Tibetan Medicine Study in Amdo: Part Three – Herb Study

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As I write this it’s been just over half a year since our group headed out from ‘wild west town’ of Malho to the mountains for the herb study part of the Sorig Tour.  I had so far put writing this third part of my Amdo blog off, partly due to the demands of my clinic, but also because I wanted to fully absorb and integrate the knowledge that I had gained on the mountain, digest all my notes and photographs and confidently identify the plants we had learnt about in terms of their Latin binomials before embarking on writing this part of the blog.  Alas that turned out to be a vastly unrealistic aim. I now realise that those three amazing days of study on the mountain have generated research which will take me well over a year, and quite possibly a lifetime, to complete.

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On my return from Amdo I threw myself into the study of these new (to me) medicinal plants.  I was armed with an excellent herb study booklet prepared by Eric Rosenbush for all of the Sorig Tour participants (which must have taken hours and hours of work and research to prepare), reams of my own field notes and annotations, hundreds of photographs, every possible publication on Tibetan Plants and Tibetan Medicine, many writings by the old plant hunters such as Joseph Hooker and Frank Kingdon-Ward as well as more modern references such as the excellent ‘Guide to the Flowers of Western China’ by Grey-Wilson and Cribbs and the older but still very good ‘Flowers of the Himalaya’ by Polunin and Stainton.  I thought naively that it should have been a methodical process of going through the field material and looking everything up.

I also had Tibetan Materia Medica publications to refer to. Since I first studied Tibetan Materia Medica in the 1990’s there have been many valuable works published in English on this subject. I think I probably have them all as well as a few in Tibetan too. The most beautiful and informative of them has to the large two volume work by Dr Dawa which contains painstaking botanical illustrations and good descriptions of medicinal qualities and actions for each of the plants. However, disappointingly, the uncertainties of botanical identification which I first encountered in the 1990’s have persisted to this day. The Latin names of Tibetan medicines often remain disputed or unclear. Different sources show completely different Latin binomials for apparently the same plant and sometimes published sources list three or four possibilities for the same illustration or photo. Differing plants which are used in therapeutically similar ways may share the same Tibetan name, there being variations between different medical lineages and regions within the area that is culturally Tibetan. Added to this Tibetan Medicine has long been practiced beyond the borders of its homeland so the use of local plants in neighbouring countries has been integrated into this sophisticated medical system, making perfect sense ecologically and sustainably but adding to the complexities of the botanical identification issue.

As a side note recent discussions have promoted the idea that ‘Himalayan Medicine’ is a more apt description than ‘Tibetan Medicine’ since its practice extends across all the countries of the region, and now across the world.  I must admit that I find that the removal of ‘Tibetan’ from its name hard to stomach. Perhaps I’m led by my heart rather than political expediency.

Anyway with my background in western botany, a deep love of medicinal plants, a rudimentary knowledge of Tibetan language and an understanding of herbal medicine I thought that I might be able to help shed some light on this botanical confusion. My aim is one of cataloguing and preserving precious knowledge and using this as an aid in plant conservation work. It is an aim that I know is in keeping with the wishes of my spiritual teacher, Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche. We had in fact discussed this in the early years of the new millennium during a special meeting held at Samye Ling in Scotland.

In this mammoth botanical undertaking I’ve been lucky enough to enlist the help of Chris Chadwell of the Himalayan Plant Association who I first met while I was studying Tibetan Medicine at Samye Ling in the 1990’s. Chris is extremely knowledgeable about the flora of the wider Himalayan region and has generously helped me with identification advice on the plants that I have so far studied. His knowledge and patient explanations have opened my eyes to the complexity of the task ahead of me.  Initially I was quite daunted but I’m determined to plough on bit by bit, one step at a time. I remember all too well the words of Akong Rinpoche who said: ‘Only the impossible is worth doing’.

As ever I digress but I wanted to explain the long gap between the first two parts of this blog and this third and final (for now) part.  I also wanted to explain why I won’t be focussing on plant identification and plant medicinal properties in my blog at this stage. I want to share with you instead the experience of studying the herbs on that beautiful mountain far away from the trappings of our modern materialistic way of life.

