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)

Trekking in Shangri-la: Up a remote river valley

We had a vague research plan. In fact, we were treating this trip as a sort of reconnaissance, to check out the area, and hopefully make some contacts. We are both interested in Chinese dialects, language contact, and Chinese language education among China’s ethnic minorities, particularly Tibetans. We hoped to make contact with some rural schools to see how Tibetans are learning Chinese. The first challenge we encountered was finding information about the river valley we wanted to visit. I had heard about the Niru Valley from a former student who had spent a short time there the previous year. A remote place like this does not appear in the Lonely Planet Guide or any other guide. Searching online also did not produce much. We finally found a hand drawn map from a Chinese blogger who had visited the region. The information was scant, but better than nothing.

We planned to hike up this valley past the village Hongxiu (at least that’s what we had heard) to the Tibetan village of Niru. We hoped there was a school there and that we might be able to meet the teacher, even though school was out for the summer. We also hoped to interview some locals and talk to them about their experiences learning Chinese. But more than anything we wanted to see some natural, remote, and wild parts of China. We had both spent plenty of time in big Chinese cities and had seen all the big cultural sites many times.

The evening before we left we went down to the entrance to the old town where drivers and their minivans congregate. We talked to a few guys until we met a guy we liked. He was a Tibetan who was born and raised in Shangri-la. We negotiated a price for him to drive us to the village of Luoji.

Our Tibetan driver and his mini-minivan

The next morning we met him and we began our journey. Minivans in China are not like minivans in the U.S. which are actually quite large. These are tiny little vans, and yet they still can seat up to 6 or 7 people. Luoji is an ethnic Lisu village several hours drive southeast of Shangri-la. The Lisu are an ethnic (non-Chinese) group that have lived in Yunnan Province for hundreds of years. In fact, there are more ethnic minority groups in Yunnan than any other place in China.

The road to Luoji started out as a nicely paved two lane road. We first climbed up out of the Shangri-la plain, then began descending into a deep valley. For the first two hours we climbed up and down switchbacked roads through very green and lush countryside. Occasionally there would be a village on the hillside with terraced farmland. We also passed a ranch with rustic buildings with livestock.

Our driver was delightful. He had a high school education and had pretty good Mandarin. My experience is that the more education a person has the better their Mandarin is. I have spoken with plenty of people in rural areas of China that had very rough and broken Mandarin. (It is secretly gratifying to talk to Chinese that have worse Mandarin Chinese than I do). We really enjoyed talking with him as we drove. He told us all about his education, particularly how they learned Mandarin Chinese as children. He told us all about his family. He was married and had two daughters, of which he seemed very proud.

After about two hours, the road began to deteriorate. It went from nicely paved blacktop to a type of crushed rock road, to a dirt road full of pot holes, and deep muddy pools. It was pretty rough going for about an hour and a half or two hours.

After about three and half or four hours we arrived in the small village of Luoji. The main road ended here. At the end of the road was a small restaurant, a guest house, and a small store. We had bought some things in Shangri-la so didn’t bother buying anything. When we got out of the minivan, we were met with stares. It was as if they had never seen foreigners before. They even seemed a little spooked. We were anxious to get out of town, so to speak, so we paid our driver and bid him a warm farewell. He had never been to Niru but he pointed out the way.

Luoji was much lower in elevation than Shangri-la, probably by at least three thousand feet. It was much warmer down here in this river valley. Shangri-la had been very pleasant and cool, being over 10,000 feet in elevation. We were surprised it was so warm here.

With all our belongings in midsized backpacks we set off down a narrow dirt road. We felt a sense of excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation at the unknown. We really did not know what to expect up this valley, but we hoped to meet some rural Tibetans, see some beautiful unspoiled country, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside. We had read a Chinese blog report that there was a rustic guesthouse up the valley in an area called Hongxiu Village, but we were not sure where it was. We assumed we would be able to buy food at stores, or eat at small restaurants. In Shangri-la we had bought some crackers, coconut cookies, some instant noodles, and some peanuts. We each carried two quarts of water. We did not bring any camping gear as we planned to stay in guesthouses along the way. We were also hoping to hike high into the mountains above Niru to some high mountain pasturelands where the local Tibetans grazed their yaks in the summertime.

