My meditative trek on the slopes of Tibet

Outside as much as inside, the storm rages. A cold rain drums on the yellow walls of my tent, which took on water all night – the first of this trek. I curl up in my premium sleeping bag, torn between fear and self-flagellation, watching out of the corner of my eye as a puddle sneakily approaches.

I would have been better off returning to my loving wife and daughters three days earlier – when the customs officer at Kunming airport (in southern China’s Yunnan province) told me politely informed that, although Singaporean nationals can certainly enter the People’s Republic without a visa, it is on the condition of not staying there for more than fifteen days.

I then chose (rather than turning back) to take a domestic flight to Shangri-La. I was fully aware that I wouldn’t get a visa on time, both because of a succession of public holidays and the remoteness of my destination: a trek near the Yunnan-Tibet border. But the leader of our group, a tall Mandarin-speaking expatriate Brit, assured me that, by not exceeding “that” of two days the period authorized for my stay, it was “very likely” that I would get away with a simple warning from the entry and exit control administration of the People’s Republic.

Deep in my insomniac solitude, the shadow of doubt nevertheless extends: what if I were blacklisted? Or detained, or even deported?

Inevitable impermanence

There are four of us participating in this trek: two men and two women. We do not know each other. Nor are the high passes and mystical valleys we pass through, accompanied by the flapping of prayer flags in the wind and the continual whisper, “om mani padme hum”, seeming to emanate from each stone. The six syllables of this mantra are an invocation to the Buddha (the jewel, or mani) present in each heart (lotus or padme).

The day before, in Benzilan, in the old monastery of Dongzhulin – one of the few to have been spared by the Chinese army in Tibet – we observed some young monks, draped in their brown robes, busy making powder of marble intended to be tinted red, blue, green, yellow and black. They chatted in the blinding late morning sun.

Meanwhile, other, older monks traced intricate geometric patterns on a wooden board, marking out spaces that would be slowly filled with colored powder using long, thin funnels called chakpur. Until the completion of the Wheel of Time. As sumptuous as it is ephemeral, this Kalachakra mandala would then be ritually destroyed, dispersed by a flood of water, as a sign of consecration of the inevitable impermanence of all existence.

Leaving the monastery, we headed to our main mule driver’s village, near the rushing waters of the Mekong, at Chalitong, in the Deqin district (Dêqên in Tibetan). We enjoyed a steaming dish of rice accompanied by eggs and sautéed vegetables, under the watchful eye of his venerable grandmother, who, all evening, graced us with her satisfied smile while spinning her golden prayer wheel. .

250 kilometer trail

Today is when our trek truly begins, setting off from a road from the picturesque village of Yongzhi, about ten kilometers away. Our caravan consists of a sprightly guide, his imperturbable local assistant, three impenetrable muleteers and seven sturdy mules loaded with our equipment and supplies for twelve days.

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