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Life and Death on a Tibetan Mountain Road


When the breath ceases…
the knower will experience the clear light
of the natural condition.

– Tibetan Book of the Dead

Rain runs down the Himalayan foothills, carving little paths in the orange earth by my feet. A family of four Tibetans—a father, mother, son, and daughter—are seated ten feet away, huddling under a translucent sheet of plastic. As the downpour intensifies, I marvel for a moment that the Bangladesh monsoons reach this far north, into the confluence of Western China’s mountainous Tibetan and Muslim lands. The one other human around is my companion Jordan, whom I met yesterday in the village of Langmusi. He and I hiked out here to the big dirt road in hopes of a bus south.

The road out of Langmusi

After an hour, a white bus comes bouncing down the mountainside from the north. The Tibetans remain on the ground, but we two foreigners practically do jumping jacks in our ponchos. The bus passes by without slowing down. It’s a rare group of Chinese tourists there behind the wet windowpanes, staring at us as they go by. To amuse myself, I label them Taiwanese. In Beijing, this would be blasphemy. Taiwan is part of China; All Taiwanese people are renegades who fled the mainland; Reunification will come, by force if necessary. But out here, who cares? Who cares if there’s a world war over Taiwan. In the middle of cold and muddy nowhere, I blaspheme freely.

It’s a beautiful middle of nowhere. The hills around us are ridiculously green from all the rain, the road is a stripe of deep mahogany, and a river is murmuring by 100 meters up the road. To hide from the rain, I hike up to the river and climb into a dry cubby under the stone bridge. I call out to Jordan, suggesting we take turns at lookout, and he yells back his approval. He thinks it’s almost time to give up. Listening to the dull rush of rainfall overhead, I doff my big backpack and let my eyes and mind serenely flow with the stream. Yesterday’s visit with Buddhist monks in the Langmusi monastery replays in my mind. I picture the red, green, brown, and blue sands of the mandala they were making—I picture them swimming by, carrying away my troubles. Today the monks are finishing the enormous, intricate mandala; tomorrow, at a big festival, they’ll ceremoniously dump it into the river. The vision of this consecration, this timely dispassionate destruction, lingers as I gaze into the swirling currents. 

I switch places with Jordan. In the rain again, my mind wanders further back, to the delicious, joyful days with Michiko. Meeting her, traveling with her, making love on the mountain, parting ways. Every day I wear this blue wool sweater I bought with her. But how stupid it all was. Now I crawl around with these lodestones around my neck: Do I have a disease? Is she pregnant? Am I bound to her for life? I can barely breathe, thinking about all of it. I’ve brought this pain and anger upon myself—now I should just get over it. But I’ll never leave her, if it comes to that. I’m faithful. Yes, I’ve completely ruined this trip, my exploration of China, my life’s first taste of true, expansive freedom—everything.

Suddenly through the rain I spot a huge sky-blue truck with a wooden trailer crashing down the slope. I call to Jordan, and we’re soon flailing our arms and legs. Our spirits rise as the behemoth of a vehicle slows down on the bridge, and finally lurches to a stop in front of us. A boyish head shoots out of the passenger-side window: “Hello?” The singular, tired English word has never sounded so pretty.
“Whither dost thou go?” I speak my most polite Mandarin.
“Lande,” he grins.

Not that it matters. There are only two directions. “Old master,” I ask, “could we possibly get a ride?” He throws open the door like the gate of St. Peter, and we eagerly pull ourselves up into the large warm cab. He moves to the back seat. Jordan and I sit in front, too delighted with dryness to follow what he’s saying about his crazy brother. The cigarette smoke and musty air actually smell nice as we arrange our bags and ponchos on the floor, trying not to smear too much mud.

“Where are you from?” the guy leans forward. His Mandarin has a heavy Tibetan accent, and his white work shirt is unbuttoned halfway down his chest. He looks about 20. Beside him in the backseat sits a young woman with a calm but noncommittal smile.

“America,” I sigh. “A long way away.” There’s no one in the driver’s seat, but the driver’s door stands wide open.
“The driver is checking the wheels,” he explains. “It’s a heavy load today.” Leaning back, he extracts a cigarette from a tan pack, lights up, and offers us the pack.
We shake our heads. “What are you carrying?” Jordan inquires.
A smug stream of smoke shoots out one corner of the man’s mouth. “Bricks,” he smiles. “Heavy.”

I look outside, and the Tibetans who were waiting with us are nowhere to be seen. Suddenly a teenager vaults up into the driver’s seat. He smiles exuberantly at us, his navy blue pants rolled to his knees and his shock of black hair standing on end. He says something in Tibetan to his companions, then his elbow pierces my thigh as he throws the enormous gearshift down and over. I rub my leg as we ease into a downhill roll. It seems incredible: we’re dry, warm, and going the right way.

