It ain’t easy to get to Shambhala, man.
Our 6:30am departure – going by car this time – met with MIA (and cell-less) drivers, forgotten items to be retrieved from remote locations, and a vehicle switch-out that put us on the road at 9:30, instead. Along the way, a long stop to squint at a noisy engine in the van, and another to fix a flat on the Land Cruiser caused by a nail weighing in just short of the label “railroad spike.” Sharavdorj asked me, “What the hey?” and I replied that when you’re venturing to do unusually virtuous things, attendant obstacles nearly always arise, or try to. I showed him the prayer we do to Guru Rinpoche at such times, and we went at it in earnest. Anyway, I assured him these were the most minor of roadblocks and we were doing fine.
Others fared less well. Hamid Sardar made a late-impulse decision to come down, and so most of his debut drive to the Gobi occurred alone, at night. The next morning he told tales of flats; nodding off only to find himself jerking awake well off the track in the middle of dozens of pairs of eerie lights which turned out to be his own headlights reflected in the eyes of a herd of gazelles; blundering, quite lost, into a mining camp of profoundly startled, then mildly menacing, Chinese; and finally groping his way into camp with the aid of a GPS.
Glenn Mullin, most improbably, also ventured out of the northern Gobi town of Choyr full of confidence that all he had to do was point his little Suzuki down the railroad tracks to Sainshand. But he got fooled into trundling along a spur of the main track (not on the map) and found himself at some distant depot. Obtaining some form of directions, he and a visiting friend (and occasional DODR commenter) Lynne bounced through the northeastern Gobi for two solid hours until they finally saw a building not made of felt and collapsible sticks. As they got closer, disbelief dawned, giving way to despair – the building they approached was clearly the very same railway depot they had left two hours earlier. They threw in the towel and drove back to UB. On the way back, they met other travelers reporting the exact experience of getting hopelessly lost trying to make it to the Shambhala event and giving up to return from whence they came.
For those of us who did manage to get there, the proceedings marking the first anniversary of the consecration of Khamariin Khiid’s sacred Shambhala site were a marvel and, for me, a deep source of satisfaction and joy. And not just because camels were involved.
But, you know, camels were involved and I just can’t save that aspect for later. It was too cool.
The program asked us to gather at the temples at 8am, for a procession along the 3km path to Shambhala. After the Khamar lamas completed their auspicious morning chanting, they emerged in full finery to lead the assembly:
But in fact they didn't take the actual lead. Seemingly out of nowhere, a line of eight camels appeared, elegantly caparisoned with specially made felt drapery and ornamented bridles, most of them laden with the more than 500 Buddhist scriptures to be officially offered to Khamar that day.
They led the way…
…and off we went, dozens of lamas…
…and maybe 500+ lay devotees…
…silently accumulating mantra across our warm friend, the desert:
We soon arrived at Shambhala…
…where the camels were led inside, made to kneel down, and their precious cargo offloaded: all 262 volumes of the most profound Nyingmapa scriptures, as well as the full Kangyur (words of the Buddha) and Tengyur (authoritative commentaries on the Buddha’s words). I trust it doesn’t diminish these texts’ significance in your eyes that some were packed in a Korean onion rings box – it didn’t for me, but it sure did make me laugh when I took the picture. As did the one after it, owing to the doofy grin on one of the camels' faces.
In my next post, I will show and tell more about the day’s events, but I want to wrap up the aspect of this marvelous Gobi transportation system by introducing a particularly special camel. I’d heard about her, but this is the first time we met. I have an unusually strong interest in a female deity named Gungyi Lhamo. In Tibet, it seems she appears as one of four attendants of Palden Lhamo, the personal protector of His Holiness the Dalai Lama – in the thangka shown at the link, I believe that's Gungyi Lhamo on the left, 4th from the top. Her name means “Goddess of Winter” and she’s always depicted in a wrathful form, riding a brown camel. Pretty obscure; there’s almost no information on the internet. But here in Mongolia, and especially in the Gobi Desert, camels are significant and respected members of the Gobi family, and it seems that over the centuries, the Gobi people adopted and elevated Gungyi Lhamo to the status of a primary protector of the people and their Buddhist way of life there.
Altangerel told me that in Danzan Ravjaa’s time, the monastery maintained a small herd of camels dedicated especially to Gungyi Lhamo. They were exempt from being ridden, hauling stuff, etc. Now they are reviving this tradition and there is one white camel that is particularly associated with this protector – Altangerel calls the other camels “her friends.” I managed to get two lovely portraits of this exquisite lady (look at those soft eyes, that gentle smile! I'm a little in love...), and I’m honored to share them with you here: