The harder thing in Tibet: South Lake Tahoe photographer endures physical and spiritual hardship on his journey around the world
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
I was living like a rat. Teased back home for taking up to two showers a day, I awoke outside of Drongpa having not properly bathed in more than a month. Camped in a ditch off the side of the road, I rummaged through my tent with matted hair – everything that surrounded me either dirty, dusty or broken.
I swished through a clump of plastic bags eyeing my options for breakfast: a squished brown banana, three rubbery carrots and a bag full of the Tibetan staple, tsampa. Opting for the latter, I mixed the powdered barley into a camp pot with water, and was stirring it into a sticky, gray concoction when I noticed something unusual.
Three sizable chunks of luminous green mold.
Although I was supposed to be gaining weight, I cursed the intestinal wallpaper paste and chucked the bowl out the front of my tent.
My stomach shook.
I opened my first-aid kit, grabbed my water bottle, and tossed back the same breakfast I’d consumed for the last two days: A 500-milligram tablet of Flagyl – the potent self-poison meant to snuff out Giardia lamblia, the single-celled organism that had laid me flat, scrambled my insides and cost me the better part of 25 pounds.
But this third morning, I awoke to something different.
It was determination. And with that, I climbed back on my bike, pedaled 72 miles over the rockiest of terrains, and landed myself near the Nepalese border – a 12-hour effort that would ultimately have me urinating blood. The price I’d have to pay, it seemed, to escape from Tibet.
It all began a month earlier, beneath the sacred shadow of Mount Kailash.
Pedaling into the nearby village of Darchen, I found it hard to believe I’d reached one of Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest spots. It looked more like a post-apocalyptic playground.
Ringed by the ever-present threat of the Red Army, and monopolized by a flood of government-sponsored shop owners, Darchen’s Tibetans roamed the streets like animals within a cage – all of them seemingly oblivious to the feces, garbage and car parts that surrounded them.
“Rick Gunn!” a voice shouted, and I turned to discover the smile of my former riding partner Christoph Fladung. He’d arrived several days earlier.
Reunited after being separated for a month, we spent the night feasting, celebrating and catching up.
The next morning, I awoke early, eager to create images of the Tibetans who’d come on pilgrimage. Most of them endured untold hardships on their way to complete the Korma – a simple loop around Mount Kailash that was believed to erase a lifetime of sins.
As I was sitting on a rock wondering how I’d approach a Tibetan, one approached me. Wrapped in traditional maroon and saffron, he stood spinning a prayer wheel. The Buddhist monk smiled, and took the rock next to mine.
“Desh-dee-delay (Hello),” I said in Tibetan.
“Hello,” he said in English.
After he’d given me the nod, I raised my camera to make an image.
When I did, the monk became fixed on a bracelet that hung from my wrist. On it were the words in Sanskrit that read, “Om Mani Padme Hung (Behold the jewel within the lotus flower)” – the Buddhist mantra celebrating, among other things, the miracle of consciousness, the attention to thought and action, and the balance between the head and the heart.
Returning his gaze, I quickly motioned from my head to my chest. When I did his eyes lit.
Then, without a word, he simply reached for my hand and held it.
After I had completed my 72-mile hell ride into the town of Saga, I came upon the first Internet shop I’d seen in a month. Scanning quickly through 94 e-mails, my eyes landed immediately upon a title that made my heart sink. It read, “My sympathies for the loss of Tucson.”
It was my beloved Labrador.
Seconds later, I read the account of a close friend who’d spent the last few moments in a veterinary hospital holding my precious dog’s head in his hands.
Holding it until the last of my Lab’s life was gone from his body.
I hung my head and began to cry.
As I made my way back to the dingy solitude of my tumble-down hotel room, a growing void crept from within – all of it spurning memories. My mind flashed back to the image of a small puppy moving clumsily about the snow. Then a grown dog standing on his hind legs as we “danced” in the front room.
Nine precious years of memories passed through my head that night, all of them of a creature telling me how much he loved me without saying a word.
Then I remembered our last night together.
It was on the shore of his beloved Snow Lake, beneath a blaze of stars. As the evening came to an end, I pulled my boy close and looked him dead in the eye.
“I will be back,” I said to him emphatically. “You hear me? I will be back, and when I am, I promise you I will be there for you until the end.”
When my attention finally returned to the confines of that tumble-down hotel room – it came to me that I had broken that promise. And with that, I aged a hundred years.
Rolling tears broke into open sobs, until the darkness within merged with that of the night.
A week later, I finished my ride across Tibet, and approached the border of Nepal. The sum of my thoughts distilled into a longing for change. I wanted to change everything surrounding my recent reality: the ride, the garbage, the road and the pain.
I longed to change the Chinese government, to return to the Tibetans their sovereignty, and with it their dignity. I longed to change those who would oppress, or uproot the heartfelt spiritual beliefs of another.
Most of all I longed to change back the hands of time – to return to those last few moments with my beloved Tucson, and make good on my promise.
I carried those longings to the crest of the Himalaya, where they were replaced by the comfort of a long-held belief. A belief that in order to change the world, I had to start by changing myself – to first purify my own heart, my own thoughts, my own actions.
And as those thoughts settled in my mind, I descended 13,000 feet down the Friendship Highway, across the border of Nepal. And as I did, I recalled the words of the Buddha, who was born here more than 2,500 years ago:
“Love yourself, and be awake, today, tomorrow, always. … Before you can straighten the crooked, you must first do the harder thing; that is to straighten yourself.”