Tibetan Lover

Chang Ying-Tai

Illustration by Emily S. Franklin

No one believes in myths anymore, but that doesn’t mean no one needs them.
The shrine is called Wuzi. “It means 'the hall of creatures’ breaths,'” said Nyima. When nobody was looking, I stuffed each leather pouch outside the shrine with a breath of my own. Every last one. They say the last breath of each spirit is sealed up here. A lama is possessed by a god, goes hunting for the breaths of freshly departed souls, and takes them in goatskin pouches into the temple, where they’re hung on the walls outside the shrine.
“I breathed into one of those pouches once,” said Nyima. I forgot to ask which, so I had to open every one and take a sip of breath from each.
A monk told me I was a herder here in my past life; this time my spirit was sent somewhere else by mistake. But I think I was seized by a bandit and left for a moment where nobody would think to look. Or maybe I seized the bandit and lost myself in the fuss of his capture. Am I the one in that pouch now? Or did the bandit steal me before I stole him? Which of us is sitting in the hall of creatures’ breaths?
Maybe Nyima would say, “Two hopelessly entangled robbers stole each other.”
As soon as he peeked into my tent, I decided he was a bandit. In fact, he was a demon, but I forced myself to stay calm as the devil-king’s face loomed in from the black night. Two giant eyes glared viciously out of his chest, then turned and vanished the moment they appeared. And I was devoured by the demon: my body wet by a bloody tongue, my breath choked with infernal smog, my mind consumed by panic.
All of me screamed, “Get away! Get away!”
He left.
He left a hole ripped in the tent. Several beastly claws and eerie fangs of starlight dipped inside the hole. I stared at it, transfixed.
After a moment I could move again. I sat up, picked up my pistol, and crept outside. It was a strange dark night, the whole valley eerily still. A mysterious lapping sound filled the damp air, now murmuring like the rising tide, now whispering like an incantation.
Far off I saw him, facing the lake, his back to a sea of grasses, his long hair and his long beard dancing in the wind. A few strands of that long black hair found their way onto my chest. I took in my hand the demon hair, glinting reddish-brown in the gathering moonlight. Nyima was sitting on a stone. With a short knife, he began cutting the beard dangling over his chest and the hair draping down to his waist. He left it carelessly where it fell. The wind blew longer hairs over to me, landing on my chest, my face. I couldn’t see his chest, but somehow I knew it was covered in hair—or was that a figment of my imagination?

