At A Nomad Camp
Somewhere between Ganden and Samye Monasteries
Starting at the ungodly hour of five in the morning one day, I went to Barkhor to catch the bus to the Ganden monastery. I planned to trek toward Samye but had heard that there was still too much snow at the pass. I decided I would just return the same way if I could not get across the pass.
The asphalt ribbon ran out of Lhasa heading northeast, winding along the Kyi Chu river. I watched as the sky lightened from dark to the pale flush of the day. Mauve and pink turned to gold, bathing the small patches of fields. Villages nestled at the bases of the ridges, their white-washed walls glowing in the early morning light. I must have dozed a part of the way because the next time I looked, we were at the winding dirt road going up the mountain to Ganden. The golden roofs gleamed, and the gompa shone like a jewel set amid the folds of the mountain.
I had a cup of bo-cha at the restaurant, chatted awhile. There was a man at the café who remembered me from some years ago; he remembered that I carried back with me a letter to his brother in India. We talked a lot and laughed more. Soon I said goodbye and made my way toward the trail leading to Samye. The crisp air still held the sharp edge of the cold of night. My breath came out in little puffs, blown away in the wind. The sun was doing a battle with the clouds and soon it would be out. I had to stop from time to time to catch my breath – it was a little over four thousand meters and I was still getting acclimated to carrying a full pack. The gradient was gentle but steady as I climbed toward the ridgeline. I walked on, stopping to look back, to take photographs. As I climbed the peaks to the northwest appeared over the edge and formed a purple-white background for the monastery. The ochre and red walls glowed, the roof shone and behind it, the snow-capped peaks glistened. Down below in the valley the patchwork of fields lay like a mosaic around the villages in shades of green and gold. On the trail vegetation was scarce, but here and there I saw wildflowers. There were the tulip shaped ones in a brilliant magenta, there were tiny white ones that look like miniature daisies. There were the creamy petalled ones on the thorny bushes and miniscule ones growing on those strange plants that look like spongy cushions. The sharpness of the wind tempered the scorching warmth of the sun. A pair of hawks kept me company. The slopes were dotted with black spots – yaks, grazing. And I saw a pair of nomad tents in the distance up on the slopes of the next ridge. The barking of a dog drifted on the breeze.
I came up to the ridge line and glimpsed the next valley. A river ran down to it from the snowline at the top. It looked like molten silver meandering through the valley with fields on either side. Like a patchwork quilt of pale green, emerald green and eye-popping yellow where they flowered, they looked magnificent. Little villages, none very big lay strung out along the valley, linked by the pale beige ribbon of the dirt road. Faint sounds drifted up to where I stood looking, high up on the ridge. On all sides rise the mountains With steep slopes and even steeper drainages. And up one of those slopes is the pass called Zakur La. Soon I came to the second lha-dze and crossed the ridge to find the trail going down to the village of Hebu. I was running low on water and had already decided to camp wherever I found water. The trail traversed several ridges, descending gradually. Rocky steps, flower-patches and the up ahead, the sight of Zukar La. I could not make out faint trail going up the slope, but I could see more drokpa tents on it. Black, made of woven yak hair, they look like beetles crouching on the hillside. I wished there was one on this slope. I did not really want to go all the way down to Hebu on the valley floor and have to climb back up again.
I heard a trickle – water! It was probably not clean since there are so many grazing animals on these slopes but I wasn’t picky. The purification tablets would take care of that. The trickle came from someplace underground; I could not see the source but I could feel it when I stuck my hand under the rock. Under the rock went my water bottle and soon I got enough. I walked on, keeping an eye out for a campsite. But up ahead, across on the next ridge was the familiar black shape. A drokpa tent! Wonderful! I was going to go up and ask to camp near them. I angled away from the trail, heading toward the tent, keeping an eye out for dogs. Every nomad has one or more mastiff, kept to guard the animals at night. More wolf than dog, these are ferocious! They are usually kept chained during the day, but not always. I called out while still far enough and saw three figures emerge from the tent. They called out Tashi Deleks and motioned for me to come up. The mastiff had gone wild – they held it down and invited me into their tent. So began my friendship with the boys.
Like all traditional drokpa tents, the tent wall is made from yak fur spun into strands of and then woven into long strips that are then stitched together. There are four separate walls tied to the wooden posts inside that support them. A couple of pieces form the roof; they can be rolled back when the stove is lit. The weave is tight enough to keep out the rain and the piercing wind but loose enough that it is airy inside. It felt wonderful – cool, roomy and airy, it was a relief from the harsh brilliance outside. I had meant to merely ask if I could pitch my tent nearby. Instead I was welcomed in out of the heat, made to take my pack off, sat down and plied with freshly boiled hot water.
