Winter has arrived in all its frost and fury marking the passing of yet another year. The nomads have returned from the summer pastures and the feeling of desertion in the valley lifts with the bustle of humans and animals. The village seems a little smaller and the streets a little narrower as flocks of sheep and herds of yak meander through them. Norzin and I trudge up the road to our house. She shoos the sheep aside and picks her way expertly through them, until suddenly she stops in her tracks. She slips nimbly behind my back and peaks out from behind, pulling me as she clutches my coat tightly.


“Can you sit still!” I exclaim in annoyance as I almost fall on the slippery snow of the newly paved road. A government project brought new cement roads throughout the village. All summer we cursed the influx of construction workers, the dust, the noise and the bulldozers but now we are thankful for not having to trudge through mud and slush. Maybe one day we could hope for salt or sand on snowy days but that’s probably asking too much.


“It’s there,” Norzin shouts, pointing frantically in the direction of our neighbor’s house. I look over just as Rako jerks his head in our direction and scans the contents of the road. If Norzin hadn’t moved, shouted and pointed frantically she might have slipped by without Rako noticing. But it’s too late, the sheep has spotted a child’s small figure. Rako’s jerking head freezes at the sight of Norzin. He takes a step back, lowers his head in a ramming position and charges with his small sprouting horns aimed directly at Norzin.


“No!” Norzin shouts and drops the tail of my jacket with a sudden jerk, sending me slithering on the slick road. She runs up the remainder of the path, slipping and sliding frantically. The sheep follows in close pursuit while I stand half shooing Rako, half laughing at the scene before me. The other sheep seem unfazed and go on grazing. When an adult approaches, Rako tends to muzzle them affectionately, but his patience is thin when it comes to children. At the sight of anything on two legs and under 5 feet, Rako gets into his ramming position and sends children flying in all directions. Usually it’s the kids who chase them, not the other way around, but Rako is special, different. Rako is our elderly neighbor’s little treasure.


My neighbor Acha Choekyong is drawing in on her eighth decade. We’ve had many passing conversations with topics ranging from the weather to the old days. A gruff old lady, she spends much of her time sitting on the hillside staring down into the valley below. Some days she sits on the hill above the atelier, other days she perches herself over the village, staring at its contents, a splatter of red-shingled houses spilling out below her. Unlike the other older people of the village who obsessively spend their final years in an accumulation of merit through prostrations, circumambulations and recitations, I have never seen Acha Choekyong anywhere near the monastery. When I asked her best friend why she didn’t seem pressured like the others to accumulate more merit, her friend answered with a shrug, “Maybe she didn’t do anything she regrets.”


Acha Choekyong lives with her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. For years she lived in solitude as her son and his wife, both teachers and thus government employees, were stationed in schools in far off villages. Five years ago, her daughter-in-law got a teaching position in the local village and she moved back with their daughter, a chubby little 8-year-old. Soon after, she gave birth to a son, who’s now four-years-old, and while Acha Choekyong grumbles that he is far too naughty for her taste, he served as her sole daytime companion for the last three years when the rest of the family was at work or at school. But this past year her grandson started attending the local pre-school, leaving Acha Choekyong to once again spend her days alone on the hillside, and that’s when she adopted little Rako. Rako is the affectionate name given to orphaned lambs adopted by nomads as pets. These pet sheep become accustomed to humans, never return to the flocks and grow up as a part of the household.


As a lamb, Rako followed Acha Choekyong around affectionately until he discovered our house, where he befriended our large Tibetan mastiff, Tops. Tops and Rako spend hours on end together, a relationship that makes our guests coo with delight. Rako helps himself to Tops’ breakfast and lunch, and Tops waits his turn patiently, eating only when Rako has had his fill. Sometimes they get into a friendly tussle that sends Rako bleating off on a quick run around the house. But mostly they just lie together in the sun. Rako appreciates something warm to cuddle and Tops, having grown gentle with age, is happy to oblige. Acha Choekyong is not happy about Rako’s friendship with Tops and often grumbles that that dog will one day eat her little treasure. She herself does not dare approach the mastiff and has to satisfy herself with standing at a safe distance by the gate coaxing her Rako to return to his mommy.


“Have you seen my Rako?” asked Acha Choekyong one day as I headed down to the atelier. She looked distressed. “He didn’t come home all night.”

“No. I haven’t seen him but he could be in our backyard.” I tried to be helpful but I was late to work and didn’t have time to help her look for Rako.


“He can’t be at your house. He would have come home last night,” Acha Choekyong answered a little indignantly. “I think he’s lost, maybe stolen,” she added.


“Well, I’ll let you know if I see him,” I call out over my shoulder as I continue making my way down the hill, leaving Acha Choekyong looking helplessly after me. I know that the sheep is in our backyard. It’s been spending most of its days there recently but Acha Choekyong would rather believe that it’s stolen than accept that it voluntarily abandoned her. An hour later, I hear her voice as she walks through the atelier asking everyone if they have seen her Rako. Finally I ask our guard to shoo the sheep out of my yard and into Acha Choekyong’s.


“Don’t let Acha Choekyong see though,” I warn. Despite her stubborn ways, I don’t want to hurt her feelings. The guard laughs.


Trudging home that night, I see Acha Choekyong on her doorstep with her beloved Rako munching something by her side. Due to my short height, Rako still hasn’t made up his mind whether to put me in the category of something to be butted out of the way or something to be given a friendly muzzle. He decides on the former and charges over in ramming position but I grab his horns and give him a confident little slap at which he backs up immediately.


“He returned, did he?” I ask.


“Yes, he found his way home,” she beams. “I guess he wandered farther than he intended to.” She gives me a sidelong glance as if threatening me to challenge her version of his disappearance.

“He’s smart to have found his way home,” I say and Acha Choekyong beams and turns to her Rako. “You are a smart little thing aren’t you. You found your way home, now don’t run away again, ok?” She gives his head a little pat and keeps gushing at Rako as I continue up the hill.


In the meantime, Rako seems to have made it his own personal mission to attack Norzin whenever he sees her, much to the delight of pretty much everyone except for Norzin, of course. In the mornings, he mulls around our gate and Norzin is forced to leave home armed with a rock. She doesn’t dare throw it at him though and mornings find her running to school chased by a sheep. Evenings, she peers out of her classroom window and sure enough there is Rako waiting to chase her up the hill again. Much to Norzin’s annoyance adults stand watching the scene in amusement rather than coming to her rescue. Nobody wants to mess with Acha Choekyong’s little darling.


“Your daughter was telling me that she couldn’t come out of the guest house because of a sheep that waits to attack her,” a guest tells me. “I didn’t believe her until I saw her running up the hill chased by a sheep.” My friend looks a little bewildered.


“Oh that’s just Rako,” I say.

Norzin at the Monastery

Agu Gyamtso, Norzin’s Uncle

My Deyang wet her pants again. “Look, Ama,” she said pointing to a wet streak down her leg and a small puddle on the floor. I buried my face in my hands.


“I am not cleaning that! You clean it yourself.” Now I sounded like the three-year-old.


“I can’t clean it, my hands will get dirty.”

“Well what about my hands? Why didn’t you tell me you needed to go?”

“I saw the momos and then I forgot.”


I gave myself a moment to get it together while Baby D waited patiently.


One night a storm hit the village hard with howling winds that shattered glass and slammed gates. The next morning the temperature had fallen overnight to minus 15 degrees Celsius. Stepping out of the house was like stepping into a giant freezer. The hundred meters walk down the hill burned my face and glued my nostrils shut. Real winter had arrived. I spent my evenings with Baby D (Deyang), as my husband Yidam came and went between visits to neighboring towns. Norzin had been packed off to live in Labrang Monastery for three weeks with her uncle. The morning of her departure she nudged me awake at dawn to help her pack.

