“Druk” is an ancient Tibetan word for “dragon”. I acquired the word at a time of great introspection on the trail to Padum, the capital of Zanskar, India.
When I was trekking through the Great Himalayan Range in 2014, I developed debilitating altitude sickness and urged my companions to leave me behind. “I’ll catch up,” I said.
I remained at our camp in the valley for most of the day, recovering myself with raisins and cashews until the vomiting and diarrhea ceased. By the time I could walk, even the shepherd that had shared the valley with us the night before had moved on. Then I packed up camp and moved a hundred metres higher, can’t remember what the distance in kilometres it had been.
I found my partners resting in the final camp before the pass, a low-lying teahouse made of heavy stones and rags. The dwelling had a chimney covered in soot that was always expelling the smoke of smouldering animal dung. We met other travellers who shared their medicine with me, the stuff people give to airplane pilots to keep their eyes from popping. Over time, the headache went away and left me with nothing but a bloody nose.
Around that time I began to have dreams of a red giant sun. Its presence was like a father, like a god. That was the spirit of a dragon. I simply knew that. It was a dragon I’d seen embroidered onto a banner in a Tibetan import shop across the sea, in Asheville, North Carolina. From that day on, I began to see dragons in the clouds. They guarded the passes and greeted me atop Shingo La.
Many days later, my remaining partner and I came upon one of the most spectacular villages one can imagine. It was a hamlet of white and irregular earthen dwellings and ancient stupas clustered together in a field of barley, flanked by red mountains and fed by a river. Atop the eastern hill was a gompa and the village school. We stayed with the village people that night and had a hearty dinner of thukpa and a thermos of black tea.
The morning before we set off, I looked across the river to one of the rusted mountain ridges. I noticed faces in the stone, and many of them. The husband of the house joined me. He did not speak much English. “Julé,” I said. — it’s the way to greet people and bid farewell in the region.
“Julé,” he returned.
I pointed to the mountain and its many faces. “Does that place have a name?”
“It deserves a name,” I said. We gazed over the fields and the wind whispered around us. The barley was thick, it undulated like the sea. I thought of the days behind me and asked, “What is the Zanskari word for ‘dragon’?”
“Druk,” he said. It sounded like “drook”, with a roll in the “dr-r-r”.
I said the word a few times and smiled. The villager told me that sometimes, he could see Buddhist symbols in that mountain. I told him that I could sense spirits there.
Watching from overtop the rock was the Druk of the valley, the spirit of that mountain. If we were given a rite of passage, the Druk would guard us as we passed along the river into Ladakh. I gazed into the cloud as the shadows were swallowed by the valley.
Druk. I’ve adopted the word as an analogy and mantra of my spirit, soul, and journey. It means everything and something further, like the utterance “Om”. It is a word that I use to connect to God, to myself and all other things.