Spiritual Highs: Living with Nuns at 10,000ft in Eastern Tibet

The little car whizzed down the winding mountain road and my ears popped from the change in altitude as we turned another hairpin bend. Our Chinese driver grinned toothily in the seat next to me, and in the backseat sat a maroon-robed nun, a young Tibetan translator and an American tourist. It could have easily been a getaway car, and our spirits soared as high as the jagged Himalayan mountain range that surrounded us.

A few days earlier our group of women of mixed ages and nationalities had arrived at Dhamo nunnery, nestled 10,000 ft high in the Tibetan region of Amdo, to spend a few days living with the nuns. Driving up the asphalt road newly built by the Chinese government, a feeling of calm shrouded this place of worship. I spotted two nuns meditating on the steep hillside, their robes fluttering in the wind, and lush wilderness covered in mist stretched into the horizon. We entered our host Ani Shi Shi's modest cabin where the smell of freshly made yak momos engulfed the air, and two metal pots of milky tea sat on the central stove. Sunlight streamed onto the wooden walls, which were adorned on one side with a traditional Tibetan thangka (buddhist silk painting) and on the other a poster of a colourful fruit bowl. If our host felt awkward about a group of strangers entering her home, she didn't show it. A nun who looked about 17 served us tea in mugs as we chose where to sit, either on the floor or on two raised carpeted platforms, which I realised later was where she slept. We couldn't talk to each other, but communicated in those first moments with the widest smiles I have ever seen among a group of strangers.

Our translator, Tsewang Droma, is a young Tibetan who grew up in a nomadic herder family. Born to forward-thinking parents who sent her to school and encouraged her education, she decided to go to college in Chengdu where she now works as an indigenous-language specialist. There are over 200 different Tibetan dialects, and most Tibetans who speak different languages will speak Chinese to each other. This, along with the fact that the Chinese government makes everyone study Chinese as a priority, puts many Tibetan languages at risk of extinction. Droma helps us communicate and the nuns tell us about their average day - wake at 5am to chant together, then take a break to eat and wash up before resuming their chanting which goes on till 9am, after which they are free to read in their respective houses (or chant some more). They are as interested in us as we are in them, and the young nun, Chu Shi Shi Den, wrinkles her nose when we tell her we've come from Chengdu - she doesn't like the city because the noise makes it difficult for her to meditate.

Ani Shi Shi has lived at the nunnery for 27 years, and ran away from her family, like many of the others, at the age of 18. Travelling only at night, she finally made it to the bottom of the path to Dhamo, just a dirt road at the time. She wanted to be a nun from a young age, but her family forbade it, preferring her to find a husband instead. They paid a dowry of 500 yuan (about £55) and she was married, but soon ran away from her family. Women in Tibet are discouraged from becoming nuns because it's a financial strain; nuns do not make money the same way monks do and have to rely almost entirely on donations. Chu Shi Shi Den also tells us that once a woman has decided to become a nun, changing her mind brings shame on the entire family. Chu Shi Shi Den also ran away from home at the age of 18. Her family brought her back, but when she ran away again a year later they let her stay at Dhamo. Her mother and sister cried when she cut her hair and put on her robes, and her brother threatened to kill himself if she changed her mind. She's lived at the nunnery for four years now.

The next day we woke early and scrambled into warm clothes before heading out into the foggy morning air to see the sun burning like a fire over the mountains. We mixed with a throng of nuns that were heading into their meditation room. There were about 40 nuns in the room, each sat cross-legged on the floor wearing thick maroon robes fringed with fur and reading chants aloud from faded yellow books of Tibetan writing. It was 6am and I felt ashamed because my eyes were closing, but looking around I noticed that the nuns were akin to a freshman classroom after a party the night before. Some of them were fully asleep, including the one on my direct right, who nodded awake every now and then to grin sheepishly at me. The rhythmic chanting that sounded like bees buzzing was doing nothing to help keep us awake, while Chu Shi Shi Den was in the front of the class doing 100 prostrations as punishment for having been late the day before. They looked like a mix between praying and a burpee, and she did hers with practised ease in about 20 minutes.

When we exited the chanting room, the sun had risen fully, and the mountains were covered in mist again. Going to the loo at the nunnery is manageable enough because I know I am only going to have to do it for a few days. The newly built common outhouses are a 10-minute walk from Ani Shi Shi's house; she has never had her own bathroom although some of the nuns here do. While the nunnery has existed since 1990, communal showers were only installed two years ago, and Ani Shi Shi is reluctant to tell us how often she actually uses them. Julie takes me to see the old loo. It's a broken-down shed perched on the edge of the hill, with a sharp decline and magnificent views.

After breakfast (momos and tea) we head out for a hike in the mountains. There, 12,000 ft high in the Tibetan plateau in front of fluttering prayer flags tied to a small white stupa, Droma and the nuns teach us a traditional Tibetan dance and we all pitch in with traditional moves from our own countries. On our way down, we see the ancient village near the nunnery sprawling in the distance below. We pass a half-built temple that the nuns are currently working on building with the help of the local villagers. When they aren't chanting, or learning about Buddhism, the women here do hard manual labour; last year they built a water slues way.

Later, in Ani Shi Shi's cosy cabin, we settle in for more momos, noodles, boiled potatoes and tea and resume our conversation from the night before. Our friends have opened up a lot more after our hike together - nature has a funny way of doing that. Chu Shi Shi Den asks us some profound life questions. What are we grateful for? What do we fear? What worries us? It makes me think of answers that I hadn't dwelled on much before, and our group is brought closer as we share our thoughts. Chu Shi Shi Den says that she mostly worries about how people just can't seem to get along, and how the world would be a better place if they did. As far as worries go, that's further down on my list than I'd like to admit, and I'm now making a conscious effort to think about it more. Apart from life's bigger questions, we also discuss the everyday and the mundane. Chu Shi Shi Den is only 24 years old - that's three years younger than I am as I write this. I ask her what she does for fun and the question seems to confuse her for a second. She says she mostly likes watching videos on her friend's phone (she doesn't have a phone herself) and going on trips outside the nunnery. We are going to leave the nunnery the following day, to head to a 1,400-year-old Tibetan village where we have been invited to stay with a village woman who is Ani Shi Shi's niece. The nun asks if she can hitch a ride with us, as she's already taken permission from the nunnery to go on a short trip.

When we head out of Dhamo the next day, we've added one nun to our number, and it really does feel like we're springing her from school in our getaway car. I look up at the mountains and remember my attempts to mime to Chu Shi Shi Den that my mind was blown at how high we were, at the sheer number of trees, and the almost stifling peace and quiet. She had smiled at me, almost pityingly. "What are you doing?" Julie had asked. "Even I can't understand what you're doing." Alas, some things will remain lost in translation.

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