This is the legendary foodstuff that has enabled sherpas, nomads and countless adventurers to navigate and survive Tibet’s often harsh terrain and unpredictable climate.
In the mid to late 20th century, the term “Tsampa-eater” became an all-encompassing label to refer to various peoples from the Tibetan area, even though parts of North India, Turkestan and Nepal consume their own versions of tsampa. In an article I love that is wonderfully witty and well-written, In Defense of Tibetan Cooking, Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu traces the history of Tsampa in the region, its connection to Tibetan culture, and the exceptional nutritional qualities of barley known by both the Romans and the Greeks.
As dawn rose in Shigatse/Xigaze, so did my anticipation to finally try this food that is so integral to the core of Tibetan identity. Gelek, my guide, assured me the day before that our hotel would have some for me for breakfast. Gelek didn’t understand my excitement to have something he eats every morning when we have everything else on our hotel’s Chinese breakfast buffet, but he was more than willing to show me how to make it once the butter tea was ready.
Barley is the staple crop of Tibet as it is one of the few able to take to the high, dry altitude. The barley to make Tsampa is first gathered, washed, dried and hulled. It is then roasted with sand in a pan over a hot stove. Once ready, the sand is sifted out and the roasted barley is ground into the Tsampa flour.
Our hotel had three containers labeled Tsampa, Cheese, and Sugar. Gelek had me grab a bowl and fill each scoop about half way and empty them into my bowl. The yak cheese was very interesting and surprising to me, as I expected something more block-shaped rather than teeny dried cheese curls.
I asked if I could just use hot milk as that was available, but Gelek told me that it is important to use butter tea (black tea with yak butter and salt) with the Tsampa or risk it tasting wrong. One could use basic water, tea or milk, but the flavor would not be as good in his opinion. So, I waited in line with some young German men for a turn at the thermos of butter tea that was brought out.
Usually one starts with the cheese and butter tea, but since the kitchen was still preparing it at the time, I went ahead and added the Tsampa powder. I was told that one could, technically, just eat the powder, but most people usually mix it with a liquid. The consistency of the Tsampa changes depending on how much liquid is added. Some like it similar to a soup or porridge consistency, others like it more shaped into dumplings or into “bread” blocks. I mixed mine into a paste, and let me tell you….
It was good!
The Tsampa had a slightly nutty, powdered milk taste to it. The closest thing I can think of to what I have had that tastes similar is Filipino Polvoron, a type of shortbread or milk candy cookie made from toasted flour, powdered milk, sugar, and butter. Gelek said that Tsampa does wonders for people with diabetes. I am inclined to believe this (as long as one forgoes the sugar) since barley is already pretty high in fiber, protein and other minerals.
After breakfast, we hightailed it out to the town of Gyantse. The air outside was dry, but
really fresh. I asked Gelek about the facemasks I had seen Tibetan women wearing among the various towns we had traveled. At first, I thought they wore the masks because of pollution, but there is no pollution here in the middle of nowhere. Gelek laughed and told me that the women wear facemasks to protect their skin from the sun and keep it white – that they don’t know how to use “lotion” – which, I assume he meant sunscreen. I tried to use sunscreen consistently like I read I should here, but despite my efforts I was gifted a sunburn on the back of my neck. It ached when I moved my head, vaguely bringing flashbacks of the angry jellyfish sting I received when I was ten years old.
On the Road again
I gazed out the van window and admired the view. It amazed me how sunny it was almost every day in Tibet: the glare of the sun against an impossibly blue sky with barely any clouds made for beautiful, bright warm weather. The landscape reminded me so much of New Mexico with its brown mountains and desert valleys sans yucca and cacti. I regretted packing so many clothes, expecting it to be freezing like the little rainy town of Lishui that I left the week before.