“Norzin, there’s no way you’ll be able to wear a dress. It’s really cold!”

“But at night,” she insisted.

“It’s not like our house, it’s much colder at Aku’s,” I said pulling out the dresses and replacing them with thermals and sweat pants. Our home is an oasis in a desert of ice. I no longer have to go through the morning ordeal of frozen water in kettles, rock hard toothpaste and blue toes. For the past year we’ve been living in a well-insulated house where we can casually enjoy a shower even in the depth of winter.


Children are quick to forget hardships and fast to overcome them as well. I wanted Norzin to go live in the monastery, take classes and shadow her uncle. The next three years would be the only time in her life where she could mingle freely in the world of monks, play with the young ones, learn from the older ones and get a glimpse of monastery life. Before now, she was too young to be a companion to my brother-in-law and in a couple of years she would be too old. In any case, with her tutor gone, I felt I was being shadowed by a whirlwind; I needed to do something with her.


My husband handed her over to his brother who promised he would allow only an hour a day to visit her grandmother and aunts. She would otherwise be kept close to him. He would help us discipline her. Norzin giggled at this. She and Aku were friends. Though she loved to risk it she knew she had to be careful of his temper and the paddle he kept hanging on the door. She would topple over his head while he sat reading, and he would chase her around the yard with the paddle. The first day she called twice. I could hear Aku bustling in the background preparing dinner while Norzin babbled; she’d been struck by the paddle once already.


“Right Aku?” she called out.

“Well, it was your fault, you didn’t listen,” he answered.

“Yes,” she mumbled before changing the subject. “And did you know that Aku wears a dress to bed?” she shouted into the phone laughing, making sure to let Aku hear. Monks wear what is called a “mayok,” a thick red petticoat under their robes in the winter. They usually sleep in their mayoks and Norzin found this incredibly amusing. “And this house is so cold! And the beds are damp!”


All monks have a heated kang—a long table or platform that runs down the middle of the room—to sleep on in winter. The heat from the earthen bed is damp and the beds usually don’t have mattresses. Norzin was being reacquainted with a way of life she had left only a few years ago, to her it was but a faint memory from the distant past.


A young monk of about fourteen, Dakpa, shared the courtyard residence with Aku. When Aku was busy with his monastic duties Norzin went to classes at another monk’s house. When her classes were over she would recruit Dakpa as her companion.


“I’ll teach you English if you take me to the supermarket,” she proposed.


“I don’t want to learn English.”

“Fine. Then I’ll split whatever I buy at the supermarket with you.”

“What if I don’t like what you buy?”

“Ok. Then we can choose together AND I’ll split it with you. Humph! You are a little devil!”


“What did you call me?”

Dakpa always caved and Norzin got her way but it didn’t come without some negotiation.


The second day Norzin didn’t call me and finally at eight in the evening I called her. She said she was being good and was busy.


“Busy with what?”


“OMG Ama, I am working so hard!”


“Oh really! On what?”

“I’m studying Tibetan, writing my journal and teaching English.”

“Is it cold?”

“It’s fine.”

“Are you eating well?”

“Yup – all healthy – no junk!” She knew the answers I was searching for but it was true that with Aku she was having better home cooked meals than she would with me. Indeed, ten years ago, when I first arrived and started working on the plateau, it was his house rather than any of Yidam’s sisters that I visited when I longed for a hot meal and the comforting bustle of home life.


Whenever I called after that Norzin was always busy. She loves to be surrounded by people and the close nit community of the monastery was ideal. Monks came to visit and she got to show off her English skills and ask them for stories. In the meantime, Baby D turned to me every evening, “Is Acha coming tomorrow?”

“No, Baby D. She’s at the monastery.”

Baby D gave a broad smile, scrunched up her face in excitement and with a final confirmation asked, “Not at all before we leave for India?”


“Nope. Not at all.”

With that, she’d pad off to rummage through Acha Norzin’s things. This was the opportunity of a lifetime!

Night Prowlers & Dawn Walkers


There’s a shriek and then a cloud of earth flies by the window. I see a flash of dirty pink. My quiet time is over. She’s back!


“How’d you get home, Norzin?” I ask.



“Motorbikes?” I knew she’d gone to Lhamo’s house, a tiny little place in the government housing project. Built seven years ago to resettle nomads the project looks like some kind of military encampment. With over 140 units lined up in dense rows, it’s not exactly an inviting place, it’s cold and utilitarian, and most of the units remain unoccupied.


“Well, I convinced Apa Lako to take me up to Tanko’s house and from there I caught a ride with Tanko to the workshop. At the workshop I convinced Apa Gompo to give me a ride up the hill…. And here I am!” She spreads her arms out, gives a wide toothless smile, twirls and finishes with a big bear hug. Her nose is running, her hair dusty and the pink of her clothes can hardly be seen from beneath a heavy layer of dirt and soot. I wriggle out of her clasp.


“Ahhh, couldn’t get a direct ride today, huh?” I ask dusting myself off. I’d warned her of this but I knew Lako wouldn’t have left her without a plan.


“No. But it wasn’t too bad. I managed not to walk AT ALL.” She proudly claims and scurries away to bother the cats. I was impressed. She’d managed to go to the far end of the housing project, visit her friend and get back home before dark. The days are sunny and bright but as the shadows lengthen and the sun gives one last golden glimmer in farewell, night arrives with a vengeance. The dark claws at you with a cold, cutting wind that sends all scampering for shelter. Even Norzin doesn’t want to challenge the night and makes sure she bike hops her way home before dark.


Acha Tsering Kyi, D’s sitter, is one of the few who look beyond the cold and the dark. She wakes up at three in the morning. By the time she comes to pick up D at nine, she’s almost half way through her day. After rolling out of bed, she gives her house a quick sweep, refills the offering bowls with fresh water, and empties out the ash from under the kang. She then stokes it with sheep dung, so it’s nice and warm when the kids come to spend the day at her house. She even has a quick bowl of tsampa before setting out at four-thirty for the monastery.


“It’s the dogs that I’m scared of,” she mutters. “Otherwise I can do up to 260 circumambulations when I’m alone. When I need to go with others to scare off the dogs I can finish only 240 because I keep to their pace.” Two months ago she’d managed to recruit Acha Guru, a great big lady, probably the largest in the village, and a knotter in our atelier. Acha Guru Tso lasted a month. I was very impressed but Acha Tsering was disappointed.

“I got Dugmo after that, and now Pagde.” She takes a large bite of the banana I’d offered her as I get Baby D ready. “Wow, I have such an appetite these days!” she exclaims excusing herself for gulfing down the fruit.


“Well, you are very active. I mean you power walk for three hours a day! You must cover at least 25 km each time!” I stop for a second imagining the sixty year old’s muscled legs hidden under her thick robes.


“I feel my flesh falling off,” she says between mouthfuls.


“Did any flesh fall off Acha Guru Tso?” I joke. “Would do her some good.”


“In a month? Pah! She would need a year of walking before she were able to shed any of that stubborn flesh.”


Acha Tsering Kyi’s target was 10,000 rounds. She’d completed 8,000 and was triumphant. As winter set in and the days grew shorter, she found fewer and fewer people willing to accompany her in the dark and she was terrified of being attacked by stray dogs. A few months ago, as summer was tapering off, when Bill our basketball coach was still around and the days were longer, there were many willing dawn walkers circumambulating the monastery. The stray dogs had reached unprecedented numbers, forming gangs and attacking at will, though most of their targets were other, smaller dogs. Old Agu Sangye, my housekeeper, lost his dear little yappy companion.


