And here she was. Thirty-three, alone, no prospects, only her research for company, and a one-person sleeping bag for a bed. Maybe she should just shave her head and move into one of these mountaintop monasteries. The helicopter jittered, angling up.
Her attention focused back to the moment.
Lisa held her breath as the helicopter skimmed a sharp ridge. Its skids barely cleared the windswept lip of ice and dove into the neighboring gorge.
She forced her fingers to unlock from the seat's armrest. Suddenly a three-bedroom cottage with two-point-five kids didn't sound so bad.
Beside her, Ang Gelu leaned forward and pointed between pilot and soldier, motioning below. The roar of the rotors swallowed his words.
Lisa leaned her cheek against the door's window to peer outside. The curve of cold Plexiglas kissed her cheek. Below, she spotted the first bit of color. A tumble of red-tile roofs. A small collection of eight stone lodges perched on a plateau, framed by twenty-thousand-foot peaks on three sides and a vertical cliff on the fourth. Temp Och Monastery.
The helicopter dropped precipitously toward the buildings. Lisa noted a terraced potato field to one side. Some corrals and barns sprawled on the other. No movement. No one came out to greet the noisy newcomers.
More ominously, Lisa noted a collection of goats and blue bharal sheep gathered in the penned corrals. They weren't moving either. Rather than driven into a panic by the descending helicopter, they were all sprawled on the ground, legs twisted, necks bent, unnatural.
Ang Gelu noted the same and sank into the seat. His eyes found hers. What had happened? Some argument was under way between pilot and soldier in the front seat. Plainly the pilot didn't want to land. The soldier won the argument by placing a palm on the butt of his rifle. The pilot scowled and snugged his oxygen mask tighter over his nose and mouth. Not because he needed the additional air, but in fear of contagion.
Still, the pilot obeyed the soldier's orders. He strangled the controls and lowered the craft earthward. He aimed as far from the corrals as possible, dropping toward the edge of the monastery's potato fields. The fields rose in an amphitheater of tiers, lined by rows of tiny green sprouts. High-altitude potato farming had been introduced by the British in the early nineteenth century and potatoes had become one of the subsistence crops of the area. With a jarring bump, the helicopter's skids struck the rocky soil, crushing a row of plants. Neighboring sprouts whipped and waved in the rotor wash.
Still no one acknowledged their arrival. She pictured the dead livestock. Was there even anyone to rescue? What had happened here? Various etiologies ran through her head, along with routes of exposure: ingestion, inhalation, contact. Or was it contagious? She needed more information.
"Perhaps you should stay here," Ang Gelu said to Lisa while unbuckling his seat straps. "Let us check out the monastery."
Lisa grabbed her medical pack from the floor. She shook her head. "I have no fear of the sick. And there may be questions only I can answer."
Ang Gelu nodded, spoke hurriedly to the soldier, and cracked open the rear hatch. He climbed out, turning to offer a hand to Lisa. Cold winds swept into the heated interior, aided by the rush of the rotors. Pulling up her parka's hood, Lisa found the frigid draft drained whatever oxygen was still in the air at this altitude. Or maybe it was her fear. Her earlier words were braver than she felt.
She took the monk's hand. Even through her woolen mittens, she felt his strength and warmth. He did not bother covering his shaved head, seemingly oblivious to the icy cold.
She clambered out but stayed ducked under the sweep of the helicopter blades. The soldier left last. The pilot remained inside the cabin. Though he might land the helicopter as ordered, he was taking no chances in leaving its canopy.
Ang Gelu slammed the hatch closed and the trio hurried across the potato field toward the jumble of stone buildings.
From the ground, the red-shingled lodges were taller than they seemed from the air. The centermost structure looked to be three stories tall, topped with a pagoda-style roof. All the buildings were elaborately decorated. Rainbow-hued murals framed doors and windows. Gold leaf brightened lintels, while carved stone dragons and mythic birds sneered and leered from roof corners. Covered porticos linked the various buildings, creating little courtyards and private spaces. Wooden prayer wheels, carved with ancient lettering, were mounted on poles throughout the structures. Multicolored prayer flags draped from rooflines, snapping in the intermittent gusts.
While it had a fairy-tale appearance to it, a mountaintop Shangri-La, Lisa still found her steps slowing. Nothing moved. Most of the windows were shuttered. Silence weighed heavily.
Then there was the distinct taint to the air. Though mostly a researcher, Lisa had experienced her share of death while a medical resident. The fetid miasma of rot could not be so easily blown away. She prayed it was coming only from the livestock on the far side of the pavilion. But from the lack of response to their presence, she didn't hold out much hope.
Ang Gelu led the way, flanked by the soldier. Lisa was forced to hurry to keep up with them. They passed between two buildings and headed toward the central towering structure.
In the main courtyard, farm implements lay strewn haphazardly, as if abandoned in a hurry. A cart tethered to a yak stood overturned on its side. The animal was dead, too, sprawled on its flank, belly distended with bloat. Milky eyes stared at them. A distended tongue protruded from black swollen lips.
Lisa noted the lack of flies or other tiny opportunists. Were there flies at this altitude? She wasn't sure. She searched the skies. No birds. No noise except the hushed wind.
"This way," Ang Gelu said.
The monk headed for a set of tall doors that led into the central dwelling, clearly the main temple. He tested the latch, found it unlocked, and pulled it open with a moan of hinges.
Beyond the threshold, the first sign of life flickered. To either side of the doorway, barrel-size lamps glowed with a dozen flaming wicks. Butter lamps, fueled by yak butter. The fetid odor was worse inside. It did not bode well.
Even the soldier now held back from crossing the threshold, shifting the automatic weapon from one shoulder to the other, as if to reassure himself. The monk simply strode inside. He called out a greeting. It echoed.
Lisa entered behind Ang Gelu. The soldier kept a station at the doorstep.
A few more barrel lamps illuminated the temple's interior. To either side, towering prayer wheels lined the walls, while juniper-scented candles and incense sticks burned near an eight-foot-tall teak statue of Buddha. Other gods of the pantheon were lined behind his shoulders.