The Angel of Tsomang

“Returning was, in many ways, harder than setting out had been. My nerves were wrecked, I couldn’t feel my legs, and the silence had finally caught up to me.”

It was late afternoon when I’d stumbled into the chair outside Sonam’s shop.

“What are you doing here?” he’d asked bewilderedly upon seeing me.

I remember trying to pull together the strength to speak but my words had come out slurred. Seeing this, he’d quickly rushed off to get me some water and biscuits. Half-an-hour later, once I’d regained some modicum of strength, I told him about the landslide.

I remember the way he’d looked at me afterwards, disapproval hidden behind a tight smile. He’d told me that perhaps someone like me, who hadn’t been born in these mountains, shouldn’t have tried to reach Tsomang in the first place. With this, he’d placed my room keys on the table in front of me, and left.

I remember feeling a boiling anger, and then a sudden deep and twisting stab of shame. He was right, of course. I’d turned back like a coward. Tashigong village had been right in front of me, two hours away at best. Tsomang couldn’t have been much further beyond that, somewhere amidst that patchwork of mountains that curved away into Tibet.

The walk back to my room was excruciating. News of my failure had spread around Nako quickly. I caught whispers as I walked—murmurs calling me a sinner, saying that Tsomang had rejected me. That I had been judged and found unworthy.

By the time I’d finally got to my room, and collapsed onto my bed, I was fuming again. I’d had enough. Come morning, I was going to get onto the bus and push onwards towards Spiti.

With that in mind, I finally fell asleep.

*

“We’re here.”

I looked up warily. It had been ten hours since we’d started our trek from the outskirts of Nako, and the sky had turned a deep shade of moonstone in our wake. Kris stood within the frame of an ancient stone gate, its head crowned with a string of Tibetan prayer flags. My breath caught—this was it.

I was standing a stone’s throw away from the Indo-Tibetan border, in search of a legend few had ever heard of: the fabled home of angels and giants, and the place from where the second Buddha, Padmasambhava, left to bring Buddhism to Tibet over a thousand years ago.

I’d made it to Tsomang.

The monastery complex lay pressed into the barren mountainside like an overgrown shrub, firm against the howling winds. Around it lay dizzying, snow-capped heights,  all bowing before the towering face of Reo Purgyil—the highest mountain in Himachal—which rose at the end of the valley.

High above the monastery, a colossal waterfall erupted out into open air. As it fell, it eventually vanished into an ethereal mist, framing the monastery in a burst of white.

With the valley echoing with the sound of the young Sutlej coursing through its belly, Kris and I set off for the final leg of the ascent.

*

At first, when we’d reached Tsomang, Kris and I had thought the place deserted. The silence was almost oppressive. All we could hear was the wind rushing past us, and the crunch of our boots as we walked around. We’d almost decided to make camp within some ruins when we’d caught a glimpse of a flickering light coming from one of the structures towards the end of the complex.

Inside we’d found Abhishek, Karma and Mei-Mei.

Abhishek and Karma were cousins, locals from the nearby village of Namgia that lay a few hours back, on the opposite side of the valley. Abhishek was 22 and stayed in Namgia, acting as an occasional tour guide for foreigners. Karma was 18, and went to an English boarding school a few hours from Shimla. He wanted to join the army and had come to Tsomang for blessings. Since Abhishek had been before with his father, he’d offered to accompany Karma for the trip.

Mei-Mei was the one we had all come to meet. He was the elderly monk I’d heard so much about at Nako. Revered and respected by everyone in the valley, he’d been appointed as the only permanent resident at Tsomang three years ago by the Buddhist authorities in Spiti. I’d hoped to speak to him, but disappointingly, he’d smiled benignly and retired to bed soon after he’d made sure we had settled down.

In his absence, Karma and Abhishek befriended us rather quickly. It was a simple friendship, requiring nothing more from us than what we had in the moment: the elation at having made it to Tsomang, a profound sense of humility in front of the Himalayan ranges around us, and a common rumbling in our stomachs that announced our hunger before we had time to speak of it.

