In the town of Sakya, dung patties were stacked along every wall, covered with brushwood to keep off the rain. There was an empty official building flying China’s national flag, topped by a satellite dish. I found a place to stay. Outside, an aluminium-coated scoop focused the sun to a point on a stand, boiling a kettle with solar power. An outdoor pool table stood nearby, being used by monks with chunky watches and more hair than monks are meant to have. Nearby there were sheds containing a disjointed generator, and drums of oil. In the evening, after several false starts and lots of black smoke and cacophonous noise, lights came on, so dim that you could see only the outlines of things and people. But it was electricity, for three hours. The weather became very cold that night.
I was the only foreigner in town. The next day a wizened old man in a baseball cap saying BOY LONDON came to stare at me. Four young men, with braided hair and trilbies, were flaying sheep by the grain depot, smoking cigarettes while they worked. They peeled off the fleeces easily, like peeling the skin off an orange, using a pair of daggers, one short, one long. The sheep flailed as if they were alive. There was a metal tub filled with blood, and the air was filled with the smell of the blood. Children dressed in rags, with tousled hair and speckled cheeks, played in the puddles. One girl wore shoes made out of a biscuit packet. A slaughtered cow was hanging from a hook, for sale. Before long, only the head was left.
Old men with turquoise earrings and high leather boots circled the monastery, holding rotating prayer wheels. The walls of the monastery were grey, marked with red and white stripes in the Sakya tradition. Prayer flags flew from sticks at the corners of the building. The central part of the monastery had high ochre walls, and behind it across the river were hundreds of derelict buildings from the days of destruction, the Cultural Revolution.
Inside the monastery, I went up a steep metal ladder to a tiny, dark chapel, with an uneven floor and low wooden beams, where monks were chanting and young boys were carrying butter and tubs of tsampa. Rice and banknotes were stuck to the deities. An old monk sat cross-legged on a cushion reciting page after page of scriptures, a low, constant, soothing chant, a torch and a thermos by his side. An opening in the thick wall, like an archer’s slit, let in a bar of light, enabling him to read. In the darkness I could make out katags, thangkas, ferocious masks and butter sculptures, all crammed together. There was a sense in the little chapel of something timeless, that had kept Sakya going for centuries, regardless of the violent intermissions. I felt that this was a remote, independent place, a place that was used to running its own affairs and did not want outside assistance.