Expeditionary Notes of the Second Mycological Survey of the Leng Plateau Region
No adventurer has ever followed lightly in the footsteps of a missing survey team, and today’s encounter in the Amari Café did little to relieve my anxiety. Having arrived in Thangyal in the midst of the Summer Grass Festival, which celebrates the harvest of Cordyceps sinensis, the prized caterpillar fungus, we first sought a reasonably hygienic hotel in which to stow our gear. Lodging accomplished, Phupten led me several blocks to the café—and what a walk it was! Sidewalks covered with cordyceps! Thousands of them laid out to dry on tarps and blankets, the withered little hyphae-riddled worms with their dark fungal stalks outthrust like black mono-antennae, capped with tiny spores (asci). Everywhere we stepped, an exotic specimen cried out for inspection. Never have I seen so many mushrooms in one place, let alone the rare cordyceps; never have I visited a culture where mushrooms were of such great ethnic and economic importance. It is no wonder the fungi are beloved and appreciated, and that the cheerful little urchins who incessantly spit in the street possess at their tongue-tips (along with sunflower hulls) the practical field lore of a trained mycologist; for these withered larvae and plump Tricholoma matsutake and aromatic Boletus edulis have brought revivifying amounts of income to the previously cash-starved locals. For myself, a mere mushroom enthusiast, it was an intoxicating stroll. I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for my predecessors, treading these same cracked sidewalks ten months ago.
Phupten assured me that every Westerner in Thangyal ends up in the cramped café presided over by the rosy-cheeked Mr. Zhang, and this was the main reason for our choice of eatery. Mr. Zhang, formerly ofLhasa, proved to be a thin, jolly restaurateur in a shabby suit jacket, his cuffs protected from sputtering grease by colorful sleeve protectors cut from what appeared to be the legs of a child’s pajamas. At first, while we poured ourselves tea and ate various yak-fraught Tibetan versions of American standards, all was pleasant enough. Mr. Zhang required only occasional interpretive assistance from Phupten, and my comment on his excellent command of English naturally led him to the subject of his previous tutors—namely, the eponymous heads of the Schurr-Perry expedition.
Here, at a moment that could have been interpreted as inauspicious by those inclined to read supernatural meaning into random events, the lights dimmed and the power went out completely—a common event in Thangyal, Phupten stressed, as if he thought me susceptible to influence by such auspices. Although the cafe darkened, Mr. Zhang’s chapped cheeks burned brighter, kindling my own excitement as he lit into a firsthand account of the last known days of Danielle Schurr and her husband, Heinrich Perry.
According to Mr. Zhang, Danielle and Heinrich spent several weeks in Thangyal last October-November, preparing to penetrate the Plateau of Leng (so-called, in fanciful old accounts, the “Forbidden Plateau” (Journals of the Eldwythe Expedition (1903)) (which I mistakenly thought I had packed, damn it)). Thangyal still has no airstrip of its own, and like me they had relied on Land Rover and local drivers to reach it. Upon arrival, they encountered great difficulty in arranging for guides and packhorses to carry their belongings beyond vehicular routes, and had been obliged to wait while all manner of supplies were shipped in and travel arrangements made. During this wait, Heinrich had schooled our host in English, while Danielle had broadened his American cuisine repertoire. (I have her to thank for the banana pancakes that warm me even now.)
The jovial restaurateur tried many times to talk them out of their foray—and not merely because of winter’s onset. Were there political considerations? I asked. For while the Chinese government has relaxed travel restrictions through some border zones of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, stringent regulations are still in effect for Westerners who wish to press into the interior. Many of these stipulations (as I know firsthand) exist mainly to divert tourist lucre into the prefecture’s treasury by way of costly travel permits. But in the case of Leng, there seem to be less obvious motives for the restrictions. Despite assurances that I would never repeat his words to any official, Mr. Zhang refused to elaborate on what sort of benefit the Chinese government derived from restricting access. Leng is hardly a mineral rich region; there has been little or no military development there, which indicates it is strategically useless; and recent human rights reports declare it devoid of prisons or other political installations. It remains an area almost completely bypassed by civilizing influences, an astonishing anachronism as China pushes development into every last quarter of Tibet. As a zone set apart from the usual depredations, such resource conservation seems distinctly odd; but perhaps they have other plans for its exploitation. Mr. Zhang’s warnings were sufficiently vague that I could easily picture my predecessors brushing them aside. Once he realized that it was my intent to follow them, he directed the same warnings at me. Any request for permission to enter the plateau region would be met with refusal, he said; thus confirming my decision to file no such requests, but depend on the remoteness of the region to lend me anonymity.
When he saw it was my fixed purpose to follow the Schurr-Perry trail, Mr. Zhang got up and shuffled back into the kitchen—now lit solely by a gas stovetop. He returned with a dog-eared ledger and said something in Tibetan which Phupten interpreted as, “Guestbook.”
Mr. Zhang opened the ledger, spread it flat on the checkered tablecloth, and guided us backward through the entries—past colorful doodles and excitable notes from the Amari’s many international diners—notes in English and German and French. Here were mountaineers bragging of climbs they had just made or climbs just ahead of them, penniless wanderers hoping someone might forward a few million yuan, laments of narrowly missed rendezvous.
