This is Chapter 24 from my Tibet memoir in which I walk into the wilderness, stay a night with nomads and find a surprising level of comfort in a cave…
The road into the mountains got steeper and the truck got slower. As we approached the high pass we were crawling along at walking pace. The sky was covered with clouds but at the pass we got a glimpse of the sun before the truck began a reckless plunge down the other side. We were being shaken around so much that I felt we were two dice in a cup. The driver stopped at a lonely truck stop on the other side, at the start of the endless Changtang plateau.
The Austrian stayed at the truck stop and I carried on walking northwards, enjoying the mesmerising monotony of the flatlands. Eventually I was picked up by a bus, a knackered old claptrap, and chugged along the few miles to the next village – where the track to the lake began. I was told it would take two days to walk to the lake from this point on the main road, and it involved crossing a high mountain pass to the west, before dropping down onto another flat plain. There was a lively truck stop in the village where I ate delicious Chinese noodles, chatted to a friendly American couple and found a bed for the night. The Americans told hair-raising stories about travellers who had been savaged by dogs and advised me to take a strong stick in case of attack.
The next morning I was full of energy and, after finding an old axe shaft as protection against the dogs, I set off early. It took half a day to get up the mountain pass, from where I could see the plateau stretching out in all directions, with distant mountain ranges forming a jagged horizon. The lake I was heading for was visible – it looked huge – but after a full day of fast walking it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I passed some nomads who were skulking around a black woollen tent and noticed that they were dressed in rough fur coats, belted at the waist and reaching the ground. Their huge guard dogs were barking viciously but were held back by ropes tied to stakes in the ground. Tibet was full of barking dogs and Lhasa was full of strays but these dogs were vast and they looked deadly. I wondered what they were protecting the nomads against? Wolves?
By early evening I had covered a huge distance but the lake still didn’t seem any closer. I stopped to rest near a nomad’s tent, not getting too close in case the dogs got angry enough to burst their bonds. The wind grew colder. A young nomad, wearing a one-piece fur belted at his waist, walked by and invited me into the circular tent, which was made of thick black wool. I could see penetrating eyes and when he smiled brilliant white teeth. He took me inside the tent and introduced me grandly to his petite wife and an old woman I presumed to be his mother, and a couple of naked children who were half hidden behind big wooden boxes. Apart from the granny, whose hair was white, they all had long, wild, matted, pitch-black hair. The wife was slim and youthful but there was a strange lump on her lower back, some sort of deformation I assumed. Moments later the lump moved and suddenly a shock of black hair appeared, two eyes, a nose and a mouth: it was a baby, living in the top part of her leather coat, held in place by a tight belt. What a brilliant way of keeping the baby close all day, while allowing the mother complete freedom to move around.
I left my boots and socks outside the entrance flap and stepped onto a mosaic of rugs that covered the whole area inside the tent, except for a little circle in the middle where a small fire burned. There was a hole in the top of the tent where smoke lazily poured out, but much of the smoke lingered and started to penetrate my clothes and hair. Wooden boxes and sacks were stacked all round the outer rim of the tent, forming a barrier against the cold and creating a cosy, cave-life feel in the middle. I wondered why they had so much stuff, what was in those boxes and how did they move them? And surely they moved frequently? They were nomads after all, living in a tent. Did all this stuff go on the backs of yaks?
Around the fire was a circular, narrow rim that was the only clutter-free area. This was where the family moved nimbly around and where we sat. The old woman seemed to be the busiest; feeding lumps of dried yak dung into the fire and shouting at the children. A large loping hound nosed its way into the tent, sniffed at me suspiciously and went back out again. Now that night had fallen, the dogs had been unleashed and were allowed to wander freely, providing a roving security barrier against intruders. The man produced a long wooden tube like a thin barrel, about four inches wide and four feet long. He filled it with hot tea, threw in a lump of rancid yak’s butter and some salt and started to mix it up and down with a long plunger, a stick with a flat round bit at the bottom – making sure that the tea and butter and salt were all mixed up well together. I was licking my lips in anticipation: this was dinner.
Darkness was approaching and I had to make a move: head out into the wilderness and find some shelter, or hope to get an invitation from this lot. I didn’t dare ask about staying the night but I gave my new friend an entrance ticket to the Potala, with a crude sketch of the palace on it, and his face lit up. He placed it on the family altar, alongside a small Buddha and a photo of the Dalai Lama. The old woman handed out bowls with disgusting looking black sausages but I refused mine, sticking to tsampa and tea. The man asked where I was going and when I acted out lake…birds…over there. He jumped up, pulled out a dagger and hacked the neck off a dead goat that was in one of the sacks. He presented me with this bloody, bony, grisly present with a huge smile – I could see it was an act of real generosity – and I wrapped it in a cloth and put it in my rucksack. They hadn’t invite me to stay as they had assumed all along that I would, and when the time came I lay down in my borrowed sleeping bag on a soft pile of dried yak dung and fell fast asleep. During the night I was awoken by a sound and I saw the man hopping nimbly over the clutter and out for a pee. He was stark naked and didn’t seem to notice that it was freezing outside.
