Then she leans on his neck and whispers low…
Whither thou goest I will go
And they turn as one as they head for the plain
No need for the whip no need for the rein.
—Leonard Cohen, Ballad of the Runaway Horse
Stand patient, Sakpa.
Wait for this prayer to begin.
With your rear leg cocked–
With your eyes steady and ears forward–
In the sun gleaming copper–
Mane braided with ribbons
Saddle heaped with soft rugs; bridle hung with bells.
Bridle hung with bells, gently sounding
Red ribbon in tail blowing
Hook, lasso, shackle, bell
Softly summon me back from the dead
Stand patient, Sakpa,
While I mount and settle.
Dream mountain, sky, mother–
Breathe fire, river, rock–
In the wind running fearless–
Bless the woman who rides you
Saddle heaped with soft rugs; bridle hung with bells.
Sitting in the garden at our hotel in Kathmandu, maps spread on the table, pots of masala chai, bottles of Everest beer. We’re on our way in the morning to Mustang–Tibetans and Nepalis say Moostang or Moostong–protected region of Nepal in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas.
Our Tibetan guide Chimi is feeding us a lot of information. Names of villages, rivers, the other guides we’ll be meeting–Sankhar, Pema Sherpa, Kamal–when we get to Jomsom. Chimmi speaks a rapid mix of Nepali, Tibetan and English and talks very, very fast.
I watch his mouth closely, not trusting my ears entirely. I feel slightly disembodied when he starts to talk about high elevation, about how well he and the other guides will take care of us if we get sick. “It’s not so bad really,” he says. “Most people not get sick at all very much. Maybe just a little. Maybe sometimes more. Sometimes no, not sick. Sometimes very sick but not so much.” People ask about taking medication to prevent it and Chimi doesn’t commit. “Maybe yes,” he says. “Maybe works for sometimes.”
Chimi does not like to fly. He tells us the flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara is less than an hour, that we basically go up and over the foothills of the high mountains. He has a bit of a wild look in his eyes as he tells us, seems to be talking more to himself than to us, “Is very good, very fast, not so high, you can all the time see the ground the whole way to Pokhara. Very good. Very good to fly, not drive. Driving in jeef (Chimi says jeef, not jeep) takes very much time. From Pokhara then next day fly to Jomsom, same thing, very fast, not so high. What do you say? Cone-vee-nee-ant.”
Next morning as we taxi down the runway at Kathmandu airport, I’m watching Chimi. He’s sitting in an aisle seat staring at the floor. When someone talks to him and he has to look up, he makes a very deliberate effort to not look out the window. I feel as though I’m buckled into a carnival ride, not rumbling along a pot-holed runway in Nepal, getting ready to take off for the Annapurnas. As it is, I’m headed for the Himalayas in a seat mended with duct tape, strapped in with a frayed seatbelt. My guide–the man who will lead me up trails that drop off to nowhere–suffers near phobic fear of flying.
The plane sputters and roars as it picks up speed, rocks from side to side as it leaves the ground and banks north over the crowded streets and hills of Kathmandu. It’s a small plane, jumpy and loud and toy-like. Chimi’s cinnamon brown skin pales. Outside my window, the propellers whir, beads of water flying, trailing rainbows as we pass through the early morning humid mist hanging over the hills of Kathmandu.
As we fly higher, Chimi watches the floor while other passengers yell to each other over the roar of the prop engines, pointing out the windows at the insanely high, snowy peaks in the distance as they poke in and out of the ominous clouds hanging over them.
The dip down to the runway in Pokhara is oddly smooth but steep. For a moment, I wonder if we’re simply falling from the sky. Chimi goes from pale to paler. From the air, the short runway looks like a short sidewalk that ends in a field. A few cows graze near a collapsed helicopter stripped of its usable parts. When the wheels of our plane meet the pavement, I feel the tires squish with the effort; we bounce a few times and stop and get out. That simple. I like this, I like it a lot. It’s fun.
I look back at the small green and white Yeti Airlines plane as we walk away, it appears as relieved as Chimi is to have made yet another successful run. It appears dignified and hard working, alive, determined. This same plane will make another three, four or even five trips today. I bow to the little plane. Emaho!
