August 14, 2021

FTV: The Himalayas


     As sometimes happens when searching for a title for one of these From the Vaults articles,  I am torn between telling readers too little or too much information from the get go.  Such was the case with the title of this particular title.  Truth be told, the whole title should be:  Everything I learned about the Himalayas from Levison Wood except what I already knew about Mount Everest.  During the abundant reading time thrust upon us during the 2020 leg of the COVID-19 pandemic, I got hooked on the series of books Levison Wood wrote about his various walking adventures.  Prior to the Ontonagon Township Library re-opening, I was cruising the Daedalus Books catalog searching for new reading material.  Knowing nothing about the author, the description of Wood’s book, Walking the Nile (Grove Press, 2015) caught my eye.  Once the library was again open for socially distanced (and masked) browsing, I was able to pick up two more of his works (Walking the Americas (2017) and A Saudi Arabian Journey (2018)).  All three titles were discussed in this space under the title FTV:  Walking with Levison Wood (9-30-20).  

     Is it considered a sin to read adventure series out of order?  The last volume of Wood’s series (Walking the Himalayas (2016)) I was able to get a hold of via the interlibrary loan network was actually the second book in Lev’s ‘Walking’ series.  Apparently there have been companion documentaries filmed covering these rambles, but the one I have viewed (Walking with the Elephants) is the one book I have not yet read.  Wood combines his anecdotal information about these treks with well researched history of the local cultures.  The geopolitical wranglings of the past merge with Levison’s need to navigate the current borders, multiple bureaucracies, and sometimes banditos he encounters during these marathon hiking adventures.  As mentioned in the September 2020 FTV, Wood can fend for himself but he is no Lone Ranger.  He enlists help to act as a ‘homebase’ he can contact as needed and also has a knack for finding colorful characters to accompany him on different legs of these journeys.  

     Walking the Himalayas opens with Wood talking about a gap year trip he took to the area as a nineteen year old.  His habit of ‘character collection’ began before he entered university, served in the Royal Parachute regiment, or entertained the idea of making long, historical treks across five continents.  He had the misfortune of being in Pokhara, Nepal in 2001 when the royal family was slaughtered by one of their own sons.  With his passport being held in a shuttered travel office and low on cash, Lev had the good fortune to meet Binod Pariyar, a twenty year old local who invited him to ride out the post assasination riots and unrest with his family.  Pariyar refused any compensation for helping Wood weather the political turmoil and Levison vowed to come back someday to return the favor.  Lev eventually got his passport back and was able to continue his gap year trek into India never suspecting he would indeed end up back in Nepal when his second long trek ended fourteen years later.  

     In 2004, Wood undertook a five month hitch-hiking adventure across India.  Levison was disappointed that he had missed seeing the Dalai Lama when he was visiting Dharamsala.  During his 2015 Himalaya hike, Wood would finally get to see and meet the Tibetian Holy Man who had just returned, ironically, from attending the Glastonbury Music Festival in England.

     As a lifelong Lutheran, I have always been fascinated by ancient religions as practiced by Hindus,  Buddists, and other sects.  Stretching back a mere 500 years to the beginning of Martin Luther’s Reformation, Lutheranism is a fair amount younger than Buddhism, the roots of which stretch back between the 6th and 4th century BCE (Before the Christian Era).  The 80 year old Dalai Lama is said to be the 14th reincarnation of the Buddah and is considered a living embodiment of God to his followers.  As with any tale involving ‘territorial disputes’, the story of how the Dalai Lama ended up living in Dharamsala, India is complicated.

     In 1959, the people in Tibet attempted to repel Chinese communist invaders;  it did not end well for them.  The Chinese crushed the rebellion which in turn forced the young Dalai Lama to flee across the mountains to India.  With the support of the Indian government, thousands of refugees joined him at the monastery of McLeod Ganj.  The exiled Tibetan government has since used McLeod Ganj as their home base.  His Holiness and his followers work diligently from Dharamsala, hoping to free Tibet from the Chinese rule so they can return to their homeland as evidenced by the posters hanging just outside the monastery:  “A million killed.  6,000 monasteries destroyed.  Thousands of political prisoners still in jail.  FREE TIBET!” 

