THE KORA

a Two-Wheeled Pil­grim­age of Pu­rifi­ca­tion

Bike (USA) - - Contents -

A rite of pas­sage so daunt­ing it’s deemed holy by Ti­betans if one can com­plete it on his or her own two feet. So why not try it on two wheels? Bike’s edi­tor-at-large Brice Min­nigh, Sam Se­ward and Joey Schusler did just that in south­west­ern China’s Hi­malaya.

MY EYES BURNED AS A SALTY STREAM

of sweat flooded them. With a fully loaded bike on my back and DEET-laden in­sect re­pel­lent drip­ping onto my hands, I tried to squint through the del­uge of lost flu­ids cours­ing down my face.

The fren­zied ne­bula of mos­qui­toes buzzing around me was do­ing a stel­lar job of stymy­ing my progress, land­ing on ev­ery inch of ex­posed flesh and pierc­ing my skin with their nee­dle-like pro­boscises.

“This is pure agony,” I grum­bled, rest­ing my bike against a clus­ter of bam­boo and swat­ting ir­ri­ta­bly at the shad­owy veil of vec­tors. “At this rate, it’s gonna take us ages to climb out of this mess.”

“That’s for sure,” af­firmed my team­mate, Sam Se­ward, squash­ing his hel­met against his fore­head and send­ing a cas­cade of per­spi­ra­tion down his cheeks. “Maybe we should have started higher up.”

We’d dragged our good buddy, film­maker Joey Schusler, to this re­mote corner of south­west China to bikepack a high-al­ti­tude cir­cuit around three ex­tra­or­di­nary moun­tains con­sid­ered sa­cred by the Ti­betan peo­ple.

Known as the ‘Yad­ing Kora,’ this mul­ti­day pil­grim­age be­neath a tri­an­gle of snow-clad, 19,000-plus-foot peaks is a rite of pas­sage for Ti­betans. For th­ese hardy plateau dwellers, a ‘kora,’—or com­pleted cir­cum­am­bu­la­tion of moun­tains his­tor­i­cally or­dained as holy by var­i­ous Dalai La­mas—will pu­rify a life­time of neg­a­tive karma.

At this point, though, it felt like all that neg­a­tive karma was land­ing squarely on our shoul­ders. Not only were we ham­pered by heavy bags hold­ing 10 days’ worth of sup­plies, but the heat it­self was smoth­er­ing, with a hu­mid­ity fac­tor that made breath­ing feel like an act of des­per­a­tion.

Add the deaf­en­ing re­ver­ber­a­tion of a sym­phony of ci­cadas, rub­bing their wings to­gether un­til they reached an eardrum-split­ting crescendo, and it seemed like the en­tire for­est was col­laps­ing on us.

Fur­ther com­pound­ing mat­ters, I’d spent the pre­vi­ous week fight­ing a crip­pling bout of African tick bite fever that I’d un­luck­ily brought with me from my tem­po­rary home in South Africa. Af­ter sev­eral days of sweat­ing off the delir­ium in a sti­fling ho­tel room, I was start­ing this mis­sion weak and mal­nour­ished. The cool majesty of the moun­tains taunted me. I was in hell.

EX­TREME CON­TRAST

There was no choice but to press on. Our trans­port into th­ese thickly forested foothills had left us be­hind hours ear­lier; the trail we were fol­low­ing would even­tu­ally lead to a fire road we could pedal up to higher el­e­va­tion. This was the price we’d have to pay for sin­gle­track sal­va­tion.

It’d been more than a decade since I’d been to China’s Sichuan Prov­ince, and I’d all but for­got­ten how swel­ter­ing its sum­mers are—es­pe­cially in Au­gust, the month in which we were un­der­tak­ing this ex­pe­di­tion. I’d also for­got­ten how much pre­cip­i­ta­tion Sichuan gets in late sum­mer.

It wasn’t long be­fore I got a re­minder. As we emerged from the sticky, sub­trop­i­cal zone into an ev­er­green broadleaf for­est, the clouds opened up and un­leashed on us. Though the rain pro­vided a wel­come re­spite from the sul­tri­ness, I couldn’t help but won­der what it would mean at se­ri­ous el­e­va­tion.

