Mom and Dad, Sept 13
Today I had one of the most extraordinary experiences of the tip, and
it couldn’t have been timed better. Tomorrow I leave for Xining and it
will mark the end of my travels in rough, rural places. As I’m sure
you’ve read from my emails, I’ve been getting a little tired of
traveling through rural China. The long uncomfortable bus rides, the
lack of English, and the ‘Spartan’ (as Lonely Planet calls it)
accommodation. Also, while people in eastern China and Japan find it
rude to stare and meet your eye, there is no reservation about doing
it in western China and it’s causing me some minor problems. They are
very unabashed. Sometimes I’ll catch people staring at me, I’m talking
Beebop stares. (Alan’s grandfather, a relentless starer.) Bordering rude,
not curious. Instead of looking away, as I’ve been raised to do and feel
comfortable doing, I started staring back hoping that they would be ashamed
enough to look away. It takes 30 seconds or more before they get the hint.
You know I’m culturally sensitive, but I’m fed up and even in this culture it’s
rude how they’re doing it. There are other things too. As we speak, a couple
of Tibetan teenagers are looking over my shoulder at what I’m writing. I
know they can’t read it but, come on! Sometimes people will grab at my
camera or my watch, not to steal, but just to look. Without warning or
asking they’ll just yank at it.
Earlier this morning I was walking with a bag of baozi (steamed meat
filled buns) and I was accosted by some dirty looking ‘beggar’
children. They screamed at me to give them some food and then started
to grab at the bag. When I raised the bag over their head they grabbed
my arm and started tugging at it. I had to turn, glare, and yell
‘HEY!’ before they let go and walked away. They might have been dirty,
but they were well fed and before they put on their ‘sad hungry faces’
they were laughing playing jump rope in the street. When I was in
Zhongdian (Shangri-La), a similar thing happened. I was biking with
the guy from Yorkshire when we stopped by the side of the road to eat
an apple. A bunch of kids ran up to us and, again without asking,
started pressing buttons on our watches until they started lighting up.
They went until they all got a turn, both of us patiently letting them
have their go. Then we started to leave, but they weren’t done yet.
With one of their mothers standing by and doing nothing, these kids
grabbed my arm so I couldn’t leave and kept pressing the watch so it
would light up. Even when I yanked my hand away, they didn’t get the
hint. They surrounded the bike, but I had no choice. I started
peddling quickly, assuming that the kids would get out of the way when
I started moving. They did, but before I could get away, I was delayed
by a couple of kids holding my back tire and spokes so the wheel
wouldn’t turn. I know in these instances they were just kids, but my
in my experiences, not only in the last few months but my entire life
in Asia, kids in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Burma, and everywhere
else never had this kind of behavior.
Anyway, back to my fantastic experience. Today I was visiting a
famous site around Yushu, a mountain absolutely covered with prayer
flags, no exaggeration. I had a good half day of hiking. I picked a
hill nearby, which in any other country would be a mountain, and hiked
it. I ran into a herd of wild goats and yaks who were roaming the hill
together. There were vultures flying above my head and little rodents
running past my feet. Yushu is at about 3700 meters, so I think that
the hill must have been at least 4200 meters, maybe more. The views
were spectacular. Almost everything here is above tree line. It’s
pretty dry and looks like an extremely mountainous version of Kansas
or Nebraska, though don’t get the wrong idea, it’s natural beauty is
I was walking back to the road to catch a ride 20km back to town when
2 guys came appearing out from behind a bunch of flags and started
walking next to me. One of them spoke pretty good English, which I
haven’t heard in almost a week. Both were in their mid 20’s. He asked
me if I wanted to join him and his family for some tea. I said ‘sure.’
Turns out the tea was store bought sweet tea in a bottle, but the real
stuff would come later. They brought out a big bag of apples and I
shared a few with them.
Turns out that this guy was with his good friend (the one who I
initially saw him walking with), his wife and her sister, his baby
boy, his brother in law and his nephew, and another old guy (I forget
how he was related). After about 30 minutes they got in the car back
to Yushu and asked if I wanted a ride back to town. I of course said
yes, both because it was a free ride and he was very friendly.
We got delayed for 20 minutes at a construction site on the road and
started talking. The Tibetan hospitality is famous for a reason. Just
about an hour after meeting this guy he’s telling me about his brother
who lives in New York and asked me what my address in New York was. I
had to explain it to him that not everybody in the states lives in NY city.
I drew him a map of the country and explained if NY was Beijing, than
I lived in Yushu. He seemed a little disappointed but interested. His
English was very broken so I couldn’t iron out all the details, but he
had lived in India for some time where he learned English and Hindi.
He has 5 brothers. 3 are monks in his hometown a couple of ours away,
one is in NY, and one is in India. He also mentioned that he’s not a
big fan of China. They all spoke Tibetan and did not speak much
Chinese. He also explained to me that in a couple of days he was on
his way to India to meet the Dalai Lama.
After we got back into town he invited me to come to his home. Again,
I jumped at the opportunity. He lived in a large house where the rooms
were divided up like an apartment complex. He, his wife, and his baby
boy had one room downstairs, maybe 10 feet X 10 feet. On two of the
walls were beds/couches. One of the walls had all the cooking tools,
food, and stove, and one of the walls was covered with a giant poster
of Lhasa. He kept saying “you are my first American friend!” To which
I would reply “You’re my first Tibetan friend.” Very soon, they
brought out the food.
