A Wise Man and the Mountain

1 Oct

A Cathedral in Cizhong stands high above a road in the making

The old man’s hands reflect seventy years of sun, dirt, and mountain — sinewy veins that ripen when he reaches up for a pear off the tree, or cuts grapes from his vines, or pours yak butter tea into my cup.  And if his hands are not proof of his devotion to the land, a mere glance up to his face would rest the case.  This man had lived the land and knew it.  It was his land, his sanctimony with the gorge and the river and the glaciers, and I was his visitor in this small vineyard town in the Mekong gorge.

After a week in a high, verdant village below the two sacred peaks, we wound our way up to the bustling and aesthetically displeasing county capital of Deqin, and then back down the steep slopes of the eastern Himalaya to a small wine-producing village on the banks of the Mekong. One thousand meters below Deqin, the land felt warm, almost hot. The sun blazed and the flies swarmed, and even the site of bucolic vineyards and walnut trees could not distract me from the initial experience of heat and heavier air. Still, at two-thousand meters (almost 7,000 feet), the nights were cool and mornings pleasant.

Within an hour of arriving in Dalun and upon an invitation, I followed an old hunter through the terraced vineyards, walnut groves, and irrigated mountain streams to his multistory, earthen home. Along the way, he directed me to break off bunches of grapes and pick pears from the massive trees (which, upon pulling, would loose a number of other pears, some of which would land squarely on our heads). Upon arrival at his home, I noticed the massive timber used to build not only the house itself, but also the entryways, animal shelters, and garden walls. And a skilled carpenter had carved elaborate Tibetan symbols into the window frames, doorways, and columns of the courtyard.

I remembered back to our time in the high village of Hongpo where people had stretched cables nearly two kilometers down a mountain. They used these cables to send these large pieces of wood from the forests above. But around Dalun, there were no forests on the surrounding slopes. In fact, the slopes were barren except for some small shrubs and nopal cacti. Between patches of green were deep grooves where rainwater and landslides had continually cut into the mountains. The wood, I thought, must now be brought in by truck.

As noticeable as it was, the deforestation in Dalun paled in comparison to the construction projects surrounding Dalun. Above, below, and around the village, laborers and machinery were cutting deeper into the earth to build roads. To the northeast, laborers are upgrading a roadway that stretches all the way to Lhasa; this will soon be a Gaosu Gonglu, a “superhighway” of sorts. To the southwest, a road cuts to a touristy village on the western banks of the river; and the road to this village is the road that will continue along the Mekong hundreds of kilometers, opening the Tibetan world of Deqin County more directly to the Mekong basin of southern Yunnan.

And today, I sit in another village across the Mekong from that road, sixty kilometers south of Dalun. From a rooftop in Cizhong, I can look down over a nineteenth century missionary cathedral toward the road. The greenery of a steep mountain slope abruptly ends where the gash of a roadway begins. In fact, the gash starts anywhere from thirty to one-hundred feet above the road surface itself, and debri from the project spills another hundred to two-hundred feet into the Mekong.

When I first sat down in the old man’s Tibetan household in Dalun, I was more taken by my own indulgence in the resources of the village – grapes, wine, apples, pears, greenery, streams, friendly dogs and kittens, and walnuts – than by the impact of development. But the longer we stayed in Dalun, the more I could feel the approach of development’s low roar. It was as though I were in an open canoe, floating slowly on a meandering river before hearing the distant warning of an impending rapid. At first, it is a distant white noise; I might think that my ears are playing tricks. But then, as I round a bend, the whirring, wrathful voices of water pouring over rocks and into holes becomes louder. My eyes dilate, my heart quickens, and I prepare for the inevitable. And finally, when I’ve done all I can to prepare, I am above the roaring drop where, despite all my preparation, the unpredictable power of water has its say in my fate.

Only on the river, I have practice. I have prepared many times for the descent. A village like Dalun does not practice approaching development a number of times before perfecting it. A village like Dalun has only one chance to get it right, and much of its fate depends on the external forces of development rather than its internal knowledge and leadership. On a river, I know I can scout a rapid, use my previous experience, and read the river so that I might make an evolving set of decisions. These decisions will hopefully allow for my survival, and perhaps for my own evolution as a conscious human. Will Dalun have this opportunity to preview the world twenty years from now? Does this old man, now my friend, have the wisdom to encourage his fellow villagers to put on the brakes and consider their fate?

Fortunately, he does. But this old hunter, now devout Buddhist, is one of the rare few who has experienced enough to see the big picture. That his mountain, the massive snow range called Khawakarpo, is worth our homage. That it is more important to develop internally than externally. That when death approaches and our life becomes a timeless spark in the combustion of the cosmos, what does it matter that we can buy a flatscreen television just an hour away in Deqin? That ultimately our own awareness and consciousness can do more to evolve humanity than the antiquated practice of building stuff* in the same way, over and over and over again.

*After seeing this building of “stuff” for every day of three weeks in some of Yunnan’s most remote terrain, indeed it begins to seem like “stuff.” At Mingyuan Glacier, across the river from Dalun, we encountered, at the top of a steep climb, a set of stairs and platforms for tourists to view the glacier. Yet there was no educational or interpretive infrastructure. This, when the glacier has receded nearly two kilometers and one thousand vertical feet in the past forty years (one third of its size). This is to say that I believe, and regret, that we are building “stuff” without the stuff of consciousness.

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