Winter blew into town a few days ago, riding at full gallop over the grasslands, peaking over the mountains and swirling ferociously into our sheltered valley. Winter came unseen in the depths of the night; come morning, the temperature dropped so dramatically that, waking up, I assumed my heating had turned off. It hadn’t – winter had come.
Winter came down from the hills on the backs of the tempestuous winds, bone-chilling, easily outpacing the cars and motorcycles as it rushes down the street, sending spirals of dust haphazardly airborne. Fast, but pervasive, too; this wind is in all places at all times, attacking your exposed reddened cheeks as you walk down the street or through the school corridors, seeping through the cracks in the windows to caress you with diminished intensity, if not diminished power, inside your own home.
Winter has arrived in the valley, and has left its mark everywhere. Frozen yak carcasses ooze congealed blood onto the streets. Yogurt is filled with shimmering ice crystals. The practice of throwing wastewater indiscriminately out of one’s doorway, continuing with a mechanical unthinkingness in subzero temperatures, has turned the streets of town into skating rinks. Faces disappear behind masks and hats; the world disappears from my windows as frost thickens the panes to opacity. The bustle of town – commerce and trade, argument and resolution, prayer and devotion – is muffled as if covered by additional layers of sheepskin, a protection from the cold.
Outside of town, however, very little seems to have changed with the coming of winter. Or maybe, with the more intimate connection with nature one has in the countryside, the farmers and nomads simply saw winter coming earlier than I. Or maybe it’s just the higher altitude; perhaps winter has been in the countryside for longer than in our lowlying valley. Whatever the reason, life in the country seems to retain its normal rhythms, even if the tempo is slowed, chilled, solidified as if congealed by the weather. Yaks and sheep must be herded and milked. Dung must be collected for the stove. Household chores must be completed. In the villages, these tasks continue with a regularity that seems to deny the cold, or possibly to defy its presence. An elderly grandmother, clad only in a light chuba, without any hats, gloves, or other clothing appropriate for the -10C (10F) – degree temperature, nonchalantly wanders around a windswept ridgetop pasture carrying a massive basket, into which she throws the occasional piece of yak dung she finds. A husband and wife, wearing clothing little different from their summertime attire, straighten a large wooden frame, positioning it on the side of their mudwalled courtyard home – a shed for animals or yak dung? a new outhouse? – before deftly fixing it into place. Children, wearing threadbare thirdhand jackets with t-shirts visible beneath, play with a half-inflated ball in the frozen dirt of the narrow, mudwall-lined road. Life goes on as normal.
The arrival of the cold makes me think of the approach of the holidays, of the omnipresent holiday advertising blitz and decorations and saccharine tunes of good cheer, irritating yet somehow reassuring; of skiing and snowfall; of adequately heated indoor spaces; of the American December. Yet here, none of these are present. Town is bereft of Santas or “merry Christmas” messages, and the music blasting from shop speakers reminds you not to jingle any bells or have holly jolly Christmases, but how to love your Rinpoche (answer: very much) and how to get girls in the grasslands (answer: having the coolest motorcycle and sunglasses as you herd your yaks). In town, it still hasn’t snowed more than an inch; here in the Himalayan rainshadow, winter is the dry season, and skiing is no more than a pipe dream. The only thing that remains, the only constant, is the cold, a constant, creeping, penetrating chill; a temperature that enforces coziness and provokes surprising nostalgia.