Pamela Logan's Books

Among Warriors: brief description | how to buy


Chapter One

A kata begins in a state of quiet readiness: motionless, calm but mentally poised, a fuse awaiting a flame. We will start with Heian Shodan, the most basic kata, fundamental to karate. The name means Peaceful Mind, symbolic perhaps of the silence that precedes new knowledge taking shape.

I was pedaling my bike over a bleak, frozen, achingly monotonous land. Everything, everywhere, in every direction, was the same merciless color of brown. For limitless miles the dun-colored earth had been dug, combed, piled and compacted with that peasant ferocity that is ubiquitous in China, and now it was all frozen solid. Mud-brick dwellings squatted sullenly on frozen ground. In the lanes footprints had ossified in the mud. Wheat fields, plowed up and dormant for the winter, were graveyards of hard-edged dirt. Leafless willows brushed their skeletal fingers across an icicle-blue sky. Apart from a dusting of snow on distant ridges, there was nothing but dirt-brown and steely blue as far as my eyes could see.

I had come here looking for Tibetans, not all these Chinese farms; but along this highway there was no sign of Tibet whatsoever. People walking along the road were faceless bundles of winter clothes; their white skullcaps and black lace headcovering were discouraging evidence that I hadn't reached Tibet, but was still in a Muslim region. After three hours of slow ascent, I came to a steep incline. Then the pavement gave way to mud, rutted and icy, that at length ended in a plaza.

Suddenly I was standing before a row of eight Buddhist chörten--square plinths of dazzling white, their gold-banded crowns flowing up into graceful spires. Across the plaza, Tibetans walked to and fro, their faces dark under the noonday glare. From somewhere nearby a loudspeaker broadcast a deep, melodic male voice crooning a gentle song, almost a chant.

Wintry air, merciless sun, dark Tibetan faces, blazing chörten, and chanting--they all struck a sudden forceful chord. Tears came to my eyes. At last I was in Tibet!

"Heian Shodan!" Out of the quiet comes a voice strongly announcing the kata's name. Now the fuse is lit. Outwardly nothing has changed, yet from this moment there is no going back.

For some minutes I stood before the chörten wondering what to do. Meanwhile, a crowd slowly collected. Young and old, monk and lay, they gathered around my bike: squeezing the tires, fondling the gearshift levers, and admiring the many-compartmented luggage. Now, at last, was the chance to use the Tibetan I had learned so laboriously back home in Los Angeles. Of course, this was the Amdo region--not central Tibet--so the dialect would be different from what I had studied. But surely in this important monastery someone would understand Lhasa speech, the lingua franca of Buddhist discourse in this part of the world. Timidly, I began.

"Tashi Delek!" Hello! The phrase seemed to register--at least they looked up at me, but no one answered. I went on: "Drun-khang kaba yo-re?" Where is a hotel?

I knew there was a hostel in Kumbum Monastery--the guidebook said so--but I could see no sign of it. The gonpa was bound to be a sprawling campus of many buildings, and I needed directions. But I might as well have been speaking pig-Latin for all they cared. Next I tried "Nga America-ne yin"--I come from America. Still nothing. I said it all again, and even while they stared at me and ogled my bike, they utterly ignored my words. I was afraid that if I spoke Chinese they would be offended, but at last there seemed no other way. "Please, where is the hotel?"

At this, they perked right up. "I know! Come with me!" replied a boy in piping Mandarin. I followed him past the chörten to a two-story square building with a pair of heavy double-doors opening into a central courtyard. Over the entryway was a sign in Chinese, English, and Tibetan: The Golden Pagoda Hotel.

The boy deposited me at the office, where a gray-haired Tibetan man in baggy Chinese blues registered me, then led me out into the courtyard and upstairs. From the second-floor balcony a thin plywood door opened into my room. The chamber had the usual Chinese fixtures: a thinly padded bed and heavy quilt, a rickety stand bearing an enamel washbasin, a plain wooden chair and table, and a thermos of boiled water for washing and drinking. The electricity, the man told me, worked only at night; and the nearest running water was in the boiler-room of an adjacent building. Presently someone came to fill my stove with coal and to light it.

