We had agreed to meet John and Trevor at their place at 8:30, but we got up at 6:30 so I could write before we left, although in the end, I didn't and up writing. We packed and went into the dining room for breakfast: muesli with apples and hot milk, and hot chocolate. While we were sitting there, we met Manisha, a freelance reporter with NPR. She is of Nepalese descent and is basing herself in Kathmandu for the time being to work on five different stories, one about Everest package tours. She is in a really unique position because she can talk to the people on the tours about their experiences and then turn around and get the guides and porters' perspectives. For instance, she had spoken to the Aussies (the yak eaters) last night and they told her all about their trip to Gokyo and how wonderful it was, the great photos they'd gotten, etc., etc. Then Manisha talked to the porters and found out that only one person in the group, a woman, had made it all the way to Gokyo. All the rest had had to turn back. Yak eaters and liars! One man had even told this story about having gone to a mountain sickness clinic, he'd had a test to measure the oxygen clinic in his blood. He'd failed miserably the first time, but after some rest and treatment had said he'd gotten a 98 out of 100, which Manisha found out from the doctor at the clinic is a number unheard of. It's just never that high.
She also told us stories about groups that were on such a tight schedule, that if they had bad weather and couldn't trek, the group would have to make up the time and distance the next day. Ugh. One group had carried a three-legged pink toilet seat up on a yak so that no one would have to squat over the latrine hole. Other people talked about how expensive their clothing was, and how uncomfortable. It was hysterical. Manisha even pumped us for information. She asked us how much we'd saved for the trip, how long it had taken and about our Gore-Tex jackets and our boots. She seemed impressed that we were carrying so little gear. Her trick is to just seem as if she's really interested in what you're doing but doesn't know a thing about it. She's very personable. She told us to definitely go to Mike's Breakfast once we got back to Kathmandu and suggested we might go there for dinner. We'd had such a good time talking to Manisha that we were late meeting John and Trev. We'd planned to all walk to Thamo together, they to spend the day acclimatizing (they were planning to hike to Thame, the village just past Thamo) and we were going to see if we could find the monastery that George's guru had built, and whether we could stay there. We were supposed to have been at their place at 8:30, and they'd probably already left without us. We raced down the hill in fleece and gloves, it was slippery as all the water and mud had frozen overnight. But it was so bright and clear. On the way, we met some yaks on the path, Paul said, "We didn't eat yak last night." We walked upstairs to John and Trevor's room. There was no padlock on it. We knocked. Mumbles. We knocked again. Someone opened the door and jumped back into bed. They were still in bed! Trevor was down with his cold and John claimed he was fine, but must have been tired. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I was proud that we felt fine. I was always one of the last ones picked for dodgeball. These were outdoor enthusiasts. I couldn't resist picking on them, and I loved it that we had woken up John for once. We were all full of stories that Manisha had told us and the guys were politely attentive, but I think they really just wanted us to go so they could sleep.
The trail toward Thamo was really easy compared to what we had done the day before. There were very slight ups and downs but most of the time, we stayed at about the same elevation, passing through tiny villages whose roads were thronged with manis and strewn with temples and monasteries. It seems to be a very devout place. We had heard that all the electricity in the area was generated by hydro power (a joint venture with an Austrian NGO, and 85% owned by residents) and we saw the plant in Thamo. We also passed an elementary school and found out later that kids start there at age three.
We stopped in the first tea shop in Thamo, ostensibly to have a drink but really to see if we could find out where the monastery was. It wasn't on our map, and all we knew was that it was near here. We made a good choice. The shop is owned by Chhewang Nima Sherpa and his wife is the sister of Lama Zopa, the monk who built Lawudo monastery, the one we were seeking. Chhewang was no slouch in his own right: he'd done the entire Everest Trek with a British Expedition (1994-5 Henry Todd). I think he did the trek as a porter, which in my opinion scores him more points than Henry Todd, who probably didn't carry a thing. Of course, Henry has also probably lived at sea level his whole life, so we'll give him a break.
After Chhewang and his wife found out that we were "pilgrims," they wouldn't take any money for the tea. I felt like a total fraud. Chhewang drew a map on his hand for us so we'd know how to get to Lawudo. We thanked him and started out. On the way, we met a middle-aged woman from California. She and her husband had been trekking for the past two months. She said that if we met her husband higher up (he was taking photos) we were not to mention where we were going, because he really wanted to go there, but she was too tired. Quite alarmingly, she had unexplained bumps on her arms, as big as eggs, making her look as if she had a part in an Alien film. I thought she should tell her husband that he could do whatever he liked but that she was getting the first flight to Australia for treatment. She cracked us up with her complaint about the locals. She was upset with them for "lying" about how long it took to get from point A to B. What was she thinking asking a local? They were born in this rarified air and compared to the rest of us, cover huge distances in an incredibly short amount of time. Dawa had figured this out. When we asked him how far the next village was, he'd say, "I could walk it in three hours, but we should be there in about five."