Mr. Zhang stopped flipping pages and directed our attention to a ragged strip where one sheet had been ripped from the book.
“Here,” he said. “Heinrich and Danielle? They write thank you Mr. Zhang. They say, we go Leng. Bu Gompa. Anyone follow, they read this note, say wait for them in spring. But…no come back.”
I speak no Tibetan, but I recognized a few words I have heard many times recently, albeit in different context. The locals are always making pilgrimages to their various gompas, by which they mean a temple or monastery. And bu I know from Yartse gunbu, the local name for the caterpillar fungus. Its precise meaning is “summer grass, winter worm,” which is a colorful (if backwards) way of describing the metamorphosis of the cordyceps-inoculated caterpillar, which overwinters as a worm, only to sprout a grasslike fungal stalk, the fruiting body or stroma, in early summer (once the fungus has entirely consumed it from within).
I clumsily translated the name as, “Templeof the Worm?”
Mr. Zhang said something urgently to Phupten, who listened, nodded, and turned to translate.
“Yes, monastery. Bu Gompa sits in the pass above Leng Plateau. Very old temple, from old religion, pre-Buddhist.”
“A Bon temple, you mean?”
“Not Bon-po. Very much older. Bu Gompa for all that time, gateway to Leng. Priests are now Buddhist, but they still guard plateau.”
Mr. Zhang was not done with his guest book. “This page, when my friends not return, two men come. Say they look for Heinrich and Danielle. Look for news of expedition.”
“This was when?”
“In…January? Before they supposed come back. No one worried yet. Tibetan men, say Heinrich friend, ask see guest book. I very busy, many people in restaurant. Think no problem, they look for friends. I go in kitchen, very busy. I come out, they gone. Oh well. Book still here. Later I see page gone!”
“The one Heinrich and Danielle wrote in, you mean? Saying where they were going?”
“These men were Tibetan, you say?”
“Yes. I not see them in Thangyal before, but so many in town. Not only Yartse Festival. Many travelers. I worry they take page, get money from Heinrich and Danielle family.”
“Blackmail,” said Phupten.
I assured Mr. Zhang that we had heard of no such attempts. I explained that I had followed Heinrich and Danielle’s trail after reading a series of letters and articles published in the Journal of the Mycological Society in advance of their departure. But all of Mr. Zhang’s information was new to me; and that regarding the gompa was particularly interesting, as it suggested where I might next seek news of their whereabouts.
At about this time, the power was restored and a fresh flood of festival attendees pushed into the café. Thinking it right to clear the table for new customers, we bid farewell to Mr. Zhang, thanked him for his kindness, and stepped back out onto a sidewalk now almost completely covered with fungi. I stopped to watch some old gentlemen playing mahjongg on a table they’d set up on the sidewalk, and was hardly surprised to discover that in place of cash or poker chips, they were betting with Yartse gunbu.
This morning, having finally reached the end of the tortuously stony road beyond Thangyal, we climbed from the Land Rovers and found an entire village sitting out in the sun to await our arrival. Our ponies should have been waiting for us, but apparently the drivers had expected us a week ago and turned them loose to graze in the high meadows. Even so, you might have thought the whole village had sat on the streetside, patiently waiting out the week, as if our arrival were the highpoint of the season and well worth any delay. To mark the moment with a bit of ceremony, I passed around biscuits and let the assemblage pore through my mushroom atlas, which was handed about with amazement and appreciation by the entire community. They pointed out various rare species, giving me the impression that many could be found in the region—however, Phupten was too busy remedying the horse situation to interpret, and I soon reached the limits of my ability to communicate with any subtlety.
Phupten eventually signaled me that immediate arrangements had been made, and that we could set off without further ado. The horses would follow once they had been retrieved and laden with supplies offloaded from the vehicles. With a camp-following of dogs and children, we plunged onto a muddy footpath among the houses. As we passed to the limits of the village, we encountered a number of mushroom hunters returning from their morning labors with plastic grocery bags, wicker baskets, or nylon backpacks bulging with shamu—the local term for mushrooms of all varieties. Phupten helped me interview the collectors, making quick inventories of local names, edibility, and market prices they earn from the buyers who scour these remote villages for delicacies. One cannot underestimate the value of mushrooms to these people. Species that grow abundantly here are prized in Japan and Korea, where they absolutely resist cultivation. Although the villagers receive a pittance compared to supermarket prices in Tokyo and Seoul, the influx of cash has completely transformed this previously impoverished land. The mud houses are freshly painted in bright acrylics; solar panels and satellite dishes spring up plentiful as sunflowers. The young men dash about on motorcycles as colorful as their temples. Since a study of mushroom economics had been the announced purpose of the Schurr-Perry expedition (although I suspected the unstated motive force was more likely a desire to discover and name some new species found only in Leng), I decided to see if this might be a path already taken. I showed each collector a photograph of Heinrich and Danielle, copied from the dust jacket of their landmark Fungi of Yunnan, to see what memories the image might jog loose. One group of giggling youths remembered them well; the adults were harder to pin down. I found reassurance, however, in the innocent recognition of the children, and now feel I am definitely on the right trail—although the chance of losing it remains tremendous in the narrow defiles of the only land route into Leng.
