Lhasa, Tibet.

Pat A. Torny had told them:

"Be ready at 6 a.m. We're leaving for Lake Yamdrok in 4x4s in groups of five, and we'll get there, if all goes well, in the early afternoon. Don't forget to put on warm clothes! Early mornings and evenings are particularly chilly in these parts!"

"Zero degrees Fahrenheit! You call that chilly? More like icy! Siberia!" commented an exceedingly untidy woman. Then she turned to her husband and added "Take all the photos you can, Hans, you won't have another chance to drag me off to Tibet. Thank God we're off tomorrow."

The ten other tourists in the group grinned at the exchange, and headed for their hotel in the Holy City. It was 4 p.m. on March 18, 1997. Nomads had pitched their tents in the center of Lhasa and were installed with their sheep and their yaks to sell or barter food, skins and jewels. The ceaseless shuffle of pilgrims around the market offered a brilliant spectacle for visitors to marvel at.

It was getting dark, and although this was their last night in the City of White Clouds, the group was ready to spend a quiet evening to catch up on sleep they had missed in previous nights.

So they were ready to leave early in the morning in the three all-terrain vehicles needed to cover every sort of road-surface, from dust to rocks, from the sharp stones to ice.

It was already noon when the caravan approached Nagartse. Pat, sitting in front of the lead car, watched the country she already knew in every detail with as much delight as if she had never seen it before. Turning to her driver, Tchögyel, she said "I can never see enough of those willows planted just there, facing the mountains! This is a desert, and there they are, in the middle of it all. It's so beautiful."

He smiled, like someone who had heard it all before.
"When will we get there?"
"In about an hour."
"Great. We mustn't waste any time. We have to be back by seven."

He smiled again. He had known the young woman for almost a year. Every month, he would drive the groups she led into the various parts of the country they wanted to visit. The rest of the time he was her guide and helped her with research.

Pat A. Torny was an ethnologist, sent out by the French Institute for Asiatic Studies. She tried to organize her time as though she were still in Paris. Forever in a hurry to gather texts for her researches, and to meet the largest number of people possible in a time-span she considered quite inadequate, she always managed to reach her destination on time, in this country where everyone lived to the rhythms of sun and storms.

To adapt herself to local conditions and not to suffer from abrupt changes of temperature, she had quickly picked up the local dress code: boots in yak skin, woollen trousers, skin jacket, with the wool inside, fastened around her waist with a colored sash, and her hair gathered up under a Tibetan hat.

Besides being punctual by nature, Pat A. Torny was a dynamic woman. She was intelligent, generous and sensitive, and she knew how to charm the natives. She was 35 years old and had visited the remotest corners of Nepal, India and Tibet, which made her one of the best specialists in this part of Asia.

Truth be told, guiding tourists was not something that excited her, or even interested her. It was a task she had laid upon herself, a sort of good deed, because in this country daily life was based on a constant exchanges of favors.

The Toyotas stopped at the edge of the lake. The travellers scrambled out as well as they could, stiff in their limbs, stifled and shaken up by the hours of driving. Everyone exclaimed as one at the joy of stretching their legs, when suddenly they all fell silent. They were staring at the lake, which stretched before them to the horizon. The water was turquoise, calm and infinite, bordered on one side by red mountains, colored by the minerals in them, and on the other by a green valley. The lake at that moment shimmered with astonishing colors, like a gigantic kaleidoscope. Coming from nowhere, the lake presented its immense beauty to their eyes.

After two hours walking in the valley to meet a few shepherds, the group, still stunned by the experience, set out for Lhasa again by the same dusty road, along which stood a number of chortens, the stone altars raised by the Tibetans to their gods.

As they crossed the Kampa-la pass, at 13,500 feet, Tchögyel braked suddenly and stopped his car.

"What's up?" Pat asked.
"I don't know. There's a man on the road. I'm going to see," he replied.
"I'm coming with you."

Tchögyel, kneeling next to the man on the ground, shook him by the shoulder.

"Hello, are you all right?"
The man did not move.
Tchögyel tried again.
"Hello, hello. What happened? Hello!"
The man feebly opened his eyes and took fright.
"Don't move! Are you injured?"

The man still had an expression of terror. He began to speak, but so low that no one could hear what he was saying.

"What's he saying? I can't understand," Pat asked.
"I don't know. He's speaking a dialect."

Tchögyel bent over him and tried to speak to him. He finally succeeded.

"He's speaking a dialect of Korean with a few words of Chinese," he said.
"Ask him what happened, he's hurt."

Tchögyel spoke to him softly and at length, to comfort him. The man was in a state of terror.

He turned to Pat and said "It's odd. I can't understand what he says very well. He's talking about an explosion, or a fire. Really, I can't make anything out."
"An explosion!" Pat exclaimed in astonishment. "We haven't heard anything. If there had been an explosion, we couldn't have missed it!"

Some of the group of tourists had joined them. One of them picked up something from the ground and handed it to Pat.

"Look what I've found," he said.

Pat examined the object. It was a fragment of burnt metal. She turned it over in her hands, then looked at Tchögyel.

"This is strange. I've never seen anything like this in Tibet. Where can it have come from?"

Puzzled by this discovery which would perhaps add to her report, she stuffed the thing into her pocket, almost forgetting the unfortunate man stretched out at her feet in the dust, shaking with cold.

"We must take him to the hospital in Lhasa," Tchögyel said. "We can't leave him here."

Pat energetically got her group of people together and they gently lifted the wounded man into one of the cars, and set out again for the capital.

End of chapter 1

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