[Originally published in Action Asia, June-July, 1996]
He was a sandy-colored dog, crouched on the ground a few meters to one side of the path and glaring at me evilly. His low growl was a warning sign- -one that I should have heeded, but I had things on my mind and business to take care of: a wall on the other side of the monastery that I wanted to photograph. I didn’t have time for ill-tempered mutts. So I paid no attention, and kept on walking.
I was at Palpung Gonpa, a Buddhist monastery of the eastern Tibetan plateau. I was not a tourist here, but manager of a project whose goal is to restore Palpung’s incredible main temple, called the “Little Potala Palace” after the famous fortress in the capital of Tibet. We had only begun to analyze the structural problems of the huge but troubled building. Because my organization’s director was unable to come on this trip, I had been cast in the role of expedition leader. Now I was on my way to inspect some test repairs done last year.
What’s eating him? That was a good question–too bad I didn’t consider it further. But I had seen Palpung’s dogs many times before, and although they were vile-looking and nasty, they had never molested me. Where was that wall again? Must be around the corner, just past this ugly mongrel…
The moment I passed him and my back was turned, the thing sprang. I saw nothing, only heard a roar and felt something come at me. At least I knew enough not to try and run away–I whirled around to face him: not a dog anymore, but a raging whirlwind of teeth, jaws, and violent carnivorous movement. This can’t be happening I thought, but only for a moment, for it was happening fast and all too horribly real.
I knew one thing about dogs: if you show any weakness at all, you only encourage them. Dogs love to chase; if you turn tail and run, they will surely follow you, and a good-sized dog can outrun any human. So whatever happens, whatever he does, you must face him and Don’t. Back. Down.
“Shitdamnyoumotherfuckergetoutofhere” I screamed, but the mutt didn’t back off, instead he lunged again.
“Shitohshitohshit” I don’t know what I was saying, but the thing was still snarling and snapping, so I began to kick furiously. My feet, encased in heavy boots, were heavy and hard to bite, but instead of discouraging him, my kicking seemed to only egg him on.
“Shitohshitdamnhelphelp!” Now the rest of the pack was coming, a motley crew of mangy Tibetan mongrels, ugly as sin, with powerful jaws, lean, savage and hungry. They quickly closed in around me, snapping at my feet and baying like mad. I had no weapons, and there was no one else around. It was far too late to throw rocks, which is what I should have done in the first place. Now I had only my wits and my two booted feet with which to face them down.
I had encountered hundreds of Tibetan dogs before, and even styled myself as An Expert. Guard dogs are essential security to Tibetan nomads, who keep all of their belongings in yak-hair tents that are impossible to lock and often pitched in remote locations. A typical Tibetan family has two or three dogs, which are fed scraps of yak-meat, butter, and barley-flour tsampa. They are usually kept tied up somewhere near the tent’s entrance. Toward everyone but the family that feeds him, a Tibetan guard dog is extremely dangerous. A visitor is obliged to halt some distance from the camp and shout for the inhabitants to come out. Not until the dogs are secure should one dare to approach.
Tibet’s most famous variety of dog is the Tibetan mastiff: a large, shaggy, powerful animal, dark brown with a tan spot over each eye. Pure-bred mastiffs are rare on the plateau, for Tibetans seldom interfere in the mating habits of canines. A really fine mastiff is much valued. In Tibet a good one can go for a thousand yuan (about US$120) and up; outside Tibet, it can fetch many times this price. Folklore has it that winter-born puppies are best. They grow fast: a four-month old pup weighs about fifty pounds.
Guard dogs are not just for nomads; many Tibetans living in permanent dwellings such as houses or monasteries also keep them. Some families have pet dogs as well, usually smaller breeds, which are kept indoors, spoiled and petted like any Western pooch. Towns like Lhasa are full of roving strays, which are tolerated or even regarded with affection by the public at large. Stray dogs are, generally speaking, less territorial than guard dogs and therefore less dangerous. Because Palpung’s canines were running around loose, I had always figured them for the more tolerant kind of mutt. But now I was learning that even Palpung’s dogs, which I had seen and safely passed many times before, can be unpredictable and deadly dangerous.