We got lost almost immediately after we said goodbye to the tired woman. We ended up climbing a very steep hill and then ran into a nun who got us pointed in the right direction again, despite laughing at our blunder the whole time and speaking only Tibetan. But we got lost again. We couldn't tell the monk's paths from the yaks'. There were a lot of yaks on this mountain, and some especially cute calves. All their paths were much steeper than I would have liked. We'd already been walking at least a couple of hours and I was tired and hungry. We weren't sure we'd arrive at the monastery before sunset (around 3:30) and didn't relish coming back down in semi-darkness. For that matter, we didn't even know if we would be able to stay. Things were looking kind of grim. Still, it was Thanksgiving, and I had to admit that this was a pretty fantastic way to spend it. I felt incredibly grateful that I live on such a wonderful planet. We decided to press on. The worst case scenario was that we slept outside in a yak pasture somewhere, hungry, but warm enough with our shawls and sleeping bags. If you can't have turkey, why have anything?
We passed two tiny villages and then arrived on a small plateau, where there was a village where the shepherds live in the summer that was now empty. There were some lovely stupas and chortens along the way. From the shepherds village, we could see a roof in the distance that might be Lawudo. It was surrounded by prayer flags and seemed very far away. We chose the least meandering yak path and climbed. Finally we were there. Now the question was, would we be allowed in? We knocked on the huge double doors of the courtyard wall. No one answered. We knocked again, quite loudly, and heard movement on the other side. We could see a man walking toward us through a hole in the door. Norbu, or Tsoltin Norbu, as he is officially called, opened the gate and let us in, all smiles and warmth, as if he'd been expecting us. But of course he hadn't, had he? Lama Zopa's sister, Nawang Samden, whom we called Ani La, or little nun, was sitting on a Tibetan rug in the sun, repairing her boots with a scrap of leather. I was awed by her skill. We told them how we'd met George and that he'd suggested we come here. They clearly loved George and I believe we gained instant status as a friend of his. Ani La asked us if we'd had lunch and we admitted we hadn't. She said she'd make some tea and soup in a little while. I was pretty excited about that. Norbu brought us into a dark room and asked us to sit down on the benches. It was a very simple room, everything in it was made of wood. Boxes and burlap bags were stacked up on one side. There was one small window. The room was next to the kitchen and later I wondered if it was where they slept. But now I think they must have slept on the second floor. Norbu sat with us but was clearly shy and apologetic about his English skills. Paul drew out our map and showed him how we'd come up. I read an article about young Buddhists in an FPMT magazine. Ani La came in with noodle soup flavored with greens, and the best masala tea I've ever had. The meal was warm and filling and I began to feel drowsy. After lunch, Norbu took us to our room (yeah, we could stay!), upstairs over the main gompa. Our new home was just an empty room with mats and Tibetan rugs rolled up in one corner. Just one tiny light (not really enough to read by). On the wall, a notice explained that we could stay at Lawudo for 320 rs. a night and that all meals would be included, to be eaten with the Lama's family. And that unfortunately meals couldn't be served in the rooms. And that no sex was allowed. We rolled out the mats and they were very dusty. But hey, the price was right and it felt wonderful to be up here in the snow-covered mountains looking down on the world like Gods.
The gompa library was next door and I took away Way of the White Cloud by Lama Govinda. We went up on the wall for a while, then read on our mats by candlelight. The sun went down and a young woman opened up the courtyard gates and began to bring in the yaks. She looked older than she probably was, and seemed quite timid. Like everyone else who showed up at the monastery (except us), she wore maroon and gold clothing, not robes, just the colors. I don't know why. Ani La milked the yaks as the clouds came in to shield the mortal world from view. We went down to pet the yaks, which were very sweet and soft. Later Ani La sat on the ground outside the kitchen, cutting potatoes (or turnips?) for dinner. She was always busy. Dinner was a soup of potatoes, barley and greens, with milk tea, all cooked on a stove made from old tin soybean cooking oil canisters. The fire was made by burning dung, as there is very little wood at this altitude. We met Frank, from Carmel, CA, who had already been at Lawudo for two weeks, and seemed to have no intention of leaving. His wife had been supposed to join him here, but one of their three dogs had died and the roof needed fixing. Frank told us the drill: breakfast at 7:30, lunch at 11:30 and dinner at 6:00. He suggested that we move to the little cottage above the monastery and offered to show it to us the next morning.
After dinner, we read by candlelight and fell asleep quite early. I had to get up a couple of times in the middle of the night, and as Norbu had suggested, I did not go all the way down to the outhouse below the gompa courtyard. Instead I went out beyond the gompa walls. Even so, I still came back winded.
I woke up at 6:30 still tired. I wrote while Paul meditated outside on the wall of the courtyard. Later I sat on a stone in front of the gompa and read Way of the White Cloud while the sun came up. Norbu was inside chanting and I surprised him when he came out. We went into breakfast in the smoky kitchen (milk chiya and Tibetan bread with real yak butter.) After breakfast, Frank took us up to see the little house with the courtyard and the Lawudo Lama's cave. Even though both are directly above the gompa, we climbed so many stairs (and one ladder) and were so out of breath that they seemed really far away. I was surprised to see that the "cave" had actually been finished off like a house and even had windows. The Lawudo Lama lived there for twenty years, served by his wife and children. I had pictured him shivering in a wet drippy cave, but this seemed pretty nice. I didn't see the inside so I don't know if you could stand up in it or not. One of the ways that Lama Zopa, the Lawudo Lama's reincarmation, was recognized is that he tried repeatedly as a baby to climb the mountain up to the cave, and kept saying that he wanted to go there. He vowed to build a monastery there, and did.
