The sweet scent of smouldering juniper from the roof top altar drifted into my room through the gap at the bottom of the door. I felt nauseous. Was it the smoke or the altitude? A cup of hot, sweet Nepali coffee might help. I sat and shivered, waiting for my guide Raj.
A week before we had landed at a tiny airport in Jomsom, a rural outpost amidst the Himalayan peaks of north central Nepal. Our route for the day promised a combination of cultural enlightenment and physical challenge. Leaving Ghami village we passed a renowned tribute to Buddhist culture, a 308-metre-long mani wall, the longest in Upper Mustang. Endless sections of mud and prayer stones mirrored the hues of the surrounding cliffs.
A right turn at the end of the wall led to a long ascent topping out at the 3,870m-high Tsarang Pass. We scrambled down the other side. It took three hours to reach the next village Tsarang, a willow-treed oasis.
My intention was to investigate the Greatest Library in Lo. Housed in an abandoned palace the library contained ancient Buddhist scriptures, a treasure trove of sacred literature. Monks from the adjacent monastery, one of the oldest in Lo, now called Upper Mustang, were responsible for guarding these holy books. Raj wandered off to secure rooms at a guesthouse. I headed for the palace.
Above: Patti Shales Lefkos' new book, left, is filledwith thrilling accounts and spectacular photographs of the people she met.
Inside the door, a sternly worded message, hand scribbled on soggy cardboard lay in the dirt at the base of a rickety staircase, “No enter.” Ascent to the second floor of Tsarang Dzong, the heavily fortified five-storey Tibetan style palace, remained strictly forbidden. Suspecting a photo of the adjacent monastery, Tsarang Gompa, would be more dramatic from a higher vantage point, I examined the staircase. The Elmwood handrail, smoothed by generations of venerable palms, shone a golden patina.
Not a rule breaker, I hesitated. Was it safe to climb higher? I envisaged the headline in the newspaper back home. “Foreign traveller ignores rules: Imprisoned in remote monastery in Upper Mustang.” My desire to capture a photo of the monastery fueled my search for a high window. We had trekked for six days to reach Tsarang, the 14th-century capital of Upper Mustang. This might be my only chance.
I stepped onto the first hand-hewn rung of the steep ladder-like stairs. Slowed by the thin air, I inhaled a measured breath before each footfall. Halfway to the second floor platform I heard a guttural sound. I waited. A haunting voice resonated through the dancing dust motes.
At the top I tentatively slid one foot, then the other, onto the rough, loose boards that formed the landing of the second floor. The eerie sound beckoned me along a spidery cave-like corridor.
At the end of the hallway I peered into a dim room. I felt untethered from reality, as if this day, this moment had dissolved around me. The room was square, the size of a prison cell. A monk sat cross-legged, chanting. He looked as if he had been sitting there since 1378, the year the palace was built by Ame Pal, the first king of Upper Mustang.
Above: A monk in Tsarang village gets in a little pool action.
The holy man leaned his hunched frame against an iron cot, sparsely covered by a straw mattress. A roughspun woolen shawl of indeterminate colour tightly swaddled his shoulders. Thick earth-coloured woolen socks peeked out from under his robes. Tiny wisps of gray escaped his coral toque, highlighting his brown, wind-leathered face. I guessed him to be somewhere in his eighth decade.
Close to his elbow, juniper branches burned in a soot-blackened kerosene stove. The hazy sweetness of the traditional Buddhist offerings swirled above. A battered tin kettle rested beside a wooden tea bowl.
Worried my snooping was disrespectful, interrupting his meditation, I stood mesmerized, boots firmly rooted on the floor. My breathing involuntarily synchronized to his. Seemingly oblivious to my presence, he continued the deep, throaty sound, accompanied by hand gestures and finger snapping.
Finally he looked up. A benevolent grin hinted he had known I was there the entire time. Unfolding his ancient legs, he stood, shook out his robes, and stepped toward me. Palms pressed together, we exchanged Namastes. Guessing he was a long time resident, a relic of an era when indistinct borders across the roof of the world indicated no cultural barriers, I greeted him in Tibetan.
“Tashi Delek,” I said, the only two words I knew in his native dialect. I held up my camera, eyebrows raised, asking permission to take photos. He shook his head vigorously but indicated with a broad gesture the antiquities hanging haphazardly on the wall behind me.
The makeshift museum displayed artifacts hung by crackled leather thongs. Several angry looking beetroot-tinted masks, displaying jagged rows of yellow fangs, stared down at me. Below them, an arsenal of medieval-looking daggers, swords, mallets and ornately silver-trimmed wooden helmets signaled a time when the palace acted as a fortress. When I spied something looking like a petrified body part, I drew in a poorly stifled gasp. Hanging at eye level were several withered fingers, looking like charred breakfast sausages, tied to a palm-shaped lump of the same substance. Later I learned this was touted to be the wizened 500-year-old hand of the master architect of the palace.
Above: Tsarang monastery sits atop a rocky cliff like a crown.
Curiosity more than satisfied by the intriguing yet somewhat creepy museum, I turned to leave. The revered ancient stepped past me, then motioned for me to accompany him. I paused. Where was he taking me?
No one knew where I was. Oddly, I didn’t feel nervous. Surely a Buddhist monk was someone I could trust.
A solo traveller, I knew the only route to a genuine experience was to trust my heart, observe carefully and reserve judgment. Placing trust in others, no matter how different and distant their life from mine, was the key to discovering more about myself. Still, I struggled for balance on the tightrope between blind acceptance of strangers and naïve foolishness.
The muffled snap of the monk’s plastic sandals brought me back to reality. Puffs of dust rose as his tattered hemline scuffed the floor. I followed him back to the open stairwell.
The ladder trembled as we ascended to an equally derelict platform at the base of an intricately carved wooden door. From the folds of his monastic garment he produced a hefty-looking iron key, leaned his shoulder into the door and vanished into the shadowy interior.
What did he want to show me? Was this gloomy space the Greatest Library of Lo?
I stepped over the raised threshold. My vision adjusted as he lit several butter lamps. A fascinating array of statues, deity embossed thangkas, religious paintings, and contemplative Buddhas returned my gaze.
Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined one side of the room. Fragile foot-long tomes of sacred scriptures crammed into square cubicles.
Amazed and grateful, I knew I was standing in the legendary library. Each masterfully carved wooden cover and the stack of wafer-thin papers within appeared undisturbed, preserved for centuries by the cold, thin air.
As we left the ancient manuscripts I raised my camera again. My venerable friend pointed to a window along the hallway, the prime location for a shot of the monastery, then turned and shuffled off.
I watched him return to his reclusive existence, willing the moment to last, cementing his image in my memory.
Our encounter raised my hope for understanding between disparate cultures, people lacking common language but tied by the willingness to share the essence and purpose of their lives. •
JUST THE FACTS
NEPAL ONE DAY AT A TIME:
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