What Chinese Want: A Book Review

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Doctoroff, Tom. 2012. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China’s Modern Consumer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tom Doctoroff has opinions and he isn’t afraid to express them. There is no beating around the bush here. I appreciated his direct style and getting right to the point, though he has a tendency to oversimplify things. There is nothing worse than dancing around the issue to the point that you’re not sure where the author stands. Not so with Doctoroff. He also tends to overgeneralize, saying things such as :

“Chinese fear chaos; they are unable to imagine social order without autocratic control.”(p. 26)
“In China, no one invests in status brands unless everyone recognizes them.”(p. 76)
“. . . the imitation and piracy of brands–has become a national point of pride.”(p. 79)
“. . . there are few Chinese labels actually preferred by mainland consumers.”(p. 86)

This may be true for the emerging middle class, but what about the millions who are happy to have consumer goods, period. For them, the cheapest brand will do.

Of the Chinese education system, he says, “It’s primary role is to advance the interests of the nation, as defined by the Communist Party.”(p. 126)

I know many faculty members at Chinese universities that would strongly disagree with this, especially those in the humanities. Again, he is overgeneralizing.

“Surgeons will still be bribed by patient’s relatives to ensure adequate care. Medical equipment will still be manned by inadequately trained and poorly compensated staff. Local banks, while dependable for low-end transactions, will offer no investment alternatives beyond basic savings and high-risk, opaque mutual funds.”(p. 152)

A rather pessimistic viewpoint. China has progressed in practically every area of society in the past 30 years. I see no reason to believe that things won’t continue to change and improve.

“On a personal level, the Chinese admire–are even intoxicated by–US-style individualism. At the same time, they regard it as dangerous, both personally and as a national competitive advantage.”(p. 195)

Again, this is debatable. I have not met too many Chinese that are enamored by Western individualism. Most find it rather odd.

Despite Doctoroff’s tendency to overgeneralize, and his frequent repetition, he is not afraid to challenge the reader; he makes you think, ask questions. Some of what he says may even anger you, especially if you are native Chinese. All of this is okay. I like someone with an opinion even if I don’t agree with it. The best books are those that challenge you.

In sum, this book provides a nice look into Chinese consumer culture. The reader comes away with a better understanding of the dramatic changes in society in China today. I recommend it, especially for those interested in advertising and marketing and want to understand what’s going on in China.

The Story Behind Tianjin’s 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

狗不理大酒店 in Tianjin

狗不理大酒店 in Tianjin

In my last post I posted a photo of Tianjin’s famous 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo. I then received a comment about this very unusual name for this steamed dumpling. As the commenter noted, it sounds like these 包子bāozi are not even fit for dogs. For the non-Chinese speaking readers, let me explain. 狗 gǒu simple means ‘dog’ and to 不理 bùlǐ means to ‘pay no attention to,’ so a literal translation would be something like ‘the dumpling that dogs won’t pay attention to.” This would imply that they are not too tasty.

狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

Before going to Tianjin last Autumn I had never tasted them, though I had heard of them as they are considered a famous Tianjin snack. Here is the story about these very tasty dumplings. It comes from the book 旅游城市美食指南:便走便吃 edited by 周国宝. (Tourist City Guide to Gourmet Food: Eating While Traveling).

According to tradition, the story begins in 1858 when a 14 year old boy named Gao Guiyou arrived in Tianjin. His nickname was Gouzi (狗子 gǒuzi) or ‘dog.’ He had come to Tianjin to study to be a craftsman. He was very clever, good with his hands, and a quick learner. He apprenticed at a shop run by the Liu Family that made steamed dumplings (包子 bāozi). He learned very quickly how to make beautiful and delicious dumplings. After three years he had served out his apprenticeship and opened his own shop selling his own dumplings. He soon gained a reputation for making the best dumplings in town and people came from all over to eat them. He became so busy that he had no time to talk to his customers, thus the phrase, 狗子卖包子,不理人, gǒuzi mài bāozi, bùlǐ rén, ‘Gouzi sells dumplings and doesn’t pay attention to people (meaning his customers). After awhile people began calling him 狗不理 gǒubùlǐ, and his famous dumplings became known as 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo. Now it is said that if you travel to Tianjin and don’t try 狗不理包子 gǒubùlǐ bāozi, then you’ve never been to Tianjin.

Me and a couple friends/colleagues traveled to Tianjin to visit the parents of a former graduate student I worked with. It was also a good excuse to visit Tianjin. We took the new bullet train from Beijing and it only too 28 minutes to get to Tianjin. They took us out to eat at the famous 狗不理大酒店. Whether this was the original location of the shop in the story, I don’t know.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant

We had an excellent meal which of course included gǒubùlǐ bāo. I am happy to report that they are delicious. We had a chef come into our private room and demonstrate how to wrap them. She then taught us how to do it. Though it may look easy, it surely is not and takes a great deal of practice to wrap them properly.

Rolling out the dough

Rolling out the dough

Wrapping the bāozi

Wrapping the bāozi

Michael and I feebly trying to wrap our own

Michael and I feebly trying to wrap our own

Can you tell which one the lǎowài (foreigner) wrapped?

Can you tell which one the lǎowài (foreigner) wrapped?

Finally, here is a short video I shot of the chef wrapping a 狗不理包. She makes it look so easy and effortless, but I assure you it is not. As I said, they are truly delicious. Next time you are in Tianjin, make sure to eat some 狗不理包.

New Year’s Update

Fabric store in Nanjing

Fabric store in Nanjing

It has been quite some time since I posted anything. I had a very busy semester teaching and traveling, then was swamped with finals and the holidays. I am now on sabbatical so I intend to post regularly for the next few months.

For the past several years I have been working on a cultural guidebook to China. It is due to the hit the bookstores in April. The title is: Decoding China: A Handbook for Traveling, Studying, and Working in Today’s China. I will post more details of the book and how to get a copy soon.