I don’t know how much time had passed, but I was still kicking hard, for if I stopped for even a moment, instantly I would have a dozen fangs in my flesh. My kicking was enraging them, and in the pandemonium of half dozen yowling, plunging animals, a few teeth sunk home–but I was too terrified and pumped up to notice.
I must have been moving slowly backwards, because suddenly I tripped over something and went down. As luck would have it there was a mound of some kind behind me–a pile of wood or dirt or I don’t know what. It prevented the dogs from circling me. They stayed gathered in a semi-circle at my feet, which, since I was no longer standing on them, were now both bike-pedalling furiously.
Aaaaaah! I screamed nonstop, and kept my feet moving, for that was the only way to keep them off. But now I was getting tired; the 3,700-meter elevations of this place couldn’t be ignored for long. And when I was too tired to kick anymore, what would happen then?
Thank God! Just then monks began streaming out of the door of the monastery. When they saw me they quickly stooped to gather stones from the ground, then hurled them at the dogs, which were now rapidly retreating. Soon the canines had been driven off, and I let my legs fall to the ground. I lay exhausted and heaving, just trying to suck enough thin Tibetan air into my lungs to allow me to get up. As the monks gathered around, I slowly staggered to my feet.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk!” the monks said, half out of sympathy and half out of admonishment, for I should have known better than to be walking out here alone. (I later learned that dog-bites at Palpung Gonpa were a regular event; I was but one item on a long and distinguished menu). I pulled up my trouser legs to reveal gashed calves and rivulets of blood. Some of the blood was coming from above the knee, but I wasn’t about to take off my pants in front of a bunch of monks to identify the precise source. Still panting heavily, I retrieved my battered camera from the ground and hobbled oh-so-slowly inside.
Dusk had just fallen, and the inside of the nearly-empty monastery was dark. I limped through Palpung’s labyrinth of stairwells and corridors like the lonely hunchback keeper of a haunted mansion. On the third floor my team was staying in the suite of an incarnate lama who had fled into exile years earlier. The monks had placed a table in the common area where my group, which consisted of three foreigners, eight Tibetans, and one Chinese, awaited dinner.
Enter fearless expedition leader. “I’ve been attacked by dogs,” I announced in the doorway, flashed a bit of gory leg at them, then hobbled straight to the women’s dorm room.
My roommates were two Tibetan girls and Donatella, an Italian art conservator. They followed me in and we slammed the door behind us in the faces of all the curious males outside. Now I could take off my pants without offending sensitive Asian decorum. And to my extreme chagrin I discovered on my upper thigh a cavernous oozing hole
This seems a good time to mention that Palpung Gonpa is a bit remote. To reach it from the nearest motorable road one must trek or ride horseback for six hours, crossing Orse La and Niwo La–passes of 4800 and 4200 meters elevation. This part of the Tibetan plateau is gouged by four major rivers flowing from north to south in deep parallel tracks, so highway travel east to Chengdu or west to Lhasa means many days of steep, treacherous terrain. I couldn’t just saunter over to a hospital to have my wounds treated by certified authorities. Whatever medical resources we had here at Palpung would have to do.
Luckily we had one. His name was Aga. With his unkempt curls, scraggly beard, and dirty Tibetan coat, he looked like a bumpkin, but he was also what passes for a doctor in these parts. Only 28 years old but a multitalented character, Aga was also an artist who had joined our group to study the Buddhist mural restoration. Now we would put his medical knowledge to use.
As soon as the girls saw my wounds, they were outside sounding the alarm: “Aga! Aga! Somebody fetch Aga!” The fellow, it transpired, had stepped out to pay a call on one of his many girlfriends hereabouts. While we waited, the women bustled around, boiling water and fetching the expedition medical kit.
When Aga appeared the room suddenly calmed. The Doctor is here, and he’ll know What to Do, was the new theme. Aga was carrying a beat-up leather satchel. He washed his hands and took a long look at my wounds. Then he went to work.
