Just Another Day in Tibet
In October 2005. I left London, England to enter China with the idea to start a new business. Instead I quickly found disillusion. I needed to follow something new and completely out of normal context, so I found an 83 year old master to teach me kung fu intensely for six months. During that time an idea came.
Now was the time to make a journey !
Tibet, a place I had always dreamt of, wasn’t so far away.
Knowing I would need a horse to carry my belongings, I decided that a good place to start would be to type in the words “Tibetan horse” in the Google search engine.
I found the history of the Tibetan Tea Horse Trail, an old trading route dating back 1500 years. According to these sources, the trail ran between Yunnan, West China and Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But there was also a warning that before you reached Lhasa, there would be 78 mountains and 51 rivers to cross. The traveller might also enjoy experiencing heavy snowfall, scorching sun, hailstones and extreme temperature changes in a single day. Not surprisingly, the Tea Horse Trail was considered to the most dangerous trading route in the world.
Not surprisingly, the infamous route stopped being use in the 1960s when motorized roads were opened. That’s why I was lucky to meet up by chance with the Pu-Ur Tea Company. They were a group of Chinese men who were re-enacting history for charity. Their mission was to travel to Lhasa with a hundred mules laden with tea. That’s how I came to walk with them for 65 days, journeying with them from Yunnan to Lhasa. Accompanying me were my two mules, Mei Ling and Hu May.
After reaching the historic capital of Tibet, the mules and I carried on across Tibet, until we finally reached the sacred mountain known as Mount Kailash. By this time winter had began.
The weather was deteriorating and temperatures were plummeting to minus 20. Because of a lack of food, I was as thin as Gandhi. One mule was sick and the other one seemed to be suffering from a phantom pregnancy!
In a life or death situation we crossed over the Himalayan mountains without a map or a guide.
I simply listened to my intuition and trusted it would lead me to safety. In this way I crossed into India and handed myself into an army camp based high in the mountains.
Unfortunately, the Indian authorities threw me into prison. There I fought for my life in a variety of new ways. I suffered from malnutrition, developed pneumonia, had a kidney infection and was stricken with acute bronchitis. These maladies caused me to be admitted to hospital for one month.
When I was brought before the Indian court, I was initially given a one year sentence for not having a possessed a valid Indian visa. Then the local police tried to impose a further 10 years, saying that I should be punished for having crossed a military zone.
Thank God my family, friends, the Long Riders’ Guild and a great lawyer, all came to my rescue. My compassionate story was broadcast around the world. This led to famous explorers, Members of Parliament, Maharajas, Lord's, celebrities, the British Horse Society, Indian Indigenous Horse Society and thousands of people all signing an online petition calling for my release (www.freedan.co.uk). During my imprisonment I was honoured to become a Member of the Long Riders Guild and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
After seven months imprisonment the appeals judge decided that I should have never gone to prison. Deportation, he said, would have been more appropriate. I was set free.
The battle is still not over, as I am still in the legal process of trying to free my beloved mules who remain in the custody of the Indian Military. I wish instead to assure them a well-deserved home on a Buddhist farm in north India. I am also hoping to return to India to retrieve my laptop computer from the Indian Custom officials, as it contains my notes and photos taken during my journey.
When I started my journey on the Tea Horse Trail I had lost faith in humanity. But despite the hardships, my faith has been completely restored after receiving such kindness, help and support from everyone who was involved in helping me. If it weren't for all of you, I would not be free today !
They say that the hardest thing about prison is knowing you cause suffering to those who love you. To help heal those wounds, I would like to share a short story about my journey across Tibet.
Mei Ling and Hu May graze in Tibet.
Click on photo to enlarge.
Mei Ling and Hu May were Chinese mules from Yunnan in Western China. We travelled for 150 days crossing Tibet together. Each day we walked for 30 kilometers, negotiating across some of the most difficult to terrain in the world.
My story may seem as though it is fictional, but to be honest with you, it is how it was. Later, when I told my mum about these experiences, she believed that most of the time I was hallucinating. Perhaps, it could be true due to the lack of nutrition and exhaustion. But what I’m about to recall really did happen.