I have two new projects I am working on this year. The first is a culinary guidebook to China. This will cover the various regional cuisines in China and some very practical information such as how to make sense of a Chinese menu, how to find a good restaurant, street food, and so on. My interest in food and eating is evident to those who read this blog. The second project is a book on Chinese popular culture and cultural literacy. My goal with this book is to cover those basic things about Chinese culture that everyone in China grows up knowing. I will be posting regularly on these two topics as I continue my research. I have at least two research trips to China planned this year for these projects.

I also have more photos and stories about my trip to Tibet last year that I plan to post about. And finally, I will continue to post on topics related to communication and Chinese culture.

Here are a few photos from my last trip to China, October/November 2012.

Beijing Train Station, early morning.

Beijing Train Station, early morning.

Breakfast in a hutong near the Beijing South Train Station.

Breakfast in a hutong near the Beijing South Train Station.

Tianjin's famous gǒubùlǐ bāo 狗不理包

Tianjin’s famous gǒubùlǐ bāo 狗不理包

Tianjin, old and new

Tianjin, old and new

Dining in Yangzhou

wànjiā měishí Restaurant in Yangzhou

The city of Yangzhou sits on the Northern banks of the Yangtze River (长江 chángjiāng) a short distance down river from Nanjing and a couple hours upriver from Shanghai. The city has approximately 4.5 million people and is often described as a quaint Chinese town or city. And guess what? It does feel smallish and quaint compared to China’s other massive, sprawling cities.

Yangzhou is a culinary hotspot. If you like to eat, you will love Yangzhou. It is a foodie’s paradise. In an earlier post I talked about Yangzhou’s famous and fabulous dimsum. (https://intothemiddlekingdom.com/2012/06/29/yangzhou-dimsum/). Yangzhou is one of the culinary centers of Huaiyang cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài), one of the Eight major cuisines in China (八大菜系 bādàcàixī). The name comes from the Huai and Yangtze Rivers that cut through this fertile region. The Yangtze River is also called in Chinese the 扬子江 yángzi jiāng. Huaiyang Cuisine is characterized by super fresh ingredients with delicate seasoning. It is felt that you don’t want to overpower the freshness of the ingredients with heavy sauces or spices. Along with Cantonese (粤菜 yuècài), Sichuan (川菜 chuāncài), and Northern (鲁菜 lǔcài) cuisines, Huaiyang Cuisine is highly celebrated in China and for good reason.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I was in Yangzhou for a couple days in February of this year and sampled some of the famous dishes of the city. It was truly a memorable culinary experience. Fortunately, I have my friend, and colleague from Nanjing University, and fellow foodie along with me. He knows the city well as he spent much time there as a child visting his grandmother.

One night we selected a small restaurant down an alley off a main street. It is pictured above and was called 万家美食 wànjiā měishí and specialized in Yangzhou’s specialties which is what the smaller characters on the sign say, 扬州特色菜 yángzhōu tèsè cài. It was a cold rainy night, and as many of you know, there is seldom central heat in buildings in this part of China so you get used to eating with your coat and hat on.

Yangzhou cuisine is famous for its “three heads” dishes. This includes fish head (鱼头 yǔtóu), lion’s head (狮子头 shīzitóu), and pig’s head (猪头 zhùtóu). I tried the first of the two, which were exceptional. The pig’s head is basically a braised pig face, which I decided to pass on.

Delicious fish head steamed with a slightly sweet sauce

I know what many of you are thinking, fish head??? Trust me, it is delicious. The most tender and delicious meat from a fish comes from the cheek area, and the area just below the gills. Have you ever had halibut cheeks? I ate them once at a seafood restaurant in Seattle and they were to die for. This fish dish was exceptionally fresh, with a delicate sweet and slightly sour sauce with a few chopped scallions sprinkled on top. It was really good.

清蒸狮子头 qīngzhēng shīzitóu “fresh steamed lion’s head”

This dish contains no part of any lion. The Chinese have many creative names for dishes that have nothing to do with the ingredients. This dish is actually made with beef. However, it is not cheap ground beef. Prime cuts of beef are actually chopped with two large cleavers until the meat is minced into teeny tiny pieces. It is then seasoned with ginger and some onion, then steamed to perfection. The meat is so tender and succulent it can only be described as velvet-like. It was fantastic. The flavors were delicate, subtle, perfect. I really enjoyed this dish. It was ever better than the similar beef balls you get on Cantonese dimsum menus. I am not a big beef eater, but this dish was outstanding and I would order it again, and again.

大煮干丝 dàzhǔ gānsī “boiled shredded tofu”

This is another famous Yangzhou dish. The noodle-looking things are actually a type of dried tofu called 豆腐干 dòufugān, which literally means “dry tofu.” It has a firm, chewy texture similar to noodles. Like all tofu dishes the tofu soaks up all the flavors it is mixed with. This dish contains some greens and bamboo shoots all cooked in a delicious, light chicken based stock. It is a wonderful dish and can be found all over Yangzhou.

扬州炒饭 yángzhōu chǎofàn “Yangzhou fried rice”

This is not the greasy slop that you get at Chinese-American restaurants in the U.S. The first time I encountered Yangzhou style fried rice I had just arrived in Guangzhou after many hours on a plane. I finally got to my hotel around midnight and I was ravenous, but way too tired to go out and find a restaurant still open. So I ordered a plate of Yangzhou fried rice from room service. It was delicious!

Yangzhou fried rice is famous all over China. As with most Huaiyang cuisine it is lightly and delicately flavored, and is neither greasy nor smothered in salty soy sauce. It is seasoned with little bits of very fresh vegetables such as carrots, greens, maybe a bit of garlic. It almost always has freshly scrambled eggs and ham. I very seldom order fried rice; actually I never order fried rice, much preferring steamed rice. But Yangzhou style fried rice is the exception. It really is outstanding and the pinnacle of fried rice dishes in China.

After this wonderful meal I was feeling very sleeping, and very chubby. In fact, on this trip I had been eating way too much as I was doing research (i.e. eating) on Huaiyang cuisine. Several of my friends and colleagues knew this so they were very eager to take me to their favorite restaurants and order way more food than we could possibly eat.

