Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet
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Rate this book. Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions. A heartwarming memoir of motherhood and adoption told through an African American lens.
Reader Reviews. A tale of courage in the face of arrogance that remains eerily relevant on U. Illuminating and deeply human, Today We Go Home shines a light on the brave military women of the past and present. Have you ever wanted to solve a murder? Gather the clues the police overlooked? Put together the pieces? Identify the suspect? Zhuoma had been enthralled by these tales, which were utterly different from anything in Tibetan culture. She pestered the two men endlessly, until they began to tell everyone that Zhuoma asked more questions than there were stars in the sky.
The men had returned to China the year Zhuoma turned fifteen, taking with them many scrolls in Tibetan and leaving behind for her a huge pile of books, as well as a great loneliness and yearning for China. But when she heard her father telling people that he was planning to emulate other landowners and send her to study in England because of the historic links between the two countries, she threatened never to marry if he did not let her see Beijing.
Her father relented and allowed her to accompany an estate owner from a neighboring region on a trip to China. It was a huge shock. Their faces seemed so white and clean, completely unmarked by life. There were no horses, no grass, no space, only buildings, cars, people, streets, and lots of noise. And Shanghai shocked me even more.
I saw creatures with golden hair and blue eyes-like the ghosts you see in Tibetan paintings-just walking along the streets. When Zhuoma returned to Tibet, she was dying to tell people about all the strange and exciting things she had seen, but no one understood what she was talking about. Her father seemed to have something very serious on his mind. His permanent anxiety and gloom robbed him of all interest in what she had to tell him, while his two wives never talked to Zhuoma anyway. To compensate for his neglect, her father began to send his groom to keep her company and listen to her stories.
It never entered his mind that I might fall in love with the groom. He told me that what I was experiencing was not love but simply need. All I knew was what I felt: that I wanted to be with this man all the time, and that I loved everything about him. It is the will of the spirits, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.
But we are all creatures of emotion, and emotions are not so easily circumscribed. Because of this there are certain rules in place. If a male servant and a noblewoman fall in love, then the only option is for the man to take the woman far away. If he does this, she loses everything: family, property, even the right to exist in her native place. My father knew I was stubborn so he took the advice of the family retainer, who had been his counselor since he was a child, and sent me back to Beijing with a group of servants.
The man who had first taken Zhuoma to China had Chinese friends in Beijing and the seventeen-year-old Zhuoma went to stay with them. Soon afterward her servants were ordered home. They could not cope with their alien surroundings. To them Beijing seemed not to belong to the human world at all. They felt surrounded by demons. No one spoke their language or ate their food. Without temples or monasteries they were completely unprotected by the spirits. Zhuoma, on the other hand, thrived. There the groom was soon replaced in her young mind by her love of Chinese culture. At the institute, my Chinese was already much more fluent than that of most of the other minority students and I progressed well in my studies.
When I graduated, I decided to stay on as a teacher and translator of Tibetan. He had died seven days earlier. Overwhelmed by grief and disbelief, Zhuoma made her way home. She could see in the distance the prayer flags fluttering from the hall where her father lay in state. Inside the hall, her father was already wrapped in a shroud, with his two wives kneeling silently to his left.
He was surrounded by offerings to the spirits, white khata prayer scarves, sacred inscriptions, and other objects brought as tributes by friends, relatives, and the household and farm serfs. Nor had he ever talked to me about such matters. One was from another local governor urging my father to support the Army of Defenders of the Faith and rise up against the Chinese. It said that the Chinese people were monsters and were bringing shame upon the lands of the Buddha.
The letter told him to contribute silver, yaks, horses, cloth, and grain to the army and to poison the water sources to deprive the Chinese of sustenance. He told my father that I was being well cared for in Beijing. It had arrived just before my father died. All the temples were destroyed, the landowners slaughtered, and the serfs fled. He had heard a rumor that I was being held captive in Beijing.
He hoped his letter would arrive in time. He himself was awaiting his fate. I did not understand why there should be so much hatred between my homeland and my dreamland. He was caught between threats from both the Chinese and the Tibetans. Religion is the lifeblood of the Tibetan people. I had no desire to help the Army of Defenders of the Faith kill Chinese people, nor did I want the blood of my own people to pollute the land.
My property and my role as head of the estate meant little to me any longer. Zhuoma went on to describe in a quiet voice how she had dismantled her estate. Having sent her stepmothers away with great piles of gold, she let the household servants go free and divided much of her property among them. The ornaments and jewels that had been in her family for generations she concealed in her clothing, hoping they would protect her and allow her to buy food in days to come.