While we set about making a simple dinner of daal and roti, we got talking, and I recounted how I’d tried to reach Tsomang the day before but turned back after coming face-to-face with a landslide just  outside Tashigong.

Of course, once he heard me mention the landslide, Kris piped up, “You should have heard him talk about his landslide. The way he described it to me, I thought the mountain had fallen on him.” He snorted, “When we finally reached the damn thing, it turned out to be three rocks and a bunch of dried-up goat shit. I couldn’t believe it.”

Karma and Abhishek had laughed at this, and because it was just good-natured ribbing, I’d merely laughed along with them. But I remember the way the ground had shifted from underneath me and the endless expanse of emptiness to my side, that had dropped for miles until it reached the Sutlej, merely a sliver of silver from that height. In hindsight, I’m glad I turned back that day.

I’d climbed over the broken remains of an ancient trail and shimmied along narrow forgotten paths that dropped away to nothing. I’d pushed myself further than I’d ever done. But here, my gut had told me I was pushing my luck.

The decision to turn back hadn’t been easy. It had meant backtracking miles of lonely, rocky mountain trails, without any water or food, under a sun that had slowly risen over the horizon and was now beating down directly on me. More than that, though, it had meant failing myself.

This was all new to me—travelling alone, backpacking, traversing high altitude mountains alone. Even my decision to go to Tsomang had been completely spontaneous; when looking at a map in Nako to figure out the route into Spiti, I’d happened to spot its name close to the Tibetan border and asked around about it. Once I’d realised that I’d stumbled on something few people outside the valley knew about, I was hooked.

A little while after I’d started to head back to Nako, I’d turned around to look at where I’d been. The path had been completely wiped away.

Returning was, in many ways, harder than setting out had been. My nerves were wrecked, I couldn’t feel my legs, and the silence had finally caught up to me. I was jumpy, and kept hearing voices behind me.

Seven hours after I’d left, I’d walked back into Nako in a state of delirium. At night, as I was preparing to get onto the bus to Spiti, I’d met Kris. I missed my bus, and in about two hours, this sarcastic 36-year old Estonian photographer and I had decided to give Tsomang another shot.

I set out again the next morning, but this time with more humility and a friend to keep me company.

*

After food, Abhishek, Karma, Kris and I all settled down and made small talk. Night had fallen, and the only light in the room was the flickering glow of the cooking fire.

We must have gotten fairly loud, because Mei-Mei suddenly staggered out of his room and let out a string of curses, slipping between Hindi and the local dialect—a mix between Tibetan and Kinnauri.  I still remember the sight of him. His monk’s shirt was soiled and stained, his mouth lopsided. His ancient and lined face was a storm of emotions; irritation, anger, sadness, joy and the stench of whiskey coiled around him.

It took some time for us to coax and calm him down. He’d staggered around a bit, muttering incoherently. The little snippets that I could catch had only confused me further. “come here… ask me for food… ask me for tomato… for onion, for girls. Ask me for drinks… don’t stop. Leave, never think about me, leave me alone… always leave me alone.”

After a while, he started to cry silently. Kris and Abhishek took that opportunity to start doing the dishes, while Karma got Mei-Mei to sit down. Every few seconds, he’d speak to me frantically, but it was too garbled to make sense of anything. I asked Karma to translate but even he couldn’t make sense of anything.

Eventually, he fell silent, though he still swayed from side to side, mumbling under his breath.

I was beginning to feel uneasy when Karma suddenly burst out laughing.

“What is it?” I hissed. “Why are you laughing?”

“Listen… listen to what he’s saying,” Karma gasped amidst laughs.

I leaned in. Mumblings, mutterings.

“Khada bhi nahi hotha ab.” Doesn’t even stand up anymore.

“What’s he talking about?”

“Hey Mei-Mei! Mei-Mei!” Karma shook his arm.