Feeling a bit chubby after an excellent meal in Yangzhou

In the future I’ll be posting more about Huaiyang cuisine as well as China’s other cuisines as I continue my research on China’s famous regional cuisines. Let’s just say that authentic Chinese food is more varied, more delicious, and much more exciting than anything you can find here in the U.S.

 

The Doors and Windows of Tibet’s Monasteries

When I was in Tibet in May, we visited quite a few Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. I am fascinated by doors, and to a lesser extent windows. I’m not sure what draws me to these colorful doors; it probably has something to do with what lies behind them. I found myself so many times wandering around a monastery and wondering what was behind some lonely door. I wished I could wander at will, especially at the magnificent Potala Palace in Lhasa. It is almost like a small city with countless halls and rooms. Of course, the tourists are only allowed to see a very small portion of them.

The doors and windows in this post are only a portion of what I shot. They are mostly brightly colored, though some of the out of the way doors look neglected, and used. They are in no particular order, and are from the following monasteries:

Lhasa:   Jokham Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Potala Palace

Gyantze:   Pochu Monastery

Shigatze:   Tashi Lhunpo Monastery

Sakya:   Sakya Monastery

I thought about labeling where each photo was shot, but I decided it probably doesn’t matter. If you would really like to know where a door or window was shot, send me a message and I’l let you know.

Yangzhou Dimsum

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (Steamed dumplings)

In late February and early March of this year I was in Nanjing doing some work for our language program there. I extended my stay a few days to do some food and eating research. This area of China, the lower Yangtze River valley, is where you find Huaiyang Cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài). The name comes from the Yangtze and Huai Rivers. This is one of the eight major cuisines of China (八大菜系 bādà càixì). I have spent quite a bit of time in Nanjing, and have traveled to Shanghai on occasion. I have also been to Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Yangzhou, but I had never really explored in much depth real Huaiyang Cuisine. On this trip, in addition to visiting the city of Huai’an, I spent a couple days in Yangzhou, eating. I had a Chinese colleague and good friend with me. Not only is he a real Chinese foodie, but he is also very familiar with the city of Yangzhou.

Yechun Teahouse, Yangzhou

In this post I want to focus only on Yangzhou style dimsum (点心 diǎnxīn), or breakfast food. I am quite familiar with Cantonese style dimsum from my time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. To be honest I didn’t know that dimsum (even using this term) existed outside Cantonese food (粤菜 yuècài). On our first morning in Yangzhou, my friend took me to probably the second most famous restaurant (at least for dimsum) in Yangzhou, 冶春茶社 yěchūn cháshè. I was completely blown away, and have to rank this as one of the most spectacular meals I have eaten in China, and I have eaten countless meals in China.

Yechun Teahouse in Yangzhou

Though the restaurant has a very long history, it had been remodeled in traditional style. It sits on one the many canals in Yangzhou and was a favorite stop for emperors touring the Southern part of the kingdom. Unlike some Chinese restaurants, it was clean and very nice, bordering on swanky.

Yechun Teahouse

Decor at Yechun Teahouse

We started with a couple appetizers. My mother always told me that you can tell a good restaurant by the little things like appetizers and side dishes. A good quality restaurant will spend time to make excellent little dishes, not just the main dishes. We had boiled peanuts and red peppers with garlic. The peppers had a fantastic flavor seasoned with fresh garlic and a hint of vinegar. The peanuts were crunchy, just a little salty, and had a faint hint of vinegar. It’s hard to describe this very simple dish. Who would think eating plain old peanuts would be very good, but I assure you the Chinese have elevated the peanut to haute cuisine. The were so good we had our little appetizer dishes refilled twice.

Peanuts and red pepper appetizers

One of the first things that struck me about the dumplings were how big they were. Most Cantonese dimsum dishes are quite small. The steamed jiaozi were enormous in comparison. The were freshly made right next to the dining room and were succulent and full of flavor. They had just the right amount of oil, being tender and juicy without feeling the least bit greasy.

Making 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed dumplings)

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo

Fabulous!

I also had a kind up dumpling that I had not eaten before, though I had heard about them. Think of a very large dumpling filled with a delicious broth and tiny bits of minced meat and you have Yangzhou style 汤包 tāngbāo. It is served with a small straw. Simply poke the straw into the dumpling and slurp out the rich, flavorful broth. Then eat the dumpling. Not only is it a creative way to serve a rich broth, it was absolutely delicious. The menu name of those that we ate were called, 蟹黄汤包 xìehuáng tāngbāo. In this case it was a rich crab-based broth. They reminded me a bit of Shanghai style 小笼包 xiǎolóngbāo.

汤包 tāngbāo (Soup dumpling)

Slurping up the rich broth

Yangzhou is famous for their pastries, though they are not much like what we call pastries in the West. They are called 酥饼 sūbǐng and have a flaky and crispy, yet tender texture. They can be sweet or savory. We ordered  萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng or shredded carrot sūbǐng. Yangzhou Subing are made with white sesame seeds on the outside, both the sweet and savory kinds.

萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng (Shredded carrot cakes)

The pastry was wonderfully crispy and flaky. In addition to shredded carrots, there was also some turnips and green onion. They were addictively good. In fact each dish was so good, I would have been happy just eating more of the same.

We next had a beautiful and delicious 烧麦 shāomài. This is a common Cantonese dimsum dish, usually written as siumai. They are a stuffed steamed dumpling. We ordered 翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài, which basically means jade or emerald shaomai. They were exquisite to look at and to eat. It was obviousl that this restaurant took great pride in using very fresh ingredients. One of the ways you can tell nicer Chinese restaurants from others is the amount of grease in the food. Crummier restaurants tend to have pretty greasy, oily dishes, but since nicer restaurants use higher quality ingredients they don’t need to hide things in a lot of oil.

翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài (Green steamed dumplings)

Finally, we ordered 千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo, which was a layered cake. The Chinese are not too fond of sweets so their desserts tend to be much less sweet than what we are used to in the West. This was a slightly sweet layered cake, that was pretty good, as long as you were not expecting Western-cake-sweet. It was light and airy.

