Day 12 was a rest day in Saldang. Marcia and I take different approaches to rest days. For Marcia, a rest day is to rest and rebuild strength for the next phase of the long march. For me, it’s a day to explore, even if it means walking as far as on a normal day.
Understanding this, Kinna originally proposed to take only me to Yangster Gompa, one of the oldest monasteries in Dolpo. It would have been a demanding day of at least 4 hours each way, with considerable uphill, but also an interesting route past the confluence of the two major rivers of this area. But on arriving in Saldang, Kinna learned that the monastery had recently been locked due to theft of some religious object, and he advised we instead explore a village much closer to town. I reluctantly agreed.
The new destination was the home of Tilen Lhundrup, another village elder who had become locally famous as the star of Eric Valli’s movie Himalaya (a.k.a. Caravan). Although Valli imported Tibetan actors for most of the lead roles, he was friends with Tilen from previous trips and cast him in his real-life role as the older caravan leader. Originally from Saldang’s upper village, Tilen used his film earnings to build a new house in the next town over.
It was a gradual climb with expanding views of the deep Nankhong Valley where Saldang is located. I could almost see down to the river confluence where I would have walked on the other route. Because it was going to be a shorter walk, Marcia came along. But the walk proved longer than Kinna expected, and Marcia began making noises of wanting to turn back.
Just then, a local woman came riding a small horse. She was very friendly and explained to Kinna that Tilen and everyone else from the village had gone into Saldang to have a meeting about how to improve the village. She invited us to turn around and follow her and she would find Tilen. She even offered to let Marcia ride her horse, though Marcia declined.
Back in Saldang’s upper village, the woman tied her horse and ran yelling to Tilen that some foreigners had come to visit. Marcia and I didn’t really care about meeting a movie star, but we couldn’t stop her.
Unable to pull Tilen away from his business, the woman ran back and asked if we would come into her house for some yak butter tea. Marcia squirmed at that, having not enjoyed previous encounters with that rancid brew, so the woman cheerfully offered to make black tea instead.
Her house, it turned out, was Tilen’s old house. Kinna later concluded that the woman might have been Tilen’s servant and he might have asked her to entertain us. The ground floor entry was so dark that we could hardly see a thing: we didn’t even notice the hanging goat head until we were leaving. We felt our way through another door into a room with some light coming down from the second floor and with a traditional dugout ladder going up. We followed the woman up the ladder and into her medieval kitchen. The only modern intrusions were a small fluorescent light and a cassette player, both powered by solar collectors on the roof.
She quickly fired up her small wood stove with some kindling and then put on some dried yak dung, which is the main fuel in this treeless country. Yak dung burns smokily, but fortunately her stove had a good chimney. Any remaining smoke escaped through a small hole in the roof.
We were joined by a two-year-old boy whose relation to the woman was unclear. He was not her son, but he certainly acted quite at home. Dolpo people live in extended families to compensate for the long absences and shared work necessary in this harsh environment. We were more amazed to realize that before we came, this two-year-old had been playing unsupervised in the field for several hours. Survival of the fittest breeds strong people.
After several cups of delicious milk tea, we took our leave and returned to our house for a late lunch. Marcia relaxed and read books for the rest of the afternoon while I walked down to the town monastery to take pictures in the good daylight.
While I was at the monastery, I saw a huge light-colored vulture circling overhead. As I watched, I realized that there were as many as seven. It turns out that a horse had died up the hill, and the call had clearly gone out.
Vultures are an important part of Tibetan life and death, as they are ritually invited to dispose of the dead body in sky burial, which recycles the body in a way that encourages reincarnation. The local belief is that when an animal dies, the vultures see the place in their dreams and they fly right there.
Fortunately it was not our time.