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  • Jeff Fuchs

A Beast, A Saint and Perpetual Movement

Drolma's energy and abilities to create from nothing a sumptuous meal, made her one of our saints

It is about movement. This circle of faith is about a punishing regime of movement, with integrity, a light heart and commitment thrown in to the mix. The most stunning benefit on top of all of it for Michael and I is the outdoor element…every hour of every day is set in swaths of natural splendor, smoke and wind. The senses are engaged every second of the day, and this in turn seems to activate the mind and heart into working and reacting as they should.

Days into the kora, exhaustion hits even the strongest. Twelve hour days, taking in dozens of kilometres, and ascents of two thousand metres take no less than everything

Kandro sets a slow but steady pace with Michael and I popping into canyons, up riverbeds and along off-shooting paths. Kandro is a beast and his humour and constant chatting on the route have the dual functions of making people nuts while simultaneously keeping everyone light. A cigarette hangs out of his mouth most hours of most days. We also have a large plastic bottle with homemade arra (barley whiskey) which fires the mouth and digestive track into quick order within a minute of sipping the clear fluid. Kandro would welcomely put back a half bottle a day, but for his wife Drolma’s iron fist and deadly eyes. He has the swagger (and foot stench) of a mountain man and for all of his mirth and wandering appetites, I know his protective tendencies well.

Nomadic pilgrims ready themselves after a butter tea break (Tibetan: tsa'po) for a long ascent.

At one sitting a fellow pilgrim – traveling with his family – eyes up our lunch and starts a begging routine which involves a vulpine smile and soft sweet words. Kandro’s soft features harden ever so slightly. Relinquishing some rice we watch as our fellow gorges down the rice without offering any of his family or children even so much as a grain. Kandro’s eyes remain fixed on the man like black flints, his huge callused hands wringing each other. At last the man relents and offers a bit of his rice to a young girl. Whether from Kandro’s intensity or not, no one around can fail to notice our Kandro’s cold fire. His wife Drolma offers up a wink to me in what seems a moment of pride in her man. In all of the years I’ve known him, this is only the second time I’ve seen him without his signature mustache and pinch.

Kandro in days past with his signature mustache wearing the traditional fur skin on his rugged head

Nomadic pilgrims pass us, only for us to repass them, but this idea of unity comes back again and again as we raise hands and get smiles and “yips” and “kale’s” (“go well/go safe”) in return.

Our mountain starts to dominate our horizons

Mountains and their unambiguous glory now start to enshroud us in the valleys. The broad white back of Kawa Karpo itself now takes up an entire horizon to the north of us and as always, there is in me that pull to be amid them and their pulsating strength and unpredictability. Not for the first time on the journey Kandro tells us that we are very lucky…that to see the peaks unobscured is a sign that we are worthy. Michael chuckles at this proclamation as we both have our requisite western views…and sins tucked away, though they seem further away by the day.

During one of our breaks, Michael sorts out footwear and kit issues. Reke rests in the foreground

Tseba, our quiet man with the baby face and wide shoulders comes into his own as our journey lengthens. He takes fewer breaks, but paces himself in a rhythm that big predators do. His wide brown eyes and chocolate innocence bely an enormous strength and every time I look at him I feel as though this Tseba is part child and part sage…a guardian of our kora of sorts. His deep voice speaks only when there is something to say and he studies trees, rocks, streams and the sky as though for the first time. I am aware in myself that somehow in someway, this big man is an essential part of our journey and without him we somehow lose something akin to a gentle protector.

A young woman, leading a group of pilgrims from Zhogong in eastern Tibet readies herself to leave. Her group typically woke at 4 am to begin what would often be fifteen hour days of walking

On our shortest day thus far, covering only twenty kilometres, both Michael and I are restless so while the team rests and sips tea we head out to wander the trail further up.

Offerings of food - particularly tsampa (ground barley) - near La Atse La

Our camp is but another plastic roofed space that has been dug into the earth with no walls – ramshackle but waterproof. My own great worry, beyond mountains, dipping temperatures or even pounding blizzards, is fleas. Ferocious brutes, I have many-a-time on many a journey through these parts awoken to find my waistline and legs almost raw with welts, from their obsessive hunger. Once they inundate a sleeping bag, or clothing, they are with you for the interim. Kandro and his fetid feet, I suspect, suffer no such attacks (years  ago I became aware that Kandro suffered from few, if any, local maladies…as long as his requisite smokes and sips were had). Fleas, though seem to have come and gone in the warmer months when mules and horses carry supplies and people along the route.

One of our vital staples - chilies - which found themselves into most meals and burrowed their way into our hearts

Kandro, for all of his rakish devil-may-care tendencies, is a planner and he has told us that to carry on into today and tonight we will risk camps without water and our next day will be a solid four hours of steep ascent taking in almost 1500 metres. I itch to continue along with the pilgrims, many of whom exhaust themselves as they have no local guides and obviously limited information on the route itself. At a stream bed a group of young and old nomadic women pilgrims come along. They are sweat stained and covered in burrs, dust and the sun’s influence. They prostrate themselves before the sweet stream water to dunk their heads in and slurp in the water. One elderly woman scowls and then screams out a laugh that shakes the very fibres in my body. They are from near Chamdo in eastern TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region). Drenched in their own sweat and smelling heavily of the pilgrim waft – a smokey butter tang – they have been told that they will reach the next town of Abing in three hours. From what we’ve been told the town is at least five or six hours away.

Pilgrims look back before continuing on in their relentless passage

They rest not, but in a second of camaraderie and silliness all break out into high pitched laughs, before shrugging their packs tight and continuing. Just as they leave, all turn with their sun tainted effort-laden faces to look back at us and in that moment I feel the awe of the witness.

Something hits the palate with vigor

Arriving back to camp (which I would later refer to as Camp Smoke due to night of tearing eyes and an wheezing breaths) I interrogate Kandro about what we have heard – that the next town is only 3 hours away. The journey we are taking is a slightly different experience from my last through here, which was a rain soaked, vista-less race of a week.

Kandro’s mouth sneers sputtering smoke out the side, that whoever has said this is either a liar or knows nothing. I love these rushes of his blood. Old friends though we may be, we eye each other up for a moment and then smile. More need for smiles at this point than suspicion, but regardless, a sip of tea and then are is certainly order.

A young nomadic pilgrim combs out her hair by a stream, and inadvertently draws a crowd of male pilgrims to gawk


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