Full Moon at Mani Rimdu (4 of 5)

We hiked along a wide, well-trodden path connecting Phaplu to Saleri (about forty minutes at a leisurely pace). On Saturday market day, the thoroughfare would swell with a flow of porters, merchants carrying produce, monks riding horseback, and local townsfolk, but this day, we had most of the road to ourselves. We followed its dips and climbs, forded gurgling mountain streams, passed woodhewn teahouses, dress shops and grocery stores. Kids popped their heads out of second floor windows to greet us with ‘Namaste’ or ‘Hello’.

As we walked above Saleri, the path to Sherpa Gompa, our destination, narrowed. The late afternoon sun intensified and I started peeling off layers of sweaters. We stopped for a swig of bottled water. Chris, Rick and I, the flatlanders struggled for oxygen. We were feeling the strain of the 8000 foot altitude. “Would we have the stamina to reach Chiwong the following day for the opening ceremonies and the Rimpoche’s blessing?” I wondered.

On the hilltop, prayer flags fluttered in front of a newly-built wooden structure. An empty frame awaited the placement of a huge prayer wheel which would stand taller than a man. Prayer wheels, Jim explained to us, were metal wheels inscribed with Buddhist scripture. Pilgrims spun the wheels with one hand as they walked alongside always to the left side, proceeding clockwise.

Inside the gompa, freshly painted wall frescoes in bright shades of red, green and blue, depicted the stories of Buddha and his disciples. Upstairs, a group of boys chanted scripture lessons in the unfinished rooms which served double duty as living quarters for some of them since an avalanche had knocked down their dormitory last winter.

We chatted with the lama and his assistants. The lama’s face ran rich with lines of age. He was a slight man who drew people toward him effortlessly; he emanated kindness, not fear nor awe.

While we spoke, a group of garlanded silhouettes approached the Gompa. Their drums and tambourines broke the late afternoon silence. We wondered if it was a wedding party.

“That’s a local shaman and her entourage,” a monk explained. Usually a shaman pays visits to the sick on the eve of a full moon to help ward off evil spirits.”

The group trudged slowly up the hill toward the Gompa. About a dozen, men, women and children appeared, garlanded with marigolds, and carrying drums. They wore tunics dyed deep red and they surrounded a young woman who carried two flowered batons. Her red turban framed deep, penetrating eyes. The group paused, set a gourd on the ground and danced around it. The shaman wielded her garlanded batons like an expert baton twirler. Then she held them hard and close to her head like torches of light as she froze in time for a photo.

The Buddhist lama and his assistants patiently watched this non-Buddhist procession. Whatever it took to heal the human spirit seemed to be tolerated.

“All you need is a few weeks, and you’ll handle the hills fine,” Migma said while I inched my way back down the path to Saleri. School kids tore past us, their flip flops kicking up dust.

By time we reached Phaplu, the sinking sun straddled mountain peaks. The moon loosed itself from the horizon. Drums of other shamans making house calls and dogs barking wildly at the almost full moon punctuated the still night. Would the good weather last for tomorrow’s festivities, I wondered, as evening clouds rolled in draping Mount Numbur in swathes.

In the morning, the sun reappeared resolutely and the mist burned off. It promised a brilliant, cloudless sky for the first day of Mani Rimdu. At breakfast, we planned our ascent. Between Phaplu and the Chiwong monastery, we could expect a 1000 foot climb in altitude (for serious trekkers, a walk in the park. For debutantes, a taxing hike). Two paths led to Chiwong. The direct route ascended at a steep slant with many rocks to negotiate. The second path was wider with switchbacks to ease the ascent. Some parts had been smoothed into steps.

Read Part 5

Chris Card Fuller blogs more about her travels in: Paris and Beyond