Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Yak Butter with a Side of Bison

I was walking, crunching steps, on the freshly packed snow at the foot of Jackson Hole’s ski mountain one morning last week. It was bright out, the sun shining after a night of snowfall; the whiteness hurt my eyes. The air was crisply cold; a gentle mist of snow was tossed up by the skiers frequently flying by towards the close base lodge. I was following a bright red coat in front of me, walking in a small group of fashionably dressed women. My dad and step-mom take a trip out west every year to ski with a group of their friends. My brother, step-brother, step-sisters and I often come along. Despite the fact that I couldn’t ski (tragic in the face of all that powder) because of my knee, I went to Wyoming for some not often had family time.

During the day, however, I found myself in an oddly formed group of fellow non-skiers, mainly stylish career moms married to the more fanatical powder hounds. Our group ‘walks’ mainly hovered around the cluster of shops near the hill. It was an interesting jump into an unaccustomed slice of life for me, being 20 years younger and infinitely less monetarily endowed. I had, in the end, a good deal of thinking time in the company of my misplaced self. My mind wandered in disjointed musings while on these walks, the smallest comment inspiring a multitude of thoughts.

One morning I met up with my fellow non-skiers, my bright orange shoulder bag dangling in my hand, prepared to later plant myself in a coffee shop with a book.

That’s a nice bag, Molly, said one woman, ripe in a lime green fur-lined parka and Burberry scarf. It’s very bright. Um, very bright. A small frown of disapproval.

Yes, Molly, very bright, said another. Her white fur lined parka glistened against the snowy background. Very earthy. It looks… Tibetan. You look… Tibetan. Eyebrows raised. Did you buy that there? Have you… been to Tibet?

I could see that ‘Tibetan’ was not meant, really, to be a compliment.

Thanks, I said smiling. But this bag is from Italy.


The small room was filled with smoke. The evening light was fading; only a trickle reaching us through the gaping hole in the roof. The hazy darkness filled the space, pushing against the dirt floor and walls, flickering hesitantly around the small cooking fire in the center of the room. I could hardly see the people surrounding me. Their talk was quiet, a melodious harmony of a Tibetan dialect that I could barely register. A heavy black pot of boiling water added its steam to the already viscous air. There were children; I smiled as they crouched behind their mother’s backs, confused by my new presence. There were women; dark skin toughened by the sun, dark hair wrapped tightly on their heads, traditional deep red chupa dresses were draped around their earthy bodies. They smiled, laughed, exclaimed and whispered. They looked at me intently, touched my large curly head of hair curiously. Small postcards of Buddhist gods, larger ones of the Dalai Lama were perched by the walls. Chipped china cups clinked; the small blanket I was sitting on was hard. I was overwhelmed.

It was July of 2000, and along with six other American students and two ex-Peace Corp members, I had spent three weeks backpacking up rocky paths into the mountain range of Nepal’s Dolpo region. We were in a land without roads or runways, too high for easy helicopter travel, most often traveled by yak herders and foot-bound salt traders. We reached a small village close to the Tibetan border after a good deal of freeze-dried chili and a slow trudge over an airless, 18,000 foot pass. It was one of the few remaining communities of pure Tibetan culture and language, untouched by the Chinese, protected by Nepal’s boundaries. Each member of the group was ceremoniously deposited with a local family in a small, stilted hut. We were intensively submerged in rural Tibetan farm culture for a few weeks while we taught English in the local school. I spoke close to zero Tibetan; it was my first time manning a classroom. We were some of the first foreigners to visit the village. My white skin and glow-in-the-dark wrist watch were alarming to those around me. That first night near the smoky fire of my host family was one of confused communication and the constant patter of gentle anxiety somewhere near my lungs.

That first evening, lost in the haze of smoky Tibetan chatter, I watched as a small blue cup, steaming with frothy tan liquid, was placed in front of me on the protective stone of the fire ring. Next to it a matching bowl was clanked down, filled with a light brown powdery flour.

