In the mountains of Tibet, you’d see a
curious phenomenon. Tibetans walking up and down with furry
little white creatures on a leash. At first, it looks like a
puppy, tail wagging a little, a moist tongue out in the air.
But with a closer inspection, you realize that all over the
hills, people are walking...baby mountain goats.
The typical Tibetan family has an exotic
array of animals circling their front yard. A yak or two for
plowing. A bevy of crackling roosters or ducks fresh for the
next meal. Little black mountain pigs (think hard bristles
and boar-like) ready to be dried up into bacon. Some goat or
sheep, and a Tibetan guard dog yakking at the door.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see
people walking their billies, or even the occasional pig.
The second half of our trip was spent
sightseeing at random places. Very random, because
sometimes, if we spot something cool-looking in the bus,
everyone would just get off to take pictures.
Tibet has only two cities. Well, two
cities in the size that we know. In fact, Lhasa and Shigatse
can’t even qualify as cities, more like towns, or villages.
Elsewhere else, the whole mountainous region is gloriously
isolated. Even the silence echoes.
So driving from one ‘city’ to the next
was like spending five hours in no man’s land. And a funny
connection that popped into my brain---it was like the wild
west! The stuff of John Wayne in the old Westerns where the
stagecoach takes you from one town to the next, dust flying
off the ground and sun beating in the sky.
Seriously, it felt like going on the
Oregon Trail. We would refuel with bottled water and yak
jerky at some little village while the car gets gas, and
again be on our way into the unknown.
One difference though, because even
though the mountains were deserted and isolation rang
loudly, there were colorful flags strung from mountaintop to
mountaintop, from tree branch to tree branch, across bridges
and over waters, everywhere.
These flags are like the stuff you see at
car dealerships, but way more meaningful than just
attracting your attention. They are prayer flags; they range
in color, and if you look closely, each flag has Buddhist
scripture written on it. The symbolism goes that, with each
gust of wind, each small breeze, the flags will whirl,
meaning the prayer has been said once.
And there’s a lot of wind in Tibet, and a
lot of flags, so prayers are being said constantly.
It brings good luck. Just like how
Tibetans also scatter colored prayer papers under the
mountain ranges. These are little squares of thin paper also
with prayers written on them, and people would release them
by the handful, papers coloring the invisible wind.
Another phenomenon we saw was the
mountain lake. Millions of years ago, Tibet was actually at
the bottom of the sea. When the water disappeared and the
land dried, there was a lake left in the cradle of a valley
where the sea didn’t dry up. Supposedly, the mysterious lake
still has sea creatures of ancient times, things you only
see fossilized in a geology textbook.
The shores of the lake were lined with
powdery sand, and the water changes colors with the sky.
When the day is clear blue, the lake shines sapphires under
the sun. When clouds obscure the sky and turn everything a
milky gray, the lake itself becomes a colorless slate.
Midnight comes, and water and sky become one.
In contrast with the primeval serenity of
the lake, the bustling downtown Shigatse was anything but
peaceful. The main courtyard was lined with the carts of
vendors selling hand-made trinklets and homemade goods. The
usual beads, strings, rocks on necklaces and jewelry
threatened to overflow the counters. And there’s more where
that came from stored in heavy chests under the carts.
Prayer papers, little paintings,
keychains, yak, pork, goat jerky, everything from food to
clothing hung from the carts. Tibetan vendors yelling out
their sales, bundles of tourists huddled everywhere. Incense
smoking at altars and CDs of Buddhist chant music mingled in
the vivaciously chaotic atmosphere.
Evening time and we settled in our hotel
room. We took a stroll along the night streets and sat down
at a tea lounge. Ah. Traditional Tibetan tea is like nothing
you’ve tasted before. Even though my palate didn’t exactly
embrace the taste, learning the culture of their eateries
Butter tea is what it’s called, and it
really does taste like butter. The oil is the cream of the
crop, as in you make butter out of milk, then you churn
‘suyou’ , the tea, our of butter. It’s the fattiest and best
portion processed from milk, and in its purest form, added
with salt, it becomes the tea Tibetans drink up to 100 cups
Sometimes, they like to add grains of
cooked barley in their tea, sort of like what we do with
cereal. Tsampa, the barley flour, is their most popular
grain. For breakfast, tsampa would be used like cereal in a
cup of butter tea. Lunch might be tsampa bread or dumplings
and tea on the side. Dinner would of course be tsampa and
butter tea porridge.
At night, I climbed up the stairs leading
to the hotel room, buttery salty tea taste still on my
tongue, and thought through my hazy breathlessness, that
just like their butter tea, Tibet is rich in culture, tastes
a little different, but definitely the cream of the crop.
It was worth it, burning in the sun, walking up the
mountains, even hyperventilating to the lack of air, to have
the ultimate highland experience.