All the cross training I’d done at Jacqueline’s Gym in uptown Manhattan hadn’t prepared me to climb fourteen thousand feet into the Tian Shan mountains. Every frost-billowing breath sucked heat from my body and drained energy from my limbs. I concentrated on hand and footholds. Cold stone and my heartbeat pressing into my throat numbed me to whatever wonder I might have felt seeing the bright yellow sun, crystal blue sky, and snow-capped peaks.
I topped the latest precipice and, seeing no sign of Kuday Kolun or his temple, decided to rest. I wedged my quivering buttocks into a crevice out of the wind, pulled the flaps down on my argali-skin cap, and dug into my satchel for a boorsok fried pastry I’d saved from breakfast. I took a bite and sipped mare’s milk from the sheepskin flask I’d tucked inside my tunic to keep it from freezing. My entire body relaxed, wanting sleep, but a passing vision of being found frozen the next day kept me awake.
It struck me as funny that I’d been here before. Not the Tian Shan mountains but the point of no return, where going on seemed easier than turning back. That was funny, too, because I had no idea why I’d come, which pretty much summed up all my life decisions.
When friends asked why I’d dropped out of school, offhandedly I’d said, “I must seek the mountain of wisdom, fountain of truth.” It sounded good and went over well. Truth was I was bored with school, getting drunk, and the girls who hung with our crowd. I also wanted to avoid anything like actual work.
My beer-sodden brilliance told me that wherever the mountain of wisdom was, if it even existed, it most likely would be found among other mountains. And since Eastern wisdom always fascinated me, I headed eastward and upward. Several zigzag hops on various odd aircraft later, I found myself in Nookat, Kyrgyzstan.
The pilot from Osh-Avia airlines didn’t bat an eye. “Ah, mountain of wisdom, Kuday Kolun. I know way. Take you for small fee. Nephew Temir be your guide.” Osh-Avia had one plane, a tri-motor biplane.
Being a New Yorker, I suspected a hustle, but everyone assured me that the mountain of wisdom’s fountain of truth could be found in the great Tian Shan mountains. His name was Kuday Kolun, Kyrgyz for “Touched by God.”
After one night in a Nookat hotel room that could have passed for a prison cell, the pilot flew me to Shankol and introduced me to Temir. Mercifully noncommittal about my unpreparedness, Temir provided a sheep’s leather tunic, pants and boots, a fur-lined parka, gloves, and a head-wrapping cap. He carried our knapsacks, bedrolls, and sheepskin flasks.
We reached Sary-gol late the second evening and bedded down in a small brown woman’s family yurt. The village comprised seven conical-roofed yurts made of skins and felt, a run-down, brick-walled building, and a corral with three shaggy horses whose smells, along with smoke from the cooking fires, permeated the crisp air. Temir told me the brick building had been a rest station for Genghis Khan’s pony express. Sary-gol had once been on a major trade route.
Next morning our hostess greeted us in a red and gold flowered dress. When I mentioned my quest, her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, Kuday Kolun,” she said and pointed up a very steep ridge.
I must make that climb alone, Temir had said, and I needed to bring an offering. Kuday Kolun met only with solitary visitors and survived on the benevolence of wisdom seekers. In recent years, those had grown few.
The few now included me, sitting in a butt-cold crevice. Another thought of freezing to death, more inviting this time, brought me to my feet. I looked down and back. Ahead still seemed best, so I hoisted my satchel strap and stepped up the slope.
Twenty minutes later, I saw a stone plateau not a hundred meters up. I quickened my pace. The plateau extended from the mountain face and a sculpted gate façade that framed a green-painted wooden door. Before the doorway, a wizened old gentleman sat in the lotus position. He had a flowing white mustache and long white hair that began well up on his forehead and joined his mustache to cover his shoulders.
The man neither spoke nor moved. His loose white robe, open at the throat, seemed ill fit for the cold and frosty wind. I struggled to cross my legs and sit on the frigid stone slightly below Kuday Kolun. Ten cold minutes passed.
“From where have you come, my son?” the man said in heavily accented English.
“I live in New York City, but originally I’m from Detroit.”
“Ah. How did the Tigers do this year?”
“The Detroit Tigers, the baseball team?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan ever since I spent a summer with my uncle outside Toledo. We listened to the games on the radio while we rebuilt his barn.”
“They didn’t make the playoffs this year. No pitching.”
“That was always their problem.”
“Here,” I said, “I brought you something. It isn’t much.” I pulled out the bag of leftover boorsoks and a sealed ceramic bowl of beshbarmak noodles. “My hostess warmed them. The bowl still has some heat.”
“That will be fine. Please join me.” The man produced two spoons from inside of his robe and a short knife to pry up the seal on the bowl. I slid closer. We took turns scooping noodles and chunks of turnip and mutton.
“You are young,” the old man said after slurping a long, dripping noodle. “Much life journey lies ahead of you. What brings you to Kuday Kolun?”
“I guess I need to know why.” The words stumbled out of my mouth. Like everything else, I hadn’t planned for the moment. “Why life? Why confusion? Why evil? The great why.”
“Simple questions become great only because we reject their simple answers. Life is to experience. It is a gift. Confusion and wrongdoing are what we do with life.”
“But what direction should my life take?”
“That is for you to decide.” The old man, his mustache in the broth, sucked in another spoonful of noodles then held up his spoon. “If all decisions were made for you, the gift of life would be very small indeed.”
Feeling the cold, I laced my fingers. “It’s just that most of what I see is misdirection, fingers pointing everywhere.”
“Every garden has snakes hocking wondrous fruits with false promises. There are two things that will help you find your way.” The old man tipped the bowl of beshbarmak and finding it empty set it down and continued.
“You are not God nor can you become God, not with special diets or exercises, not with magic mushrooms or leaves, not with gold, telescopes, or mathematical formulas. So you can relax. You are not in control and cannot be of anything beyond yourself. We get neither credit nor blame for the world’s happenings—only for ourselves and our choices.”
I opened the bag of boorsoks and Kuday Kolun took one.
“You mentioned two things,” I said. “What is the other?”
“We are all on the same journey, not separate,” he said over his pastry. “So we are together and must help our fellow travelers.”
“Where does the journey lead?” I asked.
He smiled and looked to the sun dropping in the West. “I must turn in, and you must find your way down while it is still light.”
I took the hint, thanked Kuday Kolun, and repacked my satchel for the downward climb.
I had just left the plateau when the old man called down after me. “Nicholas, next time you come to visit, could you bring me a Tiger’s ball cap?”
Keeping my eye on the downward step, I called back, “Certainly, and I’ll bring you a blazer, too. You could use one up here.”
“Thank you, and when you’re in range of a cell tower don’t forget to call your mother. She has worried ever since you left school.”
I was too busy concentrating on my footing to answer and didn’t think about it until I got back to Sary-gol, but I had never given the old man my name.