Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"This town has the best noodles in all of Tibet" - A Taste of Xia He (Labrang)

The Great Wall. Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City. Yes, every traveler aims for these popular tourist spots while overlooking the mysterious and culturally rich choice: The Tibetan Plateau. Yet every hopeful plateau traveler, even the Chinese tourist, always seem to come back to the same question: where to begin? My advice to you is to begin in Gansu Province in the small town of Xia He, famous for it’s Labrang Monastery.

Only a two-hour flight west of Beijing, Xining City is the starting point for many people to begin their trip to Xia He. Located along the ancient Silk Road, Xining has helped travelers find there way across the great Tibetan Plateau for centuries.

The Tibetan Plateau is an elevated area that stretches across 5 different Chinese provinces before rising into the Himalayan mountain ranges of China and Nepal. With a total land area larger than California and Alaska combined, is it any wonder why someone would be confused on where to begin exploring? Xia He is a town located just inside the western border of Gansu province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, and a great place to start. It is to this small town that I traveled to this past spring with a friend of mine...

-A fictional take-

Stepping of the dusty bus, I cough up 7 hours of second hand smoke. What a ride! Though it wasn’t always comfortable, it was an experience I will always remember: a bus full of Tibetans, my friend Derek, and myself. It really was a lot better than the Land Cruiser rental option I had back in Xining. Better and cheaper. The bus ticket was only 50 RMB, just over 9 Canadian dollars. It probably would have been more comfortable in the Land Crusier, with a lot less smoke, but I didn’t come on this trip just for sightseeing; I came to experience the culture. In any event, I am very glad to finally be off the bus.

Derek, a friend of mine who had lived in this town a few years ago, tracks me down in the crowd, with our backpacks in hand.

“Tough ride, huh? Here, I got our bags from the roof rack.”

“Yeah, thanks man. I think the guy in front of me never stopped smoking the whole trip.”

“Yeah, I guess it’s a lot easier to get addicted to those things over here since their only 3 RMB a pack.” he chuckles.

Derek is a good friend. He has lived in this part of China for over 5 years working with an NGO doing research on the plateau. He speaks Chinese and Amdo Tibetan very well, which are just a few of many reasons why I’m glad that he agreed to accompany me on this trip. He hasn’t been here in a few years and he says he’d like to catch up with some old friends.

After checking into our hotel, we set out for the town’s main attraction; Labrang Monastery. The monastery is one of the largest running monasteries in all of China, home to over 1500 monks of the Yellow Hat sect. The Yellow Hat sect has been considered the ruling sect of Tibetan Buddhism since the 1400s. An offshoot of the ancient Bon religion, the Yellow Hat monks practice a religion that is far less animalistic, and is what many followers would consider “true Buddhism”.

A 40 RMB fee gets us a ticket and a guide. As we make our way to the first building, my thoughts are quickly drown out by the persistent hum of chanting. Looking over I see a monk sitting cross legged in the dust, holding a book in his lap. Upon further inspection I see that there are about a dozen other monks around the corner joining him in this ritual. The constant drone overtakes the entire monastery grounds.

We are swiftly marched through each building. Most of the rooms contain different variations of idols, alters, paintings, drapes, and books. The dense smell of incense floats from wall to wall. A pile of old fruit rots at the foot of a Buddha. All of the rooms are poorly lit so it’s hard to get a good look at anything. I mostly just feel like I’m intruding. Our guide speaks a little English, but he doesn’t say much. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this tour. I wouldn’t mind just roaming around on my own, but the guide is sure to always keep the group close together. With the guide unaware, I am able to snap off a few photos behind his back.

Leaving the Monastery I notice a lot of people outside. Many of them seem to be praying.

“Derek, why aren’t those people in the monastery?”