Then she opened the granaries and distributed their contents among the serfs. He had been with the family since her father was three and had begun to learn the scriptures. Three generations of her family had benefited from his wisdom and resourcefulness. Now he was forced to witness the destruction of the household. When all was done, Zhuoma walked through the house surveying its empty rooms. It was dusk and she carried a flaming torch. Before she left, she intended to burn the house down. As she was about to set the building alight, her retainer approached her, his head bent.
Here I was received into the Buddhist faith. In life or death my roots are here. Mistress, please grant my request. Zhuoma looked at him. She realized that this man was not the lowly servant of her childhood. His face was utterly changed. Raise your head and receive your home. Zhuoma led her horse to the gateway of the courtyard, counting each step as she went in all.
When she reached the gate, she turned around and, for the first time in her life, realized how imposing her childhood home was. She turned out of the gatehouse and in what was left of the daylight noticed a man and a horse, the horse heavily laden with baggage.
The voice was familiar. She had never thought the groom was a man of such feeling and passion. She wanted to see his expression, but he spoke with a lowered head. But her expression soon turned to sadness as she described what had followed. As she and Tiananmen were preparing to ride away from the house, Tiananmen suddenly pointed to the sky and cried out. Zhuoma turned to see her house ablaze and, in the courtyard, her family retainer howling prayers as he burned.
The tears ran down her face. As Zhuoma continued with her story, she was barely able to hold back the tears. Zhuoma and Tiananmen had traveled east, toward China. Tiananmen was a good guide, taking them away from the usual routes and avoiding the conflict between the Chinese and the Tibetans. They had plenty of food-dried meat, barley, some butter and cheese. The rivers gave them water, and there was wood for the fire. Although they had to cross several high mountain passes, Tiananmen always knew where they could seek shelter.
During the long journey, Tiananmen put his heart and soul into looking after Zhuoma: finding water, preparing food, collecting firewood, laying out the bedding, keeping watch at night. He overlooked nothing. As she sat beside the leaping campfire or jolted along on her horse, she drank in his silent love. Despite their desperate situation, she felt hope and happiness. But then the weather changed. A great wind came over the steppe, bringing with it a blizzard that rolled up into itself anything it found before it.
The horses were struggling badly, and Zhuoma and Tiananmen could only inch forward. Realizing it was too dangerous to continue, Tiananmen laid out a place for the exhausted Zhuoma to sleep in the lee of a huge boulder. He then positioned himself in the path of the gale to shelter her. In the middle of the night, Zhuoma was awoken by the howling of the wind. She shouted for Tiananmen but there was no answer.
She struggled to stand up but could not keep her footing in the gale, and instead crawled about searching and shouting. Lost in the pitch darkness, she lacked any landmark by which to orient herself. Finally she fainted and fell over a mountain edge into a rocky ravine. When she came around from her stupor, the sky had been washed bright blue. Zhuoma was lying on the stony slopes of a gully. There was no sign of Tiananmen, his belongings, or any of their luggage. The blue heavens watched in silence as she wept; several vultures soared over her head, echoing her cries with their own.
I am the daughter of a nobleman: I am used to being looked after by servants. All I knew about east and west was the rising and setting of the sun. I walked for days without meeting a single person. Then I collapsed with cold and hunger. In the end it was the driver of the truck who spoke first. Although he had appeared to be concentrating on the difficult road, he had heard every word. Around the campfires, the exhausted soldiers sat back to back, with one group of men facing toward the fire, the other keeping watch over the darkness.
Every hour they swapped places. What did it mean? How did you know the Tibetans had come? Instinct told Wen that no one should move, that anyone who moved would be dead. Within a few seconds, countless Tibetans armed with guns and knives had surrounded them. Wen thought the end had come. Then a sorrowful song floated up into the air. The tune was Tibetan but the words were Chinese:.
Everyone watched Zhuoma as, continuing to sing, she slowly stood up and walked over to the leader of the Tibetans. Having first performed a Tibetan greeting, she drew an ornament from her gown and presented it to him. The sight of the ornament had an immediate effect on the Tibetan. He gestured to his men, who all took a step back. Wen and the rest of the company had no idea what was being said, but they were sure Zhuoma was trying to work out a way to save them. After many tense minutes, Zhuoma returned. The Tibetans, she said, wished to punish them. The Tibetans believed that herdsman had been lost and they intended to take double that number of Chinese lives in compensation.
Though Zhuoma had tried to negotiate with them, they refused to be merciful, arguing that to release the Chinese would allow them to kill more Tibetans. However, the Tibetan leader had said he would give them a chance if they agreed to three conditions. First, the Tibetans wanted to take ten Chinese as hostages, to be killed if the Liberation Army killed any more of their people; second, they wished the Chinese to return to their lands in the east and never to take another step westward again; third, the Chinese must leave behind all their weapons and equipment, including their trucks.