      Reading this book amid the kerfuffle from those who promoted the ‘Free Michigan’ rhetoric during the COVID shutdowns provided a stark contrast between the two movements.  One pertains to regaining control of a homeland lost to invaders.  The other stemmed from people upset by the inconveniences they were asked to tolerate to quell the spread of a deadly viral pandemic.  At the time this article is going to press, the Delta variant is causing a spike in cases and hospitalizations, particularly among the unvaccinated.  Still some people do not get the point.  We are not being evicted from our homeland nor are our civil liberties being threatened any more than they were when the nation was thrilled (yes, thrilled) to have a polio vaccine!  The Tibetans have not yet realized their goal, but they keep working on the problem.  Tracking the statistics from the Michigan pandemic response shows the COVID-19 epidemic would have been much more lethal had the Governor not followed the scientific evidence to help protect all of Michigan.  States still ignoring the science while pandering to the ‘Free Us’ minority are faring poorly in the swelling Delta COVID wave .

       Wood and his traveling companion Ash were sitting in a cafe in Dharamsala in 2015.  The back of the laminated menu contained the following message that Lev remembered from his 2004 visit:  “We have bigger houses, but smaller families;  More conveniences, but less time;  We have more degrees, but less sense;  More knowledge, but less judgement;  More experts, but more problems;  More medicines, but less healthiness;  We’ve been all the way to the Moon and back, but we have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour.  We built more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but have less communications.  We have become long on quantity, but short on quality.  These are the times of fast food, but slow digestion;  Tall men but short character;  Steep profits but shallow relationships.  It is a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.  Their lives have become easier and that has spoilt them.  They expect more, they constantly compare themselves to others and they have too much choice – which brings no real freedom.”  

     As Wood stated, “Wise words, I thought.  They sounded familiar and I seemed to remember that I’d read them before somewhere.  Yes!  It was when I was last here in the Himalayas.  I knew then whose words they were.”  While standing in line amongst tourists and pilgrims waiting to see the Dalai Lama, a young monk named Tenzin Nyima introduced himself to Lev and Ash.  After learning why they were there, he offered to talk to the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary about an audience:  “Sometimes he likes to speak with foreigners, especially if he thinks you can help Tibet.”  Buddhism may be an ancient religion, but it seems the Dalai Lama is very much a modern man who understands how to carry on in the modern world.  Wood noted that most of the robe wearing monks were wearing high tech Nike shoes and carrying equally modern phones.

     In addressing the crowd, the Dalai Lama touched on many modern themes and across many cultures.  Among these, Wood mentioned:  “…the need for simple things in life, highlighting the fact that people in smaller villages are generally happier than those in cities.  Tibetans are not ‘backward people’ but the inheritors of an ancient legacy of teaching, medicine, and science.  Medicine, the Dalai Lama reminded them, works better when you are happy.  [People] have an obligation to learn and acquire new knowledge.  Knowledge is power and if you are powerful and learned, then you are better equipped to confront life’s problems.  There is no such thing as evil knowledge.  The only evil is misuse of it.  He also reminded Tibetans their example of non-violent struggle sends a positive message to the world.”  Lastly, the Dalai Lama concluded with, “If you are unhappy, it’s not because of external factors.  It’s nobody else’s fault or problem.  It’s not because you’re poor or live in a small house, or even because you are ill.  It’s because you have an inner emptiness that needs to be filled with light, and only you can do that.  It is every person’s responsibility to seek that light.  Happiness is not a right;  it is an obligation, because without happiness, you have nothing to give back to humanity.”

     I absorbed all of this at the same time that the 2020 election cycle was coming to an end.  These words spoken by an exiled Holyman to a displaced population on the other side of the world still resonated with me.  The amount of divisiveness and selfishness that had consumed our own country made me want to take a step back and hope for the same kind of wisdom to spread across our own society.  As I have previously mentioned, Levison Wood doesn’t just write about journeying from Point A to Point B.  He absorbs culture like a sponge.  There are lessons in Buddhism we could all absorb, regardless of our own religious inclinations.

