An Unexpected Slice of Tibet

by Alison Spencer

Facing an abrupt tour cancellation, a traveler ventures out to the Tsum Valley, encountering a side of Tibet that few visitors get to see.

I sat on the well-worn grass, a visitor on either side. One sported a Spiderman sweater and a smirk. Two streams of mucus poured from the other’s nose, a constant yet unacknowledged presence. I dealt, and they followed my lead, laying each card face up on the ground. With eight a piece, we readied to play. The game was Uno. The challenge was teaching it to two children in a language other than English. 

Rato,” I declared, looking to my friend for validation while pointing to the color of the top card. Gesturing to their spread, I repeated the Nepali word for red, encouraging the boys to find one that matched. “Ek,” I then stated, to show them they could also play a card that had a 1. 

Spiderman somewhat, albeit slowly, picked up on the rules. But no matter how many hands we played, or hours that passed, neither fully grasped the game. I couldn’t understand why, as I’d run through all the numbers and colors repeatedly. My confusion persisted until our guide Kim returned to camp. 

Approaching our group, she called out, “Namaste. Tapaiko naam ke ho?” Both looked up but offered no reply. A veteran of the Himalayas and this region, she deftly changed tact, asking, “Kayrang gi minglâ karay ray?” to which they simultaneously shouted their names. Cue my caricature light bulb flipping on. I’d forgotten exactly where I sat. In Nepal, true. But in Chumling specifically, and so, of course, they spoke Tibetan. I’d been teaching a game in a language neither of us knew.

A friendly face in the Tsum Valley, Tibet

I’d always wanted to visit Tibet, a country whose history, landscape, and culture spoke to me in ways no other destination ever had. So, this past January, I took my sister’s advice and signed up for a four-week tour exploring the Kharta Valley. Starting in Lhasa and ending at Everest Base Camp, I could almost picture what lay ahead, my excitement increasing with each passing day. 

But, a mere week before the trip was to begin, China instituted a new mandate prohibiting any Nepali with a Tibetan name from entering the region. Almost half of the Kamzang Journeys’ staff fell into that category, which meant Tibet was a no go.  Kim suggested an alternate route, guaranteeing equally beautiful landscape and rigor, but there’d be no Potala Palace, no hiking below the world’s tallest mountain, no Sakya Monastery.  

Despite my devastation, it felt silly to cancel. I’d already made my way to the Himalayan region and knew I’d feel infinitely more depressed sitting at home. So, very reluctantly, feeling cheated and unenthused, I decided to forge ahead and join the group in Tsum Valley. Being a region of Nepal of which I’d never heard, I had no idea what awaited. All I wanted was to submerge myself in Tibetan culture. As a neighbor to the TAR, would I somehow encounter it in this unfamiliar valley, or would I have to wait years more to finally experience the country that had called to me for so long?  

Located in the northernmost section of Gandaki, Tsum Valley, remains one of the most remote parts of Nepal. Known in sacred texts as The Valley of Hidden Happiness, it is believed to be one of the belungs, hidden valleys only accessible to those with special merit. Opened to outside visitors in 2008, it is home to many trails once used when trading with Tibet, establishing the valley as an important route for both religious and economic reasons. 

A view of Tibet's Tsum Valley, with snowy mountains and a humble temple spire

On day seven, having walked deep into Tsum, we reached Chhule, one of the last two villages before the Tibetan border. Just below town center, a group of local women sat immersed in each other and the few children who accompanied them. A pop of color in an otherwise muted landscape, the energy in their voices and their ensembles pulled at us like gravity tethering us to earth.  

Amidst the crowd and chatter, likely discussing our surprising presence, my sights fell on the aprons that adorned the waist of a few. Stripes, woven from wool, alternated across three distinct panels. Years of use had only slightly damped their original vibrancy. I’d seen such hues in Kathmandu but never in this geometric pattern, or in such quantity. 

“As Tibetan tradition entails,” Kim’s words interjected, as if reading my mind, “the pangden distinguished the wed from the single. Once married, it sits securely atop their sleeveless dresses.” Covering the darkly dyed chubas, these aprons transformed their lower half into a kaleidoscope of colors, while the embroidered scarves encircling the women’s heads brought brightness to their top halves as well; both a compliment to the warmth and spirit housed in their expression. 

Turquoise both studded their ears and hung from their necks, with the understanding and unwavering belief that the gem carried auspiciousness. “Closely tied to Tibetan Buddhism,” Lhakpa recounted, “the type of jewelry dictates its purpose.” Sporting two turquoise rings, this peaked my attention. 

“Necklaces,” he continued, gesturing toward a woman whose wrinkles stood as a testament to the difficulty of life in Tsum, “carry the soul of the wearer, whereas rings protect travelers from danger.” Subconsciously, I manipulated the turquoise feather adorning my middle finger. The history behind each article they wore transported me, in both space and time, to a land beyond Nepal.

I felt, for the first time, the spark of a connection, to this women’s group and to the Tibet that had spoken to me back in the United States. As we bid farewell, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was fleeting, a moment I’d treasure in isolation; or if it could, hopefully, last as I continued my journey, whether just maybe I’d get a taste of Tibet after all.

Local life in Tibet's Tsum Valley

Continuing, at almost the valley’s end, we found Mu Gompa, a monastery along the road to Bhajyo, the most important Tibetan market and yarsagumba harvesting terrain in the region. Once filled with worshippers, it now housed just five monks who’d taken up residence for both meditation and long-term spiritual practice. 

Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the light breeze. Yaks, left to graze for the summer, wandered the adjacent hillside, their occasional grunts keeping visitors at a safe distance as their thick hair swished in the vegetation. Voices of varying pitch, moving in unison and yet isolation, emanated from within the complex.