I parted the long grass and drew closer. His hair was the wind and the wind was the scent of his body—and all were bewitched by the moonlight. Resting on the rock beside him was the figure of otherworldly wizardry. The ferocious face and giant glaring eyes were momentarily powerless, for he had undressed, unfastened the mask that hung down over his chest, and slipped into the water. His body was mighty like a war stallion and graceful like a wind horse. I caught a glimpse of his profile as the tip of his long shapely nose cut the water with a murmuring sound.
It was a struggle to pin that murmur down. Did it come from shaman, hermit, bandit, or beast?
“Don’t fret,” said Nyima, “I can shift into many shapes, things you can’t imagine.”
He always vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared, melting without a trace somewhere between one mountain and the next. Sometimes his shadow swept past the side of the tent. Sometimes a long arm would reach out and grab you from the waters of the lake. Sometimes he took cover as a sage or a devil, a hunter or a wild beast. He used a myriad of masks and costumes. Sometimes just a whiff of skin—a tangle of body hair—a gust of wind.
We both play at reincarnation. He plays in the abstract and I more tangibly. The abstract moves without form or trace; the tangible leaves tracks visible here and there. When I chat with Tibetans, I talk about my yak-hide tent on the plateau, my herds of sheep and horses; I mention the barley cutting and wool spinning in the farmers’ low season, and the circles of men and women dancing at festivals. No one knows I’m lying—I’ve studied Tibet extensively and know their customs inside out.
I would dress as a tramp, or a village woman, or a highland herder of indeterminate sex, my face smeared with soot, my hands black with pot-soot. With the Tibetans I sang and danced, drank butter tea and barley wine, munched tsamba bread. It happened just once—a really friendly herder gave me a bowl of roasted barley flour, butter, and yak-milk tea—I began to rub them into a tsamba with my fingers, turning the bowl around and around in the practised fashion copied from countless Tibetans—and I’d forgotten that my freshly ash-black fingers would be washed clean by the cream-coloured dough, unbinding my disguise.
Maybe the disguise was neither here nor there to them. Or maybe I’m neither here nor there to the disguise.
A child pointed at my undyed skin, asked if I was really mixed race. I said my father was Tibetan and my mother Dai, so my skin was a mixture: a brown smudge here, a cream smudge there, like a spotty dog.
People would ask, which village do you come from? I said it was on a road that cut through a mountain pass, invisible from any other trail. A village encased in silver peaks, waterfalls of snow, the icy blue of glaciers under the sky, mystical caverns, and empty forests unstirred by man or beast; below the pass stretch endless waves of ink-black crags, and deep mist unfurls from foothill to peak, spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Not marked on any map, a little village nobody could ever point you to. Maybe once I saw it in a photography book, or I went there once, or will arrive there one day.
No one asked me what I had come to do. All earnest motives are a kind of absurdity to them, used as they are to these people coming and going, sightseeing, touring, snatching glances and hurrying on.
“I’ve come to take photos,” I told Nyima.
“But why does a photographer need a disguise?”
“If you’re not sure you’ve come to take photos, it’s best to disguise your ambivalence.”
I chased dazzling glimpses of colour, obsessed over the beautiful bubbles of life. I was not at all sure I really practised “photography.” Are there still more ways to interpret this mortal world on film? The images of solitary figures and of groups, of insiders and of outsiders—if the visual has been exhausted, what shall you photograph? What story shall you tell? I sometimes hesitate to say just what I’m looking for: what I’m searching for today may not be what I want tomorrow.
But I told Nyima, “I want to find a vast, majestic landscape.”
And so there was a purpose to my journey of ten thousand kilometres and thirty-six stops. Sometimes it was a desire to withdraw from the hubbub and enjoy my own private exile; sometimes, wallowing in despair, I sought a shortcut for my rebellion against civilisation. More often, it was a languor that outstayed its welcome, a lack of vision or passion, a dearth of novelty and of initiative. I had caught a feverish hunger for more life, that much I knew. And photography may be a form of life—or a kind of disguise that allows me my hunger for more life.
Photo after photo, I fabricated times and places and destroyed neat explanations. I wanted to inspire endless unique responses. I thought I’d created an isolated, freakish world. Nyima once said he liked my work.
“I definitely like it from a certain distance, when it’s a bit fuzzy. From close up, I’m disappointed—there’s obviously something there.”
At first, photography was a way for me to hold onto things. But sometimes the more you want to hold on, the more you fall into a strange void, an empty wasteland. Was the “something” Nyima saw an expansive image of the wilderness? Or was it my wasteland disguised as a wilderness? Nyima liked to answer me with an empty look, his own wasteland face.
One image I was after was that of Nyima dancing. He often said I stole him first. I am the bandit woman. When he rode I was at his horse’s heel; as he went monster-hunting and goblin-slaying, I stayed on his tail over land and water.
I neither knew nor cared how many roles he played. I only like to shoot the players’ backs, the bits not covered by the masks. Out front, a lively scene is played by devils, gods, yaks, goats, and hunters. But I’m not in the audience, I’m not following the plot, and I have no idea what’s on today. “Prince Norsang”, “Sukyi Nyima”, “Drowa Sangmo”, or “Princess Wencheng”: they all unfold between blue sky, green peak, and plain, where ferocious masks of red, black, blue, yellow, and white bulge with outsize eyes. But all I see is a chaotic array of countless limbs; each animated by its character, bewitched and entranced, they whip one another into rapture.
Nyima’s peek into my tent was my first time looking a mask in the eyes. He said he was just passing by when he saw a tent erected so miserably that it was on the verge of collapse. With good intentions, he tore the tent open for a look. “How can that little figure be sleeping here alone?” he thought. He left after one peep, none the wiser if it was a girl or a lad. It was the first day of midsummer, the Yoghurt Banquet festival, and I rushed to grab a shot of the opera “Baima Wenba.” A “dog” stumbled over me as it left the stage. Nyima said the “dog" was him.
“If demons or bandits break and enter in the middle of the night, I can let it go. But why—when I went up the mountains to take photos—did you chase me with a gun?”
“I was chasing the tiger at your back.”
“Why did you come and squeeze my neck as I sat at the roadside for a cup of tea?”
“A mosquito was on your neck.”
“Why did you raze that stall where I was trying to buy turquoise?”
“All their stuff was fake.”
“Why did you spring on me from behind and grab me as I bathed in that stream?”
“I saw a beautiful woman. I couldn’t help myself.”
“What did you say as you embraced me?”
Lhamo,” he said. Goddess.
I still remember the feeling. A warm body snaking up from the bottom of the lake, soft and effortless, bewitching, inviting me to forsake all struggle and go limp as after orgasm. I could barely tell if his hands were gripping my breasts or kneading my stomach. That caress so enthralled me; I couldn’t make sense of it.
“Do you have chest hair?”
He opened his shirt. There were hairs, but only a few, scattered between nipples and ribs. It was not the thicket I’d imagined.
He did the buttons up again, tossed aside his long hair and long beard, put on the mask that hung over his chest—I still can’t say what character it was—mounted his horse, and left.
“Which play are you heading off for now?”
That solemn mask with its glaring saucer-eyes and great conch-ears. What’s it staring at? What’s it straining to catch? At one point I had imagined he wasn’t playing dogs or demons, but the nameless spectre from the Epic of King Gesar—the warrior who helps rescue the king’s kidnapped wife during the great battle. As the play begins, an actor appears amid trumpeting bugles, dressed in tatty war gear. His song-voice stirs the soul. A ghost, a king, or neither? Who can tell? Maybe a drifting ghost that’s washed up as an actor. Or a king dressed as a battle casualty, who finds himself becoming a wraith.
He drifted in and out of wandering theatre troupes. All he wanted was to stand in for someone in the sea of souls. When he wasn’t on stage he was roaming, and normally he was on stage in order to roam.