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On the day we were due to travel to the mountain I was filled with excitement. We were to travel to an unspoilt area which was part of the lands of a monastery and particularly floristically rich. We were to camp near to two holy lakes. The shape of these two lakes apparently resembled the shape of two fishes. This was particularly apt, I thought, to a Piscean like me.

The roads would be too rough for travel in a minibus or coach so we piled into several taxis together with provisions to last us three days. It was quite a squeeze to fit everything in. Water melons, sacks of onions, bread, tea and rice competed for space with two large trays of eggs alongside our sleeping bags, rucksacks and walking boots. Our car had the eggs. Many times during that journey I wondered about whether any of them would survive intact but during our stay we had lovely boiled eggs for breakfast so my pessimism was unfounded.

The journey was awe inspiring. We headed out of town towards the vast open space of the Himalayan grasslands. This was yak herding territory.  We hadn’t seen crop cultivation since we were in Rebkong but although we could see the grasslands from our hotel in Malho we had been fully absorbed in our clinical studies with patients so had not yet ventured out of town.  Now here we were actually in the grasslands. In these vast lands nomadic folk rode horses, herded their livestock and made delicious creamy yoghurt as they have done for generations. Yaks were everywhere. The huge views were breath-taking and served to remind us of our remoteness from the modern amenities that we were so familiar with. Yet within the vast scale of the landscape we could see little settlements and nomadic tents complete with satellite dishes and solar panels and men on horses that we passed along the highway checked their mobile phones as they rode.

We stopped for a ‘comfort break’ on the way and as we stretched our legs the first thing that hit me was the fragrant smell of the Artemisias mixed with the pungent smell of yak dung. It was a smell that was to become very familiar over the next three days. I actually became filled with fondness for it and on my return to the UK I remember sniffing my filthy mountain jeans nostalgically before loading them into the washing machine.

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We waited by a stream for the other cars to catch up and listened to skylarks and running water. It was heart-openingly remote, beautiful and other worldly. The road had been steadily getting narrower and we hadn’t seen another vehicle for over an hour. After crossing the stream, we soon reached the end of the road. We were now bumping along a rutted grassy track but I hardly spared a thought for the eggs. I saw we were nearing a small hill topped by a round chorten made of wooden poles and sticks. Prayer flags fluttered in the wind and somehow emphasised the intensity of the blue of the sky.  Dr Machig got out of his car and opened a rusty metal gate which blocked our way. We were now in the monastery lands.

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We passed the chorten hill and rounding a bend in the track saw another matching chorten in the distance. The Yellow River wound its way across the plain to our right, and beyond that we could see endless peaks stretching away into the distance. Some were snow capped even though it was August. I checked my altimeter and we were at 3800m.

Our tents (one for the girls and one for the boys) were set up in a flat area of meadow quite near to the second chorten. There was smoke coming from the chimney in the cooking tent. A local nomad family had put the tents up and prepared a delicious meal for us on our arrival. We unloaded our stuff and helped carry the provisions into the cooking tent before sitting down to our meal. Our hosts poured us milk tea from a large kettle, the tea leaves being strained out by a bunch of twiggy stems shoved into the spout. Apparently this was a shrub known locally as ‘Nomads’ Chopsticks’.  The tea tasted smoky from the yak dung fire that it had been prepared on, but it was refreshing and welcome after such a long journey.

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We ate and were briefed on the etiquette of our camp. We were camping near to two sacred lakes which were in the shape of two fishes. We were lucky to have permission to camp here as it was usually out of bounds. We had to respect the sanctity of the lakes, refrain from hunting or other disrespectful actions such as peeing or dropping litter by the lakes.  We were not to go into or touch the water. We were welcome to circumambulate the lakes as long as we did so quietly and kept to these guidelines. It was a delight to see that the spiritual importance of the lakes was being safeguarded in this way.

