Since I returned from Tsum, I've been writing. I haven't written like this since I wrote my book Back Over the Mountains. I'd like to share this excerpt from our time near the Tibet border. A man died while we were there, and it made clear the need for our health centre. We felt vulnerable in such an isolated region, but also felt the deep roots of being in an indigenous community. Here is our story:
Death and Life in Happy Valley
The trail is a pencil line drawn in by boots across shifting stone. Above, a gravely rockslide with origins at the mountaintop. Below, more grey slide, ended by a sheer cliff drop into a vast gorge below. At the valley bottom is a cold bright river flowing from Himalayan glaciers towards Tsum valley. Happy valley.
We gingerly step along the path hoping no Himalayan Tahr — goat/gorilla/sheep like animals — decide to start kicking down stones from above. Finally we make it across. Lopsang and Tashi, our guides in this sacred space, toss rocks on a tall pile from which prayer banners protrude.
“We add a rock after we cross to thank mother earth for our safe passage, and we ask her to protect future travellers,” explains Tashi. He feels an obvious reverence for her power. And this is how it is in Tsum. There’s such a critical, necessary need to respect nature here. Without nature’s cooperation there will be no millet, buckwheat or potatoes to survive off of. Nature can throw down hailstorms and decimate crops. She can flood the Budhi Gandaki River. And in 2015, she shook the earth, killing almost 9 thousand.
If farmers in Tsum ravage mother earth and take more than is needed, they won’t have good crops in the future. If nuns and monks kill insects while gardening, they accrue bad karma. To us trekkers, this intimate relationship is what we miss back home. It’s why we hike 6-8 hours a day for 15 days to and in a place where comfort is seriously limited. Where there’s no cell service, no Internet, no road, no vehicles. This connection between humans and the environment makes us ache when it’s lost. And in Tsum, we begin to remember once again.
It all started when Lopsang and I decided to bring a group of seven trekkers to Tsum to share this fading reality of the happy valley. I was nervous. It would be my first time back since writing my book. Would people feel the way I did about Tsum? Would they connect to the ancient temples in the cliffs? Would they accept the textures and tastes of an essentially medieval world? Or would they simply check this off their bucket list and return to the comforts of home with victory tales of conquering a trek harder than Everest base camp?
We had to reroute because of earthquake damage. To get to Tsum takes a 10 hour bus ride, then 6-7 days of hard hiking. There is no road. Only one footfall at a time through jungle, then forest filled with orange wild raspberries and Rhododendron trees, then subalpine stone, juniper and larch. On one diversion we crossed a stream. The previous days’ walk had kneaded out the constant chatter and stress of regular life and I was beginning to connect to what I was seeing in a deeper way. Past the stream the group hikes ahead on a tiny jungle track. Alone, at the rear, I look out to a stream side farm and my eyes catch a woman sitting on the roof of a small building. The sun is golden-clear, her wheat field shimmers and waves. She’s wearing a traditional headscarf, pink, and gazes across the grains to the Himalayan peaks which protect this valley. She looks peaceful. Her brow is soft. She’s empty of want and grasping and it reduces me to tears. This woman is not using her environment. She is part of it.
I need not have feared the trekkers’ motivations. They wanted to come to the happy valley of Tsum for the same reasons as me. And they let the valley move them, too.
“The people here are so honest,” they said.
“It’s so hard to live here, so dirty and difficult, but people seem happy.”
“I’ve only known about Buddhism from an academic philosophy perspective. Here, they're living and breathing it.”
A few of us hike up to the borderlands near Tibet to a camp called Ba Jo. Lopsang tells us it’s caterpillar picking time. The famous Yartse Gumbu fungus is being collected by every capable man, woman, and child. It’s used in traditional Chinese medicine. Collectors hike above 4,000m, fall to their hands and knees, and comb the mountains in search of grass-like protrusions that emerge from the dirt. Beneath are the bodies of caterpillar larva. They painstakingly dig them out, careful not to break off the top fungus piece. Then, it’s worth good money; $3 USD per piece at the time, though prices fluctuate like the stock market. We come to the camp and see a hundred of tents in what’s usually no-man’s land. Stacked stone structures with blue tarps across for roofs, usually used for yak caravans between Nepal and Tibet; green military style tents; gum-boot yellow pup tents. That’s where we sleep. Lopsang knows family here (he knows everyone as community is so strong in Tsum). We head to a traditional stone yak tent. Inside was a surprising array of comforts: A full metal stove with pipe, rice bags, solar charger, and all manner of cooking utensils perched on natural stone ledges.
We drink tea with Lopsang’s uncle Sonam who makes hilarious uncle jokes, commenting that Tashi, our guide, has a beautiful young wife in camp and he better not keep up the neighbors. Beside him sits a silent man. We soon learn he’d cracked some ribs months before and so we offer him a couple Advil for the pain. I sit by the men stirring sauce on the stove for our dinner. Once again, we feel welcome by the people of Tsum, free to feel at home. For a night, this is our family and it’s not a manufactured feeling, a need to belong. It’s just how it is in Tsum where people rely on one another. Later, we fall asleep to the sounds of barking dogs, whinnying horses, and the ting ting of brass bells around the necks of many yaks. The relationship of Tsumpas with their animals is strong. Their lives depend up on it.
Uncle Sonam and Lopsang in front of the yak tent
The next morning we awake to some commotion. People are gathering around the neighbouring tent. We see a man being tenderly pulled from the tent in a blanket to lay in the sunlight. He is obviously unwell. I look to Lisa, Dale, and Craig, the three trekkers who wished to see this yartse gumbu picking, and I instinctively, gently say, “I think he is dying.” There is a strange feeling in the air. In the earth. And not two minutes later we hear a low wail emerge, and crying, a deep fissure in someone’s reality. The man has passed away. He is face up to the sky. Lopsang is with them and the rest of us foreigners stay rooted to where we are and try not to intrude with our injee (foreign) concern.
Everyone whips into mindful action preparing the body and erecting a tent of offerings filled with beer and food. A young man comes to us.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice very soft and open like a clear-running faucet. “A man has died.” He feels sorry we had to witness the death. For the Western world, death is separate, isn’t it? Scary. An unthinkable tragedy. But here in Tsum, it is reality. It’s a transition like birth, but with the pain of having loved someone and then having to let go.
Somehow I feel lucky to have seen the peaceful passing. I’ve never seen anyone die before. And we realize, it is the man with the broken ribs whom we’d drunk tea with less than 12 hours earlier.
Lisa sees the man’s sister as she comes up to her stone tent where we sit in silence. Lisa reaches out her arms and embraces the weeping woman. And here, in this moment, there’s no such thing as foreigner or local. Everything becomes one and is drenched in compassion.
The woman runs into the tent and returns with red apples, offering them to us. This woman, who’s literally just seen her brother die, is offering something to us. We sit there, stunned by her kindness.
Within 10 minutes a massive vulture crosses the sky. The crows and ravens sense the death and come to investigate. Nature knows. It is connected to the atom. A lama (Buddhist teacher) will climb to this high camp to take care of the departing soul. And then he will either be burned, buried or even given a sky burial (where the body is offered to the birds) and he will be physically returned to this place to give it new energy.
Me cooking, Uncle Sonam, and behind, just visible, the man who passed away. Photo by Craig Mangan