“He was killed?” I asked not able to believe my ears.


Agu Sangye put down the pot he was cleaning. “Poor thing! I took him to the doctor and got him an IV but he died the next day – attacked by the bigger dogs! He was like a little human. He understood what I said to him! Just like a little human! So loyal,” he chuckled embarrassed at reminiscing over a dog and turned back to the pots. “A bit empty without him,” he muttered.


That evening, the norlha basketball team canceled practice and the team took to the hills. We could hear their yelps and hoots echoing through the valley, tiny specks spread out as they sped up the hills and down, twenty men chasing after ten dogs. As we went up for our evening walk a dog trotted by. We froze as it passed, as if on its own evening stroll. A nomad came running up a few minutes later, pausing to ask if we just saw a dog. We nod and point to the hills the dog was heading for. He trots off, followed by a nomad on a motorbike asking if we just saw a man and a dog.


The evening ended with three dogs caught and secured inside cages. It had taken the team almost three hours of running wildly after the dogs. They seemed triumphant. We were reassured that while one dog had been injured none were killed nor would they be killed.


“Wouldn’t it have been easier if you’d lured them to the cages with pieces of meat?” I ask over lunch. There’s a roar of laughter from the guys. “What? It’s a strategy,” I say defensively. “Did you even have a strategy?”


“Oh, we had a strategy,” they answer and everyone laughs again.


I shrug. “Sounds like a great plan; a man running after a dog and a guy on a motorbike following them.”


With winter setting in, and with less circumambulators, Acha Tsering Kyi is alone and in need of companions to help fend off the dogs. A slingshot might help too.


“Only 2,000 more rounds to go,” she beamed. But I know it won’t end there. Before the circumambulating it was 10,000 prostrations. She did 500 a day until her goal was reached. Before that it was spinning enough thread for the workshop to earn an extra 1,000 yuan a month. And that was to save 10,000 yuan so she could sponsor a day of tea for the monks at the monastery. Maybe all these goals kept her strong as she spent her nights in her little house, a lonely mother of five, trying to squeeze all the meaning she could out of her last years.


I give her a warm jacket and a furry pair of shoes. “These are for you, to accompany you in the morning.” Her words are a tangled jumble of appreciation and gratitude.

Plateau Ball


“Do the twirl, do the twirl!” shouted five-year-old Tentash. Baby D steadied herself, spread out her arms and with all her might spun herself into a clumsy twirl, her pink skirt fluttering around her. She hobbled to a stop. The two kids beamed up proudly at seven foot tall Bill, from Seattle.


My three-year-old D had refused to leave the atelier courtyard that morning. Word was out that Bill was back and she was adamant that she wait for “her teacher.”

“He is my teacher,” she explained to Tentash.


“How’s he your teacher? He’s the Abas’ (big brothers) teacher,” Tentash argued. “What has he ever taught you?”


“HE IS MY TEACHER!” Baby D scowled from her perch on a little ledge, her dress piled over a skirt, worn over a pair of leggings. She was wearing snow boots, and mud caked off them as she beat them emphatically against the wall.


“Ok, Deyang, we will wait for our teacher then,” Tentash conceded as if matters were really in his hands. He climbed up to join her on the wall. Their babysitter sighed and looked at me helplessly.


I pointed in the direction of my office. “ I need to go,” I said not about to get involved with Tentash and Baby D. The son of one of my employees and best friends, Tentash looked out for Baby D but he was also a bit of a bulldozer. Over the summer, when the breeze was gentle and the air warm, he’d discovered that pooping could be turned into quite a fun activity. Crouched on the ground, he would shuffle around trying to direct his poop into a large circle, a small pile or a long line. Needless to say, the runnier his droppings, the happier he was.


“Look! I did it in the shape of a gun this time!” he hollered happily. Baby D giggled, cupping her little hand over her mouth.


“We’ve got ourselves a 3D printer,” I mumbled.


“You try it D, maybe you can do a house,” Tentash offered. Baby D giggled again and shook her head.


Around ten that morning Bill had finally emerged from the guesthouse, walking through the back gate and into the main courtyard of the atelier. He waved and gave a thumbs up to everyone he passed, his jeans, sneakers and fleece given an elegant touch by the Norlha scarf swung around his neck. With his height, he was hard to miss.


Everyone was whispering, “He’s back! He’s back! It must be the tournament.” From my office window I saw Baby D and Tentash run up to him and then turn shyly away once faced with their long awaited celebrity. With no words for communication, they were searching for ways to impress their teacher.


“Do the twirl!” Tentash had instructed Baby D. I hoped one of his creative poops wouldn’t be next.


The Basketball court had been requested by my husband and sponsored by my mother. We built it almost eight years ago, next to the workshop, and nestled up against a hill that worked perfectly as stands for the spectators. Bill had first applied as a tutor for my older daughter. His email went on to talk about basketball and I was a little skeptical. I answered that the position had been filled and a few months later he wrote again expressing his wish to visit anyway and help in any capacity. I wrote back saying we couldn’t afford to pay for his trip. He would pay his own way he answered. I shrugged, why not then? The Norlha guys were crazy about throwing the ball around and a little team play and discipline could go a long way. Maybe we could all enjoy a well-played game.


Bill arrived in mid August, and for the next two months, each evening was filled with activity and bustle. Almost thirty people from our atelier signed up for practice. The workshop closed at five thirty and the sun didn’t set till eight. My sister and I climbed the hill after work and then walked back along the ridge, following Bill’s booming voice as it rose and fell from the valley below. We watched as a thin string of blue jogged through the village and out into the pasture. They even stopped on top of an awkward stump of a hill for quiet time and meditation, broken, we assumed, by the giggles of the nomad men as they followed Bill in closing their eyes and sitting cross-legged.


“Wandi kept bursting out laughing, but I think we did great for the first time,” the ever optimistic Bill told us later.


As the team jogged back to the court, Noryang and I slowly made our way along the ridge and to the hill directly above the court. Below us there were others waiting for practice to begin. Old men, with their thermoses of hot water, loved watching practice. They’d call the office asking if there was practice that day and at what time. It was an excuse to meet each other, gossip and laugh at the younger men trying to play basketball. Children hung around with their backpacks, lingering on their way home from school. Some evenings even small pick up trucks, driven by savvy Han or Hui merchants would be parked by the court. The owners would sit idly in the grass waiting to catch a glimpse of the tallest man they had ever seen. Their wares, a random selection of rice cookers, quilts or sometimes just fruit and vegetables, spilled out from the back of the trucks. The trucks usually blasted music to alert the villagers of their presence. The women would stroll over to inspect the goods, collect their kids and laugh at the men stumbling and bumbling around the court. Bill’s voice rose above the chatter, the music and the bursts of laughter to take charge of his thirty trainees and direct them in warm-ups and drills. Push-ups were handed out as punishment for those who lagged behind in their drills. The crowd laughed as chubby Lumko once again missed the finish line by five seconds and needed to do ten push-ups.


At dinner we would discuss the day’s practice. “But why does Dhundup wear mittens to practice?” Bill asked one day as he lay down his fork. The minute Bill began talking at dinner, he stopped eating. We all watched him with concern. We needed him to eat properly to keep his weight at altitude. The locals were constantly asking him to put on a show of slam-dunks and he would always satisfy them. Everyone was so excited that Norlha had a professional basketball player and coach. Locals were calling in and coming from as far as 20 km away to catch our practice and watch Bill play.