We were instructed to head towards the Yellow River in order to answer our calls of nature. Somewhat apt I thought. A group of us girls headed off to find a suitable spot, climbing through an apparently dilapidated wire fence but which turned out to be well maintained by the local farmers. The wires remained under a good degree of tension and it was actually quite tricky to climb through. There was one spot marked by a rock where the passage through the fence was slightly easier.  I tried to make a mental note of where this was but there were few land marks. After a bit of hysterical laughter we all managed to squeeze through the fence and found ourselves in an area of completely flat land between our camp and the Yellow River maybe half a mile ahead. There were no bushes, rocks or other cover. The smell of Artemisias and dung hung in the air. Yaks grazing nearby made sweet little grunts as they talked to each other.  Eventually we found a slight dip in the topography which preserved our modesty from the waist down. Marmots were everywhere and they seemed curious about this invasion of laughing western women. One or two of them emerged from their burrows and sat up, apparently watching us as we peed.  It was a new experience but somehow liberating. Bear Grylls would be proud of us I thought.

Back at the camp we prepared for our first herb study trek. The sun burned fiercely. We were reminded that without a hat we would be burnt to a frazzle within minutes. We applied sunscreen, lip sunblock and donned our hats.  It was strange to think that later on after sun down the temperature would probably drop below freezing.

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We climbed a stony track and headed towards the lake. It was hot work but luckily we had all become accustomed to the high altitude by now so managed to walk steadily up the incline without too much trouble. We eventually found ourselves at a vantage point above the lakes and started walking down towards them through long grass filled with beautiful wild flowers. Drs Machig, Wako and Nida pointed out plants along the way explaining what their names were in Tibetan and briefly describing their properties.

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There was so much information being given It was virtually impossible to record it all, let alone take good photographs of each plant. We were encouraged to pick samples and I put them into my note book hoping to be able to sort out the information later.  Compared to my herb walks in Somerset this was high speed learning, but it was exciting that there were so many amazing species to see.

We made our way around the first lake and started to climb a steep incline on its far side. Underfoot it was loose scree and quite difficult going. We had to cling onto the branches of shrubs to steady ourselves. My frequent stops to examine plants and write notes meant that I found myself one of the stragglers but I didn’t mind as I was in good company with Dr Wako. We conversed in sign language, broken Tibetan and his English (which was far better than my Tibetan). He explained about many of the plants that we encountered, giving me the Tibetan names and indicating their actions on the body through miming and simple explanations which my very rusty knowledge of medical terms in Lhasa dialect seemed to cope with.

Eventually we reached the top and collapsed down onto the grass to admire the view and gulp water from our bottles. We could see the Yellow River winding away across the plain, one bank, the nearest one to our camp, boulder strewn but accessible. On the far bank sheer cliffs came right down to the water’s edge. Beyond the river were layer after layer of high mountains continuing as far as the eye could see. The only habitations visible were our own tents and far beyond them the encampment of the nomad family who had prepared our camp and our first meal. It felt as though we were in the remotest and the most beautiful place on earth.

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Dr Wako found a large wild rhubarb plant and set about cutting pieces of fleshy stem for us to chew. He peeled the outer skin and passed chunks around. It tasted astringent but refreshing.

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We sat cross legged at the top of the high ground above the lakes and Dr Nida led us in a meditation. There in the vast landscape under the blue sky my earlier worries about not recording all the plant information seemed trivial.  I knew that by being there with these amazing doctors and my Sorig Tour family a connection was being made and a seed was being planted. Unknown causes and conditions had led me to be in that place at that time but everything that was taking place was perfect and planned and right.

When we arrived back at our camp hot and exhausted we were greeted by plenty of milk tea strained through Nomads’ Chopsticks twigs and a hearty meal prepared by Tsetan our chief guide, ably assisted by Gyamtso, Yangmo Tashi and Paljor. They had done a very good job and we all ate very well. Bear Grylls probably wouldn’t have been impressed but I didn’t care. I had had the most amazing day, I had climbed to the highest altitude of my life, admired a breath-taking view and met plants that I’d been reading about and studying for over 20 years.

The sun set and some brave souls opted to sleep outside under the stars. I settled down in the girls’ tent listening to the others telling ghost stories as I drifted off to sleep.