The radio operator argued that having to walk back with no food or water was no different from dying. Zhuoma told him that the Tibetans were prepared to leave them some dried meat. All this time, the company commander had been very silent. Now he asked Zhuoma to return to the Tibetans and request permission for him to hold a meeting with his men. It was not long before Zhuoma came back. The commander unbuckled his gun belt, gently laid it on the ground, then turned to address his men. The rest remain here. Twenty or thirty soldiers left the silent crowd, watched by the Tibetans.
Several minutes later, some of the men returned to the ranks but twelve remained by the commander. The commander asked Zhuoma to tell the Tibetans that, although they had requested ten hostages, twelve Party members wished to live and die together. They would therefore provide an additional two hostages. Clearly moved by the self-sacrifice of the two extra hostages, the Tibetans gave the departing Chinese not only the promised meat, but a few waterskins and knives.
The two women remained behind with the Tibetans. Wen had told Zhuoma something of her search for Kejun and her desire to head north toward Qinghai.
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When the time came for the women to go north, he would give them a guide. Zhuoma explained that her ornaments identified her as the head of an estate. Although Tibetans were divided into many different groups, each with its own culture and customs, they all made sacrifices to Buddha, and all leaders had identical ornaments, which were a symbol of their power. The leader of the Tibetans had immediately recognized her superior status. She was glad to have been able to use her power to help Wen, because she owed the Chinese menba her life. The group journeyed west for four and a half days.
The leader then came to Zhuoma and Wen and told them that if they still wished to go to Qinghai, it was here that they should head north. They had just stopped to pack food and water for the women when three messengers on horseback came flying toward them reporting that the Chinese cavalry was up ahead.
The Tibetan leader immediately ordered his men to hide their horses in the undergrowth nearby and Zhuoma guided their horse to follow. In the thicket, Wen could not help being excited at having come across Chinese forces so unexpectedly. Perhaps Kejun would be among them. Her elation was soon quelled by the fury on the faces of the Tibetans, and the sight of the twelve Chinese hostages being led into a mountain pass.
Terrified, she watched as a large unit of Chinese cavalry pursued and killed the few Tibetans who had not hidden themselves quickly enough. Gunfire was all around. Men fell from their horses, spouting blood. Light drained from the sky. When the Tibetan leader finally gave the order that it was safe to move on, it was pitch-dark. But the wind and the darkness conspired to separate them from their companions. As they struggled onward through the gale, the horse suddenly gave a long, frightened whinny and threw them from its back.
Seconds later they heard a thud as its body hit the bottom of a ravine. By throwing them, it had loyally saved them from certain death. Stunned, they sat with their arms around each other in the wild wind, hardly able to believe they were still alive. Still floating somewhere between life and death, Wen struggled to open her eyes. She was lying on the ground, but she was warm and comfortable. A shaft of strong light was beating down from above, making it difficult to see anything around her. With great effort she moved her weak body. Instinct told her that every part of her was there, but her head felt strangely absent.
Luckily for us, we had walked to the edge of the lowlands, where they have spent the winter. You collapsed. It must mean a lot to you. Even when you were unconscious, you were holding on to it. A young girl of eleven or twelve entered the tent carrying an earthenware bowl, shyly handed it to Zhuoma, then ran back out again.
Zhuoma told Wen that the bowl contained freshly drawn water, brought in by one of the daughters. The rest of the family were outside the tent working. They were planning to move on to spring pastures shortly, but in the meantime Wen could stay here and rest. It is the tradition of our country. Amid all this strangeness, he was still smiling at her. She then took the opportunity to gaze at the extraordinary dwelling in which she found herself. The four-sided tent was made from large pieces of coarse material woven from animal hair and supported by sturdy wooden pillars.
At its apex was a skylight, which could be opened and closed by means of a flap. This was the origin of the shaft of light that had blinded Wen when she woke. Now she watched the smoke from the cooking stove dancing in and out of the light. The simple stove, made from a large, boat-shaped stone raised from the ground on two small rocks, sat in the center of the tent. Beside it were a pair of bellows and stacks of brightly painted bowls, dishes, and jars, along with a few household items Wen could not put a name to.
Above a table set with religious objects hung an image of a Tibetan Buddha embroidered in colored brocade. To the right was a large cylindrical object made of bronze. Farther along there was a heap of felts and rugs, quilts and clothes. And on the other side of the altar, sacks filled with something that smelled like animal dung were piled high. The door to the tent was a flap through which an adult would have to stoop to enter. On either side of this flap were arranged a variety of household tools and equipment for animals. From her bed on the ground, Wen tried to make some deductions about her hosts, but found it impossible to guess how well-off the family was from the many gold and silver hanging decorations, the battered tools, the large number of bowls and jars, and the limited bedding.