That day’s story began at a dramatic point. We had experienced no rest day from walking for the past ten days. On this particular day I had already managed to get Mei Ling across a bog with great difficulty. But Hu May was distressed at being separated and left stranded on the other side.
That’s when I returned to the frightened Hu May. It was an emotional business trying to calm her down so that I could tie the lead rope round her neck. Because she was in a foul mood, the mule swung round and tried to kick me. I even had to pull away again to avoid being bitten. That was it. I gave her a look which said, “That’s as far as it’s going to go!” Even Hu May knew she was being out of order.
Then I talked to her gently:
"There is no easy way to do this. We just have to go for it. Trust me, there is no other choice,” I told her.
Still uneasy, the wary mule let me put the rope around her neck. Then began the daunting task of persuading her to find the courage to take that fateful leap into the bog. I tried over and over again to get her to move forward and follow me across the bog but she refused. Every time I managed to bring her close to the edge, she pulled back. I held on tight to the rope but I knew I couldn’t take the strain much longer, especially as Hu May was becoming wilder and wilder.
Out of breath and at the brink of losing my mind, severity took a hold of my voice:
''Now listen to me, there’s only one thing we can do. Mai Ling is waiting for you over there and that means we are going to cross this F++++++ bog whether you like it or not".
And those words were enough to cast the spell. The previously cautious mule leaped straight.
That’s when disaster struck. In a blind panic, with arms grabbing and legs falling, stumbling and slipping, we had travelled across two thirds of the bog when disaster struck. The lead rope in my hand snapped tight. This time I looked back to see only the top of her left shoulder visible and, neck stretched rigid. Hu May, who was holding her head high above the surface water, was frozen in terror because the bog had almost swallowed her whole.
Realizing that Hu May was in a life or death situation, I sank down into the bog beside her. It was cold and felt disgusting. My heart sank into utter despair. I spoke the words shaking from my voice, “Please not like this, please not this.”
|The mules used by the traders of the
Pu-ur Tea Company stand patiently before their departure from China to
Click on photo to enlarge.
On the emotional see-saw I soon tipped from the extreme of despair to the other extreme of anger. With clenched teeth, I looked at the rope hanging loose around Hu May’s neck. I realized it would never stay on if I tried to pull her out. So my hand reached out, grabbed hold of the mule’s mane and then, relentlessly, I began pulling and urging her to struggle on. I became so desperate that I screamed a war cry. Meanwhile, under the surface our legs smashed into each other. Twice I felt a sharp striking pain as Hu May’s shoe smashed into my calf muscle. It was a desperate attempt for freedom but we made little headway in the awful and relentlessly long bog.
Hu May thought she had reached her limit and wanted to give up. But I never gave her that choice. I kept urging her on. Then, somehow, she managed to haul herself across most of the bog. Then the exhausted animal lay on her side, the back half of her body still submerged in the bog below, her front legs stretched out across the watery surface. We were both covered in mud. I let go of her mane. Utterly exhausted, all we could do was just stare at each other. It seemed we had become so numb that time held still. Was this really happening? It did not seem real! Then an intense shudder brought me back to my senses.
Hu May still wasn’t free, so I reached over to grab the mane one more time. But she was having none of that humiliation again and pulled away. Then, as if manifesting the supernatural strength of the gigantic Trojan horse, the Chinese mule turned herself upright. Her hind legs were still submerged but her front legs were stretched out on top of the bog. She suddenly surged, leaping up and forwards, only to fall back into the bog again. That’s when Hu May found the last reserves of her inner strength. The fight for survival ran through that mule’s veins as she ploughed through the last thirty feet of bog. Nothing was going to stop her from reaching her friend, Mei Ling this time. After a tremendous effort, it was amazing to see Hu May pull herself up and out onto the bank where Mei Ling stood anxiously waiting to greet her. They faced each other, then began softly nudging each other, expressing a love that was so apparent, so strong. It was one the journey’s most touching moments, to see them so united.
