Caged

I am a bird trapped in a cage

Picking my feathers

Gone mad with rage

 

Once I flew high above great twilight cloud

Conquered my fear

Lived strong and proud

 

Now I have slipped into the great depth below

My body is sluggish

My mind it moves slow

 

There is no freedom for the likes of me

This life is a trial

My soul yearns to be free

 

No strength to be gained from things that have passed

Here in the moment

No memory can last

 

But if I am patient and if I am true

This cage will be broken

This sentence past due

 

And so while you laugh as you stare through the bars

My strength returns to me

I am made of the stars

 

You cannot control me though my body’s confined

My spirit eternal

No bars round my mind

Cremation on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India

Sunrise on the Ganges

Descending in to the Chaos of India is an experience that nothing in life can properly prepare you for.  No amount of literature, no transitional culture, no mental preparation can pre-condition for the shock that awaits.  Entry at Varanasi, as we did, is a particularly rapid immersion directly in to the deep end of India – a swan dive in to the Ganges..

Bathers in the Ganges, on the river steps of Varanasi

We crossed the border from Nepal to India at the crossing north of Gorakhpur on a hazy afternoon in the beginning of March.  Loaded down with massive paraglider bags like a couple of turtles, we felt vulnerable and exposed as we squeezed through the chaotic crowds searching out a ride to the train station in Gorakhpur.  We eventually found a driver with a trunk large enough for our bags and started our way south.  By the time we arrived in Gorakhpur we had lost our nerve for the train ride onwards to Varanasi – which is notorious for having a high frequency of theft – and the driver easily convinced us to continue the whole way by car.

A Sadhu walking along the ghats

Driving in to Varanasi in the late hours of the night was an unnerving experience that would set the tone for one of the most disturbing, but ultimately most memorable, experiences of all our travels.  For what felt like a half hour, we drove past sleeping bodies squeezed side-by-side along both sides of the road and tucked in to every possible nook along the way.  Rolled in ragged blankets, the experience had the dream-like air of driving through a perpetual morgue.  It was a feeling that we would not shake for several days, as death is the over-arching theme of the city of Varanasi.

Known in the Hindu faith as one of the most auspicious places to pass onwards from this world, Varanasi is the final objective for many throughout India who are well enough composed to prepare for the closure of their life.  Here the sick and the elderly come to wait out their last days.  For those with any remaining wealth, the final task is to pay for the wood with which they will be cremated along the banks of the Ganges.  For those without, their corpse may simply be thrown in the river to rot downstream.  Cremation isn’t cheap: being in the barren lowlands of India, the wood must be brought down on barges from distant forests.

Down on the burning ghats – the long, stone-stepped banks of the Ganges where the cremations take place – the wood is stacked in massive piles to dry.  Wood dealers abound, transactions facilitate the use of giant balance scales, and the exact amount of wood necessary to completely cremate a body is carefully negotiated.  In plain view the wood is arranged, the body wrapped in a garland and placed on the pile, and additional wood stacked on top in delicate proportion.  After a brief ceremony, a small piece of the garland is lit and placed at the bottom to ignite the stack.  Four, five, six or more bodies burn in separate piles throughout the day, which are carefully stirred by the Untouchable fire-tenders until the last remnants of wood, flesh, bone and skull are incinerated.  Then the ash is shoveled in to the sacred river Ganges and fresh wood is stacked to start anew.

Looking down the Ganges towards Manikarnika burning Ghat

Standing back, aghast, the whole scene is difficult to comprehend.  The light of the sun takes a deep orange hue from the smoke, which is overpowering in its scent yet dwarfed by the rest of the sensory stimuli that abound.  A large cow, sacred and therefore deeply assimilated in the Indian culture, stands by on the steep steps and absorbs the scene, hardly bothering to notice as passers-bye stop to rub his neck.  Mourners watch as their loved ones are engulfed in flame.  A couple mongrel puppies with scabbed, mangy flesh stretched over protruding ribs balance delicately on the border of death – only the slightest twitch of breath in their bellies and the occasional mammoth effort to search out shade in the blistering heat show which side of the border they currently occupy.

It is all so much that our own personal boundaries break down as well, and we struggle to know where we end and the experience begins.  Engulfed in the orange haze of a dream, in a portal between this world and the next.  Our thoughts are stretched in such a strange manner that we could not fathom taking a picture, and we know without being told that this is no place for a camera.  Finally we unlock our feet from where they seem to be fused in to the granite steps, and began to swim our way out of the dream.  With every stride upstream along the river we slowly shake it off, yet these fifth-dimensional experiences do not completely abate for a long time yet.

