Like skiing instructors in the Tyrol, snow leopards make love amid silvery white landscapes. In February, they go into rut. Swathed in furs, they live amid the ice. The males fight, the females offer themselves, couples call to each other. Munier had warned me: if we were to have a chance of spotting a snow leopard, we would have to track it in the dead of winter, at an altitude of between 4,000 and 5,000 meters. I would try to counterbalance the discomforts of winter with the joy of an apparition. It was a technique Saint Bernadette had adopted in the grotto at Lourdes. While the little shepherdess doubtless suffered from cold knees, the sight of a Virgin ringed with a halo was worth it.
"Leopard": the very word chimed like precious stones. There was no guarantee that we would encounter one. Hunting from a hide is a wager: you set out in search of an animal; you court failure. Some people are untroubled by this; they enjoy the anticipation. Sadly, I am not among them. I was determined to see the animal even if, out of politeness, I did not confess my impatience to Munier.
Snow leopards were widely targeted by poachers. This was another reason for making the journey. We would be visiting the bedside of a wounded creature.
Munier had shown me the photographs he had taken on previous expeditions. The beast combined power and grace. Its fur threw off sparks of glittering reflections, its paws were wide as saucers, it used its oversized tail as a balancing pole. It was adapted to living in inhospitable terrain and to scaling cliffs. It was the spirit of the mountain come to earth, an ancient creature forced into exile by the murderous rage of humans.
I associated the animal with a person: a woman who would never again travel anywhere with me. She was a child of the forests, queen of wild waters, friend to animals. I had loved her; I had lost her. In an ineffectual and infantile view, I associated her memory with an inaccessible animal. It is a prosaic syndrome: you miss a person, the world takes on her shape. If I encountered the animal, I would one day tell her that it was she I had chanced upon, on a winter's day on a snow-white plateau. It was magical thinking. I was afraid of seeming ridiculous. At the time, I did not say a word to my friends. But I thought about it constantly.
It was early February. To lighten our load, I made the mistake of wearing all my mountaineering gear. In a Paris suburb, I boarded a train for the airport wearing my Arctic jacket and my Chinese "long march" army boots. In a carriage filled with handsome Fulani knights of sorrowful countenance, and a Moldovan who was massacring Brahms on an accordion, I was the one people stared at, because my clothes were out of place. Exoticism had shifted.
We took off. Definition of progress (and thus of sadness): taking ten hours to cover a distance it took Marco Polo four years to cross. Unfailingly polite, Munier made the introductions while we were in the air. I greeted the two friends with whom I was about to spend a month: Munier's fiancée, Marie, a woman with a lithe body, a wildlife filmmaker obsessed with the wild and with extreme sports, and Léo, who had hypermetropic eyes, tousled hair and a philosophical mindset, and hence was taciturn. Marie had made a film about wolves, and another about the lynx, animals living on borrowed time. She was about to shoot a film about her twin loves: snow leopards and Munier. Two years earlier, Léo had interrupted his philosophical thesis to work as Munier's assistant. In Tibet, Munier needed aides-de-camp to set up the hides, to regulate his cameras, and as company in the long nights. Being unable to carry heavy loads due to a weak spine-I had broken my back in a fall from the roof of a friend's house in 2014, and my recovery had been long and grueling-and having not the slightest competence in matters of photography, or of tracking animals, I did not know what my role would be. It was my responsibility not to hold the others up and not to sneeze if the snow leopard appeared. I was being offered Tibet on a plate. I was off to find an insubstantial animal in the company of an accomplished artist, a human she-wolf with eyes of lapis lazuli and a brooding philosopher.
"We're the 'Gang of Four'!" I said, as the plane touched down in China.
At least I could supply the jokes.
We had landed at the easternmost point of Tibet, in the administrative province of Qinghai. The gray terraces of the city of Yushu, perched at an altitude of 3,700 meters, had been completely razed by an earthquake in 2010.
In less than a decade, fueled by colossal Chinese energy, the rubble had been banked up and the town completely rebuilt. Now, streetlamps in serried rows illuminated a perfectly smooth concrete grid of buildings. Cars moved slowly and silently over the streets of this checkerboard. The barracks-city foreshadowed its future as a permanent globalized building site.