千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo (Layered cake)

This was truly a spectacular meal for me. And it was a revelation to eat such wonderful dimsum outside of Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Yangzhou. In fact, I loved this dimsum so much, I went to another pretty well-known restaurant by myself the next morning to try some more dishes. I was not disappointed.

Chinese food is so varied and delicious that eating is what I most look forward to when I travel to China.

Mt. Kailash Kora, Part 2

 

We woke up to a beautiful clear day. The day we arrived in Darchen it was snowing and the pass got a few centimeters. The forecast was calling for more snow, but we lucked out and had clear skies all three days of the kora.

We got an early start this morning. Our Tibetan guide, Tenzin, said it would take 3.5-4 hours to reach Drolma La Pass. From where we camped it was about 6.4 km and 762 m higher. That doesn’t seem like much of a climb, but when you are starting at 16,500′ and climbing to 18,550′ it is pretty significant. Stephen, Brad, and I left together. Bruce, Susan, and Tenzin followed behind. Susan was struggling a bit with the altitude. We felt pretty good as long as we didn’t try to go too fast.

We began to see more and more Tibetan pilgrims heading up. Many of them do the kora in one day, which brings more merit than in the traditional three days. Bu the ultimate is to do full prostrations all the way around. This usually takes 14-16 days, but can be done in as few as 8 days as our guide had done previously. Tenzin had also done it in a day. This time with us was his 68th kora. He did not think he would make it to 108 as his knee had been bothering him the last few times. Tenzin was a very devout Buddhist. He always had his prayer beads in his hand, always, in the car, at camp, hiking. He never left them and they were well worn.

Tenzin’s well-worn prayer beads

Pilgrims hiking up toward the pass

Right out of camp we climbed a long series of switchbacks. At the top of this section the trail flattened out a bit, then descended before it turned into snow as it headed up toward the pass.

Trail heading up to the pass

Heading up this snow slope, we had our last look at Kailash, then it was obscured by other mountains.

Last look at Kailash

We pass several pilgrims heading up to the pass. Some of them were doing prostrations. I was blown away by the devotion of these simple, sincere people.

Pilgrims heading toward the pass

Prostrators taking a break on the way to the pass.

I was particularly impressed with this girl. She looked to be about 13 or 14 years old and was cruising up through the snow doing full prostrations. You can see the marks in the snow from her hands. They will mark on the ground the extent of their reach, then stand up, walk to that point and prostrate again. I have a short video clip of her on my Flickr photostream.

Young girl doing prostrations

Stephen and I would take about 30 steps, then stop for a moment to catch our breath. As we got higher that became 20 steps, then rest, then 15 steps and rest. We were certainly feeling the altitude. The highest I had been before was a mixed ice and rock climbing ascent of Mt. Meeker in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. That peak is 13, 911′.

Stephen heading up toward the pass

We finally arrived at the pass covered with prayer flags and the traditional Tibetan white scarves. Brad had arrived a few minutes before us. There was one other Western guy there as well as a few Tibetan pilgrims. It took us 2.5 hours from our camp. We felt pretty good about that.

Matt on Drolma La Pass, 5723 m (Brad’s altimeter read 18,550′)

Prayer flags on Drolma La Pass

Looking back the way we had come

We had first seen this pilgrim at Drirupuk Monastery. He had a huge prayer wheel that he was constantly spinning. He looked to be in his 60’s but was probably younger than that as Tibetans typically look older than they really are.

Old pilgrim on Drolma La Pass

The views on the other side of the pass were spectacular. The mountains really were amazing. The photos do not do them justice.

Unnamed mountains on the other side of the pass

The trail heading down from the pass was steep and very icy. It was pretty treacherous in places. I love the downhills and like to hike fast, so I left Stephen and Brad and headed down.

Heading down the icy trail

Pretty soon we were out of the snow and on very steep rocky terrain descending into another valley heading south. Where the steep section met the valley floor I decided to stop and take a break and eat a snack.

One thing that I did not anticipate on this trip is that with high altitude comes less oxygen to your extremities. We spent about 7 nights about 15,000′ and I had cold feet every night. I even wrapped my feet in my puffy jacket inside my sleeping bad and I still had cold feet. This was really strange because I seldom have cold feet, even ice climbing and winter camping. My hands were fine except for the day we hiked over the pass. I was wearing a pair of midweight windstopper fleece gloves and my hands got very cold. It was quite windy up there which contributed to it. When I stopped to take a break, I was down out of the wind and it was much warmer. When I took off my gloves I was surprised to see that my pinky fingers were a bit purple and swollen. After about an hour they were fine again.

Cold hands

Stephen, Brad, and the rest of our group including our guide showed up shortly and we walked a short distance to a tent guest house. We decided to wait here for the Serpas and yaks. Tenzin wanted to make sure they knew where we would be camping. We relaxed inside for about an hour until they finally showed up. We then took off down the valley. We were under the impression that it would be a short distance to our destination, which was the monastery at Dzutrulpuk, the sight of Milarepa’s cave. Milarepa was an 11th century poet and  Buddhist yogi.

The trail followed a gentle valley along a peaceful river, grassy fields, and clear streams. Our short hiked turned into hours as we trudged down the valley.

We turned right and headed down this gentle valley

Tent teahouse along the kora route

Hiking down the valley

Mani stones

We continued to encounter pilgrims also hiking down this valley toward Darchen.

Typical dress of women in Western Tibet

Pilgrims hiking down the valley

Footprint of an early Buddhist saint

In the afternoon the winds picked up and soon they were roaring down the valley. We came to expect this. It seems that every afternoon the winds would pick up. We experienced this all over the Tibetan Plateau. With the wind it got pretty cold. We decided to wait for the yaks as we were not exactly sure where we would be camping for the night.

Bundled up against the wind and cold

As we sat waiting it got pretty cold. I put on all my warm weather clothing, which consisted of a long sleeved base layer, fleece hoodie, Patagonia Nano puff jacket (a lightweight puffy jacket), and a hardshell jacket. I found an large rock, curled up behind it to stay out of most of the wind and took a nap. We ended up waiting about two hours for the yaks.

