Passionate visions

Features Issue 117 Jul, 2011
Text by Carroll Dunham / Photo: ECS Media

Crafting worlds and weaving realities, Franz-Christoph imagines a prosperous future for Nepal.

A resident of Swayambunath, Franz-Christoph’s grey-green Germanic eyes sparkle with intensity as he speaks. Weaving a vision of a dynamic potential future for the Solu-Khumbu region if not for the entire Himalayas, he envisions integrating hiking, climbing and mountain biking on ancient historical trails and ridge routes unknown to most visitors. Only a dedicated filmmaker or great artisan could conceive of the designs these newly woven trails make on the fabric of the Himalayan landscape, let alone how they may transform the fabric of Himalayan existence.

Born in Germany in 1947, his colorful and fascinating life creating films in the Himalaya, Tibet and Mongolia to crafting luxury cashmere for Hermes, to his passionately creative and philanthropic engagement with Nepal, spans over thirty years and shows little sign of abating.

“My passion for the Himalayas began with Mark Oppitz, head of the Ethnographic Museum in Zurich. I was hired in 1978 in New York to help with the production of “Shamans in the Blind Country”, Oppitz’s four and a half hour film on Magar shamans narrated by William Burroughs.” As production manager, Giercke was invited to Nepal after the film was finished to organize the expedition to Takka in West Nepal, for its premier under a magical starry sky, a ten-day walk from the nearest road. A projector, a generator and several bed sheets for a screen made the first night such a success among the shamans and local population that the premier had to go on for ten more days. Each night ended in a wild feast.

Giercke’s life changed forever when he met Richard Kohn, an American Fulbright Tibetologist at Mark Oppitz’s Kathmandu home. An old Thapa residence full of character and characters, it was a hub and crossroads, an intellectual salon for all scholars of the day. Richard Kohn had conducted years of fieldwork and was one of the first American scholars busy with transcribing Buddhist ritual texts at the time.

“I was fascinated by the mad scope of mapping the ritual world of Tibetans - it is all an incredible puzzle - not only one text, not only one meaning, but rather a constellation of multiple universes, shuffled and laid out according to circumstances but threatened by modern ideologies. The film “Lord of the Dance - Destroyer of Illusion” was a document representing this. I wanted to go inside the hearts and minds of monks - to try to show what was inside. “

In 1983, Giercke brought a film crew to Solu-Khumbu, the Sherpa heartland, south of Everest.  “I had to train the team to do nothing—no recording, just sit and close their eyes and see what is inside before making the film,” Giercke recounts, of his radically unorthodox approach to filming the Mani Rimdu ritual performed by Trulsik Rinpoche at Chiwong Monastery.

At this time Giercke came in contact with the legacy of artist and visionary Nicholas Roerich, a White Russian who painted over 7000 paintings, (there are currently 8 Roerich museums worldwide) conducted extensive expeditions from the Himalayas up through the Altai, and developed the Roerich Peace Pact. Roerich with an interest in archeology, plants, art and peace, had a very different vision of humanity at the eve of this century’s search for modernity. Giercke traveled to St. Petersburg where Dordjieff, a close advisor to the 13th Dalai Lama was born. “I was fascinated to discover a renaissance of Tibetan Buddhism during the Czar’s time—Tibetan Buddhism came to Russia long before it came to Europe.”

For the next 10 years, inspired by Roerich, Giercke’s fieldwork spanned the Altai-Himalaya region of High Asia. Ultimately it became the name of his cashmere company. “Altai-Himalaya was the space I worked and played in.” Giercke’s film Lung-Ta, the Forgotten Tibet (1989) took place in Eastern Tibet. Molom - Tales of Mongolia, his next film, was released in 1994.  “In my films, I am less interested in Buddhist history and religious practice and more interested in the philosophy of perception, the history of the mind. Buddhism asks key questions that continue to be extremely relevant today on these ideas.” 

