The ragged-edged path winds upwards, sinuously curving around ridges and dipping across gullies, rising continuously in what seems to be an ignorant defiance of the local topography. A rising ribbon of loose gravel and slickly icecoated mud, this trail is clearly not meant for people, a fact demonstrated by the profusion of yak droppings. I stare at the slope below, backpedaling as a shower of small stones loosens underfoot, scrambling upwards on all fours to the top of a smooth sheet of snow. I stop, finding myself somewhere between freezing from the minus-twenty degree air and overheating from the ascent, and, conveniently, at a spot with a passable view.
Below me, the valley falls away, somberly marching conifers giving way to terraced fields of highland barley, barren at this time of year but retaining the possibilities, whether expectations or memories, of summer luxuriance. My eyes rise up an adjacent mountainside, where the golden roofs of a monastery sit radiantly sunlit in their impossibly aquiline perch; across the valley, a village sits perched atop a spur, smoke wisping upwards into the clouds, and above all, a range of towering snowcovered peaks, topped by the sacred mountain of the Garuda. Wait: I know the name. I look around once more; I can name a number of the surrounding features: mountains, villages, valleys. Some of the names are invented, associated with my experiences, but more are real. I think: how did this place, so far from home, transform from foreign to familiar? How have I come to see this place – so ostensibly remote and different – as a home?
Travel, for me, is not simply about seeing new places or relentlessly – and purposefully – searching for new experiences. Instead, it is about getting to know and attempting (and inevitably failing) to understand places and cultures and people that are intensely different from those with which you are familiar. I seem to be an odd mixture of traveler and homebody; my love of movement is tempered by my desire to understand that which I am moving through. To this end, I’ve spent the past three years living and teaching on the Tibetan Plateau, a place of unlimited travel opportunities and a culture esoteric enough that I will never understand any of it – which, of course, only gives me more motivation to keep trying. While my life here is structurally similar to that of English teachers elsewhere, the fact of my environmental, geographical and cultural context makes everything into A-list mythic travel material.
Want to go for a run? Prepare to be heckled by farmers and yak-herders all the way, and gain a reputation throughout the surrounding countryside as “the foreign boy with no pants”. Want to go shopping? Ready yourself for a constant barrage of wide-eyed stares, occasionally accompanied by a booming “HELLOOOOOOO!!” Want to buy something at a shop? Make sure you’re fortified for the running commentary of the owner, a sharpeyed middle-aged woman who will be sure to castigate you for buying beer or make fun of your love for spicy peanuts (they’re really good). Want to have some time to yourself outside? Good luck. A crowd will gather before you know it, investigating and probing and setting up a miniature inquisition over whatever you may or may not be doing.
And how, again, did this become home? I continue to think, as I make my way up the icily forested slopes, about how I’ve become so comfortable in a place of such distance, difference and wonder. Has my experience on the plateau turned past the point of travel and become, more simply, life?
I turn the corner and the trees drop away; above lie snowspeckled alpine meadows, flower-strewn in June but shiningly barren now. I crest a small ridgeline above me and suddenly find myself amidst a large herd of sheep who, surprisingly unafraid of my presence, continue to graze placidly. No noise filters up from the valley below but the gentle hiss of the wind. I look to the windswept summits above; all else recedes and I am alone.
I suddenly awake. Over my shoulder I hear the idea of a high, reedy wail, which soon transforms itself into a suggestion of a melody. A man soon appears over the hillside, plucking a mandolin, singing an old Tibetan love song. He stares at me, in utter confusion, and then visibly plucks up his courage; a smile forms on his face and he comes over, still singing, and sits down next to me.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say in execrable Tibetan. “I’m just here to see.”
“That’s good,” he said.
We get to talking, switching into hybrid Tibeto-Chinese for communicative ease. He is a shepherd, responsible for the sheep I saw earlier, but his true love is music. His cousin is a music student at a university in a big city to the east. He shows me pictures of his family, and I show him pictures of mine. He tries to teach me a song; I can get the melody, but not the words. I look at my watch. We have been enjoying this mountaintop together for a few hours, apparently, and dusk will come soon. We walk down the mountain into the gathering darkness, and I find a ride back to town. He gives me his cell phone number, which I list in my phone as “Nomad Guy”. I will not soon forget this afternoon.
I think of the short trips I take near my plateau home as “Exploratory Hikes” or “Adventure Runs”. The procedure is as follows: I get into a shared van in the center of town and get out wherever looks interesting. I head up whatever valley or ridge I so desire, meeting and talking to whoever may appear and not worrying myself with alternatives. I don’t think about what I should have or might have done; I just do. Sometimes the experience is nothing special, but surprisingly often I see or hear or feel or do something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Whenever I plan a trip, I make sure I fail to plan anything except for a vague and skeletal outline. I start here; I end there. What comes in between is up for debate. Whether a half-day jaunt in the mountains or a journey of months, I like to give myself the flexibility to take any and all opportunities which might present themselves. For who knows what might happen? What places you might find yourself, what people you might meet, what experiences you might have? When you take all chances that come your way, who knows what might come your way, which of the infinite possibilities in this world of unbounded wonder might change your life forever?