Beyond the village, we crossed a river by way of a swaying cable bridge. Keeping close to the west bank, working our way upriver, we spent the morning traversing damp meadows further dampened by frequent cloudbursts. Our gear, now swaying awkwardly on the backs of four ponies, caught up with us in the early afternoon. Not long after, we crossed back to the east bank, on a much older bridge that put me in mind of a stockade. The blackened timbers were topped with protective shapes that again served as reminders of the mushroom’s ancient significance. The more stylized carvings were clearly meant to represent shelf fungi, tree ears, king boletes. The bridge also marked the point at which I felt we had crossed a divide in time. I saw no more hazardous electric lines strung between fencepost and rooftop; no dish antennae were in evidence. The mudbrick walls were topped with mats of cut sod, which made them wide enough that small dogs could run along the heights, barking down at us. Children followed us through streets that ran like muddy streams. Eventually, at the edge of a walled field, we left them all behind, flashing peace signs and shouting after us, “Shamu-pa! Shamu-pa!” Phutpen laughed and said, “They call you ‘Mushroom Man,’” which sat very well with me. Our guides grinned and set the horses on at greater speed.
After that, all other habitations were simpler and more temporary affairs. Phupten brought us to the black felt tent of a yak herder, where an elderly nomad woman cut squeaking slices of a hard rubbery cheese and sprinkled it with brown sugar; I was grateful for the butter tea that washed it down. But it was the large basket of matsutake that held my interest, each little bud wrapped in an origami packet of rhododendron leaves.
Regretfully, as we ascend we are bound to leave such woodland curiosities behind. The higher elevations are more secretive with their treasures. Consider the elusive cordyceps–notoriously hard to spy, with its one thin filament lost among so many blades of real grass.
Late in the day, we came in sight of the massif that guards the pass into Leng. The late afternoon light made the barrier appear unnaturally close, sharp and serrated as a knife held to my eyes. Such was the clarity of the air that for a moment I felt a kind of horizontal vertigo. I imagined myself in danger of falling forward and stumbling over the rim of the mountains into a deep blue void. When a violet translucence flared above the range, it edged the snowy crests as if auroral lights were spilling up from the plateau hidden beyond them. I suppose this strange, brief atmospheric phenomenon may be akin to the green flash of the equatorial latitudes, but it also made me more aware than ever of the imminent onset of altitude sickness, and the ominous tinge of an incipient migraine. I was grateful when our guides, immediately after this, announced it was time to make camp.
We spread our tents in a wide meadow between two rivers. The rush of rapids was almost deafening. One of our guides, doubling as cook, filled pots and a kettle from one of the streams and soon had tea and soup underway. From a bloody plastic grocery bag, he produced rich chunks of yak and hacked them up along with fresh herbs and wild garlic he had gathered along the trail. I offered several prize boletes of my own finding. We ate and ate well in the shadow of a tall white stupa, also in the shape of a mushroom, adorned with a Buddha’s eyes, and I was reminded of another interest of Heinrich’s and Danielle’s. They had read conjecture in The Journal of Ethnopharmacology that the words Amanita and Amrita had their nomenclatural similarity rooted in a single sacred practice. Amrita is the Buddhist equivalent of ambrosia, or the Sanskrit soma, a sacred foodstuff; and it has been suggested that certain Buddhist practices may have been inspired, or at least augmented, by visions following ingestion of the highly psychoactive Amanita muscaria. The Schurr-Perrys had stated a desire to be the discoverers (and namers) of Amanita lengensis, should such exist. In this way the mycological world resembles the quantum world, in being a realm so rich and various that simply searching for new forms seems to call them into creation; where labels may predate and even prophesy the things to which they are eventually applied; in which scientists now chart out the psychic territory known as Apprehension.
When I asked which species we might find beyond the pass, I was surprised to learn from Phupten that our guides had only visited Bu Gompa once or twice in their lifetimes, and had never actually set foot in Leng. Such pilgrimages are not undertaken lightly. Leng is held in such reverence and awe, as a place of supernal power, that they believe it unwise to venture there too often.
Sharing our interest in all things mycological, the horsemen related a tale of a stupa-shaped mushroom that had bloated to enormous size and died away to puddled slime in the course of one growing season. This had occurred in their childhoods, but pilgrims still visited the spot in hopes the Guru Shamu might reappear. With what in retrospect seems arrogant pedantry, I found myself explaining that the fruiting body they saw, impressive as it might have seemed, was still only a comparatively tiny eruption from a much vaster fungus, the real guru, growing unseen and unmeasured beneath the soil. They looked at me with disappointment, as if I had just declared them retarded. In other words, this was hardly news to them. I eventually succeeded, through Phupten, in apologizing. I explained that in the West, extensive knowledge of mushrooms is considered bizarre at worst, the mark of an enthusiast at best. We shared a good laugh. At last I am among kindred spirits. So much about our lives is different, but in our passion for mushrooms we are of one mind.
A day of astonishment—of revelation. Almost too much to encompass as I sit here typing by the light of my laptop, wrapped up in my sleeping bag as if under the stars, but with my gear pitched instead in a chilly stone cell. I should sleep, I know. I am exhausted and the laptop battery needs charging; but I fear losing track of any detail. I must write while this is all fresh.
