora. Some young men greeted us, probably friends or relatives of the old women who had prepared the tent for them. These guys were serious looking but hospitable. They gave us hot water, showed us where to set up our tents, and later came around with hot yak milk tea for Vito and to check out all his hi-tech camping gear.

We we fortunate to see the old women already in their cots after a long day of trekking around the mountain, which entailed walking three steps and then crawling somewhat worm-like, alternating between prostrate and then on knees until it was time for three more upright steps. This is done no matter the conditions - gravel, rocks, rain, mud, snow... it looks grueling. See this link from another blog. (not mine)

Valerie and I were shut tight in our tent against the cold and busy cooking and hardly noticed them.

the pilgrims camp

the locals check out Vito's gear

(Apologies for lack of photos of the Tibetan pilgrims. The old women in the tent were already in bed although they did greet us when we went in for hot water. But photos were not appropriate. :) - Likewise for the unpleasant people we met earlier)

After a chilly night of crappy sleep we woke up to a gloriously warm sun to heat our bones and not a sign of the pretty sprawling camp we'd seen the night before. Holed up in our tent staying warm and cooking our daily oatmeal, we missed it when someone brought Vito more sustenance in the form of tsampa - the roasted flour mixed with yak butter, an acquired-taste Tibetan staple I was told I couldn't leave Tibet without trying yet somehow I did. But by the time we opened out tent, their couple of cars, tent and all supplies had vanished as they continued their pilgrimage and the young men probably drove ahead to set up the next camp further down the trail

Here are a few more pictures of that cold and at times disappointing but once-in-a-lifetime day...

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