The road just outside Luoji descending down to the river

The trek begins

Three hours later we are sitting by the side of the road, hot, sweaty, and already running low on water. The road out of Luoji dropped down into the bottom of the valley and crossed a river, then switchbacked up the other side for a couple miles. It was steep going for quite awhile. Once we got to the top of the gorge, the road turned left up into the Niru Valley along the Niru River. At this point the river was far below us at the bottom of the valley. Across the valley picturesque farms dotted the mountainsides and side valleys. It was very idyllic and looked like something out of a coffee table book.

We were told by some locals in Luoji that the road to Niru was built the year earlier. Up until that time it was not much more than a trail. In several places the road is washed out, or covered by rocks from small landslides. Occasionally a jeep or truck passes us. We are sitting taking stock of the situation. We’re running low on water but there is a small creek running down the mountainside and across the road. We fill our bottles and treat them with purification tablets that I carry in my first aid kit. That should be good for a few more hours. We certainly were not expecting this kind of heat.

Collecting sap

After another couple hours we come upon a small cluster of wood frame houses. We are again running a bit low on water, so we decide to see if someone can offer us some water. We leave the main road and head down a small side road that leads to the farmhouses. Almost immediately a mangy dog appears barking ferociously. We both instinctively reach down and pick up a few rocks. A few well-aimed throws sends the dog on his way. We heard stories of the fearsome, and huge Tibetan mastiffs. We approach what looks like a very old wood frame house. There is a woman in the yard washing clothes in a large metal washbasin. We greet her in Chinese. She turns and yells something in a language we do not understand. A young teenage girl appears from inside the house. She speaks Chinese, as most school-age kids in China do. They are Lisu and her mother does not speak Chinese. We ask them if there are any stores around. They say the only store around is back in Luoji, so we ask if they can give us some water. She invites us into the house, so we drop our packs outside the front door and enter a dimly lit, very rustic house. It is made entirely of wood, the floor, walls, ceiling. There are three chickens wandering around inside. There does not appear to be any running water or plumbing.

The young girl gives us each a cup of boiling water and we sit and chat. She is in middle school and says there is a small school nearby that teaches all the kids in this part of the valley. She tells us that most of the kids are Lisu or Naxi. She has okay Mandarin, though it is accented. Her mother sits by smiling. They tell us that they have never seen foreigners before, except on TV. After about fifteen minutes we thank them and take our leave.

A bit further down the road, we come across another cluster of houses. We wander around a bit, until we find someone and ask them if there is a store nearby. A young girl runs off, returns a few minutes later with an middle aged women who shows us to an old building that looks like it used to be a store. Inside the floor is littered with boxes and trash. She rips open a few boxes until she finds one with bottled Chinese sports drink. The expiration date is a year old, but probably can’t do too much harm so we each buy two bottles. It looks like a type of guesthouse was build here but nothing came of it. It was deserted. Their Chinese was pretty rough so we didn’t spend much time there. We thanked them for the drinks and continued up the road.

The entire day the road gradually climbed up the valley. By afternoon the road had dropped down to the bottom of the valley and we were hiking along the swift and roaring Niru River. After another hour or so of hiking we came to a gate over the road with a sign saying “Niru.” We had finally arrived. This was the beginning of the Tibetan area. At the top of the sign was Tibetan writing with large Chinese characters below. We were pretty tired. We had been hiking for about eight hours and had covered probably 15-17 kilometers. But we were disappointed that no village appeared, only occasionally farm house along the road or across the river. The homes here though were distinctively Tibetan.

Tibetan farmhouse

We began to get a little concerned about where we might stay for the night. It was getting late and we were tired. A few minutes later we approached a Tibetan farmhouse with a tattered sign advertising a guesthouse. The sign was all torn up and half of it was hanging down to the ground. It didn’t look too promising, so we decided to walk on a bit and see what we could see. Every time someone would pass in a car we would ask how far it was to Niru. We got everything from two hours to seven hours so we really did not know how much further it was to the village proper. Another few kilometers up the road we met a farmer on the road in front of his house. It looked like a newly built house and was nicer than any of the other farmhouses we had seen along the way. We chatted for a bit, and asked him if we could stay at his place for the night. He said he could not house us, but didn’t really give any reason. I think he was kind of scared of maybe getting in trouble for housing foreigners without proper permission. He told us that this valley was gearing up for the tourist trade but was not ready yet. He said there had been some tourist here, but they were all Chinese, never foreigners. He gave us some boiled water so we could make our instant noodles for dinner. No one has heard of a Hongxiu Village.

