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The Path to Shangri-La: Eastern Tibet’s Unclimbed Peaks

Climb hiker-friendly 16,000-foot summits--and maybe nab a first ascent--on a shoestring budget, plus get an unchaperoned glimpse of Tibetan culture.

On the first day’s journey toward the monastery, we walked on a horse trail and spent the night in a three-story home. We’d been invited in by a husband and wife whose children were going to boarding school down valley. We offered a few dollars and in exchange they gave us a big dinner, warm lodging beside a wood stove on wool rugs, and a huge breakfast, plus directions to the monastery—all part of the luck and allure of unscripted travel. The next morning we ascended through elbowy rhododendron trees draped with moss. At a clearing bathed in sunshine, multi-colored prayer flags swayed in the wind. According to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, every time a flag flaps, it sends out a prayer. Joel solemnly tied on his bright Green Bay Packers neckerchief. “Can’t hurt, right?” he grinned.

Walking past mani walls made of stone slabs etched with Buddhist scriptures, and around small, whitewashed stupas with the images of Buddhist saints behind green glass, we reached the brightly painted monastery. Founded in 1285, it has drawn a steady stream of devout pilgrims ever since. On our visit, we met a group of elderly female travelers who had walked 100 miles with purses and packs to reach the gompa. The square temple is perched at 13,563 feet on a steep, wooded slope in the middle of the Daxue Shan, below the imposing west face of Minya Konka—Gongga Shan to the Chinese—first climbed by four Americans in 1932. Under a fluttering rainbow of flags, we silently navigated a perimeter pathway lined with red prayer wheels. Inside the temple, 20-foot high, gilded statues of Buddha and local saints crowded the cavernous room.

After an hour in the monastery, a monk directed us to wooden bunks in a stone building where we crashed out in our sleeping bags. In the evening, music coming from across the muddy courtyard awakened us. It wasn’t traditional Tibetan chanting or drumming. Investigating, we discovered two monks in a small, windowless room singing in falsetto to a Chinese pop song squeaking from a cell phone. They were holding the flashing phone above their shaved heads, laughing and dancing like teenage girls. Both were dressed in the de rigueur dingy, huge-sleeved maroon robes, but underneath the younger monk sported a fluorescent green soccer jersey emblazoned with “Brazil.” The other monk was performing a few practiced hip-hop moves, singing at the top of his lungs. Upon seeing us, he pulled us into his whirling orbit. “Good thing I brought my dancing shoes,” yelled Joel, bouncing up and down in his massive, worn-down, mud-brown mountain boots.

After another three songs, the phone died and the four of us huddled close to the wood stove. The monks passed us steaming bowls of yak butter tea. “I don’t know why people don’t like this stuff,” exclaimed Joel, licking his lips. “I love it.” Many Westerners can’t get used to the saltiness of butter tea, but not Joel. Skinny as a rail, he also loves the fat on meat more than the meat and the gristle more than the fat. But there was no meat in this spiritual outpost. Instead, the monks brought us packages of spicy Chinese ramen noodles and filled our titanium cups with stove-boiled creek water.

Through sign language and symbols, we learned that the younger monk was 17 and studying to be a lama, the older monk 28 and caretaker of the monastery. It was once common in Tibet for one child per family to join a monastery, but because of smaller families under Chinese rule, this tradition has all but disappeared. Late that night, I stepped outside to pee. There wasn’t a breath of wind. The air felt like chilled, autumn-scented liquid. Moonlight illuminated the ice-coated flanks of Minya Konka with such brilliance that the mountain appeared to be a massive blue gemstone looming over the tiny, gold-roofed temple. I was enveloped, for a moment, by something indefinably sublime.

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