An Alternative Guide to Tabo

If the monastery at Tabo is a checkmark on your to-do list, listen to the guides, and go there at 9 AM, when the gods are ready to meet the tourists. If you want to catch the gods when they are more at ease, ignore your guide, and go there at sunset. The temples will be locked, sure, but the gods are around, relaxing after a long day of meeting with pilgrims and tourists. They have time to chat.

It doesn’t matter if this is your first day in Tabo; you can’t not find the gorgeous mud structures. There is no way not to notice the piles of engraved rocks — no way not to know that this spot, with its broken wall and open gate, is sacred.

Once inside, close your eyes. Listen to the river gurgling in the distance, the birds who know to keep their chatter to a respectful volume. Open your eyes, and watch the mud temples and walls against the crystal sky. Watch the sky tracing the outlines of the larger mud walls, the mountains in the distance. Breathe in the prayers of a millennium.

That might be the most important thing — breathe deeply. You will need that air later.

If you are there to ask the gods for favors, I won’t promise that they will answer. They are off duty (would you pick up a client’s call at midnight?). But if you are there for conversation, there to listen to the secrets they have been keeping for a thousand years, there for friendship rather than for favors, I’m willing to bet you will not be disappointed.

The locals tell me that one must walk clockwise through this monastery. I trust them on that — you probably should too. All the same, the first time I went in, no one had told me yet to move clockwise, and so I didn’t. I moved from structure to structure, as they called out to me, beckoned me over. I ran my hands over the engravings on the doors, and I sat down to write outside the temple of the mother goddess. I had my back to her, and I wondered briefly how she felt about that, but ultimately, she didn’t seem to care. She knew I meant no disrespect. I was there for love, for friendship, and I think she understood that. I think that meant more to her than did the direction in which I walked or faced.

As you walk out, stop by the shops. The shopkeepers, who have been just as busy with tourists all day as the gods have been, have time to talk in the evening. Let them tell you about what brought them to this town — or what leads them away from this town every winter and brings them back every spring. Let them tell you about another god and where you can meet him, April to October, for a week at a time (it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to meet him — it’s good to know anyway). Let one of them invite you home for tea or sell you a scarf for your mother. Let them explain to you the flags that tourists will buy. Let them give you the stories that cannot be bought.

Walk to the river. Get lost. Let a farmer tell you which way to go, allow you a shortcut through her fields. Let yourself get more lost in those fields when she disappears before you’ve found your way. Accept the slosh of your shoes wading through just-irrigated fields. Stretch your arms into a T, learn to balance on the narrow raised ledges crisscrossing through the fields. Find your way through the barbed wire, back at the mud structures.

Go into the monastery one more time. If you’re lucky, it is now dark enough for the stars. If you’re really lucky, there is no moon, and the stars have free reign of this particular night. Walk through the monastery again, this time by starlight. Walk silently — the gods are probably asleep, and so is most of the town.

Relish being awake and alive amongst resting gods. It may be the closest you ever come to godness.