During the drive, Gelek pointed out more areas of new housing being constructed. One could pick out the wealthier families from the norm by their lavish glass-enclosed greenhouses and two to three storied houses. Some families use tractors to till the land, but most still used the cow/yak hybrid called a dzo (pronounced zoh). Gelek told me that their animals are kept on the first floor of the houses while the upper floors contain the family’s living quarters. I remembered that the families still mainly used well or spring water and traditional bathrooms as there was no plumbing. I asked Gelek what the locals did to bathe, and he told me that they must go to either a public bathhouse or to a mountain hot spring. Twenty years earlier, he said, all the hot springs in Tibet were free, but now they are government owned and sadly even locals must pay to use them.
Another big change, Gelek told me, was the fact that houses are not so easy to build now. Twelve to thirteen years earlier all the villagers would come together to help out, but nowadays one must hire someone. Additionally, there is much corruption, especially within the school system. Although primary school is supposed to be free, some people must pay for have of the fees if they don’t meet certain criteria, and others must pay the full fee if they reside outside the city. Some students, like Gelek’s younger brother, are allowed to pass on to higher grades even though they cannot read or write. In that kind of situation, parents have to bribe teachers to let their children repeat grades or even to pull their children out of school entirely for it does not make sense to keep children there if they potentially have a disability. Most children do go on to finish high school, but have an extremely tough time finding jobs. Gelek tells me that the farmers are disappointed and don’t see the point of paying for their children to go to school, to then have them come back to the family farm and not know how to farm. This makes me feel so sad at the lack of opportunities for the natives.
Not knowing how to respond, I gazed at the wild ducks scattered among the farmlands eating seeds. It occurred to me that no one has a type of scarecrow or someone to watch the fields.
Entering Gyantse, I was immediately impressed with the grand view of Gyantse Dzong, a Potala Palace-esque fortress overlooking the town. There were also some Chinese army helicopters overhead that added additional excitement to the atmosphere when we stopped to let me have a look. The fortress was initially built in the late 1300s. At one time, it housed the Tibetan army during their war with the British. The British forces, mostly made of Indians, won the battle and occupied the fortress until the Chinese government came in 1949. It would have been amazing to go in, but at this time the fortress was undergoing renovation.
A skip and a hop away was Gyantse’s red high-walled Pelkor Chöde Monastery meaning “Auspicious Wheel Joy Monastery.” Built in the 15th century, it originally contained fifteen monasteries with three different sects of Buddhism. Now there are three left with only two practicing sects.
The main attraction for pilgrims to this town is the largest surviving stupa, Kumbum, after the Cultural Revolution. What relics remain are what locals were able to hide and unearth after the Red Guards came through. Kumbum (I love saying this word!) is named after the 100,000 Buddha images it contains. Gelek told me that if I wanted to bring my camera upstairs (not to take pictures of the Buddhas as that is disrespectful), I would have to pay ten kuai. I looked for the monk to give it to and found him seated over a barrel of small bills that pilgrims were donating to him. I reached out to him with my ten kuai, and he gave me a confused look. Not sure what to do, I glanced back at Gelek who talked with him. Apparently the dude thought I was Tibetan because of my hair and did not understand why I was giving him money instead of putting it in the barrel like everyone else. I realized that it was true though. The women in Tibet have thick black hair that can be coarse and wavy and times, much like mine. In Lishui, my hair tended to stand out with my curls and people would ask me how long it took to curl my hair in the morning- I don’t.
Anyways, we continued clockwise around the base and up a cramped, rickety ladder with swaying ropes for a handrail. I commented to Gelek about a baby in one off the visitor’s arms in front of us. It had a large black line on its nose, which I found out is soot from incense burners that is put on babies up to three years old for protection. We stopped to look out over the town of Gyantse and Gelek remarked about how the year Nepal had their giant earthquake, 2015, was the same year that Tibet went a whole year without rain.
At this point in my journey, I was able to recognize many of the Buddhas, Rinpoches and protector deities housed in chambers and painted on the walls in the beautiful stupa – mainly because Gelek would constantly point them out and ask me to reiterate. There were multiples of the Past, Present, and Future Buddhas (Dipamkara, Sakyamuni, and Maitreya). I was also able to pick out figures of Tara and Avalokiteshvara, my favorite Buddha of Compassion. I also received a lesson on a small statue that Gelek said was able to communicate to important monks in times of crisis.
