Route = Jumbesi (2680m) – up down up down – Ringmo (2720m)
Date = 10-11 March
D: How are you feeling?
She blows her nose. And coughs.
D: Revolting. D’you want any breakfast?
L: Hot lemon. I’ll get up.
D goes downstairs.
The curtain across the bedroom door bulges and wavers.
Phurba walks in with a mug of hot lemon. L is still in bed. They both look embarrassed. D joins them. Phurba makes a hasty exit.
D: Sorry about that. He offered. I thought you were getting up.
L: I’m ill.
D: Drink your tea.
L drinks her tea.
D: Have a pill. Maybe just a Lemsip though. Not all the sleeping potions you had yesterday.
L takes the pill and gags it back into her mug of tea noisily.
D: Disgusting. Shall I leave you here?
L: Yes please.
Down in the dining room, D meets an elderly American monk who lives in the guest house. The hostess calls him Lama.
D: How long have you been a monk?
Monk: Oh, since 1990. But I’ve been a Buddhist for 45 years.
D: And d’you live here all year?
Monk: Oh no. I spend my springs here in Jumbesi, the summer in Lhasa, and autumn somewhere else in Nepal or Tibet.
D: And the winter?
The monk looks a little embarrassed.
Monk: Well, the winters I go south. Where it’s warmer.
D: In Nepal?
Monk: I go to Koh Chang, an island in the gulf of Thailand.
He seems to feel the need to explain this apparent frivolity.
Monk: I have a son there.
D asks him about Thubten Chholing, the huge Tibetan monastery in the hills outside Jumbesi.
Monk: Well, I’ve been there of course. I go there often to meditate. But they won’t let me stay more than a week or two at a time.
D: Because you’re not Nepali?
Monk: Because I’m not a woman! It’s mostly nuns there. The men can only visit.
High above Jumbesi, below the monastery, towers an immaculate white and gold stupa. Four layers of niches wrap around the circumference, and in each little midnight-blue alcove sits a tiny golden Buddha. Prayer flags stream from the pinnacle in all directions. Mani stones, mantra-covered boulders, and prayer wheels mark the onward route.
Thubten Chholing is much more than a monastery – it’s a large village complex, populated by up to 700 red-robed, shorn-headed celibate Buddhists – the majority of them nuns, but also a few monks and children. Around the central cluster of temple buildings spread countless little white bungalows spreading up and down and along the steep terraced hillside.
D: It’s enormous!
Angtu: Yes – much, much bigger than anywhere else in the Jumbesi valley.
Founded in the 1960s by Guru Trulsik Rinpoche fleeing Tibet, the community is independent and autonomous, and exists in isolation, leading a traditional lifestyle, feeding, housing and educating its residents without access to public healthcare or government support. 80% of the inhabitants are refugees from Tibet – most of whom will move on, but every year about 40 nuns opt to go no further and become a permanent part of the growing community.
D: All these people must need so much firewood, and water and food. And where does their sewage go?
Angtu: It’s a problem. The local people, in the smaller villages, are worried that this place uses too many resources, that it’s not good for the valley – the land or the people. That if it continues to grow there won’t be enough for everyone. Although last year the monastery planted 4000 trees.
They are greeted and shown around by a monk.
D: What’s he saying Angtu? Can you translate?
Angtu: I will try. But not easy. I think they all speak Tibetan here.
In one courtyard nuns have spread maize kernels on large tarpaulin sheets. One is kneeling, crushing the kernels under a rock, whist a shaggy white pony stands at her shoulder hoping for a meal of husks. At a waist-high wooden pestle and mortar, the maize is further ground by two more nuns, heavy wooden clubs raised and lowered, pummelling rhythmically, wood on wood.
In another corner, a group of nuns sit peeling a potato mountain, dropping the small naked globes into a vast cauldron of water. The monk leads them across a courtyard, festooned on high with strings of large white undergarments drying in the sun. The monk is still talking.
D: What’s he saying Angtu?
Angtu: Many things. But all in Tibetan.
The monk delivers them to a large room with low platform benches around the walls, and hands them over to a hospitality team of nuns. Tea and biscuits are offered and accepted, and they sit sipping, watching the nuns return to their task of counting money. A large cardboard box is filled with envelopes, each one containing a donation. There is a production line of opener, extractor, counter and rubber-band bundler. After a few mesmerising minutes Angtu extracts his wallet and pulls out a couple of large denomination notes.
