Posts Tagged With: Mountain

On Top of Laos With Abraham Lincoln

I climbed the winding staircase.

The afternoon humidity in Luang Prabang made each step more laborious than it otherwise might have been. The steps zigged and zagged up the face of Mount Phou Si. The stone, smooth and rounded from the movement of so many feet over so many years. In a small plastic bag at my side swung two flowers wrapped in bamboo leaf cups. Incense protruded from their center, offerings for the altar at the top of the mountain. I took care not to let the flowers bump and knock into my leg as I walked.

The trees that engulfed Phou Si’s side encroached and advanced on the staircase. Seeking to reclaim it back into the jungle. Vines hung low over the steps and roots snaked and twisted through cracks in the stone.

As I climbed higher I began to pass stations along the staircase. Nooks and crevices set up as shrines in the mountainside. Sanskrit mantras carved into stone. The Buddha reclined on a flat slab of marble. Golden idols and painted serpents flanked the narrow stone steps.

One of the many idols along the face of Mt. Phou Si.
One of the many idols along the face of Mt. Phou Si.

I heard voices up ahead. A low sing-song mumbling. As I ascended further, it got louder, until I matched the sound to the chanting of over a dozen monks. I tip-toed passed the Wat Tham Phou Si temple, peeking through an open door of the small building and watched as rows of monks, sitting cross-legged, chanted in unison. All of their eyes were closed, heads down as they sung. A synchronized low sound of meditative prayer.

I climbed higher still. The trees began to give way to high shrubs and ferns. Bright butterflies, with wings of impossible turquoise danced and fluttered across my path. It wasn’t long before I was at the base of the gilded stupa of Wat Chom Si, the temple that capped the summit of Mount Phou Si. I stood at the foot of the temple and wheeled around taking in the view. I could see for miles and miles, Luang Prabang the former Laotian capital sprawled out around Phou Si below me.

I looked out, the roofs of Luang Prabang dotted the valley below. Distant temples and pagodas glinted gold under the sun. The lazy Mekong River, brown and murky, snaked off, hugging the town and vanishing out into a heat hazy horizon. Distant mountains rose upwards in the distance, their faces covered in every spectrum of green, a canopy of jungle trees. Their peaks rose into the wispy traffic of passing clouds. White and grey masses that trailed and churned around the high summits as they crawled across a bright blue sky.

My eyes, glued to the panorama before me hardly noticed the movement that eventually broke my gaze. I looked over to see a score of monks standing and doing the exact same thing as me. Staring out in awe of Laos. One even had a camera about his neck. With their robes of saffron and crimson they added yet another color to the landscape behind them.

Luang Prabang, Laos from the summit of Mt. Phou Si.
Luang Prabang, Laos from the summit of Mt. Phou Si.

I made way for them as they spread out along the railing, quietly chatting with each other. The one with the camera noticed me and held up the bulky piece of equipment about his neck. He smiled big at me nodding towards my own camera in my hands and then out towards the scenic landscape of Laos. His gesture was endearing, his smile even more so. As if the fact that we were both carrying cameras and had come to photograph the same view made us long lost brothers.

Wat Chom Si the crown on top of Mt. Phou Si.
Wat Chom Si the crown on top of Mt. Phou Si.

I walked passed them smiling back and took a small tour of the mountain summit. Walking by the entrance to the temple I peaked in at an altar of golden Buddhas and rows of flowers and incense. An orange Tabby cat sat lazily off to the side, keeping its distance from the idols as if it couldn’t make heads or tails of what the building was for. As I rounded back around the sides of the pagoda I saw a rocky outcrop dotted with the tiny bamboo leaf flowers I had purchased below. I placed my two in the crevices of the rock next to the others and watched the breeze ruffle and wrinkle the pedals. My offering complete I stepped down and took a seat along the wall, waiting for sunset.

Cats N’ Buddhas
Offerings of flowers and incense on the summit of Phou Si
Offerings of flowers and incense on the summit of Phou Si

“Where are you from?”

I looked down from staring up at the temple’s high stupa to see a young boy had sat down next to me. He looked to be about fifteen or sixteen with short slick black hair and the dark complexion of someone born in Laos who spent his summer outdoors.

“I’m from the USA.” I said, “Are you from Luang Prabang?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah.” he nodded, “My house is just over there.” he pointed out over the rail into the void. His house could have been anywhere within a hundred miles for all I could tell.