And so we sat on the side of the road eating our noodles wondering how far it was to the actual village. We sat on a log eating, a few black pigs rooting around in the brush behind us.

Foraging pigs

Michael’s stomach was acting up so he headed up the hillside into the woods to take care of business. I sat alone enjoying the peace and quiet that I was so unaccustomed to in China. Dark clouds were moving in from up the valley and it looked like it might rain. We had no camping gear, did not know how much further the village was, and could not find anyone around to take us in. Most of the Tibetan farmers that we had seen would wave to us, then quickly disappear.

As I sat there two kids, a teenaged girl and boy, came walking down the road from up the canyon. They were very surprised to see a foreigner sitting there on a log eating a bowl of noodles. Our conversation went like this.

“What are you doing here?”

“My friend and I are heading up to Niru. How much further is it?”

“At least four hours on foot. It’s too late to get there today.”

“Are you sure? We heard it was pretty close.”

“No. We just came from there. We walk this road all the time.”

“Do you know anywhere we can stay for the night around here?”

“You can stay at any of these farms around here. Anyone will take you in.”

“I don’t think so. Everyone seems to be afraid of us.”

They both burst out laughing. They are both Tibetan, but give us their Chinese names. (I am intentionally not using their names here because, though the chances are remote, I do not want to risk getting them into any trouble). Many Tibetans have Chinese names, which sometimes are transliterations of their Tibetan names and sometimes are just made up Chinese names. You cannot translate an English (or Tibetan) name into Chinese, so if you want a Chinese name, you get a native to help you pick out a Chinese name. She is fifteen years old, he is seventeen, and she is actually his aunt. They have just returned from ten days in the mountains picking wild mushrooms. Their families have a cabin up in the mountains where they stay with a couple other families, picking mushrooms. They had come down into the valley and sold their mushroom crop to a buyer who would then sell them in Shangri-la. They were returning home for the night to clean up. She would then head back up to the mushroom camp, and he would stay at home, while his mom would head up to the camp.

They offered to help us find a place to stay. So we headed back down the road, from where we had come. When we would arrive at a farm, they would shout out (in Tibetan) to the residents. They knew everyone all up and down the valley. No one seemed to be around and they were perplexed. When we arrived at the farm with the tattered guesthouse sign, they shouted out to a women in the courtyard of the home. She looked up, saw us foreigners, then quickly disappeared into her house She would not come out no matter how much the kids called out. They were both very amused by this.

The supposed guesthouse

Finally, they suggest that we just come home with them. I tell them that I don’t think their mothers would approve of them dragging home two middle-aged white foreigners. They laugh again and assure us it will be fine. They tell us that their mothers have never seen foreigners before and will really enjoy it. I continue to resist, until the boy finally says, “I’ll call my mom and ask if its okay.” To our surprise he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and proceeds to call his mom. We cannot believe that there is cell phone coverage up this remote valley. The girl explains that there is pretty good coverage all up and down the valley. Cell phone coverage all over China is pretty good, but we did not expect it up here. The conversation with his mother is all in Tibetan so we cannot tell what is said.

Michael with the Tibetan kids

In fact we have both studied a little Tibetan before this trip, but we learned very quickly that we were learning standard Lhasa Tibetan, and the dialect spoken in this area was quite different. So our efforts did not help us too much, except for some basic greetings. Our driver also taught us some basic phrases while we were driving out to Luoji.

He tells us that his mom said it was okay for us to stay the night at his house. Michael and I look at each other, shrug our shoulders, and gratefully follow them down the road. We hike back down the road for two or three kilometers, before leaving the road and crossing a rickety bridge across the river. We then follow them up a very steep, narrow trail up a mountainside to the top of a bluff where there are two traditional Tibetan houses surrounded by cornfields. The first house is where the girl lives, and the second house is where the boy lives. We all proceed to his house. These houses are similar to the ones we had seen in the outskirts of Shangri-la, though they are much smaller, and more rustic.

The boy's house on the bluff

There is a high wall around the house and a gate that opens into a courtyard. The courtyard is covered to depth of about 18 inches with leaves and branches. This is to absorb the animal waste. There are several small black pigs there as well as several chickens. We walk across the small courtyard, and up a steep wooden stairway to the second floor and into the house. It is post and beam construction, made entirely of wood. The floor is rough wooden planks, burnished smooth by countless footfalls. There are no glass windows, just one small opening, a out two feet square, with a wooden door over it. It is very dark inside, only illuminated by two large, but very dim bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It smells like wood smoke. His mother greets us warmly, a broad smile spreading across her wind burned face. It is obvious that this woman has spent her life working in the outdoors. No fancy headdress or colorful clothing out here in this remote area.