Trying to stay warm and nap

We got camp set up, ate dinner, and went to bed. Total distance for the day was jsut under 23 km. The following day was a short 2-3 hour (about 10 km) hike to the mouth of the valley where we were met by the Landcruisers and drivers. We returned briefly to Darchen, then began the long drive back across the Tibetan Plateau.

It was a very memorable trek. I was most impressed by the devout pilgrims making the circumambulation and the spectacular scenery. It really was breathtaking (literally and figuratively). I have newfound respect for high altitude mountaineers. It is really tough breathing up there and we were only hiking on a trail. I have spent most of my life climbing and I can’t imagine difficult technical climbing at high altitudes. Pretty amazing. The wild landscape and the people of Tibet left a deep impression on me and I hope to return someday.

Mt. Kailash Kora: Western Tibet (Part 1)

North Face of Mt. Kailash

For most of the month of May (2012) I was traveling in Tibet. The highlight of the trip was a kora (circumambulation) around Mt. Kailash (6658 m, 21,843′), or the Tibetan name Gang Rinpoche (“Precious Snow Mountain”), in Western Tibet. This consisted of hiking about 50 km in three days. The high point was Drolma La Pass at 18,550′.

Just getting to Kailash was quite an adventure, consisting of driving overland from Lhasa in Toyota Landcruisers for four days covering 1436 km (892 miles). I’ll save that for another post. In this post I will describe the actual kora around Mt. Kailash.

Mt. Kailash is a sacred mountain, considered the heart of the world and the headwaters of four major Asian rivers (the Indus north, the Brahmaputra east, the Karnali, and the Sutlej west). For Tibetan Buddhist, Hindus, Jains, and the Tibetan indigenous religion Bon, it is considered the most holy of pilgrimage sites. It is said that a kora around Kailash will erase your sins, and 108 koras breaks the cycle of rebirth and assures one of nirvana at death. Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and believers of Bon all converge on this holy mountain to make the circumambulation. Young and old alike practice their devotion by making this pilgrimage. We saw pilgrims from all over Tibet making the long, arduous journey to Kailash.

First look at Mt. Kailash, the south face, on the way to Darchen.

The starting point of the kora is the small, nondescript Tibetan town of Darchen. It consists of two streets, one of which is paved for about one and half blocks, then deteriorates into a rough dirt road.

Main Street in Darchen

The upper part of town

Darchen from above

Roadside entertainment in Darchen

We arrived in Darchen in the afternoon and stayed in a very rustic Tibetan guesthouse. It consisted of a bare concrete room with four single beds, a single lightbulb, a washbasin, and a thermos of hot water. Typical Chinese pit toilets were located a short walk across the courtyard. For those of you who are familiar with Chinese squatter toilets know that they can be very smelly, to the point that it is difficult to breathe when doing your business. Well, try not breathing in a very stinky, dirty pit toilet at 15,000′. Not a simple task.

We ate in the Tibetan teahouse located at the guesthouse. The next morning, five of us set off for the Kailash kora. Traveling in Tibet requires that you have a guide with you at all times. Our guide was a thirty something Tibetan man named Tenzin. He was a very pleasant guy. He knew his Tibetan history and was very attentive to our needs. He was also a devout Buddhist and this kora for him was number 68. He had completed it in as few as 14 hours, and had done full prostrations around the mountain in 8 days (it usually takes 14-16 days). He was pretty hard core. Also traveling with us were four Nepalese young men (2 sherpas, and 2 Newaris) that arranged all our camping gear. In Darchen Tenzin hired three yak herders and 6 yaks to carry our gear. This felt a little funny to me as I have backpacked a great deal in the U.S. and am used to being totally self sufficient and carry my own gear. But this is how it is done in this part of the world.

The beginning of the kora was about 3 km from town and began in a wide river valley.

Beginning of the kora

At the start of the kora

We carried day packs, while the yaks carried all our camping gear. My day pack consisted of snacks for the day, warm clothing including a puffy jacket, fleece jacket, and a hardshell jacket, and my photography equipment.

It stared off very easy up this wide valley with little elevation gain. It was a beautiful sunny day. At 15,000’+ it is never too warm, but it was very pleasant. For most of the day I hiked with just a lightweight long sleeved base layer and a fleece hoodie.

Looking back down the valley we hike up

Dramatic rock faces below the west face of Kailash

West face of Mt. Kailash

Close up of the west face of Mt. Kailash

We followed this partially frozen river up the valley

Pilgrims stack rocks making cairns at various places along the kora

After about 8 km we saw the first of many prostrating Tibetan pilgrims. The ultimate in devotion is to do the entire 52 km kora in full prostrations. This consists of laying full length on the ground, over and over again covering the entire distance. These very devoted pilgrims will usually hike ahead estimating how far they will be able to go for the day, stash their camping gear, then walk back to where they started and begin their prostrations. They will typically wear a heavy apron to protect their body from the rough ground. They will also wear shoes or sandals on their hands to protect them as well. I was amazed at the devotion of these sincere, religious people.

Prostrating pilgrims

Pilgrim camp

Prostrating pilgrim taking a call on his cell phone

After about 12 km the trail began to turn east and climb up another river valley. Along this portion we began seeing Hindu pilgrims on the way down. According to another Tibetan guide that we met, these Indians did not want to go over the pass as it was snowy and icy and they were on horseback. It’s no problem with yaks, but quite serious for horses. Most Hindu pilgrims ride horses, instead of walking.

Indian Hindu pilgrims heading down

Tibetan woman leading a Hindu pilgrim

After hiking about 20 km, and climbing to 16,700′ we arrived at the Drirapuk Monastery. It was not a very steep climb, but was steady and with the altitude it was certainly no walk in the park. Slow, steady hiking was the key. Try to go too fast and you were very soon out of breath. The views of the north face of Mt. Kailash from the monastery were spectacular.

North face of Mt. Kailash from Drirapuk Monastery

North Face of Mt. Kailash

Drirupuk Monastery is set high on the cliffs across the valley from Kailash. It is a very small monastery with only a few resident monks. They were friendly and were willing to allow us into the monastery to look around.