Our bags were wa­ter­proof, and we’d brought raingear, but we’d in­ten­tion­ally skimped on win­ter clothes to save weight. And the two-sea­son, two-man tent the three of us were shar­ing would only go so far in freez­ing con­di­tions. Set­ting up camp at the end of this balmy first day, I shud­dered at the con­trast of ex­tremes we would have to en­dure.

DOUBLETRACK DE­LIV­ER­ANCE

We crawled out of our cramped sleep­ing quar­ters early the next morn­ing, ea­ger to flee to higher ground. Af­ter a short slog through wet un­der­growth, we in­ter­sected the fire road that was our planned es­cape route.

Joey and Sam were more than ready to abandon the Chi­nese realm in fa­vor of the Ti­betan hin­ter­lands. Heads down, they quickly be­gan grind­ing up­wards with the de­ter­mi­na­tion of a Tour de France pelo­ton mak­ing its at­tack on the Alpe d’Huez.

“So much for al­ti­tude ac­clima­ti­za­tion,” I mut­tered to my­self as I strug­gled to keep the Colorado-based whip­per­snap­pers in sight. The brisk climb through a steady driz­zle was re­fresh­ing, but I could feel the air get­ting thin­ner with each pass­ing switch­back. In a cou­ple of hours, I rounded what seemed like the hun­dredth turn to see the lads stand­ing amid a whirl­wind of col­or­ful prayer flags—sure­fire Ti­betan sym­bols that a pass has topped out.

“Yeah boys, we’re in the Hi­malaya!” Joey shouted, flash­ing his sig­na­ture fist-horns.

PAR­ADISE LOST

Our ex­u­ber­ance was short-lived. The track ahead dipped sharply into a river val­ley, and af­ter half an hour of a rain­soaked des­cent we’d lost al­most all the el­e­va­tion we’d ridden so hard to gain.

Bot­tom­ing out along­side a river, we fol­lowed its me­an­der­ing course all the way to a hill­side set­tle­ment of tra­di­tional stone houses. Known as ‘Kasi Cun,’ this his­toric Ti­betan ham­let was our an­tic­i­pated stag­ing point to truly high el­e­va­tion. Drenched to the bone, we made a bee­line for the vil­lage in search of the yak-but­ter tea we could smell waft­ing through the air.

“Tashi de­leg, tashi de­leg!” an ex­cited group of chil­dren shouted in Ti­betan as they raced down the hill to greet us. “Kerang kaba phege?” asked one, ea­ger to learn where we were go­ing.

“Women yao he cha,” I re­sponded in Man­darin Chi­nese, mak­ing a sip­ping ges­ture and feel­ing sheep­ish about speak­ing the lan­guage of their his­toric over­lords. “You mei you cha?”

“Ni­men xi huan suyou cha ma?” a man fur­ther up the hill asked, look­ing skep­ti­cal of whether we would drink yak-but­ter tea. He mo­tioned for us to en­ter his home.

SPIR­I­TU­AL­ITY OF STO­ICISM

We ducked un­der the low-slung door­way and let our eyes ad­just to the dim in­te­rior. It was a sanc­tu­ary, with a Tantric Bud­dhist shrine on one wall and a blaz­ing wood­stove on the other. A fam­ily span­ning three gen­er­a­tions was sit­ting on a woolen car­pet near the stove, shar­ing a heap­ing bowl of tsampa (roasted bar­ley flour), Ti­bet’s ubiq­ui­tous sta­ple food.

It was like step­ping into a dream. And, judg­ing by the looks on their faces, the fam­ily mem­bers couldn’t be­lieve their eyes, ei­ther. A goa­teed grandfa-

ther stared at us, wide-eyed, his mouth agape. His wife, her long, gray hair braided into two pig­tails that rested on her shoul­ders, sat mes­mer­ized, cease­lessly spin­ning a hand held prayer wheel in a clock­wise di­rec­tion as she watched us.

The un­re­lent­ing heat and in­sects of China sud­denly seemed worlds away. We had en­tered an utterly new di­men­sion, a place where the harsh­ness of life is met with a spir­i­tu­al­ity of sto­icism, where moun­tains and mys­ti­cism are one and the same. Our kora was un­der­way.

