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Why we don't like Yak Butter

CHINA | Sunday, 17 April 2011 | Views [718] | Comments [1]

Howdy from Tibet! Wow is it hard to breath up here or is it just us? Lhasa is at over 12,000ft but below the snowline and also timberline so there is little to convince us we were this high other than just going up the stairs.

We began the trip to Lhasa on the train that started in Xi'An and the first day was mostly less than spectacular scenery and time was spend checking out the different cars and getting to know our bunk mates.  Although the train was quite long with over a dozen cars, we were in 1 of 2 'soft sleeper' cars where there are ONLY 4 people in a room each with a small mattress.  Most of the people on the train were in 'hard sleeper' cars which had 6 to a room and even more where just in seats like a plane.  Our spot was well worth the extra bucks.

One of our bunkmates was a Chinese gentleman who seemed to sleep most of the trip and the only time we heard him talk was when he was excitedly yelling at us in Mandarin about seeing some antelope-looking animal out the window.  He also got off the train at 2am.  Our other roomie was a tourist born in Zimbabwe and worked for a gas company in Qatar.  We was just a few years older than us and was a great companion to help pass the hours.  We were curious to learn about growing up in Africa and also what living in an extremely wealthy desert was like.

Two cars down was the dinner car where there was no English but just a poster of 6 or so dishes we could choose from to eat.  We did the old point and shoot method and got some tofu and also a chicken dish.  Just after finishing, some lady with poor English told us we had to leave and go back 'home,' which we took to mean our bunks.  It was around 2pm and the dinning car had big windows and a table to play cards on and we didn't really want to leave nor could we figure out why we were being dismissed.  Other people (Chinese) where sitting there and didn't have to leave.  But not wanting to be tossed off the train in the middle of Tibet, we slumped back home.

But all was not lost as we had a big window in our room and could comfortably sit or lay down.  By the time we went to sleep, the landscape was starting to look like a brown plain with hills in the distance and salt lakes scattered about.  It also had started to snow. To make sure we got a good nights rest we both popped an Ambian and warned out friend that if we started acting crazy, it was probably the sleeping pill talking.

We awoke after a sound slumber to a total white-out.  A couple of inches had coated the plateau overnight and now the sun was shinning and distant mountains could be seen.  That is the way we like to start the day!  During the night we had also passed the high point, going over a 16,000ft pass making this the highest railroad in the world.  When we awoke, we figured we were still over 15,000ft and remained so for some time. John from Zimbabwe got an oxygen mask from the crew and plugged into one of the many outlets in our room!

After another awkward lunch in the dinning car and seeing lots of yaks out the window, we began to see Lhasa in the distance.  The city supposedly has a population of 400,000, 80% being Chinese that have moved there and turned what used to be an idyllic, Holy town into one big shopping mall.  Up until 1950 Tibet was its own region from China and the Dali Lama was the political and spiritual leader living at the grand Potala Palace in Lhasa.  Those days feel long gone though we were there to get a peak into the Tibetan culture that can be found in pockets before it is all gone.

At the moment, Tibet feels like a military show.  We had to get expensive permits just to get to Lhasa, join a tour with a guide, stay in a less than great hotel for too much, and look away when soldiers march around with huge guns.  There are few places in the world where you can see religious pilgrims prostrate in front of monasteries with tread-bare clothing and knee pads as they bow down and then right behind them are heavily armed men making a show by marching around 'keeping the peace.'  At times it was hard to take in. 

The Chinese military has been patrolling the Tibetan quarter of town since the 19XX protest where there was serious violence as the Tibetans where upset their city, holy leader, and way of life were being totally destroyed.  Since then, the major square near the most popular monastery was "improved" by the Chinese, which in reality meant that it was widened and new stone laid to allow military vehicles to drive in if need be.  One night we had dinner on the major square on the second floor and could see no less than dozens of soldiers on rooftops around the monastery looking down as the Tibetans make their circuits around the holy site.  On top of that, they had video cameras everywhere as surveillance and we were told that some of the beggars where actually police spies and could sometimes be seen on cell phones reporting back on what they heard on the streets.  While walking the circuit with our guide, we where asking seemingly innocent questions and often she would say that we can't talk about that here...

So with that little rant out of the way, we can talk about the positive parts of Lhasa.  Our tour group consisted of ourselves, a fun Argentinean man named Oscar, and our Tibetan guide.  In English, our guide's name translated into "Friday" and that was a lot easier to say so we stuck with that.  At the age of 5 she had left Lhasa for schooling in Kathmandu and then went on to India for college as part of a program for "refugee" Tibetans in the northern Indian town where the Dali Lama now lives.  She returned to Lhasa just a few years ago to take care of her parents; it was pretty clear she did not want to be there but family is important and she is an only child so that is her duty so to speak.  We can't say we blame her, while she was in Nepal and India, Lhasa turned into China Town...but we won't go there again.

