Bestselling Author Amy Edelstein Shares Excerpt From Her Life-Changing Travel Memoir ‘Adventure In Zanskar’

Author Amy Edelstein

The following in an excerpt from ‘Adventure in Zanskar: A young woman’s solitary journey to reach physical and metaphysical heights’ (Paperback, Nov 2021). In 1983, twenty-one year old Amy Edelstein set out on a solitary 500-kilometer journey in the highest valley in the world. Zanskar, the westernmost corner of the Tibetan plateau had only recently opened to travelers. She would spend several months walking by foot, crossing passes above 16,000 feet, sleeping in caves, meeting high lamas and monastics, and exploring a culture that had remained virtually the same for thousands of years. It was a culture that would change dramatically and irrevocably in the few short decades since. What drew her was the eternal seeker’s quest for wisdom and insight, what shaped the rest of her life is what she found. This is her story. In this excerpt about one such encounter Amy had, she found herself in the company of three warm and friendly women, in the high Himalayas, in a village that had no roads, electricity, or running water, in a time before GPS, internet, or cell phones. Readers in our stressed and troubled times can now share in the fruits of her adventure and learn from what she discovered about courage, perseverance, kindness, meditation, awakening, and the difference between Eastern and Western world views. You may grow happier, wiser, and lighter in the process.

Buy a copy here, and connect with Amy via her website and on social media.

Women in these mountains are hardy and self-assured. They were a welcome contrast to the more subservient women of the Indian plains, in many ways they are more familiar to me. But they have a freedom and confidence my culture lacks. They didn’t look over their shoulder for reassurance. They moved freely among the men, equal in a way I’d never seen anywhere else in the world; they were accorded respect. Often I witnessed husband and wife sharing household tasks with each other. According to their customs, both men and women may have more than one spouse.

I found it more common to meet a woman with several husbands, often marrying their first husband’s brothers. It was practical. In the winter months, men would ride their horses up the frozen rivers, sometimes traveling all the way to Turkey. Without another husband, women would be too vulnerable in the austere land. But I felt, in addition to the practical solution, the women really had too much verve, zest, and vital energy to be contained by a single partner. They made me smile.

Several days after descending Pensi La, I came upon three women weeding a field. The plateau was high, hiding the tiny village I thought they called Himling. It wasn’t on my map but it existed all the same. The women called me over to them, cooing in their high-pitched mountain voices and grinning mischievously. The look they shot in my direction promised fun and I willingly took up their company. We began plucking weeds side by side, chewing on arsey, a lemony grass.

They were unkempt and brazen, talking rapidly about something that set the older woman into fits of laughter and the prepubescent nun into vivid blushes. They smelled earthy, and I was taken in by their strength and womanly warmth. Soon they drew me into their fun, making a circle with their forefinger and thumb, and poking the index finger of the other hand through it. Then they poked me in the belly, asking in a universal language, “Do you do it?”

They were curious and without shyness, but I felt my face grow warm and I grinned. I may have appeared strange in their eyes, but we were all women and knew the pleasures of love. They quickly jabbed my breasts and pinched my nipples through my wool pheran with their coarse brown fingers. The young nun rolled on the small barley shoots in paroxysms of laughter. Through their jest, our differences melted away and the strangeness between us vanished.

They were astounded at the hair that grew long on my legs. Their people bore very little hair on their bodies which seemed backwards to me. In such a frigid climate, I would expect them to have grown thick body hair, but instead, they were smooth-skinned where the people of hot climates like the Mediterranean were thick furred.

Since I was to be their guest for the night, and, they hoped, for quite some days, at least until the husband of the house returned from the wedding he was attending in Padum, it was an occasion to call off work early. I mentioned my hunger and we all trooped down to their house in the village to begin a long evening of tea, tsampa, and chapatis. The living space was tiny, they seemed to be one of the poorer families in the village and the middle-aged woman had a gaggle of five small children. Unlike the other houses I had been to, this one was dirty; the wooden window was sloppily fitted, and grimy cups and plates were scattered on the sleeping rugs which jumped with bedbugs and lice.

My host grabbed a ewe’s rear legs and dragged her to a bucket to donate strong-smelling sheep’s milk for their special guest. She sang silly songs and the nun shyly told a tale about the Buddha, which I was beginning to be able to follow, having heard enough of the same words in the teachings and retreats and checking my little notebook for my ad hoc dictionary, created conversation by conversation. The children wrestled too close to the fire, dusting our tea with ashes. They would have kept me up all night had I let them, but it had been a long day traveling at such heights and my lids were drooping. Drolka urged me to stay, the esteemed region- al astrologer was to come through their village. There was a schoolteacher to meet and songs to learn. My mind spun with all these thoughts and itched like my bug-bitten skin.

I turned towards the little shelf that held seven brass altar bowls and thanked Buddha for the hearth and bosom of this woman’s household, grateful for the bonding and the honesty. Whether Easterner or Westerner, our natures were all the same, and we could find a common language and much wisdom if we cared to meet across the divides. We met as curious girls, in trust and fun. As I opened my heart in thanks, the nun curled up on special carpets by the warm side of the fire.

Drolka closed the wooden door and untied the sash of her outer garment, spreading the cloak over the children and herself. Her breath soon sighed heavily with sleep but, tired as I was, I continued to stare at the black forms in the room and at the stars that fought through the cracks in the window, not knowing where to deposit my excess wonderment. Such a small pleasure, telling ribald stories with another woman, sharing food and songs, and sleeping next to one another. In which of these mundane actions had I ever before found my- self overflowing with gratitude and what I must call blessing?

This must be the stuff blessings were made off, not expensive gifts coveted and received, not achievements planned out and accomplished, but a meeting of hearts for no reason, for no end but laughter and joy. The blessing was in the experiencing, whatever the specifics might be, without wishing to prolong, manipulate, or structure an interaction towards one’s own will. Grace flows in living without grasping.

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