No different than Roerich who was an explorer, statesman, artist with a myriad of passions and gifts, Giercke began to move away from film and pour his creative talents into the creation of textiles. “Mongolia produces one third of the world’s production of cashmere. It is the last great home of nomadism. Modern models of subsistence challenge nomadism at its core - why don’t we all simply shift to plastic?”

“Natural fibers provide inspiration, they are a legacy of our human history. While cheap synthesized goods can help the masses, there is a price we pay for industrialized synthetics. We have no connection to that fiber from inside, as we have with wool. I have great respect for the history and story of textiles. They have to be spun, woven, and treated. You can keep them or throw them away but they keep telling a tale. “

Giercke weaves ideas and geographies innovatively to create new textiles. “I realized there was little I could do to improve mechanized modern textiles but I saw that I could improve hand spinning and weaving, and this could be interesting. Like the Silk Route, why not put a bale of cashmere in a plane in Mongolia and drop it in Kathmandu? Throughout the Nepal hill districts, spinning and weaving has always been a part of the daily texture of existence.” 

“Machines have a multiplying factor--they can make more, but they never can make the best. This is good yet sometimes we need objects that show a deeper truth—craft and art do this. A machine cannot make a work of art.” Giercke’s cashmere creations were featured in the Arts Biennial of Sao Paulo in 2007.

Through the encounter with Richard Kohn in 1982 and the making of the film, Lord of the Dance - Destroyer of Illusion, Giercke developed a strong relationship with the Solu-Khumbu region. Like a pilgrim, he has faithfully returned annually for the Kartik-full moon, Mani Rimdu festival for the past thirty years. Trulshik Rinpoche and his monks were expelled from their Rongbuk monastery (5300m) on the northern flank of Everest in 1959 and found refuge in Solu-Khumbu’s Thuptencholing monastery.

“I was profoundly humbled by meeting this great philosopher.  He is like the Pope—a person of great religious experience sent to a rural area to run a village church. Mani Rimdu is more than just a Sherpa ritual---it is packed with Dzogchen (highest Buddhist tantra), and all the parts of the complex puzzle of Tibetan Buddhism are performed and contained within it.”

After coming in contact with Sir Edmund Hillary and the Himalayan Trust, Giercke was inspired to work in a “a complimentary and modest way” in the region. “Sir Ed and the Himalayan Trust run schools in the region. I questioned why no Sherpa language was taught in the schools and soon it was added to the curriculum. I questioned in Thupten Choling, a monastery with 600 monks and nuns-why no western health post, no access to western medicine was available. I discussed this with the Rinpoche and helped find funding for a traditional clinic and a western health post. There is a necessity for medical co-existence of different schools.  I never do purely traditional or vice versa—I like to do both - bring opposites together in a dynamic way.”

Giercke found the village of Junbesi an architectural treasure chest, with its hand hewn wood, mud and stone structures still standing. In the middle of the town resides a monastery established in 1634, the oldest existing Sherpa monastery in the world. “We began working on buildings and the preservation of traditional architecture. We were inspired by the efforts in Kathmandu of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust’s (KVPT) work with temple restoration. We were not inventing—just bringing these ideas to remote regions of the country. We started these projects in the 1990’s.” 

Giercke raised funds and began restoring the 300 year-old home of Lama Tenzin, a hereditary Nyingmapa religious practitioner of the community. He equipped it with modern conveniences inside. “We said, ‘Let’s build a traditional house, develop the retreat house of Phoriche and offer it to the village family lama with no strings attached. A model for contemporary rural Himalayan living.’” The restoration of the retreat house, perched on a dramatic cliffside with a waterfall running below, is in process and will one day house Lama Tenzin’s grandson, a monk.

In the mid 1970’s the famous Italian mountain climber, adventurer Count Guido Monzino, helped to build the Hotel Del Sherpa for R.P. Lama and his family in Paphlu, where Sir Edmund Hillary had built the Himalayan Trust Hospital and had created an airstrip.

But after the Lukla airport was installed, Hotel Del Sherpa was suddenly a white elephant---an outrageous chalet stranded in the middle of nowhere.  The huge dining hall, Wedgwood China, sterling silver, was a welcome discovery for Giercke during the filming of “Lord of the Dance”.

