Early one afternoon in the Chinese province of Qinghai.
Numerous temples, some of them old and mystical, others new, shining golden in the sun, line our route as we pass through unspoilt countryside.
We are looking for Nya Jak Gyal, a practising ngakpa, in a small village near Rebkong.
A ngakpa is sometimes called a yogi or oracle – the Tibetan regions of Western China are home to a long tradition of ngakpas and Rebkong is considered their centre.
These Buddhist practitioners of tantra and rituals do not live in monasteries, nor are they celibate. They have wives and families, eat meat and drink alcohol, although not when in retreat. They are often described as the white-robed dreadlocked community – their empowerment is delivered from a lama directly into the hair, which is why they never cut it again.
Nya Jak Gyal is one of them. He is a fortune teller too, providing valuable services to the community. He offers counsel in matters such as family problems, illnesses, divining the most suitable dates for weddings and funerals, even helping individuals to find the ideal partner. Ngakpas study long and hard to absorb the lessons of Buddhism. It takes at least twenty years to become a fully qualified ngakpa – and the learning process does not end there. From outside, it seems quite impenetrable.
Their retreat hair, as it is sometimes known, is piled up high on their heads, leaning to one side or the other, depending if the ngakpa is a man or a woman.
Nya Jak Gaal welcomes us at the door. My immediate reaction - wow! Standing in striking Tibetan attire, he fills the door frame, a massive figure with impressively bound hair. You could lose yourself in his large face. With a friendly grin, he gently gives me his hand and I follow him in. His little daughter stays close by his side.
We eat bread and drink salty milk tea. His mother pours yak butter oil into golden forms on the table to make prayer candles.
The same oven which heats the room is also used to make the tea. Nya Jak Gyal is, by all accounts, a famous ngakpa, like his father before him. Passed down from one generation to the next, the ability to become a ngakpa still depends on the individual's karma, he tells us. Nya Jak Gyal understood his calling from an early age. By the time he was nineteen years old he was already practising together with his father, who has since passed away.
The house is arranged around a courtyard, it is nice and light here, friendly and colourful. Some furniture stands outside in the sunshine.
I lose count of the cats playing in the yard and in the various rooms. They all seem to be playmates for the two-year-old daughter who carries one or two of them around wherever she goes.
The ngakpa fetches an old hand-written book, actually several books in one.
The oracle finds answers within its pages, instructions for ceremonies, texts for chants. Drawings indicate which figures need to be crafted from tsampa for particular ceremonies. Tsampa is a staple foodstuff for Tibetans, barley flour mixed with Tibetan salty milk tea and yak butter. Saffron is added if colouring is needed.
We go for a short walk through the peaceful, deserted village. The typically warm light of western China caresses the walls. We follow Nya Jak Gyal through narrow alleyways.
A couple of days later we see him again, this time in a different village. Two ngakpas, assisted by a third, are performing a ceremony in a smoky room.
This is a ritual for a son. A family has sought out Nya Jak Gyal in the hope that he can help them to fulfil their wish for a child. For hours on end they chant, burn incense, beat drums. Then everything, including sacred tsampa figures, is packed up and loaded onto a narrow pick-up truck.
We weave our way through tight village alleys up towards the mountains. Nya Jak Gyal's vast frame barely fits inside the crampled vehicle. What a pair, these two ngakpas, one as broad and tall as they come, crowned with a mass of hair, the other thin, the few hairs left on his head somehow knotted together.
We have to walk the last part of the way up to the peak where the mountain god is worshipped.
Here we are. As soon as we have arrived, a fire is lit and the ngapkas find a clear spot on the summit. More prayers, chants, drumming, fireworks. The assistant sprays milk and baijiu, a strong spirit distilled from rice. Sacrificial offerings are presented to the mountain god.
The sound of a conch or shell horn echoes across the mountains. The ngakpas make one last approach to the mountain god with their assistant, then the ceremony is over.
Soon, a son will come.