Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith
It’s a story about their pleasures, pains, and survival. An unforgettable experience of a lifetime, where readers can get a better sense of the Tibetan culture that is practically disappearing.
Below is an excerpt from the Yak Butter Blues, when Brandon Wilson, and his wife, Cheryl, continue with their hike on foot through Lhazê. Tired and hungry, they met a tall Tibetan who lends them a helping hand.
Resuming our trek to Lhazê, rounding the crest of that hill, the valley exploded with Chinese soldiers. While several supervised the blasting, a few planted dynamite then scampered like frightened hares behind nearby boulders. Others, living roadside in olive drab wall tents, labored as cooks, drove supply trucks or kept that sorry mess of a dirt trail passable.
Spotting us, a couple soldiers brazenly cried out “Herro, herro!” in child-like glee, then giggled like schoolgirls when we answered.
Strange. For all those innocents, there were others who glared with obvious suspicion, wondering, “Who are those Westerners with a horse? What are they doing out here?”
We didn’t tarry long enough for them to find out, since I grew more wary of that still unknown, pimple-faced teenage soldier who’d shoot first…and mime questions later.
The blasting continued all afternoon. Between deafening explosions and gear grinding trucks, I chased after my long – consuming fantasy food. For hours I secretively dined on a feast of steaming, cheesy pasta, spicy oyster pizza, clams Alfredo, sweet chocolate cakes with coconut frosting and icy mango smoothies. Only when I caught myself actually chewing, was I forced to confront the reason for my gustatory dreams.
Fewer Calories, More Trekking
“We’re starving ourselves! My clothes are hanging.” Glancing in the mirror recently, I hardly recognized the haggard face that stared back. I tried to tally what I’d eaten the past twenty-four hours. 500 calories. The day before? 600. The day before that? 400.
“Here we are,” I calculated, “Walking thirty kilometers (18.5 miles) or more every day on 500 calories. No wonder we’re so weak and light-headed. (Although trekking nearly three miles high never helps.) I just hope our strength holds up until we reach Lhazê and can restock supplies. Both our patience and tolerance are wearing thin, as slender as the air we breathe.”
I don’t know whether it was our slow starvation, the rugged conditions, our deteriorating health or a combination, but something in the very air itself amplified every emotion. At any given moment, with the slightest provocation, we were either on the verge of crying with joy or seething with raw and bloody rage.
Each success was glorious, every failure devastating. Worst of all our arguments, usually over insignificant matters, had become more frequent, and I worried we’d never repair that damage. Consequently, often scraping empty inner reserves, we’d trudge for miles without speaking or even seeing each other.
In my heart, I knew it was only a matter of time. With darkness falling we silently prayed for a place to sleep, a warm house with equally friendly Tibetans.
“We just can’t survive another night sleeping out,” I admitted to myself. “We’re too cold, too famished, too exhausted.”
Our Hopes are Answered
Almost immediately, as if in answer, we were approached by the tallest Tibetan I’d ever seen. With little talk, since Chinese soldiers observed nearby, the giant discretely motioned for us to follow him to his hillside home.
Once inside his enormous private compound, Sadhu was quickly bedded down with a bevy of yaks, goats, sheep and donkeys, while we were led up a narrow handmade ladder to a covered porch on the second floor where we would sleep. As we prepared our bags, one by one his inquisitive family came out to inspect then welcome the strange foreigners. Mama, her face and arms blackened from years of cooking over a dung fire, greeted us with cha. Then Grandma, toothless but merry, shared nuggets of yak cheese she’d dried on their flat rooftop.
“Hey, it tastes like Parmesan,” Cheryl announced with glee, as we gobbled every precious morsel.
Still shaken by the afternoon’s discovery, I pointed down valley entreating, “Grandma, what about ‘Boom Boom?’”
In reply, she shook her braided, gray streaked hair and wrinkled up her otherwise pleasing face while secretively confiding, “Dalai Lama very mad.” I supposed that was indeed true.
After Cheryl and I had enjoyed a cold jug of chang, our host returned for a little pre-dinner trading. Although we weren’t really in the mood to shop, his generous hospitality was such a relief we agreed to play along.
First he pointed to my feet then to his own Tibetan boots. They were beautifully crafted in black and red felt, running halfway up his shins, and trimmed in brilliant embroidery with yak leather soles.
I was tempted to swap. “They’ll be a great souvenir,” I figured, so I tried them on. Unfortunately they were at least three sizes too large. “He’s one huge Tibetan!” I thought. “I’d slosh around in these.”
A Dung Fire
Genuinely sorry the trade wouldn’t work, I tried to offer an excuse. “Walk… Kathmandu … Everest… Chomolongma,” I explained, looking up the Tibetan name for the world’s highest mountain on my tattered map.
Although he smiled and seemed to understand, he persisted, drawing a beautifully woven yak hair donkey bridle with brass bell off his cluttered wall. But to us, considering our recent experience, that seemed like a ridiculous traveling accessory.
“No, I don’t even think that’ll keep Sadhu awake!” I chuckled.
Eventually, as our host became resigned to the fact we had nothing to trade, the benevolent family invited us to join them on rug-draped beds circling their dung fire in their typical combination kitchen, living-room and bedroom. It was nearly pitch-black inside. Their dung fire vented right into the room that explained Mama’s sooty face and why the entire family shared the same dry cough, a hack similar to ours.
“It must be caused by a combination of this thin Himalayan air and the thick black clouds billowing from the dung fire,” I reasoned.
There in the dingy smoke-filled darkness, tiny round faces, black eyes filled with inquisitive awe, peered up from the fire’s glow. While Mama dished generous portions of thugpa into tin bowls, Papa, his hair braided and looking like a Hopi or Coppertoned Viking, contentedly sucked the insides from goat horns and ripped dark flesh from a whole dried sheep’s leg. Dinner was unusually silent, interrupted only by approving grins, eager slurps and quiet gnawing. At last, after gratefully sharing meager sustenance around their fire, that former monk solemnly led us to his most special place, his meditation chamber.
Cherished Objects of Faith
The miniscule, musty room was softly illuminated by the glow of a yak butter lamp. Shadows created saints and demons upon primitive mud walls. The air was awash with sandalwood incense. Photos of the Dalai Lama, shrouded in sacred khata cloths, flooded the walls. Interspersed between these were well-worn snapshots of the Panchen Lama, former Dalai Lamas and even treasured photos of our host in his younger days as a monk.
A crowded, yet simple wooden altar held other cherished objects of his faith: a drilbu, silver ritual temple bell for summoning the attention of the gods, as well as a brass dorje, a thunderbolt for fighting the powers of darkness. It also cradled his prayer wheel whose metal cylinder, inscribed with prayers, was rubbed smooth by years of sacred devotion. Fastened to the end of a wooden stick, it would be spun like those in the Jokhang Temple, sending its holy missive “Om Mani Padme Hum” soaring to the heavens.
Sensing the gentle monk’s need to be alone, Cheryl and I soon left him in serene meditation. Stepping outside to wintry stillness, we gazed toward a zillion stars. Silently I thanked God we found the holy man, or that he found us. And I earnestly prayed his dorje still had some magic left in it.
Buy This Book From Amazon: Yak Butter Blues
Brandon Wilson is an adventure-travel writer and photographer whose stories have appeared in magazines, newspapers and the Internet. For an intimate look at his Tibetan adventure, visit YakButterBlues.com.
Read more about Brandon Wilson’s books on GoNOMAD:
Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps
Read more articles about Tibet on GoNOMAD.com Travel:
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