Interview with reviewer and editor
Norm Goldman at Bookpleasures.com.
Norm: Brandon, could you tell our readers something about yourself and your wife Cheryl, and why did you want to trek across Tibet and did you ever had any fears prior to your journey?
Brandon: Tashi delek, Norm! We had been travelling for years as budget travelers, traveling light, with only a backpack to sustain us for months on end. In the process, we'd made our requisite trip around the world for a year and had seen many of civilization's greatest achievements. We'd also traveled overland across Africa for nine months. So, we were ready for a more intense experience—something more in line with that of the great explorers.
Our decision to attempt to trek
from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal sprung from the notion that
this was the ultimate adventure. Everyone grew up with the legend
of a Shangri-La, that fanciful place from James Hilton's Lost
Horizon. The more that I read about Tibet, the more I was
fascinated by its remoteness, inaccessibility, and its exotic
reputation. Then, as luck would have it, we were told several times
that a Western couple had never done this trek—and that it was
"impossible!" That ultimately sealed our fate.
As far as "fears" prior to the
journey, first, I had real concerns that we wouldn't be allowed
into Tibet as independent travelers, since the border had been
closed to them for many years. A Chinese organized group tour was
simply out of the question for us. Then, although we were assured
the trip was "impossible" due to lack of food, water,
accommodations, and maps, personally I was more worried about the
weather. Knowing the severity of weather conditions in the
Himalayas, would we be able to reach the lower altitudes of Nepal
in time before the roads closed, stranding us until May's
Finally, I must admit that I was
also wary about the reaction of Uzi-toting Chinese soldiers along
the way, as well as the various cadres of bureaucrats unused to
dealing with outsiders. Guess I'd prefer to deal with nature any
day, rather than the vagaries of human nature.
Brandon: It's a toss-up. This entire journey was chock-full of uncertainty. The spectre of running out of food and water was a daily concern. Where would we stay? Would our bodies be able to physically able to make 1000 kilometers at 12-17,000 foot altitude for 40 days? But I'd have to say that the most singularly harrowing experience we had was being shot at by Chinese soldiers as we overlooked Mt. Everest from a hilltop in Tingri. What do you do? As second runner-up, I'd nominate that morning where we awoke to a blinding blizzard—and realized that we still needed to press on.
Norm: What impressed you most of all about the trip?
Brandon: First, we were impressed by the unexpected generosity of the Tibetan people. We packed a tent, stove and fuel for the trek, expecting to be totally on our own along the way. However, after our first night spent camping in a potato patch, we were taken-in by local villagers who shared their meager possessions, including yak butter tea and a warm spot around their fire. We really grew to look forward to these human exchanges, even though we had to rely on clumsy sign language and a limited phrasebook to communicate. Fortunately, we started to run into former monks who'd received training in Nepal and still spoke limited English. Through talking to them, we became better informed about the hardships of living in Tibet today under the Chinese Communist occupation. We learned that Tibetans are prevented from making pilgrimages along the same route that we trekked into Nepal, as they've done for centuries.
So the trip for us became more
than just an "adventure" trek. It became a political statement. If
we could make their trek as pilgrims, we'd show to the Chinese that
it could be done, even by Westerners, without disrupting the
geo-political balance of power.
In fact, on the trek's conclusion,
we presented a set of prayer flags to the king of Nepal's personal
representative at the palace with the hope that the king would fly
them as a symbol of solidarity with the Tibetan
Finally, we were impressed by the
unwavering faith shown by many of the Tibetans. At night, in the
dark stillness of their homes, we shared photos of His Holiness the
Dalai Lama with them that we had secreted into the country.
Gingerly holding the photo, they touched it to the foreheads of the
members of their family, blessing them. Then drawing back several
layers of curtains, they reverently placed it in their private
altar beside other statues and holy instruments.
After over 40 years of oppression
and death, could we still be so patient—or retain so much
Brandon: Frankly, no. This trek is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. From what I've read since then, and I receive Tibetan news every day now, the country has vastly changed—especially Lhasa. As inundated as it was then with Chinese settlers, solders and foreign culture, it is even more so today. Now, they're in the process of completing a railroad line into Lhasa from western China, so the transformation will be accelerating, the assimilation complete. The world saw the same effect in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria with the arrival of the railroad.
With that said, I'd love to return, perhaps to a more remote region, far removed from the propaganda tours. Of course this is assuming I would be granted a visa. I'd advise readers to explore any part of the world that interests them by walking. There is nothing so satisfying as discovering a culture one-step-at-a-time. This traditional way of exploration a creates a total immersion in a culture: its food, history, art, architecture, people, language and nature. I like to think of it as a walking meditation, too. You place your body on "auto-pilot" and travel outside, while traveling within.
If readers are interested in this
rewarding mode of travel, they can check out several options on my
web site where I have free "how-to" articles about walking some of
Europe's most spectacular pilgrimage routes, along with web links
for more information. Walking across Tibet was the beginning of
this, my latest passion.
Norm: How would you describe the relationship with your wife after the trip? I recall there were some tense moments between you during the adventure.
Brandon: I really admire Cheryl's courage and willingness to take a chance. Traveling with daily hardship, uncertainty, and often life-threatening situations, will put any relationship to the test. Fortunately ours survived and this experience provided an even stronger foundation. If we could survive that, why, we could survive anything.
Brandon: Of course. It was sometimes hard to find the energy or time at the end of one of these 14-hours days to sit down and write. But I wanted this account of our journey to be real, raw, and authentic—not some romanticized notion of adventure travel. To capture that essence (while the blisters were still fresh) was vital. Time heals all wounds, as they say, and if you wait to write about it all later you lose much of the minutiae of the moment until it becomes merely a Disney version of your memory—without the dancing hippos, of course.
Norm: After returning home, did you write articles or lecture about your adventure?
Brandon: I wrote magazine and newspaper articles about the experience, and have recently lectured about the journey and situation in Tibet. I welcome the chance to talk to groups about this life-changing experience and about the Tibet we grew to appreciate.
Brandon: Well, I was so disturbed by seeing the destruction of this ancient culture; the dismantling of temples, the corruption of monastic life; the re-education of a population where the children are prevented from learning Tibetan in schools; the removal of Tibetan food and clothing from the stores, plus the mass settlement of Han Chinese into Tibet causing Tibetans to become a minority in their country.
It is reaching the point where yak butter tea, that nourishing food that has traditionally fed and sustained a people throughout the centuries will soon be all that remains of an enlightened culture, while all the world looks away. These are the "Yak Butter Blues." (Besides, I liked the kind of Jack Kerouac-ian ring to it!)
Norm: Did you ever hear any news about your horse Sadhu that you had to leave behind?
Brandon: As you may remember, I took us a lot of time and effort to find Sadhu a new home in Nepal before we left. But the Internet is an amazing tool. Although we wrote to his new owner, the fellow who ran the Kathmandu guesthouse, shortly after our return home, we never heard back from him. Just recently, I "Googled" the hostel and was able to reach his brother. Sadly, Sadhu, our old friend, passed away a couple of years ago at a very ripe old age. He spent his last years in a luxury resort, but will always be remembered by us as the only Tibetan we could bring to freedom.
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