D: Hold on Angtu. I’ll do the donation. And isn’t that rather a lot?
Angtu: Not a donation. Small notes are really useful. There are never enough. I’m going to ask for change.
They leave the monastery with gratifying bundles of cash.
D returns to their bedroom at lunch time with a menu. L has covered the bed with discarded loo-paper hankies.
D: Repulsive. D’you want any lunch?
L gets up and eats a quarter of an apple pancake. The guesthouse has done their laundry which is drying on a line on the terrace. The monk is in the dining room.
D: Have you had a good morning?
Monk: Well, I got bitten by a dog, and had to have a rabies shot. A black dog – he sorta just came running at me. He lives by the police station so they’re not going to do anything.
After lunch, D is determined to get L up and about. They walk around the village. Angtu has insisted they take their trekking poles for safety. D is armed and tense, ready to defend them both from rabid attacks.
D: A black dog!
L: Where? Oh, he’s friendly, aren’t you, puppy?
They continue past the school.
D: Another black dog!
L: It can’t be him – he’s too fat and old to come running at anyone. And look how short his legs are. And he’s smiling.
They continue round the stupa.
D: Black dog!
L: He’s asleep. Or maybe dead. Poke him with your stick.
D: I most certainly will not.
Against all odds they survive their 10 minute stroll and return unscathed to the guest house. L goes back to bed and spends the afternoon coughing and blowing her nose. By evening the loo-paper snow-drift has grown.
He puts a bin by the bed.
D: D’you want any supper?
L: Some of that veg noodle soup thing we had the other day.
D: Are you coming down?
L coughs until she runs out of breath.
D: I’ll bring it up, shall I?
He returns later with a bowl of soup.
L: The noodles are wrong. And it’s got vegetables in.
D: You asked for vegetable noodle soup.
L: But I wanted just a stock cube and some Pot-Noodle-noodles. This is actual food. I can’t eat it.
D: Just try some.
L tries some and retches loudly into the bin.
He takes the bowl back downstairs.
The following morning they try again.
D: How are you feeling?
L bursts into tears.
L: Much better thank you. No fever. Just a bit weak.
She gets dressed sobbing, coughs until she doubles over and gags as she cleans her teeth.
L: I’m fine, really. Ready to go.
At breakfast D eats his pancake with enthusiasm and chats to the monk, while L tries for 30 minutes to swallow 3 spoonfuls of porridge. The tears well up.
L: I’m just going outside for a bit.
She sits in the lobby, weeping. Phurba walks through to rope up the bags and they both pretend she isn’t crying. D retrieves her.
L: There’s nothing wrong, honestly. I don’t even know why I’m crying. I truly feel fine.
D: You haven’t eaten anything for days. Don’t worry, I’m going to cure you.
L: Uh oh.
D: How about….errr….strepsils, bananas and isotonic water?
Angtu turns up looking pleased with himself. L hastily dries her eyes and everyone does some more pretending that her face isn’t pink and blotchy.
Angtu: I have pepper!
Angtu: For your cough! It’s very good medicine.
He gets out a small pot containing a sort of peppery pesto-type paste.
Angtu: Just put a little bit on your tongue. It will help.
L does as she’s told. Her eyes start watering again as the heat burns through her mouth.
L: Mmm….that’s umm…great! Thank you so much!
The day is overcast but dry. The landscape is beautiful – a gentle path undulating around meadowy hillsides, through clumps of fir trees, past grazing cattle and (clockwise) around stupas and prayer flag poles. They cross a river on a swaying steel suspension bridge above a group of mani boulders painted in multi-coloured mantras. Despite the mild gradient and the fact that they are still at well under 3000m, L walks slowly, panting like crazy, as though her lungs are battling the thin air of high altitude. She is coughing so much that her chest hurts and her stomach muscles are sore. The three hour walk to Ringmo takes five and the final 200 metre climb finishes her off. She staggers into the first guest house they come across.
L: I am DONE. Completely DONE.
She goes straight to bed, emerging only in the evening. After dinner, they are joined in the cold dining room by eight Nepalis, friends and family, who turn on a large TV and avidly watch an hour of American wrestling.
L: Have you given me another weird pill?
D: No, why?
L: Is this really happening?
D: Yes, I’m afraid it is.