Here’s the end of the Tibet epistle. Part 9.
You may remember the cliff-hanger ending to the last episode. We were heading into the mountains above Tsetang for our last hike, the dreaded 6-hour slog to the famous Crystal Cave. Would we make it?
We started at about 6AM, using our headlamps to light what passed for a trail. I had read that there was a village about a quarter of the way up where you could hire a guy and his tractor and ride in the wagon behind it. I suggested we try to do that if the opportunity arose. We were all very tired at this point in the trip, and feeling our age. After about an hour of hiking we heard “vroom-vroom” up ahead of us. From the little bit of sun at that hour we could see that a group of Tibetans ahead of us had found the guy, rented the tractor, and were riding up the rutted trail. They weren’t going that fast, and at a certain point when the trail got too steep and narrow the tractor stopped and dropped them off. We walked up past them and saw that they were unloading something wrapped in burlap that looked vaguely familiar. Trish nudged me and said, “Corpse.” I realized I’d seen a picture somewhere of this.
When someone dies and they decide to carry the corpse to a sky-burial site they bind the corpse so its arms are wrapped around itself, hands on shoulders, with the legs up against the torso. Then they wrap the body in burlap and rope it to someone who carries it up into the mountains. That’s what was happening. As we passed the wagon a big Tibetan man swung the burlap-wrapped corpse out of the wagon and up onto his shoulders just like some 20-year-old Madison Hut crew member swings one of those 100-pound packs onto their backs. We passed by without comment and continued on. They stopped what they were doing to watch us walk by. It was a complete funeral party: family, a monk, and two butchers wearing leather aprons. More on that later.
The sun ascended and the path got steeper. In the first picture you can see a small white dot to the right of my left shoulder. That’s the stupa where the sky burial would take place. To the right of that, underneath the prayer flags farther back you can see a small rectangular building. That’s where we rested before making the final ascent to the cave. The cave is up and to the right where the white building is. In the second photo you can see the white building just below the cave and the trail up to it.
After another hour or so we got to the stupa. We took a break and watched the funeral party approach from behind us. They came to the area in front of the stupa and started unwrapping the corpse. Two men, probably relatives, walked towards us and made shooing motions with their hands. Shoo! Shoo! They didn’t want us there. We got up and walked away slowly, turning back frequently to see what they were doing. When we crested a ridge we lost sight of them.
After a few more hours we got to a small building that housed a shrine, a cat, and a caretaker. We made offerings to the shrine and Trish and I sat on the steps of the building to wait for Joanne and Miki. A cat jumped on my lap. The caretaker laughed and said (I think), “A nice home in the human realm.”
And then … and then … surprise, surprise, we made it. The last part of the climb was tough, but we did it. We hung out in the cave, and enjoyed our time there. We did some practice, read a few things out loud, and generally felt pretty good.
Here’s an aerial view of where I was sitting with the cat. In The cave is up and to the right, festooned with prayer flags.
In my mind there was still a bit of confusion concerning the various caves in the area. The cave I’d really wanted to get to was the “Lotus Crystal Cave.” That was the cave where the great Indian / Pakistani saint Padmasambhava had hidden his life story as a “revealed” text (a “terma”). According to my research, there were caves called “Pema Shelphuk”, “Sheldrake” and “Shelphuk.” All three have the Tibetan words for “lotus” or “crystal” in them. The three guidebooks we had with us weren’t much help. On the way out I had a short conversation with three monks who had just walked up. I asked if this was the location of the actual Crystal Cave, Pema Shelphuk. One monk said, “No, that one is a long walk from here.” I asked, “How long?” and he paused and said, “For us, one day. For you, two days.” His friend said, “No, this is the real Crystal Cave. The floor is black crystal. Didn’t you see it?” (We had noticed the black, glossy, crystal-like floor. You can see a bit of it in the picture with the four of us.) The third monk waved his hand and said, “It doesn’t matter.” I went with the third monk’s assessment.
On the way down we stopped at the sky burial site. It was deserted. There were tools jammed in the ground and an area where tsampa (roasted barley) had been sprinkled. Apparently the sky burial itself had happened while were were over the ridge and in the cave. In a sky burial ceremony the corpse is carefully cut up and separated into piles of bones, muscle, and organs. Everything is chopped up. While this is happening vultures circle lazily overhead. When the humans withdraw a bit they drop down like a big black sheet and quickly clean the area of anything edible. Then they fly away. Thus: “sky burial.” Our guide told us that since this burial site was somewhat close to a large Chinese city (Tsetang), a group of Chinese soldiers had come up to the site several years ago, set out meat, and then shot all the vultures. Since that time the remaining vultures do not land if there are humans in sight, anywhere. That might be why some of the men in the funeral party were shooing us away.
I couldn’t believe that we’d missed the vultures, and wondered if anything had actually happened there. Maybe there weren’t any vultures. Tendzin, our guide, helpfully pointed to some axes and knives and the bits of flesh stuck to them. I’ll spare you those photos, but I have them, if you want them. In the photos enclosed you can see an axe stuck in a log next to the stupa, and a bunch of other knives, saws, and axes that are used and then left at the site. The beige powder is the barley flour that’s sprinkled over everything when the vultures have left and the humans come back out of hiding to bless the area before leaving.
We continued down and rolled into town at sunset. It had been a long day. The next morning we headed back to Lhasa, stopping at Mindroling Monastery on the way. It was nice to get back to a hot shower. Lhamo found us, and we all went shopping. I saw four westerners standing around a motorcycle with a sidecar and took a picture of it for a friend in Minneapolis who collects odd motorcycles. He told me later what it was (a British Enfield, I think).
Lhamo and I wandered around the market buying little trinkets for the kids and Joanie. We walked past the Potala, and happened on a photo shoot for a Chinese couple getting married. Tibet is like the wild west for the Chinese, and if they want to do something totally crazy and unhinged (in their world) they take the train to Lhasa, get married, and have pictures taken of themselves in full wedding regalia in front of the Potala. It would be as though Joanie and I had gone to the Black Hills, dressed up in Lakota Garb, and had our picture taken under Mt. Rushmore. Something like that. Anyway, the Tibetans don’t look too kindly on this, and there was a knot of cackling old Tibetan ladies behind us hurling curses and hooting with laughter while spinning prayer wheels held in their right hands. I asked Lhamo what they were saying and she said, “Quiet Steve, quiet, too hard to translate.” After some prodding, she told me they were shouting variations on “A dog wouldn’t eat your corpse because then he would have to shit you out.” Something like that. The photographers and the newly betrothed remained nonplussed.
We walked back to the hotel and found Miki, Joanne, and Trish. We all went out and ate at a wonderful vegetarian restaurant for hours. A feast. We were tired, but satisfied. We ate and ate. We went back to our rooms and packed, and then took a last stroll down to the plaza in front of the Potala Palace. The plaza was in full swing, with people milling about, patriotic anthems blasting, and the ever-popular dancing waters dancing. See movie, enclosed. I wouldn’t be surprised if some day Tibet’s Chinese overlords choreograph a laser light show to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and project it on the side of the Potala Palace.
All for now,