That Time I Hung Out With Three Tibetan Monks

When traveling to remote, unfamiliar places, there are generally one of two modes that can be adopted.

One, that people are inherently selfish and just want money. Two, that the world is good and people are capable of generosity with no ulterior motives.

These are not mutually exclusive schools of thought and each has its pitfalls when taken to an extreme. The former, born as a defense mechanism, can be misconstrued as arrogance. The latter, as naivety. Neither is right or wrong and each has its justifications, but choose wisely — because where one lies on the gradient between trust and distrust can dramatically alter an experience and the difference between a bad day and an epic one for the books.

“I think she just wants our money,” my travel companion Natalie says, narrowing her eyes at the ancient Tibetan woman in front of us. “She’s trying to sell us stuff. Her necklace.”

The woman stares back, just as intently, with her piercing, bright hazel eyes. One hand is raised out to us, holding a long necklace of brown beads accented with the occasional drop of turquoise and coral. The other hand points furiously up at the vibrant green hill ahead, curved so dramatically against the clear blue sky that we can’t see where it leads.

“I think those are just her prayer beads,” I shoot back, taken aback at my own defensiveness. “I think we should just follow her. It’s not like we have anything else better to do.”

The woman shouts at us in a language I can’t fully understand. Is it Tibetan or a heavily accented Mandarin Chinese? Or both? Perhaps both.

“Okay, okay,” I tell her in Chinese, trying my best to assure her that I understand, even though I fully do not. “We will follow you then,” I say, assuming that is what she is asking for.

The woman seems satisfied with my answer and begins walking on a dirt path up the hill. Natalie and Christian, our new German friend that we met at a hostel the day before, both concede. They are reluctant, slightly wary.

I myself am not sure if this is a good idea, but I am so mesmerized by this strange woman that I am determined to see through to the end of the story.

As we follow her, I make up my own stories. Who is this woman and where is she taking us?

I imagine her, elegant and lovely in her youth, living in the surrounding grasslands as a nomad. Every day she wakes up at 4 a.m to milk the yaks that she knows, so intimately, by name, and everyday, on her back, she carries home dried yak dung for fire and water for drinking. After the livestock is rounded-up, she is responsible for cooking dinner and does so, faithfully, daily, crouched over the stove in her family’s black-hair yak tent.

Today, the woman is beautiful, weathered, and antique with steep cheekbones colored slightly pink by the sun and a slouch that has her bent, permanently, at 45 degrees. A long wooden staff propels her forward and it inches forward along rhythmically, without pause. She wears a white blouse with faint patterned roses and wrapped, at her waist, is a thick, navy Tibetan robe dripping with hand-stitched flowers and bold red lines at the edges. Her hair, two long braids parted in the middle, is marvelous and thick even in old age and nearly kisses the ground. An array of turquoise and coral necklaces drapes from her neck and she smells distinctly of yak and butter. I find myself wondering if her necklaces are made out of real coral. Pink coral, which was brought over to Tibet via the Mediterranean Sea, is a precious commodity worth its weight in gold. It came over through the Silk Road via Iran, Samarkand, Ladakh, and then Lhasa. For Tibetans, it’s an amulet for warding off negativity.

We struggle with maintaining her pace.

The air is thin; we are 9,800 feet above sea level.

Eventually, a couple of other tourists pass us and our ancient guide stops and pulls off one of her necklaces — a bright pink one. She reaches out and shouts at them.

Natalie was right — she was trying to sell us the necklaces. But before Natalie can publicly claim victory, we spot a mountain of prayer flags just a couple hundred feet ahead of us — a mad array of yellow, green, white, blue, and red flags strung together in a chaotic heap against the base of another hill. It reminds me of the morning after a state fair, the leftovers of a circus act. There are mantras inscribed on each rectangular flag, so that the wind can carry blessings to all surrounding space. For what reason, I wonder out loud, would there be such a large pile?

Natalie, tired of following my lead (and for good reason), insists on staying where she is and sits on the grass, admiring the view.

Christian and I walk ahead in curiosity. After all we had come so far. Might as well check out the prayer flags.

To the left of the prayer flags are a couple of people standing around. Tourists, I reckon, and their guides.

“And so this person died this morning?” I overhear a Han Chinese tourist ask a Tibetan guide. “Man it really smells.”

I look down, at my feet. There’s a clean human skull right next to me, a knee cap with a bit of meat still on it, a bloodied-axe, hair, and many, many teeth.

I look up to the sky. Alas, a couple of vultures — no doubt full from their morning meal.

“Holy fuck Christian,” I whisper. “This is a sky burial site.”

Every summer, the Tibetan monks of Lamung Monastery in Langmusi get to go on vacation and it’s a welcome respite that comes at just the right time. Summer time is when the tourist season picks up and the monastery becomes flooded with cameras and lines and pushing and spitting.

Many of the monks go up to the grasslands to forage for medicine; some choose to use the time to sit on the grasslands right above the monastery and contemplate life. Three of monks, best of friends since the age of 14, have decided on the latter and they choose the hill right by the sky burial site to relax for the afternoon. At one point, they see three foreigners walking pass them and staring — a tall blonde man, a brunette girl who looks American, and an Asian girl who may or may not be Chinese. Curious, they wave and invite them over.

“What are your thoughts on the sky burial?” the middle monk monk asks us after basic introductions. His friends ignore us; the one of the left is swiping madly on his phone and the one on the right, marked by glasses, is chewing on a piece of grass, staring out on the distance.

Sky burials are a funeral practice by Tibetans in where a body is cut up and left for vultures to eat on high mountaintops. It’s the most common way to process the dead; cremation is limited to high-ranking monks and water burials, via local rivers, tend to be reserved for children. In a sky burial, bodies are cut up to pieces by a designated monk, depending on how the deceased died, and left for the vultures to eat. “But first, we leave the body alone for seven days before the burial,” a local Tibetan boy had told me earlier that day with conviction. “In case it resurrects. That happens sometimes.”

“It’s, um, unconventional,” I say to the monk’s question. “But it’s a cultural practice and I respect it.”

“You know why we do it right?”

“No.”

“For the environment.”

“What?”

“How do you guys bury your dead in America?”

“Cremation or burial.”

The monk pauses and smiles. I marvel at how much he looks like a living reincarnation of the atypical Buddha statue, his deep, cardinal red robes adding to the effect.

“We don’t need to take up any more space on this earth when we are dead,” he says. “In our tribe, everything returns to nature.”

An awkward silence falls over the six of us, so elongated that it eventually turns into a comfortable silence. We look out towards the sky burial site and I find myself wondering who the person was who died. Was she a woman, or was he man? How old? What happened?

Unprompted, the middle monk points to his shoes, changing the topic.

“When we were young, we never had to wear shoes out here. But now we do because of glass shards.” He tells me that the grasslands have been getting drier and drier over time.

“We monks live a very simple life. We love nature. Nature is at the core of everything.”

Minutes later, he gets a phone call and pulls out an iPhone from his robe, answering in Tibetan. He gets up, nods at us, and wobbles away. We’re left with the two other monks, who don’t say much.

Eventually, we bid them goodbye, the images of trash and skulls emblazoned into my thoughts. The irony of it ringing through my head: how plastic and glass can be so permanent but how humans remains can be dealt in a way that where we leave no trace.

Tomorrow we leave for nomad’s land.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.