A Language of Smiles

The young Tibetan speaks no English. My Mandarin is limited. In a language of smiles and gestures, he tells me to remove my boots. I peer dubiously along the steep, rocky path, running above a blue, alpine lake. More Tibetans, the man’s family, hobble over the stones, faces taught in pained concentration.

Prayer flags flutter rainbow colours in the frigid air, decorating every jutting outcrop. Mt Chenresig’s snowy, 6032m peak looms over the valleys of Yading Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China. The mountain is a shape-shifter, gazing down with a new face every time it comes into view. I am halfway into a thirty-kilometer trek. The altitude is 4500m, so high that anything beyond a slow walk leaves me breathless.

Kora, or circumambulation, is a pilgrimage and meditative practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans perform any number of clockwise revolutions around a sacred object, building or geographical site. Locals will circle the holy Chenresig at least once a year. I walked here beside parents, children, and old ladies on canes.

The longer, more gruelling a Kora, the more religious merit is gained. There are even reports of pilgrims prostrating themselves for days and miles at a time. As if hiking thirty kilometres through mountains is not enough, these families walk the long stretch above the nameless lake barefoot. I didn’t know this when I began the Kora. Had I not been adopted by my Tibetan friend, I would have passed the lake, oblivious.

Under my companion’s approving gaze, I remove my shoes. The path is sharp and unforgiving. The young man winces with every step, his legs bowed unnaturally. My soles are tough after years of barefoot coastal living. I stop and wait; we are in this together. I encourage him with a grin, a wave.

When he sees me, his pain is forgotten. A broad smile consumes his face; pride at his own performance, his joy in sharing this small part of his culture.

“Ho!” He cries, hands out in the universal sign of approval; the thumbs-up.

“Yew!” I cheer, arms raised.


Soon, the stones are biting my feet. My friend’s support becomes crucial, just as mine is to him. We propel each other with laughter, gestures and shared discomfort. We reach the end, a sign only he can see, and sit together to tie our shoes. We have no words to express our thanks as he waves goodbye. Months later, the pain will fade and I will forget Chenresig’s many faces, but I will remember a language of smiles, and two thumbs, upturned in encouragement. 

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