Everything felt very new and strange to her, not least the peculiar odor of dung, sweat, and animal hide. When Zhuoma reentered the tent, she was surrounded by a crowd of people of all heights and ages. As Wen lay there looking up at their unfamiliar faces, her head swam.
Zhuoma introduced their hosts. The family had six children but only four were present because two of the sons had entered a monastery. Wen found it impossible to follow the Tibetan names of the six children. They seemed even more inscrutable than the Latin names in the medical dictionary that she had never been able to memorize. Zhuoma explained that each of the names contained a syllable from the sacred mantra that every Tibetan uttered hundreds of times each day: Om mani padme hum.
She suggested that Wen just call each child by the single syllable from the mantra: this would make the oldest son Om and the next son, who was at the monastery, Ma. The two daughters would be Ni and Pad. Me would refer to the other son who had gone to a monastery, and the youngest son would be Hum. Wen asked Zhuoma to thank the family for her and watched their shy smiles as Zhuoma translated. Over the following weeks, Wen was nursed back to health by Gela and his gentle wife, Saierbao, who fed her milk tea mixed with herbal medicine every day.
Zhuoma told Wen that the family had delayed moving to their spring pastures until she was fit enough to manage the journey. The two women discussed at length how they should proceed in their search. Zhuoma thought that they should stay with the family until the warmer weather came. By summer, they would both have learned enough to survive outdoors, and the family would have built up their reserves of food and might be able to spare them some provisions and a couple of horses.
Wen was alarmed by the idea of such a long wait. What might happen to Kejun in the meantime? But Zhuoma reassured her. The family was planning to travel northward to find spring pastures. Perhaps, she said, they would meet other nomads or travelers on the journey who would be able to give them news of Kejun and Tiananmen. Wen had no choice but to accept her situation, although, lying weakly in her bed, unable to join Zhuoma as she helped the family with their tasks, cut off from conversation by her inability to speak the language, each day felt endless. She was struck by the rigorous order of their days, which seemed to follow a pattern that had remained the same for generations.
Each member of the family went about their business with very little verbal communication. Everyone seemed to know their place and their days were filled to overflowing with jobs to be done. Zhuoma told her that it was they who would go off and leave the family periodically in order to trade for household items that were needed. Saierbao and her two daughters did the milking, churned the milk for butter, cooked the meals, collected the water, and made the dung cakes that would provide heat, cooking fuel, and light for the tent.
They also spun and made rope. Even eating their meals involved learning a whole new set of rules. Except for the cooking utensils, there were no forks, spoons, or chopsticks in the tent. The only eating tool the family used was a ten-centimeter-long knife that hung from their waists. The first time Wen tried to use one of these knives to cut a hunk of mutton, she nearly speared her hand. The children, who had crowded around her in amused curiosity as if they were watching an animal at play, gasped with horror.
The family ate the same three meals every day. Milk tea was then poured into the other half of the bowl. While they drank their tea, the family would turn their bowls so that the tea absorbed the jiaka, gradually washing it away. There was no need for cutlery. The first time Wen was given breakfast, she drank all the tea in the bowl in one go and then asked Zhuoma how to eat the jiaka. Once she was used to it, however, she enjoyed the sensation of partly drinking, partly eating her food, and found a way to avoid burning her mouth.
Holding the bowl in one hand, Wen used the other to roll the ingredients into little balls. The meal was always very generous: in addition to tsampa and milk tea, there would be dried meat boiled on the bone, which the family picked off with their knives. The little boy Hum showed Wen how to rip it apart with her hands and gnaw on it. There would also be delicious fritters fried in butter. Wen could see that this was an important meal for everyone: it could last for nearly two hours and the normally quiet family would spend some time discussing problems that had come up in the day.
In the evening, the family ate meat and barley flour again, but cooked into a sort of gruel in a way that reminded Wen of the hula soup she had drunk in Zhengzhou. Already she could feel her body getting stronger and her skin becoming tougher as it adapted to the harsh winds, the cold, and the sharp sunlight. The family appeared to accept her presence, but they never tried to speak to her. They would talk only to Zhuoma, of whom they appeared to be in great awe. Later, Zhuoma would tell Wen what had been discussed.
The religious practices of the family made her feel even more of an outsider. Zhuoma explained to Wen that both the large cylinder and the smaller wheels were prayer wheels. She depended heavily on Zhuoma for explanations about everything and gave thanks that she had been fortunate enough to encounter such a brave, clever woman. Had it not been for Zhuoma, she could never have begun to understand this family who, with their deep spirituality and carefree self-sufficiency, was as different from the Chinese as heaven and earth.
Misunderstandings, though, were still frequent. One day, the little boy Hum came into the tent when she had the photograph in her hand. He took one look at the picture and ran from the tent calling out in terror. Distraught, Wen went to find Zhuoma to ask how she had frightened the boy. Eventually, the family felt that Wen had recovered sufficiently for them to move on.
