Mountains of Stories

Tibetan Bon pilgrim on the Mount Kailash pilgrimage route, July 2012; A. Thomson.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood ..." - T.S. Roosevelt

What if we chose not only to recognize the power of storytelling, but to genuinely value all stories -- anecdotes, objects, memories, causes, narratives, critiques, impressions and the little things we so often overlook? Would life matter any more or any less? Would our capacity for empathy and understanding grow?

Today, popular culture thrives on sensational narratives -- on bringing people up or down with shocking news features or reviews. Readers cling to stories of gossip, crime and murder. Too often, important underlying narratives are missed in the desire to tell something startling. We overlook the stories in-between -- the stories of the remarkable people who spend their lives working as elementary school art teachers or art therapists, because they believe in the power of art to educate and inspire. We miss the narratives of gardeners and farmers, of librarians and nursing home assistants. I wonder about the quiet power of those stories.

Two years ago, in July 2012, I had the opportunity to listen to stories that struck me for their openness and clarity. Together with a small research team I traveled to Tibet to study pilgrimage practices at Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain in the far western Ngari Prefecture. We arrived shortly after the self-immolations in Lhasa -- at a time when the city was under heavy military surveillance and there were few to no Westerners. I had originally planned to record observations and take photographs, but after circumstances prevented our filmmaker from joining us in-field I took on the role of videographer, and started to piece together Nine-Story Mountain, a documentary film about the pilgrimage to and around Mount Kailash.

As we drove toward the mountain from Lhasa-- through a rapidly changing landscape, past police checkpoints, and billboards for upcoming construction projects -- we wondered how to do justice to the sublimities of the surrounding landscapes and cultures. We wanted to take our audience past the checkpoints and construction projects, to the Tibetans who walked with us along the pilgrimage route, to the people who gave us bowl after bowl of butter tea, and consistently welcomed us into their tea tents and homes. We wanted to transport our audience to Kailash, a Tibetan landscape honored not only by Tibetans, but by pilgrims from around the world. We knew that we would only ever scrape the surface of the pilgrimage culture, but we felt that we needed to do something to honor the many overlapping stories we found -- the stories of pilgrims of different genders, faiths, and cultural backgrounds, who circle the mountain. When a caretaker on the western side of the pilgrimage route told us that the myths of the mountain are steadily becoming lost, I saw our film as an opportunity to take that notion of storytelling further- to simultaneously serve as a cultural preservation project, memorializing the myths of the mountain. And I felt that the only way for us to push honestly past the stereotypical image of Tibet as a land of mountains, open vistas, Buddhist monks and nuns and cultural oppression, was to take our audience along the pilgrimage journey with us -- to share the stages of the journey through film.

On the Mount Kailash pilgrimage route, Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, Tibetan Bon, and other pilgrims greeted each other with grace and respect. For people struggling with severe altitude sickness and pushing through physical and mental challenges, the smallest acts of kindness were magnified. The more we walked, the more we realized that every tiny gesture informed an overarching story-- the story of the pilgrimage route we were experiencing. It wasn't the story we thought we would initially tell. It was simultaneously simpler and more nuanced, and we knew as we made Nine-Story Mountain that it wasn't the story most people would expect to hear. But after traveling through Tibet, after realizing how little is really known about the culture, it was the 'right' story to tell. And we felt that, in order to privilege the stories of all of the demographics we encountered along the way, we needed to weave them into an observational and phenomenological journey, free of judgment, assumptions, or premature conclusions.

After our journey, people kept asking me to tell a specific story. They wanted to know about the politics, the oppression, about the current status of Chinese control in Tibet. While I am not an expert on the region, I did realize that, as with most other cultures, Tibet is constantly evolving. There is a poetry to the landscape -- it filters through the smell of the air and the feel of the wind; the sound of glaciers falling and prayer flags blowing in the wind. On Kailash, every story is significant, from the mantra carvers trying to pay their way through school with the profit made from carving prayers into boulders, to the construction workers from Tingri singing at the sky. We met a Chinese pilgrim who planned to circle the mountain thirteen consecutive times because he had found his faith at Kailash, and a vendor who sold Coca Cola and Red Bull to tired pilgrims near the highest pass. There was a language beyond language, which sang at the heart of every personal story, and when the pilgrims and locals we met agreed to talk to us, they did so because they wanted to share their unfiltered experiences with the world, openly and honestly. Those stories were and are part of the real fabric of the Kailash pilgrimage.

A few days ago, the BBC 's news headlines featured articles on the misuse of state lottery funds by the former Philippine president, on a baby's brutal murder, and the newest account of last words from the cockpit of the missing flight MH370. As I read I wished that the stories were both less sweeping and less distorted by the desire to make headlines. I thought of a recent review -- by an acquaintance who later confessed that much of the writing had come from a place of cynicism and jealousy. As he spoke I realized that the tone of the review had been dishonest, and I thought of the intention behind words. Two years ago I was privileged to have the chance to listen to stories that transformed the way I thought about storytelling -- that showed me the power inherent in the simplicity of honest words. I wonder what would happen if every news feature, every review, every narrative was reframed to convey a core story. Would we share more and worry less? Would we, perhaps, become better storytellers and listeners?