OM The roads, the roads. Among the most beautiful roads in the world – at least, not the roads themselves, dustiest, bumpiest, potholiest engineering feats – but where they go. Winding and winding up the mountains like a thread round a giant spindle, stretched over the passes with their tattered forests of prayer flags, unwinding down the valleys; spinning together this tremendous landscape of peaks and gorges, the high plains, the wide shallow bowls of scattered boulders and slatey lakes, the steep-sided ravines so lush and bright and tree-filled, light through the leaves almost dazzling after the bleak spare grasslands where you can track the light for miles and miles, turning the clouds into fugitives, herding thunderstorms as the nomads herd yaks. Five o’clock rainbows drift across the hills, growing brighter and brighter; god’s own prayer flags.
MANI They look like spindles or distaffs, the little prayer wheels the pilgrims carry. That’s what they remind me of, turning with the momentum of the weight hanging from the drum of chased and patterned silver and copper. They’re like spindles spinning the thread of prayers from human doubt and hope.
In a tiny dark painted temple, almost too small for the giant prayer wheel it houses, a group of pilgrims is sitting on stools or on the ground, spinning and chanting in overlapping times and tones. You can almost see what they are spinning, almost sense it, the weft and weight of it. Dark faces framed in plaits wound with red wool and silver and bone rings, smiles gleaming as they sit in the gloom chanting and spinning so industriously; this is what they do, this is what they are making, but where does it all go, this thread? Has it a beginning and where is its end?
PADME Clustered on the hilltop, the vultures are so big I think at first from a distance they are yaks. Sitting round-shouldered and patient as bald-headed old men squatting on their heels, waiting for something to happen. They look as if they can wait till the end of the world. Till the end of this, small, world. At seven o’clock this was a solid, well-fed and muscled human being, dead purplish-pink on a green ground. And then when the monks finish chanting, the vultures are invited to descend. At seven o’clock this was a whole body, a complete world. By eight o’clock it is – nothing. His stripped bones have been taken apart and smashed and mixed with tsampa for the birds, and now he has gone utterly and his only memorial has spread its wings and lifted off to wheel round and round, higher and higher, life is ended, life is beginning all over again.
HUM They ride in from the nomad camps on horses, or on motorbikes pimped up like the horses with ribbons and tassels and bright rugs. Cowboys wearing Stetsons and gigantic round sunglasses, silver and coral rings in their long black plaits, walking around town holding hands. Gathered on street corners to trade in caterpillar fungus, that weird work of nature they have crawled over high hills to collect; that’s worth much more than its weight in gold. The red-robed monks stroll up and down, arms draped over each others’ shoulders. In the evenings they wrestle on the river bank; they play basketball without a basket in the square. The low sunlight lights the hillsides green-gold, kindles the prayer flags to luminous flames and tatters. Women in long skirts and sunbonnets walk by, silver knives and snuff boxes hanging from their belts. The street fills with long-horned yaks. The one-eyed dreadlocked dogs, which have slept all day in the bins, wake up to spend all night barking. Barking and barking under the stars; is it gossip, is it argument, just the dreadful unbearable joy of living?