On the day of departure, Wen woke at dawn to see the shadows of Gela and Saierbao swaying in the weak light. She noticed that many of the things from the tent had been parceled up into rolls to be carried by the yaks. He indicated to her that he would take charge of her reins. The path their journey followed was very hard going. Storms forced them to stop and they had to huddle among the yak herd. At night they slept in the open air, sheltered from the snow and wind by mountain rocks. They did not see another soul. As the altitude, the hard riding, and the unfamiliar food began to gnaw away at her strength and spirit, she was plunged into depression.
Was Kejun suffering as she did? And how would she ever find him in these snowy ice fields where she had neither language, survival skills, nor any means of transport? She had lost all sense of time. Each day was like the other and she did not know if they had been traveling for days or weeks.
When finally they arrived at their destination, Zhuoma told her that they were close to the Bayan Har mountains and would set up their spring camp in the lush grassland near the Yalong River. For half a day, Gela and his sons hammered in poles, hung the tent, and secured the guy ropes. Once the tent was up, Saierbao and her daughters deftly arranged their household items.
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Wen sat by the luggage, clumsily helping them out with a few light tasks. According to their custom, after setting up house the family feasted on meat, tsampa, fritters, and barley wine. Just as she did while they were on the road, Saierbao prepared Wen some medicinal milk tea. After the feast, Gela led a prayer ceremony. That night, when they were all lying together on the ground, Wen wedged between Zhuoma and the daughter Ni, Zhuoma whispered to her that, as well as praying for the yaks and sheep to get fat and strong, Gela had prayed for the spirits to protect Wen.
Wen was deeply moved and, when she thought no one was listening, quietly recited to herself the Buddhist mantra: Om mani padme hum. The next day, helped by Saierbao, Wen put on a Tibetan gown for the first time. Over this, Wen put on a thickly lined robe of blue, pink, and purple cloth that hung all the way down to her feet. Saierbao showed her how to wrap it across the front of her body and secure it with a broad brocade belt.
She then tied a rainbow-striped length of cloth rather like an apron to the front. Wen was still frail, so to help her withstand the cold mountain winds, Saierbao gave her a high-necked sheepskin waistcoat and some felt boots. Saierbao made a sign to Wen to sit down, and standing in front of her, she parted her hair with a comb and made two braids on either side.
The youngest daughter, Pad, who was standing to one side, then gestured to Wen to look at herself in a bowl of water she had standing ready. Wen could hardly believe her eyes: apart from the fact that her braids were too short because she had only shoulder-length hair, she looked like a proper Tibetan woman. A few days later, Wen noticed that someone had laid a cloth bundle on her sleeping space.
It was her uniform, now cleaned and mended. She held the clothes in both hands, inhaling the tang that came from the sun of the high plateau, and bowed deeply to Saierbao. She began to doubt whether Zhuoma had been right in thinking there would be an opportunity to get information about Kejun and Tiananmen. Both she and Zhuoma were so absorbed in their struggle to adapt to the nomadic way of life that each had entered her own private world, and they rarely discussed what they would do next.
Despite her loneliness, though, Wen had begun to feel great affection for the family, particularly its matriarch, Saierbao. She was an extremely calm and dignified woman who seemed to savor all her chores, however tough and exhausting they were. She never shouted or scolded. At most she would purse her lips and smile briefly as if she had seen it coming. Saierbao loved jewelry and draped herself in precious things even on ordinary days: with her necklaces, bracelets, and waist ornaments of agate, jade, gold, and silver, she was like a multicolored wind chime.
Wen rarely saw Saierbao rest: her tinkling began the moment the first rays of light sneaked into the tent; at night, the whole family took its cue for sleep when her chimes fell silent. Wen would imagine performing the routines of life with Kejun in the manner of Saierbao: bearing and raising children, husband and wife working together in harmony. Gela seemed older than Saierbao.
He was a man of few words, but was the spokesman for the family. One of the popular Chinese myths about Tibetans was that the men were tall and strapping, but Gela was not much taller than his wife. Neither fat nor thin, his face neither humble nor arrogant, happy nor angry, he gave an impression of reliability, but he was not an easy man to read.
Wen found herself wondering whether he was a mute. He never spoke, not even when he was playing with Hum, the youngest child, of whom he was very fond. One night, just as daylight was breaking, Wen decided to brace herself against the gale and go outside the tent to relieve herself. She stood there for some time, unable to move, watching them sleep. Just to live with your own husband, she wanted to shout to Saierbao, is the most precious, wonderful thing in the world. The next day, Wen remained troubled by her discovery. Everyone noticed there was something wrong with Wen, but assumed that she was homesick.
