…So we are squatting there, huddled tightly around this tiny tin stove, glowing with embers of yak dung, clutching a stone cup of ink-black tea in our hands.
Now this is good, because the wind outside is blowing its cold and constant 40 mph across the Tibetan plateau at 16,000 feet of elevation, and we are tucked toastily with the nomads inside their yurt – a tent made of pressed yak felt, held up by ropes of twined yak hair, and staked down by shards of yak bone.
And from over in the corner comes Neema who has been churning, churning, churning in her precious wooden churn. And as she passes, every hand goes out – and thus so does mine – and slap. A greasy glob lands in my palm. And I look. Following suit, I scrape it into the stone cup, watching it ooze and sprawl across the tea’s surface in grey, bobbing globules.
This is yak butter. It’s intriguingly cloying – at least for the first four cups. But the grinning nomads who have invited us into their toasty home are really putting it down and my wife Lorraine and I are expected to keep up.
Then sweet-smiling Neema comes by again. This time it’s a bowl of nearly-ground barley; and out go the hands, and slap! More yak butter. Following suit, we kneed and kneed and kneed these two until we get something about the consistency of wallpaper paste, but not quite as tasty. This is the second staple of the Tibetan diet, called tsampa.
The wind continues outside, driving blasts of horizontal snow. The laughter grows more raucous. Our 200-word Tibetan vocabulary gets stretched beyond comprehension, but the language of camaraderie melded us together like warm tsampa. In appreciation for their gracious hospitality and feast, we shared pictures of our home torn from calendars we’d brought with us. As Lorraine and I eventually toddled off to our little backpacking tent, several of the children followed, poking heads and hands inside to examine the strange gear belonging to their strange guests. (Our down sleeping bags were a great hit.)
So if you are considering making your way to this enchanted land pressed hard against the northern flanks of the high Himalayas – Yes. By all means go to Tibet. Experience the globe’s most physically rugged and spiritually rich people. Find joyful companions. Explore what Everest is like. Discover if there is truly a Shangri-la. But do not, I beg you, go to Tibet for the food.
Wishing you joyful treks & warm companions,
– Bart Jackson