A tipple in Tibet
The Sydney Morning Herald[Tuesday, July 01, 2003 10:30]
A boy at Ganden, which is home to a 15th-century monastery. Picture James Elam.
A boy at Ganden, which is home to a 15th-century monastery. Picture James Elam.
Drinking yak-butter tea in the Himalayas is a natural high, writes James Elam.

Yak's butter mixed with boiling water and salt. It sounds disgusting, but it's strange how tastes can change at 5000 metres above sea level.

My first encounter with the scalding, mustard-coloured tea concoction wasn't pleasant. The Tibetan nomad in Lhasa's downtown markets had a smirk on his weather-beaten face as he handed me the greasy enamel cup. After one sip I quickly made my excuses, imagining him gleefully recounting the incident that night around the campfire.

Like Vegemite, it's something you have to grow up with to truly appreciate. Or so I thought until I met the old hermit living in a cave in the mountains above the Kyi-Chu valley.

He was hard enough to find. Seven hours in a cramped Chinese minibus, a two-hour ferry ride across the turquoise Brahmaputra river, an overnight stop in the remote Samye monastery, and finally an exhausting six-hour hike to the highest place I'd ever been on earth.

The old man sat motionless as we trudged the last few steps to his cave. The long uphill walk had taken its toll; it was several minutes before we had enough breath to attempt conversation. He seemed in no hurry, watching us closely without speaking. My companion tried to introduce us in broken Chinese, but the hermit merely held up his hand to indicate that he did not understand, and beckoned us inside his cave.

Inside the air was thick with the sweet-smelling green herbs that burn in clay urns all over Tibet. Adjusting to the darkness, I could make out a clutter of Buddhist artefacts mixed with meagre household effects.

Gold statues and elaborately decorated prayer wheels competed for space with battered tin cups and an ancient Chinese kerosene stove. Colourful prayer flags draped the walls. A row of yak-butter candles slowly burning on a rocky ledge was the only source of light.

We sat cross-legged, facing the old man, as he brought out an ornate wooden cylinder and filled it with boiling water from the stove. To this he added several large knobs of yak butter and a pinch of salt, producing ingredients from invisible niches in the rock. Stirring it slowly with a long wooden pole, he poured two cups and offered them to us.

We braced ourselves for an unpleasant experience, determined not to offend the kindly hermit. Taking a large gulp so as not to prolong the agony, I was surprised to find the salty liquid going down rather well. Just the thing after hours hiking through the thin air and sub-zero temperatures.

After two cups of the stuff, soaked up with a bowl of tsampa, or raw barley flour, I felt I was beginning to understand these gentle people. Few Chinese Red Guards would bother to venture up as far as this mountain; indeed we'd seen none all day. This old lama had probably lived up here for the past 50 years, far removed from the effects of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. I could even imagine his ancestors living in the same cave, happily eating the same simple meal.

It occurred to me that I should offer him something in return. Tibetan Buddhist tradition says to present lamas with a khata, or ceremonial white silk scarf. Sadly, I was fresh out of khatas, but then another idea struck me.

In Kathmandu, I had stocked up with a few postcards of the Dalai Lama, having read that these were outlawed in Chinese Tibet and that many Tibetans had never seen a recent portrait of their still-beloved spiritual leader.

I fished around inside my daypack, came up with a rather dog-eared portrait, and presented it to the old man. The look on his face showed he knew immediately who it was. Slowly, he pointed to the picture, to his own eyes, then to me.

I took this as asking me if I'd seen His Holiness in person. Having once attended one of the Dalai Lama's lectures in Melbourne, I nodded. The old man fixed me with a clear gaze, and I detected the merest hint of envy in his eyes.

Back in Lhasa, I couldn't reacquire the taste for yak-butter tea and tsampa. Strolling around the streets of the capital, with its curious mix of run-down Tibetan houses and garish Chinese military architecture, I knew I'd received something more permanent and substantial from the experience. I'd been privileged enough to get a glimpse of what the real Tibet was like 60 years ago, when it was still the fabled forbidden kingdom.


Getting there: Flights to Gongkar airport, about 100 kilometres from Lhasa, depart from Kathmandu, Chengdu and Kunming. See travel agents.

Visa requirements: You'll need a visa to visit China. See http://www.chinaembassy.org.au

Currency: $A1 equals about 5.5 Chinese yuan renminbi.