The men of the village, mainly salt merchants, were on their annual trading pilgrimage across the border to Tibet and I was in a world of women. A small group of them clustered around the fire in my host-family’s hut; they stopped what they were doing and looked at me intently. I knew I was supposed to do something. I knew, from the instruction of my Peace Corp leaders, that it was a special guest’s honor to be served first. In that subtle realm of politeness, it was imperative that I finish with relish the food given to me. And so I clasped the cup, smelling a strikingly savory odor in its loud steam. Thu-chi che, I said; Thank you. The women giggled, watching. I took a sip. It was tea, but oh what a tea. My eyes watered, my mouth shocked by the unexpected intensity. It was my first, but certainly not my last, taste of the Tibetan staple. Yak Butter Tea - salted black tea churned with a thick chunk of yak butter.

The brawny, altitude-loving yak has withstood the difficult living situation of the Tibetan plateau for centuries in a way no vegetable ever could. Therefore, a huge hunk of the culinary tradition there hinges on that hairy animal. Over time, I became intimately acquainted with all sorts of yak products. Yak beef, yak cloth, yak-hair rope, yak cheese, yak milk, yak jerky, yak hide, yak labor, and of course, yak butter. Six years later, I still clearly remember the shock of my first slick gulp. The texture of its thickly coating bulk coupled with the salty tang of its uncommon butter makes for an alarmingly unexpected tea experience.

I smiled widely, though, hiding my initial distaste with an overwhelming show of gratitude. The women around me clapped with excitement. I felt happy. Everyone else began to eat; my attention refocused on the bowl of flour in front of me. Without some kind of visual lead I never would have been able to consume that bowl of tsampa with any kind of grace. Tsampa, a roasted barley ground into flour, is another staple of Tibetan diet in the Nepalese region I was in. I watched as my host-mother, her newborn baby girl cradled deftly in her lap, poured some of her thick tea into the bowl of tsampa, creating a more congealed, dough-like conglomeration. She ate it with her fingers, my eyes watching her every move. I imitated her, sucking the flour off of my fingers. It tasted nutty and dry, sticking slightly to the roof of my mouth, bland without the salty tea.

After a week of little beyond the yak butter tea and tsampa I was more than ready to never lay eyes on the combination again. But that first night, surrounded by a strange culture, crackling fire and giggling children, yak butter and barley flour felt like a strangely celebratory entrance into an unknown world.

I left that village in Dolpo with priceless teaching experience, a smattering of Tibetan language knowledge, a dire need for donuts, and a deeply embedded respect for the women I lived with. I have never seen such hard workers. I watched them working from dawn til dusk in the fields, eyes watering constantly from the smoky cooking fire, subsisting on little more than butter and flour. Even Lahkpa, my 8-year-old host sister, worked with amazing diligence, caring for her newborn baby sister. She walked me to school every morning even though her duties kept her from attending, her short black hair tussled, her little sister strapped to her back with a large, dirt stained cloth. The constant companion of Lhakpa’s crooked smile is something I will never forget. She was always smiling, laughing. Always singing and moving. Perhaps yak butter does more for you than the initial cringe would suggest.


Despite the time I have had in the last few months, I was surprised during my stay in Wyoming last week to feel as if I was finally able to think – to think about things far removed from health, doctors, future plans. I was pleased by the turns in my memory; I had not thought about Nepal or Tibet in a long time. Jackson Hole itself was accompanied by a grand number of buffalo burgers and elk steaks. Bison carpaccio was an interesting jump into the unknown for me. But nothing, certainly, could rival that past novelty of tsampa and yak butter. Wyoming couldn’t give me any yak butter tea, but it did give me a calm chunk of time to think (and a newfound love of chandeliers made with antlers, of course).


Alanna Kellogg said...

Lovely story-telling ... especially 'first' and 'third' world juxtaposition.

Rainey said...

Welcome back!

You know, we bought our present house (in LA of all places) in part because it has an antler chandelier. ;>

mary grimm said...

Good post. It's really a lovely polished essay-memoir--a step into another world.

Kai said...

You write so beautifully. I would want to eat tsampa and yak butter!

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