Galloping over the uneven ground towards the nomads’ tents I tug at the reins to slow my horse to a trot, leading the bridle around to look with me at the riders following far behind. Fifty or so gruff yaks graze around the black tents up ahead, their heavy coats shaggy with dung and mud, their maws tugging up mouthfuls of grass.
I wait for the others and together we ride up and dismount.
A woman with deep wrinkles and leathery skin emerges through the tent flap, her apron covered with ash and tsampa, her long black hair braided with red silk, a turquoise pendant around her neck. She shades her eyes with her forearm and holds open the heavy hide so we may enter.
Tashi delek, she says as we pass.
The interior of the tent is hazy with smoke. A fire licks at a black cauldron of boiling dhree milk in the hearth. In the corner near the mound of shawls and blankets is a mound of dried and flattened yak dung piled high as my knees. Down the right side of the tent a dozen or so calves are roped to the ground, roped so low they cannot stand. The ground is matted with dung. The dried stomach of a yak, filled with tsampa, swings like a pendulum above the fire.
Two young boys warm their dark, thick-skinned feet on the flames. Their cheeks are red and wind-burned. Streaks of snot have crusted below their nostrils. The woman crouches, feeds a few patties of dung to the fire, and cranks the bellows to swell the flames.
Isolation. Utter isolation.
It took a full day to ride from the nearest village to these grasslands and in every direction the treeless hillocks roll to the horizon. Beyond them in the blurred distance the snow-capped Himalaya close everything in.
The woman kneels out there in the field, tugging at the stubby utters of a dhree, squirting its thick milk into a bucket as it licks at a saddle drying in the sun.
It’s so silent I can hear the milk squirt into the bucket from 20 yards away. The air is soundless. No electricity. No birds. No trees to comb whistles from the wind.
And here amidst this silence a woman lives alone with her three children.
We saw so many like her on the ride here, so many nomadic women living alone with their children, the men mysteriously absent, perhaps off herding, perhaps gone off to barter, perhaps just gone.
The depths of silence they must know.
In the distance a yak herder climbs the skull of a hill on his motorcycle, his long black hair blowing behind him, a battalion of yaks trotting out in front.
In the field the boys are stacking up mounds of dried yak dung, flattening out the fresher piles to dry in the sun. Dung is the only fuel in this barren region. A yak dung fire to boil the dhree milk, to cook the yak meat on, to heat the yak butter, to soften the tsampa.
The moment the sun falls behind the mountains a cold wind sweeps over the land and the temperature begins to drop.
In the twilight I walk aimlessly over the hills, wishing I had some responsibility to attend to, some sort of labor to share with these people. I have nothing to do but observe. Such a life among these hills and silence, such a distant dream from the choking smog and insanity of the Chinese metropolises a few hours away.
Night has come.
We are in the tent, bundled up with coarse blankets that smell of yak and charred wood, gathered around the feeble fire, the room full of smoke, our eyes and nostrils burning. We are eating thukpa from steel bowls with our dirty fingers, drinking salted yak yoghurt from dried squash gourds, watching the children stare unblinkingly back at us.
After dinner I lift the heavy tent flap and go out into the cold fresh air.
The wind ripples the prayer flags streaming from the top of tent. The surrounding hills are well-lit by the moon. I look up at the sky, so clear out here, and begin urinating, listening to it splash into the grass at my feet, staring up at all that space, at all that colossal and indifferent darkness. Out here you can feel it, you can feel the dying planet we’re held to, and the dying stars. Out here there is an intimacy.
I zip up my jeans, light a cigarette, and turn around.
Back in the smoke-filled tent we prepare for bed. I spread some wool blankets over the grass near the calves, lie down, and pile more on top of me. The last chunks of burning dung crackle and spit in the hearth.
As the temperature drops I move a little closer to the yak calves, feeling the warmth of their living bodies through the blanket.
Outside, the chained-up Tibetan mastiffs are going wild, barking, howling.
Just as I fall asleep the enormous shape of a yak pushes through the wall of the tent, moves ponderously along, then vanishes. A while later I open my eyes to find his giant head poked into the tent, just standing there, absolutely motionless, looking at the fire. Then he lunges forward, filling up the tent with his enormity, and stops and just stands there again, staring into the fire. I fall back asleep.
In the morning we ride on.