The next morning I walked out towards the lake and reached it by the middle of the day. I then realised that Bird Island wasn’t an island at all, it was a peninsula; a huge lump of rock that stuck out of the plateau like a lone thumb. It was surrounded by water on three sides and was connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land, an isthmus. The lake is called Namtso and it was as smooth as a mirror that day, deep blue and stretched out towards the horizon. An Austrian couple were camping by the lakeside and, hungry for conversation, I went over and sat by them. He was a middle-aged ecologist and I soon bored of his monotonous and rather depressing talk. His girlfriend was half his age, beautiful but not very chatty. This couple were seriously well-equipped and I admired their tent, boots, waterproofs, dehydrated food, rucksacks and cooking equipment, wondering if I would ever be able to afford gear like that. I told them that I didn’t have a tent and he suggested I walk to the other side of the rock where there was a small cave.
From where we were sitting it didn’t look far to the rock, but time and space had assumed a new meaning on this plateau and it wasn’t until evening that I found the cave, which had a rounded entrance hole about a metre off the ground. Even though the sun was going down it was warmer than it had been all day and the rock, which had been soaking up the rays all day, now shared its warmth. It had a soft carpeting of dried sheep dung, considerately arranged on a space that was just perfect to take my sleeping bag.
Some days before, in Yak Alley, the meat market in Lhasa, I had met a scruffy Englishman who had walked across Pakistan and Tibet and was en-route to Australia. His hair and beard were unkempt and he looked more grimy than the poorest Tibetan. His eyes were sparkling and he looked at peace with himself. His feet were black from the home-made sandals he had fashioned out of an old tyre – footwear that had lasted him thousands of miles. We got chatting and he told me that he never needed to spend money as people would give him food and shelter for free:
– Here in Tibet, he said, the people are the most generous I’ve come across anywhere. In the market they give me food – and money. He gave me some advice about cooking that I was now trying out in the cave:
– Take an old tin can and half-fill it with sand or dried earth. Pour in a small amount of petrol, light it and then cook your dinner. It worked perfectly; a small pot of water quickly boiled and before long my noodles were ready.
I was being watched. Outside the cave was a young, weather-beaten face staring at me. I finished my noodles, made some tea – and he was still there, still staring. I wondered if I was the first white man he’d seen? Was this his cave? I could see sheep grazing around him so presumably he was a shepherd. I started to get irritated as I realised that he wasn’t going to leave me in peace, he wasn’t going to be satisfied until I got into bed and it was too dark to see. I had to accept his presence. I realised that living in those tents, in such close proximity to one another, it’s understandable that nomads have no sense of privacy. What was strange about this character was that he made no attempt to communicate; he didn’t say a word, or make any gestures, and this was unlike most Tibetans I had come across. I wondered if this is typical of people who spend their whole lives with sheep and goats. Resigned to his presence, and realising he represented no threat, I made a show of taking out my sleeping bag, making sure he could see it properly, and settling down for the night. Before falling into a deep sleep I listened to the noises drifting across the plateau: animals moving far away and the wind playing strange games in the rocks.
The next morning I explored the area. What I thought had been one big rock at the side of the lake was actually two, looking like massive dinosaur eggs. Most of the part facing the plateau was a low cliff and as I walked towards the lake – about an hour away – I could see that there were more caves, and all sorts of intricate carvings made by the wind. Suddenly I came across two army trucks and a group of soldiers in green uniforms – all Tibetans – eating their breakfast. What on earth are they doing up here? I wondered. Giant crows were circling around overhead, making ominous cawing sounds. The soldiers were as surprised as I by the encounter and they beckoned me over. I didn’t hesitate, making a beeline for the trestle table that was laden with Chinese beer, cooked meats, cakes, fried biscuits and boiled sweets. It was an orgy! They had enough food to last a nomad family for months.
All afternoon I explored the lake side of the peninsula. There was a rocky beach and caves that were inhabited by serious, well-equipped foreigners. Two couples were lying in the intense sun, covered in white sun block cream. All they were wearing was sunglasses. None of them looked particularly friendly. That night I lay on my back on soft, golden dust and watched the stars. The sky was clear, we were at fourteen thousand feet and the stars were far brighter than I had ever seen them before. It was mesmerising.
Back at the cave I noticed that an intruder had been going through my things. My precious biscuits had been half-eaten and my stuff was scattered around. I’ve been burgled I thought, that thieving shepherd bastard! So that was his game! I frantically searched my rucksack and nothing was missing. Someone had told me that nomads are known for their honesty. Of course I realised, it was the sheep, they were the intruders – although they probably consider me to be the intruder as this is obviously their cave.
I spent almost a week up there, wandering around, acclimatizing to the altitude, trying to climb the rocks, relaxing. After a while the intense quality of the place became too much and I felt I lacked the experience needed to truly appreciate all this beauty. Part of me wanted to stay forever but I knew I had nothing to do and that boredom would soon come visiting. Whenever I saw couples who were travelling together there seemed to be a heavy atmosphere between them, as if they were still angry with each other since the last argument. When couples live together in an urban, western environment they both do their own things during the day. Out here they were stuck together all the time and it’s no surprise that they got thoroughly sick of each other.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article). To see feedback to the paperback edition, click here.