Chimpu to Tsedang Tibet 14.04.11

Chimpu to Tsedang Tibet 14.04.11

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I woke today almost suffocating with the weight of 3 quilts on top of me. I made my way across to the latrine and was in the tea room for around about 8 o’clock the nuns let me sit in the kitchen by the wood burner and attempt to get my fingers working on the lap top but I couldn’t really get going. The pots were bubbling and boiling Tashe and Sotim arrived soon afterwards they were out of cigarettes but were in their usual good form and soon had the nuns laughing. Noodles were served and for me tea without salt, the Nuns peered over my shoulder watching my fingers and as always making some wise cracks that I didn’t understand. I will genuinely miss those moments around the black stove, the Tibetans slurping noisily and rolling their barley and butter tea into biscuits laughing with each other and simply just being. I think the Nuns really enjoyed my presence and Tashi and Sotims good natured bright company.

It got to 9am Sotim gave me a nudge in the ribs and nodded towards the hall as if to remind me it was time for my morning appointment with the prayer meeting. So off I went laughing. I sat in my usual place on the row of embroidered cushions against the wall at the back. One of the Nuns who looked like a real tough cookie whose job it seemed was to take the names down of the pilgrims who floated by and put into the healing/prayer book, to keep an eye on things and to make sure the flickering bowls of glowing butter candles didn’t over flow from all tha butter being poured and dropped in there. As the days had gone on she seemed to have really taken a shine to me, she smiled as I came in and sat down. The day before she had obviously seen just how cold I was and had given me a sheep skin to wrap myself in as I sat there. I had my become a familiar fixture, even the nuns sat along the nearest row to my usual place had begun to say ‘Hello’ over their shoulders or from under their robes in English and when I responded in English they would all start giggling and nudge each other. It really was delightful.

They started the day by toning it was to me exquisitely beautiful and so I began my meditation. Again I won’t go into all that came that morning but towards the end I saw two arms locked in an arm wrestle the hands were tied together with a red ribbon if I recall correctly. I saw the biceps straining, it was show of strength. Then I saw a tiger appear and it seemed was about to attack a man when he turned suddenly and struck the tiger really forcefully with a gleaming sharp silver or steel sword. Later I realized that the tiger had been struck it right across its chest though at the time I paid it little attention to that detail. The scene had worried me as I had been pondering about the return to London and presumed it was related to that.

I realized it was time to go so in a lull I said my goodbye to the tough looking but lovely Nun and indicated silently that I would be leaving. She was sat with her friend and they both let me know they understood and smiled smiles that would melt the ice caps. I will say again and am not ashamed to repeat myself that I was touched by them and it seemed that maybe they were by me. That in itself was remarkable to me. I waved from the doorway, they waved back and I stepped out into the dazzling but chilly daylight.

Tashi and Sotim were all set to go. I got my things together, came back to the kitchen and we all said our goodbyes to the wonderful cooking Nuns. Again I do not know what was said but I could see that the two of them were all bashful. The Nuns all stayed seated I said my ‘Toot de shey’ and they laughed as usual then we stepped out and began making our way down the steep dusty path to the shacks where the spiraling road ended at the foot of the mountain Tashi had picked up an old guy who needed a lift down to Samye. He’d been up in retreat up in the hills for 8 days apparently and could hardly walk. Sotim almost carried the old guy all the way down. I had really grown to like them both very much indeed. We had it seemed all become easy in each others company.

Then at the 4×4 we picked up a couple of Nuns who also needed a lift to town. Though one I think lived to regret it as the road was unbelievably bad with breath taking switch backs and deep jarring pot holes, Sotim was a brilliant and a natural Raleigh driver and the poor girl was car sick within minutes, but she managed to hold it down with her head hanging and wobbling about out the window. We dropped them off in the central square in Samye, got bottles of water and set off towards Tsetang which was across the river, with a little pit stop just out of town at the sand dunes that I had been dying to walk across since we’d arrived in the area. I walked out into them for about half an hour and just sat again in the stillness and silence. Not a sound, not a bird or an animal stirred out there. It was amazing.

Back at the 4×4 they finished their cigarettes and we roared off down the rocky dirt road along the breath taking Yarlung valley that skirted the river. Rugged barren brown mountains with sand dunes draped over them like silk, everything dry and dusty but with the marks of water upon them closed in upon us. Coppiced Cyprus and Red Willow trees lined the shore and in fact had been planted along all Tibets highways, along the river banks and across the dunes, a master stroke by who ever thought it up, reclaiming the desert and as a renewable source of wood which out there is life or death, appeared on our side down below as puffs of green, pale pastel red or yellow all along the rivers edge and across the river like green yellow shadows between the river and the brown forbidding mountain landscape. The road skirted the sprawling River around hairpin bends up over the dunes and along the hair raising roads blasted out of the black rock, Sotim was calm and all attention I was never once nervous whilst he was at the wheel.