The little cottage was adorable, just one room with two very narrow bench beds, a shelf, a table, some offerings, photos of Lama Zopa and his reincarnation Lama Osel, and a broom. There was on window and a little door that even we had to duck to enter. We had our own walled courtyard overlooking the gompa, and best of all, our own outhouse, complete with lights that you switched on from inside the house. The outhouse was like all the others on the trek, just a wooden shed with a hole in the floor, but to me it was high living. We went back down to the gompa and brought our gear back to the cottage.
We did some laundry on the concrete pad built especially for that purpose in the gompa courtyard. My hands ached from the cold water but it was fun. Paul strung the clothesline from the outhouse to the cottage and we hung everything out to dry. We also aired the sleeping bags out in the sun. We read until lunch, when we had potato greens rice onion soup and masala tea without milk. We had intended to go back to Namche Bazar the next morning so that we could check out the Saturday Tibetan Market. Tibetans walk in from Tibet, over the Himalayas. I was told that the journey takes 18 days. I can only hope that that's round trip. Frank said that the market really wasn't what it used to be, it was mostly cheap Chinese goods now, and that instead of the sea of interesting faces there used to be, now it was mostly young, dirty guys. That was all the excuse we needed to stay another night. Neither one of us wanted to leave. I loafed in the afternoon, nursing a sore throat. That explained the tiredness. I was content to read, watch the white clouds chase up and down the mountain and play with the yaks. Heaven does exist on Earth, in Nepal.
We had dinner (noodle soup with greens) and read in bed after that. We turned off the lights by 9:00. I had to get up several times during the night but it was a pleasure with the outhouse so close and with the lights. Frank abstains from tea after about 4:00 p.m. and claims this works. I just can't say no to Ani La and Norbu when they offer another cup.
At one point during the night, neither Paul nor I could sleep, and we lay companionably in our little beds talking. I told him about two dreams I had had. I the first one, Paul and I were riding in the back of a woman's convertible, a friend of Paul's whom I didn't know. Paul had his shirt off. The woman reached back and scratched Paul's belly "in a suggestive way" (which sounds ridiculous I know, but made me very jealous.) Paul didn't have much to say about that one.
In the second dream, Paul and I were on a trek or pilgrimage. We came to the place we were looking for, where we expected a great lama to be. But the lama turned out to be a baby and he lived in a small white stupa. No matter how we tried, we could only see the back of the stupa and we never got to see the lama. There was lots of clouds and mist. Paul thought that might be a dream about new spirituality being born in me. He might be right. I've been worried that this trip hasn't been spiritual enough, that there hasn't been enough spiritual growth. When I left, I wanted this trip to be a pilgrimage. I don't know how it'll all look at the end of the trip, but Nepal and India have been pretty spiritual.
Paul was having a feeling after having finished re-reading Winnie the Pooh. At the end of the book, Christopher is about to go to boarding school. He asks Pooh to come to this place where they are now and do nothing, and maybe think of Christopher Robin sometimes. It's a really sad moment. Paul said that he felt a little like he'd left his Pooh-child behind somewhere and had never gone back for him.
I stayed in bed until the last possible moment before breakfast. I definitely had a cold and wasn't feeling great but the views out the window (which I could see from in bed) were just beautiful. We ate corn porridge and drank milkless masala tea for breakfast. Then I did a little wash and aired out all the wool stuff while I worked on the journals. Paul went for a hike up the hill through the yak pastures. Frank had said that you'd be able to see Everest from the top of the ridge. Maybe, but first you have to scale a sheer vertical cliff. Paul was gone for about an hour and a half, and then took a nap before lunch.
I hadn't intended to eat, but Paul came back up to tell me it was momos and veg. soup, which are my favorites. I'd been wanting to see how momos were made, so I could re-create them at home. I put on outdoor clothes and nearly skipped down the ladder in my excitement. Momos are really labor-intensive. The filling is made of very finely chopped vegetables, herbs and spices, and the dough is rolled out by hand. Instead of cutting them out as we would, small balls of dough are each rolled out individually. They are then filled and pinched together in a little pleated pattern, and steamed over the pot of soup. They were delicious.
Paul went for another hike after lunch while I luxuriated in slothdom. Paul came back and we snuggled together in my bed and watched the clouds come up. Then we had a proper nap before dinner, which was a great barley potato (turnip?) soup and chiya. There were a lot of extra people for dinner, with the well-respected elders given the choice seats nearest the fire. Were they Tibetans just come from the market? We didn't know. It's possible, since Norbu had gone down there early in the morning for supplies (he left at 6:00) and he was back. We couldn't talk to them, but there was a lot of warmth in the room without conversation and it felt good.
We read in bed after dinner and were again asleep by 9:00. Thankfully I only had to get up twice during the night.