Friday, 14th December 2018

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

On the yeti trail

Posted on 06. Apr, 2017 by in Curious Travel

Fable? Reality? Dark side of the soul?

 

ON THE YETI TRAIL
Chasing a wisp, a legend, a key to who we are.

OGYEN CHOLING, Tang Valley, Bhutan

“If you want to look for a yeti just climb the mountain behind the village. That’s where they’ve been sighted.”

I was enjoying a post-dinner whiskey with Kunzang Choden and her husband Walter Roder, at their home in the Tang Valley in central Bhutan.  The talk had drifted into yeti tales.  Kunzang’s comment that yetis “have been sighted,” caused me to pause.  The logical part of my brain remembered the days when I was a teenager on a modest allowance buying Roman coins.  Some dealers offered bulk lots of a hundred battered coins, with the tantalizing salesman’s come-on “gold has been found in lots like this.”  Plus the admonition: Just climb that mountain.  It was a refrain I’ve heard elsewhere in Asia; when I was searching for tiger magicians or small people of the forest I was frequently told “you can find the strange wonders you’re searching for over the next hill, beyond the next mountain.”  Just keep walking, just keep dreaming.

On the other hand, this was Bhutan, a Himalayan country with a cultural mythology as rich as the biodiversity in its extensive forests.  Bhutan is prime yeti habitat. Kunzang herself, who grew up in this rural valley, wrote a book titled Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti, so she has both local knowledge of things that go bump in the night as well as a Western logical education to help her put strange happenings into perspective.

I needed a long, hard walk.  For the past several days I had been helping my wife Monique photograph temple murals at Kunzang’s Ogyen Choling estate for her Master’s dissertation. My eyes were beginning to spin with images of bodhisattvas with unpronounceable names and convoluted genealogies.  I don’t know how Monique got them organized in her head.  There was Thuenpa Puen Zhi, the four spiritual friends; and Neten Chudug, the Sixteen Arhats.  Sangay Menlha, the Medicine Buddha; Jampa, the Future Buddha; and Tsepame, the Buddha of Infinite Life.  Too many myths, too many fantastic miracles to learn.  Some yeti-hunting, a tough walk “up the mountain,” was just what I wanted.

* * *

What is the allure of a mirage, of a wisp, of a legend?

Why are people so fascinated by the yeti?

Is it because they mirror our dark side, and in the process help define us as human?

* * *

Kunzang gave me a crash course in yeti-ology.

“There are countless stories about the megoi,” she said, using the Bhutanese name for the yeti.

They’re not people.

They’re not animals.

They’re deities and spirits which can manifest as yetis, creatures with supernatural powers.

They are territorial and don’t like intruders in their wilderness domain.

They can be dangerous.  Or not.

They can make themselves invisible.

“Oh, there’s one other distinctive feature.  The females always have droopy breasts. They flip them over their shoulders when they run.”

* * *

For the climb to the “yeti sighting-place,” at a location called Khramai, I was accompanied by our guide Karma Wangdi, 61, and a local farmer named Tashi Phuntso, 39.  After about an hour of setting off, Phuntso’s dog Norsangla decided to join us.  Phuntso had left him behind, but Norsangla, 4, obviously had felt that he wanted to be part of our adventure.

The path kept climbing. I stopped a few times to take some deep breaths of the air, as pellucid as air can be, air which has never come in close contact with industry or cars or rock concerts.  For Tashi Phuntso it was a walk in the park.  For Karma Wangdi it was a workout; although he was a village boy who grew up in an adjacent valley he has lived years in the cushier-environment of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital.  For me it was a boy’s adventure.  About half-way up I could see our destination, a large building perched on the edge of an outcrop.  It didn’t look that far away.

* * *

Tashi Phuntso, our village guide, had street-cred.  He said he had seen a megoi a few years earlier. It was a rainy morning and he had gone to help his mother care for the yak herd.  Lingering nearby was a megoi, who sauntered off when it saw Phuntso approach. Phuntso showed us the field where the encounter had taken place.

* * *

I had never met a village dog as zen-like as Norsangla.  He’s a big, black and tan mountain dog, with one brown eye, one blue.  Most Bhutanese village dogs are fierce.  Norsangla, whose name means “good wishes,” never barked.  He was as gentle as a suburban golden retriever.  He was tactile and liked to have the back of his ears scratched.  I dare say, his was an “old soul.”

But I wasn’t sure that having Norsangla around was good for our yeti search.  If a yeti came calling would Norsangla break his silence and scare off the yeti? Or would the yeti sense that this placid animal was an easy midnight snack, and invade our camp?

