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October 2002

Dreams Of Tibet: Exploring Lost Himalayan Mountains And Cultures

Deep in the heart of the forbidden Tibetan kingdom, a long-awaited adventure inherited from the author's father takes an unexpected twist.

The Land Cruiser lurched to a halt. The dirt road lay under a 100-foot-long pile of rocks freshly peeled from the cliff above. We had reached the shores of Bassom Tso, a lake 200 miles east of Lhasa, but we were still a dozen miles short of our goal. We’d planned to drive to the end of the road, where we could hire yaks or horses to carry our mountaineering gear and food to basecamp. Now we’d have to wait for a road crew or start hiking. No matter, we’d gotten here fast-only 5 days from America. We had time to spare.

Unlike the barren hillsides Tibet is known for, the Kongpo region is heavily forested. Buildings resemble old Swiss chalets, yaks graze like long-horned cows, and from the large glacier-carved valleys, peaks sweep upward with dizzying steepness. Few Westerners have traveled here, congregating instead on the main Himalayan chain 600 miles to the west (near Everest) and the popular trekking routes along the border with Nepal. In fact, I never bothered to name the region to fellow climbers; few mountaineers even know the existence of the 400-mile-long Nyenchen Tanglha Range, the northernmost chain of the Himalaya.

My greatest goals have always revolved around strange places well off the beaten path. I dream of exotic journeys where I can feel like I’m making a mark-if not on history, then at least on myself. In North America I’ve ventured deep into remote wildernesses. But somehow here in inhabited Tibet I felt even more remote; an explorer rather than merely an adventurer, a traveler in time as well as distance. I felt like things were different from anything I’d experienced before.

At first blush, Bassom Tso wasn’t what I’d expected. It’s served by a gravel road that’s soon to be paved; the region around it shows signs of creeping development. But look deeper, and there’s another story. The lake itself draws Buddhist pilgrims from hundreds of miles to walk its kora, the clockwise circumambulation of holy sites that earns merit for the faithful and propitiates the deities. (In the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, the kora was practiced counterclockwise. For the last 1,300 years, it’s been done clockwise.) As soon as Mark and I left the road to pick up the pilgrim’s trail, centuries peeled away, and I felt connected to the Tibet I’d read about. Tall poles of multicolored prayer flags fluttered in the wind. Colored tufts of wool decorated the rhododendron-tunneled pathway. Mani stones-rocks engraved with the mantra Om mani padme hum, meaning “praise the jewel in the lotus”-piled waist high where the devout had stacked them. Many of these stones were so old they showed signs of weathering. We’d crossed into an ageless place.

As if to reward our observance, the morning’s rain-curtain rose, and we arched our eyes skyward 10,000 vertical feet to peaks dazzling in fresh-white brilliance. One in particular speared the blue with a sharp-edged ridgeline: Gayjin Namla Karpo. Three days later, as horses packed our gear from the village of Tsogo to basecamp at 12,500 feet, the packer told our guide Tenzin about Hor Gunka, the demon who formerly lived on this summit and terrorized the dominion. Along came King Gesar on his renowned horse, which left a footprint in a rock still visible today on the lake’s only island. Gesar, normally a man-god of violent action, in this case used his smooth tongue to persuade Hor Gunka to descend from the mountain and alter his ways from evil to good. Hor Gunka changed his name to Gayjin Namla Karpo (karpo meaning “snow mountain” in Tibetan), and his namesake peak still rules over the neighboring queen, sons, and ministers. From the trail, Gayjin’s summit looked so fine we worried that it might not be possible to actually stand on it. But we knew we’d have to try. Every dream we’d had of mountains was being fulfilled.

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