Here I was, in a real Tibetan monastery--cold, austere, and primitive, just the way it was supposed to be. I was thrilled.

Kumbum Monastery is located in what Tibetans call Amdo--that is, the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau. But Amdo was not my real objective; it was just another phase of my ongoing research into Tibet travel. My real goal was Kham, or eastern Tibet, several hundred kilometers to the south. Few westerners have visited Kham since China's occupation of the Tibetan plateau, not only because the journey is long and hard, but also because the Chinese government considers it an unfit place to entertain foreign tourists. Those few who manage to sidestep the restrictions almost invariably have their sights set on Lhasa, Tibet's capital, and view Kham as an obstacle in their path, not a place to be explored in its own right. Lhasa, legendary for its isolation and crowded with centers of Buddhist learning--has a mystery and romance that easily eclipses Tibet's outer provinces of Amdo and Kham.

But Kham is exactly where I wanted to go. It is the homeland of the people I was seeking: Khampas--Tibet's infamous race of warriors.

Let's be perfectly clear: in the field of Tibet exploration I was a complete amateur. At this point in my life--thirty-two years old, holding advanced degrees in aerospace from Stanford and Caltech, and on the threshold of an illustrious academic career--riding a bicycle on the Tibetan plateau in search of warriors was definitely a radical departure from my life's intended path. How did it come about?

It all started with a few casual words by an Australian woman I had met in Nepal four years earlier. The Nepal trip had been a post-PhD present to myself, my last fling before surrendering to a life of ivory-tower imprisonment--the trip that was supposed to "get it out of my system." Judy was the leader of our group of twelve in a three-week walk around the Annapurnas. She was a Himalayan veteran, and had so many stories about the mountains and their people that I never tired of hearing her. But one night, as we were gathered around our tiny fold-up table for the evening meal, she told a story that surpassed all the others.

"We were in a teahouse," she began in a low voice, "and three Khampas came in. It was obvious who they were, with their long dirty hair and huge daggers stuck in their belts, wearing filthy old Tibetan coats and boots full of holes. They were really big guys compared to the little Nepalese, really tough and dangerous-looking. Everyone in the place was pretty intimidated, but some of my group started to lift up their cameras for a shot. But before the cameras were even six inches in the air, the Khampas turned their heads and gave us a really cold look--just one look, but it was enough: the cameras went right back down! Everyone talked really quietly until they left."

"Who are these people?" someone asked.

"The Khampas are from a place called Kham--that is, eastern Tibet," she replied. "They are famous all over the Himalayas for being tough, fearless warriors. They've been fighting the Chinese occupation of Tibet ever since the Chinese invaded in 1950. For a long time the Khampas had a guerrilla base in Mustang--that's a piece of Nepal that sticks up into Tibet. They hid out there for years, riding horses into Tibet to harass the Chinese and then riding back out again, until finally the Chinese government leaned on the Nepalese government to do something about them. So in 1974 the Nepalese government sent troops over to Mustang to kick them out. They're all scattered now--gone to India, gone into hiding, or dead. You hardly ever see them any more."

Warriors on horseback! Her words conjured images I thought had long vanished from the face of the earth. Can it be true that such people still exist? I was captivated, although at that moment the idea of meeting these fabulous Tibetan knights seemed little more than fantasy. Nevertheless Judy's story together with the images of courageous heroes wielding long knives from the backs of their faithful steeds was filed away in the back of my mind.

Judy and I and the others were in the valley of Manang, about a week into our journey, two days before crossing the formidable Thorong La (pass). Here, in late November and not far from the Tibetan border, it was high, dry, windy, and bitterly cold. Everything in the valley--from the stones in the fields, to the mud walls of the houses, to the rags of the inhabitants--cowered under the icy eyes of the Annapurnas.