* * *

There are two schools of thought about what entices/disgusts a yeti.  “To attract a yeti burn plastic and rubbish,” Kunzang said.  “They are sensitive to bad smells and will become angry that someone is polluting their neighborhood and come to investigate.”

I liked the idea of an eco-conscious yeti, but other folks told me the opposite.

“No, better to burn sweet-smelling pine, juniper and herbs,” Karma said. He had accompanied us from Thimphu but grew up on a farm in an adjacent valley. “They are attracted to homely, natural smells.”

Ditto for personal hygiene. One expert said I should not bathe and must hang around barnyard yaks for a few days.  Another self-declared expert, however, recommended deodorant and flossing.

* * *

The biggest quandary potentially faced by a yeti-hunter is what do you do if you find one?

A true scientist would say that’s no quandary at all.  You hit it with a tranquillizer dart and do the needful.   No tranquilizer gun?  Well, you shoot the thing.  Because unless you have one on the lab table, all you have is a Grand Wisp of Lofty Expectations.

But most yeti-chasers wouldn’t pull the trigger.

I attribute this reticence to two concerns.

The first is that the yeti is so-close-to-being-human that killing one would be a form of homicide.

The second is that most yeti-chasers don’t actually want the animal to be found. They don’t want the yeti to be autopsied, to have its skull measured, its hair and blood analyzed, its stools picked through, its DNA put through an expensive techno-gadget that would tell us how close the animal is to us, and vice versa.  Most serious yeti-chasers claim they prefer to live with the myth, although my cynical side feels that this “keep-the-myth-alive” attitude might simply be the rationalization of researchers who failed in capturing the beast.

* * *

People strive for the light. Moths to the flame and all that.

But even the brightest, most enlightened individual has a shadow.

Our dark side — depressive, violent, arrogant, spiteful, fearful — is something we try to overcome.  Some people seek religion. Some turn to meditation. Others engage in merit-making and doing good works.  And some people couldn’t give a damn and carry on, business as usual.

Jung called this dark side of the soul the “shadow.”

Some Asian religions call this “ignorance,” and temples and morality-tales are rich in illustrating the idea that one of the main job descriptions of the gods, and hence of mortal men, is to subdue the deformed Dwarf of Ignorance.

Do yeti stories evolve from this recognition of the duality of the soul?  So much Asian philosophy is based on managing opposites. To get crops to grow you need both the rainy season and the sunny season.  There is the cycle of life and death.   The world runs on an endless dynamic of polarities: male and female; exploration and nurturing, day and night, good and evil.

The yeti is not human. But it’s a disturbingly-close reverse image, like looking at ourselves in a darkened mirror.  The yeti is Caliban, close enough to ourselves to make us wonder what this business we call humanity is all about.

You define yourself partly by what you are not.

As W.B. Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming:”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

* * *

Myths and legends of giants and ape-men have survival value for mankind — we need to be reminded of what our life might be like if we did not have culture, that uniquely human attribute. As the British primatologist John Napier suggests, humans need to experience feelings of awe.  “Husbands, fathers, elders, statesmen, dictators, presidents, chairmen and grand masters are all very well as god-figures, but they are inadequate because they lack the essential ingredient of remoteness. Man needs his gods — and his monsters — and the more remote and unapproachable they are, the better.”

The yeti may or may not exist in reality. But there is no question that it has an eternal home in the human spirit.

* * *

I took another rest break as we climbed up the “yetis-have-been-sighted” mountain. I munched a Snickers. I was tired, to be sure, but my modest efforts couldn’t compare with the travails of serious yeti-hunters, like my friend Jeffrey McNeely.

* * *

During a two year stint in the mountains of eastern Nepal, conservationist McNeely found yeti spoor at his team’s study site between Mount Everest and Mount Kanchenjunga, some two-weeks-walk from the nearest road.

The first evidence was a large human-like stool near the camp that McNeely at first thought came from one of the porters.  But the stool included chunks of partly-digested bone and hair, perhaps from a serow, a Himalayan antelope.

Then one December morning, McNeely and his colleagues woke to find distinctive footprints in the fresh snow around their tents.  “They were about an American size 12 [European size 45], and quite wide.  Our first thought was that they might be footprints of a bear,” McNeely, co-author of Mammals of Thailand, said.  “But no; these had a round heel while bears have a pointed heel, and there were no claw marks, which would have been present if it had been a bear.”

They followed the footprints for a couple of hundred meters, until the tracks disappeared into a gulch.

McNeely took some photos and made plaster casts of the footprints. He asked a friend, Andrew Laurie, to carry them out of the country to Bangkok, where McNeely and his colleagues lived.

The casts were carefully packed in an aluminum case, which Laurie, who had been studying Indian rhinos in the Chitwan area of Nepal, carried as hand luggage.  At the airport security screening he was asked what he was carrying, and he explained that they were plaster casts of animals.