Drirupuk Monastery

Pilgrim at stupas. Monastery in the background

Monk waving from the roof of the monastery

From the monastery we had to hike down to the bottom of the valley, cross a frozen river, then up the other side to a group of tent teahouses.

Tent guesthouses at 16,700′ below the north face of Mt. Kailash

We met up with the yaks and headed up the valley about a half mile to a meadow area where we set up camp. It was a beautiful, wild setting surrounded by high peaks.

Camp at 16,700′ below the north face of Mt. Kailash

Yak herder unloading a yak

The view from my tent door

I felt pretty good for most of the day, but by the time we got to camp I was pretty tired. My legs felt fine, but the altitude was really getting to me. I had a headache and was not too hungry. My friend gave me a Diamox tablet (for altitude sickness), and it really helped. By morning my headache was completely gone and I felt great, full of energy.

TO BE CONTINUED

See lots more photos of the Mt. Kailash kora at:

Tibetan pilgrim.

Trekking in Shangri-la: Over the pass to Shudu Lake

Shudu Lake (蜀都湖 shǔdū hú)

After a pretty restful night at Mr. Tian’s guesthouse, we had a breakfast of instant noodles. We also spent time boiling water and filling our water bottles for the days’ trek. Mr. Tian was amused that we were bringing so much water. We each had about three liters in Platypus water bags. He told us the trek would be about 6-8 hours and we would be climbing up and over a more than 13,000 foot pass.

As we were anxious to get going, Mr. Tian told us how to get to the bridge that crossed the river and where the trail began. He was getting his horse ready when we took off. We planned to wait for him and his party if we were not sure which way to go.

The guesthouse was up on the side of the valley, so we had to wind down through the village to the river. The farmhouses were clustered together with fields of barley between them. As the village was on the slopes of a mountain, many of the fields were terraced. We passed several  racks used for drying barley.

Along the way we met an old man taking his pigs out to the pasture for the day. He didn’t speak a word of Chinese, so there was not much communication other than some smiles and waves.

After winding our way through the farmhouses we found the bridge crossing the Niru River.

Niru River bridge

After crossing the bridge the trail passed two large piles of mani stones. We decided to take a break here and wait for Mr. Tian and his clients. Niru Village is in the background. While waiting, the old man with the pigs herded his pigs into a nearby pasture.

photo by Michael Paul

After waiting for awhile, Mr. Tian and his clients showed up. One was a young American guy from Brown University who was doing research on the economic effects of the National Park on Tibetan villages in the area. He had three young Chinese students with him that were serving as research assistants. I believe they were from Yunnan University. The American guy carried a large, cumbersome backpack, but the Chinese guys just had little day packs. The horse carried the rest of their gear. We chatted for a few minutes, then Michael and I took off. We found out very soon that even though the horse was carrying most of their things, they were hiking very slow. Michael and I are both experienced backpackers, so this was nothing new to us.

Looking back at Niru

The trail swithbacked up the side of the mountain for about 2 miles before turning into a side canyon. High up on the mountainside we had a good view of the Nanbao pastures across the valley. It would have been really nice to be able to hike up there, but that will have to wait for a future trip.

Nanbao pastures from across the valley

Turning into the side canyon

The trail up this valley was green and lush. We knew we were headed up to a 13,000 foot pass, but we were having a hard time picturing it with all this lush greenery. Occasionally a Tibetan with pack horses would pass us on the trail. In the Mountain West region of the United States where we live, anything above about 10,500 feet is rocky, barren, and devoid of almost all plant life.

After a couple more miles we came to some small pastures. On the edge of one of these pastures was a log cabin, just like you might see out the Western United States from pioneer times. We decided to take a break here and wait for Mr. Tian and the others. There was a crudely written sign on the front of the cabin saying visitors were welcome to stay there. Mr. Tian later explained to us that there are similar cabins scattered throughout the mountains for yak herders to stay in when the weather turns bad. It did not look like the cabin would keep much out, but I suppose it would be better than being outside in a storm.

The trail soon left the valley and began climbing steeper again. It switchbacked up a steep mountainside to another higher meadow area.

High mountain pasture (about 12,600')

Finally, after about five or six hours of hiking we arrived at the pass. And we were very surprised to find it as lush and green as the surrounding valleys we had passed through earlier. We later learned that in this area of Southwest China there are several long, deep river valleys that run South to North. Warm, moist air and storms from tropical Burma and further south keep these valleys wet and green. Burma was less than 75 miles from here.

A cabin on the pass at 13,057' (3980 m)

We rested here taking in the fine views. Mr. Tian spent some time digging for medicinal roots.

Mr. Tian digging for medicinal roots

Mr. Tian and the others were razzing us for carrying so much water. Ironically, about 2/3 the way up to the pass, they were all out of water, and sheepishly asked us for some fluids. We had a couple bottles of Chinese sports drink that we were able to share with them. Maybe that’s why they were so slow.

A yak hanging out in the cabin at the pass

The trail descended quickly off the pass and back down into the forest. The lower we got the more yaks we began to see. Once we were out of the forest we could see an immense sea of pasture down below us. This was an important Winter pasture area for the Tibetan yak herders.

Hiking down to the pasture

The pasture was huge, stretching for miles in each direction. There were herds of yaks scattered all over the pasture. We learned from our Tibetan driver that most yaks are actually hybrids—a cross between cows and yaks. They seemed pretty docile, just watching us as we walked past. There were also more rustic cabins dotting the area.

On the far side of the pasture we came to a couple log structures that looked like they were intended to be stores, but were deserted, and in a state of disrepair. It was obvious that they had never been used after being built. It seemed as if this area was gearing up for tourism, but the infrastructure was not there, and maybe the tourists had just not shown up yet. There were no roads into this area and anyone wanting to come would have to walk or ride a horse for at least half a day or more.

