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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 67-73

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The Golden Stupa

Ma Jian

Gar Temple lies between two goddesses, Jomolhamo and Shishapangma. Climbing to the highest point on the temple grounds, you can see the two, wrapped in white and facing the expanse of sky, as if they're about to return to heaven. Below the temple is the post road to Nepal. The road has fallen into disrepair, but in the past, it was used by all the merchants and wayfarers. A river snakes alongside the road. The adjoining flatlands are planted with barley and peas. A bit further back from the river, the ground is covered with loose rock, and not a blade of grass grows there. The shepherds have to drive their livestock elsewhere in the summer. A bronze stupa once stood on the highest point of the temple ground; a relic—a bone of the saint Milarepa—was interred there. Now, except for the foundations, there's no trace left of it. The other sanctuaries collapsed long ago and the signs of human life have dwindled at this great elevation.

The Tibetans here are short and lethargic. The moving things—white clouds, flocks of sheep, wild dogs, fluttering prayer flags, women walking along the road with children on their backs, and one Chinese wanderer newly come up from the east—myself—all moved unhurriedly and relaxed, as if we were in a slow-motion movie. Hardest of all to bear was the crack you could feel, starting up from the temples, until it seemed that the top of your head was splitting open like the steel door of an observatory. Half your memory disappeared from your cerebrum. I forgot how my former wife looked, though it was precisely on her account that I was wandering the world. I forgot the world's philosophers and artists. But my sensory center was fine, and I suddenly recalled some long-forgotten days—above all, that day six years ago when I lost my key. I remembered all at once that I'd stuck it under a board that was propping up the wooden crate underneath my bed. When I lost it, I was dreaming. The key fell, and the rat in my dream jumped in fright, grabbed the key, and opened my desk drawer, desperately rummaged through it, and poured out my stomach pills. It was only after swallowing two or three of them that he stuffed the key under the board.

At the crossroads, I sat down, panting. Some children, along with their dogs, slowly surrounded me, a few looking at my face and my hair, others [End Page 67] [Begin Page 69] looking at my clothes, my beard, my camera. Slowly, they squatted down, and between gasps, I gave them a little smile, then took out my fake letter of introduction and asked them where the office of the village government was.

The village clerk had gone to high school in the district town, but he'd already half turned back into a moron. It took him ten minutes to read my letter of introduction, after which he slowly smiled at me, then it took him another five minutes to get the smile off his face.

I told him I'd come to climb Jomolhamo on a political assignment from such-and-such newspaper. He said it was no good to do it alone. Somebody came the year before, even wrote his will. Half a month later, he returned, frozen purple green, nose and ears festering. The villagers took him to the district hospital, where they kept him a month. The Goddess's green face isn't something anybody can just go and touch. He said there was a glacier at the foot of Everest, too, so even if you didn't freeze to death, you could get knocked dead by the ice. I grew sad and discouraged. Then he told me there was a mountain nearby that I could climb, and I would be able to see Everest from the top. This mountain had a ruined Nepali temple, and there were people...


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