In this wintry valley I had my first encounter with Tibetan Buddhism. I knew nothing about the philosophy of that creed, I saw only its outward manifestations: glowering, fortress- like monasteries built of stone and clay planted on the high slopes, piled slabs carved with the sacred mantra om mani padme hum, crude stone chörten marking the high passes, and prayer-imprinted flags waving from every house. I was moved by the ferocity of the Manangis' faith--that in spite of the harsh circumstances of their lives, they built these primitive but compelling testaments. Prayer flags flapping in the bitter winter wind made a stirring, defiant sound that, together with dream-images of Khampa horsemen, stayed in my head long after I had left the Himalayas.

So that's how I first heard of Khampas. My Nepal trekking companions went home, I suppose, put their suits and ties back on, and quickly forgot Judy's story. I went home, but I didn't forget, for in me her words had struck a powerful chord. To explain why, I must jump from stark, wind-blown Tibet to sunny southern California, and turn the clock back another eight years. Picture a gawky teenager arriving to begin her freshman year at Caltech, eager to plunge into its insular atmosphere of scientific ferment--inexperienced, idealistic, and heady with naive excitement.

One does not go to a world-renowned institute of science and technology expecting to find a world-renowned master of martial arts; but once I was at Caltech I soon heard about Tsutomu Ohshima. In his youth he had been a star pupil of Master Gichin Funakoshi, founder of the Shotokan school of karate, a weaponless Japanese art. I had always been hopeless in sports; nevertheless I knew that Ohshima-Sensei's notoriously difficult class was something I needed--not because I wanted to learn self defense, but because the sheer challenge of it would satisfy some inexpressible longing. I went, and from the first day I was hooked.

Why karate? And what do martial arts have to do with Tibet?

In many ways a martial artist is like other athletes: he or she seeks to build strength and endurance, to polish technical skills, to conquer aching muscles, and to overcome fear of failure and injury. What is special about the martial arts is the reasoning that lies at its root: that our purpose for training is not to prepare for a contest or show, but for a fight to the death. In a fight to the death there can be no excuses and there is no time-out; you live or you die--that's all. To hold the idea of mortal combat unceasingly in your mind--to mentally face death during every exercise, every technique--this is the highest standard of karate practice. What could be more challenging? More intense?

In the Khampas perhaps I would find people who lived this death-facing ideal, a mentality that for so many years I was trying to instill in my karate. True warriors! Men and women who not only had faced death many times in the course of the guerrilla war against the Chinese, but who had been raised from childhood to destroy their enemies instantly, unwaveringly, completely.

And there was another reason to go looking for Khampas: the challenge of the journey itself. The search would take me to a completely alien land, where I would need two foreign languages and much practical know-how to get around. I would have to make my way to the rugged Tibetan plateau, crossing high passes and dodging unsympathetic authorities as I went. And the trip's culmination would bring me face to face with men notorious not only for fierceness, but for banditry and mayhem all over the Himalayas. And, somehow, I would have to befriend them, learn from them.

The challenge of this quest would go far beyond anything I had ever dreamed; the obstacles ahead would surpass the toughest of sparring opponents. And there was something else: in Shotokan karate at regular intervals my seniors create for their students something called "special training." It's a period of intense practice, far from home and isolated from all that is safe and familiar. At special training the student is called upon to push past physical and mental barriers, to train harder than he ever thought possible. My first special training, made when I was still a white belt, taught me that my limits are much further than I imagine, and that exploring those limits is gloriously liberating. It was an unforgettable experience, and it brought a quantum leap in my abilities as a martial artist.

