Trip Start Oct 08, 2007
110Trip End Dec 16, 2008
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It is not easy to spot a hotel in China. They don't have signs with big friendly letters HOTEL. It's all in Chinese, Mandarin I assume. Just a little detour here to illustrate how clueless I am. For a while, I was unsuccessfully trying to order vegetarian food, using the dictionary at the end of the lonely planet book. No one seemed to understand what I was trying to say
Second time lucky. The lobby shows signs of life. The lady that is sleeping in a folding bed behind the counter gets up, asks if I need a room and hands me a registration form in English. I start filling it in - date, name, country, occupation, visa number, expiration date. Wait, why is the expiration date before today? I feel the chills. The expiration date of my Chinese visa appears to be 2 days before today. I am completely baffled by the revelation, but too tired to think about it. I fill in the expiration date of my Tibetan travel permit instead (7 days from now). I go straight to the room, close the curtains and crash.
Next thing I know - it is 9:30 am. Just in time. According to the LP, there should be a bus that's leaving around 10am to the nearby monastery. All I need to do is find it. As I walk out of the hotel, I see a different town - the sun is shining brightly, it is a clear day, people in traditional Tibetan clothing are walking around, noodle shop owners are standing by the entrances of their tiny restaurants, next to huge woven baskets filled with Momo's (Tibetan dumplings).
I walk north
On the way to the monastery, I engage in a lively "conversation", mostly involving nodding, grinning and giving the thumbs up on various items like head jewelry and belts. You've got to see those belts - they are nothing short of amazing - wide, lavishly decorated with bright green, red, orange and gold designs, tightly fastened on top of thick black coats lined with sheep fur
The bus stops unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere and people start getting off. A group of ladies waves insistently do follow them, and so, I do. We start climbing up a steep trail towards the prayer flags-laced hill. I suspect this is the kora, the holy path that leads to the monastery. One way to find out. One of the ladies offer to carry my camera bag, but I decline politely, bending my hands up, as to say - look, I have muscle, I'm strong. Another woman gives me a hand-fool of seeds and tells me to put them in my mouth and chew. I do. The monks are more shy but even they crack when I pool out my camera to take a picture and huddle together to take a better look. And so we walk the path as one big happy family up and up the hill. At the point where the trail reaches and curves around a large rock everyone gets excited and lines up. One of the monks demonstrates - you measure 3 steps from the rock and turn around to face it. Then, with your eyes closed you walk towards it and try to put your finger in a little hole. Interesting. I've seen this done with a crack in a wall at a Hindu temple in Kathmandu. The monk's first try is unsuccessful and everybody laughs and cheers. Now everyone wants to try it. Eventually, the whole group turns to me expectantly
On the way back, I offer around chewing gum. A young monk gives me an apple. My camera is making a trip around the bus and everyone is taking turns to take a picture. It is wonderful. I feel like I'm coming home from a field trip. One of the ladies, called Tzonlamo, suggests that when we get back in town, we should go to eat and drink. I enthusiastically agree, thinking that the whole group has traveled from some place far on a pilgrimage to the monastery, and like me, they'll need to find food when we get back in town. But when we get off the bus, the only people that follow Tzonlamo are couple of monks and a young woman. Tzonlamo enthusiastically gestures to me to come along. Eventually, we come to a white-tiled home with large fenced windows. A-ha! I've been invited to a home visit. I feel like I've hit the jackpot - I will see a Tibetan home from the inside! I consider the security implications for a second. If you can't trust couple of monks and couple of ladies who just spent their morning walking up a steep hill to build some good karma, who can you trust? Risk-reward ratio seems more than satisfying.
