On the road to Mount Kailash just before you reach the Ganglai Gorge there is a winding mountainous single-track road that hugs the craggy stone walls on one side, and falls away into nothingness on the other side. Horizontal rain lashed violently at the windscreen, and huge gusts of wind rocked the decrepit jeep almost whacking us up against the jagged walls where we slowly clung to the inside of the pot-holed road.
It was the first week in November and although the bad weather was already upon us, I had hoped that a quick visit to the holy Buddhist mountain of Kailash would be safe enough for me to photograph. About 20 minutes ride from the town of Lhatse, the weather deteriorated rapidly, and what with hail, freezing rain and howling winds, we, my driver Karma Dorje and I, decided to chance it, in the hope that the weather would break and improve over the next horizon.
Foolhardy, wasn't the word one should use for this action it was amazingly stupid, and in retrospect it was almost attempting suicide.
This horrendous road that undulates continuously from about 3,660 metres high to what suddenly seems a drop to below sea level has had its share of victims. Its constant treachery was legendary. So, when our engine spluttered, back-fired and came to an abrupt halt, all the foreboding in the world couldn't hide the fact that we were truly in serious trouble. The jeep was dead, and the whining of the starter motor as Karma Dorje repeatedly twisted the ignition key, seemed to emphasise our distress.
It was cold in the jeep and we decided to do nothing until the weather cleared and Karma Dorje could look beneath the hood of the jeep and do what all Asiatic taxi drivers are able to do, make a car go without any tools. It was cold and below freezing outside, and it was rapidly becoming apparent that within a very short time it would be freezing inside the jeep as well.
It was pitch black, and although I had a powerful flashlight in my bag, the thought of leaving my seat was simply not on. My driver was silent, I could read fear in his face and he was furiously telling the beads of his rosary mala with an almost manic concentration.
All at once a flash of lightning and an instant explosive crack shook the jeep and bounced us into the mountain wall on our right. An enormous shower of rocky debris tumbled dramatically onto us and in front and behind us too. Luckily, having been smashed into the wall, we escaped what seemed to be cathedral size boulder that had been dislodged by the rainstorm. The boulder landed smack-bang in front of us, no more that 5 metres away from our front bumper. In an instant we escaped death.
Neither of us said a word, we hardly dared to breathe expecting at any minute to be crushed in the fury.
It was at that moment that a severe rapping was heard and felt on the front windscreen. I shone my torch through the windscreen and saw to my, and Karma Dorje's surprise, the gnarled face of a Tibetan man.
He had a huge scar on one side of his face that had virtually obliterated one eye, and as his face was wreathed in a white fur hood he was truly a vision of creepiness. He beckoned us to follow him, we had no choice. I grabbed my shoulder bag, gripped my flashlight, and along with Karma Dorje, burst out of the Jeep into the maelstrom.
Trying to fend off the weather conditions was hopeless, so stoically with hands shielding our eyes, we looked for our Tibetan visitor, who was by now about 20 metres behind us on what remained of the road.
He waved at us to follow him and that's exactly what we did, grasping the various chunks of rock that thrust out from the mountain walls for support and to stop us from being blown off the road entirely, into the new emptiness and certain death. We walked for what seemed an hour in these conditions, when our Tibetan stranger veered off to the left into what seemed a junction, giant V-shape in the mountain wall, with a large overhanging roof structure. I can only describe this place as being a conical cave.
Our rescuer stood outside the cave and gestured furiously for us to go inside, which we hurriedly did and collapsed on the floor exhausted but glad to be alive.
I turned to our Tibetan guide and what I, no what we saw, astonished us. He stood facing us. He was clothed in what seemed to be heavy white fur robes, tied with a dark sash. He wore huge black turned up boots and his hands were wrapped in what appeared to be white bandages. He smiled at us, he was so close we could see his teeth, and then he simply was no longer there.
Karma Dorje was holding his rosary mala to his forehead and chanting "AUM MANI PADME HUM" over and over again. He turned to me and said "Alain, that was a Rolang, a Rolang just saved our lives, AUM MANI PADME HUM!"
A Rolang is a corpse who lives, a sort of Tibetan Zombie. I remember reading in Alexandra David Neel's book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, how the only way to kill a Rolang was for a sorcerer to bite off its tongue, and that if he failed to sever the tongue with his teeth, he too would be condemned to certain death with the added possibility of joining the ranks of the undead.
Shattered, we both spent the rest of the night away from the entrance of the cave. Deep in thought neither of us slept. From time to time I could hear Karma Dorje praying and the click of his beads was reassuring in the mountain hollow, and I too found comfort in prayer.
Several hours later when the storm had broken, we began the long trek back to Lhatse. I said goodbye to Karma Dorje, we embraced with tears in our eyes. We started the journey as strangers, but now and forever we would be linked to an experience that had given us some more of the precious gift of life.