The Textbook Tibetan Trek

Carol Ryan

© Copyright 2007 by Carol Ryan

Photo of the CIA monk.  (c) 2007 by Carol Ryan.

We had been trekking for several days, and after that last knee-destroying descent, Mark and I finally reached the hot spring that the nearby village of Tatopani is named for. It was just before twilight when we stumbled on it. Without a word we headed for the pool like wild animals to a watering hole. After dropping my pack and taking off my clothes, I eased myself, starting with my sore toes and proceeding up to my aching neck, into the muddy, sulfur-scented hot spring. We were close to the mighty Kali Gandaki River at the bottom of the very deep gorge between the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna peaks. From the vantage point of the hot spring, looking up towards the winking stars in the faraway sky, it felt like we had arrived at the very center of the earth.

 Those quiet moments didn’t last long enough. Two loud Australian lads arrived, pulled off their clothes, and jumped into the spring. A few minutes later, a friendly but more modestly attired Nepalese couple addressed each of us with their hands in the graceful prayer-like Nepalese greeting, “Namaste,” and then elegantly stepped into the pool with the rest of us.

 The hot water brought me back to life. We talked with our new friends in English and a smattering of Nepali. Near the end of the soak, the Australians suggested Mark and I should travel with them to North America. Their idea was for us to crew on a sailboat from Sydney to Seattle. Maybe it was the beautiful night in the spectacular setting, or maybe it was the relaxing water, but we both liked their suggestion; it sounded like an adventure.

 But we never saw those Australian guys again. That was remarkable since there is only one path to Jomsom, how could we keep missing each other? We were only a few days into the trek to Jomsom from Pokora but with eight months of overland travel behind us, we were starting to be considered veteran travelers by our peers—and we weren’t ready to go home yet.

 After three days on the trail we thought we were experts at trekking. Dinner and a place to sleep by the fireplace in some villager’s home would cost the equivalent of thirty-five cents a person. The evening meal would consist of a huge metal plate heaped with rice and lentil soup. Chances are, in that lower elevation, there would be stewed vegetables included with dinner. The village had looked prosperous on the way to the hot spring. Judging from that; there might be yoghurt or eggs and chapattis for breakfast. The only drink available would be ‘chia’—the Nepalese word for hot tea.

It turned out that along the entire Pokora/Jomsom trek Tatopani would be the best place to stay and to eat. Not only did the lower elevation allow the villagers to grow more diverse food, but a Japanese trekker who had come through a few years ahead of us had married a local woman and opened a very nice Trekkers’ Inn. Our expectations for dinner were far exceeded, when we discovered a tasty pumpkin dish and soy sauce included with the classic Nepalese rice and lentils. The Inn had a separate upstairs area for sleeping. It was perfect. At breakfast there were banana pancakes on the menu. The international traveler’s favorite drink ‘hot lemon’ was also available. Life was good!

 We got an especially early start the next morning. Right away we came across the first and only horseback rider ever seen on a trek. Not only was a Buddhist monk on a horse, but his Lama’s robe had the color and quality of light of the inside of a pomegranate. The shirt-like garment he wore seemed to glow with its own silky light source; it, along with his distinctive hat, was mango colored. Even the Dalai Lama, with whom we’d had an audience at his Indian palace-in-exile, had not been dressed so stunningly and he had not been riding a horse in the wilds of Nepal. Walking along with the Lama and his horse was an entourage consisting of local men each of whom was carrying a Nepalese- style backpack (a basket on his back suspended from a strap across the forehead) and wearing flip-flops. In addition there were half a dozen donkeys carrying covered loads of stuff, and a friendly young monk who seemed to be in charge. They were going in our direction for the next day or so, and then the Lama and his group would veer off into the forbidden (at least to western trekkers in 1973) Mustang valley that borders Tibet.

 Mark had finished an MA in Tibetan language back in Seattle the previous year and so the identity and importance of this Lama, was just the kind of thing he’d know. One of our problems as a traveling couple was the fact he thought he knew everything worth knowing. He was ecstatic about meeting this Lama, especially since the young monk accompanying the older one spoke ‘textbook’ Tibetan. Mark and the young monk chatted in Tibetan as we walked along the trail. The Lama was impressive riding while everyone else walked, although practically speaking the horse had a very difficult time with the narrow, steep, rocky trail. I was glad to be walking; it was a lot safer.