Inside the tent, the central area is taken up by a stove. Not a store bought or a metal one, but a home-made one of mud. It is custom-made – designed by Lobsang and made by him. He smiled shyly when I showed my appreciation of the built-in shelf for the box of matches. On the stove sit a couple of pots and a kettle. The ladles hang from a cord stretched between two posts. Some coal, kindling, dried yak dung and firewood scavenged from the hillside is kept in a pile against one wall. In another corner is the container of milk, cheese and butter. A circular bench made from stacked rocks runs along the perimeter and the walls drape over it. Another bench, slightly lower, forms an inner circle. The floor inside is dirt, the squares of sod that have been dug up from it line the rocks forming natural cushions. On top of the sods are placed blankets, carpets, bedding and sacks of tsampa. A couple of metal trunks placed in front serve as tables. The dirt floor is swept twice a day and the tent is surprisingly neat.
As in all Tibetan houses, directly across from the doorway, a part of the shelf is made into an altar. A picture frame sits on it, in front of it a brass butter lamp and a row of brass bowls. The bowls contain water – an offering to the gods and to the photos in the frame. The frame had glass once, but all that remain now are a few jagged pieces. Among these are tucked photos of some of the deities and that of Panchen Lama. It was only after they trusted me that they showed me the reverse side. Photos of the Dalai Lama, mostly old and tattered, showing a very young Dalai Lama are tacked onto it. I added some photos to their collection. They took them reverently, touching them to their foreheads, tucking them along the edges and staring at them a long time. All that day, every so often one of the other would come, look intently as if memorizing every detail. And they would turn to me, grins splitting their faces. They would thank me again and again. I had also given them a few things – a notebooks, pens, some ointments. They were appreciated, but meant nothing to them; it is these photographs that are everything. I look and I learn from them – there is so much to learn.
They are brothers, whose house is down in the valley, in the village of Hebu. They are spending the summer in this tent, letting their yaks and sheep graze in the mountains above the valley. All share the same mother but Lobsang’s father is different from that of Tsewang and Karma.
Lobsang is seventeen and very shy. For the most part he is quiet, shyly showing me around the tent and their livestock. He is the caretaker, the mother of their summer home. He makes most of the food and changes the offering bowls of water that are placed on the altar each day. His hands are constantly busy – spinning the sheep and yak wool into twine. These are then woven into beautiful bags, blankets and the cloth that the tent is made of. Asked who does the weaving, he answered, his father. Sewing is a man’s job in rural Tibetan culture and obviously his father is a talented weaver. Later that day, Lobsang made some more cheese – laughing as I watched the process with interest. He tried to teach me – needless to say I failed spectacularly. Tsewang is nineteen and the oldest. He is warm, welcoming and friendly. He does most of the talking. It is he who makes most of the decisions and both younger brothers follow him unquestioningly. He knows a few words of English and we talked constantly. The language may have been broken but there was nothing broken about our comprehension. Again and again I realize how easy it is to understand if there is willingness to understand on both sides. And Karma? Karma is pure joy. At fourteen, he is as innocent as a five year old. His giggles erupt at the least provocation and soon he has the rest of us giggling with him. He gets a lot of good natured ribbing from his older brothers and laughs it off. It is his job to drive the herds into higher pasture each day. Come evening he brings them back down for milking.
As he drives them down, Tsewang and Lobsang collect the leather satchels that I’d seen hanging by the tent door. These homemade satchels contain tsampa – the kind used for animal feed. And it is a handful of this that is used to entice them. They tap the satchels and call out – ‘cook’, ‘cook’, ‘cook’. The animals know the call well. They rush back, eagerly nosing their way to a handful – it is clearly a delicacy for them. And greedy as they are, they can be made to do anything for that handful. On the ground, close to the tent are two long ropes with wooden loops tied to them at intervals. The dri are herded toward one rope and the pegs they wear around their collar is inserted into the loops. The same is done to the calves on the other rope. Karma has the job of letting one calf loose. It runs immediately to its mother to suckle. After a minute or so Karma brings it back to its loop while Tsewang or Lobsang squat down next to the dri and milk it. Milking over, the dri too is given a handful of tsampa, praised for being good, patted and then let loose. And the process continues with the next one down the row. The three of them work in a team, like a well-oiled machine. Laughter and jokes fly between them as they work and the light in the sky fades to a purple-pink. Milking done, the milk put away, they set out to gather wool. Tsewang coaxes an animal close with tsampa and then catching it by its horns, wrestles it down to the ground. This, the animals do not like but they seem to know that there is a reward at the end of it – the tsampa. Lobsang, armed with the shears sets to cutting the long-haired wool. There are four different bags for different kinds of wool. There is the shaggy fur that grows on either side of the spine and down the sides. It comes off easily in clumps – like puffs of cotton wool. They explained to me that it didn’t hurt the yak – it was like snipping off our hair, not like pinching at our skin. Then came the shears, snipping off the long strands of hair that grows from the spine. They look rough but are astonishingly soft to touch. This goes into another bag. The strands from the forehead go into another bag. And those from the bushy tail go into yet another. The long hair edging the underside of the belly is left alone. I asked why. Tsewang said that the animals need that to ward off the cold. Shearing over, they look almost comical without their long swaying fur coats. I tried my hand at this too and proved to be marginally better at it than I was at milking. There is affection in handling the animals and the animals seem to know this. Never do the boys use force. A shove here, a pat there, perhaps a scolding is the most the animals have to put up with.
