The Buddhist monk named Tensing and his disciple, Prince Dil Bahadur, had been climbing in the high peaks north of the Himalayas for many days, a region of eternal ice where no one but a few lamas had ever ventured. Neither of the two was counting the hours, because time did not interest them. The calendar is a human invention; time does not exist on the spiritual level, the master had taught his student.
For them it was the crossing that was important; the prince was making it for the first time. The monk remembered having done it in a previous life, but those memories were rather blurred. They were following the markings on an ancient parchment, orienting themselves by the stars in a terrain where even in summer conditions were very harsh. The temperature of several degrees below zero was endurable only two months during the year, when ominous storms were not lashing the mountains.
Even beneath the sunny, cloudless skies, the cold was intense. They were wearing rough wool tunics, and cloaks made from yak hide. Leather boots from the same animal covered their feet, with the long hair turned in and the outside weather-proofed with yak butter. The travelers placed each foot with care; one misstep on the ice and they could tumble hundreds of yards into the deep chasms that sliced through the mountains as if cleft by God’s hatchet.
Luminous snowy peaks stood out against a sky of deep blue. The travelers moved at a slow pace, because at those heights there was very little oxygen. They rested frequently, so their lungs would become accustomed to the altitude. Their chests ached, as did their ears and their heads. They were suffering from nausea and fatigue, but neither of the two mentioned such bodily weakness, saving their breath in order to get the maximum benefit from each mouthful of air.
They were searching for rare plants found only in the Valley of the Yetis, plants essential in preparing medicinal lotions and balms. If they survived the dangers of this journey, they would consider themselves initiated, for their characters would be tempered like steel. Their will and courage would be put to the test many times during that climb. The disciple would need both will and courage to carry out the task that awaited him in life, which was why he had been given the name Dil Bahadur, “brave heart” in the language of the Forbidden Kingdom. The pilgrimage to the Valley of the Yetis was one of the last steps in the harsh training the prince had been undergoing for twelve years.
The youth did not know the true reason for their trek, which was much more important than the gathering of curative plants or his initiation as a lama, or superior being. His master could not reveal it to him, just as he could not speak to him of many other things. Tensing’s role was to guide the prince during each stage of his long apprenticeship; he was charged with strengthening the young man’s body and his character and cultivating his mind, testing the quality of his spirit again and again. Dil Bahadur would discover the reason for the journey to the Valley of the Yetis later, when he found himself before the fabled statue of the Golden Dragon.
On their backs, Tensing and Dil Bahadur were carrying bundles that contained the blankets, grain, and yak butter they would need to survive. Rolled around their waists were coils of yak-hair rope, which they used in climbing, and in one hand each grasped a long, strong walking staff, which they used for support, for defending themselves in case of attack, and for setting up their improvised tent at night. In places where experience had taught them that fresh snow often covered deep openings, they also used their staffs to test the depth and firmness of a surface before stepping onto it. Frequently they were forced to make long detours around fissures that couldn't be jumped over. Sometimes, to avoid going out of their way for hours, they laid one of the staffs across the crevasse, and only when they were sure it was firmly seated on either side did they dare step onto it and then leap to the other side—never more than one step, because the risk of plummeting into empty space was too big. They made such leaps without thinking, with their minds clear, trusting in physical skill, instinct, and luck, because if they stopped to weigh each move it would be impossible to make it. When the opening was wider than the length of the staff, they looped a rope around an overhanging rock, then one of them tied the other end of the rope around his waist, took a running start, and leaped, swinging back and forth like a pendulum until he reached the other side. The young disciple, who had great stamina and courage in the face of danger, always hesitated at the moment they were forced to use those methods.
The pair had come to such a chasm, and the lama was looking for the best place to cross. The youth briefly closed his eyes, sending a prayer skyward.
“Do you fear dying, Dil Bahadur?” Tensing inquired, smiling.
“No, honorable master. The moment of my death was written in my fate before my birth. I shall die when my work is finished in this reincarnation and my spirit is ready to fly, but I do fear breaking all my bones down there, and living,” the youth replied, pointing to the impressive precipice yawning at their feet.
“That could, perhaps, present a problem,” the lama conceded with good humor. “If you open your mind and heart, it will seem easier,” he added.
“What would you do if I were to fall?”
“Should that occur, I would possibly have to think about it. For the moment, my thoughts are turned to other things.”
“May I know what, master?”