There was nothing or no one to compare with this Lama in the beautiful but humble Nepalese villages we sometimes passed through. Everyone we encountered bowed and gave their polite greeting to the Lama and sometimes to us as well, since we appeared to be part of his group.

In those days, in Mark’s eyes at least, our karma was confirmed as ‘good’ by virtue of this auspicious meeting with the Lama. I also recognized that something great had happened: we’d both gotten what we needed. I’d already met some interesting people on this trek and Mark had met the young monk with whom he could finally, easily, converse in Tibetan.

 That evening when we were alone, Mark, who had been vexed with me for much of the time in the last few months, was exuberant and even affectionate. The young monk had invited us to accompany the Lama’s group to Mustang the next day. We knew it was explicitly off-limits for our trekking permit, and I give Mark credit for talking it over rather than just leaving me along the side of the trail and heading off for Mustang without me.

 I didn’t speak Tibetan but I had become pretty good during the past several months at guessing what was being said by watching non-verbal clues. While Mark had been transfixed by the monk’s perfect Lhasa dialect, I had noticed a few subtle but odd behaviors. The young monk’s eyes stayed on me just a tad too long. Some of his postures were unusual too—not like other Tibetans refugees we’d met.

 I quickly dismissed those observations in light of the opportunity to travel to Mustang. We would be able to visit an area that was forbidden to foreigners, one that had an aura of mystery, and we’d be traveling with an important religious man who was riding a horse. What could go wrong? We’d even been invited by the holy man’s assistant.

 We stayed awake that night for a long time considering the invitation. Surprisingly, we both decided we’d better not go. Even if we got into Mustang alright, we might have trouble finding our way out again since our trekking map did not include the necessary details for that area. When we left Mustang, we’d be extra vulnerable being on our own in an off-limits area. I had already seen the jail in Kathmandu and made a mental note never to get arrested in Nepal.

 The next morning we reluctantly said our farewells to the Lama and his traveling group, and choose the path to Jomsom rather than Mustang. Later that day we ran into some trekkers we’d previously met. They were amazed by the story of the Lama on horseback. Apparently we were the only westerners to have seen him.

 It was several days later when we reached Jomsom and met some Tibetan refugees. Mark wasn’t able to speak as well with them as they were Khampas (tall and handsome, they were notoriously rugged Tibetans who were originally from the southeast part of Tibet far from Lhasa, and their accents were hard to understand). Mark proudly told them about our good fortune in running into the Lama going to Mustang. What a shock when they revealed that the Lama’s young assistant monk was actually a CIA agent from the U.S. His Tibetan was textbook perfect alright. He’d learned it in Colorado, and was part of a CIA plan to support an invasion of Tibet from the Mustang district in Nepal by Khampas. The Khampas said that the young CIA operative disguised as a monk was probably testing us to see if we’d actually go into Mustang. If we had gone they believed we’d have been killed. The CIA plan needed to be kept secret. Even we could see that. Neither Nepal (where this activity was being staged), nor India (where the Dalai Lama was in exile along with thousands of other Tibetan refugees), nor the U.S. wanted anyone to know about this activity.

Years passed before the story of the Mustang CIA plan became widely known. For one thing, the bigger issue was what was happening in south-east Asia. The U.S. was still fighting the war in Vietnam. Few were very interested in American dealings with China in occupied Tibet or its neighbor, the Kingdom of Nepal.

We had made the right choice in not going to Mustang, but somewhere along the trek we had contracted hepatitis. Although we survived our brush with the CIA, death was still possible; we flew home.

In the 1970s I did a lot of travel in Asia and the Middle East.  I’d studied South Asia in college and wanted to see it for myself.  The Textbook Tibetan Trek happened in May of 1973 in Nepal. I’ve included the photo of the CIA agent impersonating a monk; it is hard to believe we were fooled.  Just in case he is still active, I’ve added a mask to his picture, to preserve his identity.

I did a lot of active things in my life until 1998 when I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, which has impacted my mobility.    I’m currently writing a memoir of a sailing trip across the Pacific that I made in 1995, prior to first symptoms.  It’s titled,  Don’t Wait.

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