Kyelang–Shashur

Diary

Invited on a walk up the Billing Nullah by Deepak, the ex-Bavarian artist. The Himalayas seem to invite pseudonyms: Iskander Beg aka Alexander Csoma de Koros; Ganpat aka Gompertz. Even I have my Tibetan name. Perhaps it is necessary to become someone else in order to form a new perspective on oneself.

The trail leaves the jeepable road up to Shashur at the first hairpin and continues along, barely rising.

The path runs through alternating patches of woodland and meadow, and beside fields, until a group of houses including one ruin which Deepak points out as once belonging to Nicholas Roerich. It was roofed until only a couple of winters ago. He may have done some painting here, though his style does not make it easy (or possible) to identify if he painted any specific view.

Further on the path joins an irrigation channel, and follows it for a few hundred metres. The wild flowers grow in abundance, covering the path; care is needed to step on the ground and not into the water. Another channel runs parallel on the opposite side but one terrace down, so that the path, and the junipers along the terrace, are isolated by streams.

Soon the sound of the industrious water is joined by the more savage sound of a cataract (CHECK) in the nullah. Round a bend and the source is visible. The full width of the nullah runs over a wide pile of rocks. Deepak explains that this is a landslide that occurred only a few weeks ago, and points out the clean grey-gold spot where the cliffs fell. The fan of grey debris beneath has blocked the nullah and, above the cataract, a lake has formed, some 500 m around. Flooded bushes and trees are visible within the lake, which had been fields only a month ago. I am told that only one person was present when the collapse occurred, and he was thankfully blown up the other side of the dust-filled valley to relative safety.

Deepak and Natasha stop here, to enjoy the sunset and a refreshing draught of seabuckthorn. I carry on up the valley for a while. The fields have mainly petered out and most of this area is unirrigated, leaving it to the coarse grass and occasional Himalayan rose. Rosa webbii I am told by the book, though it is by fluke that I found it there; it is designed for botanists and thus organized by botanical family.

The path stops at a stone wall, next to a boulder with a primitive rock carving of a yak, which may be ancient, although is probably the work of Kapoor(?) who has etched his name nearby. I am forced to return.

I take my leave of Deepak and Natasha at Roerich's house, where Natasha points out the way up to Shashur gompa. The path is clear though surprisingly long, ascending at a constant gradient for the best part of a km, crossing a dry irrigation channel on the way. At the top the path meets another, which runs from Shashur further up the nullah; I am alerted to it ahead of time by a group of three people carrying unidentified tubs of stuff up the valley. It is apparently a good two-hour walk to the sheepfolds up there. They won't be back before dark.

As I ascend, watching the lake slip by far below, the plant life gradually changes. The junipers are unaffected, but the lush meadow flowers are replaced by ground-hugging alpines in tremendous variety. I will never be able to identify them all, even with the book, so I have to be satisfied with admiring their various forms: blue-green, yellow, spiny or smooth, bell-shaped or flat-petalled. The knowledge of plants is something which can be attained, to some extent, though it is the work of a lifetime. Similarly, many aspire to knowledge of the mountains in a certain district: to rejoice in the familiar forms, see them as old friends who reconfigure themselves with every season, every new angle of view. But it is only necessary to move to a new country to become a beginner again: new flowers, new forms, endlessly available at every turn. The work of learning, of making familiar, of taming, will never be complete.

The path contours round out of the nullah, descending slightly, until the yellow roof of Shashur gonpa comes into view. A circuit of the gonpa (achieved with difficulty, as it is built on a sharp spur) reveals six equally locked doors. A group of Russians is on the balcony taking photos. They say there is only one boy whose attention I need to attract.

Almost decide not to bother but find a short cut back to the first door I'd tried, and after a while I hear voices, which prove to be the Russian party emerging with the boy. I am showed in to see the temples.

The bottom temple is dark. Images of Buddhas behind glass are lit by a slightly garish set of flashing LED fairy lights, and there are wall paintings, but the light is too dim to make much out. The central image, according to the sign, encases a master's heart, miraculously preserved through cremation.

The wood-floored middle temple is clearly the one used for daily puja. The various ritual implements and instruments lie on the tables ready for use. The whole is connected up to a speaker system so that the puja may be broadcast across the hillside. This temple also contains the greater part of the library, and has more wall paintings of lineage holders and Buddhas. The wooden pillars holding up the roof, and the roof beamas, are carved and painted in bright colours, yet the overall impression is of dark sanctity.

The top temple is mostly empty, except for a single drum, and very dusty. A few books are kept up here, their wrappers also covered in dust. This temple is clearly seldom used. The pillars and beams are plain. Either side of the central image of Avalokiteshvara with the crossed dorjes are sculptures of many-armed dharma protectors with consorts, both wearing garlands and headdresses of skulls. The one on the right is discreetly screened from view by a red-bronze cloth. Again the walls are covered with Buddhas and deities, in astonishing variety. It takes a monk or a thangka painter a lifetime to learn the distinctions between the forms, yet they all represent reflections of a single nature, the nature of Mind. The differences, the names, the emanation forms with all their attributes, are ultimately only there to point out that they must be transcended.

A telephone rings somewhere in the gonpa. The boy slips into a side room to answer it. It is a simple room, probably a study room. I do not see the phone. The ringing stops. 'Hello?' says the boy. '...Hello? ...Hello?'