The remainder of our short stay in Varanasi was spent engaged in the more palatable sights and experiences of the place.  At night, a vibrant music and dance performance was held at one of the prominent piers (ghats) overlooking the river.  Early the next morning, we chartered a small rowboat and went for the quintessential pre-dawn river tour along the Ganges.  As the sun broke over the horizon and the vibrant colors of the morning bathers along the banks ignited in the light, it was enough to briefly re-awaken sentiments of the fresh beauty and dawning of life.

Morning bathers down on the river

But turning to head back downstream, the burning ghats came once again in to view in the distance.  By the time we stepped off the boat the heat was sweltering, and the smoke of cremation and the passage of life was billowing upwards once again.

Our last experience of the place warrants a single image:  Loaded with gear on an over-burdened rickshaw en-route to the train station, we came upon a roundabout intersection with a traffic jam to end them all.  4 directions of cars, bikes, animals, and rickshaws scrambling to pass through each other – so tightly intertwined that the peddles of the rickshaw were tangled in the spokes of the neighboring vehicle.  Yet lumbering casually against the gridlocked traffic was a Regal Bovine.  Amidst the impossibly constricted din and chaos, the traffic parted seamlessly around the Cow so that not so much as a tire flap brushed the royal beast as he slowly made his way through.  This is India.

Sacred cows and manky mongrels sharing some garbage on the street

Lithang: the seat of the throne

Lithang Monastery in the hills

In the high town of Lithang

Often enough the borders of the political map do not align with the territories defined in the hearts and souls of the people.  The Kingdom of Tibet once spread far beyond the borders of the modern day Chinese province.  The small city of Lithang, situated in present-day Sichuan Province, remains a stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism.  It is the birthplace of two previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama.  In the hearts of Tibetan people it is located in the eastern region of the classic kingdom of Tibet.

Lithang was the primary destination along our backcountry bus tour, and the only stopover where we intended to stay for some time.  After an 8-hour morning on a bus, we rattled over a final pass and slowly descended upon a high valley awash in golden light.  The commotion on the bus indicated that we had finally arrived at our destination.

The high town of Lithang

The bus stopped in what appeared to be an empty lot, and we were swept off and left standing in the dust with our bags.  Once again we were immersed in the uncomfortable but addictive feeling of having no understanding of, nor context for, a new a place.  Immersed in something unknown.  For lack of a better option, we shouldered our bags and started walking along the dirty road.  Step by step waiting for familiarity through future experience to unfold.

Soon enough we found a clean and simple room to drop our bags, then set out to see the town.  After just a short walk along the streets, I was doubled over with sickness from the altitude.  We were only at 4000 meters, but with little acclimation on the bus the simple act of walking was enough to set me off.  Caroline, on the other hand, seems to be immune to altitude and was completely fine.  Tsampa (barley flour) noodle soup, focused breathing, and complete immersion in Tibetan vibration quickly healed me so that we could head for the hills.

The Lithang monastery offers a fairly un-molested vision into what Tibetan monastic society is all about.  It also offers magnificent aesthetics for a photo-oriented westerner.

Images of a Monastery

Touring the surrounding valleys

Another day we went for a tour of the surrounding region with the proprietor of our hotel whose name was ‘Long Life’.  At a pristine alpine lake a few hours out of town, we encountered some local kids out for a cruise on their decorated motorcycles.  There was a moment of tension as we sized each other up for mal-intent, but it quickly broke in a fit of mutual smiling friendship.

Tibetan moto-gang

bike in the lake

We goofed around on their bikes, and they showed us how they could ride out into the flat –bottomed lake.  Further and further out they rode, until one fumbled and dumped his bike in the drink!  It took all three to lift it out of the icy water and get it to shore.  The motor was drowned with no hope of re-starting.  Dejected, they left us with a sheepish wave as they towed the bike back to their village.

Prostration along the road to Lhasa

On the drive back to town we encountered a group of Buddhist pilgrims who were prostrating along the road en-route to Lhasa.

Tibetan Pilgrims heading for Lhasa

While some of the crew were casually covering ground, others were measuring themselves against a sharpened discipline and progressing every single meter with a prostration.

A strong young Pilgrim sticking to every prostration

Each prostration involves: a salute towards the heavens; three forward steps; a bow down until knees / belly / forehead touch the earth; return to feet; then finally standing tall in prayer pose to begin anew.  The prostrating pilgrims wore pads made of old tires on their knees and elbows, a thick padded apron, and wooden plates on their hands.  For the stronger pilgrims, the three forward steps are an opportunity to accelerate in to a belly slide.  The further one slides, the fewer prostrations lie between one’s position in space and the center of Tibetan Buddhism – the Jokung Temple – in Lhasa.

one at a time

We later mapped it out and determined that from where we encountered this group, it was nearly 1,500 kilometers to Lhasa!