I’d been thinking the day before out in the wilderness that I had swam across The Ganges, I had swam across Pokhara lake in Nepal I had swam in the Indian ocean, I had and in the () ocean so by rights to finish the journey properly I should swim across a river in Tibet. I told Tashi what I planned, he didn’t say anything at first then after a few minutes down the road said

“Ok mike, what ever you want to do”

We had to do a detour as the bridge across to Tsetang was down. It was 30klm extra up the road and across at the next bridge but it gave me a chance to look for a suitable place. As the bridge came into view about 3klm up ahead I told them that around about where we were would do because from there on there were no more sand bars and was all a steep rocky drop to the blue water.

Tashi I’m sure thought I wouldn’t do it. I think he hoped I wouldn’t

“Are you sure you can swim in such cold water Mike”?

I assured him that I was an excellent swimmer and in fact that is no lie, but either way I went down to the waters edge and tested it, it was absolutely freezing and I was going to back down and ask them to drive around the other side and just have a dip, a baptism so to speak. But then Tashi went down to the water and crouched by the shore for a few minutes then came back up to the car

“It’s not so cold” he said. He didn’t know what that would mean to me and so now I had to do it. But then I was ok with it too I looked hard at the water and thought it wasn’t quite the width of the Ganges I could do it easily.

“Ok lets go” I said. I asked them to wait till I got to the middle if I was in trouble I would turn back but if not from there I would be fine and to meet me on the other side. I stripped off, Tashi was really nervous now, I was all front, Sotim looked down us leaning on the 4X4 smoking.

“You’re sure Mike?”

“I’m sure” I said

I stood on the sand bar at the edge of the water, I noted it moving sluggishly past me right to left, milky blue. I looked, then I looked across, then I looked again. Then, no point waiting to long, I just dived in, it was a good strong dive, it had purpose.

It was shocking, I came up and just pulled and pulled, breast stroke, I was going really well, I had no idea how much distance I had covered, it just felt that I was going fast and I felt strong. But then something, I can only describe as a ‘snap’ as the cold hit me, it really hit me. I could  feel the strength being sucked out of the back of my arms and as I realized it, my mind admitted that I was on the point of freezing and as that registered my pace, unbelievably frustratingly for me began to slow, I seriously dug deep into my mind got it under control, stretched out my arms working them, picked up a little speed but the icy sword struck and I began to slow down again and couldn’t push my arms as wide as I wanted. I turned my head quickly around and looked back to the warm safe shore, waved like all was ok. But I realized I had to make a decision, life and death right then. The interesting thing was I could see Tashi Crouched down on the shore but could see Sotim in close detail even though he was further away up the bank. They were both just looking at me. I Looked back in front of me and couldn’t see the bank on that side. So I turned and began to swim back, which in retrospect was a bad mistake. At one point I honestly thought I could just stop swimming and it would be all ok, but then I remembered the Tiger, he hadn’t been killed.

“Yeah” I said in my slowing mind “I’m not meant to die today” It was honestly a close call and I willed myself stroke by stroke but getting slower and slower the nearer I got to the shore, I consciously let the current take me to give me a little momentum. Tashi realized I was in trouble and began walking along the shore level with me. I recall he’d picked up a little stick and I laughed to myself and thought ‘that is not going to do any good at all’ but it’s all he could find and I could tell strangely enough that because he had a pathetic stick he was seriously worried and didn’t know what to do. I pulled and pulled and pulled I could feel the rivers ice grip fighting me and pulling me back, it was the strangest feeling, I came up agonizingly slowly towards the bank, I didn’t stop pulling until I touched a rock there with my hands, I didn’t dare stop till I was sure I could put my feet down. It is one of the biggest reliefs I have ever felt. Another minute and I would not have made it out and in all honesty probably one of the craziest things I have ever done, I will not do it again in a hurry, the river water comes  straight of the frozen glacier covered mountains, I will say it again, I will not do that again.

I stood there in the water holding onto the rock I could barely speak.

“Tha ….. wa…. s …. col…..d”

“You scared me Mike, Tashi said “Why did you turn back you were almost across”

“I couldn’t see the other side” I told him later. Earlier I’d seen a duck on the water as I’d weighed the distance up, it seemed to have been at the half way point. But in the water as I’d looked for the opposite shore I could see the duck was a way in front of me and so I’d thought it was too far. I hadn’t realized that it had swum nearer to the other shore.

