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Alice Yang
Yang is a contributing columnist for the Fort Bend Star.
Alice Yang is a student at Columbia University. She can be reached at gy2151@ Columbia.edu.
This column expresses the personal opinions/views of the writer. If you would like to express your opinions/views regarding the column, write a SIGNED letter to the editor. Name can be withheld by request with a valid day time phone number.

Seven days in Tibet - Part two


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 was fascinating.

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 a day.

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.

Alice Yang is a student at Columbia University.
She can be reached at gy2151@ Columbia.edu.

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   Last Update:  September 27, 2007