Monks at Langmusi Monastery

The driver asks to see my watch—not to learn the time, just to see it. He asks how I like China, and I gush about the kind people, especially the truck drivers. He smiles. With one hand still on the wheel, he pulls a cigarette and lighter of his own out of his shirt pocket and lights up. Like in the rest of China, the men around here seem to covet black lungs. I just watch the emerald hills slide by, obscured by the spattering drops and the windshield wipers’ rhythmic back-and-forth. The deep potholes bounce the hard middle seat up against my sore bottom, and I remember horseback riding and Michiko again, and all the bliss, and regret. An openness that seemed to be growing so beautifully inside of me has brought only this pain.

The cab fills with cigarette smoke, and new sheets of rain hide the outside world from view. But as we wrap around curve after curve, descending a tortuous downhill slope, the young driver keeps puffing away, guiding the wheel with a single nonchalant hand. Coughing, I focus on the green and red prayer flags hanging from the rearview mirror. And I pray. I pray that Michiko is happy and safe on her own. I pray for deeper connection to the compassion and insight I experienced with the monks. And I pray that our driver is an old hand at these guardrail-less Himalayan roads. He looks 16, but he obviously feels confident, since he starts drinking alcohol. “PSSHT!” cries a large brown bottle as he wrestles its cap free, bracing the steering wheel with a knee. He takes a deep draught, smiles contentedly, and casually whips us around a muddy bend. Idly, he passes the bottle to me. I take an enthusiastic swig—to leave less for him—of the sweet, heavy, raw barley beer. I pass it to Jordan, who samples more slowly but wisely holds onto the bottle. Not to be outwitted, the driver points to the glove compartment, where we find two more bottles. He cracks into one immediately, and keeps it for himself. “How old are you?” he glances at me, between a puff and a pull, forearms taking turns on the wheel. We hit a steep uphill slope, and he yanks around the mighty gearshift, leaving the wheel unattended. The engine roars. “T-twenty-three,” I stutter. “We’re both 23. How old are you?”

“19,” he grins slyly. His name is Lamdo. His brother in back is Jamyang, 22. Ranjie, the thin quiet woman, is a teacher, 24. Jamyang leans forward and chuckles, “Don’t you worry, my little brother’s a good driver.” On cue, Lamdo leans back and rests a foot on the dash. “You’re all Tibetans?” Jordan asks, looking at Ranjie. She nods, smoothing a wisp of black hair. She’s a teacher in a nearby town, apparently hitchhiking too. As we approach a dead-end that fortunately turns into a hairpin turn, we learn that the Tibetan family who waited with us are above us now, on top of the open trailer. Swing! We veer around the bend, and I picture them clinging to the wet bricks. Why have Jamyang and Lamdo given white aliens the dry warmth of the cab and left their Tibetan countrymen out in a cold monsoon to hold on for their lives? But that’s what this whole trip has been: the thrill of accepting whatever comes—sun, rain, joy, regret, roach-infested train bunks, and warm truck cabs. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be the one on the bricks, or the one without regrets.

Monks make a Mandala at Langmusi

We wind higher and higher, into the clouds, and I feel the engine’s fierce heat under my feet. The mist gathers around us like a scarf, and after Lamdo flicks his cigarette out the window, he grabs a towel to rub on the windshield. He cuts a momentary hole in the condensation, and I want to help in some way—wipe the window for him, perhaps, or just take the wheel. But instead my knee collides again with the gearshift as we roar around another bend. I’m saying something about the driving rain when suddenly another tractor-trailer appears out of the mist, coming right for us! WHOOSH! It passes by on our right, mere inches away, massive wheels skidding and spitting mud off the edge. Lamdo shoots me a smile, and I swallow my breath. No, I couldn’t take the wheel. I’d get us all killed. Lamdo gives me yet another devilish smile as we hit another muddy hairpin turn, and I leap forward to wipe fog from the glass with the arm of my sweater.

They ask us our names, and laugh at them. We give our English names, and they laugh again. “Sing us a song,” they demand. I chuckle, saying we’re not singers. But modesty isn’t going to work. Ranjie suggests we sing our ‘national song,’ and it seems the least we can do. So we launch right into the hallowed Star Spangled Banner, throwing ourselves into the anthem with abandon. “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” When we finish, they applaud happily. They respond by singing a punchy Tibetan song that warms our cozy chamber and somehow makes everything feel safer. Then it’s our turn again, and we do: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star…” We laugh and apologize for singing a children’s song, but again they seem delighted; maybe humiliation is the whole idea. The brothers sing a Chinese drinking song with gusto, but their tune is cut short by Lamdo’s cursing as he strips gears and rams the stick into place. Jamyang speaks anxiously in Tibetan while the engine roars like an angry lion. It seems amazing that the angry lion has hauled the tons of bricks, Tibetans, and Americans this far.
“How high are we?” Jordan asks.
“About 3300 meters,” answers Jamyang. “We’ll hit 4000 soon.” Barely even half the height of Mt. Everest, but still the highest I’ve ever been.