“Eat, Bill,” I said between mouthfuls.


“Oh yes, yes.” He picked up his fork and then stopped again, “But why does he wear mittens?”


“I’ll ask him, now eat.”


The next day I was in the stock room checking on some scarves when I turned to Dhundup, “Why do you wear mittens to practice?”


“Oh, ummm …. I scratched my hands on a fall from my motorbike so the mittens help.”


“Ahhh. Bill was wondering. I’ll let him know,” I said as we got back to talking about scarves and orders.


Gendun, from the dyeing room, was one of Bill’s favorites. A burly man who grunted more than he talked, he was a man of action rather than words, which proved to be a perfect way of communicating with Bill. Gendun’s entire body was a block of muscle and he was a good defensive player. He was in his late twenties and loved horses. Before basketball got serious, in the evenings I would settle into my window seat to watch him, a small silhouette of man and horse on the plateau. There was a gentleness to this rough man when he was with his horse. I watched as man and horse merged into one, a beautifully choreographed dance set against the vastness of the unending plateau.


Bill didn’t tolerate tardiness and one day, as everyone started assembling a few minutes before practice, Gendun was missing from the group. There was a roar and suddenly a motorbike came full speed off the road, up the path and screeched to a halt in the middle of the court. Gendun had made it just on time. He grinned broadly as he got off, his hair hanging over his face in wavy clumps.


In November, Bill surprised us all by making a short visit back to the plateau. A basketball tournament had been organized by the village. Hundreds came to watch from as far as the Tibetan areas in Sichuan province. The crowd formed a dense circle around the court and tapered off up the hill. Despite people’s passion for the game, plateau tournaments are surprisingly quiet. Once in awhile a large hum of laughter rose from the direction of the crowd and swam out into the plateau before drowning in its vastness. The crowd clapped if someone scored and laughed if they missed. There was no cheering otherwise.


As I clicked pictures from the sidelines, there were hushed whispers from the women.


“Oh, no. Let’s hope Norlha at least gets third place!”


“Pass it to Nanglo, pass it to Nanglo! Oh no! How did he miss that! Poor boy!”


On the second day of the tournament, vultures circled high above us. As we quietly cheered our team on, I thought of the passing of old Apa Jolo. Today was his sky burial. He was one of the first men I had worked with in Ritoma. After months of illness, he had finally been spared. A chapter had ended in the lives of many with his passing. Untold stories of the past would be buried with his death.


A guest gazed up at the vultures, “Something must have died,” she mumbled.


“Someone,” I corrected. “Someone died.”


Norlha came in third place. It was a disappointment to us all, but then again there had been thirty five teams playing at the tournament.

Fall Bustle

Fall Bustle0001

The valley echoes with the rattle of tractors, piercing the stillness of the atelier. The employees have two days off but it is hardly a holiday. The air is heavy with anticipation. The nomads have just a few days to take in their winter oats from the fields. After that the floodgates will open and thousands of yak and sheep will descend from the hills, devouring whatever remains of the oat harvest. While summer rains had come in a steady drizzle, Ritoma nomads have more animals than the land can sustain and hunger has become a part of their existence. Oats need to be planted annually to compensate for the lack of winter grazing land, a practice that’s unheard of in larger nomadic areas.


Strong arms swing dramatically as three wheelers prattle by bobbing and swaying precariously under the weight of oats stacked high. The plateau stretches out, white washed with a menacing snow that dampens the drying oats, and makes the already short blades of grass even more inaccessible to the famished animals. Blotches of black veer back and forth as herders steer the yaks away from the direction of the fields. It is a difficult time to herd. The hungry animals are restless and the smell of oats is in the air.


This year, once again, the nomads were greeted by a disappointing fall. The price of animals dropped dramatically and this time it wasn’t because of disease or lack of grass. Nature had graced the plateau with a steady rainfall and in most areas animals are large and fat, but their value has dropped by half since last year. Everyone ventures a guess as to why, but no real explanation filters down to us. Frustrations are voiced with loud echoes throughout the nomadic communities, but no one seems to be listening. In Machu the nomads took to the streets with banners demanding that the government interfere. If the price of their animals drops, then so too should the price of fuel and other basic supplies. In Huayuan nomads toppled a few of the local Muslim stores in frustration. The Muslims are first in the chain of buyers for animals from the Tibetan nomads and this year they stand united in drastically lowering their price. Most Tibetans laugh at the futility of attacking Muslim stores and nod in approval at the demands made by the Machu nomads.


On the day that the oats are brought in from the fields, everyone has a chore. The oldest tend to the kids and cook the meals, others herd the anxious yaks and sheep, and the strongest go to the fields, where with icy fingers and sweaty backs they perform the drudgery of loading and unloading tractors full of oats. I have the day off but my husband and I also have chores with the onset of fall. Our pet project, Norden, is a scenic encampment of tents and cabins secluded in the winter pastures of a nomad friend outside Sangke. While the camp and our twenty nomad staff are sustained by a trickle of high-end travelers, to us the camp is more than a glamping business, it’s also a weekend refuge for my family. But the animals are descending in Sangke too, and tents need to be packed and cabins shut down. Soon the plateau will be ruled by ice and snow.


“Norzin, can you hang out in the village today?” I ask hopefully.

“Where are you going?” she asks, her eyes piercing me as she examines my boots, scarf and overcoat. “Camp?”


I nod. “Your father and I will be back by seven. You can go to Acha Tsering Kyi, Ama Tsomo, or hang with the old foggies at the guardhouse.”

“Oh my God!” Norzin exclaims as she throws her hands up in the air dramatically. She has on a striped blue and white dress pulled tightly over sweat pants, thermals and a T-shirt. Her face is already smudged with dirt and a pink bow hangs lopsided from her head. “Always, the camp, the camp!”


“You can come, but you’ll be in the car for four hours.”

“Fine,” she scowls. “I guess I’ll stay.”


We drop Norzin off at the workshop guardhouse where the three old men hang out day and night, even on holidays. This will be her base as she visits families through the village, returning every now and then for meals or to complain about something or other. Apa Gompo will be on the look out for her. Norzin pushes the rattling green door open and skips into the guardhouse having forgotten her scowl. This dirty and grimy room has become a refuge for all. During break time up to twenty men crowd in, cramming every nook and corner of the tiny shack. Laughter frequently booms out of the small house making visitors ask, “What are they laughing about?”


“Oh, it’s just break time,” I’ll say.


When sharing secrets it has now become common to say, “This is not something to share in the guardhouse.”

After work, Yidam and I often venture into the guardhouse, especially if there’s overtime to be done and we’re in need of a few minutes break. The stove runs for twenty-four hours and in the evenings the old men cook their dinner. Norzin often eats with them. The scavenging kittens, the grimy walls that hold no objection to being scribbled upon, and the old men with their interesting tales of wolves and gazelles, make their dinnertime far more appealing than ours.


“I’m on meal duty today at the winter house,” smiles Apa Gompo as he steps out to see us off. He too has his assigned chore on this bustling day. “Norzin, do you want to come and help me prepare lunch?” he asks.


Older people have a patience with children that we younger ones seem to lack. Apa Gompo laughs through all of Norzin’s wildness. “A naughty child is a smart child,” he reassures us. “She has a good heart.” Norzin has strategically nurtured her relationship with him, much to the sixty year old’s amusement. She’ll generously provide him with a $2,000 yak wool blanket from the office if the weather takes a sudden turn, or grab some cough syrup from the medicine bag if his foot pain starts up again. He thanks her for her gifts and then returns them to us when her attention is elsewhere.


