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By Joel Schone
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the ranges. Something lost behind the ranges, lost and waiting for you. Go."
- "Kim", by Rudyard Kipling
The Himalaya is multi-layered. In the geographical sense, a barrier on which dreamers and explorers would project their aspirations and ambitions, their light spilling over to illuminate succeeding valleys as they followed in the steps of early traders and pilgrims. Many of them, thinking that first pass was the key to fame and fortune, would turn back in despair seeing the complex sea of peaks, passes, and valleys before them.
Like a young man mistakenly thinking the beautiful woman he fell in love with was the appearance, the all, and shocked when he found there was layer upon layer of intelligence, dreams, and ambitions there and not just someone to project his ego upon. The early romancing was just the first pass. To truly love her and to share a life he would come to know her complexities, moods and seasons of the heart.
That first sight of the magnificent ranges across the horizon is just the start. True love comes with days beyond there, discovering the villages, peoples, and faiths that follow the seasons. Time to appreciate the rhythm of life in the villages of Ladakh and the smell of burning morning juniper in a Nepali hill village, and if, like I, you are blessed to take many people to these places, time to appreciate it through the eyes of others.
Multiple layers; the tourist Himalaya of photogenic passes and peoples the trekking groups pass through. At times an act, an idyllic Shangri la with the faithful Sherpa guide playing up to the role assigned to him of amiable workman, no sign in him of the same demons and loves that drive us all. In the pictures the sun always shines; and on the trail the Sherpa children learn the cute ‘I am pen’ will often get them one.
Peel away this alluring fašade like a schoolroom transfer and you find cultures and traditions timeless. That cheeky Sherpa child may be wearing a Chicago bulls cap and jeans, but his communal family room is laid out in the same way his ancestors before they fled from Tibet to sanctuary under the shadow of Kumbila, the sacred Sherpa mountain, hundreds of years ago. And if you call in for tea at his house and are feeling in a sprightly mood, don’t whistle. They believe it attracts evil spirits.
The trade and pilgrimage routes along which Buddhism and all its art forms spread criss-cross the ranges, and are still there, from Western Ladakhi salt traders to wool coming into the Nubri valley in Nepal’s Manaslu district.
Above all though, as you move across the ranges looking for something hidden, in Kiplings’ phrase, you will find a common bond between the ‘Tsampa eaters’ the Tibetan peoples whose religion, is, more then any other on earth, closely tied to its harsh environment among these high places.
As we move through the landscape our day becomes like a colour print slowly coming into clarity in a developing tray. As we look, if we truly see, the whole world, a whole lifetime and the history of a people, is revealed in the multiple colours and activities of a harvest day in Ladakh or the silver and turquoise in a Zanskari Perak, the classic wedding head dress of the region.
High above the trail from Lukla to Namche Bazaar in the Everest region, we sit at puja in the 500 year old Gompa of Gomi La. Leaving, we can see far below the throng of brightly clad trekkers heading up to base camp, for most, heading with fixed intent for their goal, unaware of this beautiful piece of history above them.
The ancient fort of Zangla sits, apparently derelict, above the kingdom it once governed. Trekking groups pass by. We tiptoe up across the ancient floors and there revealed Alexander Csoma de Koros study. The Hungarian scholar and globetrotter spent a winter here in the 1820s drinking salt tea and making an extensive study of Tibetan.
A 17-year-old American student starts the trek across the Changthang loud and obnoxious, extolling the virtues of NY delis and deriding the apparent poverty of this place. As the trek progresses, he falls more and more silent every day. Crossing a hill, I spy him sitting cross-legged on the high plain, marveling at the vastness of his planet.
Bus and jeep loads of tourists heading for the colourful carnival that is Leh in summer drive the last 200kms to the capital. They listen to their walkmans, pass joints around and rehearse their horror stories of the bus journey. A few kilometers off the road, unseen, as around us nomads tend their flocks and cut wool from their pashmina sheep, we take curd and salt tea in one of their yak hair tents.
A young American woman on her first trek in Ladakh doodles the greeting ‘Kamzang’ in her diary. Crossing a knoll to the beauty of Lake Tso Moriri, she shrieks with delight at the sight of nomad tents with herds grazing around them. Two years later she shepherds her own group across the plateau and is known to every trader in Leh.
As our horse caravan comes over the horizon behind our trekkers realize camp and dinner is near, there is a sense that a whole life has been lived, and a whole history unraveled, since our cook Tenpas’ laughter in the dawn chilled kitchen tent signals the day break.
Being among these places and traversing both ranges and cultures has taught me that there is nothing simple, nothing ordained in this life. You can cross any pass if you have the spirit, and the appearance of a person or place tells nothing of the spirit and complexity hidden within.
Above all, if you spend time in these places, you will find something hidden in yourself.
‘What is important cannot be seen’
The Little Prince