Puba’s family home, Bamei
The family’s farmhouse was, I assume, typical: the ground floor reserved for wood and straw storage, and for livestock in the cold weather; a steep wooden stair going to the family quarters above; a second-floor terrace; and a ladder to the roof, used for drying crops. The main “living room” had one whole wall devoted to an intricately carved and painted altar. Low, wide benches also served as beds. There was a kitchen with a small wood-burning stove, and another large, brightly-decorated room with wooden cabinets.
The family welcomed me with my first tsampa – roasted barley flour mixed with tea and yak butter, stirred and then kneaded with the fingers, and eaten with the hands. I admit that I was a klutz, spilling the mixture over the side of my bowl and making a spectacle of myself. It was tasty, but the tsampa swells up once it hits your stomach and I was full after a few bites. What I really couldn’t resist was the accompanying fresh yak yogurt with sugar sprinkled on it. All of this was, of course, accompanied by butter tea, and my tea bowl was kept full almost every moment I was in the house.

Entrance gate, Gompa of the 7th Dalai Lama, Bamei

Our afternoon adventure was a visit to “very good goom-ba” (approximately the pronunciation of “gompa,” the Tibetan word for “monastery”) of one of the Dalai Lamas. We hopped on the “moto,” the family Honda motorcycle, me sitting behind Puba, and we were off down the country road, the wind in our hair and the world at our feet. Strange to say, but at age 50 this was also my very first motorcycle ride – I’ve always been a late bloomer.

The monastery was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever visited, lying in isolation at the end of long gravel road, its entrance flanked by long walls of chortens. Puba parked the moto, and we crossed a long, square courtyard toward the main prayer hall. It was locked. Not for the last time, Puba would negotiate the opening and private tour for us of a Tibetan monastery. We explored the outbuildings, looking for a monk who had the key, and I got the usual curious stares from young scarlet-robed monks. We communed with chickens and yaks, and sat on a wall at the front of the prayer hall enjoying the sunshine. Soon, striding toward us, was the monk with the key.

The locked side doors to the gompa, which were eventually opened for our private tour

The dim, hushed interior of the prayer hall was redolent of butter lamps, incense, stored barley flour, and history. The space was part spiritual center, part warehouse. The monk’s description of the hall was directed at Puba, who translated for me what he could. Rows of cushions faced each other in the center of the room, for the chanting monks, and bright wall murals were peopled with casts of Buddhist divinities and other characters.

While waiting outside, I had read an explanation in stilted English of the history of the gompa; it had been founded as Garther Monastery by the 7th Dalai Lama, Kakang Gyatso, in the 18th century.

Butter sculptures inside the gompa – yak butter mixed with bright pigments, on wood bases

After leaving the main building Puba motioned me to a door in the wall beside where he’d parked the moto. The door opened and an older monk welcomed us. He was a friend of Puba’s father, and in his private quarters he gossipped with Puba while we munched braided bread and drank tea. The monk fingered his mala (prayer beads) and mumbled Om mani padme hum when he wasn’t chatting. The couple of times we made eye contact, I felt that he was staring right into my soul.

We said goodbye and left. Beyond the line of chortens rose a serenely beautiful landscape of velvet-covered mountains, blue sky, and perfect white-gray Tibetan clouds. Seated behind Puba, we rode the moto down the gravel road away from the monastery. As the wind blew over me, the fresh coolness of the air and the giddiness of the high altitude made me realize that I had never had a moment like this in my entire life up to now. I decided right then to have a moment of acceptance – of peace, serenity, and an almost unbearably painful beauty. I wanted this moment to stretch into forever, and so it did.

My perfect view – looking away from the gompa past the chorten wall

One more special moment occurred later. During the night, I stumbled around the dark room, unable to find the flashlight to go to the “W.C.,” or the room with a hole in the floor. Pushing aside the curtain at the door, I saw moonlight coming through the open door to the terrace. I stepped over the threshold into the cold night air, and was struck by one of the most amazing sights of my life. It felt as if I was IN the night sky. The house and the dark mountains around it rushed upward into a vast, deep blackness, the stars so clear and bright I could reach up and touch them. I was both terrified and fascinated by the sheer number of them. The night sky and the Roof of the World were one and the same. The sound of the river at the bottom of the hill brought me back to reality, as did the cold; otherwise, I might have fallen upward and upward forever. Before I went back into the house, I saw a falling star.



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