Nyima means “the Sun.”
 “I’m called Nyima because I was born on Sunday,” he said. But I thought he was like the moon, the moon that shone the first night he looked into my tent.
“How do you say ‘Moon’ in Tibetan?”
"Dawa . . .” I often think of the view of his profile as he sat still by the lake that night, a hermit in the wilderness, a venerable deity. But what really fascinates me is the naked body gliding under the water, the murmuring sound. A silhouette that touched the heart. A graceful floating shaman.
He has a Chinese name, Han Ying.
“Is that the ‘Ying’ that means ‘Hero’?” I asked.
“It’s ‘Ying’ as in ‘Eagle’,” he said at first, and then, “‘Ying’ as in ‘Oriole’. From the poem.
Wind, rain, hot and cold
Roaming here and seeking there.
Orioles and swallows
Blossoms and leaves
Billing and cooing:
Sun sets, and rises.
“My father went to a garden in Suzhou, and saw this poem hanging on the wall. He named me Oriole and my little brother Swallow.”
“You’re making that up,” I said. “What did your father do?”
“He was a cleaner at Beijing Zoo. He swept the cages for the vultures, ducks, and swans.”
Nyima was born in Tibet, but Han Ying was born in Tianjin. After he finished middle school, he hung around at home for a couple of years. When he was accepted to university, he took the money his family gave him for it and went off with a woman he met in a hairdresser’s. For four years after that, he simply wandered, pulling rickshaws, mending shoes and umbrellas, cutting hair, picking cotton, taking any job that put food on the table. Two more years passed, and he went back home. He wanted to help out there, but there wasn’t much to help out with. His mother and father and younger brother and sister were all working, and quite content with their lot. So all he could do was take the university entrance exams again. He graduated, then was gainfully employed for a year, in two months of which there was real work to do. The rest of the time he painted in oils and wrote poetry. His mother picked one of his paintings to use as a curtain, and the others became front door mats. As for his poems, luckily three were accepted by an anthology called Avant-Garde.
“That year I turned from workhorse into artist. The year after, I went back to being cattle. Before I came to Tibet, I was a beast. Now I’m a wild creature. One day I want to be a bird in the sky.”
 “What kind of bird do you want to be?”
He pointed to the mountaintop. “That one, I guess.”
“A vulture?”
“We call it xia gu. The divine eagle.”
“Divine eagle?” I looked at Nyima. He had a head of luxurious hair, but also a little balding spot on top, it’s true. When he gets old and his hair turns white, he’ll look like a vulture, most likely. For now, he looks like a black dog that’s just had a tuft of fur bitten off in a fight, or an ageing black swan just starting to lose his colour. He’s only an eagle when he makes love. I’ve seen the vultures at the sky burials, heard the great racket they make as they devour the bodies, watched how they swoop down on the flesh; passionate, starving, they wait their turn impatiently and demolish the body in a few mouthfuls, no time to waste separating bones from meat. But often sex was something he turned to when he had nothing else to do.
“I’m hungry,” he’d mutter, “I’m hungry.” Actually he might not really be hungry. Put it in his mouth and he might just dabble half-heartedly.
“It’s all poetry,” he said. “When I’m hungry it’s a magnificent, epic saga. When I dabble it’s a little ad-lib.”
Nyima was a real beast while “writing poetry.” A truly noble beast, not drawing his claws or baring his teeth, no weapons hidden on his body, never losing his lordly charisma. He never attached any importance to the pomp and vanity of civilisation. He was not carefree so much as he knew how to enjoy life, how to enjoy the preposterous and wanton, having no need to remove himself from it all.
“My sincere depravity makes fun of the hypocrisy of this world.”
Absentminded in his sincerity, clear and calm in his depravity, he was a glass train fleeting by, containing multitudes, not rustling a blade of grass.
“I don’t know what happened—the boat carrying my soul to its next body hit a rock. The boatman abandoned ship and dropped me here in this human realm. Since then I’ve been floating around here. It goes on and on and on. I became a rover, an observer. I don’t belong to this world.”
He’s a passing guest. A flickering incarnation, not of this world. But he never disappeared from my side. I feel he’s there.
Calling out through the pitch-black to the silence: “Are you there?”
A voice answers, “Yes, I’m here.”
Despite all the restraints of life, there the soul seeks its echo, and there lies its succour.
We all have our own favourite ways to vanish. We adopt various personae, until one day we spot each other again. Quite by chance what was lost is found—how marvellous! My dear friend from my past life!—and when it’s time, we vanish again, sometimes quite without notice.
“A legend is beautiful because we can erase or renew the story. We move freely in it,” said Nyima. “We’re a wonderful legend.”
That offhand word “wonderful” conjured up in me all the different scenes we’d played before, or might one day. The hot and cold, motion and stillness, the mystery and the hidden.


