Postcard from Tibet: Drinking yak butter tea

This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

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A continuation of Postcard from Nepal: Teej and trout

Tibet has us in raptures.

Impossibly blue skies that look fake, like creations from a Pixar lab; hills and mountains of varying shapes, sizes and colours, whose endlessness lulls you into taking them for granted, only to realise their true grandeur after you’ve left the rooftop of the world; monasteries that have somehow survived, that transport you to a bygone era of spirituality; rivers so pure, so clean, you can drink from them, bathe in them, live in them; and people so warm that the very concept of “stranger” soon evaporates, and you can almost imagine a oneness of humanity that predates Lennon’s poetry by generations.

All these elements are unwilling participants in the eternal clash between tradition and modernity, which is played out everywhere around you, in Lhasa’s glitzy new malls, along kilometres of power cables that line green valleys, in some monasteries that seem more intent on squeezing hapless tourists than lighting butter candles.

Since I have neither the time nor the inclination here to explore the intricacies of Tibet’s history and development, I would only like to say that having visited the place and spoken to the people, I realise how complex and nuanced any “Tibet issue” is. I am also now certain that almost every news report or article I’ve ever read on Tibet, be it from an Asian or Western viewpoint, has been prone to simplify the issue, partly in a bid to push a particular political agenda.

In other words, my visit to Tibet confirmed only one preconceived notion, that of the place’s stunning, jaw-dropping natural beauty. Perhaps the most intelligible way for me to describe this gorgosity to my technophilic generation is such: Tibet renders Instagram filters obsolete. KJ and I quickly learn that #nofilter is the best.

For now I will just share one of the most intimate, special moments of our journey, when Yampi, our driver, suddenly stops his Toyota 4WD along the road from Shigatse to Gyantse and invites us into his wife’s ancestral home for traditional Tibetan yak butter tea.

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Barley fields on either side of the road. Tibetans are a culturally diverse people. One commonality is a love for tsampa, barley, which grows easily at high altitudes. The larger community has sometimes self-identified as the “tsampa eaters”.

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Just off the main road, the walk in to Yampi’s wife’s ancestral home. The houses themselves are new, built with Chinese government assistance. China flag flies off each.

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The backyard. Cows, one horse, one goat, one dog

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The delightful children greet us as we enter; later some ask for money

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The living room

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While outside the Chinese flag flies, inside there is a photograph of the 17th Karmapa who, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, is revered the most in Tibetan Buddhism. He currently lives in India.

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Yak skull and entertainment system have pride of place

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Yampi’s mother-in-law

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Butter tea is made from yak’s butter, tea leaves and salt. Some Tibetans are known to drink this the whole day long; given its high calorific count, it is apparently appropriate for the cold, high altitudes.

After the initial exuberance of being immersed in a “local experience” wears off, I am left only with the unmistakable oiliness of excessive butter in my mouth; actually, more like ghee. I do not understand why Yampi’s MIL is watching our cups like a Tibetan vulture, topping it up as soon as we take a single sip, as if eager to observe arteries burst right there in the room.

Once, as she goes around topping up our cups, KJ refuses, and she lets out a very audible grunt, voicing her disapproval. I later find out that one should never refuse; better instead to leave the entire cup untouched, and gulp it in one go when it is time to leave.

In any case, we leave there feeling like little lard balls. Two hours later, we are still full. As much as I enjoy Tibet, I’m not sure if I will ever get used to butter tea. A wonderful experience, nonetheless, one of our few insights into how real Tibetans live.

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The family kitchen. Fuel, usually yak dung, is fed into the furnace through the small hinged door facing you, below the kettle

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Yak dung stuck on the wall

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More shots of the landscape nearby

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Yampi

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More photos of Tibet

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At the top of the hill are the older, traditional Tibetan dwellings. At the foot are the new government-sponsored modern houses

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Tibetan solar heater

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A common roadblock

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Yamdrok, one of the holy lakes

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Near Linzhi/ Bayi, we descend to the lower tiers of the rooftop of the world – 3,000m vs Lhasa’s 3,650 and 5,000 at our highest pass – where there is more precipitation and alpine forests.

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Some of Tibet’s rainbows are just ridiculous. This one appears like a flat beam across the landscape.

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Closer look

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On the drive from Linzhi/ Bayi to Lhasa

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Tibetans ring the bell as they enter a monastery

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Schoolkid in Shigatse

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Schoolkids in Gyantse

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Cool joe outside Sera Monastery, Lhasa

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Tibetan hipsters

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Mahjong in Gyantse

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Gyantse

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Basum Tso Lake

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Basum Tso Lake

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Basum Tso Lake

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Sera monastery, Lhasa. The rolling of prayer wheels is constant and ubiquitous

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Basum Tso Lake

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Nuns having fun, Basum Tso Lake

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Nuns having fun, Basum Tso Lake

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Sera monastery, Lhasa

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Tashilhunpo monastery, Shigatse

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Jokhang temple, Lhasa

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Drepung monastery, Lhasa. Here, the first and only time on this trip, I feel like cultural tourism is too invasive

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Outside Potala Palace, Lhasa

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I saw many people prostrating around Tibet, but this guy was the most intense, stopping every few feet around every single holy place in Lhasa. Check out the bump on his forehead from kissing the ground.

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Lhasa has some 2000 Muslim residents

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One of the more entertaining Han-Tibetan interchanges I observed was Tibetans  plaiting Han Chinese’ hair with multi-coloured strings

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Bochung Pupuchanda, our friendly and trusty guide. I entered Tibet under the assumption that Bochung La—adding “La” to the end of a name is a sign of respect—would be following us everywhere. Not true. After each day’s itinerary, he said goodbye and we could do whatever we wanted.

And finally, to celebrate a great trip with old friend Tan Kane Juan, here are two goofy shots of us.

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“I don’t need altitude sickness pills. I used to snowboard in Colorado.” Famous last words. On Day 3 in Shigatse, the Good Man checks himself into an oxygen clinic. At the time, I am in the market. He informs me about this via SMS. Thirty minutes later, as soon as I walk into his room in the clinic, he says, “Eh, help me take photo?”

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The words at the bottom read “oxygen supply first aid”.

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I have a terrible habit of wanting to jump into any relatively clean body of water I see. In Tibet there are many, so clean that I often fill my water bottle up from them. Tired of seeing me beg, Bochung La finally agrees to let me take a dip in one. It is ice cold; I dare not immerse my entire body. In the background you can see yaks, which stroll across the rocky river bed with consummate ease. I realise later that I had met this same river three weeks prior in Guwahati, Assam, thousands of kilometres downstream. This is the Yarlung Tsangpo river, which feeds the mighty Brahmaputra, now also called the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. I did not dare step into any river in India, but in Tibet, near its source, this is sheer, icy bliss.

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And one normal shot. In front of Tashilhunpo monastery, Shigatse

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4 responses

  1. Love your stories and pictures Sudhir! I had bowls of yak tea in Xinjiang… took some getting used to, but it definitely kept us going on 8 hour hikes around Karokol Lake and the foothills of Muztagh Ata.

  2. Excellent! For just a short while you helped me wander away from the concrete urban jungle we live in to the peace and tranquility we still have in pockets of our world. Thank you & keep moving so we can continue to enjoy your travelploits!
    Salman

  3. Totally share your sentiments on the yak butter tea! Couldn’t have described it better. Keep your amazing adventures coming!

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