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Farewell! ... Farewell! ... We are off! At the bend of the path I look back once more, one last time. Standing at the gate of his residence I see the foreign missionary who welcomed Yongden and me a few days ago when, without being in the least acquainted with him, we begged his hospitality. Some anxiety may be detected in his kind smile and his intent gaze. To what extent have we succeeded in deceiving that most excellent man? I cannot tell. He does not know the object of our journey, there is no doubt about that. But the programme we laid before him was vague enough to awaken the suspicion that we were trying to conceal the fact that we were to undertake a dangerous expedition! Where would we be going, alone, on foot and without luggage, he wonders. He cannot guess, and I am certain that the names of the mysterious wayfarers who slept for a few nights under his roof will be remembered in his prayers. May his own wishes be ever fulfilled! May he be blessed for the warmth that his cordiality adds to the glorious sunshine that lights my fifth departure for the forbidden "Land of Snow"!
Farewell! ... We have turnedthe corner of the road, the Mission House is out of sight. The adventure begins.
This is, as I have said, my fifth journey into Thibet, and very different, indeed, have been the circumstances and manner of these successive departures. Some have been joyful, enlivened by the babbling and broad laughter of the servants and country folk, the jingling of the bells hung on the mules' necks, and that rough yet gay fuss that the people of Central Asia so love. Others were touching, grave, almost solemn, when, dressed in the full lamaist garb of dark purple and golden brocade, I blessed the villagers or the dokpas who had congregated to pay for the last time their respects to the Kandhoma of foreign land. I have also known tragic departures, when blizzards raged in the solitudes, sweeping across awe-inspiring white landscapes of impassable snow and ice, soon to be wrapped again in dead silence. But this time the bright sun of the Chinese autumn shines in a deep blue sky, and the green wooded hills seem to beckon us, promising pleasant walks and happy days. With our two coolies carrying a small tent and an ample supply of food, we look as if we were starting for a mere tour of a week or two. In fact, this is precisely what we have told the good villagers whom we have just left, namely, that we are going for a botanical excursion in the neighbouring mountains.
What would be the end of this new attempt? I was full of hope. A previous experience had proved to me that in the disguise of a poor traveller I could escape notice. But although we had already succeeded in leaving quietly behind the baggage brought with us to cross China, we had yet to assume our full disguise and (most difficult task) to get rid of the two coolies whom we were compelled to take with us to avoid the gossip which would certainly have spread in the Mission House amongst the servants and neighbours, had they seen a European lady setting out with a load upon her back.
I had, however, already thought of a way of freeing myself from the coolies. My plan depended, it is true, upon certain circumstances over which I had no control, and any little unforeseen incident might wreck it; but I could not think of a better one, and so relied upon my good luck.
We had started late, and our first stage was rather short. We encamped on a small and sheltered tableland near which one could get a beautiful view of the highest peak of the Kha Karpo range. The place is called "the Vultures' Cemetery," because once a year the Chinese slaughter hundreds of these birds there to procure their feathers, with which they do a big trade. They attract the birds with the carcass of a horse or a mule as bait, capture them with nets, and when the poor creatures are caught in the meshes they beat them to death. The plucked bodies are then used as bait to snare other vultures, which in turn share the fate of the first comers. This plucking of vultures' feathers lasts for a whole month amidst putrefaction and pestilence. Happily, when I reached that spot it was not the vulturekilling season, and I saw only heaps of bleached bones amongst the short and thorny vegetation which covers the ground.
Nature has a language of its own, or maybe those who have lived long in solitude read in it their own unconscious inner feelings and mysterious foreknowledge. The majestic Kha Karpo, towering in a clear sky lit by a full moon, did not appear to me that evening as the menacing guardian of an impassable frontier. It looked more like a worshipful but affable Deity, standing at the threshold of a mystic land, ready to welcome and protect the adventurous lover of Thibet.
The next morning I saw again the huge peak of Kha Karpo shining at sunrise, and it seemed to smile encouragement to me with all its glittering snows. I saluted it and accepted the omen.
That night I slept at the entrance of a gorge in which a tributary of the Mekong roared loudly -- a wild, picturesque spot inclosed between dark reddish rocks. The morrow was to be a decisive day. It would see me at the foot of the track that leads to the Dokar Pass which has become the frontier of the self-styled "Independent Thibet." My scheme was to be tested there. Would it work as I hoped? ... Would the coolies leave me without suspecting anything of my designs? ...
Excerpted from My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel Copyright © 2003 by Alexandra David-Neel. Excerpted by permission.
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