An epic family journey to the heart of the Himalaya

In his new book Blue Sky Kingdom, Bruce Kirkby explores modern distraction and the loss of ancient wisdom on an adventure with his wife and sons in one of the world's most remote regions. An exclusive excerpt.

  • Sep 01, 2020
  • 2,008 words
  • 9 minutes
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We had been at the monastery for two months when Lama Wangyal hurried into our room one evening. Christine and I were reading by headlamp.

“Packing! Packing!”

A jeep would arrive at first light, he explained, to carry him and us to his sister’s homestead, in the village of Tungri. How long would we be away, I asked? What about teaching? But I got no answer; Lama Wangyal’s footsteps were already fading down the earthen passageway.

It was pitch-black when he pounded on our door the next morning.

“Oh, Mortub! Going now!” I glanced at my watch. It was 5:45 a.m. The jeep had arrived early. Leaping up, Christine and I shook the boys and began stuffing sleeping bags into duffel bags. Taj refused to get out of his pyjamas. Bodi was in tears, searching fruitlessly for a lost piece of Lego.

“Hurrying!” Lama Wangyal yelled from the hall. His footsteps faded and the hobbit door slammed. We stumbled after him, Taj in pyjamas, Bodi sobbing.

A dilapidated Toyota pickup waited at the monastery gates. Tossing our duffel into the back, our family crammed into the rear of the cab: Bodi on my knee, Taj on Christine’s. Lama Wangyal took the front seat. The vehicle lurched away into a crimson dawn.

Instead of following the main road south toward Padum, our driver veered west, bouncing along a dirt track in the shadow of the Zanskar Range. Soon we left Zanskar’s central plains and entered a narrowing valley leading toward the headwaters of the Stod. The land grew increasingly rugged, the steep mountainsides dotted with shattered boulders the size of cars. Amid the rubble, I spotted an eagle hunting.

An hour later, the green fields of a village appeared. The pickup jolted to a stop beside a whitewashed chorten. Lama Wangyal leapt out, grabbed his bag and set off, maroon robes vanishing down a narrow trail. I shrugged, and the driver shrugged back. Dragging our duffel from the back, we took the boys in hand and raced after the monk, following muddy paths along the edge of irrigation canals.

We found Lama Wangyal outside a two-storey whitewashed homestead with traditional ochre-trimmed windows and a flat roof. A flagpole, draped with sun-bleached prayer flags and topped with a yak tail, signalled that all 16 basic volumes of Kangyur were housed within. A humble garden held carrots, radishes, onions, cardamom, potatoes and peas. Lama Wangyal pounded on the door, but no one answered. Pressing his ear to the wood and hearing nothing, he retrieved a key from underneath a wash basin.

Beyond a pungent stable, concrete stairs led up to the family quarters: four empty bedrooms, a cold storage room (crammed with sacks of grain, barrels of barley beer and buckets of yogourt) and a windowless kitchen, where kettles and cauldrons hung from hooks above a dung-burning stove.

Lama Wangyal immediately began cooking dal in a pressure cooker, while our boys amused themselves by spinning a pair of squat prayer wheels, neon in colour and the size of turntables. When the food was ready, the old monk packed it into a wicker basket. Then together we set off in search of his sister.

The pathways were bustling, and everyone bowed to Lama Wangyal. He questioned a few, and all pointed north, toward the outer village fields. Twenty minutes later we arrived at a small plot of golden barley, roughly the size of a suburban lawn. Crouched, and pulling grain by hand, were Lama Wangyal’s sister, Lamo, and her husband, Dorjey.

Lamo squealed upon spotting our boys. Her brow was streaked with mud, and two greying braids emerged from beneath a knit beanie. Wearing a purple jumper and baggy harem pants, she chased the giggling pair with her tongue sticking out.

Dorjey, her husband, rose more wearily. Wearing soiled jeans and a red polo shirt, he was a lithe man. Veins snaked across his taut biceps. A tightly cropped moustache was the only sign that he was a havildar, or sergeant, in the Indian Army—currently on leave to help with harvest.

Two elderly women emerged from the field of barley, both wearing homespun robes and necklaces of turquoise. One was Dorjey’s mother. (Dorjey’s father, we were told, was in a nearby field, peeling logs.) The other woman, introduced as Doda, stared at us blankly, toothless and mute. Sewn to the brim of her floppy orange hat were a silver pendant, a picture of the Dalai Lama and a child’s plastic sea star. She evidently was developmentally delayed in some way, but here she was in the fields, working alongside everyone else, contributing to the community.

All of them — Lamo, Dorjey, his mother and father and Doda — were members of the same paspun, a tightly bound group of households who supported each other at times of birth, marriage and death, and who worked co-operatively during the busy seasons of harvest and planting. As a social institution, the paspun is unique to Zanskar, and every family, in every village across the entire valley, belongs to one.

It now became clear why Lama Wangyal had dragged us here. Our family had been recruited, at least temporarily, to join Lamo’s paspun — which suited Christine and me just fine.

Work paused while we unpacked the wicker basket in the shade of sea buckthorn bushes. Bowls of steaming dal and rice were quickly dispatched. Flatbread was washed down with a jug of chang.