After yesterday’s slow progress and mounting disappointments, we were relieved to sight the Leng Pass by late morning. We had ascended to such an altitude that even now, in midsummer, snow comes down to the level of the trail in numerous places. Blue deer capered on the steep ragged scree above us, lammergeier were our constant observers, and once we startled a flock of white-eared pheasant, large as turkeys, that hopped rather than flew away through the boulders. The occasional stinkhorn, fancifully obscene, was still to be found among the thinly scattered pine needles, but my desire to forage had receded with the elevation. Grateful to have woken with a clear head, and not at all eager to trigger another migraine, I resolved to conserve my strength. But it was hard to slow down once I saw my view of the sky steadily broadening, with no further mountains moving into the notch above.
We passed cairns of engraved stones and desiccated offerings that seemed neither plant nor animal but something in between, and entered a long flat valley, sinuously curved to match the river flowing through it. The valley floor was high marshland, studded with the medicinal rhubarb we have seen everywhere. This was all picturesque enough, but above it on a slope of the pass, just at the highest point where snow laced the scree, was the most wonderful sight of the journey. Its prayer flags flying against the clouds seemed triumphant banners set out for our welcome. We had reached Bu Gompa, which straddles and guards the entrance to Leng.
Thunder rumbled; rain fell in grey ribbons. Phupten said the monks were bound to read this as an auspicious sign, coupled with our arrival. Our horsemen quickened their steps, and even the ponies hurried as if the object of their own private pilgrimage were in sight. The monastery loomed over us. Above it, among shelves of rock on the steeper slopes, I saw the pockmarks of clustered caves like the openings of beehives. Then we were through a painted gate and the place had consumed us. Happily lost among tall sod-draped walls, I breathed in the musty atmosphere of woodsmoke, rancid butter and human waste that I have come to associate with all such picturesque scenes in this country.
Several boys, young monks, were first to greet us, laughing and ducking out of sight, then running ahead to alert their elders. We climbed switchback streets, perpetually urged and beckoned to the height of the pass. At last we entered a walled courtyard. A wide flight of steps soared to a pair of immense doors, presumably the entrance to the main temple. As Phupten conversed with a small contingent of monks, I tried these doors and found them locked. It seemed propitious to leave an offering of ten dollars to show our good intentions and dispose the monks toward our cause. Meanwhile, our horsemen laid themselves repeatedly on the flags of the courtyard, in prayerful prostrations, aligned along some faded tracework of symbols so ancient I could detect no underlying pattern. Although the walls were bright with fresh paint, this monastery seemed remote enough to have escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution.
I retreated down the steps to find Phupten perplexed. The monks, he said, had been expecting us. They led us around the side of the building, skirting the huge locked doors, and entered the main hall by a small curtained passage.
We had seen many fantastically colorful temples along our route, lurid to the point of being day-glo. This one impressed by its warm burnished hues. Rich russets, silvery greys, pallid ivories. Everywhere were exquisite thangkas, hand-painted hangings in colors so subdued they evoked a world of perpetual dusk. There was light in these paintings that seemed to emanate from within and could hardly be fully explained by the shifting glow of the numerous butter lamps. Bodhisattvas floated among sharp mountains, hovering cross-legged above vast emerald seas from which radiated gilt filaments painted with such skill that they seemed to vibrate on the optic nerve, creating the illusion of swaying like strands of golden grass. Most of the traditional Buddhas and Bodhisattvas had grown familiar to me after so many recent temple visits but Phupten pointed out one figure new to me, and quite unusual, which made numerous appearances throughout the room. Pre-Buddhist, and predating even the ancient Bon-po religion of Tibet, Phupten thought this to be the patron of those original priests of Leng. Where Buddhist iconography was highly schematic, drawn according to regular geometric formulae, this figure harkened back to an older style, one unconcerned with distinct form and completely innocent of the rules of perspective: amorphous, eyeless, mouthless, but not completely faceless. Having noticed it once, I began to spy it everywhere, lurking within nearly all the thangkas, a ubiquitous shadow beneath every emerald expanse.
I noticed our horsemen moving about the room in clockwise fashion, lighting incense and butter lamps, leaving offerings of currency at several of the shrines. Having taken up this practice myself, as a matter of courtesy rather than devotion, I began to follow their example; but Phupten took my arm and for the first time in our journey, told me to hang back. When I asked why, he pulled me into a corner of the room and whispered, with curious urgency, “If you look, you see no pictures of His Holiness.”
It was true enough, and remarkable, given the common appearance of the Dalai Lama in every temple we had visited across the eastern fringe ofTibet.
“Not good. Old disagreement. They do practice here, very old, from Leng. His Holiness say very bad. Three years ago, the priests of Leng, they speak out against Dalai Lama, that he is suppressing their religion. He says, their protector deity is like a demon—“
“I thought all the old Bon spirits were demons once.”
“Yes, but this one never enlightened. False wisdom. So, a very big fight, and even a man who try to kill his Holiness in Dharamsala. They said it was Chinese assassin behind it, but many believe it was ordered by monks of Leng.”
“So…no offerings,” I finished.
“But what about our guides? Don’t they know?”
Before he could answer, our inspection of the temple was interrupted by the arrival of several more monks. Two were elders, dignified men, strong but gentle seeming. The third was younger, with strongly Caucasian features. In his monastic garb, with head shaved, and given the fact I had only seen him as a lecturer, at a distance, at one or two mycological conferences, I suppose I can be forgiven for not having recognized him until he came up to me, put out his hand, and said, “You don’t recognize me, do you? Heinrich Perry!”