On one side of the room is the open fire for cooking. There is a large steel wok in a kind of frame over the fire. Next to it is a steel woodburning stove that they use for heat in the winter. The only furniture in the room are two low wooden platforms that are used for sitting.

They are all quite excited to have guests, especially foreigners. The mother gets busy cooking a simple meal. It consists of stir-fried potatoes with just a little salt, and some stir-fried squash and some yak cheese. It is very simple, but much appreciated. They cook over an open fire indoors. Above the fire is a woven platform where cheese is stored.

Reaching for some cheese from the storage rack above the fire

A nice hunk of smoked yak cheese

Above this is a hole in the ceiling where the smoke mostly dissipates into the third floor storage area. This is where they store grain, corn and barley, yak hides, chili peppers, and so on.

Ladder to the third floor storage

They grow corn and squash. They collect wild mushrooms, raise pigs and chickens, and rely heavily on yaks for butter, cheese, meat, and their skins for clothing and tents. Smoked and dried pork hangs from the ceiling. The men are with the yaks in the high summer pastures. In fact, the fathers are away most of the year with their yak herds. The boy’s older brother is with his father and the yak herds.

There is no running water in the house. They collect water from a nearby creek, and store it in a large, probably 30 gallon barrel, in the corner of the large room. There is no bathroom. At one point I have to go and ask the boy where I should go. He laughs, as if this is a ridiculous question, and simply says, just go anywhere outside.

As rustic as these farmhouses are, they all have satellite television, and solar hot water heaters with cisterns on a high platform. So there is hot water to wash with.

The girl is a sophomore in high school. She boards at the high school in Shangri-la during the school year. She has very good Mandarin Chinese. She tells us all about her schooling, even pulling out some of her textbooks. She also studies English and shows us one of her English textbooks, but she cannot really say much in English. The boy only attended through primary school. As a result his Chinese is heavily accented and we sometimes have a hard time understanding what he is saying. But he is very patient with us, and laughs often.

They are very gracious hosts, and allow me to take lots of pictures of them and their humble home. Realizing that I have a camera, they want me to take pictures of them in their formal, traditional dress. They run into one of the two bedrooms, off the main room, and return with a pile of brightly colored clothing. They proceed to dress up in their traditional clothing that they wear at weddings and during the Tibetan New Year celebrations. They are beautiful and all hand made. After taking photos of them, they insist that we try on the clothes as well. They are very amused and laugh when we try on their these traditional clothing. We laugh along with them as we contemplate what we are doing, and the good luck that has brought us here. The black robe I try on his made from yak wool and is heavy and thick. The hat is made from fox fur.

We have a very enjoyable evening visiting with them. It’s getting late and they need to get up early in the morning. In fact the boy’s mother is getting up at 2:00 am to head up to the mushroom picking camp. It is a ten to twelve hour hike up into the mountains. The girl prepares to go home and tells us that we need to stop by in the morning before we leave to have some fresh milk from their cow. She is very proud of the fact that they have a milk cow.

They prepare a bed for us by pushing the two wooden platforms together. They throw a wool rug over it, with a couple more heavy wool blankets and a couple pillows. We have travel sheets that we use as well. It is a very hard bed, but we are grateful to have a place to sleep. When they turn the lights out the room is absolutely pitch dark.

Our bed for the night

The mother is up early, re-stoking the fire and making yak butter tea, then she is off. Later that morning, around 7:30, the boy is up re-stoking the fire and preparing breakfast for us. We have traditional Tibetan tsampa, which is really just barley flour, yak cheese, and yak butter tea. In some Tibetan areas tsampa is made by mixing barley flour with yak butter tea to form round dough balls. For many Tibetans, this is their primary diet, along with lots of butter tea. In this area the barley flour is eaten raw accompanied with butter tea. You just grab a pinch of flour and pop it into your mouth, and wash it down with tea. Yak butter tea is made with hot water, yak butter, salt and tea leaves. It is very strong, and most westerners have a difficult time getting it down. The tea is prepared in a wooden cylindrical churn. It wasn’t the most appetizing breakfast, but what a unique cultural experience. We were profoundly grateful to be having this experience.