“Yeti?” asked the Nepalese customs inspector?

“Er, yes,” Laurie replied.

“In that case they’re a national treasure,” the customs man said, confiscating the case and its contents.  They were never seen again.

* * *

I asked McNeely what he thought he had discovered.

McNeely is a good friend, whose comments sometimes verge on the cynical. He’s a pragmatic scientist who isn’t afraid to speculate on what might be.  The absence of proof does not mean proof of absence.

“I can’t confirm it was a yeti,” he said.  “But I hold out hope it might be.”

I suggested that the never-ending search for the yeti would only be solved one way or another if someone captures an animal.

“You’re right,” he said, “but I hope it’s never found.”

“But you believe in the yeti?”  As I said it I realized it sounded like a religious question.

He caught my drift and replied. “The local people certainly believe it.”  And then my American friend gave a Gallic-type shrug, as if to say, “Who knows?”

* * *

The walk to Khramai turned out to be further, and harder, than I had anticipated. We gained about a thousand meters in elevation to reach an altitude of 4,200 meters.  We finally came upon a substantial two-level house, framed by wild rhododendrons beginning to bud.   I marveled at the skill of Bhutanese carpenters to build big, sturdy structures in unlikely places.  The bottom level was devoid of furniture but dry and moderately-clean.  The upper floor contained a small chapel, still in use by passing yak-herders.  No doubt it would shelter people and their spirits through rude winters.

Our home for the night was built about a hundred years ago by a Tibetan monk who lived in the village just below Ogyen Choling.  The timing of its construction coincided with the age of the temple murals my wife was studying.  For five days she had begun to document the hundreds of paintings in the two-level chapel at Ogyen Choling.  One early observation was that the images of well-known saints and bodhisattvas, which might have been painted by a nameless Tibetan artist, followed generally-accepted iconographic rules — this was so the worshipper could quickly identify the religious figure represented.  After a few days even I could pick out Guru Rimpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, and Avolokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who changes form and gender to become the female Kuan-yin in the Chinese pantheon.  I was on good terms with images of  Drukpa Kunley, the ribald “Crazy Dragon” monk; and Terton Pema Lingpa, the Great Treasure Discoverer.  These super-heroes of Bhutanese Buddhism weren’t becoming friends, exactly, but they were becoming acquaintances.

However the unknown artist had let his imagination fly when he painted non-religious phantasmagorias, and we spent hours admiring and documenting his fanciful birds, plants, flowers and imaginations from local folk tales.

Some of the pictures were visible, but hard to photograph — the light was a mixture of harsh sunlight mixed with deep shadow, with the added complication of overhead fluorescent lights.  Also, some of the smaller images were hidden behind curtains or in dark corners, and could only be photographed by setting up a makeshift scaffold and light-painting the small area to be photographed.  We estimated we had looked carefully at perhaps half of the painted images.  Each day brought a surprise; it was like looking at the world’s biggest “Where’s Waldo” illustration, or really paying attention to Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

* * *

My night at Khramai passed uneventfully, as I expected.  No gentle owl-like “hoo-hoo” sounds that would have signaled that a yeti was up and about.  I slept peacefully, as did Norsangla.  The fire burned until about ten at night, fragrant with juniper smoke.  After that we were alone with the stars and wind that rippled the prayer flags.

* * *

I wasn’t disappointed at not having a yeti sighting because I hadn’t expected one.

We returned to Ogyen Choling around mid-day. “Any luck?” Kunzang asked as we shared a quick bite of lunch.  I laughed and shook my head.

I then wandered over to the temple to see what my wife was getting up to.

Monique was with Karma, our guide who had just accompanied me on the yeti trek.

“Look what we found!” Monique said.  She parted a curtain above a dark doorway.  I didn’t see anything.  “Look with the flashlight,” she instructed and I saw a painting, about fifteen-centimeters high, of two long-haired, human-like creatures. They formed a couple, and the male had his arm around the female, who had long droopy breasts.

“It’s a yeti!” Karma said.

“I grew up here; I’ve used this temple since I was a little girl, and I never saw this,” Kunzang said.  She called for her husband.

Walter ran in, thinking someone had been injured.  “Look at what Monique and Karma found!” Kunzang said.

Karma’s comment was more prosaic.  “We didn’t have to hike up the mountain.  We’ve got one right here.”

______________

Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, Distant Greens, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. For more information on Paul please see: Wikipedia.  He can be contacted through his website: www.sochaczewski.com

This article is excerpted from the Himalaya volume of Paul Sochaczewski’s new five-book series Curious Encounters of the Human Kind. Available on Amazon.com