The route on the last day was a bit ambitious. I wanted to go along the north side to make a full circuit, but also wanted to make it back to Xining that night if possible. In total, about 6-7 hours of driving.
I stood on the side of the road, extended my hand, and within two seconds, a car pulled over. A family of Tibetans with bolts of cloth in their backseat smiled at me. The son sat curled up in a blanket by the cloth and started making room for me and my bag. I told them the name of the next town and they said they could take me. Later in the car, I asked where they were heading.
“Oh, we’re going to Xining.”
So that was that.
It turns out that they were on a road trip from Lhasa to sell some Tibetan cloth in Xining. They liked to take the scenic drive around the lake, and they liked to take their time.
“We’re going to stop at this temple for a bit,” the father (whom I’ll call Abba because I think that’s what his son was calling him) said.
We pulled over at what looked like a slightly more run-down temple with wind-beaten prayer flags and clouds of incense wafting to the sky. Abba bought some seed-like materials for his son to pour onto an incense altar, and then they visited a monk who blessed three candles for them and led them to the steps up the hill.
We climbed the steps and reached what I thought was the top, only for the three of them to squeeze into a crevice in the rock wall and begin climbing into the belly of the mountain. They clutched their candles, and by that feeble light we groped our ways along rocks and ladders until we reached the true altar within: a smaller one flanked by candles and images of monks. The family said some mantras and set their candles down before we headed back down to walk a circuit of the temple.
Back in the car, I gave the son a Minnesota postcard which had the Northern Lights in glossy colors on it.
“Is it always like this?” He said as Abba began to drive once more.
“Sometimes,” I said. “In the North.”
He pinned the postcard onto his headrest and admired it for a long time. After that, we became friends, and he regaled me with stories about cars and explosions and guns and…did I mention he was twelve? As if you couldn’t tell.
During our day, we stopped along the road to admire some flowers in a field, to sit by the side of the road to eat watermelon, and to walk around the fields. The son bought a plastic gun and ran around with whoops and hollers. I managed to make a glorious face-plant in the flowers when I tripped over some string. Abba showed me his Stetson cowboy hat and recorded me reading the English instructions.
It’s funny because in a way they were still being nomads, even though they were in a car. They had a large tent and cooking supplies in their trunk, and they told me that however far they drove in a day was wherever they pitched their tent. They had a destination, but the road wound and wound as it pleased.
As we stopped by a field of yaks and watched as Abba’s son chased them around as if they were a flock of pigeons, I had to admit that it can be fun to be a nomad, even if only for a few days. This was the reason for my Kora of sorts around the lake, and I could feel the holiness of meeting other people and sharing the road with them surround me.
But as I texted some friends to let them know I was safe and as I plotted for some future fun back in Hangzhou, I’ll admit that it’s nice to have a home, too. And that sometimes, that is the dim candlelight that leads you through the dark.