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I’m always interested in what writers do outside their writing life. Here’s my first entry in the category, What I Did Last Summer. I’ll add to it when the spirit moves me.
“Libraries on the Tibetan Plateau”
For three decades, I dreamed of visiting Mustang, one of the most stunningly beautiful regions on earth. When I was young, Mustang was closed to the world, a sanctuary for CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas. A few years after they disbanded, and following a failed mountain expedition, I happened to share a jail cell in Kathmandu for two months with the leaders of that guerrilla movement (see The Silver Chalice.) Those men saved me from doing something very foolish, and ever since I’ve tried to lend a hand to Tibet and Tibetans.
Not until last year did I finally get a chance to enter Mustang. It was like hopping on a time machine. With my wife and daughter, we rode horses along the ancient, cliff hugging Salt Route to the walled capitol, Lo Manthang. Life is lived there the way Tibetans lived it 500 years ago. The wind scours a high (11,000 ft.) desert landscape surrounded by snowy mountains and red and gray cliffs. In an annual, three-day mask dance, Buddhist monks release and then vanquish demons, ushering in summer.
We brought along a hundred pounds of art supplies contributed by families at my daughter’s school, and distributed crayons, watercolor sets, and colored pencils to a school in Mustang and an orphanage in Lhasa. It was a great way to make friends and assess the local needs. Out of that exploratory visit in 2006, the Wind Horse Power project came into existence under the umbrella of Witness, Inc., a non-profit I founded ten years ago. (We’ve done human rights and development work in Bosnia, Nepal, Mali, El Salvador, and now Tibet.)
This year we returned with almost 600 pounds of donated children’s books, plus cash for the construction of two libraries in Mustang and an orphanage in Lhasa. Everything walks into or out of Mustang, either on the backs of people or their horses. We now know from loading 70-pound bags onto airplane scales and horse pack frames, and unloading and cataloging them, that 600 pounds equals roughly 1500 books, or almost 60 bookshelf-feet. We’ll be returning next year with more books for more libraries in Nepal and for the orphanage in Tibet.