Our host, how­ever, was of a dif­fer­ent mind. As soon as I told him the path we planned to take into the high­lands—up a steep and treach­er­ous canyon named the ‘Kasi Hell Val­ley’—he vig­or­ously shook his head.

“Qu bu liao!” he said in ac­cented Man­darin, as­sur­ing us it would be im­pos­si­ble to take loaded bikes all the way to the top.

“We don’t like that trail, and we’re Ti­betan,” he added. “Be­sides, the only way up the Kasi Hell Val­ley is by foot or on horse­back.”

As we cruised out of the vil­lage to find a camp­ing spot for the night, Joey whis­pered, “If horses can make it to the top, then so can we.”

MyS­tery MiSt

Horses or not, we were champ­ing at the bit to start climb­ing the next morn­ing. We set out at the crack of dawn in a mist so thick we could barely see what lay ahead. The nar­row trail wound up­wards through a hard­wood for­est, in­ter­spersed by logs laid across the rush­ing stream that bi­sected the val­ley. Cross­ing th­ese makeshift bridges in such low vis­i­bil­ity was un­set­tling; the rush of wa­ter underfoot cre­ated an in­tense ver­tigo in the ab­sence of other vis­ual cues.

Even­tu­ally the fog be­gan to lift, un­veil­ing an eerie land­scape of gnarled tree trunks and droop­ing ev­er­green branches dec­o­rated with wispy strands of dan­gling, dew-chris­tened lichens. It might as well have been the set of “The Hob­bit,” and I half ex­pected to see dwarves peek­ing through the pri­mor­dial-look­ing ferns that lined the foot­path.

Sud­denly, I stum­bled upon a prim­i­tive shrine of stacked slate slabs, mim­ick­ing the shape of the more-de­vel­oped med­i­ta­tion stu­pas found at vo­tive sites through­out Ti­bet. Upon closer in­spec­tion, I found that each slab was en­graved with highly styl­ized Ti­betan script: Re­li­gious su­tras, painstak­ingly carved into the rock.

We’d been sur­rounded by th­ese mys­te­ri­ous cairns all along. Each of th­ese minia­ture chort­ens served both a practical and de­vo­tional pur­pose, de­not­ing the way for pil­grims while giv­ing pause for reflection. Some were draped in col­or­ful prayer-bead neck­laces; oth­ers were cu­ri­ously crowned with de­com­pos­ing yak skulls.

I was awestruck. Though we were far from civ­i­liza­tion, the signs of hu­man pas­sage were ev­ery­where. We were alone in the wilder­ness, yet this an­cient artery into the hal­lowed high­lands was well-trod­den. I was struck by a sense of peace and time­less­ness. The Kasi Hell Val­ley was a por­tal be­tween the im­mea­sur­able past, the sur­real present and the un­known fu­ture.

Progress = Pu­rifi­ca­tion

It was also a spec­tac­u­lar pain to ne­go­ti­ate, more than mea­sur­ing up to the ‘Hell Val­ley’ por­tion of its moniker. The trail it­self seemed hell bent on gain­ing el­eva-

If the Ti­betans’ Spin­ning of prayer wheels con­veyed their mantras to the heav­ens, the act of self propul­sion on our rub­ber en­cased wheels paid homage to our other-worldly sur­round­ings.

tion in the most ex­pe­di­ent pos­si­ble way, which of­ten meant go­ing straight up­hill. Most of it was mad­den­ingly steep, with slick rocks and roots mak­ing trac­tion a rar­ity.

The ever-present mist and spo­radic show­ers also en­sured that ev­ery ounce of dirt was prop­erly sat­u­rated. Mud was my mid­dle name, as it dripped off my down­tube and onto my neck and back. My shoul­ders ached from sup­port­ing the bike in such a fixed po­si­tion, and the nasty un­der­growth was do­ing a num­ber on my lower legs. I was now in a state of pur­ga­tory, half­way be­tween the steamy hell of China and what I hoped would be the heaven of the Hi­malaya.

