Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of two male lamas, who were carrying a lantern each.
Li Yundong would've given the lamas some kind of polite greeting if they weren't shouting at them in Lhasa Tibetan.
Alarm coursed through Li Yundong. However, Changbagela placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and stepped forward to greet the lamas before Li Yundong could make himself scarce.
Tibetan words spilled from Changbagela's lips: something, something Changbagela; something, something, Danba (was that someone's name?) something, something.
The two lamas moved in closer towards them and raised their lanterns. One of them laughed and called out Changbagela's name. More conversation in Tibetan ensued. Then, the lama shone his lantern at Meiduo.
The lama gasped in surprise. "Meiduo?"
Meiduo bowed at the two lamas and gave each one of them a polite greeting. Brief pleasantries were exchanged between Meiduo and the lamas before the lanterns were directed at Li Yundong's face.
Looks of suspicion spread across the lamas' faces.
One of the lama said something in Tibetan. His tone sounded hostile.
Maybe I should make a run for it…
Changbagela laughed and gave Li Yundong's shoulder a friendly pat. Then, Changbagela spoke to the lama in Tibetan.
Li Yundong sighed inwardly when the looks of suspicion fell away from the lamas' faces. The two lamas gave him respectful nods before turning back to Changbagela.
More words were exchanged between the monks.
A while later, Changbagela began to make several hand gestures as he spoke animatedly about something. It was like he was telling the lamas an epic story.
"What are they talking about?" Li Yundong asked Meiduo.
Meiduo smiled at him. "Changbagela was telling them about how you brought him back to life. Puqiong"—Meiduo pointed at the shorter lama of the pair—"is still skeptical. But I think Mima is starting to believe him."
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. It's okay. I don't really care whether they believe it or not. So long as they don't punish me for sneaking into the temple..."
Suddenly, the conversation in Tibetan halted.
Mima—the taller lama—was now staring at him in shock.
"Y- You sneaked into the temple?" Mima asked in perfect Mandarin.
Li Yundong sighed. "Yeah... I figured I'd stay overnight at the temple before continuing my journey to the summit tomorrow." Li Yundong grimaced. "Is that a violation?"
"You cannot spend the night at Kathok Monastery without permission," said the second monk, Puqiong.
Puqiong's Mandarin sounded rather awkward. Li Yundong had to bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing at Puqiong's weird pronunciation.
Li Yundong nodded. "Alright. I understand. I apologize for the intrusion." Li Yundong bowed his head slightly. "It really wasn't my intention to cause any trouble. And I definitely didn't mean any disrespect by my actions. I'll grab my things now and be on my way."
Li Yundong stepped around Meiduo and—
"Wait!" Changbagela grabbed Li Yundong's arm.
Li Yundong stopped walking and shot the old gentleman a questioning look.
"You are my savior, kind sir," Changbagela said, then gave Puqiong a pointed look. "And we Tibetans will never turn away those to whom we are beholden." Changbagela patted Li Yundong's arm a few times, then gave him a reassuring smile. "Give me a moment. The head of the monastery is a very good friend of mine. I shall speak to him and get this sorted in no time, don't you worry."
"Sir, um... Bhante Changbagela," Li Yundong said. "That's very kind of you. But it's really alright. I mean, I have to be on my way anyway, so..."
Changbagela tutted and tightened his grip on Li Yundong's arm. "Please, let me repay you for the kindness you've shown me. I'd never be able to live with myself if you walk away right now without at least giving me a chance to repay you."
Li Yundong opened his mouth to say something, but Meiduo beat him to it.
"Brother Li, I know you didn't get lost on your way up here, but trust me, this path gets even more confusing past this point. There aren't any sign boards or indications around to guide you. I really think it's best if you travel with us."
Li Yundong sighed and nodded. "Fine. But only if it's alright with the head of the monastery."
Changbagela brightened up. "Ah! Fret not, kind sir. I shall speak to him at once! Wait for my good news."
Changbagela gave Meiduo a pointed look, to which the girl answered with a nod.
Then, Changbagela waved at the two lamas. "Hurry up, you two! Bring me to Danba!"
Li Yundong watched as Changbagela left with the two lamas. He couldn't help but wonder if he had made a mistake in agreeing to stay. He still wasn't sure if anyone was following him. He might put the pilgrims at risk if he traveled with them. But still, he couldn't deny that Meiduo made a solid point.
He would end up wasting a lot of precious time if he got lost in the mountains.
"Don't worry, Brother Li," Meiduo said. "Changbagela and Danba are very good friends. They're like brothers. It'll all work out."
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. I'm not worried about that at all. I can just camp out somewhere in the woods if it doesn't work out. That's what I've been doing for the past month anyway."
Meiduo suddenly went quiet. When Li Yundong looked at her, he noticed that the girl was studying his feet with interest.
"Brother Li..." Meiduo looked up from his feet, her eyes filled with shock and amazement. "Have you been travelling barefoot all this while?"
Li Yundong hesitated for a moment, then decided to answer the girl truthfully. "Yeah..."
