YAK BUTTER, YAK CHEESE, YAK MEAT

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

astounding.

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’

Tibet.

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.

Love, Alan

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