Tibet seems to fascinate many people. There is something about its mystery, the mountains, and the people that draws adventurers. It drew Sorrel Wilby, a photo-journalist from Australia, to it in the 1980s, when, at age 24 she walked 1900 miles in three and a half months from the border to Lhasa, the Forbidden City.
Sorrel had traveled about on bicycle through Japan, Korea, and China for several years, riding a bike up Mt. Fuji and along a stretch of the Great Wall of China near Beijing. She had come to Lhasa in 1984 from China, one of the first people to get a permit from the Chinese. One day while she was in Lhasa, she talked to a man who challenged her; “Now what do you want to do?” he said. “I want to walk across Tibet,” she replied. At the time, she didn’t know what she was getting into.
In 1985, with the help of some friends, especially Jigme from the Tibetan Sports Authority, and with funding from Australian Geographic, she began. She was loaded down with about 85 pounds worth of essentials (including a flute?). She decided to start in Kathmandu, a traditional jumping-off point for Tibetan travelers. There she took a training course in mountaineering, including “how to curse in Hindi dialect.” Her friend Jigme told her, “You will find what you are looking for.”
Before she left for her journey, she was able to meet the Dalai Lama. She walked up to him, and in typical Aussie fashion said, “G’day! You must be the great Dalai Lama!” She found him “warm and human” and they talked about yaks and her upcoming journey. Before she left he gave her pictures and other gifts, including a red protection cord, which he had blessed, to keep her safe.
With little planning, she started her actual trek in August 1985 from Burang, in southwest Tibet near the border with Nepal. Naive and overly optimistic might be an understatement. She bought a donkey named Budget, who ran off from her the first day. So she jettisoned much of her essentials (keeping the flute) and she started walking. She quickly found out that it would have been good to break in her boots before she started. “No day would ever be as difficult as the first,” she declared. (That’s naive!) But she was entranced by the beauty of Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain for Buddhists.
After a few days of torture and pain, she made a decision.
“I had made this land my enemy,” she wrote. “If I kept believing this notion I would be waving a white surrender flag…within a week.” She decided she had to change herself if she was to accomplish what she wanted. “I wanted to eat, breathe, and feel Tibet – to experience the country and its people as deeply as I could.” She realized she had to challenge herself, “extending the boundaries of my own limitations and learning something new.” She pressed on.
She turned herself over to the experience, traveling from one nomad camp and remote village to another, depending on the kindness and generosity of the Tibetans. Even in August, winter was coming, and the days were cold. She joined a procession of pilgrims up Mount Kailash, chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” (Bless the jewel in the lotus, a traditional Buddhist chant). At one nomad camp, she lost $800, which turned out to have been taken by a young Tibetan nomad man and his wife. She cried when the money was returned to her because they needed it more than she did.
When things got tough, she recited her mantra and found faith in a “new trinity – God, Buddha, myself.”
As she walked, she grew stronger (and smelled stronger, too). She sent some of her belongings ahead of her a few days, and she walked with just a minimum, including her tent, depending on Tibetan nomads for food and shelter. She drank per-che, the Tibetan tea with rancid butter (see Alexandra David-Neel on this). She picked up the Tibetan language, becoming more confident in her conversational abilities.
She rarely stopped during the day. “…I usually found it difficult to stop for more than five minutes at a time. A restless energy fired my spirit until utter exhaustion extinguished its glow.” At one point, she walked 42 miles in 23 hours, because she couldn’t find a place to stop. A 1000-mile detour through the northern mountains in the early winter snows added many weeks to her journey.
One encounter with a man named Norbor who guided her for part of the way was particularly poignant. He was reluctant to leave his village to guide her, so she gave him a picture of the Dalai Lama. He had tears in his eyes and he couldn’t speak, staring at the photo (this was a typical reaction of Tibetans to being given the Dalai Lama’s photo). Then he told her his story: He had spent 17 years shackled in a Chinese prison because he refused to denounce the Dalai Lama. Others gave in to the Communists to lessen the punishments, but he refused, always having faith. “I wept as he told me his story,” she said. He also told her he had never until that moment known whether the Dalai Lama was alive.
The last part of her trek through the mountains was the most difficult; she encountered blizzards, blistered cheeks, split lips, and then snow blindness. She and her companions had spent three days walking in a circle!
She came out of the mountains and her trek changed; she found herself challenged by the landscape and emotional instability, probably due to starvation and the effects of the journey. Sadly, as she came close to Lhasa, she found out that Jigme, whose encouragement she had been using to prop her up, had been killed in a road accident a few weeks before. She lost heart then and almost didn’t complete her journey. She said, “I didn’t want to go to Lhasa. I wanted to go home.”
But her indomitable spirit carried her through. Just before she reached Lhasa, she came on a beautiful lake. “It was going to be a day where I loved Tibet more than anything or anyone or any place in the world.”
What Sorrell Whilby Learned
Through her journey, Sorrell learned a lot about herself, including her ability to do what she said she would. She gained some spiritual maturity, using her red protection cord and her mantra to carry her through. She also said, “I loved Tibet but I knew it really wasn’t my home. I was merely passing through. A silent observer- a one-time participant.” I think she was more than that; her writing showed that she loved the Tibetan people, learned to trust them and enjoy them for what they were.
She carried with her some memories. One is a day when she left a village that had been taken over by the Chinese. On her way out of town, a little girl tugged on her overall, game her some sweets, and whispered, “Say hello to the Dalai Lama for me.”
After Sorrell’s Journey
Sorrell has continued trekking, now with her husband Chris. In 1991 they traveled 4000 miles across Asia, and in 2011 when she turned 50 she trekked through Arunachal Pradesh, a closed tribal state of India. In 2016 Sorrel and Chris did a 20-day trip across the high passes of Everest.