It took three days to cross eastern Tibet by car. We were headed south of the Kunlun Mountains, to the plateau of Changtang, where Munier knew steppes that abounded with wild animals.
"We'll take the main Golmud to Lhasa route," he had told me on the plane. "We're heading for the village of Budongquan, next to the railway."
"And from there?"
"We'll head west toward the foothills of the Kunlun Mountains, to the 'valley of the yaks.'"
"Is that what it's actually called?"
"It's what I call it."
I was scribbling in my black notebooks. Munier had made me promise that, if I wrote a book, I would not use real place names. These places had their secrets. If we were to reveal them, hunters would come and gut them. We adopted the habit of referring to places according to a poetic geography, one that was personal and sufficiently inventive to cover our tracks, yet vibrant enough to be precise: the valley of the wolves, the lake of the Tao, the cave of the mountain sheep. Henceforth, in my mind, Tibet would be a hand-drawn map of memories, less precise than those found in an atlas, appealing more to dreams, and preserving the sanctuaries of animals.
We drove northwest, through the stepped granite of the plateaus. At an altitude of 5,000 meters, gorge was followed by gorge, barren hill by mountain herd. Winter created rare plaques of ice on flat terrain where the wind raged furiously. The firn did little to smooth the outcrops.
Feral eyes were doubtless watching from the ridges, but in a car there was nothing to see except my reflection in the window. I did not see so much as a wolf. The wind whipped up a gale.
The air had a metallic tang, its harshness uninviting; it did not stir the urge to ramble or to return.
The Chinese government had carried out its project of subjugating Tibet. Beijing was no longer interested in persecuting monks. To control a territory, there exists a more effective approach than coercion: humanitarian development and infrastructure. When central government provides creature comforts, revolution gutters out. If there is a communal uprising, the authorities indignantly bluster: "What do you mean an uprising? And here we are building schools!" A century earlier, Lenin had trialed this method with his "electrification of the whole land." Beijing had adopted the strategy as early as the 1980s. The logorrhea of Revolution had given way to logistics. The goal was simple: control vested in the center.
The road wound its way over rivers spanned by brand-new bridges. The peaks bristled with mobile phone masts.
Centralized control meant endless infrastructure projects. A railway line would cleave old Tibet from north to south. Lhasa, a city closed to foreigners until the middle of the twentieth century, was now a mere forty hours by train from Beijing. The portrait of the Chinese President Xi Jinping stared down from billboards: "Dear comrades," the slogans implied, "I'm bringing you progress, so shut your mouths!" Jack London neatly summed up the idea in 1903: "when one man feeds another he is that man's master."
Colonial villages flashed past, their concrete cubes affording shelter to Chinese men in khaki and Tibetan men whose blue overalls confirmed that modernization is the pauperization of the past.
In the meantime, the gods had retreated and the beasts with them. How could we hope to see a lynx in these valleys bristling with pneumatic drills?
We were approaching the railway line; I was dozing in the livid air. The skin of Tibet was red raw. We were moving through a topography of granite planes and patches of soil. Outside, a sanatorium sun occasionally pushed temperatures above -20°C. Having little taste for barracks, we made no stops in the Chinese pioneer villages, opting instead for monasteries. In the courtyard of a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Yushu, we witnessed the great confluence of pilgrims before shrines wreathed in the incense smoke. There were piles of Mani stones carved with Buddhist mantras: Om mani padme hum—"Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus."
Tibetans moved around the piles, spinning prayer wheels with a flick of their wrist. A little girl offered her prayer beads, which I would spend the next month using as a rosary. A yak draped in a military jacket was chewing cardboard, the only living creature standing still. In order to acquire merits in the cycle of reincarnation, arthritic pilgrims pitted with scrofula crawled through the dust, their hands protected by wooden pads. They smelled of death and urine. The faithful moved in circles, waiting for this life to pass. From time to time, the circle was broken by horsemen from the high plateaus, who looked like Kurt Cobain-robes trimmed with fur, Ray-Bans and cowboy hats-knights of the great morbid merry-go-round. Like all glorious nomadic peoples, the Khampa love blood, gold, jewels and weaponry. These men had no rifles and no daggers. Long before the turn of the millennium, Beijing had forbidden civilians from carrying weapons. The civil disarmament had been good for wild animals: fewer people were shooting leopards. But psychologically, the effects had been disastrous, since a musketeer without a sword is an emperor without clothes.
