“Having a horse here is like having a motorbike in the city,” Bhupendra Sherchan explained the first day we rode out together on the flanks of snow-capped Nilgiri. The day was still pleasant and autumn-like, the light white, the winds as gentle as the sheep eddies in the town’s single unpaved street, but that would change. Come noon, the wind would rise and the daily Himalayan sand blast would begin.
At least there were no motorbikes in Jomsom, not like there were in Katmandu. Not one. For motor vehicles, Jomsom had two tractors. Since the village can only be reached by foot or by air, those two tractors had been lifted in; I picture them dangling beneath a helicopter as the gusts over the ridges of the Annapurna Range flung them about like a ribbon on a kite’s tail, but more likely they arrived on the back of a yak, or perhaps piecemeal on the regular stomach-eviscerating, twelve-seat flight from Pokhara, as I had come.
It was true what Bhupendra said; just like cars in America, horses were parked outside local businesses in Jomsom. Flashy imports and practical domestics idled side-by-side, soaking the morning sun into their furry flanks, hind legs cocked in relaxation. Like the men sipping tea in doorways, and women sss-ssssing at infants who obediently shat in the dust, and trekkers eternally fixing their boots—these horses kept an eye, however disinterested, on the passing traffic: the donkeys and yak loaded with Coca-Cola, cases of beer, lumber and bricks; the swirling herds of sheep or goats clanking their bells; human porters with basket straps across their foreheads. The time and the tea between the morning plane and the afternoon wind stretched on like this in Jomsom, Mustang, almost without interruption.
That is, until this motor-less hush was shattered by the loud rattle of yak bone clackers, the Himalayan version of a car horn or siren. At the sound, trekkers and sheep would rush to clear the road, shopkeepers would rush to keep the sheep out of their shops, and everyone, human and beast together, would turn to watch the rider rocketing by at a blistering trot, his shaggy pony all but obscured beneath a stack of Tibetan rugs. I witnessed this phenomenon precisely twice before I knew for sure I was in the right place.
Bhupendra Sherchan, the first horse expert I’d met in Jomsom, was not a young man. He didn’t plow his horses through the sheep and trekkers the way a young man might, for the pleasure of making a wave, but his horse ran with eyes rolled back and open mouth pitched skyward.
“This is a man’s horse,” Bhupendra told me through my translator. “A dangerous horse.”
The horse was eight years old, an import from Tibet. My translator, Tsewang Dorjee, was a Nepali-born exiled Tibetan with an Indian education who lived, usually unemployed, in Katmandu. He was a year or two older than I, which made him maybe twenty-three; professional and clean-cut; and, as a matter of city-dweller pride, terrified of horses. As he translated Bhupendra’s description, Tsewang stepped back even farther from the animal in question.
I had hired Tsewang because he spoke Tibetan and Nepali and, of course, English, and not because the actor from the movie Lung-ta who was his cousin had recommended him or because Tsewang himself had worked on Seven Years in Tibet. Bhupendra spoke Nepali and a dialect of Tibetan indigenous to that all-but-impenetrable region of northern Nepal that juts into Tibet itself. I spoke a few words of the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan—which had been useless in Lhasa itself but opened doors in exile communities in India and Nepal, but I spoke no Nepali beyond the tidbits the kitchen girls at my Jomsom guesthouse had taught me: “the food is delicious,” “Parvati is my friend.”
But I did speak horse. And most of the time, in spite of his multi-lingual talents, Tsewang couldn’t translate that. When words ran out in our assortment of mutual languages, Bhupendra and I would hold opposite ends of a rein and communicate with pressure: a strong horse needs hard jerks, a gentle horse needs a soft hand. Ah, yes, I would nod that South Asian side-to-side nod to show I understood.
But I didn’t understand—in English or Nepali or by wild-trot demonstration—this business of a “man’s horse.” At twenty-one, I was an American woman who’d chosen to conduct my undergraduate field research in Tibet’s “Lost Kingdom” of Mustang, an ethnic Tibetan enclave in rural Nepal that had been spared the stultifying effects of China’s Cultural Revolution, in the midst of the Maoist insurgence, over studying abroad in Paris or Rome. Which is all to say that I wasn’t really the type of girl who liked to be told I couldn’t do things.