Our flight to Jomsom is scheduled for 6 am the next morning. We spend a sweaty night in a swamp-like motel, everything damp, moldy, some kind of big bugs bouncing off the screens in the night. I do not know what they are. I do not care. I’m sweating away under a sheet that smells like a cross between an ashtray and a swimming pool and yet every time I wake up I realize I’ve been dreaming wonderful dreams. The fan whirs, sucking fetid air from the alleyway into our room but I don’t mind, I like this adventure. I like it a lot.
We head to the airport in the dark, relieved to be bound for the high mountains, for dry, thin air, but it’s storming in the Annapurnas and the plane is grounded. We hang around outside for awhile until the sun comes out. When it burns through the haze it turns on us, relentless; we move indoors, eat hard boiled eggs and drink coke and masala chai.
Hours later, it’s still not possible to fly. Chimi says that unless we want to wait for the very iffy possibility of flying out the next day, we’ll need to rent some jeefs and drive to Jomsom. The advantage to this option is that we’ll make a slow climb into the oxygen deprived rarified air of upper Mustang. It’s a proven fact that acclimating slowly significantly reduces the risk of altitude sickness. The flip side is that we’ll be climbing for 10 to 12 hours on a rocky, muddy, sometimes washed out and re-routed dirt road hardly wider than a goat trail. The road is two-way despite the fact that one vehicle takes up the entire width. The road has been blasted and dug into the side of the mountains we have to climb and cross. The road follows the Kali Gandaki River; to go over the edge is to fall forever and ever into the Andha Galchi, the deepest gorge in the world.
We rent some jeeps. The dancer on the crew and I climb in the very back of one of them and make a nest in the heaped up bags and backpacks stuffed in with us. The road is relatively smooth at first with a gentle climb out of the valley. We laugh and kick back to enjoy the ride; we’ve got a sack of cookies–bisquits–and chocolate left over from Mongolia. The road gets steeper and steeper, patched up washouts evident, the mighty river ever more distant below us as we climb the walls of the spectacular winding canyon.
Before long, the road is an obstacle course of fallen rock, frequently crossed by streams that drop to the river below, the edge is often just inches from the tires. The tires are not entirely bald, but the ‘tread’ is more like a design on the rubber than an actuality. Sort of ‘virtual tread’. Is this some kind of joke? It’s starting to feel like one, I find myself laughing a lot. Smiling away. Somewhere along the way, the line “Are we dead yet?” comes up and the dancer and I, now bouncing all over the place along with the luggage, already laughing, laugh harder. Occasionally, generously, the road is smooth enough that we fall silent and lay peacefully on our backs and watch the sun filter through the trees. I can’t do a single blessed thing to control the situation and I feel fine. I feel great, in fact. Maybe I’ve finally lost my mind. Maybe losing it like this is not so bad.
It’s dark, it’s late. We’re still an hour south of Jomsom when our headlights go out. The taillights of the jeep ahead, with the rest of the crew in it, disappear around one bend and then another and now they’re gone altogether. We drive on for a few miles, up the shadowy gorge with nothing but the moon in the sky and a headlamp pointed out the window. Yes, this is true. We are driving in the Himalayas with a flashlight. Yes, we are crazy. But what else can we do? If we stop in the middle of the road without lights we’re sitting ducks. Then the engine starts to sputter and gag, threatening to stall on the steep incline. We’re up above 9000 feet and the air is thin and getting thinner. We haven’t eaten anything but cookies and chocolate for hours, yet still there’s a sense of something–I don’t know–good, I guess is all I can say–about our situation.
We pull over in a darkened village and everybody gets out of the jeep. A dog trots by. While we stand around in the cold with the hood up–maybe the engine will cool off?–a very old woman steps out of a dimly lit house into the street, prayer beads in hand, reciting mantras. Om mani padme hung, om mani padme hung, the old woman sings the Buddhadharma. She stands with us for awhile, mala slipping rapidly through her fingers, the gentle song of the mantra steams in the cold air lit from behind by the open door. Finally, she goes back in the house and closes the door. I go to the jeep and rummage around for an offering to thank her for her prayers. I peek in the window where the light is and see her; I tap at the window and she comes and opens it, silently accepts the rupees, closes the window and walks away. A few minutes later, the window opens and in the yellow light her arms reach out, her wet, gnarled hands hold apples, washed and gleaming. They are the best apples in the world, the apples of Mustang. We share them in the cold moonlight. Minutes later, the jeep starts up, no problem. The lights go on, no problem. Magic; already it surrounds us here. Yeshe Tsoygal in the guise of an old woman has come to the rescue. Who would rather believe the engine was simply overheated?
