The Cloud Maker


Tibet, March 1956

Just before the bend, he stopped.

The noise he’d heard was like an animal crashing through the bamboo thickets and, thinking it might be just that, the young novice monk halted in his tracks. Then he heard sharp voices barking out orders in Mandarin. Veering off the path, he dropped low behind a dense thicket, his face only inches from the frozen ground.

A few seconds later, four uniformed soldiers burst on to the path, rifles slung over their shoulders. They were talking fast, gesticulating with swift stabbing movements at something higher up the valley.

Rega could see a pair of battered military boots just in front of him, tiny crystals of snow frosting the muddy laces. A few more steps and they would be on him. He could hear the soldier’s breathing, the sticky sounds of his mouth working as he chewed on tobacco.

‘Zai Nar!’ shouted another voice, further away, and the boots paused for a moment and then crunched off in the other direction. Rega let out a ragged breath, his relief mingling with horror as he realised what had just happened.

One of the soldiers must have looked back across the interlocking valleys and seen – framed through a gap in the trees like a keyhole – what was meant to have stayed hidden in the jungle of the gorge for several more centuries.

Moments later there were more shouts, and soon dozens of pairs of boots came tramping past where he lay.

It was over. They had found them.

All winter, in the icy basin of the Tsangpo gorge, the monks had waited. As the snows began to melt and the rhododendrons pushed their way through the layers of frost, they knew their time had come. Soon the days would lengthen and the Doshong-La would become passable again. The seasons were changing, and with them their fate.

For months they had heard stories – whispered, terrible stories – filtering through from the outside world. Then, two weeks ago, a pair of snow-covered porters had stumbled into the monastery. Exhausted, they had risked everything to climb through the night and relay the news: on the opposite side of the colossal mountain peaks, they had seen the unmistakable tents of a Chinese patrol.

It was obvious what they had come for – there was no other reason to be sitting at the bottom of one of the fiercest mountain passes in Tibet. Someone must have tipped them off. Now they were just waiting for the end of the winter snowstorms.

As the hours passed, the young novice Rega remained perfectly still. The habitually smooth skin across his forehead was furrowed in confusion and his wide, brown eyes stared blankly out across the darkening gorge. He was naturally thin and wiry, having just reached twenty years of age, and even under his thick, winter tunic, he could feel the cold seeping up from the ground. His arms were folded tight across his chest, trying to stave off the chill, and his legs felt numb.

At first he was unsure what the flicker of light was. Maybe his mind was playing tricks on him after the long hours of cold and fear. But it continued, bigger now, a ball of orange which seemed to grow by the minute, shooting high into the night sky.

The idea was so inconceivable that it was a while before Rega fully understood what he was seeing. Long tongues of fire, fanned and bolstered by the wind, were spreading out across the great timbers of the monastery roof. Even against the dark night sky, he could make out the smoke twisting upwards, the ashes billowing in