She very much wanted to find out whether they were really in love or whether their coupling was just a physical urge, but she was ashamed of her own nosiness. Still, however she looked at it, Saierbao no longer seemed such a paragon. He was on a trip to collect colored stone from the mountains, which could be ground into pigment for religious paintings. He had heard from neighboring nomads that the family was nearby. Her Tibetan was still limited to a few basic words. All children who leave home for the monastery get homesick. For Tibetan children any of their fathers will do.
In Tibet a wife can have several husbands. Zhuoma passed the butter pole to Ni, who was standing nearby, entranced by their talking to each other in Chinese, and pulled Wen to one side. For you, living here is just like being in Beijing was for me. Wen was disappointed to find that Me and his fellow lamas knew nothing of the conflict between the Chinese and Tibetans and had not seen a single Chinese soldier.
Just before they departed, Wen asked Zhuoma if Me might be persuaded to part with two small pieces of colored stone. That evening, she used one of the stones to write a letter to Kejun on the back of his photograph. She remembered the diary and pen that Wang Liang had given her in Zhengzhou and that were now buried, along with her pack, somewhere in a mountain pass.
She felt that her short message to Kejun had given her fresh courage to face the difficulties ahead. It must have been very hard for him to leave the family at such a young age, she thought, and Saierbao must feel his absence deeply. Every household with more than two sons has to send at least one to the monastery to become a lama. This shows their religious devotion, but it also gives the child an education and relieves the economic burden on the family.
Were Tibetan children allowed any kind of childhood at all, Wen wondered. She asked Zhuoma to question Ni about what it had been like when she was smaller. Had she ever had toys? He had also carved them wooden animals as birthday presents. The oldest son, Om, was no longer a child. Every day at dusk, the time when all the family dealt with little bits of personal business, like removing lice from their robes and hair, washing themselves, or laying out their bedding, Wen would hear him singing outside the tent. Wen had no idea how an eighteen-year-old boy raised in such isolation could create such resonant melodies.
The oldest daughter, Ni, had just reached puberty and was the most animated member of the family. She was like a merry little bell, able to make her usually taciturn parents rock with laughter. But Ni always cried secretly at night. At first, Wen thought Ni was having nightmares. Wen avoided thinking about this. She herself was trying to hold off despair and refused to succumb to it even when, in her worst nightmares, she saw a blood-soaked Kejun.
Wen wondered what had left this lovely, flowerlike girl so bereft of hope. Nevertheless, she was always close by to lend a helping hand, passing her mother or sister the very thing they were looking for. If, after the evening meal, Pad was seen pressing their belongings to the edge of the tent to keep out the draft, Saierbao would give everyone an extra blanket for the night and, sure enough, later Wen would hear the wind roaring outside the tent.
But she was too afraid of what she might learn from such a revelation. The little boy Hum seemed to be about eight or nine. He loved being around other people, always wanting to learn everything. Wen often watched him with Om, who was teaching him to play the lute. He would even run into a flock of sheep his father was trying to round up, copying how his father threw the lasso and yelled at the animals.
Zhuoma told her that Hum was eager to enter a monastery like his two brothers. She noticed that Hum prayed with a devoutness far beyond his years. Such maturity of belief in a boy not yet four feet tall must, Wen realized, be a true spiritual vocation. What was so surprising about the men in the family doing the sewing? Ni fell about laughing after she heard this. Zhuoma explained that the clothes of the earliest people in Tibet had been made out of animal skins and furs, which needed to be sewn with very thick thread.
Only the men had the strength to sew with needles like iron poles and ropelike thread. Although it was now possible for women to sew clothing, the old tradition remained. However, she rapidly discovered that, although Saierbao swayed and hummed as she went about her tasks, they were by no means easy.
At first she found it impossible to milk the yaks. It was a job that demanded a great deal of skill. Worn out and dripping with sweat, Wen got nothing but complaints, and certainly no milk from the yaks. Making dung cakes looked easier but Wen soon found out that this was very deceptive. Before the dung could be dried, it had to be collected. She was supposed to scoop up the dung with a special curved shovel, and swing the droppings into a basket carried on her back.
Then it had to be kneaded and patted into cakes, dried in the sun, neatly piled into sacks, and stored inside the tent. Wen usually ended up throwing the fresh dung all over herself instead of into the basket on her back. She howled at Zhuoma about how bad her aim was. Being pure physical labor, fetching water required the least skill of all the chores.
But it demanded great strength. Wen could hardly bear the weight of the water cask and would stagger along. More often than not, she would lose most of her load before she was halfway home. Wen most wanted to master the butter churning. Churning involved stirring milk in a wooden tub with a wooden pole hundreds of times, until the fat separated and could be ladled off to make the butter. Another process involved separating the curds and whey. The dried curds could be made into cakes with tsampa and were often used as religious offerings.