As we near Jomsom, the Annapurna range appears, lit by the full moon the mountains are magnificent shades of purple and blue. We are in the Himalayas. We are swallowed up inside them. The peaks tower 6, 7, 8000 meters above us. There’s a sound to this, a taste. The peaks are strangely alive, not in a metaphoric sense but for real. They are gods and goddesses, curious and welcoming, mysterious and in on it with us. The site of these mountains makes us laugh, cry, lean on all over each other as we crane our necks in awe and wonder and greeting. We want this land to like us.
We spend nearly 2 weeks in upper Mustang, each day filled with gifts, large and small, of great beauty. But one day, the magic is bigger even than I’d dreamed it could be. Something happens that can only be good karma. It’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life, but especially after an injury kept me from riding horseback in the way I once had. On this day in the village of Lo Manthang, a Tibetan horseman offers his personal mount for me to ride. Sakpa, born in Tibet and brought to Mustang as a four year old. This is not a tourist ride. This is not a tourist horse. Sakpa is a muscular, rugged working horse–he is transportation and livelihood for his owner and is trained in the old ways of Tibetan nomads and herdsmen. This horse does not walk under saddle; he covers ground.
Sakpa is noble and aloof. I meet him in the alleyway outside the guesthouse in the village of Lo-monthang where he’s standing fully geared up, loosely tied to a gatepost. He’s small and compact–a typical Tibetan horse–not a pony. He doesn’t snuggle or beg, His eyes are soft and kind but at the same time fierce and focused.
I become aware that his owner is watching me. Through Chimi, I’m able to explain to this man, Tsewang, that although I’ve ridden and made my living with horses for much of my life, I continue to experience random bouts of irrational fear when on horseback due to an accident I had long ago that still shows up in my head unexpectedly, out of the blue. I explain that I’m tired of being afraid.
I’ve done a lot of work with this fear, and feel nearly free of it. I’m surprised to find myself pouring my heart out to this quiet horseman, and humbled when he brings the man who handles and trains horses for him–Pasang–to meet me and offers to allow me to ride Sakpa, his personal horse.
Pasang helps me mount–I’m amazed at the comfort of the odd saddle and strange stirrups–I’ve always imagined that the beautiful Tibetan gear–wooden saddles piled with rugs, bridles made of thin strips of rawhide strung with bells and ribbons and fastened to hand-hammered metal bits–would feel funny and be difficult to use. Instead, as soon as I’m settled in, I feel indescribable joy–words just can’t really get at it–an intense warmth and goodness in my body that I’ve come to associate with recognition–past life? Magic? There it is again; magic, magical life…I’m beginning to think that it isn’t magic, it’s real. This is real life. Like waking from a dream into a pure land.
Pasang touches his heels to the flanks of his horse and moves off at a brisk trot. The Tibetans ride back in the saddle; their horses have a smooth elongated stride that allows their legs and feet to navigate rocky, precarious, uneven terrain without stumbling while their backs remain remarkably straight and supple. The result is that although we move at the speed of a near gallop, our horses don’t break out of a trot. In this way we travel the ancient, narrow, uneven alleyways and cobbled streets of Lo-manthang while children run alongside and disappear behind us, men and women hail us, smiling and laughing.
We reach the edge of the village, here the trail drops to the river. This is the famous wall city, centuries old, a fortress. On one side the walls of the village, the other a steep cutbank down to the water below. Ahead of me, I see Pasang speak to his horse with the rhythm of his body as they break into a gallop. I do the same with Sakpa, whispering a prayer as I do that I will ride like the wind, the way I once did, without fear or hesitation. Sakpa says yes, yes, and lifts off with a leap, pushing me back further into the saddle with his strength and certainty. I feel the surge in his muscles, his heart beats strong through the beautiful woolen rugs on his back. My eyes water with the speed of our passage and my heart breaks with joy as we round the corner beneath the high monastery wall and a group of young monks hails us from above.
When later on that week I’m trekking on foot above 4000 meters, the thought that I should fear the dizzying thousand foot drop to the canyon below the trail is for a moment seductive. Rather than give into fear or avoid looking I run my prayer beads through my fingers, om mani padme hung. I think of Sakpa, of apples in a gnarled hand, of mountains that give you a stiff neck if you try to see the summits from the back of a jeep. I lean over the edge, look down and laugh.