Following the melodic chants, we entered the dimly-lit main temple. Skirting the outer edge of the space, dark mahogany floorboards creaked under shifting weight. Fade and use rather than dust indicated the ancientness of the room, around which hundreds of identical statues lined the walls. Housed on wooden shelves painted in Tibetan characters and designs, much of their color had dissipated, except for the occasional burst of orange and blue. Multiple arms extended from the figure’s body, in formations whose symbolism I couldn’t begin to guess. 

“This is Chenrezig,” Kim whispered, gesturing to the countless rows. “The patron of Tibet, he’s the most revered of all bodhisattva because he embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.” 

Buddhist statues seen by a traveler in a temple in Tibet's Tsum Valley

In fact, I was to learn, the popular mantra “Om mani padme hum” transcribed on the prayer flags that greeted us and within the many prayer wheels we’d spun invoked his benevolence. The Dalai Lama himself, whose picture adorned the wall of this temple, was his incarnate. Whereas in Tibet such images remain banned, here they openly revered Chenrezig and His Holiness, the maroon and yellow of his robes reflected in the material hanging from the ceiling and covering the sacred texts. 

Shuffling from one wall to the next, examining the statues, photographs, and ornate altar, the monks’ chanting continued. While their morning prayers may have been in Tibetan, the feelings they evoked of peace, and of being present, proved universal.

Slipping feet back into stiff hiking boots, I realized that here, in this remote corner of Nepal, I was perhaps witnessing a truer practice than was possible just over the border. I’d found myself surrounded by emblems of Tibetits images, its texts, its prayersand for the first time started to understand the extent to which these traditions permeated not only this monastery but the entire valley of Tsum.

As we worked our way out of the valley, backtracking across the same land on which we’d traveled in, a fellow trekker stumbled upon a pile of yarn resting just off the path. Somewhat hidden below a flowering bush, strings of various hues intertwined into a web of color. Reaching down to investigate, he lifted one strand into the air, waving it in an attempt to catch our attention. 

Hoping for a few oohhs and aahhs, he was instead met with a steely, “Please put it back,” from Lhakpa. Usually one to encourage exploration, his frankness took me aback. “Moving these yarns brings bad luck to he who touches it.” 

Eyes wide, color draining from his cheeks, Karl released the yarn, letting it tumble back onto the pile below. Lhakpa continued, explaining that while appearing nondescript, the string’s purpose and placement alongside the trail proved crucial in the neighboring village’s attempt to ward off evil. “Perhaps something tragic occurred,” Lhakpa wagered, “or they feared a future event. Either way, it was put here as part of an elaborate ceremony intended to eliminate negative forces.” 

While we’d spent much of our time gazing up at the ever changing vistas, simply looking down at our feet could reveal new understandings of Buddhism, and the particular ways in which it manifested in the Tsum Valley. Working its way into the everyday lives of those who inhabit the land, here, traditional practices have mixed with the more animistic elements of Bon, an indigenous religion of Tibet, a combination that gives Tibetan Buddhism its uniqueness. 

A ritual involving rocks and eggshells practiced in Tibet's Tsum Valley

Now on alert, evidence of such rituals abounded. Not just a few kilometers later, a small stack of rocks balanced mid-trail. From between them protruded a branch, whose green coloring indicated the recentness of its placement and the ceremony itself. Its leaves hung over an animal vertebra and alongside an eggshell entirely intact save the top, which had been removed in order to fill the egg with a cooked vegetable. One dried chili protruded from the contents, and a second egg, slightly more cracked, lay tucked beneath the shelf of the top rock. I couldn’t know what had happened but recognized that an undesirable energy had been present and hopefully overpowered. 

Nearing the end of our journey through Tsum, we approached yet another fork in the road. Days of experience had us veering left, knowing what likely lay ahead; and within steps, our assumption proved correct, as a structure built of variously sized rocks stretched out before us. Rising multiple feet into the air, hundreds of additional stones leaned along its edges, coated in the most intricate carvings I’d yet seen. Tibetan characters, elaborate images of Buddha, and other symbols found themselves whimsically yet precisely etched onto the flat face of each rock. Splashes of color, be it a robe or a word, popped from the otherwise grey canvas. A chorten or two jutted up periodically, like hiccups interrupting the flow of a conversation.  

I’d seen tens, if not hundreds, of these mani walls, and yet each led me to pause, to examine, and often to photograph, not only because of the beauty but also their purpose. Just as the locals worked to ward off the undesired spirits, so too did they take steps to call upon the compassionate and benevolent. Each inscription, along with the act of carving itself, functioned as a prayer in Tibetan Buddhism. Running my hands along these mani stones, I wondered what each said, confident it contained a request for the greater good. We followed the rise and fall of the wall toward Chhokangparo, our final stop before returning to Chumling. 

Travelers' backpacks outside a temple in the Tsum Valley of Tibet

Now, sitting with Spiderman and his accomplice, I reveled in all that I’d learned about Tibetan culture in a region I’d arrived in entirely on accident. While devastated at first, the mishap turned into the best rerouting I could have possibly imagined, as it allowed me to experience true Tibetan immersion.

Be it religious practices, traditional crafts, language spoken, or clothing worn, the way in which the locals live transformed the Tsum Valley into a microcosm of Tibet itself. Free from the influence of the Chinese, and facing far less travel restrictions than the TAR, this Nepali valley proved the perfect place to immerse in a culture that’s becoming harder and harder to fully experience. 

As I dealt hand after hand, I couldn’t help but feel lucky, fortunate to have found this hidden valley, and that somehow, some way, I had been deemed worthy of exploring this remote and wonderfully Tibetan region of Nepal. 

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