Ten minutes later, we were seated in the courtyard enjoying a sun break, sipping tea and chewing dumplings of tea-moistened tsampa. It seemed that all the monks of Bu Gompa had turned out to get a look at me. They laughed and posed for photographs, until their various duties took them off again, for meditation or debate. Heinrich said news of our coming had preceded us up the passes; he had been expecting us since our visit to Mr. Zhang, although he was surprised anyone would have followed in his footsteps. The Schurr-Perry expedition was anything but lost. He had already found more than he ever expected to find, without even crossing into Leng. His wife had ventured onto the plateau and made discoveries of her own, but Heinrich had not set foot across the threshold.
“And where is Ms. Schurr?” I asked.
Heinrich gestured airily in the direction of the surrounding slopes. “She is in retreat.” Leaving me to infer some transcendental meaning in this statement, he must have seen my glazed expression, for he laughed and elaborated: “Above the monastery are many old caves used for meditation. She has been there since her return from the plateau.” He leaned forward and said confidentially, “She has been recognized as a superior practitioner, while I scrub pots and chop wood!”
So our predecessors, far from lost, had simply gone native. And their mycological survey? Their dreams of discovering new species in Leng? It was hard to believe they had given up on their passion.
Heinrich said, “Not at all. I would say we have embraced it. The Leng Plateau is a treasure chest of rarities, previously unknown. Once you attain the plateau, it is impossible to describe the wealth of discovery that awaits. But…once I reached this spot, such things lost their importance. Danielle has never been one to hold back, but I…I feel fulfilled as a porter at the gate. All Leng lies before me, but I know myself not yet ready for what it has to offer.”
This seemed like a shame, and I said as much, for Perry’s reports had always been received eagerly by mycological society. In a profession which had yearly become more and more the domain of geneticists, more partitioned into microscopic domains, Perry and Schurr had been unafraid of bold strokes and sweeping statements. Their papers, while thoroughly grounded in empirical observation, never shied from leaning out over the thrilling edge of speculation. Their gift of synthesis was to couple personal reportage with ecological insight; their reports, while botanically rigorous, did not neglect the social and economic implications of their finds. Yet apparently the line between devout ethnomycology and monastic assimilation had been porous. I considered it a shame, but then felt awkward and ashamed of myself for harboring critical thoughts of this pair, whom I knew not at all. If they had found personal fulfillment in casting aside purely academic concerns and embracing the spiritual, then who was I to judge them? If anything, I felt a keen resolve to work even harder in order to compensate for the loss of Schurr-Perry’s ongoing contributions to the field. The success of my foray into Leng seems more crucial than ever.
By now it was early evening, and we walked out to stand on a temple balcony, looking out across the very threshold of Leng. The serried peaks opened before us like a curtain of violet ice pulled back to reveal a sea of rolling green that broke against the misty edges of infinity. The most evocative passages of the literature of Leng came rushing back to me—from the lush descriptions of Gallardo’s Folk and Lore of the Forbidden Plateaux (1860) to the spare journal entries of the tragic Eldwythe misadventure of 1903, made all the more macabre and ironic by its innocence of the repercussions it would inevitably have on British and Russian relations. “…lost land of unnameable mysteries…beauty beyond reach and beyond utterance…effulgent as the evenstar’s radiance alight on the breast of earth, enflaming the mind and senses…” Although I had always thought such descriptions must have been flights of fancy, my first sight of Leng simply made me sympathetic to the self-avowed descriptive failings of all previous writers.
It was no wonder Perry had stopped here, I thought, for to descend into that remote wilderness was to risk stripping it of the intense mystery that gave rise to its fantastic beauty. While I knew that on the morrow we would put one foot before the other and gradually make our way down to that strange green plain, I regretted the thought of taking any action that would lessen Leng’s magic while heightening its reality. It struck me as a dreamland, suspended in its own hallucination of itself, impervious to the senses. And yet such bubbles—how readily they burst. I feared this was a delusion of the evening, of the twilight air, doomed by the threat of morning. But there was nothing for it. I tried to hold on to a sense of anticipation, reminding myself of what Perry had hinted: That new discoveries awaited us below.
Horns resounded deep within the monastery, amid the clanging of cymbals and bells, and several boys came to fetch us back. Just before we turned away, the first stars appeared above the misty plains, and I sent up a fervent wish that I would never forget the feelings that had accompanied their arrival. Needless to say, these impressions will make no appearance in my published survey notes. In fact, I hope I can word my reports in such a way that none of my colleagues feel compelled to follow my trail and impinge upon this mystic land. It is such a strange feeling, as if I have been entrusted with a secret rare and exquisite, one that seems to blow up from the plateau on scented winds. I feel it would be wrong, shameful, to blunt it with too many perceivers. I am of course committed to sharing the knowledge I find here, and in no danger of falling into the trap that claimed the Schurr-Perry party. But I find myself certain that those Tibetans who visited Mr. Zhang and tore the entry from his guestbook must have been sent at Heinrich Perry’s request, in an understandable attempt to cover up his trail.