Making yak butter tea

A Tibetan breakfast

After breakfast, we pack up and head next door. We meet the girl’s mother, and her 90-something year old grandmother, who has been blind for the past twenty years. No doubt cooking over a fire indoors for many years had something to do with that. The mothers speak just a little Chinese, but the grandmother only speaks Tibetan.

The proudly serve us each a large bowl of milk. To our surprise it is very sour and full of curds. We sip it tentatively. Michael leans over and says he’s going to hurl if he has to drink any more. I’m trying not to laugh. I guess I have learned to mentally shut out gross things and just put them down. But I admit, the sour, curdled milk is pretty bad. After a short visit, we thank them, and head down the steep trail, across the river, and back onto the road. They assure us it is only about a four hour walk to the village of Niru. It turns out that this whole long section of the valley is technically Niru village, but at the end of the valley is the cluster of homes that constitute the village proper.

TO BE CONTINUED

Exploring Shangri-la

The city of Shangri-la looking toward the old town. Buddhist temple on the right and a huge prayer wheel on the left.

The city of Shangri-la has a population of around 120,000 and sits at 3200 m (10,498′). That may sound like a pretty good sized city, but on Chinese standards, it’s pretty tiny. The city consists of an old section where all the Tibetans used to live and a new section recently built up by the Chinese. This is typical of many Chinese cities—the original older city, and a newly developed section. For example, a couple years ago I was in Qingdao visiting an academic program there. I was staying in the new section of town and I didn’t like it. It was very modern with lots of new shiny skyscrapers, and shopping areas, but it was all very bland, with very few people on the streets.  It was even hard to find a decent restaurant that was reasonably priced. The border between the new city and the old was stark. Literally cross a street and it was like the old China that I know and love—tons of little shops and restaurants, crowds of people on the streets, old architecture, lots of character.

A street in Shangri-la's new town

Shangri-la’s old town was charming and quaint, but a little too “restored.” That is, they went a little too far with tourists in mind. It is full of little restaurants, coffee shops, stores selling all kinds of tourist trinkets, and guest houses.

Shangri-la's old town

Click on the link below to see a photo of the old town taken in 1999 (photo courtesy of Michael Paul)

Zhongdian Old Town

The new city is rather typical of most Chinese cities, bland concrete architecture, wide streets, and generic stores. But Shangri-la is still predominantly Tibetan, and that is who you see on the streets and in the markets. Yes there are Chinese run businesses and restaurants, but there is still a huge Tibetan presence. Tibetan women in this part of the Tibetan realm have a distinctive dress. Nearly all the women in the city seem to wear pants (oftentimes jeans), a bright blue apron. sometimes with a white apron over the top it, and a distinctive headdress that sometimes consists of bright fuchsia yarn wound together, or a woven scarf. They are very bright and colorful. Some women also wear brightly colored blouses or vest-like coverings.

Tibetan girls on the street

Traditional Tibetan headdress

One morning while out exploring we came upon a thriving street market. This is where we had our first taste of yak cheese. Though a bit strong and somewhat smoky, I kind of liked it. Michael was not too thrilled about it though.

Street market

Yak cheese

We then stumbled on an indoor market selling meat, produce, and other things. In Chinese we would call this a 农贸市场 nóngmào shìchǎng, or a farmer’s market. I love these kinds of markets and we had a great time wandering around taking pictures. The highlight was when Michael slipped on a big chunk of pig fat on the ground and almost went down.

Fresh market. The characters in the upper left say cài shìchǎng or "vegetable market"

Traditional shopping baskets

These kinds of markets sell an astonishing array of goods, from fresh meat and vegetables to dry goods and live animals in some cases. Below is a sampling of goods.

Chili powder

Fresh chilis, ginger, corn, and I think rhubarb

Tea

Fresh mushrooms

Fresh noodles

Roast duck

Chopping block

Fresh bacon

Frogs (not for pets)

Another day we were wandering around on the outskirts of town and came upon a mushroom market. July and August is wild mushroom season in this part of Yunnan Province and many Tibetans roam the mountains picking mushrooms to sell in the markets. This is one way for rural Tibetans to earn some cash.

Mushroom market

Bringing in the harvest

Wild mushrooms

More yak cheese

The road to Tibet, a few hours drive away.

TO BE CONTINUED.