When I too at last stood on the bank of the wretched bog, I began shivering uncontrollably. Yet I found myself watching Hu May and Mei Ling and thinking, "Thank God ! Thank God ! Thank God !"
That’s when I began to feel light-headed. My vision started wavering and, like a fast draining battery, my body lost all its strength. I managed to keep control, but knew I was shutting down. I fell slowly onto my knees and then a thought sprang to mind.
“I must keep my body tight, to try and stay warm.”
Curling down onto my knees and falling forwards, my forehead touched the soft cold wet green ground and then.....I blacked out.
Eyes shut, I felt the warmth of the morning sun caressing my back. But it was the sound of two voices repeating ''Hello, hello,'' which led me back to consciousness. It was an effort to lift myself up and open my eyes and as soon as I did a hand stretched out not to help but to ask if I had a cigarette. I could not believe it! Clearly anybody should be able to recognize I was in a real mess! Even though the two young nomads never got their cigarette, they did however help me lift the baskets back on Hu May and to pack.
Despite our near fatal disaster in the bog, the mules and I were forced to began walking again. We found ourselves headed towards a great tor (a high rocky hill) protruding up out of the plateau. The mighty tor’s boulder-riddled green slope led up to a sharp crest high above the watery plain below. In contrast, the tor cut across the sky like a great crested green iguana which was several kilometers long. This tor iguana appeared to be lying flat on its stomach, with its crest composed of a thousand towers of jagged black rock.
On the other side of that tor lay the safety of the road I was seeking.
But ahead of we three weary travellers was a flooded plateau. One glance told me we had a long way to go before we reached the firm slopes of the tor’s strange haven. Nevertheless, we set off only to find that our troubles were far from over. With each step we found ourselves once again sinking down into soft ground.
I felt reasonably confident that we would be able to cross the boggy plain because half-way across I could see the remains of an old yak pen sticking up out of the water. I just hoped the ground under the water was not too soft! So, mules in tow, I went straight on.
Because of this soft terrain, it took hours of slow tedious work to get Hu May and Mei Ling to cross over to the tor. I had not realized the strain and effort I was engaged in until a deep aching pain across my right shoulder and arm alerted me that I had been pulling the leading rope for hours and could no longer take the strain. I looked at Mei Ling who was constantly pulling away. I felt frustrated even though I knew she was suffering from being traumatized in the treacherous bog. Still, I too was exhausted, so I tried over and over again to persuade her to walk at ease. But her constant and reluctant pulling finally pushed me over the edge.
There were a few points in the journey when I just couldn’t take it any more! And this was one of them! As my frustration grew, I went out of control, spinning into a tantrum. The demon had reared its ugly head and when all my energy was spent I calmed down, knowing I had been out of order, shocked by my own behavior. I tried looking back into my past. Perhaps I had experienced a tantrum when I was a child? If so, I could not remember ever being in this state before. So I was left to confront my own demons.
I completely relaxed and apologized to Mei Ling. Then I began to lead her on again, only this time quietly. Now I no longer cared if she pulled away. I no longer acknowledged the pain. As long as we moved on, nothing else mattered. Then, after five minutes of walking, the rope in my hand went slack. Slowly and steadily, Mei Ling came alongside and walked peacefully beside me.
|In an amazing historical coincidence,
Daniel Robinson was the first known Occidental to use the nearly-mythical
girth-less pack-saddle. Unlike pack-saddles used in Europe and North
America, the oriental pack-saddle relies on a breast-plate and a unique
crupper to keep the cargo in place. This photograph, taken by Daniel,
shows the wooden beads which allow the crupper to float without harming the
Click on photo to enlarge.
By the time we reached the other side of the plateau, I was relieved to step out from the water onto the tor’s firm dry slope. What a great feeling to be back on dry land! At the base of my tee-shirt was a clear tidal mark. Above the mark were the dirty layers dried mud left over from the bog, while below the mark I was almost clean from the recent soaking. But even though my trousers and boots were sodden wet; I still felt semi-clean and this somehow made me feel human again. Plus, the sun was shining. I felt an uplift of sublime happiness and joy.