For­tu­nately, this was a pur­ga­tory that re­quired only one form of pu­rifi­ca­tion: for­ward progress. Joey and Sam were mak­ing damn sure this was hap­pen­ing, scam­per­ing up the most ar­du­ous sec­tions with fer­vor. The ruth­less pace served us well: By noon the next day, we had bro­ken through the low-hang­ing fog into a grassy clear­ing. On one side was the sheer face of the canyon; on the other was noth­ing but moun­tains.

“We slayed that val­ley, dudes,” Joey laughed, point­ing down the cliff edge to the clouds bil­low­ing out of the gorge. “And the lo­cals told us we wouldn’t make it.”

Wheels of For­tune

We turned to­ward the moun­tains, gap­ing as the sun seared through the haze. A fam­ily of Ti­betans ap­peared from the gloom, spin­ning prayer wheels and chant­ing in uni­son, their voices echo­ing off the canyon wall. Just a few hun­dred feet above us was the trail we’d suf­fered the last four days to join.

“Looks like it lev­els out up there,” Sam said. “It’s time to ride!”

Hav­ing the bikes back un­der­neath us was a novel af­fair—and one we didn’t take for granted. We sprinted along the slender cor­ri­dor, pop­ping over rocks and plow­ing past the shrubs that plucked at our ped­als. The Ti­betans stopped in their tracks, mo­tion­less apart from the con­tin­u­ous revo­lu­tion of their prayer wheels. They were clearly stunned to see three mud-cov­ered for­eign­ers on moun­tain bikes.

“Ni­men gan shenme?” the griz­zled fa­ther asked in Man­darin. “What are you do­ing on those bi­cy­cles?”

“We’re rid­ing the kora,” I said mat­ter-of-factly, elic­it­ing a cho­rus of howls from the rag­tag group of devo­tees.

“It’s hard enough to walk,” the old man laughed, giv­ing us the thumbs up as we rode away.

Three Min­utes of Glory

His laugh­ter made light of a heavy truth: The trail was tricky, with sharp, side­wall-slash­ing rocks at in­con­ve­nient in­ter­vals, of­ten con­cealed by low-ly­ing fo­liage. We were so happy to be cover-

At 16,100 feet above

Sea level, the air waS Shock­ingly thin.

There waS lit­tle time for cer­e­mony.

ing ground, though, we didn’t care. Joey and Sam sped ahead, shout­ing warn­ings about the worst ob­sta­cles, and we spent the next few hours grad­u­ally muscling our way to higher el­e­va­tion.

By late af­ter­noon, we caught sight of a kalei­do­scopic col­lec­tion of prayer flags on the ridge above, beck­on­ing us to the top of our first ma­jor pass. We col­lapsed in a heap, chortling over how hard it was to breathe at an el­e­va­tion just shy of 15,000 feet above sea level.

It was all down­hill to where we would camp, but I was ap­pre­hen­sive about the ter­rain we would face. Joey and Sam didn’t share my ap­pre­hen­sion: They lit out like kinder­garten­ers dash­ing for the play­ground, fla­grantly ig­nor­ing my fa­therly re­quest to “ride con­ser­va­tively.”

I’d never seen them go so fast. I watched, dis­con­certed, as they tore through a men­ac­ing patch of off-cam­ber rocks with cal­lous dis­re­gard for the con­se­quences. “They are def­i­nitely go­ing to de­stroy those tires,” I wearily mut­tered as I rolled in be­hind them, pick­ing a much more pru­dent line.

My spir­its were quickly lifted, how­ever, when I re­al­ized just how su­perb the trail ac­tu­ally was. Burly as a down­hill race­course, it was none­the­less em­i­nently rid­able, and af­ter sev­eral min­utes of joy­ous de­scend­ing, I skid­ded into a gravel-filled basin over­look­ing a sprawl­ing lake.

“We bombed that whole thing in three min­utes!” Joey blurted. “That was some of the most in­sane rid­ing I’ve ever done!”

Face of Com­pas­sion

As if the day couldn’t get bet­ter, we turned to see a dark storm front mov­ing across the hori­zon, re­veal­ing an ab­so­lute mon­ster of a moun­tain. It was Chen­rezig, one of the kora’s three sanc­ti­fied peaks. Crowned with fresh snow, its char­coal-col­ored torso plum­meted dra­mat­i­cally into a mas­sive glacier, which emp­tied it­self into a sprawl­ing sea of gray shale. My spine tin­gled with ex­hil­a­ra­tion and won­der.