Bhupendra was a large man with strong Tibetan features—he quickly filled in my mental image of what the famed and ill-fated Khampa cavalrymen who had based their doomed insurgence against the Chinese occupation from Mustang. But Bhupendra’s horse—rather, Bhupendra’s pony—didn’t stand more than twelve hands high and was surely more fur than muscle. Bhupendra didn’t so much mount his red-brown “man’s horse” as step over it. Meanwhile, off in a North Carolina pasture, a pedigreed thoroughbred mare—bigger and far more expensive, I assumed, than any Nepali horse trader could fathom—waited for me: I’d have liked to see Bhupendra try to ride her. I told Tsewang as much over dal in our guesthouse that night.
Predictably, my this-is-not-America comparisons (bigger! fancier!) were undermined in short order. I’m not saying that I couldn’t ride Bhupendra’s “man’s horse”—I’d prove myself and my sex to Bhupendra if I fell off a Himalayan cliff trying (I was already hobbling around on an ankle I’d fractured when I fell crossing a busy street in Katmandu), but it didn’t take long riding Mustang’s sure-footed mountain ponies on their native terrain to realize that they were something altogether different from the jittery American sport horses. For one thing, no Mustang horse was going to let me fall off a Himalayan cliff, at least not with him attached, and for this I remain grateful.
“Small horses are better,” Bhupendra explained after our next ride out, making me suspect that word had gotten back to him that I thought he had puny horses. “Big horses can’t go in the mountains.”
I feel compelled to explain that I did not go to Nepal to study horses. The research project I had originally proposed when I applied to my Tibetan Studies program righteous, jargon hodgepodge that vaguely had to do with education, which I was escaping studying back in the States: second-generation identity formation in exiled communities. Even I didn’t know what I meant by that, let alone how anyone might go about studying it. But my teachers gently nudged me to consider a topic about which I had some actual expertise, a condition that eliminated pretty much everything pertaining to South Asia. I wasn’t a Buddhist. I wasn’t an anti-Communist or a Communist either. I wasn’t itching to join a revolution, not Tibet’s or Nepal’s either. I had come to the region because I loved landscape, and I loved stories, and I loved—still love—where the two collide, so Tibet, with its treacherous mountains and its scattering diaspora, drew me like a flame. I didn’t want to make sense of it, I just wanted to stand at that intersection and watch what happened. But when I began to study the history of Tibet through the lens of horses, it was as if I were Alice and the looking glass was suddenly not a solid, impenetrable surface, but something I might walk right through.
It happened on the first day with Bhupendra, after we had ridden out along Nilgiri and returned to the low red compound where he lived with his family, and where Tsewang waited, obviously bored stiff and frozen in the deep chill of Nilgiri’s shadow, to catch us up on all the words we’d been unable to exchange on the trail. When I ran out of questions, we were offered tea, milky and sweet, and we sipped it at a table in an unheated room.
Bhupendra and Tsewang spoke together then. I didn’t like being excluded from the men’s conversation, but I was tired and my ankle ached. When we had finally quelled the flow of tea—saying no to the region’s belligerent hospitality was never an easy task—Tsewang and I said our good lucks and goodbyes and set off back to our guesthouse at the pathetic hobble that was all I could manage when I wasn’t on a horse.
“Bhupendra said you ride very well,” Tsewang told me then, coolly. He still thought I was crazy to have come from the United States to the middle-of-nowhere Nepal to ask, with unreasonable zeal, a few bumpkins about their shaggy nags.
I wobbled my head but I kept my eyes on the uneven ground. I kept hobbling along, hoping my feigned indifference would pass for Tibetan-style humility. On the other side of the world, where horses are bred for speed and size, I had a room full of ribbons and trophies from national competitions, but Bhupendra’s compliment trumped all of these: inside my American ego inflated to Himalayan proportions.