Google Map, Lithang to Lhasa

For many Tibetan Buddhists, this pilgrimage is the defining event of their existence.  Often it takes a lifetime of savings to prepare for the journey.  Old ladies who have not yet had the opportunity will forego the prostration but hobble the entire way on worn and hard-worked bones.  Pilgrims carry little more than the padding on their body, and receive alms and food offerings along the way.  It is good fortune for all to offer alms, food, or lodging to a passing pilgrim, and in every Yak-herder’s tent along the route there are extra mats for a weary traveler to rest.

Yak herders tent and the classic asian tractor

Lacking the tiniest shred of the discipline and devotion of these pilgrims, we climbed in our minivan and drove back to town where we went to a local hot spring to heal our (not so) weary bones.  Surrounded by the filth of a land devoid of waste-removal infrastructure, each small hot-spring room was kept immaculately clean.  As a seasoned hot-spring veteran (I’ve been soaking since I was 6 days old), the water was too hot to handle for more than a minute at a time.

In search of elemental-sport potential?

Speedflyers looking for new adventure: this region has endless perfect speed flying potential.  The terrain appears to be ~1000 meter steep grassy mountains reminiscent of Sun Valley, Idaho.  There are awesome rock features mixed in to make it interesting and vast landing fields all around.  But with valley elevations above 4000m bring a big wing and some serious lung power- the thin air is sure to fly FAST and all the approaches are hike-to.  First d’s beyond number.

Killer speedfly potential in an exotic setting

The cloud base was too low while we were there to show signs of good paragliding potential, but the terrain could be highly conducive if the weather conditions were right.

‘Long Life’ also said that he had helped people to ski in this region in the past.  Although nothing jumped out as extremely easy or obvious, there were some peaks beckoning from deeper back in the next layer of terrain that showed good potential.

The confluence of old and new in Xiangcheng

Throughout the desolate mountains of western China, an epic struggle is being played out between ancient cultures and the machine of the modern world.  Small villages that have sat for centuries on vast reserves of resources are being displaced by unstoppable extraction and exploitation projects.  It’s hard to describe the feeling of an ageless and powerful place that is in the process of having the energy bled from it to feed distant progress.

old and new

13 hours in to an 8-hour bus ride over the passes out of Zhongdian, we came upon one of the remote hydro/mining towns that lurk throughout this part of the world.  Xiangcheng is an old Eastern-Tibetan village that has been overrun by Han-Chinese come to work for the  resource extraction projects.  The same noble Khampa houses from the mountain passes stood neglected along the road, stained grey from the dust of a thousand trucks rumbling by with loads of minerals dug from the hills.  Cheap new dormitory block housing stood in contrast, the haste of construction visible in how rapidly it had already decayed.  In the distance a mountainside was being eaten away by giant machinery to remove the valuable earth within.  Alongside the road, the river was taking it’s last free breaths before a new dam plugged its course – to drown the canyon and all that once lived along the shores.  Feeding the machine, of which I am ultimately a part.

But perhaps the best illustration of a dark and conflicted energy was the hotel, a stones throw away from the bus station, that gave us shelter for a few short hours during our stopover.  The worst room that we had in 9 months of 3rd world travel, the dank basement shithole had no windows and only a dim naked bulb to illuminate the stained and filthy space.  It showed no signs of being cleaned since it had been converted to a small dormitory a year or two prior.  But before laying down for a miserable and sleepless night, we climbed the ladder out of the basement to find that we were in the dungeon of a deserted Khampa house – again of the style that we had seen on the mountain passes all day.

Throughout the house, almost every surface of every wall was covered by beautiful hand-painted images in the classic Thangka style, telling the stories of Tibetan Buddhism.  All of the trim was intricately carved and painted in the elemental colors of Yellow, Green, Red, Blue and White (Earth, Water, Fire, Sky, and Cloud respectively).  The ceiling was covered in tin, hand-formed in to intricate shapes and textures to complement the decor.  For three stories it continued, until we were standing on the roof looking out into the beautiful moonlit valley of a noble, proud, and ancient people.

In the morning after a horrible night in the dungeon, the images of what we had seen above felt like a distant dream.  We dragged out the door into a dreary pre-dawn rain, back to the bus station to continue our trek into the unknown.

Meditation in the Tibetan border-town of Zhongdian

send it with the wind

On the bus ride North out of Lijiang, we finally got a taste of what we came for and broke out in to the wild.  Somewhere along the drive up into the hills, as we climbed towards the gateway to Tibet, is where we first felt free.

