Sticky notice! Fellow travellers: the book about my hitch-hiking expedition to Middle East has just been published under the title “Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan”. Visit my online bookshop. Order a copy and keep me on the road!
The road to the ruins of the old Tibetan kingdom of Guge was a 20 km long valley of eroded rock formations which the sunset inked with a caramel tone. Akatsuki, the Japanese writer who was traveling with me, and I were temporarily joined by a German called Anno, whose ability to trek always half a mile ahead of us earned him the nick “Messerschmitt”. Arriving in different waves, the three of us met at the caves. We overnighted there, thinking in al those eremite monks who may have inhabited or even reached enlightenment there. After a chilly night we were ready to explore one of Asia’s least accessible ruins. It became hard to distinguish what was part of the eroded landscape and what man made at first glance, so organically seemed to grow the ruins from its environs.
Flourishing in the 10th century, the Kingdom of Guge was responsible for the reintroduction of Buddhism in Tibet after a long ban, as its kings sponsored monk Rinchen Zanpo to travel to India to study the original Buddhist scriptures. The “Great Translator”, as he came to be known, returned 17 years later, rewriting the Buddhist sutras in the Tibetan alphabet and founding, by the way, 108 monasteries. To this event correlates the “Kashmir style” observable in the murals of the four temples still standing. Elephants, palm trees, and forests, namely everything that can’t be found in Tibet, is present there, even men clad in loose white robes who would have died from hypothermia had they ever been to Tibet. An extrapolation of aesthetics comparable to that of Christmas in South America, where Christmas trees continue to be dressed in snow even if December 25th is mid summer. The Kingdom of Guge fell in 1650, partly due to the West, as high Lamas plotted against the monarchy in response to the excessive tolerance shown to Portuguese missionaries who had came all the way from Goa to build a church.
There is no shortage of amazing tantric murals, who seemed to have suffered lees from the vandalism that hit Guge in 1966, when it was already in ruins. In that occasion the Chinese army executed the shameful process named “Cultural Revolution”, breaking into most of the Tibetan monasteries and destroying everything that seemed too traditional to be compatible with Communism. Logically the Chinese perceived monasteries not only as religious sites but, mainly, as a symbol of the Theocratic elite that had for so long ruled Tibet. Very few of the giant Buddha clay figures of the main temple have escaped the mayhem. Some are gone forever. I experienced the same sadness I had felt in front of the Buddha at Bamian, Afghanistan, blown away by the Taliban. In a strange twist of fate, a woman leaves a one Yuan note with the image of Mao as donation to a head of Buddha, all that remains of an 8 meters statue destroyed precisely by orders of…Mao! I remembered the Tibetan construction workers I had seen in Ali and I couldn’t help remaining thoughtful. Can dreams be imposed, regardless their goodness or badness? It then came to my mind a phrase pronounced by Miguel de Unamuno, as Franco’s police forced him out of Salamanca University where he was dean: “You will win, but you will not convince”.
Back in Toling we found the other four travelers still kicking back at the “Elephant River of Hotel”, regretting the impossibility of finding onward transportation to Kailash. They had been waiting for three days, certainly because their attempt was limited to try to charter passing jeeps in the town main street. When I announced that we would live within the hour, they had good reasons to consider us naïve. Nevertheless, it didn’t take more than an hour to hit the road and find a truck heading back to the main road for one third of the price of a jeep. It was he first time in my life I was paying for transportation, but we still felt lucky. Despite all the theoretical difficulties listed in guidebooks, we had proven that the easiest way to get you out of any place is to get physically out even a few hundred meters and let the road do the job.
Hence, the back of the truck accommodated Akatsuki, the Japanese writer; Pablo, the Argentinean guy who had decided to join us, and me, together with an elder Tibetan couple in pilgrimage to Kailash. The empty 200 liters oil drums the truck was hauling transformed each hump of the road in a drum jam, which doesn’t seem to disturb the old man that next to us was prying by passing the beans of his rosary. Half an hour later he abandons the task and with a grind of satisfaction starts distributing cans of “Lhasa” beer among the presents. “From the roof of the world” reads the label. “This is life and not Paris” –says Pablo with a tango like cadence. The sky was broad and blue, the air thin, and we were starting to explore, not only Tibet, but the Tibetan soul.
The “Dong Feng” truck dropped us at the crossroad with the main road. Looking anxiously at the map in our guidebook we discover it clearly said: “Nothing at the Junction” So that’s how we baptized the hamlet of yak herders that, in fact, was there replacing the announced nothingness. Evidently, our guidebook had been written by someone with a neat urgency for a sauna or a hotel. The people of “Nothing at the Junction” were kind enough to open an unused room for us and let us stay there for the night... We lighted a candle, prepared dinner in our camping kitchen and tried to bring ourselves to forget the cold and sleep.
Having visited the Guge Ruins, one of the Buddhist art treasures in the guise of a museum, it was time now to march towards the monasteries at Tirthapuri and Gurgam, functioning, remote, and little visited. The first of these was a Buddhist monastery attached to holy hot springs where the more strict pilgrims bath after the pilgrimage to Kailash. The second is the only monastery in Western Tibet belonging to the native faith Bon. Despite an enthusiastic morning we were all delayed by a snowstorm 3 km after the hamlet. Luckily we were not far from a town called Namru, where we found refuge in a tea house.