We drove for another four hours, prayer flags dotted the mountains here and there along with little towns with miniature stupas. Some areas had a singular
brightly-painted square building. I asked about them, and Gelek turned around to look at me from the front seat. He said, pointing, “You see there? Every village had its own local god, and the villagers believed that if they do not pray to them, their harvest would be destroyed. However, these village gods can help with one life, but this is a mistake as Buddha can help with every life.”
Off and on, we had to wait for herds of sheep or cattle to pass as they blocked our road. We stopped at a cold and windy public outhouse in what felt like middle of nowhere after passing a large ice-encrusted dam. Gelek went into the facility first to make sure it was safe for me as there was a dark van nearby. It was only slightly awkward as there were plastic bottles everywhere, and through a broken window I could see our van. The squatty potty itself was over a gigantic breezy pit, but I was thankful I didn’t have to find a bush out here (there were none). As I waited by the van for Gelek and our driver to finish their smoke break, two guys from the dark van got out and tried to harass me into buying overly priced yak bone bracelets and fake turquoise.
Another 5,000 meters up a windy mountain pass, we arrived at the gorgeous Karola Glacier. Not even five steps out of the van, I was bombarded by locals trying to sell me things. Here on the mountain, it was actually really cold. Many of the locals were wrapped so tightly only their eyes shown through. After negotiating for a few prayer flags, I was able to shake them off and approach the lookout point to admire the waterfall-like effect of the ice.
The last site on our agenda was Yamdrok Lake, the third largest holy lake in Tibet. To get there, we drove for a few more hours along windy, narrow mountain passes. At about 4,900m, we passed by a van of Chinese tourists that had tipped over. Thankfully everyone seemed to be okay.
Yamdrok lake was absolutely gorgeous. I’ve read that the lake is supposed to help senior monks find the reincarnated soul of the Dalai Lama. They come to the lake to pray and toss holy objects into the waters. Supposedly the reflection of the lake tells them his soul’s exact whereabouts. Unfortunately, it was insanely windy. We did not stay too long to avoid being pelted with sand.
The drive back was also filled with even more farm animals along our path. To my excitement, we even passed by some yaks grazing along the steep mountainside. Kambala Pass was a nauseatingly twisty ride down the mountain. I passed out in the backseat and woke up as we reached the entrance border check to Lhasa.
Final Day Recap
I spent my final day in Lhasa running some errands. I mailed out a few postcards and checked out the whole sale market where I finally had some better luck with bargaining. Craving a burger, I stopped into the Burger King across from Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street. Usually American fastfood joints abroad try to change their menu to appeal to foreign tastes. This one was disappointingly pretty American with its fare of spicy or nonspicy whoppers. I was half-expecting something with Tsampa or Yak cheese. The icecream did seem off, however, with the consistency and taste of marshmallow fluff.
End of the Road?
I am very sad to say goodbye to Tibet (for now). I wish they would let foreigners stay for Losar and Chinese New Year celebrations, but I am grateful for the glimpse I have had into the lives here and the chance to learn more about their culture.
Being here, in Tibet, and being surrounded by its overwhelmingly majestic beauty is incredibly humbling. It makes me feel so ashamed at how easy it is for me to be caught up in the mundane worries of life, wallowing in self-deprecating doubt and sadness when things don’t work out the way I want. It devastated me last year when I was told I would never be allowed to do my postgrad dream job of Peace Corps China. Tibet’s helped me heal and feel confident in the fact that it is okay to let some dreams go as long as you strive to live each day with kindness and compassion.
With Losar and Chinese New Year coming up, I take solace in knowing that I have made some wonderful new friends and experiences. I have been waving back and forth about staying another year with this NGO, but with support from my loving husband, I’ve decided to stay for my students and see where life goes from here.
P.S. If you ever need a guide in Tibet, I would recommend Gelek in a heartbeat!
“We have a saying in Tibet: If a problem can be solved there is no use worrying about it. If it can’t be solved, worrying will do no good.”
― Heinrich Harrer