During dinner, we spoke only of plans for the journey ahead. Phupten dined with the drivers, so I relied on Perry for interpretation. It seemed strange to me that they would have embraced him as a lama when his only real expertise, to my knowledge, was in the area of mycology. Likewise, how had Danielle managed to distinguish herself so swiftly among this group of lifelong spiritual practitioners? It was one thing to rush ahead fearlessly, as Heinrich had suggested was her wont—and quite another to convert that mortal zeal into an act of transcendence.
These questions were hard to frame while my hosts plied me with such a remarkable meal. Knowing my interest in local mushrooms, the monk chefs contrived a meal of savories that grew within range of the temple, prime among them a delectable red fly agaric, or chicken egg mushroom—Amanita hemibapha (once incorrectly known as Caesar’s mushroom (or, I would imagine, ‘Gesar’s mushroom’ in these lands), viz., Amanita caesarea, but delightful whatever its name). In my tea I found a special additive—a wrinkled grub, perhaps three inches long, like a sodden medicinal root. Heinrich confirmed my suspicion that it was nothing less than cordyceps, and a most prized variety, being collected along the edges of the grasslands that blanket the plateau. Like the worm in a bottle of tequila, it bobbed against my lips as I drank. In tropical climes, where insects are rife, the invasive cordyceps comes in many forms, to encompass the wild variety of insect hosts; but in these high cold climes, its hosts are few and unprepossessing. Whatever traits might have distinguished Cordyceps lengensis from the more common variety were not at all obvious to my eye; in fact, soaked and swimming in tea, it looked more like a shred of ginseng than anything else. Heinrich said the monks called it phowa bu, which I hesitate to translate. “Death Worm” gives the wrong impression altogether and “Transcendence Worm” is not much better. Phowa is a ritual done at the moment of death, intended to launch its practitioner cleanly into the Pure Lands through his crown—to be more precise, through the fontanelle at the top of the skull. Heinrich claims that in true practitioners of phowa, a blood blister forms at the top of one’s head, and a hole opens there. This channel is just wide and deep enough to hold a single stalk of grass—and in fact, this is the traditional test used by lamas to gauge an initiate’s readiness. With its single grasslike stalk, the shriveled cordyceps serves as a humble reminder of the sacred practice.
I asked Heinrich if I might see fresh specimens of Cordyceps lengensis before my departure, but he demurred—and there I caught a glimpse of the old academic, cagey and wary with his findings. “Of course,” I quipped, “you have yet to publish!” And was gratified to hear him laugh. I’d struck truth! For all his monastic garb, he is still a mushroom hunter through and through–protective of his private foraging grounds!
Although the sun had barely set, I found the cumulative exertions of the last few days, and the effects of the altitude, had overcome me. The cordyceps infusion seems to have some medicinal properties, for tonight as I lay down to make these entries, I found my breathing easy. Normally these past few nights, I have felt a crushing weight on my chest, exaggerated when I recline, and I wake many times before dawn, gasping for breath. Something tells me that tonight I will sleep well.
Stray thought—Heinrich’s research re Amanita/Amrita. Must ask in the morning. Where that led him; what he found, if anything. Cordyceps aplenty, but no sign of Amanita lengensis. I’d like to charge the laptop before I go, but I couldn’t ask them to run the generator all night. Low on power.
Phupten is dead. Or worse.
I believe our guides may have met a similar fate—I cannot call it an end, although it might be that. I will do my best to explain while I still have power, in hopes this laptop may be found by someone who may benefit by my warnings. I cannot flee back across the pass. The only other path is a trackless one, forward across the plateau. Leng. There are good reasons not know it any better than I do already.
Two nights ago? Three? Phupten woke me in the dark monastic cell, with a flashlight in my eyes and fear in his voice. He said we were at risk of losing our guides to the gompa. Whether they had planned it from the start, or merely found themselves seduced by the monastic order upon arrival, he was unsure. They had mentioned childhood vows that needed renewing, but apparently things had gone too far.
I was already dressed inside my sleeping bag, so I scrambled out and followed him along dark halls, taking nothing but the few valuables in my backpack. We passed under timbered passages and starry gaps, and eventually came to the side door of the great hall. Inside, the monks sat chanting in row upon row with our guides now among them. Phupten held me back, as if I would have plunged among them—but I was not inclined to interrupt that ceremony.
Both guides stood at the head of the temple, close to the central altar. Incense fumes shrouded them, as if they were being fumigated, purified in sacred smoke. The smoke rose from a fat grey mass, as large as a man’s torso, that smoldered but did not seem to burn. A lama stood near the men, his face hidden behind a richly embroidered veil of yellow cloth shot through with gold and red. He held a long wooden wand, possibly a yarrow stalk, which he used to softly prod and poke at the lump, stirring up thick billowing clouds of the odorless incense with each touch. I realized I was seeing a tangible version of the icon featured in so many thangkas—the local protector deity made manifest, squatting in the place that should have been occupied by a Buddha or Bodhisattva.
Sensing our arrival, the lama laid down his wand and walked toward us, stripping off his veil as if it were a surgeon’s mask. I was much surprised to find Heinrich leading a ceremony of such obvious importance. Without a word, he took me by the arm and steered me toward the side door. I looked around and discovered that Phupten had already crept away.