We asked a local Tibetan if there was anywhere we could buy something to drink. He pointed to a cabin a little ways off with smoke rising from it. We walked over there and entered the cabin (Tibetans do not usually knock). Inside, the cabin was dark and smokey.  There were three men and a woman sitting around the fire talking and laughing. The woman jumped up when we entered. Surprisingly, of all things she had for sale, she had cans of Pepsi. We each bought a can and went back out to the other cabins where our packs were. While resting there a couple Tibetan kids wandered over to see the foreigners. They didn’t say much. I don’t think they understood much Chinese, and our Tibetan was much better.

After resting up for a short time, we continued on our way. It was getting late and Mr. Tian told us that there were tourist busses at Shudu Lake that could take us back to the National Park entrance. He believed that the last bus left at 4:00 pm. We really wanted to get on that bus, as we were really hungry now. For the whole day we had subsisted on some coconut cookies, some peanuts, water, and Pepsi. We wanted to get back to Shangri-la and a proper meal.

The trail headed into a nice forest on the far side of the pasture, then began climbing again to a low pass. Once over the pass we could see the lake and pastureland below.

Looking down at Shudu Lake

We hiked pretty fast down the hillside to the marshy pastures below. We wanted to make sure we made that last bus. Once we got down to the pasture below, Mr. Tian unloaded his horse and began to set up camp. He was staying there for the night before returning to Niru the next morning. The pastures around the lake were full of wildflowers, Tibetan horses, and yaks. It was really wet as well. At times we would sink up past our ankles in the wet marshy grass.

Mr. Tian and a Tibetan friend setting up camp

It was a really beautiful and tranquil place. We had a pow-wow and discussed if we could possibly stay there at the meadows for the night. We were also making some contingency plans if we missed the last bus and had to spend the night there. We had warm clothing, but no sleeping bags. We had travel sheets (like a thin cotton sleeping bag), but that would not provide much protection. We also did not have any food. We could certainly survive a night and there were plenty of empty cabins around. We vowed that if we ever returned we would have lightweight camping gear with us, and plenty of food. We would have loved to stay longer and explore the area, but it was not looking like that would be feasible. Our first priority was to head across the long, marshy pasture to the far side where there supposedly was a parking area and tour busses.

The going was laborious as the ground was very wet. The grass was tall in places, and large, dense tufts of grass further slowed us down. The closer we got to the lake, the wetter the ground, but that was also the more direct route to where we needed to go. By the time we got across the pasture we were soaked from the knees down.

There was a large parking area, restrooms, and a visitors center. Fortunately, there were also several large coach busses there waiting. We climbed aboard a bus, relieved that we made it in time. The American young man and his Chinese companions arrived a short time later.

We learned that the way Chinese manage National Parks was quite different than what we were used to in the U.S. These large tour busses took tourists through the park, occasionally stopping at scenic areas where the tourists could get off and look around. Everyone then got back on the bus and rode to the next scenic spot. There were no camp grounds and no private cars. But were Tibetan camps around as this area has been an important yak grazing area for hundreds of years.

When we arrived at the entrance to the park, we were met by park officials who demanded we pay the entrance fee, which we thought was pretty steep for what you got. We were actually hoping we could by-pass the fee as we had entered the park through the back way, but there was no persuading them.

Getting back to Shangri-la was our next objective. Most all the busses were chartered for tourists and did not have room. We finally found a guy with a minivan who, for a price, agreed to take us to Shangri-la. It was about a two hour drive back to the city.

When we got back into town, we found a room at a small hotel, then headed to a nearby restaurant and had a large and satisfying meal of Chinese and Tibetan food. It was a very long day and the end of a very memorable trip. We have plans to return to the area but have not made any definite plans yet. Next time, we will be better prepared.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about this adventure.

Trekking in Shangri-la: Niru Village

After our breakfast of yak cheese, Tsampa, yak butter tea, and curdled milk, we hiked down off the bluff and back onto the road to Niru. It had rained during the night so there were mud puddles all over the road. It was a beautiful cool morning. After hiking for about an hour, we heard a truck approaching. We stepped aside as an old open bed truck pulled up. Standing in the back was the Tibetan girl we had breakfasted with, along with a dozen or so other Tibetans. They were all on their way back up to the mushroom fields. We climbed into the back of the truck and rode with them for about a half hour bumping and pitching along the rough road. When we reached their turn off, we climbed out, thanked them for the lift, and continued our trek.

We were really hungry. The previous day we had only eaten a bowl of instant noodles, some snacks, and a light dinner of stir fried squash and potatoes with our gracious hosts. This valley was certainly much less developed than we anticipated. Our original plan was to hike up into the high mountain Summer pastureland where the local Tibetans herd their yaks. This was looking unlikely as food was proving to be difficult to obtain. The locals were not used to seeing foreigners, or any outsiders for that matter, and were thus hesitant to offer assistance. A farmer we had met the previous day told us that they were developing this valley for tourism with guesthouses, stores, and so on, but that time had not yet arrived.

Hiking the road to Niru Village

Late morning we arrived at an area identified by a sign as 关门山 guānmén shān. This translates loosely as “Close the door Mountain,” probably referring to the narrowness of the valley, seemingly closed off by this rocky peak. The valley narrowed to just a hundred yards wide or so. To the left was a towering rocky peak seemingly blocking off the canyon. Just as we arrived at the base of the peak, the road turned sharply right. The river raged through this narrow part of the canyon. Another turbulent river flowed down from the mountains on the right joining with the Niru River. A narrow bridge, about the width of a single lane crossed this tributary. The river was so high, it tumbled just inches below the wooden bridge.

关门山 guānmén shān "Close the door Mountain"

Unknown tributary flowing into the Niru River

We had studied some old black and white photographs from the legendary Joseph Rock on one of his expeditions in the late 19th Century. This area seemed to match some of his photographs. There was a small shelter here where we took a break enjoying the roaring of the rivers.

We still were not quite sure what to expect in Niru Village proper. I think we still had hopes that there would be a store, and maybe even a restaurant where we could fill up. All we knew is that the kids told us it was about a five hour walk to the village.

Once we passed through this beautiful narrow canyon, the road began to climb. We climbed steadily for about two hours before the valley began opening up. At a high point on the road, we came to two large piles of mani stones.