Sometimes, though, we can’t move freely. We didn’t see the great snow in the forest coming. The light snow that winter lulled us into a sense of security, and we thought the mountain would be easy to pass. We walked up into the forest, following the river’s path, and paused on the mountaintop—just for a look. As we set out, sporadic dustings of flakes were falling. When we turned to come down, the drifts were up to our knees. We walked through fifty-seven hours of steadily falling snow. Our boots gradually succumbed to the soft flakes and the hard ice. Small seams cracked into gaping holes that left our toes completely exposed. Nyima fetched some stones to pitch a camp, but it couldn’t hold long. As the snow piled higher and deeper, the tent collapsed, and both of us fought free of an icy living grave. We had no choice but to hurry on the rest of the night, making heat with our bodies by walking.
The next day at dusk we finally found a cave to shelter in. No fuel to hand, no food to eat. I grasped a handful of snow and gulped it down. It did nothing to quench my thirst, but its frost took to boiling inside me, shivering me, drying me out. Nyima packed some snow into a tin, gripped it between his legs and rubbed it back and forth. “Wait,” he said, “Don’t fall asleep till you’ve drunk this can of water. I’ll save you.” From time to time he would blow into the can, and I would look at his frosty white moustache. How quickly he had aged.
I was actually just exhausted with the hunger and the cold and wanted to drift straight into sleep. I finally did so, and in my dreams, I was awoken by snorts of air leaving someone’s nostrils. I thought it was Nyima, opened my eyes, and saw two glittering pupils and a hide of stripy fur. That was when I realised that a beast other than Nyima had been watching me for quite some time.
“Go away. No food for you here.”
I fell back into a sweet sleep, punctuated by howls, which I guess came from snow cocks, marmots, pikas, wolves, bears, snow leopards, or whatever. Anyway, I was too tired to wake up again. I couldn’t say when Nyima got back; it felt like a big pile of burning leaves met my eyes as soon as I opened them. He was massaging my feet. He gave me some food. My jaws were frozen incredibly stiff, fossilised. Nyima looked at me with bleary eyes. It seemed like his bald patch had grown a lot in one night, so that he really looked like a vulture. He put some food in his mouth, chewed it while staring at me, and after a moment leaned forwards, grasped my jaw, and kissed the food into my mouth.
I have a memory of my mother feeding me that way, I think. Over thirty years ago.
“I’ve fed some men with my body,” I said to Nyima, “But none of them ever fed me back. I used to live off my feminine charm. However broke I was, I could still get a seat at a fancy Western restaurant. I was keeping a poet back then. He had three poems published by Avant-Garde—like you. Neither of us had a job. When I brought home a dozen bottles of wine, he would feign a careless glance at them, and I would say carelessly, ‘Oh, these are from one of the bosses. He took me dancing. I told him you’re a poet. He said he’d like to meet you sometime. I told him you don’t tend to make casual appointments.’ The poet would smile, cynical, non-committal. He thought he understood me, as he slept with me, ate me, and took from me; but I’m not so sure he could really see me.”
I don’t know if what I said was satisfying some kind of sexual fantasy. I actually wanted to feed Nyima back, to feed myself to him. My story was a kind of simulation of the future. I’m not sure I got the future’s likeness, and I’m not sure I needed to. You can start some stories just however you like, without a plan of how you’ll tie it up. It’s like my endless dreams of walking into a world I had locked up tight: I go to open the door, but each time I’ve forgotten the key. I can never see what’s hidden behind the door.
I asked him where the food came from.
“Stolen. From the mountains and the trees. In this lovely fucking weather, there’s no one around to rob.”
“Have you really been a robber?”
“I lead a gang of bandits—a gang of one. Sometimes a few farmers and herdsmen join in. When we’re free we have a little ‘get-together’, and when we’re busy we all vanish.”
“Have you really robbed someone?”
“Yeah. All kinds of people. When you’re lucky you might even get a lhamo, a goddess.” Theft was merely a kind of adventure, a flirtation with death. Being robbed was shameful. “Someone who can’t protect themselves is useless. They need a bandit to come and teach them a lesson.”

