As our Landcruiser roars down the Yu Shu highway I wonder if this winding stretch of road will ever take us anywhere. As mountain ranges rise and fall, and we keep moving west, there is a common theme. A feeling of isolation penetrates the souls of all who pass…
As the day breaks, I wake up to find the fog of my breath engulfing my vision. Shaking it off, I slip out of my sleeping bag, into my boots, and out the door of my tent. The sun greets me with a warm smile and I squint back at her. I hope that she will stay with us, for our plans will take us out into the mountains this crisp, September day.
Back at the tent, I kick at the opposite side, hoping to stir up my guide, Dorje, a local Tibetan.
“Rise and shine, beautiful!”
“Man, it’s too early. You got to let me sleep.”
The son of a Nomad, he had lived in this region his whole life before moving to the city of Xining to further his studies in English and Tibetan Medicine. His knowledge of the culture and nature of this barren place is why I have chosen him to accompany me on my trip.
It takes us just under an hour to pack up our things and gulp back some chunks of Tsamba, the local staple food consisting of a mixture of barley flour and butter tea. It bears some resemblance to little globs of cookie dough, though it’s sometimes hard to swallow down. In any event, we eat, pack up, and head out.
Anticipation speeds up my stride as I swiftly move through the rocky path, forging further into the hills.
“Let’s get going, bud. We only have one day and we have a lot of things to see.” I say, hoping to encourage a speedy pace.
“You foreigners always want to see everything all at once. You need patience, and I need more sleep!”, he jokes.
Dorje fights back thoughts of sleep as he struggles to keep up with my excitement. Today is a day that I have looked forward to for quite some time. After years of dreaming about it, I am finally out on the Plateau. This has been my hope for some time now, to hike through the middle of nowhere.
Being at an altitude well over 3000 meters, there isn’t much plant life. As we walk, marmots scurry back to their holes, burrowing their way through the ground. Their meals are few and far between. Some settle for the bush and brush that rests scattered across the ground, shivering in the wind.
We walk to the beat of two sounds: our footsteps and the swirling wind. There’s not much to see so far, yet I take in this rare silence as a blessing. Finally, in the distance I see a sight to behold: vultures circling the grey mountain tops, swooping in and out of my view as they dash to the ground and then back up into the sky.
“What are those birds doing way up here? Are they vultures? Man, they’re huge!”
“It’s a sky burial. A Tibetan funeral ritual. They carry the body up to a high place, chop it up, and lay it out for the birds. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. Just one of the many ways that the Tibetans connect with the Earth. It’s spiritual.”
“How so?”, I inquire.
“They believe that the birds will help take the deceased’s soul back up to heaven.”
“Wow, that’s really something.”
This is quite a difference from the funeral customs I had grown up with, yet similar in the slightest of ways; ashes to ashes and dust to dust. We give our dead to the ground and the Tibetans give theirs to the sky. I’m beginning to see that there is more to this vast land then just scattered plants and animals. It is also a home for people, and they have adapted to become a part of the scenery, at one with their surroundings.
As we walk further from the path and I look down on the crumbled ground a thought occurs to me; I could be the first person in history to ever take a step on the spot I am now standing. It’s hard to believe that a place like this could even exist. It is a land that seems to stand still in time, stirred up only ever so often by shepherds, yaks, sheep, and curious people like myself. Dorje tells me that when he was young he would come out here with his father’s sheep and just sit back and enjoy the silence. Only a rustling of weeds, or the bleat of a sheep would interrupt his perfectly quiet world.
“The sun will go down over those mountains in about half an hour. we should set up camp”, Dorje says.
While I scan the area for shelter from the wind, Dorje already has his pack off and is pounding tent pegs into the earth.
“We’re in the middle of an open valley, open and exposed to just about everything, and this is where you want to set up?!” I ask, half joking, yet half serious.
Dorje looks up and simply says, “What are you scared of? There’s nothing out here but the wind and the mountains. The best view is right smack dab in the middle of it!”