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The next morning was freezing cold and the grass outside our tents was covered with a heavy dew. Everything was shrouded in mist and it was quite other worldly. I had slept well, my extra warm sleeping bag and merino thermals had done their job.  I got up early, sitting in my sleeping bag to do my morning Medicine Buddha practice.  Later once everyone was awake we ate breakfast of tea with tsampa and hard boiled eggs, their miraculously undamaged shells stained with cinnamon bark. The eggs were prepared the night before and left soaking over night with a cinnamon stick as is apparently the custom here.

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We set off for more herb study and then trekked to the nearby monastery where we were given an impromptu Medicine Buddha empowerment by the incumbent lama. As we walked back towards our camp in the late afternoon the sky looked threatening. The first drops of rain started to fall as we entered camp.  Some of the girls disappeared off to the marmot encampment and came back absolutely drenched 10 minutes later. The heavens had opened and rain was coming down in a relentless torrent. We sheltered undercover but it soon became clear that water was running off the hill behind us and finding its path to lower ground through our tent, soaking everything in its path. We rushed about moving stuff off the floor and away from the worst of the leaks. We covered things with dry sacks, plastic bags and pieces of tarpaulin. We lifted some of our possessions up secured them to the cross supports of the tent. There was no way we were going to be able to keep everything dry so it was a question of damage limitation. I grabbed my Tibetan prayer text and put it inside my clothes next to my skin and huddled in my sleeping bag. The rain showed no sign of letting up and continued to lash down while we sat forlornly in the tents hoping that they wouldn’t blow away.  When the thunder and lightening started I tried not to think about the fact that we were basically sitting in a pool of water at 3800m.  Say mantras I said to myself. Talking to anyone else was in any case impossible due to the deafening roar of the wind, rain and thunder. The storm raged all night – a total of 12 hours from when the rain started. It finally went quiet at 5.00am. I ventured out quietly so as not to wake the others and was greeted by a beautiful double rainbow.

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Tsetan and the other guides were already up and they shouted to everyone to come and look. Soon we were all outside admiring the spectacle. The discomforts (and frankly, terror) of the previous night was now forgotten.  We set about trying to dry everything out – our clothes, sleeping bags, notebooks, rucksacks, hats and shoes. My notebook stuffed with all my plant samples was drenched so I put it by the stove and gradually turned the pages to try and dry it out. Bear Grylls may not have been impressed but I felt like Frank Kingdon-Ward on one of his plant hunting expeditions battling to save his precious samples.

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As the sun came up it got hot very quickly and with everything drying we ate breakfast and started to pack up the camp. We took a last opportunity to go down to the lakes and drink in the scenery. This landscape which was so serene on our first day had now revealed another aspect.

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With the taxis packed we thanked the nomad family, posed for selfies and waved our goodbyes. As we headed off to the next part of the tour I looked back at our temporary mountain home and reflected on the experience. I’d encountered plants that I never thought I would see growing in their natural habitat. I’d learnt valuable first hand herbal information from Tibetan Medicine masters who are devoted to their tradition. I’d done my spiritual practice beside a sacred lake and meditated on the banks of the Yellow River. I’d camped for two nights on a mountainside at 3800m – quite significant for someone who usually avoids camping at all costs; and I’d shared all of this with an amazing bunch of likeminded people.

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The mountains had provided us with a perfect lesson in humility and the wonder of nature. Our first night had been benign and gentle while the second night had been wrathful and dramatic. We’d felt safe and comfortable in the tents on our first night but on the second night it had been hard not to feel flimsy and irrelevant during the height of the storm.  No wonder this has long been considered a land of gods and demons.

We may have only been on there for two nights and three days but I knew that my time on the mountain had changed me forever.

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About myrobalanclinic

I am a registered medical herbalist who uses a unique approach combining Tibetan Medicine with Western Herbal Medicine. I love my job - it is so rewarding seeing people taking control of their health and feeling healthier and more positive. I like to think that I help people get more out of life.
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One Response to Tibetan Medicine Study in Amdo: Part Three – Herb Study

  1. phil says:

    I really enjoyed reading through your experiences in the land of monasteries. I can only imagine the beauty of the deep blue sky meeting the green plains. I can’t wait to experience it myself this summer. Thank you for sharing!

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