Friends with the Nomads

Trip Start Sep 08, 2007
Trip End Dec 30, 2008

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Flag of China  ,
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Name: Sonam
Age: 35
Family status: Unknown
Job: Nomad
Religion: Tibetan Buddhism
It is still dark and the sky is covered with stars when we head to the bus stop. I have never seen so many stars in my life. I guess on the Roof of the World (the nick name for Tibet ) you are as close to the sky as it gets.  We pass by the butcher shops that are just opening. Massive chunks of yak meat are on display.  Tibetan cuisine revolves around yak meet and barley flower, as there is little else that grows in this harsh environment. 
At the bus stop, we helplessly try to pronounce the name of the monastery in order to be directed to the right bus.  In the end, I pull out my Lonely Planet guide and leaf through it with frozen fingers.  Here! - I stick the appropriate page in the driver's face, finger pointing to the Tibetan version of the Drak Yerpa Monastery.  Ah, he says, or rather shows - you have to wait, bus will be here soon.  We join a group of waiting pilgrims, politely declining to buy prayer flags from a rather insistent street merchant.  After a whole week of organized tourist programs, it is refreshing to note that we are the only westerners around.  Travel in Tibet is restricted for foreigners.  Most places require a travel permit, and these are only issued to organized tourist groups.
The bus arrives and all hell breaks loose.  The devoted Buddhists rush for the doors and try to elbow their way onto the bus all at the same time.  Luckily, my travel companion makes it inside in one piece.  Seats are secured and we are off to one of the holiest sites around Lhasa - the cave monastery of Drak Yerpa.  An hour later and few hundred meters higher than in the already thin air of Lhasa (3,595m) we struggle up the Kora (the holy path around the monastery).  Hoards of elderly people and mothers with infants on their back cheerfully pass us by while we are pretending to be taking pictures of the sunrise.  Winter is the time for pilgrims to head to the holy sights to accumulate some good karma and there is no lack of holy sights and monasteries in Tibet.  Pilgrims walk the koras spinning their prayer wheels, make offerings of yak butter, tzampa (fried barley flower) and small notes, and hang prayer flags up on the hills above the holy sites.  The colorful strings of prayer flags are quite a fascinating concept and also a marvelous decoration for the rather dull colored hills.  With each flap of the flag the prayers that are printed on it are carried by the wind to the upper authority.
Finally on the top of the Kora, in the midst of a prayer flags web, my friend pulls out a bunch of prayer paper (I call them prayer Post-it, for they are colorful squares, with printed prayers on to) and throws them in the air.  The sun is already over the horizon and a soft light streams through the prayer flags around us.  As we admire the sight of a snowy mountain in the distance, one of the pilgrims joins us at the top.  With his breath still rushing and a big smile on his face he throws a handful of prayer sheets in the air and yells - bashno-o-o-s, or something like that.  I grab a handful prayer sheets from my friend, throw them in the air and yell bashno-o-o-s.  Clearly, I didn't get the call quite right, so the pilgrims burst out in laughter, then toss some more prayer sheets and yell. My friend is snapping away with my camera. Then we all get together, head to head to review the pictures on the little screen of my Nikon. Our new friend is fascinated with my camera and wants to have the photos. No problem, I say, just give me your address and I'll send you some.  Turns out there are two problems - he has no clue what I'm talking about and, as it later turns out, he has no permanent address.  Hey, we have something in common!  The phrase book at the end of the Lonely Planet is only as good as to get his first name - Sonam.  I suspect he doesn't have a last name.  After a long bilingual conversation, we all give up and head downhill.
We bump into our new friend 20 minutes later as we join a crowd of spectators around couple of very made-up Yaks and a Polaroid photographer. One of the guys knows a little bit of English, so I ask him to explain to Sonam that my camera is no Polaroid, but I can print and send the pictures if he gives me his address. That's not going to work, he says. He is a nomad from the area of mount Kailash - one of the holiest mountains in Western Tibet - and he doesn't have a permanent address. He herds yaks and sheep during the summer, but now he is on pilgrimage to Lhasa . I offer to take a picture of him on the tourist yak and then bring the printed photos to the front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa at 5 pm. He agrees enthusiastically and starts getting ready for the photo. He fixes his hairdo, which is one long pleat wrapped around his head with a read thread at the end - quite a spectacular hair style sported by most men in this land. His dark skin, additionally toned by the high altitude sun is glowing and his eyes are sparkling through the slits of his eyelids. He jumps on the yak despite the disapproving looks of the Polaroid photographer.  His small frame (not more than 155cm) makes the yak look even bigger.
Later that day, I'm standing in front of the Jokhang looking through the printed photos and wondering whether Sonam will show up.  A crowd immediately gathers around me to inspect the photos. As I'm looking around to spot Sonam's red pleat, I notice that a red ribbon is not something that will set you apart from the crowd. Sonam does show up right on time with an escort of 5-6 of his fellow pilgrims. I notice him immediately as he marches towards me with a huge smile on his face. They go through the photos together, having a good laugh about them.  I make one last effort to have an informative conversation, which leads nowhere. His radiant face though tells me that he is happy.  He is the center of the attention, a photographed super star. He extends his arm and says: Thank you!  Oh well, I'll have to settle for what I can get.  I say goodbye and leave with the sense of great accomplishment of making Sonam's day.  With very little words we came to like each other by sharing a sense of mutual fascination for the huge difference in cultures, languages, and physical appearance.  Sometimes people love you for being different; sometimes they hate you - go figure.
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Hugs & Kisses, Vik 
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