The light had almost faded out and twilight setting in when the work was done and we trooped inside to start dinner. Tsewang had decided on having thushi tonight – it was to be a special dinner. We made hollow cones of flour and put them upside down in a pot lined with a layer of butter. They steamed on the stove-top, the bottom edges becoming caramelized. And we ate them with bo-cha, dipping them into our cups. I thoroughly enjoyed them; I had not expected it to be so tasty! Waiting for the thushis to cook, we sat in the tent and the boys sang. It wasn’t a pastoral song, but a Buddhist prayer. Tsewang knew the words by heart but leafed through the pages of a book so the other two could follow. Lobsang and Karma didn’t need to see the pages though; they followed his lead – they must have learned the prayer through repetition. The book were Tsewang’s – from his days at the Ganden monastery. That is when he told me his tale. He used to be one of the novice monks in the monastery for some years until 2003 when he was expelled. The monks at Ganden had been told to write pamphlets that denounce the Dalai Lama. Ones that portray him to be a dictator and the worst of tyrants. Tsewang had refused. He was beaten, tortured and ordered to do so again. Again he refused. He was expelled from the monastery. In my guidebook there were some photographs of Ganden as it had been before the Cultural Revolution. He pointed to the photos and I understood when he said that the Tonga had done this. He looked up and there were volumes when he said that they had done many other things as well. He didn’t need to tell me nor did I need to ask. Of the many monks I have come across over the years here is one who is naturally meant to be one. He laughs instead and says he is a little bit of one; just a few years’ worth.
We went to sleep, I in my tent and they in theirs. I had to override their protests when they wanted me to take their blankets. I slept deeply despite the sloping ground. Only once did I awaken at night. The mastiff was barking at something but it stopped soon and I dropped off back to sleep. The lowing of the dris woke me in the morning. While I slept they were already hard at work milking. Karma danced a jig and yelled out Tashi Delek when he saw me poke my head out of the tent door; he almost let one of the calves get away. He had to be badgered to take the animals to higher ground – he wanted to hang around the camp instead and chat with us. I too was dragging my feet. Finally around late afternoon I bid them farewell. I had promised to be back in early July to spend some more days with them. Tsewang and Logsang stood at the tent door waving. Long after I had walked down the hill and onto the next ridge I could still see them. Little black dots waving goodbye, their wishes for safe journey still ringing in my ears. I had known them for barely a day, yet there was a bond that felt natural. Even the mastiff seemed to have accepted me; he couldn’t be bothered to raise his head when I walked past, let alone bare his fangs.
Come mid-July I could not go visit them as I had planned. In part because I had to leave for India, but more importantly because I had had trouble with the PSB. Trouble enough to know that I would endanger any other Tibetans if the police could make a connection between myself and them. So I didn’t go. Instead I sent them a letter and some photos that I had taken of them. A letter that Tsering, one of the friendly souls at the guesthouse translated into Tibetan for me. I had met another traveler, Michael at the guesthouse; he told me he was going on the same trail later in July. Armed with a hand-drawn map with a little dot showing the location of their tent, Michael promised me he would deliver it.
Back home in late August I look through my accumulated mail and I see a letter with a chinese stamp. There is no sender’s name, nor can I tell where it was mailed from. Who could it possibly be? I open it to find it is a letter from Michael. He tells me he went on the trail, found the tent and met the boys. They insisted that he go with them to their family home down in the valley. He met their parents and their sister. He spent a day with them being fed to the gills and on leaving brought back a letter from them to me. It is in Tibetan – the joint effort of the entire family – and a couple of photos of the boys. The photos are up in front of me – I look up and see those grins. And grin in reply.