Mei Ling, Hu May and I had only been walking about five minutes up the tor’s slope, when we stumbled across two yurts. These traditional dwellings were nestled into a level piece of ground overlooking the plateau. When I walked up, I saw three Tibetan nomads going about their daily chores. They were surrounded by goats.
Thinking that I was about to finally escape from the my recent hardships, I walked up smiling like a Cheshire cat. The first woman I approached was squatting on the ground, and though she looked up at me, she didn’t seem happy. So I said “Hello” and gave her a beaming smile.
Her face changed. It was as if a feral wild cat was now looking back at me. She was completely distressed. Her eyes were wide open and her face was shaking in fear. But I couldn’t believe she was seriously afraid of me ! So for my own amusement, and thinking I was still being friendly, I took another step closer and knowing she wouldn’t understand, I quoted Shrek, the giant green cartoon ogre:
“It’s all right. I’m not going to eat you!" I said, then gave her another big beaming smile.
She didn’t see the humour in it, and holding her shaking hands out in front of her as if to ward me off, she drew back, even more petrified. I had never seen anyone look so frightened! But still feeling friendly, I turned round to smile at the man and woman nearby. Then, having received no invitation to linger, I immediately left.
Bloody hell, I thought as I walked on, maybe my earlier screams of anger had travelled out across the impassable bog which normally protected this seldom seen land. Maybe the woman had heard my cries and now thought standing before her was some manifested Tibetan demonic bog monster! That’s just great, I thought. I walked on alone trying to come to terms with my new Tibetan title, “Demonic Robinson of the Bog.” So I trudged on under the watchful eye of the great crested tor-iguana but asked Mei Ling and Hu May if they thought I had lost grip on reality. They said nothing.
After another hour’s walk skirting along the side of the tor, by constantly avoiding boulders, we finally came down off the mountainside onto the relative safety of the road. This was a raised track, which my eye followed across a plateau. I estimated it would just take another hour’s walking to reach new and even higher terrain. But the tired mules and I had already spent five hours travelling that morning, so before we pushed on, I decided it was time for us all to rest. During this short break, I took out many of my still wet muddy possessions and hung them to dry off the ropes that secured the rattan baskets onto the wooden packsaddle frame.
Soon afterwards we once again set off and in no time at all Mei Ling and Hu May were moving along at our normal walking pace. But the good times didn’t last for long, as we soon came to a new hazard. Over the years the road had suffered from the constant bombardment of overloaded goods trucks. Thanks to the marshy land surrounding both sides of the truck track, the road was a muddy nightmare. With no way but forward, I took hold of the lead rope and walked into the shallow sticky mud awaiting us. But as I progressed, I realized that it became deeper, Even worse, it also became increasingly difficult to walk.
Just as I was making these unwelcome discoveries, Mei Ling lost her nerve and came to a halt. Her boycott was quickly joined by Hu May. So there I stood in a deserted, muddy road in the middle of Tibet, talking to two mules and trying to explain that if I could do it with just two legs then surely they should have no problem with four. I even pointed out that just ten feet further out in front of us, the formerly semi-solid mud changed to a liquid mess instead. Surely, I said, that soft footing would be much easier for the team to negotiate. So trust me, I told them, this short patch of bad road won’t be a problem for three seasoned travellers like us.
I had no sooner uttered my explanation when I took up the lead rope, and pulling the reluctant mules behind me, set off towards my muddy fate. As I began walking into the mud, I struggled to pull one foot after the other free from the quicksand like mud. Each step was difficult and I stumbled forward, trying hard to keep my dignity. One boot sank in, then another. But I fought on. My right foot would become released and I would manage an unsteady step forward. Then I would have to use all the force and weight of my entire body to pull my left foot free again. As I tried to make the next such step, my foot became tightly held by the suction, the result being that I was catapulted not forwards but down into the mud. In swift reaction to falling, my left hand shot out, then smashed down into the mud. It had saved the rest of my body from muddy hell but a sharp pain shot up from my ankle.
"Damn, not a sprained ankle again!" I worried.