As he spoke, he produced a short knife and, gathering up his beard like gauze, began to cut the hair the fire had just singed. He left it carelessly where it fell, and a few jet-black strands floated onto my chest. I peered at them, and—yes—they were a kind of reddish brown. He rubbed my hands and feet and asked if I had warmed up. His forehead shone with sweat. I reached out to wipe it off, and he took my hand and put it in his mouth for a moment. “You’re all right. Warmed up.” Then he took off his ruined shoes and set to rubbing his own feet vigorously. His face in profile, so still and quiet, felt like a spotlight falling on you, as if he plucked you carelessly from the crowd and placed you down somewhere, cold and alone. Perhaps even his own mind was not involved in his peacefulness: he was just in love with a certain type of solitude.
It could be we were infatuated with disguise. But we both believed it was not fabrication. The only frustrating thing was that whatever identity we wandered between, we remained human. We weren’t necessarily content to be human. People always love crowding together, squeezing into places where lots of other people are: seen from afar, a great heap of worms crawling all over each other. I wish they could be scattered by space—space is the only non-identity we’ve ever played.
When we came down that mountain, we paused at a bend in the path, and Nyima spotted a place to make camp. We decided not to set up the tent, but just to lie down in a pile of dead leaves and foliage. We covered ourselves with the rug, slowed our breathing, and agreed not to say another word. The snow kept falling. It fell on the rug. Gradually the snowy heavens melted into the snowy earth, and between them both, we drifted into an ineffably cosy, snowy sleep.
Every now and then we heard footsteps grow gradually louder.
In the pitch black night, someone asked, “What’s that big lump?”
Hushed murmurs.
No footsteps came further our way, but soft debate noises.
“Dead beast?”
Someone threw a branch at us. “Doesn’t look like it. What is it?”
Nyima let out a long sigh, like wind flurrying snow.
The travellers hurried on. We were still at our invisible campsite, the snow, and the earth.

Nyima had a black tent on a meadow where a lake hugged a hilltop. I often felt as if he’d carried me up the mountain, like a bride kidnapped on her way to her husband’s house, pressed under the bandit’s arm, into his body, his body hair, his body smell. But he said, “You were brought here by a sky-horse that fell from heaven.” There was a horse by the lake, certainly, and when it wandered around, watching the world go by, a little bell would ting-a-ling around its neck. Sometimes when we were making love inside the tent, a similar noise would appear. I started to wonder if the murmur I heard the first night I met Nyima was the plash of water or a tinkling bell, or perhaps the sound of our meeting inside my body. When we made love, I felt a stream of water flowing over my body: its great age, its mother earth, its four seasons taking turns.
Before me lay—Nyima? Or a great ocean whose current had lost its way? I was bewildered when that joy came together with a male face. I would call him all kinds of things: Dawa, Nightingale, Blackhawk.
“Think with your whole body, not your mind,” he told me. Before me swam Nyima, bright, warm, and open, and Dawa, sly, strange, and tricksy; they excited me, sensitised me. I couldn’t be stopped from exploring the place hidden between my legs, the place with a scent like no other. Over many extraordinary days and nights, we explored each other’s hidden places, the vast broad plain rich with the scent of sweet herbs and flowers floating down from heaven. We rolled around bare and wild as animals, not a care in the world, howling with delight. Sometimes we sheltered in the darkness of the tent, its little roof pitching and rolling in wild mountain winds and whipped by storms of sand and stones. All night we sat together, invisible to one another in the pitch black.
“Are you there?” I asked the darkness.
A hand reached out and brought my face to his chest. “I’m here.”
I looked with binoculars. So near and yet so far.
“How far and yet so near,” he said.
“Yes,” I thought, “however high an eagle flies, it’s always near heaven, near earth, and far from every living soul.”