Watching the Tibetan people, most of whom had traveled many days to get to Lhasa, as they circled holy sites in droves was worth every hour on the train.  Our guide told us that you can tell where in Tibet they had come from by their clothing.  Some had bright wool clothes and long hair with beads everywhere and looked quite ratty while others had on what would pass for Sunday church in Texas: nice leather or felt cowboy hats and blazers for the men, long skirts for the ladies and a Tibetan boot.  But no matter what corner of the region they came from, they all had a smile on their face and were deep into chanting or spinning prayer wheels and most often both.  While walking with them you could feel for a second that you where no longer in China full of fashion shops and construction cranes or around the rather rude Chinese folk.  What was also amazing was that these Tibetans now have to cross busy roads to get around and are surrounded by the largest standing army in the world making sure they don't "act up" and yet they seem to be so happy.  Buddha must be something powerful!

Also on the list was going just out of town to an active monastery where we could see monks debating.  Now this is something that everybody has to observe sometime in their life.  Six days a week, monks of all different ages head out to the courtyard to debate the Holy Scriptures.  To get an idea of what they are discussing, our guide told us that one might have to take the side that the world is empty while the other takes the other side and debate based on what they have learned so far from scriptures.  We are not talking about any old debate though, they can often last for months until one has no more of an argument.  Our guide told us that it is very unwise to argue with a monk, you will never win!

As we approached, we could hear all this chatter and what sounded like loud slapping!  Inside were hundreds of monks in pairs mostly.  One is seated on a cushion and is kind of like the receiver of the debate.  The other is standing and is the driver.  He is almost yelling and every few seconds he would raise his hand and come down hard, slapping his other hand as he was making his argument.  BAM!  And then it was up to the seated guy to try and rebut the claim.  Back and forth they would go, the standing guy often would begin to wear a hole into the ground from planting his foot hard as he came forward with his point.  We sat for a long time watching, taking it all in.  We took a few videos as that is the only way to understand what it is like. It was GREAT!  

Next on the list was to see the Big Daddy of Lhasa, the Potala Palace.  Just Google a picture of it and you will begin to understand the scale of it.  It was a palace built first in the 7th century and then expanded by the "Great" 5th Dali Lama (the current one is the 14th) on a hill right in the heart of Lhasa.  The 350 steps up to the entrance just about killed us and then there were many smaller staircases within the complex that were extremely steep and narrow to keep us breathing hard the whole time.  Since the 1950 "liberation" the Dali Lama fled to India and left the Potala Palace for the Chinese to turn into a tourist attraction.  What once used to be the head of all things Buddhist is now void of any religious importance and costs a chunky $15 per person to see.  Oh and you only get 1 hour to see the 1,000 rooms (but the clock does start AFTER you make it up the initial stairs)!  The time limit is because there are so many people that want to see the palace in addition to the Tibetans who come to pray there.  Even though this is the slack period for tourism in Lhasa, it was packed and we were ready to leave when our hour came up.  One can only take so much Chinese crowds in dingy, small rooms that smell bad already.  And that brings us to our blog title ...

The Yak is everything to the Tibetans.  They use them to haul goods, eat the meat (Travis had a Yak stew for lunch one day), use the fur for clothing, make cheese that is mostly eatable, but they also make yak butter.  While we were in Nepal we had seen yak cheese and small quantities of the butter (for your toast) but were we totally unprepared for how much it is used here.  And we are not just talking about it as something for bread, the Lhasa specialty drink is warm yak butter tea (we passed), but more than that it us used for religious purposes too and this is why we are officially done with all things yak butter.

First, let us discuss the smell of yak butter.  We have thought about it for a while and think it is best described as regular butter that has started to go bad and then it is doused with cat urine.  On the streets, we would walk by HUGE, like 20lb rolls of the stuff sitting out which they would sell small buckets of to the locals for their visits to the monasteries.  Apparently it is good luck to slop the melted butter on the already precarious stone steps which made you reach for the handrail, also quite slick, and didn't help as we were gulping for air climbing the stairs and nearly passing out from the stench.  Next, in these small rooms inside that housed shrines there would be one or more candles that burn just on yak butter.  But these candles where in 3ft wide basins that had many wicks in them that stuck in the half melted butter that people would add to when they went by.  We saw many people carrying large thermoses and in them was melted yak butter that they would pour into the holy vats.  Some must have had 20 gallons of liquid/congealed yak fat in them, now smelling like burnt cat piss.  We would not make for good Buddhists.

Lhasa and Tibet are places that should be seen but it is also important to know what it will be like.  We hope that this helps.  Go soon too before it is too late and bring a gas mask!

Off to fly over the Himalayas to Southwest China to find Shangri-la.


p.s. Again, sorry if the formatting and such is really strange. The typing kept switching between languagues...fun stuff.




Can't wait to see the monk-debate video--and you two in the flesh. Hope your last fling is wonderful.

  Cammy Apr 21, 2011 7:51 AM

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