Like cathedrals in Europe, the locals think we are fascinated by every one of their monasteries. The interiors are all the same, the decorations and layouts just a variation on a theme. But how many cathedrals are housed in a cave? Yes, we’d seen another cave Gompa in Garphu/Choser, but that was small and relatively modern. This one dated to the 1300’s, was a true trek up a cliff, and featured paintings and relics at least 500 years old. It was in intermittent constant use, with the monks gone during the harsh winter. And the 6 kilometer walk up the gorge and return along the cliffs above through the isolated village of Gharagoan was a bonus to the side-trip.
We started up the Pyung Khola Gorge, a much narrower defile than the main-stem Kali Gandaki. Cliffs hemmed us in on each side, with very little option other than stumbling over the river rocks, dodging the swift stream in the center. After a few kilometers, Chaim asked if we wanted to see some cave paintings. Our guide for the day pointed up to the left, where an impossibly narrow trail was clinging to the canyon wall.
“My uncle, he followed his goat one day and found this cave. Here, I show you what in there.” He pulled out his smartphone, and flipped to some pictures, not of pre-historic etchings of crude animals, like cave art in America or Europe. No, these were variations on the multi-colored, finely detailed mandalas, demons and lamas which graced every gompa we’d seen so far.
Chaim led us up the first portion of the trail, then advised us to leave our packs behind, as the way was “hard”. After several hundred meters, with Cheryl and Chaim in the lead, I looked ahead at the track, which not only slanted steeply upward towards the wind caves about 400 feet above the river, but seemed to be less than a foot wide in places. And, the surface was not rock, but easily disrupted scree, gritty dirt which slid easily underfoot. I’m pretty intrepid, but wasn’t really interested in scaring myself that much. Or worse, risking a life-threatening fall.
“I’m going back – you guys can go on if you want.” Cheryl, seeing I was unnerved, decided she had no business pushing on, so back down we went. Our guide had been vague as to exactly when this cave was re-discovered – “A few years now” – was all he could say. But some online research reveals the name “Tashi Kabum”, in the area which corresponds to this cave. I found an article describing the “discovery” of the cave by a trekker in the ‘90s, and one part reads, “Access to Tashi Kabum is quite difficult, involving a steep scramble with precarious hand and footholds. None of my group were willing to climb up through the crumbling layers of packed earth and loose conglomerate rocks, deposits from millions of years ago when this area was under an ocean.” So I don’t feel so bad turning around. You can read the full report and see the photos he took here.
Another 2 klicks, and we stopped at the base of the pockmarked sandstone wall in which intrepid monks had built their monastery, 500 or more years ago. We rested by a small stone shed on a wind-scoured rise, faded prayer flags whipping at its edge. The trail to the gompa climbed a cliff just as steep as Tashi Kabum, but had been widened and reinforced with concrete gutters and a steel bridge across the most precipitous section.
Of course, we had to wait for the Key Man to let us in. This involved our guide and Chaim waving up at the red stone wall covering the cave entrance, and getting hollers and frantic sign language in return. Apparently, this meant a 15 or 20 minute wait. Despite no habitation for miles in any direction, a merchant had set up shop at the base of the ACAP sign, his blanket spread below with various artifacts, stones, and jewelry for sale. A couple of other parties – meaning maybe 6 tourists, and a guide or two – were already haggling over souvenirs. Our quota – and porter – filled already in Lo Manthang, we merely window shopped.
The caves, natural, shaped and rounded by the wind, have a few hand made portals between them, and carefully placed stones shore up a few crumbling walls. But for the most part, the monks lived with what nature had created for them. The monastery is only intermittantly active, but visitation fees allow for some maintenance to keep things in working order. While moving from room to room, which sometimes involved rickety wooden ladders, I spied on my left a natural window which lit up a cooking pot (looking for all the world to me like a bed pan) sitting on a stool with uneven legs.
Returning to Yara, instead of dropping back down to the river, we stayed up high, on the northern side of the canyon, where a tilting plateau took us into Ghara. There, Chaim was surprised to find a new teahouse, built since his last visit. The Honor Man had even improvised a “billboard” advertising the spot! Few tourists had yet visited here, since it opened after the earthquake the year before, and we were among the first arriving this season. Just as in every other teahouse, a picture of Lhasa hung on the wall; instead of the usual hyper-realistic photo, this one was a needlepoint. Next to it, the proprietress proudly displayed her diploma from the ACAP cooking school. I went for a second helping of the Dhal Bat, to her delight.
Outside, leaving town, we walked by the ruins of a dzong, or fort, which stood guard over a narrow section of the canyon. A few men armed with bow and arrow could have easily defended the upper canyon, where the monastery clung, from any marauders. Below the crumbling walls, a clutch of miniature horses (the thin air keeps them small) walked in single file, no human in sight. They seemed to be heading back to town on their own, after a day’s grazing in the high “pastures.” Led by a grey mare, a colt came second, his bell tingling brassily as he nodded up the hillock next to us. Then a yearling, and and adolescent – probably this mom’s entire brood?
We came into Yara the back way, right through the town’s fields. Only recently sprouted, the barley was watered by a single irrigation stream from the high country. In the midst of the forest, a young man, half way up a thin trunk, chopped limbs off the tree for firewood. After the slopes had been deforested by rampant cutting, a Japanese NGO had planted fast-growing timber, and taught the Mustangis to cut only the upper branches. Sort of like tending a rose bush, to have flowers year after year.