Over the weeks that followed, I showed up regularly during the mornings to watch Bhupendra Sherchan with his horses. He showed me how he cold-shod his own horses with pre-fab horseshoes imported from India, and when one nail slipped into the quick and his horse walked off lame, Bhupendra pulled the nail and doused the hoof in kerosene. He showed me how he floated (filed) a horse’s teeth. He showed me how to perform hot acupressure (singeing the horse’s cheek and nostril with a hot iron) to prevent a mysterious condition called amcho trong trong, which I later would learn from the state veterinarian was tetanus. From the conversations we had through Tsewang, I learned that Bhupendra was a professional animal dealer, which is an ancient trade in Mustang, given the region’s proximity to the Xingjiang-Lhasa Road. Every year he traveled into Tibet and traded watches, coral, and whatever else of value he’d managed to scrounge together for young horses and yaks and whatever other livestock promised a profit back in Mustang. The Tibetan horses brought nice returns—Bhupendra could sell a fast pony imported from Tibet for five times the 30,000 Nepali rupees he could get for a domestic. His buyers believed that horses born on the Plateau were tough enough to endure thin, frigid air, and sure-footed enough for the rocky tracks that pass for roads in the Himalayas.
Frankly, I couldn’t tell the difference between horses off the Plateau and those born in the high valleys of the Annapurna Range (even Jomsom is a substantial 9,000 feet above sea-level), although these latter animals were apparently not so useless as those bred and born in the lowlands around Pokhara. With my eye trained for European bloodlines and my mind strung with memorized pedigrees that stretch back through the days of kings, the notion that endurance and stability could be bred out of a horse in a generation (after all, most of Mustang’s breeding stock descended from the Tibetan), or that birthplace could affect performance in any way, was beyond my highly-programmed mental reach. From what I could see, all of the ponies in Jomsom, Tibetan or otherwise, were short-coupled, with backs that didn’t sway (the way, say, a desert horse’s will do) but bowed upward, cat-like; these shaggy creatures had been designed—by natural selection and selective breeding (and birthplace, apparently)—to climb and to carry. It occurred to me as we trotted headlong across the mountain slopes that Bhupendra’s tough little Tibetan horse as not a motorbike, or even an ATV or amped-up tractor, but a near-mythical beast with the nimble agility of a mountain goat, the brute strength of a yak, and the enormous heart that belongs only to a horse.
I contented myself to watch that “man’s horse” ascend Nilgiri from the rugs piled atop one of Bhupendra’s old-reliables, an earth-brown mare herself descended from the warhorses brought to Mustang by the renowned Khampa cavalry.
“The Khampas were as big as giants and we were afraid of them,” an elderly relative of Bhupendra’s told me through Tsewang. “They rode very fast and left only dust.”
When they weren’t conducting operations against their Goliath, Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army, or raiding local villages for supplies in the name of the Dalai Lama (who had long begged the Khampas to consider peaceful methods of resistance), the Khampas would trade their old horses for tsampa and other staples. And when the Khampas were ousted from Mustang by the Nepalese army in 1974, they sold their horses and yaks to the locals. Bhupendra’s father, who was friends with one Khampa, purchased a mare.
As my mornings with Bhupendra accumulated, my reputation as a rider spread down Jomsom’s single dirt road. I was soon invited to ride with Gonpo Gurung, a man who had earned his own reputation by winning the seven-hour horse race during that September’s Festival of the Moon. Tsewang reported this new development, I wanted to go right away. But the wind was up, leaving me to wile away the time by goofing around with the ten-year-old girls who worked in the kitchen of my guesthouse, which, as usual, got us all in trouble. Finally the wind showed signs of settling and I gimped over to the pool hall to wrangle Tsewang out of its dark reaches so we could visit Gonpo Gurung.
That evening, Gonpo put me on Kali, a little black mare, while he rode his Kehsang, the chestnut gelding who had carried him to victory and local renown during the Festival of the Moon. I rode circles in a level area behind Gonpo’s Dancing Yak Hostel. Tsewang stood on a rock on one side, trying to stay as far away from both of us as he could, and still hear us to translate.
I wanted to know about all this speed trotting. It looked awkward to me, particularly with those ponies’ short legs, and no number of rugs stacked up on the wooden frame that served as saddle made the gait anything but jarring. Besides, wouldn’t those young show-offs who blazed through town make a better impression if they galloped smoothly through rather than jiggling themselves silly?
