Thursday, November 30, 2006

Duobugou and tsampa






Before heading off, my guide- who could only speak a little broken Chinese- offerred me some tsampa in his house. It had been long enough after my last tsampa experience that I thought I could stomach more, though I knew I wouldn't take much pleasure in it. I'm not sure I even really had a choice anyway.
The guide's tsampa was a bit different from the tsampa I had previously eaten. Instead of mixing the barley flour with yak butter and rolling it into balls, he put it in a bowl with some very sour youghurt and told me to mix it with my finger. He then, to my surprise, motioned for me to lick it out of the bowl. I suppose it was cleaner to eat that way anyway, as I didn't have to use my hands, but it was a bit hard to keep my nose out of the tsampa. I found the mixture to be even more revolting than the tsampa I had had before, but at least it was different. He also gave me yak butter tea, the staple drink of Tibet- Tibetans call it "Tibetan tea." Yak butter tea has a bad reputation among Westerners and Chinese alike. It's understandable that so many non-Tibetans dislike the stuff, given that it's made of two of Tibet's least appealing ingredients, namely salty tea and yak butter. I didn't like it the first time I had it, but it has surprisingly enough grown on me. It's about as soothing and energizing for me as tsampa is nauseating and unappetizing.
When we first got on the horses the guide didn't seem to realize that I didn't know how to ride. He started going ahead and somehow got my horse to start walking too, but when he made his horse turn my horse just kept going in the same direction, to the amusement of those watching us. The guide came back and tried to show me how to make the horse turn, but when it became obvious that I wasn't going to be able to get it, he just took hold of a rope tied to my horse's saddle, and pulled it along in the direction it was supposed to go in.
The whole ride lasted about six hours, down a valley and back. The valley was indeed quite pretty, though a little monotonous. Every now and then we would pass a herder's hut or a pile of stones marking a holy spot. Eventually we stopped at one hut, where we were invited inside by an elderly-looking herder who lived there with his wife and child. Naturally he gave us tsampa.
This version of tsampa was perhaps the weirdest of all those that I have yet seen. The herder put some barley flour and yak butter in a bowl, then motioned for me to mix it with my hands. Once the butter had been mixed in, he told me to flatten it. Once that was done the herder filled up the rest of the bowl up to the brim with salty tea. My guide showed me how to eat it: first we drank the tea on the top, which left a layer of wet tsampa, which we licked off. Once there was only dry tsampa left we repeated the process. After one layer of the stuff I had had enough, but I felt I had no choice but to force myself through it. It was just a bad combination of bad flavors- the clingy plain cheerio flavor of the barley, the pungent old cheese flavor of the yak butter and the downright weird salty tea. While we ate it I sat quietly while the herder and my guide chatted in Tibetan. Occassionally the guide would turn to me and ask me a question for the herder- what country are you from, how old are you. After about half an hour we set out again.
After riding for another hour it began to snow. My guide looked a little uncomfortable, turned back to me, and asked me if I was cold. I told him I felt OK.
"Do you want to head back?" he asked. He pointed to the sky.
"No, let's keep going," I said.
After another fifteen minutes the guide again asked me if I was cold. Again I told him no. He asked me if I wanted to go back, and again I told him I wanted to go on. The guide was more adamant this time.
"We should head back," he said. "It's too cold."
I really wasn't ready to go back. Sure the valley was pretty, but I didn't feel like I had seen anything. On the other hand, it was snowing pretty hard. I figured that although the guide might have wanted to head back because he wanted to rest earlier, he may have good reasons for wanting to head back. Also, even if it wasn't snowing, we would have had to head back soon anyway. I reluctantly agreed and we turned around.
Our horses were pretty tired so the going was slow. My knees started hurting from being bent for so long. We took a quick break for a snack- we had some dried, uncooked yak meat that the guide had brought along. The guide had a large hunk of the stuff, which we cut off small pieces from. It was very chewy but pretty good.
When we got back to the guide's village there was still another half hour before the driver was supposed to come and pick me up, so the guide naturally offered me even more tsampa. I managed to get him to only give me a little, but the damage was done- my stomach rumbled all through the night as it struggled to digest all the tsampa that I had eaten.

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