     Hiking the remote mountain roads and paths are not without dangers.  Many miles after visiting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, Lev recounted the first serious personal injury mentioned in any of his books.  Just outside of the previously mentioned town of Pokhara, Nepal, the vehicle they had hired to take them to find lodging in Musikot snapped a brake cable and sent Wood, companion Binod, Levison’s brother Pete (who had joined this leg of the trek), the driver, and an off duty policeman hitching a ride, off the road.  When the vehicle stopped rolling and crashing into rocks and trees, they were over 200 feet down an embankment.  The driver and policeman had been thrown out higher up the hill.  Binod had been tossed from the back seat halfway into Levison’s lap.  Binod escaped with a blackeye and a twisted back because Wood instinctively had covered his friend’s head with his upper torso.  Wood wasn’t as lucky.  He broke his right upper arm bone and clavicle.  The local police and villagers were able to get him to a local clinic and after several days living on painkillers, he was helicoptered out to a bigger hospital in Kathmandu.  Levison then took a flight home to London where, according to Wood, “The doctor filled my arm with metal plates and screws and stitched me up well and before I knew it, I was doing bicep curls and arm stretches with a very patient physiotherapist who tolerated my profanities with a kind smile and gentle words of encouragement.”  Fifty days after flying off the cliff in Rukum, he was on his way back to Nepal to resume the hike from where they had left off.

     With the ongoing political situation in Tibet, border tensions meant to reach his final goal, Levison and Binod would need to cross back into India to finally reach the secretive country of Bhutan.  The contrast between the Indian border city of Jaigaon and Phuentsholing, Bhutan was jarring.  Levison describes Jaigaon as, “Crowded, filthy, and noisy.  Lepers sat in doorways missing fingers and noses;  con men and mystics plagued the streets and cows vied for supremacy of the roads with battered rickshaws overladen lorries, and mini-busses packed with so many people it always surprised me they could move.  Nobody bothered to clean the streets because the monkeys and the cows would do it for them, and pigs waded around in the open sewers, delighted at the general lack of hygiene.”  Entering Bhutan was like, “…another world.  There were no beggars or lepers.  No car horns – everything was eerily quiet.  Almost all the men and women sported the traditional national dress and all the buildings looked identical.”  They would learn that the King of Bhutan (there are actually two – K5, the current ruler, and K4, his father who had passed down the throne to his son when the elder reached age 51) had strict building codes.  Nothing could be built above a certain number of stories and all buildings had to conform to traditional architecture.

     The population of Bhutan hovers around 800,000 and they only began allowing tourists to visit in the past few decades.  Mountain climbing is actually illegal because the country lacks the infrastructure to rescue climbers who get themselves in trouble.  K5 has opened things up a bit by allowing the country to expand the use of modern marvels like the internet, but they still favor rich tourists (mostly French) to help prop up the economy.  There are numerous mountains in Bhutan that remain unnamed due to the climbing ban, but Woods had his sights on ending his journey as close to Gangkhar Puensum mountain as he could get without violating the laws that said tourists could only hike to certain elevations.

     Thus, the final photo of his Himalayan walk was taken on an unnamed peak within view of Gangkhar Puensum.  Binod would not make it to the top.  A Lama at the Tamshing monastery had warned them that one of them would not complete the journey and when Binod’s legs swelled from tendonitis, he opted to not tempt fate and let Wood make the final climb with their local government approved guide, Jamyang.  On the way down the last nameless mountain, they discovered a snow leopard den, the name Wood applied to the previously unnamed peak.  Though they never saw a leopard or tiger (tracks only) or the local version of the yeti (called the Mirgula in Bhutan), Wood was more relaxed retracing their path down the valley they had just spent a week traversing to the end of his walk.  For the first time in months he was retracing a familiar trail.

     When he found his mind drifting to all of the Christmas doings that would be happening when he returned to London, Wood remembered the Dalai Lama’s sage advice:  “Live in the moment.  Stop concerning yourself with the future.”  Levison finally concluded, “It occurred to me that what I’d been looking for all along wasn’t to be found at the top of any mountain, it was always there, everywhere.  When you can find the time to just be grateful for the air you breathe, then you’ll be happy.  Take away expectations and everything will come as a nice surprise.”

Top Piece Video:  Can’t say I have seen much music about the Himalayas, but Bob Seger certainly did up Khatmandu but without the ‘h’ preferred in the British spelling – live from Atlantic City in 2011 featuring the late Alto Reed on sax and Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad on drums.