“Oh, they’re all doing a “Kora”. It is custom for the Buddhists to walk slowly around the monastery, clockwise, while kneeling to the ground and falling prostrate in succession. As you can see, they repeat this act after each step. Some of these people will walk this way around the monastery all day. They do it because they think it will help their Karma and keep their family safe and healthy. Whether you believe it or not, one thing is for certain; they are a very committed people.”

As the sun rises overhead, Derek and I are on the move. He wants to take me to his favorite noodle shop.

“This town has the best noodles in all of Tibet.”

These simple little shops are owned and run by Muslim families. Muslims are famous in China for their noodle dishes. We order 2 large bowls of Gan Ban Mien, similar in style to chow mien. It’s a very simple dish: long noodles, hot spices, sliced up vegetable and lamb, and a traditional sauce. It’s quite oily, but delicious. It reminds me of a spicier and tastier Hamburger Helper.

After eating, we head back out onto the street. Derek is hoping to run into one of his old friends, but so far no luck. Across the street I see a young woman carrying a large coal stove up the road. Her husband follows close behind.

“In this culture, the women do a lot of the work. It’s just kind of the way things go here. It takes a while to get used to it. I always want to stop and help them out, but if I did it would embarrass both the women and their husbands.”

After a few minutes of strolling through shops, Derek and I run into one of his old friends. Jako is a taxi driver. He and Derek met a few years ago when Derek needed to take a group of friends out to the grasslands for a day trip. Jako is a tough looking guy. His face is as leathery as a baseball glove and all of his teeth are bright white except for the gold-capped one that rests right in the middle of his smile.

“What you guys doing tonight?” he asks in broken English.

Derek responds in Tibetan and they continue back and forth for a few minutes. From the look on their faces I can tell that they are working out some plans. Finally, Jako smiles, brushes back his hair and shakes my hand.

“Okay, see you tonight,” he says.

He is off, back up the road, soon to be lost in the crowd.

“Okay man, it’s all set.”

“What do you mean?”

“Jako’s uncle wants to have us over tonight. He says that we must come and see them. They are very excited to have us.”

“But we haven’t even met them. How could they be excited to meet us?” I ask, confused and curious.

“Don’t worry man, it’s cool. It’s just the way they do things here. They are very hospitable. Jako and his family have always been good friends of mine. Their door is always open.”

Later that night we make our way up the main road, through the monastery, and out into a nearby village. Jako’s uncle lives in a traditional mud house. I find out later that the “mud” is mostly yak dung.

The house is one main room and a small little kitchen at the back. There are about 10 people in the house and I’m pretty sure that they all must be related to Jako. In the centre of the room is a table full of food. Everything from soda, to yak meat, to sunflower seeds, to homemade yoghurt is spread out in front of us. It’s possible that every edible thing available in the house is sitting on that table. Hospitable is the understatement of the day.

While Derek chats it up with the family, I sit in silence. My only way to relieve the awkwardness is to continue eating. The yoghurt is amazing. It’s so fresh that I occasionally came across a yak hair or two. Its thickness kind of reminds me of Brie cheese. I was hesitant at first, but after a few spoonfuls I am all in!

My other favorite is the tsamba. Tsamba is a combination of four things; barely flour, yak butter, yak cheese, and tea. The first step in making tsamba is to put all of the dry ingredient into a small bowl. Next, you spoon in some slightly melted butter. After that, pour tea over the whole thing. Then you take the clump of mush in your hands and mix it all together into a ball. I am reminded of when I was young, making cookies with my mom at Christmas. Then I look up and remember that I’m on the other side of the world with a room full of strangers. They laugh at my rookie moves with the tsamba, and with my hands full of gunk, I soon join in with them. It becoming clear that this room full of strangers is quickly turning into a room full of good friends, despite the language and cultural barriers.

After hours of food, laughter, games, and songs, Derek and I say goodbye and head back to our hotel. It’s past midnight and we have an early bus to catch back to Xining. It was only a small taste of Xia He, but a taste that will most certainly bring me back for more.