In exchange, Apa Gompo once brought her a pair of Gazelle antlers, black and shiny. I examined the twists of the horn as it turned and tapered into a pointed furl. His grandson had found the dead Gazelle when herding. On other occasions, Apa Gompo gives Norzin kneaded barley, sweet and buttery, or strings of dried meat to snack on. But it is the clunky old motorbike of Apa Gompo’s, and the possibilities of adventure that it offers, that makes him an exceptional investment to Norzin.


“Let’s go through the village, Apa Gompo,” she’ll say swaggering through the workshop gates. “Let’s go see what people are up to. It’s a bit quiet around here.”


On Saturdays Norzin has to strive to get Apa Gompo’s attention. The children of workshop employees, having the day off from school, hang around the guardhouse, talking to the old foggies, and playing with the kittens. In all its odor and filth, the room serves as a comfort to the nomads. In the clean and shinning workrooms nomads work all day as they embrace their new role as an artisan or manager. The guardhouse is a nostalgic break into a previous life, a life that everyone likes to visit but no one wants to live in anymore.


The next morning the plateau is jammed with yak and sheep. Every herder is impatient to get their animals to the oat fields first. The tents are folded and packed up, brown patches of earth left in their wake. Most families are close enough to the village to drive their animals home at twilight and back to the fields at sunrise. One lone army tent stands out in the otherwise clean landscape. I point it out to Norzin.


“Oh, Apa Gompo and I went there yesterday. He took me,” she says nonchalantly.


“Who’s still there?” I ask.


“Chinese mole killer,” she shrugs and then her eyes widen. “I say there are at least sixty moles killed and strung up. Apa Gompo says there are over a hundred.” She reflects upon this. “Who do you think counts better, Apa Gompo or me?”

“Apa Gompo.”


Later Apa Gompo explains to me that Norzin got restless after they had cooked for his family and returned to guard the workshop. Norzin convinced him to go on a ride and see something new. Apa Gompo was curious about the green tent in the distance. They approached the mole guy stationed all alone at the edge of the world, a miserable, shivering man with a cigarette hanging limply from his lips. Fall was the time that moles emerged, preparing for their winter hibernation. The man spent days driving small menacing holes in the mounds and then waiting for the mole, who would inevitably appear, to fix the source of the cold draft in its burrow. A sharp stab from the awaiting man ended their short lives. They were strung up to dry in long lines. Later he would eat the meat and hand in the skin to claim his price per kill.


Apa Gompo laughed. “Silly, yes, Norzin? Moles are incarnates of hungry ghosts, the more you kill the more they will plague you. Only prayer and good deeds can drive them away.”


Norzin nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe someone should tell him that. I don’t think he knows.”

The ToothFairy Visits the Tibetan Plateau

IMG_4542Summer drifts into fall with a final burst of purple on the plateau. Wild gerbera, thistle, garlic, lavender and mint are just a few plants bidding summer a colorful farewell. On sunny days dry spikes of grass hamper walks. On wet days the long grass dampens my beige boots brown. Today, Norzin has decided to join me on my evening walk.


“Anything could be living in the tall grass,” I say waving my hands out over the plateau. Norzin crouches down and takes off her shoe. She starts carefully removing the stiff spikes of grass from her socks.


“Do you think the tooth fairy lives here?” she asks, not looking up. Norzin lost her lower front tooth a few days ago. She pulls out a spike and tosses it aside.


I shrug. “It’s possible. Although I think she would probably prefer to live in a tree. Wouldn’t you?”

* * *


“Ama, this time I am really going to pull it out,” she exclaims. I look up from my book, there is blood gushing out of her mouth. She’s pulling at her lower lip with one hand and wiggling the tooth with the other.


“Can you do it Ama? Pull it out?” She makes a yanking motion with her hand. I take a deep breath and get up to tug at the tooth. It slips into my hand. My other hand darts out for a tissue and the blood is wiped up.


“Ama! What should we do with it?” Norzin asks expectantly, her eyes wide and gleaming.


“I don’t know,” I say, examining the tiny tooth in my palm. Another milestone in my daughter’s life.
“I know,” she shouts jumping up and down. “Let’s smash it into a million pieces and throw it in the air. I will always have beautiful teeth if we do that! Ama Mako (Grandma) told me that.”


“Let’s go then – the roof maybe?”

Norzin nods happily and jumps up pulling my hand. My book falls to the floor as we run out of the room.


“I’ll smash it,” I say placing it carefully on the edge of the roof.


“No, I’ll do it,” Norzin insists and there is a scuffle as she grabs for her tooth.


“Fine,” I say. “Good luck getting it into a million pieces,” I mumble as she cracks the tooth in two and one piece rolls onto the veranda.


She aims at the second piece just as a wind picks up. “Here goes!” She smashes it and then flings the tooth into the garden below. My daughter is not one for patience. She watches it drop to the ground, not exactly in a million pieces, and looks satisfied. The deed is done.


* * *

“What! You didn’t leave it for the tooth fairy?” asks Bill Johnson, Norlha’s visiting, six-foot-eight basketball coach. Norzin’s face scrunches up.


“Tooth fairy?” she asks.


“We smashed it up and dropped it to the wind,” I mumble, scrolling through pictures on my computer.


“Wow! That’s pretty intense,” Bill laughs. He begins to tell Norzin about the tooth fairy and money. Norzin rushes out of the room and soon returns having recovered half her broken tooth.


“How much do you think the tooth fairy will give for half a tooth?” she asks.

“I don’t think it’s the size of the tooth but rather how good you’ve been,” I explain.


“I think I’ve been very good.”


“Sure,” I mumble sarcastically, with a click at my laptop.


That night I rummage through my wallet. There’s only a 50 yuan note. It’s Norzin’s lucky day. I scribble a note on being good and leave it with the money, forgetting to take the tooth.


“Ama, Ama!” I wake up to Norzin bouncing over me, followed closely by Baby D. They’re looking at me expectantly. Norzin is waving the note that the tooth fairy left.


“It’s very strange, she didn’t take the tooth. What do you think that means?”


I throw the pillow over my head and mumble, “How should I know?”


Norzin shakes me again. “She knows my name! Look!” She points at the note and slowly starts perusing it. “She sent me a note, gave me big money, but didn’t take the tooth. I wonder what it means?” She ponders this for a while. “I think she wants me to find a better tooth,” she concludes.

I finally give up on any extra minutes of sleep and stretch. “Maybe she’ll come back for it tonight,” I offer.


Later that morning I hear Norzin’s voice in the hallway. She is talking to Baby D’s sixty-year-old sitter, Acha Tsering. “It’s a pretty good and easy way to make money,” Norzin says. “Especially at your age when you start loosing a lot of teeth. Can you open your mouth?” Acha Tsering obliges. Baby D opens her mouth wide too. “Not you,” Norzin snaps shoving Baby D aside. “Are those real? Are you almost loosing any of them?” she asks waving her hands over Acha Tsering’s mouth.


“I think I might be loosing a couple soon,” she says to Norzin, closing her mouth. “Why?”


“Well, just give them to me and I’ll give them to this woman called the tooth fairy.” Norzin waves her hand dismissively. “You won’t know about her but I have a special relationship with her. She even knows my name and writes me notes!” She fumbles in her bag and pulls out the note. “Look! That right there is my name.” She rummages again and pulls out the 50 yuan note. “And this is how much she gave me for half a tooth! Your teeth are pretty big. I bet she’ll give even more for them.”