“What’s your name?” he asked without a hint of shyness. Another boy about the same age appeared at his side. He was slightly taller than his chatty friend and wore a red oversized Chicago Bulls basketball jersey.

“My name is Justin.” I introduced myself. “What’s yours?”

“Abraham.” he said with a smile, patting his chest. “This is Gabriel.” he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb at his tall friend.

Biblical names and impeccable English, I smelled the work of a missionary.

“Abraham?” I said in surprise. “Do your parents call you that?”

“No, no.” he said with a laugh as if it was obvious. “My real name is Lieu, I picked Abraham as my English name.”

“His real name is Kai.” Abraham said, pointing to his friend. With a smile Kai nodded in affirmation.

“Why did you pick Abraham?” I asked, suspicious that the missionary had a hand in helping him decide.

“I love history.” he said swinging his feet as he sat on the bench. “I really like to read about American history.” he continued. “Abraham Lincoln is my favorite to read about.”

Not expecting that answer, I was taken aback. “What about you?” I met eyes with Kai, who called himself Gabriel. He smiled and shrugged looking down at his feet.

“He’s shy.” Abraham answered for him. “He just picked it because he likes how it sounds.”

I nodded and smiled reassuring him that this reason was as good as any.

“He looks like Paul.” Gabriel said to Abraham. They both laughed.

“Who’s Paul?” I asked.

“Paul is the man who teaches at our school.” Abraham said, his eyes down watching his feet swing back and forth from under the bench. “He looks like you.” he lifted his head and eyed up my face. “He has one of those.” he reached out and brushed the hair on my face.

“A beard?” I asked, laughing inwardly. Me and Paul probably looked nothing alike in reality. He was likely just another white guy with a beard.

“Yeah, yeah a beard!” Abraham’s eyes lit up recognizing the word. “Abraham Lincoln had one too.” he added. He mimicked stroking a long beard with his hands.

I laughed in fascination that a teenager from Laos had such an affiliation with American history. A subject even many American teenagers had no interest in.

“What else do you know about Abraham Lincoln?” I probed.

“He was the best president.” he continued still swinging his feet. “He was a very strong leader.” he stopped swinging and looked at Gabriel and then at me. “He stopped the war and kept your country together you know?” He said this with stern eyes, like he had just divulged new information to me.

“I love history too.” I told him. “I studied it at university.”

“Really!” he straightened up on the bench in excitement.

As the sun sank down westward to be swallowed behind the murky Mekong I sat and chatted with the two boys. Abraham was fascinated by my knowledge of American Civil War history and I was fascinated by his fascination with it. As I descended back down the steps in the dusk I chuckled to myself as I walked. At the top of Luang Prabang, in the middle of Laos, on the peak of a small mountain I had had the most unexpected of encounters with an even more unexpected topic of conversation.

Whoever you are and wherever you are from, go outside, find a bench and have a seat. There is no telling who you will meet and what you will talk about.


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Land of the Eternal Blue Sky: A Love Story

North of Omnodelger: February

I crunched uphill.  My boots the first to scathe the undisturbed snow.  Snow that fell months ago.  Dakraa was paces ahead of me, occasionally slowing and asking if I was tired or cold.  Marching uphill for the past hour with the heavy Mongolian deel and boots I was tired, and with temperatures in the negative forties I was cold.  These discomforts I didn’t express to Dakraa though, I’d smile dutifully and assure him I was fine.  So we trudged upwards, towards some distant crest.  Passing by sparse trees I’d brush my hand along their branches as I passed.  It’d been so long since I had been around so many in one place.

We left hours earlier, stepping out into the cold from Tuya’s mother’s ger at the base of the Khentii Mountains.  Stepped out into the hodoo, the countryside, the backlands of Mongolia.  Tuya’s mother, older brother, and two sisters, were nomads.  They dwelt miles outside the confines of Omnodelger, alone, save for the animals they herded.  When the livestock had expended the area’s grass, they’d get up and move again.  I was invited to the solitude to help make preparations for the coming holiday Tsagaan Sar.  After an hour or so of pressing, kneading, and stretching dough Dawkraa grabbed up his rifle and exclaimed joyfully, “come Justin, lets go hunting.”  As we exited the ger I saw Tuya shoot her husband a sidelong glance as if to say “typical”.  Slinging the weapon over his shoulder I looked at him curiously, “What will we hunt?” I asked.  He just shrugged at me, “It doesn’t matter.”  I laughed nervously aloud at the prospect of marching off into the wild with a trigger happy Dakraa.  I thought better of trying to explain how hunting laws in New Jersey worked and how he’d surely be violating all of them and just mimicked his shrug of indifference and followed him up towards the mountains.