The Ti­betans be­lieve Chen­rezig is a bod­hisattva who em­bod­ies the com­pas­sion of all Bud­dhas—and star­ing up at this im­pos­ing yet solemn mono­lith, I in­tu­itively un­der­stood why. De­spite its un­de­ni­able great­ness, it em­anated el­e­gance and dig­nity, be­nignly over­look­ing the vast flood­plain its runoff had cre­ated.

Pitching camp and pre­par­ing din­ner, I could hardly pry my eyes from Chen­rezig’s grandeur. The set­ting sun min­gled with hov­er­ing cloud­banks, ig­nit­ing a light­show of psy­che­delic pro­por­tions against the stark back­drop. As dark­ness set­tled, a nearly full moon rose from be­hind the be­he­moth, cast­ing a cir­cu­lar glow around its frozen crest—a halo of ho­li­ness il­lu­mi­nat­ing Chen­rezig’s mighty head. I was hum­bled.

Pass the Ibupro­fen

What we faced the next morn­ing was even more hum­bling: an ex­as­per­at­ingly steep slog through an ex­pan­sive rock­slide that had buried the trail. Push­ing our bikes was out of the ques­tion. I re­turned the two-wheeled al­ba­tross to its fa­mil­iar rest­ing place around my neck.

In the ab­sence of a de­fined path, mul­ti­ple ledges had to be scram­bled up, re­quir­ing bal­ance and a dose of rock-climb­ing skill. The ex­er­tion needed to scale th­ese, cou­pled with the ex­treme al­ti­tude, was even get­ting the best of the boys.

“This is one of the hard­est hike-a-bikes I’ve ever done,” Sam ut­tered be­tween heav­ily la­bored breaths. “Hope­fully this will get us to the pass more quickly.”

Three hours later, we crawled around a craggy out­crop to see an­other sod­den tan­gle of prayer flags flail­ing for­lornly in the breeze. It was a wel­come sight, but one that did noth­ing to re­lieve the al­ti­tude headaches that af­flicted us.

“I need a cou­ple of those ibupro­fen,” Joey said, his brow fur­rowed in Satur­day han­gover fash­ion. “And we still have that Di­amox, too.”

Pay­back for Pain

“What’s bet­ter than Di­amox is a des­cent,” I said. “Let’s just get down the other side of this.”

Joey didn’t need to be asked twice. If there was one thing he liked more than a hel­la­cious hike-a-bike, it was reap­ing the gravity-fed re­wards. He tight­ened his hel­met and dropped into an­other mine­field of shale slabs, with Sam hot on his heels.

I fol­lowed the sound of smash­ing plates through the fog, hoot­ing as I bull­dozed over the de­bris. It was pay­back for the pain we’d with­stood on the way up, and we were get­ting our ret­ri­bu­tion in spades. By the time we’d blasted down to the meadow where we’d camp for the night, we felt com­pletely avenged.

In light of our tri­umph, we agreed to cel­e­brate by pitching camp early and en­joy­ing an­other spec­tac­u­lar sun­set. Gaz­ing at a ser­rated ridge­line sil­hou­et­ted by the glim­mer of dusk, we were sur­prised to see two Ti­betans—a woman and her son—strolling up the hill to­ward us.

They sat on a boul­der and watched

as we boiled wa­ter for our freeze-dried vic­tory feast. I asked if they lived nearby, and the boy mo­tioned down the val­ley to a sim­ple stone dwelling sur­rounded by a small herd of goats.

“That’s our home,” he said in bro­ken Man­darin. “We live here dur­ing the sum­mer, so the goats can eat.”

It is a hard­scrab­ble ex­is­tence. The soil at such el­e­va­tion is not arable, so the fam­ily was re­ly­ing on the herd and a ra­tion of tsampa they’d car­ried into this harsh, un­for­giv­ing land­scape. They were en­tirely self-suf­fi­cient.