But on a steep incline, the truck stalls and just gives up, dead. The lion dies. In the middle of the road, Lamdo kicks down the break and we all climb out. Jordan and I walk out the kinks in our legs, then scramble up the grassy mountainside for the splendid panorama: in the foreground the blue cab is yoked to the trailer that contains tons of pink bricks and four hardy Tibetans; in the background misty mountains stretch forever, like massive green sand dunes. Majestic Tibetan yak-cows called dzo dot a hillside below us. Lamdo and Jamyang pound under the front axle with a hammer, and I wonder about those Tibetans on top again. The little girl is peering up at me. Should I offer to change places? Could I hang on? All huddled together there, caring for each other, they seem to have it figured out. Or at least that’s my rationalization. Ranjie and the brothers ascend to our vantage and smile at their beautiful land. On official Chinese maps we remain far from the Tibetan border, but culturally—and historically—we’re firmly inside the Land of the Snow Lion.

Jordan and the author with young monks

The rain resumes, and they decide the truck has cooled off. Miraculously, all is well: she starts up like a beast, and we’re climbing the sides of mountains again. New smokes for Jamyang and Lamdo. But we learn, through a roundabout conversation, that from the weight of the load the wheels have cracked. Bring it on! My mind laughs silently, sarcastically. Our half-drunk teenage pilot is already showboating in this tractor trailer. Now our metal wheels are fractured—now it’s finally a challenge. Up and up we go, climbing, spiraling to the apex, around tight bends with a hang-glider’s breathless view. We’re peering down on the world from a slippery shelf, and the view is so stunning, so distracting, I almost forget about the road. But then we start going down. We roll easily, freely, around bends, faster and faster, occasionally skidding on the mud. There aren’t any guardrails, and up here our tiny lives feel insignificant and insecure. Why do I believe it won’t all end? Because I’m in a vehicle? Is there an American inculcation that death is rare? Perhaps I’m just young, but death almost seems to be a taboo topic to Americans. Does consciousness of death threaten a materialistic society? Death. The end. It’s not really such a big deal. Tibetans have forever lived precariously in these mountains, where death is the swift consequence of negligence, foolishness, or a tough winter. Death is everywhere, the spice of life.

With a cigarette in his left hand, Lamdo uses his right to whip our brittle wheels around. The misty clouds are gathering in on us again, but the rain and fog no longer seem to bother Lamdo. On the next tight bend, he winks to me as we swing around the turn. I just stare straight ahead into the mist. We roll faster—too fast—into the next turn. HONK-HONK! Lamdo has to take the middle of the road and blow his horn through the mist in case another truck is coming. I close my eyes for a moment, feeling every molecule in my body tingle. “Don’t be afraid,” Jamyang laughs, touching my shoulder. “Lamdo is a race-driver.” Around another blind hairpin, Lamdo blows his horn again, taking the middle of the road. Race-driver? I wonder. Race trucker?

Rolling down his window, Lamdo tosses out a cigarette butt and opens another beer. He sticks his leg on the dash and takes a long lazy swig. He’s definitely enjoying himself, but now he doesn’t even have a free hand to sound the horn. We roll faster toward the edge, he whips her around the tight curve—with just the skin of his right forearm! Both hands please! I scream silently. Then we’re speeding down a steep stretch towards a no-look left turn. We draw near the hairpin, Lamdo waits. We reach the turn, Lamdo waits. At the edge, he whips his forearm across the steering wheel, but it slips. His arm slips all the way off the steering wheel instead of turning it. Straight for the edge. My mind flashes a childhood memory of a sunny soccer game and I thank God for the years I’ve had. Lamdo brings his arm back around. Places an open palm on the wheel, and turns with all his might. Death disappears off to my right and is replaced by another stretch of muddy road. My heart beats again.

But no one speaks for several minutes.

Sunrise on a Langmusi Stupa

The road continues down for many more miles, and there are many more hairpin turns. Lamdo resumes grinning furtively as our wheels flirt with the edge. He smiles, and finally I can smile too. Death might come at any moment—yes—and it’s startling to watch it pass on your right or left, or reach for companions on top of your truck. Death. The worst is that moment of breathtaking fear, that moment that is…useless. Without the fear, death is a conclusion like any other. Painful, perhaps, but many things are painful. Death might be pleasurable, like a dive off a cliff into a cold lake: the fear freezes you if you let it, but the painful impact is so brief, and then the water turns warm and familiar.

“You’re a race car driver?” Jordan asks.
“I race trucks,” Lamdo responds.
“He’s one of the boldest around,” adds Jamyang, “even though he’s so young.”
“Where do you race?” Jordan asks.
“Usually on long straight roads,” Lamdo grins at us. “Sometimes right here.”
“Is that how the wheels get damaged?” Jordan asks.
Jamyang shakes his head. “It’s these bricks—the heaviest load we’ve ever carried.” I ask about the Tibetans on top and Jamyang laughs, peering through the tiny back window. “They’re still there, it’s not raining hard now.”
“Did you know them?” I ask.
Jamyang smiles. “We didn’t know you either.”
Lamdo asks: “Did you know us?”
I pause. “You’re very kind to pick people up.”
“They only pick people up sometimes,” qualifies Ranjie. “It makes the trip more interesting.”

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