The monastery in Zhongdian

The small Tibetan city of Zhongdian, also referred to as Shangrili-La, was our immediate destination.  For the first time in our lives, we were to experience the deep freedom of emptiness that is the Tibetan vibration.  The city is home to a thriving Monastery and a very hip travelling scene, as well as a small airport with an allegedly ROWDY mountain approach.  This was the first place on our trip that held appeal to stay and live for some time, rather than just witness as a tourist spectacle and move on.

The Tibetan colors of the elements

Many of the Chinese travellers who come up this far are passionate about hiking and adventuring in the outdoors, and the only magazines to be found at our hostel were Chinese hiking, backpacking, and trail running glossies.  We spent our time biking to the temple, cruising the streets of the old town, and hiking the surrounding hillsides.  On a particularly memorable evening we hiked to a Stupa on the hill above town, where the sunset sky danced for us in vertical streaks behind a tent of prayer flags.

Caroline dancing with the clouds

At this point we had a big decision to make: should we turn around and head South back to Kunming and take a train to Chengdu?  Or should we take the back road to Chengdu over the mountain passes to the North?  The info that was available to us was all quite vague on the details of the back road journey.  We only gathered that it was possible, and spectacular, but that one needed to expect long delays and a high degree of mis-comfort.

We got in touch with Travis Winn, an American kayaking contact, who has been traveling, living, and guiding in Western China for many years.  When asked about the back-road, he spoke of it as if there were no other way and lined us out with a stack of options and information.  Thanks Travis, you definitely pointed us the right way!  Thus began one of the most interesting parts of our Journey.

Yak Momo’s at the end of the world

Shopping the cobbled streets of matriarchal Lijiang

The Naxi people of the region surrounding the town of Lijiang are one of the few cultures today with remnants of a matriarchal society.  In matrilineal lines of descent, inheritance passes down through the female branches of the family.  Correspondingly the women have traditionally been the primary leaders and decision makers, and often act as the main working force.  Like strong women everywhere they are confident and beautiful, and with a touch of Tibetan lineage they have deeply set roots.

The narrow streets of Lijiang

The village of Lijiang is a winding labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets.  It has grown to become a very popular Chinese tourist destination, particularly amongst an outdoor-minded crowd.  The Chinese eco-tourist is the same as the rest of us – she wears gore-tex and a big pack, and she’s looking for something cool to do.  A way to progress.

Shopping is one of the town’s hottest attractions, so we indulged and spent time wandering the cyclical pattern of shops.  Our joke was that the shopkeepers should employ my pretty girl Caroline as a sales enhancer – she could pick any random item off any shelf, and within seconds three other shoppers would have the same one in their hands ready for purchase…

TELL NO ONE.

Escaping from the maze we headed for the nearest high point, which brought us to a mammoth set of old stone steps.  From the view point at the top we took the opportunity to pose some pictures in the local style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then we shouldered our bags to get back on the road.

Crossing the Pearl River Delta into the Heart of Global Industry

The region surrounding the Pearl River Delta is a global epicenter for manufacturing and production.  If you are a human living in the first world today, you own a host of products made in this part of the world.

Hong Kong to Jiangmen City ferry

We entered China proper on a ferry traveling across the delta to visit a friend and colleague in Jiangmen city.  Stepping off the ferry just a 90-minute ride from Hong Kong, it was starkly apparent that we had entered a different world.  The grey industrial feel of Jiangmen contrasted sharply with the vibrant financial capital that we had just left behind.  The rush of doubt/regret that would become so familiar over the next 11 months of our journey came flooding in.  But the bright familiar faces of our friend Jason and his wife Shelly on the other side of the immigration hall were there to welcome us, and in no time we were absorbed in the experience and feeling good.

Jason and Shelly outside Jiangmen City

Jason and his wife took us for an interesting jungle hike that ended up being quite a challenge.  Despite our fancy hiking Chacos and all our mountain and river experience, we found ourselves incapable of keeping up with these two in their foam flip-flops.  We scrambled up the steep cascades of the small stream that served as the only potential route through the thick jungle.

We were also given a full exposure to the crazy food that the southern Chinese are notorious for.  We stayed true to our vow to avoid dog flesh, but ate all sorts of interesting and disturbing dishes.  In those parts, they often include the head so that you can be certain the type of meat…  Shelly enjoys the eyeballs!

Come Monday morning we caught a ride with Jason to Zhuhai to visit the Black Diamond Asia headquarters and see some more friends and colleagues.  We spent an afternoon at the facility watching the assembly of cams, carabiners, ice axes, and other mountain tools, as well as playing on the climbing wall and the slackline.

Carabiner manufacturing at BD Asia

That night we enjoyed another evening out with our friends, including a few from SLC over to work on production.  We crashed at the BD apartment in Zhuhai that night, and spent the next morning exploring the streets by the waterside.  Then in the afternoon we boarded a sleeper bus bound for Yangshuo.