As we journeyed heading up the mountain’s western face,  Dakraa began hooting and hollering into the void.  We hadn’t encountered a living creature since setting out, making Dakraa’s hunting rifle just a heavy prop.  He continued shouting hoping to stir some creature from its stationary roust.  Suddenly he stopped his whooping and called me to his side.  “There,” he pointed, “a fat bird.”  It certainly was.  Perched on a branch a couple dozen yards away, I could make out the silhouette of a  bird, with a large round body and tiny head, I was shocked the branch held its bulbous frame.  It was like a beach ball with a head.  “Here,” Dakraa said, extending the rifle towards me.  The lack of chicken in my diet for sometime compelled me to take the weapon from him.  I crouched and held my breathe as I tried to judge the shot as best I could.  It wasn’t fair that the bird was allowed to be so gluttonous, I would impart his sin unto me.  Pulling the trigger, I heard the thud of metal against wood and saw bark shear from the bird’s tree.  Startled, it fluttered off towards the setting sun.  Dakraa laughed behind me.  I stood up and growled under my breath, I was less angry with my embarrassing shot then the fact that the bird, in its obese state was actually able to take flight.  Handing the gun back to Dakraa we set out at our continued pace towards the top of the mountain.

He stopped when we finally reached the summit.  Turning and gesturing for me to hurry up, I sprinted the last couple paces and was met with a mind boggling view.  Our small mountain gave way to a never ending expanse of ones just like it.  They were so vast and expansive that many seemed like mere bumps in the distance.  No roads, power lines, buildings or semblance of infrastructure could be seen anywhere.  Distant forests looked miniature and blurry, the horizon expanded to a hazy white.  If the landscape was daunting, the sky was even more so.  Mongolia’s nickname “The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky” rang as true as ever.  A wash of spectacular blue that dwarfed the land it covered.  It seemed there was nothing blocking me from floating away into the blue void.  I was overcome with a feeling of being alone on the top of the world and I resisted the euphoric impulse to yell at the top of my lungs.  “Khentii,”  Dakraa said with a gesture of his hand, sweeping it towards the view that lay before us.  “Its beautiful,” I answered just above a whisper.  He chuckled at my stupefied reaction, “Yes, it is,” he said with an air that suggested he’d seen it a million times before.  “Lets go,” he added and began trekking towards the mountains western rim.  I hung back until his footsteps had faded, until the silence engulfed me, a quiet so encompassing you can almost hear it.  I couldn’t take my eyes away from the view, I snapped a picture, then followed in Dakraa’s wake.

The sun was all but set as we neared Tuya’s mother’s ger that evening.  We had been gone the better part of the day.  As we got closer to the tiny round structure I saw a figure step outside.  It was Tuya, discarding some dirty dish water.  Uh oh, I thought remembering her look from earlier.  Dakraa’s going to get it for being out so late, leaving them to work all day.  She looked up and to my surprise her face lit up as she saw us approach.  Quickening his pace to meet her, he stopped a step from her and with just as an animated expression as her’s he began excitedly rattling off the events of the day.  She let him speak, without saying a word, just smiling up at him.  I’d never seen them show any kind of affection towards one another before but in that moment he took up one of her hands in his as he chattered on, playfully swinging it back and forth.  Suddenly, I took an unconscious step back.  Like my presence was somehow ruining the perfect moment.  The surprise of it all made me feel sentimental and cliche.  In a world where people marry for money, prestige, and insurance, here were two people in a small corner of our planet who had none of those things to fall on.  As I caught some words, Dakraa retold how I missed the fat bird then mimed my facial expression as I stood dumbfounded in front of the extensive mountains and endless sky.  Tuya made some jest back at him and they both went giggling and stumbling over each other as they ducked back into the ger.  At that moment I realized how much they really care about each, how lucky I am to live next to such warmhearted people, to share in their relationship.  It amazes me everyday, the things I learn from this place.

Love, like Mongolia, has no ceiling.

Congratulations Kelly and Sean.
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