Meiduo gaped at him. "B- But you don't have any blisters!"
Li Yundong smirked and said nothing. It wasn't like he could start explaining to the girl the nuances of Qi control.
"Where are you from, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong stared at the girl for a moment.
Meiduo blushed. "I- I mean it's totally okay if you don't want to tell me... It's really none of my business…"
Li Yundong smiled. "Tiannan City. Have you heard of the place?"
Meiduo perked up instantly. "Of course I've heard of it! It's a city far, far away from here." All of a sudden, she stopped talking and stared off into space. "It's more than 2000 kilometers away!"
Li Yundong nodded approvingly. "Wow. You even got the distance right."
Meiduo beamed proudly. "I know my geography!"
Li Yundong chuckled. "Impressive. I bow to your superior knowledge."
Meiduo's face was positively glowing at that point. "Hmph! I'm a top student in my school, so don't underestimate me!"
Li Yundong stifled a laugh. "Oh, no. Trust me, I wouldn't dare underestimate you. You sound like a far better student than I was."
She would agree if she saw his high school report cards.
"Um... Brother Li?"
"How old are you? Are you working now?"
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. I'm a university student. I'm just twenty."
The astonished look on Meiduo's face almost seemed comical. "T- Twenty? But... But you look like you're in your early thirties!"
Gee. Way to make a guy feel young. Maybe it was the beard and the unruly hair.
"I can't believe you're only two years older than I am!" Meiduo continued. "Ooh! Guess what? Hehe. I'm applying for tertiary education next year!"
Li Yundong gave her a tiny smile. "Is that so? Which university?"
"Hmm..." Meiduo hesitated. "Actually, I'm not sure about that yet..." Meiduo's eyes sparkled. "Wait! Which university are you a student at, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong chuckled. "Tiannan University," he said, then waved dismissively. "But it's just a third-rate university. Not even worth mentioning."
"Hey! I know!" Meiduo jumped excitedly. "Why don't I apply to your university?"
Li Yundong shook his head grimly. "Nope. That would be a terrible idea."
Meiduo's face fell. "Why?"
Li Yundong gave her a strange look. "You're joking, right? I just told you that it's a third-rate university like, seconds ago."
"Is it really that bad?"
Images of Director Qian's obnoxious face popped up in his mind.
Yep. It really was that bad.
Li Yundong snorted. "It's not an ideal place for learning, that's for sure." Not with the likes of Professor Liu standing at the lectern. These so-called educators. Li Yundong gave Meiduo a pointed look. "Trust me, you'll just be wasting your talents if you come to Tiannan University."
Meiduo looked at him quizzically. "But you're a student there, Brother Li. And you seem like a decent guy." Meiduo shrugged. "How bad can it be?"
Li Yundong wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question.
How bad can it be?
Famous last words.
"Danba! Danba! Are you awake!" Changbagela banged the door with his palm.
Nobody answered the door.
Changbagela knocked on the door again. "If you're already asleep, then wake up! We need to talk!"
Changbagela turned around to face Mima and Puqiong. "You two should wrap up your patrol and head back to bed."
Mima and Puqiong glanced at each other, thought they didn't move.
Changbagela sighed. "Just go. I'll handle things here."
Mima and Puqiong shared another glance, then headed back to their own quarters.
"Danba! Wake up! We need to—"
The wooden door swung open. "Come on, Changbagela! Why are you making so much noise at this hour? You might disturb the Buddha with your yelling."
Fear coursed through Changbagela. He turned sideways and gave the Buddha statue at the temple a deep bow. After that, he grabbed Danba by the arm. "This is an urgent matter, my friend."
"My, my. You really haven't changed at all, my friend. It's been what, several decades, and you're still so hot-headed." Danba gave him a wry smile and shook his head. "Come. Let's head inside so you can tell me about the matter so urgent that you'd risk the wrath of Buddha by making so much noise at His sacred temple in the middle of the night."
Changbagela followed Danba into his living quarters and then spent the next fifteen minutes recounting everything that happened in the last five hours, including how his life was saved by the man who was the living reincarnation of Mahakala.
"All he did was touch your head?" Danba asked in shock.
Changbagela nodded. "Indeed, my friend. That young man is the closest thing to a Living Buddha I've ever seen."
Danba sprang to his feet. "Where is he now? Bring me to him!"
Changbagela stood up and blocked Danba's path before he could reach the door. "Hold up, my friend. I'll bring you to see him, but you have to promise me one thing first."
"What is it?"
"Give him permission to stay overnight here at Kathok Monastery."
Danba laughed. "Is that all? Done! Now can we go?"
"Wait..." Changbagela said. "There's something else."
Danba sighed. "What is it this time?"
Changbagela schooled his features into a serious look. "Listen. That man saved my life. I wouldn't have the chance to complete my pilgrimage if it weren't for him. I want to repay him, but I have nothing to offer him at the moment."
Danba narrowed his eyes. "What do you want to borrow from me?"
"The Mahamudra Tantra!"