I was in shock, but I fought it by wise cracking with Tashi so he’d be ok. I simply couldn’t take a step out of the water for a few minutes I just stood there panting trying to breathe. Then forced myself out and walked with as much dignity as I could back up to the 4×4 above. I began shaking uncontrollably when I got to the car but still wouldn’t let on to them. Then with my shirts, trousers and boots back on I climbed in Sotim put the heaters on and we took off, both of them quiet and me trying to be cheerful. I didn’t say anything right then but I could taste blood in my mouth and I was worried that something was wrong. We stopped at the next town across the bridge for some noodles and a big flask of milky tea, and we all began to unwind.

“That was an interesting experience” I kept saying, as I felt bile coming up from my lungs. The tea did the wonders and I had stopped shaking. We just sat there for half an hour until our humor returned.

For the next few days my lungs were really sore and I was coughing like a seasoned smoker, it was bile thankfully not blood and though that continued for a few days it eventually began to ease and I began take deep breaths again without coughing. I was worried there for a while and I promise again, I will never do that again.

Then on the way from the noodles and tea to Tsetang Selka the Chinese girl who I’d shared the room at Chimpu with had called Sotim, which had surprised me that she’d taken his number. She was asking where we were and by a weird coincidence it seemed that she was in Tsetang too and she and her brother would like to invite us all to dinner.

“What do you think Mike” asked Tashi. I thought it would be interesting.

“And besides it’s not nice to refuse a lady” I quipped.

“Ok Mike we will go for you” they still have a thing about the Chinese, so we agreed and arranged to meet at 8pm. We called at a garage as we arrived in town to get a new tire as we had realized we had a puncture just where we’d we stopped for my dip. The mechanic pulled out, I kid you not, a 7 inch steel spike from inside the tire! Then we dropped our bags at the gorgeous hotel. The most luxurious place we had stayed at on the whole tour, it was polar opposite to Chimpu Hermatage. I had a hot shower, oh the hot water, clean clothes and clean white fluffy duvet, it was wonderful. They came back later looking like new men with fresh sharp hair cuts and Cheshire cat smiles then at 8 and we went off for our dinner date not quite sure what to expect.

We arrived at the address, and were greeted, by Selka, her brother and the other Chinese guy who’d been at the Hermitage, they placed silk scarves around all 3 of our necks and ushered us in. It seemed I had made quite an impression. Inside the restaurant we were guided into a beautiful Tibetan banquet room, I was treated like royalty, sat in the center and beautiful dishes were chosen for us, expensive Chinese cigarettes passed around, which I had to take even though my chest was now pretty bad. Selka and I communicated via the hand translator whilst Tashi and her brother talked in Chinese. It was the strangest thing, all three of us were really puzzled. Then whilst we all feasted, 2 Tibetan waitresses were asked to come in and sing traditional folk songs for ‘me.’ Truly they sang beautifully stood by my chair. I was genuinely touched, and every time they finished a song a toast was made and I had to down 4 mouth full’s of barley wine, there was a lot of toasting and I began to get a bit tipsy, it was really amazing and really bizarre. I sang a song too which went down well, so well in fact that Xiang her brother invited us out to a place where he said

“We could really relax” I wise cracked of course to a row of blank faces about dancing girls. But he was insistent and so I said ok lets go. Tashi and Sotim had to have their arms twisted because of they’re shall we say ‘Chinese sensitivity’ but they gave in and we followed the 3 of them across town. We went inside a faceless building to be greeted by beautiful Tibetan girls all swirling around us, I just letting myself be swept along. We were taken to a room with 5 reclining comfortable chairs and told we were all being treated to Reflexology. It was absolutely fantastic and I couldn’t help but think that this was some sort of reward, that the three of us had somehow earned after the close call with the icy bottom earlier that day, the hot herbal buckets of water that out feet were placed in and the strong fingers were amazing. In fact we were all treated to a full massage and finished of with the Reflexology. Xiang paid for all of this and I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable and wonder why.

It must have been an hour and a half later that all of us emerged light headed and glowing, with fresh socks and padded insoles in our shoes. Selka and Xiang came back to our hotel they were instant that they wanted to borrow my tour itinerary to copy it. It was really puzzling. They came up to my room, stood at the door and almost snatched it out of my hand and then left. It set alarms off in my head so I went to see Tashi when they’d left and we all came to the same conclusion that we were being followed so it was agreed that I would go and see them next day and then distance ourselves. It my sound silly now but with all the check points and the very visible police and army presence at almost all the monasteries we had been too it was a definite possibility. It caused a great deal of thought in me that night about the reality of the situation there.

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