Now Acha Tsering is playing along. “But you’ll give the money to me right?”


Norzin considers this for a while. “We can split it,” she suggests. “And there are plenty of old people around, we can just ask for their teeth as they fall out. We don’t have to tell them about the tooth fairy.”


“Norzin!” I shout, interrupting her little business scheme.


“Yes, Ama,” she answers sweetly.


“The tooth fairy only wants baby teeth not old people’s teeth!”

Norzin’s face falls as she reflects on this. “How many more of my teeth will fall out?” She opens her mouth and starts counting.

Leather Turns into Frogs


My friend slipped a blade of grass between his teeth, chewed on it, then turned to me nodding slowly and said, “It’s just the way leather turns into frogs.”


His companion agreed, “Just like that. You know,” he shrugged, “you leave leather in a corner for a long time and it becomes damp, mushy and turns into frogs. Just like that.”


I began to laugh but then stopped. They really meant it; it was just the way leather turned into frogs. No argument.


We were talking about caterpillar fungus. My friend’s companion was a nomad in his forties, a cousin of my husband. We were visiting him in the pasture, at his summer camp, where he, his wife, son and daughter-in-law graze over a hundred yaks and two hundred sheep for five months of the year. My friend drove us out to the camp in his small SUV. From the backseat I watched as the landscape bounced by like footage from a handheld camera. The plateau was hardly living up to its magnificence today. I felt let down by the sky, dark and pregnant with clouds. It was a gloomy day. Even the flowers bobbed half-heartedly in the breeze, dull without the brilliance of the sun. Crude fencing sliced up the smooth roll of the plateau. “The beginning of the end,” she had said and the words draped heavily around us. Moving camp, the animals could no longer crisscross the grasslands freely but were flushed out onto the road, their hooves slapping the tar, their expressions bewildered, another beginning to the same end.


As the winter grazing area turned to summer pasture, the grass got shorter and specks of black and white dotted the hills; herds of yak and sheep. Nomads were camped along the roadside. Most families no longer use yak wool tents. The new tents are canvas, in white or army green. They are lighter, warmer, waterproof and more practical. We’re living in an age of convenience and nomads are no exception. They’re walking the path of least resistance, easing their way toward extinction.


“It’s all about fast money these days,” my husband’s cousin complained. He was sitting cross-legged outside his tent. The rest of us were sprawled around him, chewing on blades of grass, the air heavy with unbroken clouds. Our host was wearing a sleeveless white undershirt bursting at the seams from his substantial roll of belly fat. Around his neck was an amulet, ragged and messy. His feet were bare but for socks, the grass was his carpet. The rest of us layered in jackets and bundled in scarves didn’t make it any less summer for him.


“I remember the first time I saw someone dig for caterpillar fungus,” my cousin-in-law continued. “I was fourteen or fifteen.” He looked around as if searching for the exact spot and then pointed to a far off hill. “There were two Chinese men crouched at the top of hill over there. It was the good old days, when we were still allowed to have weapons.” He grinned nostalgically at this and then continued, “My father and I picked up our rifles and set off to see what they were up to. Imagine that! We had no idea then what a source of income caterpillar fungus would later become! There were so many back then you didn’t even have to strain to find one, you just kind of plucked them out of the ground like flowers. The men showed us what they were doing, and we just shrugged and watched them before leaving them alone. The next year a couple of nomad families caught on and starting picking fungus to sell to the Chinese. Now look,” he waved around him. “People are dumping their grazing areas, renting them out, ruining them with all the digging for caterpillar fungus! And now, the price is going down!”


I sit up, pluck another blade and wait for him to continue.


“A clan in the area lent out their summer grazing lands for 1.7million yuan to dig for caterpillar fungus,” he told me waving his blade of grass. “That was last year. This year, it went for only 0.7 m. The price of caterpillar fungus is going down.”


“Is there less, or is the price going down?” I ask coughing, choking a little on my blade of grass. I never have caught on to chewing grass.


“Both,” my two friends answer in unison.


“So, is it an animal when you pick the caterpillar fungus? Are you killing something?” I ask. I think I know the answer. The caterpillar is already dead, killed by the fungus, but I roll the conversation over to knead out their thoughts.


“It’s definitely a life,” they answer.


“But if we keep plucking them, how do they reproduce?” I ask.


“It’s the same way leather turns into frogs.”


Leather turning into frogs . . . I find comfort in the words. For a moment I allow myself to leave my world of logic and reason, and join my two companions in their world of magic and mystery, a world where leather turns into frogs. Questions remain unanswered, hope still exists, and the impossible is possible. Here it’s even possible to dream that maybe it isn’t the beginning of the end.

Nomads and Bathrooms


“Did you take your shower this week?” I ask Baby D’s babysitter. She’s sitting in the Louis XV chair I inherited from my French grandparents, her favorite, waiting for Baby D to finish her breakfast. Her hair is combed back neatly into two plaits. The sleeves of her heavy Tibetan robes are bundled behind her. Perched on the elegant antique she looks like she’s entered the wrong movie set. The story of our lives; East meets West in a head-on collision. Behind her, through the living room windows, the plateau is laid out, green and lush, a perfect summer scene.


“Of course I did. Wouldn’t miss it! I am quite a clean woman,” she adds beaming. Rare for our older female employees she isn’t bothered by the new Norlha rule; once a week mandatory showers for all employees. Once a week might seem like a stretch but for many of these nomads it’s the first time in their lives they’ve taken regular showers. When we introduced the concept of hygiene and the need for personal cleanliness, it was the first time many of our employees had ever had full body showers.


“The shower was burning hot though,” she adds, shifting a little in her beautiful chair.


“Don’t tell me you still don’t know how to use the faucet?”


“Yes, it must be that. The younger kids are all saying that the temperature is perfect, but I just seem to keep getting freezing cold or burning hot.”


“Come here,” I say beckoning her towards the kitchen sink. She gets up a little uncertainly and shuffles over. “Ok. Now can you find me warm water here?”


“What do you mean ‘find’?” she asks looking a little skeptical. The word find seems to have complicated the task in her mind.

“Ok,” I say calmly and twist the knob to one extreme. “That’s cold. Here, feel it.”


She holds out a knobby hand. “Yes,” she says happily.


“Now, if you turn the other way, the water gets hotter,” I explain. “Here you try.”


She yanks the knob in the other extreme and lets the water stream onto her hands. “This is perfect,” she says as the water heats up. Suddenly she lets out a yelp and her hand jumps from under the tap. “See it always happens. I think it’s perfect but then it just keeps getting hotter!” She snaps accusingly. “Why can’t it just stay at the right temperature?”


“Ok, now turn it back slowly until you get the temperature you want.”


The sixty-two-year old nomad yanks at the knob again and just when she thinks she’s found the right temperature, it turns freezing cold. “See,” she says accusingly.


“You have to turn it slowly and find the right temperature,” I coax her.


“You can’t teach us old people these things. They’re too complicated.”


I get impatient. “It’s not an airplane you’re learning to fly. Just don’t yank the knob, turn it slowly.”


I watch from behind as she practices at the sink. “Too cold, too cold, too cold, ahhh perfect … No … No. Nooooo, it’s burning again! How can I know it’s at the right spot when it keeps changing! With the things they can do now, you would think a push of the button would give you the right temperature! And here we are still having to ‘find’ the right temperature! I’ve had enough.” She stomps back to her Louis XV chair.