“Your guides have elected to stay,” he said.
“If they wish to take monastic vows it’s no business of mine,” I said. “But they should first fulfill their obligation to the survey. You know the importance of our work, Heinrich. Once you were as devoted to mycology as anyone on earth. Can’t you ask them to postpone this sudden bout of spirituality for a few weeks? I’ll be happy to leave them with you on my return from the plateau.”
Rather than argue, Heinrich led me away with a gentleness that later seemed more forceful than sympathetic.
“I understand your point of view, but there is another,” he said patiently. “When Dani and I first arrived here, our survey seemed more pressing than anything on earth. I remember my eagerness to catalog the contents of Leng. But there is a faster way to that knowledge. A richer and deeper kind of knowing.”
We were moving up the mountainside along a rough path. The hollow eye sockets of caves peered down without seeing us. The cloistered buildings fell below.
“Speak with Danielle,” Heinrich said. “She can explain better than I.”
Starshine through the frayed clouds was all the light we had, but on the snowy flanks of the mountains it was almost dazzling. Heinrich brought me to a black throat of darkness. Small icons sculpted of butter and barley flour were arranged at its mouth; there were shapes like spindles, bulbs, ears. We stepped inside. My first impression was of choking dryness and dust. I saw a grey knot, far back in the cave, bobbing in the guttering light of a single butter lamp that burned on the ground before it. I could make out a figure wrapped in robes, with head bowed slightly forward. All was grey—the face, the long hair cleanly parted down the middle. I supposed it was a woman, but she did not speak, nor stir to greet us.
“This is Danielle,” Heinrich said. “She has answers to all your questions.”
I was not sure what to ask, but I swore I heard her answering already. Deeper into the cave I went, stooping as the ceiling lowered, until my ears were very near her mouth. The sound of speech was louder now but still indecipherable, like mumbles inside which something was gnawing. Thinking it might help to match mouth to syllable, I watched her face until I was certain her mouth never moved. When I stepped back, a faint grey filament stirred in the breeze I’d made. It jutted from her scalp like a stalk of straw. The mark of the phowa adept. It seemed incredible she could have attained such a transcendent state in so little time. Was this why they had decided to remain? Could the monks of Bu Gompa offer a short path to enlightenment? Was there something about Leng itself, something in the rarified air, in the snowy mountains and the rolling misty grasslands, that provoked insight? I thought of how I had felt looking out over the fields—as if perpetually on the verge of understanding, of merging with a mystery that underlay all existence. But I had hesitated then and I hesitated now, even as I teetered on the brink. Doubt assailed me, and I have been trained to rely on doubt. Was enlightenment invariably good and wise? Was it possible that some forms of enlightenment, more abrupt than others, might be more than a weak mind could encompass? Were there not perhaps monks who, at the moment of insight, simply went mad? Or in a sense shattered?
Heinrich had been joined by others. Dark shapes clustered outside the cave, with the stars beyond them looking infinitely farther than stars had ever looked to me before. There was some aspect of menace in the silent arrival of the monks, and I suddenly felt myself the victim of a fraud. Doubt drove me entirely now. In a last bid to assert my rationality, to make all this as real as I felt it needed to be, I turned back to Danielle Schurr. It was time to end all deception. My fingers closed on the blade that jutted from her crown. Far from a dry grassy stalk, it proved to be pliable, rubbery, tough. I thought of the lure of a benthic anglerfish—something that belonged far deeper than this cave extended. As I pulled it from her scalp, or tried to, the top half of her head tore away in my hand, hanging from the end of the stalk in shreds, like a wet paper bag. The rest of her, what was left of her, exploded like a damp tissue balloon packed with grey dust. If you have ever kicked a puffball fungus, you might have some idea of the swirling clouds of spores that poured like scentless incense from the soft grey body—in such quantity that the dry husk was instantly emptied and lay slumped across the floor, inseparable from its robes.
I knew I must not breathe till I was far from the cave, but of course I already had gasped. Thus the shock of terror plays a critical role in the inoculation. I backed away, expecting to be caught by Heinrich and his cohorts. But no one stopped me. All stood aside.
My descent was a desperate and precarious one, especially once I abandoned the trail and cut off along the only available route—the pass leading down into Leng. The thought that I might accidentally blunder back into the monastery filled me with terror. By starlight, and some miracle, I found my way off the treacherous rocks and onto a stable path. An enormous clanking shape lurched toward me, matching my wild imaginings of some shaggy supernatural guardian that had descended to track me down. It proved to be one of the pack horses, bearing an ungainly bundle quickly assembled from our belongings, and led by none other than Phupten. He was as startled to see me as I was to meet him, for he had understandably thought only of saving himself. He said the path in the other direction had been gated off, the far side of the monastery impassable; so he’d had no choice but to flee toward Leng.
Behind us came the drone of horns, and I half expected the baying of hounds in pursuit. But though cymbals clashed and bells clanged and chanting rose up to the stars, nothing but sound pursued us down through the pass toward the unknown plateau of Leng, which became less unknown with each step. We fled through icy mountain fogs so luminous that I thought several times the sun must be rising, but each time found myself deceived.
