Home > Bahmei, Nomads, Tagong, Tibet, Travel, Uncategorized > Monastic Musings (Yak, Yak, Yak, Part II)

Monastic Musings (Yak, Yak, Yak, Part II)

We awoke from what little sleep we had been able to scrounge. As light began to break through the small openings in our temporary home, Pentso had already rekindled the fire in preparation for breakfast. The first offering of the day was Milk Tea, served from an aged metallic kettle and tasting of the many layers of soot which encased it. We finished up the delicious Yak Cheese Momos which were left from the night before. This was accompanied by our first encounter with sweet Tsampa. The serving and consumption differed slightly from the previous evening’s savoury version, and Pentso was glad to demonstrate. The ground barley wheat is mixed with a handful of sugar and levelled off in a small bowl, into which a small amount of milk tea is thenadded to form a top layer of paste. This is then licked like an ice cream from the bowl until a dry layer of barley flour is revealed below. The process is then repeated until every last crumb is licked away and the bowl is clean. This is staple Tibetan food and is a centuries old tradition which makes best use of crop availability at altitude. I felt privileged to be sharing the experience with a true Nomad, even if it wasn’t my usual choice of morning sustenance.

I had developed symptoms of altitude sickness the previous evening and was still feeling unsettled. I alerted Pentso who reassured me through gestures that we wouldn’t be ascending any further. We were due to walk with our pack horse to a monastery roughly two hours from Bahmei, where we would spend the night and finish our journey the following day. We said goodbye to our guide’s family and began the walk through the soggy grasslands. Pentso was totally at home in this environment and led us over and around hilltops and took us to suitable parts of the river to wade through. Stripping down to one’s pants and jumping into a freezing cold stream is certainly a leveler, no matter where you’re from.

Along the way we saw herds of Nomads moving across the expansive landscape. The mass of cattle appeared as ants in the distance before approaching and sweeping past us. The sight of Nomads on the move is a powerful reminder of the nature of their existence. Freedom of movement is paramount and they operate in complete unison with their surroundings, never wasting a single resource that is available to them. Their attitude towards life is a mirror image of the vastness of their habitat. We felt extremely welcome in their company even though we couldn’t speak the language. Their dedication to their spiritual leader is also absolute. Prayers for the Dalai Lama are often heard being muttered at all times of day and Penstso’s son Garanora taught me how to pronounce the most common, ‘om mane padme hum’.

We arrived at the Gumba Gompa Monastery early in the evening. We walked up the dirt track with the sounds of tape recorded prayers bouncing around the hills. We were all offered a warm welcome by an ageing, rotund, Tibetan man who helped unpack the horse as we wearily entered their home. The main living area was a small, wooden room with an iron, wood fire stove in the middle. An extractor pipe dealt with most of the smoke, but the heat was stifling at times. None the less, an old Tibetan woman with traditional red plaits sat next to the centerpiece, where she expertly orchestrated proceedings for the rest of our stay. The years of toil and trouble she must have endured were etched into the course lines on her face. She embodied the long history of the monastery, suggesting it’s age like the rings in the trunk of a fallen tree.

We immediately got stuck into some noodles and milk tea, followed by home made yak milk yoghurt. Eyes young and old were trained solely upon the westerners. The yogurt was served in a bowl with a handful of sugar on top and I attacked it as if it was Tsampa, stirring it with my right hand. This induced roars of laughter from the Tibetan audience, as a single finger is normally used to stir the mixture. I licked my hands and my pride and started again.

We soon went for our first tour around the grounds. The surroundings were very old and sombre. This was clearly a monastery which received few donations. Circling above us on the hillside were flocks of birds, which led us to believe sky burials took place here. This is an ancient Tibetan ritual used to dispose of a corpse. The body is chopped into pieces for the birds to feed on, so returning the flesh to nature. In death, Tibetans believe the consciousness moves on from the bodily container, soon to be reincarnated in another form. Sky burials are a recognition of this belief, and also serve as a hygienic disposal method in barren surroundings. As we toured the area, we noticed some suspiciously human looking bones scattered on the ground.

We were shown various prayer wheels and the main hall where the teachings take place. The monks noticed I had a camera and seized the chance to get a digital image of the paintings on the walls. We wondered if they had ever had the opportunity to see the artwork fully lit, as the hall was very gloomy with no electric lighting. The monk’s quarters were extremely humbling. One example consisted of a wooden hut with no windows, a pile of blankets and a black teapot. It became all too apparent that dedication to their religion is all they have. Taking refuge in the ‘Three Jewels’, The Buddha, The Dharma (teachings) and The Sangha (Buddhist community), forms the very backbone of their existence.

We all dined together again that evening and were introduced to the famous Yak Butter Tea. This is usually served after being churned, but true to our surroundings the version we were offered was slightly more basic. It consisted of warm milk tea, into which a full handful of yellow Yak Butter was dumped, and I plumped for the optional extra of dried Yak cheese. This concoction is said to prevent dehydration and stop the lips getting chapped. All rather irrelevant if one is projectile vomiting at the same time. We politely sipped and then attempted to hide the potent mix. Our escape was short lived however, as in true Tibetan style the congealed leftovers were offered to us for breakfast.

It became clear the monastery rarely accommodated guests, but we eventually bedded down on the floor in the young monks room. Pentso left on his horse early in the morning, and the old Tibetan man was to show us the way to the nearest village. We were awoken by the best alarm clock in the world. At 6.30 precisely, the four children began reciting their prayers. Understandably, one may imagine the soft voices of choir boys gently caressing the mind from slumber; however recital in this part of the world entails shouting at the top of your voice relentlessly for an hour. Arising swiftly, we enjoyed one last cup of butter tea and were then shown the way to the nearest village by the old man. We reached the edge of the mountainside and he pointed to a faint cluster of houses in the distance, while making a gesture which suggested it would take two hours to get there. We donned our 20kg packs and set forth as the man said prayers for us, and the monks chanting could be heard in the distance.

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  1. Uncle G.
    August 2, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    That was a great read, Carl, though that photo of you in Homer Simpsonesque underwear is a bit disturbing! What happened when you got to the village 2 hours away?

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