I am actually quite proud of Acha Tsering. Despite having suffered through freezing showers and burning ones, as well as an episode of locking herself in the bathroom for over an hour, she still insists on taking her once-a-week showers.


For one man, at least, it didn’t go so well. It was the first time in his life he’d showered. The week after his first shower he claimed he had diarrhea. The next week, after his second shower, he was met with the same calamity. He indignantly stated that high land people aren’t meant to wash themselves. “It’s like having a layer of protective skin pealed off,” he explained, referring to the years of accumulated dirt. “Without this my pores are exposed to the cold. I just feel naked! And then I get sick!”


“Let’s just keep trying for a couple more weeks and then see if your body gets used to it,” he was told by Dunko.


Bathrooms literally do not exist in the village. Even outhouses are rare. “But where do you go?” I asked during one of my early visits. There were giggles and then someone thrust out his arms and said with a grin, “Anywhere!”


At the workshop we built the first bathrooms with running water in the area. One day I was crossing the courtyard when a group of women called out to me, “Dechen! Dechen! Come here!” Some were laughing as they waved me over. I walked in the direction of the bathroom. Water was gushing out of the taps in the sink. “We just wanted to try it and now we don’t know how to stop the water,” they said in chorus. I twisted the tap and the water went from a gush to a dribble and then stopped. The women roared with laughter. They had been pushing at the knob and hadn’t thought of twisting it. “Well, aren’t we stupid,” they laughed. “But how did you turn it on in the first place?” I asked perplexed. “It was her,” they said pointing to a blushing girl. “And then she didn’t know how she did it!”


Later that year, we started construction on our own house. During lunch break, the women would go in herds for a tour of this “modern house.” “What’s that?” they asked pointing to a toilet. Their manager, a more worldly woman, explained that this was where people went to the bathroom. There was a roar of laughter as the women, not being in the presence of men, took turns sitting on the toilet. “Who would’ve ever thought of such a thing! A chair with a hole to do your business! You’re joking, right? I mean who could take themselves seriously seated on such a thing! It’s like a throne! A special seat just for pooping? What will they think of next?”


From the very beginning I dreamed of a shower house for the employees. Due to budget constraints it was years until we finally managed to install two showers. We set up a schedule and posted it so every single one of the 120 employees had time to take a shower once a week. Those who failed to show up for their slot would have to pick up garbage on Saturday afternoons. Surprisingly, there was little opposition. Most were happy and thankful for the opportunity even though there were some problems early on. For most women, it was the first full body shower of their lives. They didn’t know how to use the taps or unlock the door. Poor Acha Tsering spent one hour in the shower room, shouting for the guards to help her. She didn’t realize that the latch had a small knob that needed to be clicked in order for the door to open.


“I really gave the guards something to talk about this week,” she said laughing. Sure enough, it became the talk of the workshop.


But as time wanes, there are fewer stories of freezing, burning or being locked in the bathroom. These days most employees eagerly anticipate their turn. For me, well, nomads are taking showers! My world is the rainbow that shines after a heavy storm, following a long drawn out draught; the perfect summer scene.

Waiting for Vultures


I hear him before I see him. “Ahhh, Dechen,” he says as if he were expecting me. As if he came to this hill everyday. As if it was perfectly normal that I was venturing up the hill at noon on a workday. I squint up towards the direction of the voice, the sun beating down oppressively. Overhead, dozens of vultures swirl around against the bleached blue sky, their flight casting gliding shadows over the flower-strewn plateau. A monk is sitting on the side of the hill, his back to me. I make my way slowly towards him. In front of us, on the opposite hill, there are over a hundred vultures, squabbling, shoving and pecking as four figures throw chunks of meat at them.

“Dechen, Dechen,” the old monk mumbles as he stares across to the top of the hill opposite us. “I’m on the hill alone today, because I am sad.” He pats his hand against his chest but doesn’t look at me. His legs are stretched out and below us is the deep and narrow valley where the base of our hill meets the foot of the burial hill.


I sit down beside him, and nod, staring across at the squabbling vultures. Something startles them and suddenly they are in the air, a swarming army. The four men look exposed and vulnerable without the vultures around them.


Agu Choedak is 71 years old this year. I had never spoken to him directly before, out of respect, even though for years he has been coming to Norlha to bless and initiate every building constructed for the atelier. I did seek his help years earlier when Norzin suffered screaming fits in the middle of the night. I would pace back and forth with her in my arms, trying to sooth her, but her writhing body would get too heavy and finally I had to put her back in bed and pull the covers over my head to muffle her howling cries. One day Norzin’s baby sitter suggested that I take her to Agu Choedak for blessings and the three of us went to visit him at the village monastery.


He had a simple courtyard house with three rooms that he shared with two disciples. Once in his room, my eyes fell upon his shrine and then to the floor where there were two large dents in the shape of footprints, marks from countless prostrations. Agu Choedak’s day starts at four in the morning with a series of prostrations and recitations. During the rest of the day, nomads and villagers come to him for advice, for help appeasing crying children, for example, to healing ailing limbs and blessing new houses. His carefully chosen words, promoting basic Buddhist principles, sprinkled on the nomads in moments of vulnerability, might not heal their creaking limbs but his use of superstitious belief as a vehicle embeds in them a deeper understanding of Buddhism. The desperate get hope where otherwise there would be none. From the day I took Norzin there, I concentrated on the nights she didn’t cry rather than those that she did.


“Do you have binoculars on you?” Agu Choedak asks.


I pat my pockets as if binoculars will miraculously materialize and then look around desperately. “Ummm, I have this,” I respond pulling from around my shoulder the camera I carry everywhere I go with its telephoto lens.


‘Take some pictures,” he says waving his hand towards the sky burial. I click one or two and pass the camera over for his approval.


“I can’t see,” he says handing the camera back with a disappointed sigh. “The sun is too bright. Can you tell an old monk how many vultures there are?”

“Over a hundred,” I answer and he seems pleased.


“I was so worried that they wouldn’t come.” He rearranges his robes. “We could go over there but then I will have to cleanse for seven days and with Rinpoche coming it’s just not possible.” His eyes look confused, apologetic, a little bewildered. “I’ve been here since nine this morning,” he finally admits. “There were no vultures early this morning and I got worried. How many vultures do you think?” he asks again, waiting for the reassuring answer from a pair of young eyes.


“Well over a hundred. More than I’ve ever seen around here,” I add with authority. After all, I live in the house closest to the sky burial.


He laughs at this and for a moment looks happy. “Let’s sit for a little longer.”


I nod and we sit in silence for a while, watching the vultures and the men; too far to see the gory details, but close enough to take in the spectacle. I wonder where the vultures live. The closest cliffs are at least 100 miles away. How do they get the vultures to notice a burial? No wonder it is a stressful endeavor.


“Dugmo Kyi’s mother?” I ask breaking the silence.


“Both of them. Today is an auspicious day so we are doing both of them.”

I nod again. Dugmo Kyi is a weaver of ours. For months her mother suffered a slow death. Finally a few days ago, in the early hours of the morning, she passed away to her family’s relief. It was agony watching her suffer. She was 74 years old and Agu Choedak’s sister-in-law. Similar in age, he must have seen her trudge through a life wrought with suffering. She had buried five children, before finally she herself went in a slow and painful death. Her last months were spent in the monastery, where she eventually died. He must have suffered in her suffering. His last wish for her was that at least her body would make the clean and swift departure that sickness had denied her. It was crucial that the vultures come.


I didn’t know much about the other lady. She had died a day earlier and was in her eighties. It was a busy time for the monks.


