I was prepared for some of the contrasts we would encounter on this trip, as we traveled from temperatures in the mid-90s at sea level near the equator to the Himalayas in late October. We chose our clothes carefully. But I forgot about the culinary contrast that would ambush us. The Malay peninsula has one of the world’s highest concentrations of mind-blowingly great food. From there we’ve gone to the place that has the worst food I’ve ever eaten. It’s been a challenging adjustment.
We got our first reminder of what was coming on the Sichuan Airlines flight from Chengdu. Sichuan is a modern Chinese carrier with a good reputation; its attractive Chinese flight attendants wear stylish uniforms. Not long after we took off, one approached me down the aisle, passing out what I assumed would be hand wipes. Instead she extended a tongs and placed into my hand a chunk of hot boiled potato. It came without salt or butter or fork or even a lowly napkin to place it on. It was a portent.
We also got boxed breakfasts, though for some reason mine featured a rubbery egg slab, while Steve got a dish of unseasoned rice porridge, along with two packets of some salty beans and pickled cabbage to mix with it. A bit later, the attendants passed out paper cups containing yak butter tea, that peculiarly Tibetan concoction of the slightly sour yak butter mixed with salt, milk, tea leaves, soda, and hot water. (I would recommend against Starbucks adding it to their menu.)
After our arrival at Lhasa airport, our guide and driver immediately headed for the town of Tsedang where we would stay the first night (Friday). It was lunchtime, and Tashi recommended that we take our lunch and dinner at the hotel restaurant. Though edible, the Tibetan lunch buffet proved less than thrilling, and we took it as another bad omen that the tastiest choice consisted of rubbery globules the size of golf balls that were stuffed with some form of yak meat (one we could only hope was not from the part the spheres resembled).
Dismayed by the prospect of eating a second time in the restaurant, we decided to check out the two restaurant choices listed for Tsedang in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We were feeling the altitude and moving slowly, but we eventually located the Tibetan one that reportedly featured a “traditional setting, partial picture menu, and lots of local color.” From the street, it promised to have all of that, so we returned for dinner a few hours later. We slipped in the door behind a portly monk in flowing maroon robes, but every head in the place (all Tibetan) swiveled to stare at Steve and me. Waitresses giggled. I slipped into a booth as quickly as possible while Steve went to ask if they had an English menu. That drew guffaws from the serving crew.
The menu indeed had some photos, but not one word of English, so we couldn’t tell if any given dish included yak tongue, pig intestines, or similar popular ingredients. So we sadly gave up and returned to the hotel (where we were pleasantly surprised to find a good Chinese stir-fried chicken and fried rice).
Saturday we traveled to the site of the oldest monastery in Tibet, and had to eat in Tibetan joints for lunch and dinner. It was a good news/bad news experience. Good news: they were extremely inexpensive (we spent a total of about $14 to feed both of us both meals) and did have (sort of) English menus. Bad news: they didn’t have most of the hundreds of items on the menus, so we wound up eating yak and potato stew for lunch and yak and noodles for dinner.
Good news: both places felt extremely atmospheric and Tibetan. Bad: a big part of the atmosphere was dark and grubby. Good: neither one of has had gut troubles today.
Happily, before arriving in Tibet this trip I read My Journey to Lhasa, a wonderful account by a crazy French Buddhism scholar and adventuress who in the early 1920s posed as a fake Tibetan pilgrim and trekked for four months in the middle of winter in order to become the first Western woman ever to reach Lhasa. Alexandra and her adopted Sikkimese son (a respected lama) slept on the ground, begged for their food, and often hiked for 24 hours without eating or drinking anything. She shrugged off the hardships and claimed to be having a wonderful time. So any time I’m tempted to complain about my yak meat and noodles, all I have to do is think of Alexandra (and NOT think of Singapore.)
On other fronts, tonight (Sunday) will be our third night at altitude. We’ll be sleeping at about 14,000 feet, and although we both still pant a bit when we climb stairs, neither one of us is experiencing much in the way of altitude sickness. Thankfully, I am NOT waking up in the night feeling as if I’m suffocating (as I did last year). So we’re optimistic that we will continue to be okay when we reach Everest base camp Wednesday morning.
Along with the food, the Internet in these parts is nothing to rave about. So I plan to keep writing as long as my iPad has a charge. But I may not be able to upload what I write until Thursday night, when we are scheduled to stay in the second largest city in Tibet (Shigatse).