A gale roared for several days, then passed over. I went up the mountain to look for Nyima. He was standing there and had been for some time. Broken poles were piled on the ground at his feet. The black tent was rolled up on the horse’s back.
“I’m just setting off,” he said.
“Will you wait for me?”
“It’s not a question of waiting. It’s just a chance encounter.”
He came forward to kiss me, but I pushed him away. I had longed for his kiss for days, but I didn’t like this hurried, clumsy attempt at contact. How could a kiss from those puckered-up lips give me a tender farewell?
“Never mind,” he said, pulled the horse’s reins, and began to walk. I took a few steps after him and he stopped.
“Changed your mind? There’s still time for a kiss,” he said.
I drew in to him and opened up his shirt; he leant down and kissed my hair. I tugged at his chest and pulled off a few hairs, then gave him a push.
“Go on. There’s still time to take flight.”
Nyima looked at me. His eyes were a little red, his hair more than a little windswept. He looked like a vulture whose feathers were dropping off, and who soon wouldn't be able to fly.
“Goodbye,” he said.
I stood still. I forgot to say goodbye, or maybe I’m not in the habit of saying that. I think that was the only time I heard him say goodbye. Maybe he was bidding his feathers farewell—the ones I held in my hand. They were many, red, and brown.
I still remember the scene: Nyima walking slowly, slowly, far off down the vast slope of snow, horse’s reins in hand. And this one, standing on the mountain, seeing him off, falling far behind. The mount of snow, the torrent of ice, the precipitous path weaving back and forth. The primal, boundless, wild world, and an immense plain; two specks meet, then part, walk on alone.
Did he and I ever make love? I’m less and less sure, though many scenes of lovemaking play over in my head. I just remember once I pushed him away, and he swept his long hair back and left the tent. The next day he said, “I swam to the other shore and made love with a goatherd woman. Then I swam back.”
“You can’t escape me,” I said.
“I wouldn’t bother trying. You couldn’t catch me.” Suddenly he farted. “Can you catch that?”
I couldn’t catch him, but I chose to chase.
Over a year later, I trekked ten thousand miles from Lhasa to Gonggar, from Tsetang to Song Ga, and crossed the Yarlung Tsangpo River. I climbed up to the shrine, stole his breath, and left my own behind.
Every time I think of who Nyima is for me, a formless spirit seems to drop down on a path I trod yesterday.
I drop onto a path of his.

I still give my feet free rein, and I’m always rewriting my memories. Often I imagine I’m daydreaming, riffing on the theme of life, and Nyima is just a character in my reverie. Especially The Bandit Nyima.
This is my sixth time in Tibet. Every parting scene is fascinating in its own way. Warm-blooded villagers sing and dance round the stove; yaks huff and puff; the tinkle of horse bells; boisterous drinking sessions; solemn prayers and blessings. In my memory, that meadow by the lake and the snow-white peaks are still bathed in a fuchsia-orange glow of sunset. This time, will I go looking for a black tent? Shall I go mask hunting? Shall I visit the breaths kept in Wuzi shrine?
Every journey reflects a special crack, a gap in the heart. That’s why you keep following the path, not of your own will. We cycle through different get-ups: photographer, travel writer, folk music collector, wanderer, pilgrim, news reporter—our odysseys unceasing. Visit thirty-six stops, visit forty-seven stops, stop counting stops—go until the map offers a margin. Stop there. Reflect on the emptiness over the edge. Maybe there are no plains, no snow-bound villages, no glaciers, and no lofty mountain peaks. Maybe I needn’t take note of my identity, my point on the map. I can just do as the director says—
Up on the hill, I strike a pose, gazing afar into wilderness. But wilderness is not what I see.

I may not remember when I’ve met Nyima before. But my adventures aren’t over yet.

translated from the Chinese by Helena Laughton