Tsewang didn’t know the Tibetan words for trot or canter or gallop, but Gonpo and I got around that with gestures and onomatopoeia, until I started to pick up words. The word for canter in Tibetan is kyitrü, which translates literally to “steps of a dog.” A good trotter, or takdrü, was much preferred over a galloping horse, or gyukma: a gyukma will tire in a matter of minutes—galloping was saved for races and emergencies, but a takdrü never tires. It was a disappointment to Gonpo that not one of his three horses was a takdrü. To compensate for their unimpressive trots, he trained his horses to canter with high, flashy steps. The really desirable horses were pacers, or tongdrü, but that can never be taught. Like any good trait, the ability to pace, Gonpo explained through Tsewang, could only be inherited from the horse’s mother.
Gonpo Gurung was a talented horseman of a different ilk from Bhupendra Sherchan. Gonpo enjoyed horses, and depended upon them, and he was more sentimental about them than the pragmatic trader Bhupendra. For example, Gonpo was building a new house—I rode out with him one day for a load of four concrete blocks—a house with a room attached for his horses to live in. From Gonpo I learned about the amulets that horses wear for good luck. I learned that when a mare is with foal she is fed Tibetan tea, chapatti, beans, rice, or the Tibetan staple, a fine barley meal called tsampa. I learned about the rituals of wrapping kata around the neck of a horse heading off for a long journey, just as Tibetans wrap the white scarf around the neck of a human. And when a good horse dies, it is honored as a human is, with a sky-burial: the animal’s corpse is taken to a high place in the mountains, chopped into pieces, and fed to the birds who will carry that body upwards and onwards, the way that lung-ta, wind horses, those colorful prayer flags printed with mantra and strung along the ridges, dissipate into the thin air.
And it was Gonpo who got Tsewang up on the back of a horse.
The first time was in the level space behind Gonpo’s compound. I was riding Gonpo’s horse whose name Sange Rakpa meant yellow lion, which was a little silly for such a fuzzy, gentle creature. For three weeks, Tsewang, who liked movies and music and modern city stuff, had been stuck in a town five days’ walk and a half-century from so much as a motorcycle, talking about nothing but horses. He shook his head when Gonpo proposed he take a turn, but Gonpo wore him down.
I assumed that Gonpo was doing this so we could all ride out of Jomsom the next day, to see the land and to ride on the river flats, that it was for my benefit. After all, it would be easier for all of us if Tsewang was on a horse rather than tagging behind on foot. Fortunately, Tsewang’s first ride went well and the next morning, Gonpo and I teased and prodded and cajoled until Tsewang climbed back up on Sange Rakpa.
“Now that you can ride,” I teased my friend; “you can be a movie star!”
The three of us trotted showily through Jomsom, the yak-bone clackers on our horses clearing the road in front of us, Tsewang clutching his pile of rugs and bouncing like a rag doll. At the edge of town, we slowed down to a walk so Tsewang could recover. In front of us, the rushing Kali Gandaki wound in and out of the shadows of the mountain. As we followed the river upstream, it flattened out upon sand flats. Here, the broad, windswept valley was empty and flat—a rare phenomenon in the Himalayas, save for the first of the Annapurna trekkers who trudged towards us across the great expanse, bobbing like bright little land birds with North Face plumage. There were no aspen trees, no stone huts, no herds of sheep.
Gonpo wanted to show me how his ponies could run. Rather than leave Tsewang alone, since Sange Rakpa would probably follow his friends, we took turns galloping up the valley in the crisp morning light. After a few of these sprints, Tsewang and Gonpo went together as I rested my horse.
As they galloped off, I recognized that I had just replaced Tsewang as translator. Over those weeks in Jomsom during which I had dragged Tsewang out of his pool hall for the thrill of watching a man hammer nails into a horse’s foot, or gotten myself in a lather to talk to just some small-town livestock trader, I had actually accomplished one small thing: I had rendered the ancient—Tsewang’s exiled people’s age-old symbiosis with horses—in knowable terms. Gonpo hadn’t goaded Tsewang into the saddle for my sake, but for Tsewang’s own, and that looking glass I had imagined I could step through was still in front of me after all. Tsewang was a young man without a homeland, born in exile, a permanent foreigner, but he was not without a past. And yet, as my project had so improbably set out to do, in that brief moment and not by my doing, it linked a slipping past with an unraveling present. At least for my friend.
By the end of that day, Tsewang and I had two things in common: we both knew what it felt like to breathe the thin mountain air from the back of a galloping horse, and we both limped when we walked through town.
This story originally appeared in Vela Magazine:
Wind Horses of Mustang