Mei-Mei looked up.

“Aapne ganda kiya?” You did the dirty? Karma made a motion with his hand.

After a heavy pause, Mei-Mei grinned sheepishly and started to chuckle.

When Kris and Abishek had returned, they’d found Karma and I rolling on the floor laughing, with a confused but happy Mei-Mei sitting next to us.

Karma and I spent the next two hours listening to Mei-Mei. He told us about his years as a stonemason in Spiti’s Pin Valley. He told us of his wife, and how monkhood had saved him from alcoholism when she’d passed away. He told us about his children, whom he hadn’t seen in three years, since they’d never visited him, and he told us of how alone he felt up here, at what seemed like the top of the world, his only visitors being the occasional local and some desperate foreigners in search of divine intervention.

He’d slowly turned back to drinking as a means to keep himself warm and in good company at nights. Consuming alcohol, I learned later from Karma and Abhishek, was a local tradition, which was why no one had batted an eye at Mei-Mei’s drinking habits. There was even a local deity called Niseng-Mei-Mei, who resided in a tree at the foot of the valley and demanded a tribute of alcohol from anyone making the ascent up to Tsomang. Mei-Mei had grinned and told me that he had an understanding with Niseng-Mei Mei. It was then that I realised that Mei-Mei was actually an honorific, reserved for respected elders. I still wonder what it meant that the locals referred to him and their gods in the same way.

When drunk, Mei-Mei was boisterous and boyish, and proudly told Karma and I he was goonda in his youth, having beaten up troublesome Nepalis and frolicked with prostitutes in Delhi. He also told us about his erectile dysfunction—which had afflicted him since his wife’s passing—using vague hand movements and disjointed words. He grinned, knowing full well that he was being obscene. The seriousness with which he told us about it, and the silly grin that came immediately afterwards still makes me laugh when I think about it.

Despite all this, Mei-Mei was a devout Buddhist, waking up early every morning to do his prayers and look after the monastery. He truly believed in his faith, but to him, faith was in every moment of your life. Faith was something you practiced individually.

Eventually, we had to bid Mei-Mei goodnight and turn in. Though I was exhausted, it had taken me some time to fall asleep.

After everything I’d gone through to reach Tsomang, I’d expected to find a place of mystery and legend, and within it, a wise old monk. That’s usually how these stories go. Instead, I found a simple and unassuming monastery, and a lonely old man with a taste for whiskey and an unfettered grief for the loss of his wife. In the moment, I’d been mildly disappointed, but looking back on it, I realise I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I was wrong to try and impose my expectations on Tsomang and Mei-Mei. Life is what it is, and people are who they are. Mei-Mei was a monk, revered and respected, but he was also an old man, a grieving husband, and an abandoned father. To him, Tsomang was not just a legend; it was his home. It was my fault for imagining a fiction instead of the reality he lived everyday.

*

Leaving Tsomang in the morning, we made promises to Mei-Mei to return soon, and to bring alcohol and music and more people the next time we came. Mei Mei had simply smiled knowingly and looked away.

On our way down, I looked back one last time. Mei-Mei sat on his chair at the edge of the cliff, staring out at the mountains, a single ray of sunlight haloing around him. Not once did he move, not once did he turn to wave us goodbye. He simply continued to stare into the distance, immovable and silent.

A few hours later, once we’d reached the bottom of the valley and had said goodbye to Abhishek and Karma, I looked up towards where I figured Tsomang would be. From where I stood, all I saw was an endless spread of mountains, towering away into the distance. It was as though they had swallowed Tsomang up.

Kris and I eventually made it back to Nako, and ended up travelling together across Spiti, becoming great friends in the process. I have many more stories from that trip, but the journey to Tsomang remains my favourite.

A year later, I sometimes wonder if Mei-Mei is still sitting on his chair, watching the sunlight roll over the mountains, or whether, perhaps, the Angel of Tsomang has finally packed up and gone home.

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