“That’s Jampa’s father,” Agu Choedak says pointing to one of the figures feeding the vultures. “They brought the bodies early this morning by tractor, before sunrise so no one had to see them.”


I follow a vulture as it glides above us, the wildflowers quiver in a breeze and I think of the tractor rattling up with the naked bodies, hands and feet bound together.


Agu Chodak sighs again. “I was so worried the vultures wouldn’t come,” he repeats. “Sometimes the men have to spend a few nights on the hill if the vultures don’t come on time. I just had to be here to see for myself.”


One of my friends once described sneaking to a sky burial. It had been two days and there were no vultures. A monk had been summoned. My friend said he saw him reciting prayers and then doing a wild dance with his hands spread out like a big bird. A few hours later the vultures descended.


“They have to sleep there?” I ask.


“Yes, of course. The job has to be finished and clean before they can leave, especially on a site as close to the village as this. There can’t be any evidence, not even a hair, not even a bone.” He stops as a loud clanging sound echoes through the valley. “Ahhh,” he seems relieved. “They’re breaking the bones. That’s good. That means the vultures have finished. I think I can go now.” He looks around a little dazed. “You should go on up the hill, the flowers are out in full bloom.” He stops and looks at me as if he’s finally realizing my presence. “Do you like it here? How long have you been here? Ten years now? Are you happy with your new house?”


“I am very happy. I am very lucky to have the life I have,” I answer.


He laughs and then begins mumbling, “138…” He trails off and then starts again. “138 …” He’s trying to remember a phone number. “Can you call? But I can’t remember the number.”


“It’s ok. I’ll call Dunko,” I offer.


“Oh, but he must be so busy.”


“Don’t worry. Do you want him to pick you up?”

“Yes, yes. But he must be so busy.”


Dunko, my production manager and the son-in-law of the deceased woman, is very confused on the phone as to what I am doing on the hill with Agu Choedak during our lunch break. But the motorbike appears a few minutes later. I offer my arm as Agu Choedak makes the steep climb down the grassy hill. He pauses midway.

“What do you recite?” he asks.


“I try and go over The Way of the Boddhisatva.”


He smiles at this. He starts reciting his favorite verses from The Way of the Boddhisatva as we descend the hill.


“There were over a hundred vultures,” he says happily to Dunko who nods and leads him to the motorbike.

A Gift from the Grasslands


“How many do you want?” our host asked. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle fell upon us. The horses were restless, hoofs slapping through the mud, close to a hundred of them; mares, fouls, stallions gathered into a pen. The herder was riding through them looking far more gallant than he had when we first arrived.


Our SUVs had pulled up next to the cattle shed that served as the stable. Everyone averted their eyes from the man squatting near the fence, a surprised expression on his face as his squinting eyes followed our cars. His robes were spread out around him with a view of the rolling hills before him. Pooping in style.


A woman came rushing out of the stables to welcome our host. She released the stallion she was leading. It tore out across the wide-open plain to join the rest of the herd. The Pooper had also ridden off into the distance and was trotting through the herd of horses. The woman, who appeared to be in her forties, fluttered around our host.


“Everything is fine. Just fine. We are so happy you are here.” Her hair was a tangled mess, her robes gritty and she looked withered. She started rambling on about the year they’d had. Our host must not have visited in a while.


“Winter was hard. Mornings, we had to wake up as early as three. But none of the fouls died, and the summer brings plenty of grass. It is warmer, the time of flowers has begun and things are easier.” She went on to make a request. “Could you ask the manager to allow us three dris (female yaks)? I’m not complaining, but our salaries are meager, and there is plenty of grass to go around. Maybe we could be allowed three or four milking animals? Then my husband and I can have some milk and yogurt. Could you help us ask?”


Machu horses are known to be a special highland breed and the woman and her husband worked for a horse-breeding cooperative. Our host owned thirty of the horses.


In the background, the herdsman had now fully redeemed himself. He was quite the image; galloping across the grassland, lasso whirling above his head, a hundred horses galloping in front of him. We all positioned ourselves strategically, cutting off the grassland as the horses were funneled neatly into the pen.


Inside the pen, I kept my distance from the main group of men and stuck to the sides with my high school friend, our Nepali born, Harvard educated, financial advisor, Tenzin. Our host and patron had offered my husband and I horses and we were there to choose them, but we would take what he offered, that was the polite thing to do.


“How many would you like?”


My husband, Yidam, answered cautiously, “Two will be fine.”


“Two!! Have four or five!”


I squeezed into the side of the pen as a stallion backed into me. It was the black stallion that had been let out earlier. He was neighing and prancing around excitedly. The foals peeped from around their mothers’ legs. There was much choosing and pointing in the middle of the pen. Finally iPhones were pulled out, pictures taken of the selection and the gates of the pen opened. The horses poured out, at first slowly and then in a steady gallop. Their thundering hoofs got softer and their shapes blurred into wavering dots on the endless expanse of green.


“The race horse is for you and I to ride,” our patron said, turning to my husband. “The black two-year-old is for you,” he nodded at me. “You ride very well.” I beamed though I knew I had a long way to go before I was comfortable on a strong, young stallion. “The other two gray geldings can be for your friends and guests to ride.” Nodding to Tenzin, he said, “Too bad we couldn’t get a mare for you.” The group of men roared with laughter. It was all in good humor. They liked him and this was their way of initiating him into their group. If he could take being the brunt of a joke, then he was a true, thick skinned, Tibetan.


Tenzin glanced at me warily. “I trusted you to show me the way,” he said jokingly though with a touch of accusation. My face burned. When we had gone riding the other day, there had been three male horses and one mare. “I don’t want to ride the mare,” I said stubbornly, my feet fixed to the ground.


“I’ll ride it,” Tenzin, in his good-natured way, offered. The poor guy didn’t know what he was offering, but I wasn’t about to explain the situation to him. So I glanced at him, weighed the offer and considered that maybe he really didn’t care. I reasoned with myself that as a new rider he would be safer on the mare.


Yidam glared at me, “Dechen you should ride the mare!”


“I really don’t care,” Tenzin insisted. “I’ll ride whichever one you want as long as no one leads me.”


Tenzin rode off into the landscape, the foal following happily at their heels, unaware that he had just compromised his manhood, at least for the next couple of weeks.


“Tenzin gallops beautifully… On a mare,” the men roared with laughter. No nomad man would ever be caught dead riding a mare. It’s just one of those cultural things.

“No way am I ever riding a mare again,” Tenzin announced to me. “I had no idea I was putting my manhood on the line!”


I shuffled my feet regretfully. It really was my fault. At least he was still smiling.


That night, Yidam and I carefully calculated the expenses surrounding our beautiful gifts. There were saddles and bridles to buy. A horse pen would be needed, a shelter and fodder for winter. Since we were already employing so many nomads, a tender would not be difficult to find. But the first and foremost issue was where to keep them. Ritoma, where we are primarily based, already has an abundance of horses. The price of horses fell the previous year so everyone bought horses and now some families have up to twenty. A haggle over grassland has ensued and bringing four more horses would just be adding fuel to the fire. The most ideal location would be the camp, spread out on the wide grasslands of Sangkok, where we spend most of our weekends. But there, too, negotiations had to ensue with the landlord.


“Even though there’s grass everywhere,” one of my friends remarked, hands spread out across a horizon of rolling hills, an endless ocean of green, “every blade is accounted for and a horse eats a lot!”


But how can anyone refuse a gift of horses? And so, for better or for worse, we are the proud owners of four horses, including a gelding for Tenzin to ride.