By the mid 1990’s, R.P. Lama found himself in political hot water as part of a landowning family. He and his family immigrated to the U.S. and he asked Giercke to rent the hotel and ensure its upkeep. “One day R.P’s children will want to return here. I have tried to keep it exactly as I found it,” says Giercke, who hosts ambassadors and other VIPS in this eccentric manor of unique charm. Giercke, a gourmet, with his local chefs Ashang and Roop Singh, loves to whip up local delicacies from fresh timbur achhar, fresh salads from the garden to serving Humla morels and local nettle with dhnedo - “real mountain walking food”, before exploring the region by foot or mountain bike. 

Now the roads have come and Solu is no longer remote. “My hope is to develop family adventure in this region, through walking or mountain biking. ” Mountain biking in this area is ideal-- it links environmental issues with adventure. It’s an authentic experience.”

Giercke’s first expedition by mountain bike to Solu-Khumbu took place in 2008 with his ten year-old son D’Artagnan, now a eighth grader at the British School.

His 2011 Solu Mountain Biking Expedition was to see the entire Himalayan Range - quite an incredible spectacle—from the top of Pikey. They rode from Paphlu to Pikey (4,062 m). “This style is called free riding—where one carries the bike up and rides down. It usually takes two days to descend from Pikey - this past April we rode down in five exhilarating hours. It was quite an adrenaline rush.”

“Cross-country mountain biking means traversing long distances in mountainous terrain. The Great Himalaya Trail running from east to west across Nepal’s northern belt, in addition to all the new roads diggers are carving out of the steep hillsides, is creating new biking opportunities for visitors and communities alike. “We need to create different circuits using the new roads instead of just the Annapurna and Everest trails. Nepal has a thousand undiscovered mountain bike circuits. We need to re-imagine and reinvent traversing the Himalaya today.”

Giercke talks of returning to the old high mountain ridge trails but this time with bikes not yaks. The old salt and wool trade routes traditionally avoided the valley rivers as there were no bridges then and ridge routes provided grazing pastures for animals. The building of bridges, with villages nearby, developed the modern trek routes famous today in Nepal, which have existed for the last thirty to forty years.“It is time to remap and explore ridge and old trail routes as more roads are built,” explains Giercke. “These trails are perfect for mountain biking with fabulous vistas on both sides of the mountain.”

Giercke explains that more roads have been built in Nepal in the last ten years than in the last fifty. “Many bemoan the impact of these roads on classic trekking trails, but this has also opened up new opportunities for mountain biking.” For Gierke, roads are not always the best of things. “Roads bring things in, they also take things out. The national psyche wants to be linked to motorable roads. Very soon regions will be linked intensively with fiber optics and telecom. We all want this connection of roads and telecommunication. “This opens up Nepal’s trail possibilities in exciting ways for those who truly love Himalayan outdoor adventure. There’s never been a more exciting time to explore the Himalayas—by bike - than now. It’s a great time to really lose oneself in the mountains on these new trails far from the crowds of Annapurna and Everest.”

The Solu-Khumbu region is flourishing now, the difficult years of conflict have subsided, according to Gierke. He mentions Serlo monastery: “There have never been so many highly educated Sherpa monks as there are now. I see this continuing to grow and develop. Monasteries are taking a firm stand on environmental issues such as agriculture and deforestation. With the roads, there is a big danger of forest wood barons. Wood trade should be established, but grounded, balanced with reforestation and with logging based on simple environmental principles.” 

“If Nepal is not careful, the mountains will be stripped in no time and this is the biggest danger of the roads. They help bring wood out. We must develop these areas carefully. Bring guests in to help bring revenue to the region. I would hope I could be a part of the region redefining its relevance in the 21st century. I find this very exciting.”
Be it films, handspun hand-woven cashmere, restoration projects of hand built homes and retreats or mountain biking rediscovered ridge routes in Solu-Khumbu, Franz-Christoph Giercke weaves his creative and inspirational vision, creative endeavors and life experiences across the Altai-Himalaya region.