Chang, or fermented barley beer, is a collegial, congenial drink I was familiar with from my time among the Sherpas. Milky and mildly alcoholic, it confers a glowing cheerfulness unlike any other libation I have known. Best of all, being rich in vitamin B, it rarely induces a hangover, which is a good thing, for chang is impossible to refuse and is often consumed in vast quantities. Dorjey used yarrow to flavour his brew, and the result was pleasantly crisp, not unlike hops in an ale. Under a warm sun, Lamo filled our cups again and again. I was soon dizzy, and lay back in the grass, idly chewing fragments of bloated barley that floated atop the opaque liquid.

Eventually Dorjey rose and stretched arms skyward; it was time to return to harvest. Lamo was reticent to accept our help — she urged us to return to her home and relax — but Lama Wangyal insisted she demonstrate the process of pulling barley. Crouched on her haunches at the edge of the golden crop, she gathered a handful of stalks — about the thickness of a shovel handle — and with a jerk, yanked them free of the ground. After shaking precious topsoil from spidery roots, she methodically stacked the sheaves in a thatched pattern behind her, meant to protect the ripening ears from scavenging birds.

Christine and I set to work beside her, shuffling sluggishly forward as we wrenched barley out, one handful at a time. Within minutes, my knees were throbbing, so I sat directly down in the dirt and scooched along on my bum. My hands soon ached. Christine quietly chanted as she worked — Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum — which thrilled Lamo.

“Good, Angmo! Good!” she clapped.

Bodi and Taj floated twigs down irrigation ditches, and later chased a pair of lambs. When Taj found a dead bird, he proudly carried it over to show us, not yet tainted by the grown-up dread of touching dead things.

An hour passed, and our progress felt indiscernible. An eternity of golden barley stretched ahead. And this was only one of Lamo and Dorjey’s 17 fields.

After another round of flatbread and chang, Christine took the boys back to the house, while I began a job that would consume me for days: carrying load after load of pungent alfalfa to the roof of Lamo’s homestead — the very task I had assisted the elderly woman in Karsha with.

Alfalfa, considered a secondary crop and used as winter fodder, is grown around the periphery of the barley fields, tucked into a thin strip of arable land. The green leafy plant had been cut days earlier by scythe and rolled into crude bales, roughly a metre long, and half that in diameter. Now dried in the sun, these bales could be picked up and moved without falling apart, an ingenious technique that circumvented the need for twine.

Using a pair of rope lassos, Dorjey bound six such bales together. I lay back on the pile, slipped one arm through each rope, and then struggled to my feet. Although the alfalfa on my back was not crushingly heavy, perhaps thirty kilograms, it was physically immense, almost the size of a refrigerator. The bottom of the bundle hit me in the calves and the top wobbled overhead. Dorjey gave a thumbs-up, and I set off toward his home.

The narrow pathways were crowded with livestock: donkeys, cows, yaks, sheep and dzo all grazing on a dusting of husks and chaff. (Across the Himalaya, yaks are routinely crossbred with domestic cattle, producing hybrids that are larger, stronger and more productive in both milk and meat. The male offspring of such pairings are known as dzo, and female dzomo.) As I squeezed past these animals, their warm flanks pressed against my thighs. Many attempted to steal nibbles from my load, and I was forced to spin this way and that to protect my cargo.

It took 15 minutes to reach Lamo’s homestead, where a wobbly ladder led to a barren mud roof, about the size of a tennis court. After dropping the alfalfa beside an outhouse-shaped structure in a distant corner — the family chapel — I headed back to the fields.

Dorjey was nowhere in sight, so I gathered a second load myself, lashing together seven bundles. The next trip I took eight. And then nine, which proved to be my limit, for the load must have been approaching 50 kilograms and threatened to burst from the lassos with every step.

One hour of exertion faded into the next. Thistle fluff floated on the afternoon air and clouds of locusts rose from my feet. Others wriggled against the small of my back, emerging from the load I carried. A flock of small birds took flight with a frantic beating of wings, flying away in unison like a spill of ink crossing the fields.

I slipped into a trance-like state, taking delight in the simplest of details: the weathered face of an elder, slumping fence lines, a young boy’s hand stroking the flanks of a horse, glittering sunlight upon an irrigation ditch.

A line of reapers sang as they swung sickles, the freshly cut alfalfa at their feet the iridescent green of a jungle snake. A man in a tweed jacket drove two yaks, a rudimentary plough tilling rich loam behind. Then toothless Doda appeared, shuffling along beneath a load of peas, dragging a skinny horse with her.

It seemed every person I passed was either muttering mantras or running mala beads through their fingers. A few elders spun prayer wheels, balanced against hips. At lunch I’d even noted Dorjey reciting snatches of scripture amid lulls in our conversation. Every activity held the opportunity for devotion. And all of these actions — the mantras, the prayer beads and spinning prayer wheels — were really just meant as anchors to the present moment, as a reminder: I’m right here, right now, doing this. There seemed to be no separation between life and religion in these fields. Life was the ceremony.

Outside Lamo’s home, Bodi and Taj were sword fighting with walking sticks. On my next trip, I spotted them beside the communal water pump, helping an elderly woman draw water. I waved from beneath my load, and they waved back.

Excerpt from Blue Sky Kingdom: An Epic Family Journey to the Heart of the Himalaya by Bruce Kirkby, pages 227 to 232. Reprinted by permission of Douglas & McIntyre.

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