By now, after twelve years of practice, I had finished more than thirty special trainings. Those subsequent special trainings, though true in form to the original, had waned in the intensity of their effect until lately they had become--no, certainly not easy, for I still had doors yet unopened, subtleties yet unmastered. Perhaps karate special training had become just a little too familiar. The fear of the unknown was gone, and with it a big share of the challenge.

This was my second reason for coming to Asia. I had come to create for myself a special training of another sort: a solitary pilgrimage into the wilderness of Tibet, where I would come face to face with my own weaknesses and fears. And as I had learned in karate special training, to face oneself, strictly and seriously, is the hardest--and most en- lightening--practice of all.

But while I was in Nepal this crazy plan to look for Khampas was not even dreamed of. After I returned home my memories of the Himalayas slowly faded--like a mouthful of butterscotch candy--to faint sweetness. I was too busy starting my career as a research scientist to dwell on the past. Yet something about the Nepal adventure had shifted, ever so slightly, the continental plates of my mind, and I always knew that someday I would return to Asia. A few years later and not long after I was promoted to sandan (third-degree black belt), the chance came. In the Caltech alumni newsletter I spotted a brief announcement saying that something called the Durfee Foundation was funding trips to China for Caltech alumni.

China? Hmmmm. What I knew of China was bleak and unappealing; did I really want to go there?

Just a minute! Isn't Tibet considered, at least officially, a part of China? Ah...! But the place I wanted to go--Kham--must be the most rebellious, most intransigent region in the whole People's Republic. How could I ever get permission? The whole thing seemed quite impossible. I put down the announcement, for surely it would be a waste of time even to write for information. But I didn't throw the article away. Three weeks later, scarcely knowing why, I wrote the letter.

Soon a glossy brochure came in the mail with the words "ORIGINAL AND DARING IDEAS ARE WELCOME" emblazoned on the cover. Inside it said, "We are interested in the way your project specifically relates to your interests, history, abilities, and/or aspirations." My notion of a karate student traveling to the remote plateau to look for warriors seemed to fit well enough. The brochure went on to describe past projects, and the application procedure. Then came the words that dispelled all doubt: "We expect to take risks."

I wrote a proposal and mailed it in.

"Yoe!" At this command, mental readiness flows to physical readiness. Fists close. Belly sucks a rock of air inside. Eyes become glittery, intent. Without moving, feet awaken, as if the floor is suddenly hot. Interior muscles gather the body's power. All is ready now, waiting for explosive release--

After that fateful step, there was no turning back. My proposal was approved, and funds awarded for seven months of travel. However, the Durfee Foundation could offer no help whatsoever in getting me permission to go to Kham. That was my job. I tracked down several experts and learned that obtaining a permit to go rambling around Kham on my own was completely impossible, especially if I applied at the Chinese embassy at home. There was a chance, however, that once I was already inside China I might be able to sneak into Kham clandestinely. And if that failed, I could go to Amdo instead, parts of which were freely open to independent travelers. Amdo had no warriors, so it was a feeble substitute. But I had no choice: I would have to go to China and try my luck.

It took two more years to finish up my research work before I could leave for Tibet. Meanwhile all my spare time was crammed with preparation. I combed bookstores and libraries, and read feverishly. I enrolled in Mandarin Chinese, and found a refugee to tutor me in Tibetan. I decided that a bicycle would give me the independence I would need to penetrate Kham, so I spent hours honing my cycling equipment list.

At first friends reacted to the lunatic project with polite silence, as if by ignoring this impossible obsession of mine they could make it go away. But I didn't care, for spread over my kitchen table was a rapturous secret universe: musty history books, Tibetan grammar texts, equipment catalogs, and navigation charts ordered from Washington. As time went by and the trip came closer to reality, even the most skeptical had to admit that I was serious.

My family supported me from the start; but although everyone knew, in a vague sort of way, that I was going to eastern Tibet, I kept the Khampas' fearsome reputation to myself. No point in worrying them; and besides, I might not even get into Kham.

