|Photo by Lobzang Dadul|
A wooden footbridge hung with a thousand flags spans the Indus just above the town of Nurla, making a passage to the valley and village of Tar. Ascending first along water, among boulders, crossing and re-crossing the stream, the path leads out to broader, open areas with stalk-dry, aromatic shubs the goats graze in the summer. Sometimes the way will split around a Mani wall, passed always to the left, stones upholding stones carved in prayers. Turning back Ang Pu stands framed by the walls of the valley, the snow mountain to the north.
Just more than half of the way to Tar, the valley widens enough that a few terraces of fields lie out, and a cluster of houses above them. This is the Yok-ma, the lower summer village where a few families will move for the season. Above the houses an enormous, ancient cedar spreads, green against the grey-rising cliffs behind it, a blessing on the village. I wonder how long it has stood in that place; I wonder if its seeds might sprout, if planted. The whole is held in a bowl of unbelievable mountains.
Valley narrowing again, the water falls among willows and many, many roses. They are called thorns here, and valued chiefly for the strength of their long, arched wands. Climbing now steadily, the way leads to a place where a fast-running stream pours out, running over the path and down to the stream. An upturned teacup sits on the rock above, for thirsty passers-by. Prayer-flags mark the crossing. The water is cold and sweet, without the earthy taste of the springs of New England, water moving cleanly over hard, smooth rock.
Above the spring the valley closes further into a tight gorge, sheer walls on either side of the stream. The stone path turns upon itself in switchbacks, flags flying now in many strings. Smooth bowls and hollows carved above the level of the water show how it must have run once, or must run in some seasons. In several places, the drops make small waterfalls.Above one face of stone many, many khataks are tied, and a small shrine with a butter lamp-lantern made in an alcove. Once, the image of twenty-one Taras appeared there, stained on the rock face. People still journey to make offerings.
Up and up, half-breathless, and then the gorge gives way again to Tar. Fields spread in steep terraces below the houses, large and straight-walled and white, each one beautiful and well-made, well-kept. There are twelve, and several more for the summer, above as well as below. “Lep-le,” Chondol’s father Namgial said, sitting to rest at the head of the path. “Arrived.”
The afternoon of our coming we worked with Namgial and Chondol to rebuild a terrace wall that had collapsed. A grandfather of the village came, speaking to us, shaking Jason’s hand emphatically. Jason writes of this, “I stood on top of a terrace, ready to finish the section of the nine foot vertical wall that had tumbled during the winter. Suddenly a dark-faced, grinning, eyes-bulging, wrinkled man stepped up and began laughing and talking and asking questions. "Kane yin?" (Where are you from?) he said, slapped my back at my response, grinned and laughed and looked deep into my eyes and said "Yok la thores zhing smo chen le; nyerang skyod he le!!" (We're plowing my fields in the lower village tomorrow; come please my friend!!) How could I refuse? Of course the answer is yes."
We had arrived just in time for the beginning.
We woke the next day and found Namgial looking out the window with binoculars. “Ibex,” he told us. “Many.” It too me a long time to see their sand-colored bodies against the mountain, but finally I caught their motion. We watched as they moved up a grand slide and over rocks, across a cliff-face that seemed impossibly sheer, up again. We heart a whistling noise, that sounded like a bird of prey, almost—Namgial told us it was the skyin’s (ibex’s) warning call, which they make through their noses. It meant, he thought, a snow leopard was near. “They walk over that slope,” Chondol told me, gesturing to the mountain very near the house.
After tea we went with Namgial, four young cows, and a herd of village sheep back down through the gorge to the Yok-ma. As we entered the wider part of the valley just above, we saw more skyin on the slope to our right, very close. They looked to me to be the size of small horses, but massive, like dzo; I could see their shaggy coats, and the incredible arc of their horns.
Leaving the animals in the scrubland, we descended to find tea laid outside of Abi (grandmother) Tsewang’s small, simple earth brick summer house: an outdoor chansa made with low tables and Tibetan rugs, set between running streams. We rose to spread manure on several fields, moving in pairs, carrying lut shoveled onto burlap sacks. I carried often with Jason, sometimes with a young man named Rigzin, the son of the house, whose smile made me wish quickly to be friends.
We ate breakfast where we had drunk the morning tea, a single square tarp protecting Azhang’s (uncle's) Bodhic prayer book from the light-falling snow. His voice steadily intoned the prayers, and people sat, listening, looking at the world around them. He paused to grind a mixture of fresh mint, cilantro, and green onion when it was handed to him, the mortar almost flat, heart-shaped, hollowed just a little by its use. Then the courses of food began, after the blessings and tossing bits of food and drops of chang with a dipped juniper twig. Our attention turned to each other, and to the meal. We ate paba, steamed bread of barley and pea flours, yogurt, thin tagi (wheat bread), and thukpa, noodle-soup with delicious summer-dried cheese and Ladakhi peas.
Plowing happened much as it had in Takhmachik, and I felt intensely grateful for all we learned in our weeks there. The stream-sound was loud, and sight in every direction was an amazement, cliffs, and scree-slides of blushing purple stone. Washing my hands before lunch, I saw a small prayer wheel above the washing-place, wooden paddles turning it with the water’s flow.
The day was filled with song, and dancing too, Abi Dolkar doing a fantastic bent-backed wheeling dance on the field edge when entreated, Kunchok Palmo and Dechen Angmo graceful, with perfect hands. We sang Ladakhi folk songs and, as in Takhmachik, people were delighted—but unlike Takhmachik everyone sang together with us, and sang more songs as well, old ones and new ones both. And most of all there was the continuous song of the work, people singing instead of speaking, calling out to each other, thanking each other, narrating, teasing, all in the form of nonsense-songs, matching the rhythm of the labor. Ache (older sister) Tashi sang us a song, courting us, telling us of the house they would help us build, the fields they would help us prepare, the babies we would have, if we stayed in Tar forever.
We walked together back up to Tar in gathering dusk, a long, slow line of people and animals, stopping at the spring to drink the water rising fast from the ground. Coming out of the gorge and into Tar just as the dark was full, we brought the sheep home to the first house in the village, and then went inside.
For many hours then we sat and drank tea and chang, the first after-plowing gathering of the season here. Jason sat at the head of the room with Meme, the grandfather who had invited us to the plowing: “The old fellow laughed and slapped my knee and grabbed my shoulder, and spoke to me loud, and laughed hysterically when I grinned back and said ha ma go (I don't understand) and drank chang and rum and sang Ladakhi folk songs in a wavery voice late into the night.”
At some point Rigzin put music on a set of speakers—someone carried speakers up here!—and the gathering turned into a dance party. I think I will never love loud music from machines very much, but if it happens, let it be like this: grandparents present, laughing, involved, and little Padma Itses in arms, passed around among the dancers.
At one point Ache Tashi and Ache Palmo disappeared, and came back dressed in costume, tattered goncha and huge sunglasses, carrying a basket and a baby-carrier. Ache Tashi had a moustache painted on in charcoal. They introduced themselves as travelers from Changthang (eastern Ladakh), and proceeded to put on a comedy sketch that made me weep with laughing, even missing much of the language. Ache Tashi stopped dancing only long enough to pretend to drink glass after glass of the uncle’s chang, taking it from their hands. Dechen Angmo, at the stove, invited the Changthangpas to stay for dinner, which was ready. In hilarious parody of Ladakhi social custom they made the fastest exit they could, refusing everything, bent almost double, touching their hands to their foreheads again and again in an unending stream of "ju-le"s. At long last, after delicious, rich chu tagi, we went home, joyful and exhausted, to sleep.