Mani stones are usually flat rocks on which is inscribed the six syllable mantra om mani padme hum. This mantra is associated with the bohhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Mani means “the jewel” and padme means “the lotus.” The exact meaning of this mantra is tricky to translate. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has interpreted it as,

“. . . the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[…]”

This is the mantra often mumbled by Tibetan Buddhists as they finger their prayer beads. It is said to be an indication of your devotion and brings merit to the individual. These stones sometimes form entire walls, or large piles and are often found along pilgrim routes, at junctions, overlooks, or other places considered auspicious. Devout Buddhists will circle these stone piles clockwise while chanting the mantra.

Mani stones

More mani stones

We took another break at the mani stone piles. While sitting along the road here a tractor with a couple individuals in the back, headed down the valley from Niru Village. We later found out the local school teacher was in this tractor heading to a funeral. We had hoped to speak with him about the education situation in the village, particularly the teaching and learning of Chinese among the Tibetans in this area.

In the early afternoon we finally arrived at the head of the valley and the small village of Niru. It was a lovely cluster of farms nestled among high peaks.

Entering Niru Village

The primary school was here at the head of the village. It provided schooling for all the kids up and down the valley. There were dormitories where the kids stayed during the week, then returned home on the weekends. We were disappointed that the teacher was not around, but we knew this was a distinct possibility since is was August and school was not in session. This is the school where the Tibetan kids we stayed with attended. They told us that all the kids in the school were Tibetan. They did learn Chinese in school, but Tibetan was the language of instruction.

Niru School

Just past the school we came to a dirty old wooden building. A couple people loitered out front. They informed us that this was a store. We entered the dimly lit ramshackle building to find a very basic store run by an older Tibetan woman. The only food available was instant noodles. We each bought two bowls, as well as some bottled water and Chinese sports drink.

The Niru Store

Outside the store a guy told us that there was a guesthouse just a short way up the valley and that he would give us ride in his tractor. It turns out that he was the brother-in-law of the guy who ran a very rustic guesthouse.

We were relieved to learn that we may have a bed for the night, and readily hopped into the back of the tractor trailer. In a few minutes we arrived at the guest house run by a man named Mr. Tian, a Han Chinese. In fact, he was the only Han Chinese person in this village of 658 resident Tibetans. He was originally from Tiger Leaping Gorge and had married a Tibetan woman from the village twenty years ago and had been living there ever since.

Approaching Mr. Tian's guesthouse

Mr. Tian and his wife were separated, so he ran this place on his own, and it showed. It was quite dirty, with rotting food laying around, dirty dishes scattered about, and in general disrepair. We were not complaining though, and Mr. Tian was a pretty interesting guy. It was a typical Tibetan wood-framed house, a courtyard on the ground floor for the animals, up a steep ladder/stairway to the second floor living quarters, and storage on the third floor. Inside the living area was an open fire pit for cooking. On one side of the main room was a row of single beds with basic frames made of 2X2’s. The beds had thick foam mattresses and appeared to be pretty clean.

Inside the guesthouse

The guesthouse courtyard from the second floor.

The proprietor, Mr. Tian

Mr. Tian told us that for about the past year, since the road was built, Chinese tourists were beginning to arrive. He had hosted one foreigner the year before. In our wandering around the village we found another guesthouse that was very large and newly built. There was one seemingly pretty rich Chinese family, parents and two kids, staying there.

Mr. Tian owned a horse and lead treks up to a waterfall and a lake in the area. In fact, he told us that he had been hired to lead three Chinese students and a foreigner up over a pass to Shudu Lake the next day. This is where we were headed as well, and he said we could tag along if we like. He told us we would never be able to find the trail without his help.

That afternoon we wandered around the village a bit. We also found the road/trail to the Summer pastures, called 南宝牧场 nánbǎo mùchǎng. According to Mr. Tian, it was a good eight to ten hire hike from the village up pretty steep trails.

The track leading to Nanbao pastureland. The pastures are the green swaths high in the mountains.

As much as we wanted to hike up there, we had so little food, and nowhere to buy more, other than instant noodles. And by this time we were really hungry. To go up there would be at least a three day trip: one day up, a day to explore, and a day back. We also were not too sure of our route over the mountain pass to Shudu Lake and back to Shangri-la.

Later that afternoon a couple of Mr. Tian’s Tibetan buddies showed up to hang out. I’m not sure what they did for work, and they were pretty reluctant to talk about it. They had passable Chinese. In fact, Mr. Tian’s Chinese was pretty heavily accented, not much better than the Tibetans. One of his friends carried a long, curved dagger on his belt. This is pretty typical of the Kham Tibetans in this area. They are also known for their horsemanship skills as well.

That evening Mr. Tian offered to cook us a meal. That morning he had picked some wild mushrooms. Then he went outside and picked fresh Sichuan peppercorns from a bush in his yard. Our meal consisted of stir-fried mushrooms with the fresh Sichuan peppercorns. (This area of Yunnan was literally right on the border of Sichuan Province). I had never eaten or even seen fresh Sichuan peppercorns. They are most often dried and are dark brown in appearance. This dish was pretty good, albeit there was not much. However, he used way too many peppercorns and by the time we were done, our mouths were literally numb. In Chinese cuisine there are two kinds of spicy, the regular spicy that we are used to, called 辣 là from the word 辣椒 làjiāo, meaning “chili pepper.” The other kind of heat is called 麻辣málà or “numb spicy.” This numbing spice comes exclusively from the Sichuan peppercorn, which is not a chili pepper, nor technically a peppercorn. It produces a pleasant (to some people) tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth.

Fresh Sichuan peppercorns

Freshly picked wild mushrooms

It was nice to have a meal, but it was pretty small and we were still hungry. We planned to get up the next morning and hike along with Mr. Tian and his clients up over the pass and down to Shudu Lake. This lake is within a new Chinese National Park called Pudacuo National Park 普达措国家公园 pǔdácuò guójiā gōngyuán. From there we hoped to hitch a ride back to Shangri-la.

Niru Village farmhouses

High peaks above Niru which also marks the border between Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces

TO BE CONTINUED. (One more post to finish this series)