Journey to the mountain of the spirit

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limbing our last mile of along day, we pass a rock painted with an image of the great Buddhist master, Padmasambhava. A white peak of the Shringi Himal appears, lit by late light. We enter a village gateway: bright green fields spread out before us, with clusters of tall trees in spring leaf, monasteries, and stone houses beyond. A cheerful man in bare feet greets us and invites us to his home. His name is Dorje and he belongs to the royal family of Prok.

Our intuition that this village named Prok is a treasured place within beyul, a hidden valley, is confirmed when we chat with our host that evening. It is believed that Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century, hid many valleys called beyulthroughout the Himalayan region and provided such forces as snowstorms and mist to protect them. These treasured and peaceful valleys would be discovered once the world faced destruction, hatred and lawlessness.

Dorje’s Hotel in Prok where Tsering Bhuti squats by the hearth to cook us rice, dal and greens from their vegetable patch. A cat nestles close to the fire. The BBC reports a climbing number of cases in the US, which is relevant to the family: their elder daughter is a babysitter in New York.

The stone house sheltering us was once the palace of the king of the Nubri valley. Though Dorje was born a prince, he practices as the village amchi (traditional healer). His daughter Jhangchuk, schooled in Kathmandu, alternately consults as a health researcher and gathers fodder in the forest. The kitchen shelves that are chock-full of brass plates and cooking utensils, also hold a TV. We break our discussion of Jhangchuk’s maternal nutrition research to watch the horrors of the corona virus as it is being reported on BBC. The climbing number of cases in the US is relevant to this family: the elder daughter is employed as a babysitter in New York City.

Dorje at the family altar holding an image of his father, the previous king of Prok.

Traveling with me to Prok is my friend and co-author, photojournalist Thomas Kelly. On the sunlit morning of the next day, Thomas photographs Dorje’s family altar and an image of his father, the king. Dorje shows him his scar from a bear attack and describes how the village was wracked by earthquake. He points out his photo with the Dalai Lama. The conversation deepens our understanding of how lives are led here in Prok. Hardships balanced out by faith: Dorje is reading his prayers when Jhangchuk guides us to a monastery that the community has reinforced with ample cement. Even though the beyul was not spared the earthquake, people here survived.

A principal from a school in Kathmandu joins us. He is on his way to visit his grandpa in a village tucked in the forest high above. In that remote village the elders meditate and live peacefully, and the principal deems it the safest possible refuge from coronavirus.

Looking out over irregular shapes of fields, some just being tilled and others green.

At the end of our tour with Jhangchuk, Thomas and I discuss what to do. We have been trekking for over a week by the time we’ve arrived in Prok. Since Kathmandu has gone under full lockdown over the virus, should we even try to get back to our homes there? What if we were to suggest to our guide and two porters that we should all explore the beyul at least for another week?

But we pack our bags and press on. Weeks later we will both find ourselves thinking back on Prok. And Jhangchuk will be communicating with us by Messenger. She will send a video from a recent ceremony supported by donations collected from the villagers. We will play that video many times, watching the monks of Prok performing masked dances, dancing to keep the corona virus at bay.