I wonder how many people have had the fortune of knowing that they were living out the best day of their lives.
I remember it vividly. Friday, August 8, 2008. The opening night of the Beijing Olympics. Also the day I first dropped acid and set out on a Tibetan pilgrimage at the foot of the Himalayas. Following in the footsteps of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson’s New Journalist drug adventures, here’s my account of the trip:
I wake up with my boyfriend, Mark, in Reringka, a village on the Yunnan-Tibet border, to complete emptiness around me and chaos in our guesthouse. The ex-manager of Tashi’s Mountain Lodge, a rogue Irishman who was fired for drug-dealing, has come to wreak havoc on the place that (he claimed) screwed him over.
We had heard about his drug setup two weeks earlier in Dali; in fact, he was our reason for coming up to glacial Deqin in the first place. During his one quiet moment, we ask him what he has left. He walks into the communal kitchen and comes back with a small tea can. “2 tabs of acid and some Salvia,” he says. “But I’m holding onto the Salvia.”
There is no hesitation. Before I can even consider the consequences, I find myself tonguing the tab in that unused part of my mouth that, until now, has only been reserved for thermometers. Mark thinks nothing of it, and follows suit.
We set off on this hot morning with Robin and Sam, two Great Brits who we met the day before and who are surprisingly willing to hike the rigorous seven-hour pilgrimage with us, despite the psychedelic journey that Mark and I are about to embark upon. We hitch a ride from our village with a Tibetan family who, for a couple of kuai more, take us all the way to the hot springs, where the trail begins.
The drive takes an hour and I start to feel tingly. It’s the altitude, I tell myself in comfort, as we snake around 6000 metre glaciers. I start to panic when we are stopped for visa verification. A slip of blue paper warns us that no drugs or alcohol are to be consumed after we enter. “Shouldn’t have brought my hipflask,” Robin whispers to me. I laugh nervously, thinking he’s joking.
We arrive at the base at midday, the sun scorching our skin. Everything glows and feels slow. I keep my fears of being unable to hike to myself, and follow the boys to a three-walled, tin-roofed shanty where a woman serves us Tibetan noodles that are suddenly a marvel to chew. Sam’s yak butter tea tastes like creamed ocean water and cannot be ideal for hiking. Flies swarm around us, but the two Tibetan men eating nearby don’t seem to notice. I sit quietly and chew slowly, enthralled by the food’s texture.
When there is nothing left to do but hike, we begin the almost vertical ascent up the mountain. I bring up the rear, focusing only on placing one foot in front of the other. My body falls into a rhythm that seems perfectly mammalian, and though I hear nothing but my own breath, I feel capable of continuing as long as I keep this pace, which has no beginning or end but just naturally measures out time.
Luckily for me, the hike is difficult by sober standards, and we take breaks to explore our surroundings. The forests are primordial and wise, with gnarled roots jutting into the path. Their leaves feel like steel wool between my palms. I see neon-yellow butterflies everywhere, and begin to feel like I am living in some nineties fluorescent art. Everything is suddenly new, to be discovered and rediscovered: the forgotten taste of chocolate, the abrasiveness of the trees, the feel of my own hands. I am on the cusp of some great truism that I had never even conceived of before. Despite it all seeming too surreal, I have never felt so wonderful, so alive and real and understanding of truth.
Hours go by, until suddenly we reach the mountain’s peak, where thousands of Tibetan prayer flags, large and small, brightly coloured, silk and linen, are draped over the trees. Things are just adding up too nicely. This is too coincidental.
Behind me, Robin says “I think this deserves a drink. Anyone fancy some single malt whiskey?’ offering me his flask. I am so happy that he was not joking earlier. It burns my dehydrated throat, but rekindles the rest of me.
We wander through the flags to a secluded clearing, where Robin rolls a joint, and Mark and I lie down, in awe of the glaciers surrounding us. Sam makes me giggle, and by the time the joint is finished we are all giggling, more at the fantasy of the day than anything else.
We hike down to Yubeng village, where there are no roads, only horsepackers. It’s almost unfathomable that our accommodations are in this grassy little village surrounded by ice. Sam asks in his broken Mandarin about the Olympic opening ceremonies. A man tells him that there is a television next door where we can watch them after dinner.
At 8 p.m., we head with the entire village to the neighbouring farmhouse, and sit next to the indoor fire pit around a tiny duct-taped television with jutting wires. Sam, Robin, Mark, and I are at the center of 25 Tibetans, sharing this bittersweet moment with them.
It is like nothing else, coming off acid and realizing that the genuine awe I experienced all day can transcend the drug trip and exist in a sober moment. I am in China, but so far away from Beijing, surrounded by Tibetans who are forced to deny their animosity as we watch the children dressed as the Chinese minorities hand China’s flag over to the actors dressed as Chinese soldiers.
This moment, if anything, is the goal of the drug adventure stories: that, after experiencing truth in psychedelics, one continues to see it in reality. Like Gonzo said, acid finds you when it thinks you’re ready, and it allowed me to appreciate the expansion of my mind in sobriety, after the drugs had worn off. I wonder if Wolfe would agree.