Mr A. Writinghawk (writinghawk) wrote,
Mr A. Writinghawk

Farewell to Himalistan

A power cut one evening. I walk up to the shedra rather than sit in the dark, and was given dinner there. Afterwards Phuntso walked me part way back. I say 'Maybe the power is back - there are a few lights there.' He says, 'I think those are fires in the potato fields to keep the pigs off.' People sleep there all night to protect the potatoes from pigs, he tells me.

I walk back down the road. No sound at all, no light apart from the twinkling pricks on the potato fields, no sign of human life at all. This must be something like what the valley looked like at night to the C14 saint who wrote an ode to it.


On the way to a lesson one morning, two cows sitting on the path, one black, the other black and white. A magpie sat on the former, pecking at it, and a crow on the latter. It looked as if they had swapped cows.


The weekend before I leave, a splendid Australian family I have got to know, who are living in the village, are supposed to be coming to stay. Two monks from from my class in the monastery come in the evening to set up bedding for them (they don't come in the end, but anyway) and say they will cook me a farewell dinner. I have had some noodles, but could eat a second dinner, so I thank them politely. They potter out into the kitchen at something after 7, and that is the last I hear for some hours. I am reading Mario Vargas Llosa's 'Time of the Hero', which is very gripping, but come 9.30 or so I am thinking of bed and assuming they have vanished go out to see what has become of the key. One of them is outside washing something under the tap. 'Now ready', he grins, in answer to my query, so I go back and read a bit more MVL, and after a while he brings in something in one of those pink plastic heat-retaining tubs and disappears again. At about ten to ten they finally arrive with all the food, and they have made (on the two rings in the cookhouse) rice, three curries and a chilli sauce with chilli, onions and ginger. It is an amazing feast.


Rinpoche, having been away in the capital for a month or two, turned up a few days before I left. That evening his new assistant comes in and summons me to an audience, where R is pleasantly warm and grateful and gives me a parting gift of a shoulder bag of traditional Himalistani woven fabric. Then the evening before I leave, a deputation from the shedra monks come to visit, and kindly give me a parting gift, namely a shoulder bag of traditional Himalistani woven fabric. (There is a big tourist handicraft industry which makes an amazingly small range of things.) They outdo the Rinpoche, as they have added a matching washbag. I thank them kindly and fold away both my new bags in my luggage, and the next morning, before I finally leave, a representative of my class in the monastery comes to give me a farewell gift. Astonishingly enough, it is a shoulder bag of traditional Himalistani woven fabric. They too have gone further, by adding a matching table runner. Finally Tsering, the monk I have got to know best and from whom I have learnt to cook chilli with cheese, gives me a parting gift. It is a washbag of traditional Himalistani woven fabric.


After leaving the monastery, I stay a night in the local town before getting the 6am 12-hour bus to the capital. There I meet up with the film star-turned-director whom I first met when he gave me a day-long lift out to the monastery. He is busy with shooting his latest film, and I spend a fascinating morning on the set. Ten or so guys are at work for half an hour or so between scenes setting up lights, camera rig and angles, and bits of set for the scene to be shot next - a scene being, mostly, a few seconds (e.g. the main character's father knocks on her door, calling her name, and opens the door), and needing to be shot in long shot as well as close up (for each character) and possibly each in several takes. They probably get about thirty seconds of the final film while I am there. I understand now why film shoots expect to get about a minute a day.

Film acting is not like theatre acting. As the character walks the few steps to the door, he cleverly places his feet to avoid tripping over the camera rails. When he finds his daughter and they have a private and intimate conversation, hordes of technical crew are swarming round them, kneeling or leaning just out of shot. Without moving his feet he could sit on one of them, if he chose. The director tells me how the experience of this actor, an old hand, shows in contrast to a new and untrained actor in a different role: 'If he does like this' (a gesture touching his hair) 'in long shot, he does like this in close up.' Likewise if an actor pauses for a moment in one shot, he must do the same in all other shots of the same scene. The director, too, has to remember all such details of movement and timing so that he can call for a retake if the actor gets it wrong.


Leaving Himalistan this morning. I've had a couple of days in the western town and former capital where the airport now sits, at an expensive but beautiful guesthouse owned by a Himalistani artist who built it himself, and his American wife, who is away working. (They live in the main house, from which it is separated by the garden.) It is built on a steep rise so is small but on split levels, and combines traditional Himalistani elements with Japanese simplicity and Western comfort. There is stone and wood and glass, bits of ancient woodwork from the old fortress that he picked up for a song when they were refurbishing it, a veranda, sliding doors, a tiny meditation room, an enclosed yard giving off the bathroom with an outside shower (as well as the one inside). Showering under the sky in the crisp morning: an edge of cold air softened by the warm water gushing down, riven stones, birdsong and the buzz of crickets, mountains, the tree-like prayer flags, blue sky and fluffy white clouds overhead.


The town is much more interesting and attractive than the capital nearby. Yesterday I visited the amazing monastery that is the country's most essential sight to visit, which clings tenaciously but implausibly to the side of a vast cliff face and is accessible only via a steep hike. My host told me this was two and a half hours; but after my long acclimatisation to Himalistan, altitude and mountains, it took me one and a half, skipping past numerous other walkers and parties as I went.

I've spent the rest of my time here walking about town and visiting the very impressive 'fortress' or monastery-cum-town-hall which is the signature dish of Himalistani architecture, and various other local monasteries of interest. In one, the second of the two demoness-subduing monasteries in Himalistan, there was a puja in which, unusually, both monks and nuns were taking part, making for a distinctive and appealing sound during the more than usually tuneful chants. Two were constructed by a C15 master who is most famous for building dozens of bridges after being put in a bad temper by a ferryman who wouldn't take him across a river - or rather, out of his infinite compassion, born of the experience, for beings who might want to cross rivers - but the one just under the fortress was the loveliest, a small place built between a rock wall and the river. A plump, pale and bespectacled young novice monk lives there (his teacher is at the fortress) and shows me round: he unlocks the temple, ties a piece of string round my neck representing a blessing from the local deity, and proudly shows me his own cosy bedroom.


Speaking of local deities, my landlord showed me a large boulder near his gallery in town with a hole through it near one corner. Some other local deity, they say, rides into town every night and this is where he ties up his horse. This is known for a fact to be true, since people sometimes come and smear a little lime paste (the stuff they spread on betel leaves) in the hole in the evening, and it is gone by morning, a clear proof that it has been rubbed away by the horse's restraining rope.
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