Before I get into the massive Tibetan antipasto that was put in front
of me, I want to talk about an epiphany I’ve had after a couple weeks
roaming the region and my 2 hours of talking with this guy. Even
though I never made it to the ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region,’ I am IN
Tibet. There is no doubt about it. The ‘lines drawn in the sand’ (our
mountain grasslands as it would be) mean nothing. The area along
northern Yunan, western Sichuan, and Qinghai is overwhelmingly Tibetan,
90% or more. Many people, as I discovered, don’t even speak Chinese.
There are pictures of the Dalai Lama everywhere but the open, hidden
in windshields of cars and display glasses of stores. The Dalai Lama
himself wasn’t even born in Tibet. In fact, he was born 400 miles or
so north of here near Xining, the capital of the province and far away
from the official border, a fact I discovered reading up on Xining in
the LP. I might actually go visit his home if I have time and if it’s
open. Apparently the government closes the site when relations are
cold. Anyway, I don’t need to get into the TAR to be in Tibet. In
fact, I’ve seen and heard things that I never would have gotten the
chance to see in the TAR because of travel restrictions.
Anyway, he brought out this feast for me. And while Tibetans are
famous for their hospitality, they sure aren’t famous for their food.
At first is was simple Tibetan bread and crackers. They also gave me
some Tibetan black tea, which I’ve had before. It has a salty, buttery
taste that really just doesn’t taste good or say ‘tea’ to me. I had 3
glasses, they kept refilling it. The bread and crackers were sweet,
though some were just bland bread. Then, he and his wife brought out
the big stuff. Yak butter, yak cheese, and yak meat at room
temperature that was obviously last night’s dinner. I tried not to eat
very much because they were obviously serving me all the food in the
house, but they kept force feeding me, putting food in front of my
face that I couldn’t refuse. The yak butter was ok. Apparently they
eat it plain, not on bread or anything. It didn’t taste awful, I
couldn’t even tell it was from yak milk. I’m just not used to eating
plain butter like mom is.
The meat and cheese were a different story. I’ve had plenty of yak
meat since being in the Tibetan regions around here, and it’s pretty
good. It tastes like beef, but with a unique hint and aftertaste that
can only be described as yak, I can’t compare it to anything else.
However, this unique taste does NOT belong in cheese, and I tasted it
in abundance. The cheese was sweet, hard, and tasted of yak and it was
awful. I choked down as much as I could. Also, you know my dislike of
left-over room temperature meat. The English speaker, whose name is
Gelek, cut me off a fatty, chewy piece and gave it to me. It was large
so I tried to bit it in half, but it was so tough I popped in so I
wouldn’t be rude. It was one of the more disgusting things I’ve eaten.
I chewed it for at least a minute before I just swallowed it, fighting
the gag reflex.
After a while he told me about his brother-in-law. While Gelek is
about the same age as his wife, his older sister-in-law married a much
older man. This man was very old and was missing some teeth. He was
very nice, and even though he posed for a family photo he wouldn’t let
me take his picture alone. Fascinating story behind this man. Gelek
mentioned that he knew the Dalai Lama. I asked if he’d been to Lhasa
and Gelek said yes, then he told me part of the story. In the 1950’s
this man was a member of the Dalai Lama’s military in Tibet. I didn’t
want to be rude and Gelek’s English wasn’t up to the challenge, so I
didn’t ask if he fought the Chinese when they ummm… ‘liberated’
After this meal, from which I am still full at dinner time, he and his
friend took me to the town’s monastery on the mountain for some good
views. In all of Tibet, the lamaseries are on the hills overlooking
the town. I have yet to be in a monetary on ground level. After that
we went to his clothing store, which sells Tibetan clothes and
specializes in monk’s clothing. On his wall is a picture of one of his
monk brothers and his father with the Dalai Lama in India. Now, by
this time we’d exchanged information and I told him that when I got
home I will write him a letter and send him some pictures of his
family. I just hope the address works, the one that is definitely
right is in Chinese, but I had to help him transliterate it into
English by sounding it out. That one is iffy. After what happened
next, I really really hope that my letter will get to him.
He had closed the store for the day so that he could spend it with his
family. He opened it up and walked behind the counter. He pulled out a
beautiful Tibetan woman’s shirt and gave it to me, ‘present for you
mother,’ he said. Sorry mom, should have been a surprise, but you have
a beautiful Tibetan shirt from Gelek when I get home. He Just GAVE it
to me. This shirt would probably be around 80-120 Yuan, 15-20 dollars
maybe, definitely a lot of money for him. In Tibet it is rude and
nearly impossible to turn down a gift. Trust me I tried, I really did,
but he would not let me. This wasn’t the usual, ‘this is too much’
kind of bullshit when someone gives you an unexpected gift. I tried!
Anyway, I’m almost out of time on this computer and I don’t want to
lose this email. Long story short, I bought another shirt for me so he
would get some money out of it. First time I ever had to bargain up!
I’m meeting him for lunch tomorrow and then he’s taking me to the bus
station. Write more later.