At last, in exhaustion, Phupten pegged the ponies and dragged down blankets, and built a fire among the roots of a tree to give us some shelter against a miserable rain. We made plans for the morning, plans that have since evaporated. We debated whether we should wait till the following night to try and sneak back the way we had come. I dreaded the thought of returning to the monastery; it seemed impossible that we could ever creep unseen through the narrow maze of lanes; and who knew what the monks would do if they apprehended us? But Phupten insisted this was the only way back. For ages, it had been the one route into and out of Leng. There in the cold night, knowing that Leng was close, I regretted ever seeking it out. I wanted nothing more than to have remained ignorant of its mystery.
We slept there fitfully, shivering, and I dreamt fearful dreams of something wary and watchful toward which we fled. Small white buds were stirring among the roots of the tree, growing swiftly like plasmodium in a stop-motion film; they bulged from the soil and then opened, staring at me, a cluster of bloodshot eyes.
I jerked awake in a frozen dawn, hearing Phupten calling my name. But he was nowhere to be seen. The ponies waited where he had tethered them, so I thought he must have gone off for water or more wood.
I waited there all morning.
The mist veiled the mountains as if urging me to forget them. In the other direction, endless rolling hills of grass emerged. Alluring terrain, yet the notion of venturing there seemed madder than going to sea without a compass or the slightest knowledge of celestial navigation. I clung to the misty margin and watched the grasslands through much of the day, noting the way the light shifted and phantom sprites sometimes moved through the air above the rippling strands, auroral presences like the vaporous dreams of things hidden below the soil. I wondered if the Chinese suspected what dreamed there—if they hoped to harness it somehow, to tame or oppress it. Or had it managed to hide itself from them—from all controlling powers? Was it not itself an agent of utter control? Maddening insights flowered perpetually within me, the merest of them impervious to transcription. I wondered if there were degrees of immersion…or infection. Danielle had rushed out to meet the powers of the plateau…I continued to hold back… I felt on the verge of exploding with insight; as my mind quickened, I felt it ever more incumbent upon me to hold very still. A horrid wisdom took hold. These thoughts were only technically my own. Something else had planted them. In me, they would come to fruit.
I realized my eyes had closed, rolling back in my skull to point at a hidden horizon. With an effort of recall that felt like lurching disappointment, I disgorged a memory of Danielle Schurr’s final, meditative posture. This drove me to my feet. I stamped about, remembering how to walk. I felt emptied out. Cored. I foraged among the packs for food, hoping nourishment would abate my unaccustomed sense of lightness. Altitude still explained a great deal, I told myself. But something else was wrong. Almost everything.
In the afternoon I finally saw Phupten, far out on the sea of grass. He would not come close enough for me to read his features, nor did I dare walk out to greet him. Maybe he had been there all along. He stood with his face turned in my direction, and I began to hear mumbling like that which had filled the space in Danielle’s cave. I could not resolve words. The tone was plaintive, pleading, then insistent. Phupten walked off some distance, sat down, and grew very still. I believe night came again, although it might have been a different kind of darkness falling. My head swarmed—swarms—with dreams not my own. Leng stretches out forever, and beneath its thin skin of grass and soil waits a presence vast and ancient but hardly unconscious. It watches with Phupten’s eyes, while he still has them. I dreamt it spoke to me, promising I would understand all. It would hold back nothing. I would become the mystery—the far-off allure of things just beyond the horizon. The twilight hour, the gate of dreams. All these would be all that is left of me, for all these things are Leng of the violet light. I felt myself spread to great immensity. Only the smallest leap was needed—only the softest touch and form would no longer contain me.
I woke to find myself walking out onto the plateau. Onto the endless green where Phupten waited. I crossed the threshold. The veil parted. I beheld Leng.
The plateau spread to infinity before me, but it was bare and horrible, a squirming ocean beneath a gravelled skin, with splintered bones that tore up through the hide, rending the fleshy softness that heaved in a semblance of life. A trillion tendrils stirred upon its surface, antennae generating the illusion that protected it, configuring the veil. This was Leng. Is! A name and a place and a thing. Leng is what dreams at the roof of the world and sends its relentless imaginings to cover the planet. The light that shines here is not the violet and orange of twilight or dusk. It is the grey of a suffocating mist, a cloud of obscuring putrefaction, full of blind motes that cannot be called living yet swarm like flies and infest every pore with grasping hunger. A vastness starving and all-consuming that throws up ragged shadows like clots of tar to flap overhead in the form of the faceless winged creatures that wheel away from the plateau to snatch whatever hapless souls they find beyond the gates of nightmare and carry them back here, toward a pale grey haze of shriveled peaks so lofty that even though they rise at an infinite distance, still they dwarf everything. And having glimpsed the impossible temple upon those improbable peaks, I know I can never return. Even though I took but the one step across the threshold and then fell back, I cannot unsee what I have seen. There is no unknowing. The veil is forever rent. I cannot wake. And though I write these words because I am compelled, because Leng’s spell is such that others will read this and be drawn to it, I pray for an end to wakefulness and sleep. I cannot stop my ears or eyes or mind from knowing what waits. Leng’s vision for Earth is a blind and senseless cloud that spreads and infects and feeds only to spread, infect and feed. And its unearthly beauty—we are drawn to it like any lure. I pray you have not touched me. I pray the power has
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“Leng” copyright 2009 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Lovecraft Unbound (2009), edited by Ellen Datlow.