Despite being braced in a one arm press in the mud, I had still managed to hold on to the lead rope. I now used it to slowly work my body back up into an upright position. But because the other end of the lead rope was attached to the halter, the weight of my body began to force Mei Ling heads down towards the mud. Predictably, she reacted by pulling her head back and then swinging it from side to side. This left me trying to regain my balance, which staying attached to the other end of a violent rope. Eventually I managed to stand again. When I turned to look at Mei Ling, she stared back at me very disapprovingly.
I inspected my mud-plastered and unrecognizable left hand. Then, whipping it up and down very hard, I tried to shake it free of the thick muddy armor now coating me. But in trying to shake off the mud, pellets of the muck splattered back across my face and glasses. It was time to surrender any concepts of cleanliness, so I gave up and wiped the rest of the mud onto my trouser leg.
Then we stepped further into the trench, at which point cold watery mud poured into my boots. The mules and I pushed on, though we were all soon wadding along in mud that reached the level of our knees.
“I no longer care,” I thought, “I just don't care. We can have a wash in the next river we come to.” Then I pulled on the lead rope and struggled on.
Every step taken brought soft sludge squishing between my toes. The bottom of my trousers slapped their heavy, wet, cold and muddy sides against my skin. I was now so covered in earth that everything from my knees down was unrecognizable. Not to worry, I tried convincing myself. It will soon dry up and each step taken will be another back one closer to normality. was lost in such ponderings, when I was caught by surprise.
Rounding a corner up ahead, and out of the mud, I saw a noble Tibetan rider mounted on a milk white horse. They were approaching steadily and as they came into full view, I became mesmerized.
Oh my God, I was in the presence of an archetypal being, the Prince of Tibet. Every single thing about the man was strikingly beautiful, immaculately clean, naturally strong, incredibly powerful. His clothes were pristine and hung in smooth harmony with the universe. He was the most beautiful man I had have ever seen, a living dream before my very eyes .
And now as this aristocratic Prince of Tibet rode towards me, he caught sight of the mud smeared apparition slogging its way with two mules along a nameless truck track in the back of beyond. When he saw me, the Prince’s mouth fell open. He looked down upon me in disbelief and disdain. I felt awkward, inadequate, disorganized, a mess. I tried to look pleasant. But I wasn’t feeling confident this time around. I barely managed a small smile as he passed carefully by along the edge of the track, keeping himself and his still white horse out of the mud the entire time.
After the Prince had ridden on in silence, I was left to wonder how bad we looked? When I touched my face, dry mud cracked into pieces and tumbled to the ground. Likewise, the back of my head seemed to be covered in a helmet of thick mud and matted hair. Hearing a sound behind me, I looked round at Mei Ling and Hu May. They too were wearing a coat of thick brown mud from the tips of their hooves nearly to their withers. We looked like Jackson Pollack had splattered us all with mud from head to hoof. Plus, the pannier baskets hanging from the pack saddles were now sporting a jumbled pile of dirty red underpants, socks, horse blankets, clothes and sleeping bag, all of which were also muddy. If I could have placed us in a historical context, no one would have noticed us in the mud soaked trenches of the First World War.
Then I picked up the lead rope, took a deep breath and determined to slog on. I walked slowly, head down, leading the way again. Once again, the mud pulling at me felt heavy. I was so weary and every step was such a struggle. Judging by the sun, it was only 12:30. But the effort, the bog, and the mud had overcome my mind and body. In this fatigued state I looked back on the recent events. That’s when I realized the comedy of it all. I was tired, hungry, exhausted, probably lost and covered in mud, but I still couldn’t help laughing at an unexpected new thought which had popped into my head.
When I began laughing, the Chinese mules, Mei Ling and Hu May, looked at me as if to say, ''What now?”
All I could do was point to my face and say “Throughout the world women pay really good money for this type of mud pack facial.”
Somehow just telling this to a pair of mules in the mud-soaked middle of Tibet was enough to send me into fits of hysterical laughter. I could no longer stand, let alone walk. Mei Ling and Hu May looked on and agreed with each other.
This time their master had completely lost the plot!
The photograph at the top of the page was taken by Matthieu Paley, one of the Friends of The Guild.
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