The equipment and methods used in churning reminded Wen of the chemistry experiments she used to do at the university. However, after half a morning helping Saierbao, she could hardly raise her arms, and by evening, her hands were too weak even to pick up her food and eat. Wen recalled her mother telling her that an educated young Chinese woman should have a thorough grounding in six things: music, chess, calligraphy, painting, needlework, and cookery. A Tibetan woman was valued for a very different set of accomplishments. Wen blushed at the thought of her own incompetence.
Even her medical training was of little use here. The family made their own herbal remedies, very different from those in Chinese medicine. Zhuoma showed her the mysterious caterpillar fungus and the saffron crocus, which were of great medicinal value. She understood now why Kejun had needed to undergo special training in how to use Tibetan herbs. Zhuoma was also suffering with the work. Although she had a better understanding of what was expected, she was not used to physical labor and tired easily. Gela was kind to the two women and told them not to expect too much of themselves.
The four seasons allowed people to move their homes, and yaks and sheep to mate and molt. They should take life a day at a time. Saierbao screwed up her eyes and sniffed, as if to seize hold of the smell of summer. She told Zhuoma that Gela would shortly give the order to move to summer pastures on higher slopes. Again they would be traveling northward.
The concept of a map was utterly alien to them. She had absolutely no idea where she was and all the mountains and plains looked the same to her. Everyone was excited at the thought of the summer move. The days had been growing warmer and longer, the sun was getting hotter and, at the midday meal, they would leave their fur jackets open. Wen, who was now comfortable on horseback, felt a new sense of self-confidence. She was sure that she was on the road to finding Kejun and imagined him bundled up in Tibetan clothing like her, struggling to survive and find his way home.
She fantasized about a horseback reunion amid a flock of sheep and the pleasure of drinking milk tea with Kejun in a tent. She surprised Zhuoma with her happiness. To the north, Wen could see the snowy peak of an immensely high mountain. Through Zhuoma, Gela explained that it was Anyemaqen, a sacred mountain and the most important of the thirteen holy mountains at the source of the Yellow River.
Anyemaqen was the god who watched over this region with its many lakes threaded onto the newborn Yellow River like pearls on a string. In ancient times the Tupo tribe called this area the Hundred Lakes, and nomads often still used this name. Wencheng introduced crops and medicines to Tibet, and showed us how to grow barley. The king and his bride honeymooned at the source of the Yellow River before making the arduous journey southward to the capital, Lhasa There Songtsen built the Potala Palace for his queen. In Qinghai there is a temple built to commemorate the arrival in Tibet of Princess Wencheng.
They were taking with them yaks and sheep, along with two white khata scarves from the store that the family kept as offerings. She asked Zhuoma where they were going. Wen had indeed been puzzled by the inscriptions she had seen on rocks, and the piles of smaller, carved stones that she saw everywhere. However, she had taken to heart the Tibetan taboo not to ask questions about religion and had not dared to raise the subject.
Since their first long conversation in the cab of the army truck, Zhuoma and Wen had avoided talking too much about politics and religion, as if frightened that their growing friendship might be spoiled. They offer yaks, sheep, and other goods to the stonecutter, who then chooses a rock for them from the mountain and carves into it the six syllables of the great mantra. These carvings use many different kinds of calligraphy and can be painted a multitude of colors.
Some mani stones are engraved with whole paragraphs of Buddhist scripture, while others are carved with images of the Buddha. They are simply a symbol of their faith and bring them spiritual comfort. That is why you often see great piles of mani stones in among the mountain rocks we pass. Even the mountains, waters, and plants speak of faith.
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Because we are isolated from the outside world, we believe that here all things between heaven and earth exist as they should. We believe that our own gods are the only gods and our own ancestors are the source of all life in the world. We are cut off from the march of time. When our farmers sow their seeds, they simply leave the fate of their crops to the heavens. There are no modern farming techniques. The farmers behave as their ancestors did hundreds or even thousands of years ago, as do the nomads. Both groups have a very difficult life. They are obliged to give away much of their crops and animals as offerings to the monasteries.
This is a very heavy burden for people who have so little, but they must honor the lamas who protect them. Once selected, the new Dalai and Panchen Lamas live out the rest of their lives in magnificent palaces. We obey only lay rulers. Wen reflected. She suddenly realized that this was a very difficult question to answer.
She thought of Kejun, a man who had to find an answer to all questions and then a reply to all the answers. Perhaps Tibet had changed him too. Zhuoma nodded. Perhaps now that summer is here, we can ask Gela for food and horses. I will try to speak to him. When Zhuoma and Wen returned from the lake, they found two men in the tent, both carrying rifles with bayonets. The men received a warm welcome from the whole family, who cooked a great hunk of mutton in their honor, and the aroma of roasted meat and barley wine filled the tent. Once the men had gone, Zhuoma told Wen that the men had been passing travelers who were gathering medicinal herbs.
