... monks answer a prayer, a school provides a bed
On day seven of our trek, it was strange waking up to an empty space where the night before had been cars and tents and fires and people. The pilgrims who had graciously invited us to camp beside them and given us hot water and food and helped us set up and talk modern camping gear had vanished early to continue their pilgrimage. All that was left was Vito breaking down his tent. After drying some gear in the surprisingly warm morning sun (I had not put a water bottle cap on tightly and half my gear was soaking wet) we packed up and hit the road to continue our clockwise route around the Amne Machin.
The morning hike to the pass...
It didn't take us long to get to Tamchok Gongkha La, one of the highest passes (4,800m) on the whole trek and a place of stunning beauty and extreme holiness for Tibetans. Atop the pass was not only our first full view of the holy mountain but also a massive stone shrine covered in the traditional Tibetan prayer flags, thousand of them whipping and snapping violently in the frigid wind. On one side, between the shrine and the sacred mountain were hundreds and hundreds of horse skulls left in offering (we thought they must be yak skulls until we learned better after arriving home).
Tamchok Gongkha La sacred pass
and over the pass...
Vito snapped a few shots and decided to take an offer for a ride from some the first monks to stop at the shrine on their way around the mountain. But despite the crazy cold wind and cold at the highest elevation we'd reached on the trip, and which we were not all that prepared for, Val and I decided we had to stay and get more photos.
There was only a slight breeze to carry our wind horses...
Val had brought some wind horses she'd bought earlier for just this moment. Tibetans throw the colorful little papers into the wind with a prayer as an offering to the mountain gods. We made a few prayers, and photographed the ritual but in one instance, we both prayed aloud for a ride .. her for a ride in 5 minutes, me for a ride in 25 minutes. We then went back to taking pictures in the frigid wind and wondering if we would ever get a ride off the mountain, especially considering that we'd not gotten nearly as far as we'd planned that day. And then right on cue, and answered prayers, a car full of jolly monks on a pilgrimage from Lhasa pulled up 20 minutes later.
One of the monks was howling and hollering with joy just at being in the presence of the sacred spot. After a few minutes of the monks taking selfies we all hopped in their car and continued down the from the pass. As we road with them they stopped at several places to marvel at the mountains and at one point one ran up to a river of snowmelt rushing down the mountain and collected a bottle of the holy water. I'm pretty sure I saw him crying as he walked back to the car.
Once again, the generosity of our ride took us kilometers further than we had really wanted to go and past amazing scenes that we'd have loved to take in more slowly, by foot. But we also appreciated the warmth of the car and the kindness of the monks, so we rode onward and downward, until we eventually once again saw Vito and the monks beckoned him into our already jam packed car...
...and off we went until we reached the little town of Tawo Zholma (Xiadawu in Chinese) , a small trading post for nomads and pilgrims and home to Anyimachen Tibetan Culture Center, a Tibetan culture vocational school. The school is kind of half high school, half junior college with students as young as early teens and all the way into their 20s and was set up by a monk to give orphans from all over western China a shot at an education. We were amazed to learn later how far a lot of the students had traveled from all over western China to study Tibetan culture and learn vocations at the school.
But we didn't know any of this yet because we were eager to keep moving out of town and to the next nomad camp where we could pitch our tent and hope to absorb more of the nomad culture. We said our goodbyes and bought some supplies at the school "monastic supply shop" as it was called, chatted with some students who were eager to practice their English with us, and then started walking, clockwise (any other way would be taboo) around the mountain.
Our walk didn't last long though. With dark approaching, no idea of what was ahead and it being damn cold, after walking about 20 minutes we decided to go back to the school where some kids had told us earlier that rooms were available for travelers. After we found some more students and asked around we suddenly found ourselves in a warm and cozy dorm room (free of charge), mainly because of the amazing hospitality of monk and teacher at the school, Puraja. Puraja (his monk nickname) offered us a night in an empty student dorm room. And after putting us in the cozy room full of soft beds and thick blankets, we cooked our meals on our gas stoves in the window and quickly went to sleep.
The next morning we were in for some amazing hospitality from the students and teachers (monks) at the school when we were invited to attend the Teachers Day festivities where students performed dances, funny skits and other entertainment for the teachers in the main assembly hall.