As if to il­lus­trate this fact, the boy’s fa­ther sud­denly ap­peared, car­ry­ing an enor­mous, flow­er­ing this­tle he’d har­vested. I handed him a cig­a­rette and asked what he was do­ing with the plant.

“My son has a bad cold,” he ex­plained. “This will make it bet­ter.”

Gods of Gran­ite

Our shared need for self-suf­fi­ciency— and the dra­matic dif­fer­ences be­tween our ver­sion and the Ti­betans’—haunted me the next morn­ing, as we forged up and over a se­ries of smaller passes. I chuck­led at the bour­geois na­ture of our ex­ploits; the irony of first-world ad­ven­tur­ism in a place whose in­hab­i­tants strug­gle to eke out an as­cetic sub­sis­tence.

Yet the Ti­betans we’d en­coun­tered seemed gen­uinely happy in their re­mote king­dom, sur­rounded by the gran­ite ti­tans they wor­ship as gods. De­spite the dif­fi­culty of their ev­ery­day toil, they re­main largely free of mod­ern con­sumer con­cerns, left to co­ex­ist with na­ture at its most rugged. It’s no won­der their ven­er­a­tion of th­ese moun­tains runs so deep.

As if to af­firm my thoughts, the pointed tip of an in­cisor-shaped sky­scraper came into view. It was Jam­payang, the sec­ond of our kora’s tri­umvi­rate of divine peaks, revered as the em­a­na­tion of Bud­dha’s wis­dom. Chas­ing Sam along an ex­tended es­carp­ment in the shadow of this hulk­ing de­ity, lib­er­ated from worldly con­cerns, Jam­payang’s sim­ple truth was re­vealed: We too, in our own way, wor­shiped th­ese moun­tains.

We hadn’t un­der­taken this jour­ney for re­li­gious rea­sons, but it was, in essence, a pro­foundly spir­i­tual one. And if the Ti­betans’ spin­ning of prayer wheels con­veyed their mantras to the heav­ens, the act of self-propul­sion on our rub­ber-en­cased wheels paid homage to our other worldly sur­round­ings.

Feral Fer­vor

This day was a trib­ute to the free and feral. The rid­ing was sub­lime, with long stretches of shred-wor­thy sin­gle­track sprin­kled with bead-laced chort­ens. We fol­lowed them with de­vo­tional fer­vor, ac­cept­ing the rough with the smooth, as they guided us up to a nat­u­ral plat­form shrouded in prayer flags.

The wind was fu­ri­ous, vi­o­lently whip­ping the flags and forc­ing us to crouch for cover. To the east, we could see for hun­dreds of miles over the jagged peaks of mi­nor ranges. And snaking around the bar­ren flanks of Jam­payang to the north­east was our trail. It was an­other chunky des­cent, with fat baby-heads and force­ful gusts con­spir­ing to re­peat­edly blow us off our lines.

Af­ter a rowdy cou­ple of miles, the trail lev­eled out, bi­sect­ing an­other mon­u­men­tal rock­slide that had in­un­dated the hill­side’s en­tire lower half. It looked alarm­ingly ex­posed, but we picked our way along the precipice un­til Joey wedged his front wheel be­tween two slabs that body-slammed him straight into an un­yield­ing jum­ble.

The gouges on his knee and shin were tough to look at, so we taped them in gauze and car­ried on to a switch­back-choked down­hill into a soggy marsh, where we set up camp for the night. To spite the in­juries, Joey and Sam in­sisted on charg­ing un­til the bit­ter end, leav­ing me alone for an un­pleas­ant evening jaunt.

Tears and Trench Foot

We woke to the fa­mil­iar pit­ter-pat­ter of rain­drops on the tent, sig­nal­ing a con­tin­u­a­tion of daily dis­com­fort. Ev­ery day so far, the skies had anointed us with their tears, and ev­ery item of gear—in­clud­ing down jack­ets and sleep­ing bags—was damp. Trench foot was now an­other thing the three of us had in com­mon, and we took per­verse plea­sure in plac­ing wagers over who would be the first to lose a toe­nail.