Neither she nor Gela knew them but, in Tibet, all travelers received an enthusiastic welcome because they were the bearers of news. It was traditional to treat them with great respect and offer the best food. Their horses would be checked over by the men while the women would prepare them water and dried provisions for their journey. Sadly, this group of men had not been able to offer much information that was of use, either to Gela or to Zhuoma and Wen.
Early the next morning, as the first rays of sun were scattering over the grassland, everyone set about their tasks as usual. The men started to herd the sheep and yaks toward the slopes of a mountain to the south. This was the only time during the day that the three men raised their voices. There was an undertone of excitement to their vigorous calls as they drove their beasts, and the sound mingled with the lowing and bleating of the animals. Zhuoma set off for the lake with Ni and Hum chattering and laughing behind her, as if the empty waterskins on their backs were filled with happiness.
Saierbao, Pad, and Wen set about churning the butter, a skill that Wen had now mastered. She was full of new hope and confidence.
For a while now, between the evening meal and prayers, the children had been asking her to read aloud a passage from the book, which Zhuoma would try to translate. Every day she and the children learned something new. Suddenly, Wen saw Pad standing in a trance at the tent door, staring into the distance. Even more strangely, she then walked twice around the tent.
She walked over to the tent door and saw, in the distance, Ni and Hum running toward them. There was no sign of Zhuoma. When the children finally reached the tent, they were in tears.
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Wen waited anxiously for the men to arrive back at the tent so that she could find out what had happened. After what seemed like hours, the men entered the tent and listened to what the children had to say. Wen implored them in gestures to explain to her what was being said. Taking a board that was usually used for working sheepskin, he threw some barley flour over it and drew a few pictures with his finger. Although crude, the pictures were clear enough.
When Wen had recovered from her initial shock, she laboriously asked Ni if she had seen anything else. Ni pulled down the sleeve of her robe to reveal several long scratches on her right shoulder. She guessed they must have been hurt struggling with whoever had kidnapped Zhuoma. Wen had no idea why anyone would have wanted to take her. It was inconceivable. For the rest of the day, Wen asked Ni and Hum many questions using gestures, pictures, and objects in an attempt to find out some more details about what had happened.
It seemed that while Zhouma and the children were on their way home with the water, the group of men had ridden up to them, lassoed Zhuoma as they would a horse, and bundled her into a large cloth sack-the kind used to carry offerings. The children could understand what the men had been saying, so they must have been Tibetans. Two of them, it appeared, were the men who had visited their tent the day before.
Had she seen or sensed something? She tried to ask her if she knew where Zhuoma was now, but Pad simply shook her head and pointed to her mouth, not saying a word. Wen had no idea what she meant. Each evening the men would return disconsolate. When they caught her eye, Wen understood that they had no hope of finding Zhuoma, and that they pitied Wen, who now found herself completely alone and unable to communicate. At night, she would weep for the woman whose sleeping space now lay empty at her side, remembering her courage and intelligence. During the day, she struggled to manage without Zhuoma as an interpreter.
And she had little hope of learning more Tibetan. Even when they had the time to talk to each other, it was rare to hear them in conversation. Without language, how would she ever be able to persuade them to help her leave their home and risk her life alone on the plateau? Aside from the fact that she had his photograph, the family knew nothing of Kejun. Zhuoma had advised her not to tell them that the Chinese army was in Tibet.
They would not understand why and it would frighten them. Would she ever be able to tell them that she loved her husband so much she was prepared to suffer anything to find him? Wen was eaten up by pain and disappointment. It was as if she had drawn close to her husband only to see him disappear yet again. She was trapped and could see no way out. When the time came to move to their next pasture, Gela seemed to choose an even more remote place to settle. If they saw a human form in the distance, Gela would signal to his family to keep out of sight. It felt like they were leaving the world of men far behind them.
Wen began to keep a diary. Every day she would use one of her colored stones to write a few lines on one of the pages of The Collected Essays of Liang Shiqiu. The stones left only a faint indentation. She had to condense and limit her writing in order to save paper. Nevertheless, the diary was her only means of recording her thoughts and retaining her ability to write Chinese. It gave her a new strength and determination to survive.
Saierbao yelled out to her husbands for help, and Gela carried Ni back to the tent. Gela then mumbled a few words to Saierbao, who went over to the stove and put some water on to boil. Using all the Tibetan she had learned, Wen tried to tell Saierbao that she was a menba, that she might be able to help them, but Saierbao looked at her blankly and continued what she was doing.
On the garments under her robe they found layer upon layer of bloodstains. Now Wen finally understood why Ni had been weeping every night: she must have been bleeding like this for ages.