We walk up a short flight of bare concrete stairs. A large yak head is leaning against the wall of the entrance
As the name suggest, the yak butter tea is made by dissolving yak butter in hot tea. Then, Tibetans add salt, to arrive at an opaque brownish liquid that resembles soup. I've tried this once before at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. I didn't know what it was at the time, so I assumed it was some sort of soup, because that's what the taste resembled the most. Tibetans drink yak butter tea all the time. According to Lonely Planet, the Nomads have up to 40 cups a day - it is a lot of butter, a lot of cholesterol. Note to self - wiki Tibetan life expectancy and deaths attributed to heart diseases [*]. Tibetans, are not a skinny ones, although it is hard to judge through the layers and layers of clothing, that probably rarely come off. I am not saying that Tibetans are dirty - not at all, although some times the smell of omnipresent yak butter can become overbearing
Anyways, back to the mystery of eating huge amounts of fattening food and not getting obese. I think it's the altitude. If you heart pumps faster than usual, in order to circulate more blood with reduced amount of oxygen in it, then your body must be using more energy. It's like you are on a treadmill 24/7. How otherwise can I explain the fact that I've been gobbling up 2 packets of chocolate biscuits and a pack of sweet rice cakes a day for the past 14 days and I haven't regained a pound from the weight I've lost in Nepal. I'm practically always hungry and always chewing on something. I will have to stop this when I get to lower elevations, or I'll pig up in a second.
Tzonlamo is setting the table and refilling my cup of yak butter tea. The two monks and the old man are outside, trying to break the scull of the yak to get to the brain. It is a violent process. I don't like watching. I divert my gaze to the young woman who is sitting on the edge of the other bed. Her round white face with naturally blushed chicks, is so beautifully exotic, it could fit smack on at any fashion magazine
Tzonlamo explains in a few words what is this strange woman doing in their home. They seem to be intrigued and sit on my both sides on the edge of the bed. Kanjulumu, can speak a few words in English, because they study it at school. While she pulls out her books, her younger sister, who is 8 gives me a warm hug. With Kanjulumu as a translator I get to know my hosts - really basic staff - names and ages. I ask Kanjulumu to write down the names in English, because I can't understand what they are pronouncing - it sounds that foreign to me. My name is a real challenge for them. I find out that Tzonlamo is 35 -same like me. Kanjulumu finds a lesson in her English textbook about London and points to it to ask if I am from there. No, no, I explain, I am from Bulgaria. Confusion. I search for the world map at the end of the lonely Planet book to point to Bulgaria, but the map is too small and Bulgaria is about .0.50sm2 big and doesn't even have a printed name. I write down Bulgaria in English, but I don't think anyone understands. Then I show them where I've been in India, Nepal and Tibet and they are all very impressed. We look together at the pictures of Tibet in the Lonely Planet and everyone seems mesmerized
The lunch is basic and absolutely delicious - rice, yak stew with potatoes, tzampa and yak butter tea. I am vegetarian these days, mostly for health prevention reasons, but I don't want to be offensive so I eat my yak stew and enjoy it too. This is the first time I eat tzampa. It is probably the most popular food in Tibet. It is really hard to believe that this is food ready to eat. It is dough mixed from baked barley flower and yak butter tea. It tastes like a dough. The way it is served is by poring a small amount of yak butter tea in a bowl and sprinkling the barley flower on top of it. The Tibetans use their hand to mix and massage it until it looks like a firm dough, but I am given chop-sticks to mix it. It is really not that bad it small quantities. I can't imagine living on it, which most Tibetans practically do. I 'm sure that if I was raised with it, I was not going to be able to imagine living without it.
When lunch is over, I ask if it is okay to take pictures, and Tzonlamo not only allows, but makes us all move to the other room, which sports something like a home shrine, decorated in a typical Tibetan style, with various portraits of lamas, prayer flags and other colorful stuff. The furniture looks a lot more luxurious, the carvings on the cupboard doors are more intricate and painted over in gold
When it is time for the girls to go back to school, I also decide to leave. I ask Kanjulumu to give me the address, so I can send them the pictures. She does, but in Tibetan. I ask her to do it Chinese and she slaps herself on the forehead - Of course, dhu! She quickly writes it in Chinese. So at the age of 12, this impressive young lady speaks and writes Tibetan, Mandarin and a little bit of English. I won't hide it -I'm totally in love with the kids.
I leave town at dawn the next morning, but my thoughts often go back to Yushu and to the Tibetan family, even today. It is like a mental cornerstone and a reminder that there is a place where people are kind to strangers.
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Hugs & Kisses, Vik