Let me be frank here: although I’m a fan of many things Tibetan– their art and music, their addiction to laughter and their transcendental religious devotion–Tibetan medicine fills me with misgiving. To my mind, it’s just around the corner from voodoo. But here I was bleeding, and there was Aga looking calm and professional. I decided that for such a classically Tibetan malady as dog-bite, I may as well be treated by Tibetan methods.
Recumbent and trouserless, I watched doubtfully as he unpacked his bag. On the one hand, he had reassuring white boxes in which forceps, syringes, and glass bulbs of penicillin where packed neatly; on the other and more disturbing hand he had little draw- string leather bags full of (I imagined) elixirs and potions. Just what was he going to do?
Bypassing the little leather bags, Aga took some disinfecting powder and mixed it with hot water in a tea-bowl. Then he cleaned my wounds. I watched in morbid fascination as he used forceps to push cotton balls into my leg’s deep interior, then pull them out again. Blood flowed. In the middle of it all I wondered where Aga had learned these skills, but it seemed like a bad time to ask the doctor just where he had attended medical school.
I later found out that Aga had done just the right thing. With animal (or human) bites, the chief danger is from infection– particularly with dogs found in remote areas like this because, disgusting as it sounds, they often eat human excrement. Cleaning the wound is vital, and bleeding helps this process. Healing wounds should not be allowed to close until all signs of infection have disappeared. Aga ensured my punctures would heal from the inside out by putting sterile gauze into the holes. He injected me with antibiotic, sprinkled me with powder, and wrapped me with more gauze. Then the Doctor disappeared into the night.
Our work was finished, and two days later we set out on our return journey to civilization. In every town along the route, I found a medic of some sort to change my bandages, and I popped antibiotic pills by the handful. I thought I was in the clear, but in fact I was flirting with an even greater danger. I didn’t learn its name until a week later when I reached a large city and went to a major hospital. The doctor there said the dreadful word: rabies
Rabies is a fatal disease that can afflict any mammal and is usually transmitted by biting. In a newly infected animal, rabies may incubate for 10 days to six months before giving any sign of its presence. The first symptoms are changes in behavior, which fall into two types. First is the well-known violent rage and frothing mouth, which is why the word “rabid” is often (but incorrectly) used to mean “vicious.” The second– and less obvious–form is “dumb” rabies, which makes a normally timid creature act tame and bold. Once symptoms have appeared, it’s too late for treatment. The prognosis is simple and certain: death.
Rabies exists throughout Asia, except in Singapore and Hong Kong where it has been eradicated–although it’s still possible for illegally smuggled animals to import the disease. In the Far East, rabies is most frequently contracted not from dogs, but from the monkeys that populate temples. No matter how cute and tame a wild creature looks, it should still be regarded as a dangerous animal.
If bitten, the safest course is to catch the animal, kill it, and take its head in for laboratory analysis; but not all countries have such facilities. Second best is to quarantine the animal and watch it for symptoms. You should simultaneously begin a course of rabies vaccine, which if started within a week of being bitten can completely cure the disease. In the bad old days, rabies treatment required a long series of very unpleasant injections given in the stomach. Now the situation is much improved. A course of five injections, given in the arm over the course of a month, with a sixth injection six months later, are sufficient.
Not all rabies vaccines are equally safe and effective, especially in the developing world. If you’re planning to stay for a long period in a remote area, or if you work regularly with animals, immunization ahead of time will protect your health, prevent interruption of your trip, and buy you priceless peace of mind.
At a Chinese hospital, I got my first injection just in the nick of time. Despite that, I had an anxious six months waiting for symptoms to appear, and celebrated every monthly anniversary of my bite as a victory for survival. The wounds healed, and after a month I was longer walking around with gauze stuffed in my leg. I’ve even learned to like dogs again.
But I’ll never again go near a Tibetan monastery without a handful of rocks in my pocket. Just in case.
- Recommended vaccinations and other health information for visitors to China
- Dog bite treatment: first aid, seeking help, and prevention
- Rabies in western China
Note to readers: See Tibetan Rescue for the full story. It has been two decades since I wrote this article, and many things have changed. Check this site later for an update.