"These circles make my head spin. They're like vultures wheeling above a carcass," I said.
"Sun and death," said Léo, "decay and life, blood in the snow: the world is a mill."
When you travel, always take a philosopher with you.
The great body of Tibet was prostrate, ailing in the rarefied air. On the third day, we came to the railway line at an altitude of 4,000 meters. The tracks cut a gash through the steppe, starting in the north, running parallel to the tarred road. I had cycled the road to Lhasa fifteen years earlier, when work on the railway line had just begun. Since then, Tibetan laborers had died of exhaustion and yaks had learned to contemplate the passing trains. I remembered my struggle to cover every kilometer in these landscapes too vast for a bicycle. An effort was never rewarded by a nap in a mountain pasture.
A hundred kilometers to the north, having passed the village of Budongquan, we drove through the valley of the yaks promised by Munier. The road stretched away toward the sunset, along a frozen river bordered by banks of sand like pale silk.
To the north, the foothills of the Kunlun Mountains formed a frieze. At night, the peaks took on a reddish hue, silhouetted against the sky. By day, the glaciers melded into one. To the south, Changtang shimmered on the horizon, unexplored.
At 4,200 meters, the road passed a cob-wall cabin. Tranquility and light: a perfect real-estate bargain. We settled into our billet for our next few days, on narrow cots with wooden slates, the promise of swift nights. The openings cut into the walls afforded the sort of view of a line of peaks worn down by erosion that is the desolation of landscapes. Two kilometers to the south of our shelter, an oxidized granite dome rose to 5,000 meters: tomorrow, these peaks would serve as observation posts, but tonight they afforded an imposing overlook. To the north, a river meandered through a glacial trough five kilometers wide. This was one of the rivers of Tibet that never see the sea, since they disappear into the sands of Changtang. Here, even the elements accord with the Buddhist doctrine of extinction.
For ten days, we spent every morning scouring the surrounding area, striding across the glacis (Munier's loping gait). When we woke, we would climb 400 meters to the granite ridge above the shack. We would arrive there about an hour before daybreak. The air smelled of cold stone. It was -25°C: a temperature in which nothing was possible, neither movement, nor words, nor melancholy. We merely waited for day, filled with a numb hope. At dawn, a yellow blade cut through the night and, two hours later, the sun scattered its crumbs of light over the expanses of rock studded with tufts of grass. The world was frozen eternity. In such a cold, it seemed impossible that the landscape could crumble any further. But suddenly, the vast plain, revealed in the dawn light that I had believed deserted, became speckled with dark smudges: animals.
Out of superstition, I never mentioned the snow leopard; it appeared when the gods-the polite name for chance-decided that the moment was propitious. On this particular morning, Munier had other concerns. He wanted to get closer to the wild yaks that we had only seen as distant herds. He worshipped these beasts, he spoke of them in low murmurations.
"They are called drong, they are the reason I come back here."
In the bull, he saw the soul of the world, the symbol of fertility. I told him that the ancient Greeks slaughtered them and offered their blood to spirits of the underworld, the smoke to gods and the finest cuts to princes. Bulls offered a means of intercession; a sacrifice was an invocation. But Munier was more interested in the golden age before high priests.
"Yaks come from the dawn of time: they are the totems of life in the wild, you can see them drawn on Paleolithic walls, they have never changed, it's as though they've emerged, snuffling and snorting, from a cave painting."
The yaks punctuated the slopes with their great wads of black wool. Munier gazed at them with his pale, sorrowful eyes. As in a waking dream, he seemed to be counting the last lords making a farewell procession across the ridge.