Through a chain of acquaintances I found someone who had lived among Amdo nomads and had traveled to the edge of Kham. Ahrin was in his early twenties, tall, bearded, and magnetic. His eyes threw out a compelling magical radiance when he talked of Tibet; and he was full of useful information.

"Watch out for Tibetan dogs," he told me sagely over a plate of Chinese food in a booth of a West Los Angeles restaurant. "They are vicious and attack without warning. You should always carry one of these-- "He took out an iron bar that had mysterious figures engraved into it and a leather thong tied at one end. He gave it to me to examine. "You hang onto the end of the thong and twirl it over your head," he explained. "The dogs hear the sound and they know what it means, so they back off. You can buy one in Tibet."

I wordlessly handed it back to him. He put it in his knapsack.

"Even if you have one of those," Ahrin continued, "you should never approach a nomad camp without being escorted by a member of the family. The dogs will attack. And you shouldn't go to a camp without being invited--"

How can I get invited? I wondered despairingly. I don't know anyone in Tibet.

"--But you will really like the Khampas," he was saying. "They are very direct and always speak their minds--kind of like Americans. Khampas say that Lhasa Tibetans are two-faced because Lhasa people are so polite, and because Lhasa speech uses a lot of honorifics--

"--A Khampa never uses the honorific."

Months went by, and I continued to read, study, and prepare. The tales I read about Khampa fighting skill and ruthlessness were alarming indeed, and yet at the same time they were indescribably thrilling. One author was Michel Peissel, a French anthropologist who befriended Khampa guerrillas in Mustang, their Nepalese stronghold. Describing his first sight of them he wrote,

"They walked like great robots, swinging their powerful arms and leading three tall horses with big silver-inlaid saddles partly covered with brightly colored carpets. These Khampas stood a good six feet in height, head and shoulders taller than the small, barefooted Nepalese, who suddenly seemed minute and ragged in comparison. The Khampas wore great heavy boots and flowing khaki robes that flapped like whips as they walked, advancing with their feet slightly apart as if to trample the grass to extinction. Like all Tibetans, they had the characteristic heavy gait of those used to pacing up mountains. Unlike Tibetans of Lhasa, their features were not Mongoloid, but straight, with large, fierce eyes set beside beak-like noses, and long hair braided and wound around their heads, giving them a primitive allure. They walked proudly, their posture erect...They were desperadoes, men destined to almost certain death, the only men to stand face to face with China."

This was great stuff, although it made my blood run cold. Another unforgettable tale was the story of Heinrich Harrer, who lived in Tibet during the 1940s. He and companion Peter Aufschaiter were Austrian escapees from a British POW camp who made a months-long trek to the Holy City of Lhasa. Penniless and in rags, they suffered terrible privation while crossing frozen steppe, eluding or hoodwinking Tibetan officials who were under orders to turn all foreigners back. Among the nomads the pair met, the Khampas were infamous. In his best-selling account Seven Years In Tibet Harrer says of Khampas, "You never heard the name mentioned without an undertone of fear and warning. At last we realized that the word was synonymous with 'robber.'"

Of course, I pressed on. The more I learned more about the Khampas, the more fascinated I grew. Yet some accounts were contradictory, so I couldn't even be sure if the Khampa warrior tradition really existed or if it was just part of the romantic hyperbole that has grown up around "the Roof of the World." But if the tradition did exist, and if I did succeed in finding them, what I wanted to know was this: how would it feel to meet a Khampa? Would I be intimidated? Would I feel his warrior's mentality just standing face to face? And what would he think of me?

Finding and meeting Khampas might give me insight into the nature of warriorhood, something that I could use in my karate and my life--but that was a lot to hope for. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of this journey might be, the quest itself was worth it, for the challenges it would bring would be a grand test of what I had learned.

"Hajime!" With the crack of this whip-like word, enemies fall on us. Implacably we begin.

Pamela Logan's Books

Among Warriors: brief description | how to buy