Weigh­ing my odds as we trudged up the morn­ing climb, I re­minded my­self that the ec­stasy of our en­deavor was made all the sweeter by the mis­ery. The fir­ma­ment con­tin­ued to re­in­force this point, gush­ing down like a cow piss­ing on a pile of rocks. Seek­ing shel­ter un­der an aus­pi­ciously lo­cated over­hang, we mar­veled at the wa­ter­fall that had formed be­fore us and calmly waited for it to sub­side.

Our cur­tain call came soon enough. We hus­tled over the next pass, keen to reach lower el­e­va­tion be­fore the next act started. The des­cent that fol­lowed was as danger­ous as they come, slic­ing through a no-fall sec­tion of side­hill that could eas­ily spell the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death.

True to form, Joey and Sam chose to gam­ble against the lat­ter. They tore down the pal­try con­tact patch, skim­ming the outer edge of the first turn as a group of Ti­betans hugged the in­side bank. The pil­grims cheered in dis­be­lief as the lads blazed past them.

“That was crazy,” one of them said in Man­darin as I walked by. “If you fall off, you’ll die.”

Cramps for Crab Ap­ples

Things were about to get even more crazy. The mid­day mon­soon blew in just as we troughed out in a rag­ing riverbed, mean­ing an­other tor­tur­ous climb in a down­pour. With vis­i­bil­ity at an all­time low, we missed our turn and had to whack our way up a sliver of goat trail.

Adding in­sult to in­jury, my in­testines had be­come de­cid­edly dodgy, and the mis­er­able hike-a-bike was punc­tu­ated with re­peated pit stops. My stom­ach cramps were ex­cru­ci­at­ing, with spasms

that left me dou­bled over ev­ery few min­utes. By the time we re­con­nected with the main trail near a sea­sonal set­tle­ment of yak herders, I was about to crack.

We pitched the tent and I slid into my dank, down life­line, shiv­er­ing and spent. Within min­utes, we heard a kid yelling out­side, and we opened the fly to see a young Ti­betan boy and his sis­ter peer­ing at us.

“Come down to our house,” he chirped in Man­darin, streaks of rain stream­ing down his weather-beaten cheeks. “We have a fire and it’s warm.”

Con­fused over why we po­litely turned down his char­i­ta­ble of­fer, he passed me a hand­ful of crab ap­ples. “Eat th­ese,” he said. “They’re sweet.”

Black and White

We set out early the next morn­ing, rid­ing through hor­i­zon­tal sheets of rain, rest­less to cross our fi­nal pass. The kora’s third peak, Chanadorje, sulked omi­nously in the dis­tance, all but its icy sum­mit ob­scured by a tremen­dous thun­der­head.

Its pres­ence was dis­qui­et­ing. In Ti­betan, the word ‘Chanadorje’ means ‘thun­der­bolt in hand,’ and the pro­tec­tor de­ity is con­sid­ered a wrath­ful bod­hisattva. In my de­pleted state, I was not sure whether it was with us, or against us.

Ei­ther way, it was cer­tainly stir­ring up the tem­pest. As we plod­ded closer to the pass, the wind whipped up and the pre­cip­i­ta­tion be­gan to al­ter­nate be­tween sleet and hail. With sev­eral inches of snow al­ready on the ground, our way for­ward was guided only by the stacked cairns that were rapidly col­lect­ing drifts. We were in a dreary world of black and white; an aus­tere do­main in which right and wrong were in­stantly made clear.

By the time we reached the top, the wind was fu­ri­ous, and our fin­gers and toes were com­pletely numb. At 16,100 feet above sea level, the air was shock­ingly thin. There was lit­tle time for cer­e­mony. Hugs and high­fives were quickly ex­changed, and the boys be­gan splash­ing down the stream-soaked trail.

I turned for one last look at the flag-adorned stupa mark­ing the apex. Perched atop it was a lone, black raven, glar­ing at me with a steely, om­ni­scient fo­cus, in­form­ing me it was time to go.

Sam steps into an equine dream.

Left: Glacial runoff from the Gods of Gran­ite. Here: A soli­tary stupa sum­mons the tem­pest.

Sam and the author crest the high­est pass of the kora.

Film­maker Joey Schusler leads Sam through a sea of scree. PHOTO: BRICE MIN­NIGH

The author and Sam per­form the sa­cred act of shred­ding divine sin­gle­track.

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