Outside, the barkhor kora heaves with pilgrims. Juniper sputters and burns in the censers. Grizzled men, wearing goggles against the sun, hobble clockwise on canes around the 7th century Jokhang, Tibet's holiest temple. Inside, the Ba Sang Sweet Teahouse is crepuscular, musty and quiet. I enter and sit on a tired wooden bench. A ruddy girl in pigtails adds a glossy knob of pungent yak butter, and a heap of salt, to weak black tea. The stainless-steel blender, its base embossed with a yak logo, begins to whirr.
Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian adventurer and onetime member of the SS, was unimpressed by his first cup of butter tea. He'd broken free the first of two escapes from a World War II British POW camp in India and was tramping close to the border of Tibet, where he hoped for refuge. The wily villagers of Nelang gave him none, but before shipping him back to camp shared some cups of the briny brew. "My first contact with it," Harrer wrote in his famous memoir Seven Years in Tibet, "affected my stomach most disagreeably."
Bö cha literally "Tibetan tea" is guzzled by all in the parched highlands of central Tibet, and seems to give off the frank pong of clammy gym clothes. The girl carries out a checkered thermos, unplugs the grimy cork and pours me a cup. It's murky, and it froths. As I take my first sip, I try not to think of the spume of some stagnant pond, or of Harrer's description of Tibetans swigging up to 60 cups of bö cha a day. It is vile at least to my foreign palate.
The tea is made with butter from the domesticated yak, Bos grunniens, found everywhere in Tibet. On the stony windswept plateaus, where altitudes average nearly 16,000 ft (4,900 m), few animals can flourish on the meager vegetation. But yaks somehow do. They're mobilized as pack animals. Their shaggy hair is woven into tents. Their horns, carved with mantras, bless mountain passes. They're also killed for their meat after summer grazing when they're plump. Buddhism proscribes taking the life of any living organism, yaks included. But for Tibetans there's little choice. And if murder you must, it's better to feed a family with a single yak than twenty throttled chickens.
It's also better to get non-Buddhists to do the slaughtering. As I watch a butcher in Lhasa's Muslim quarter hack at a yak haunch, swatting at flies with his free hand, I can see why. Bunches of black hair still clump above the hoof. The man, whose apron is splattered in deep red blood, proffers me a raw, pink slice. But I hesitate. Earlier, I'd munched on three gravelly cubes of dried white yak cheese that a stallman had strung like pearls on a short span of twine: hard as drywall, but delectably sweet and tangy. Not 30 minutes later a tremendous gut cramp had me curled in bed for hours, and now, back outdoors and broiling under the July sun, I still feel snakebit.
So I decline the butcher's gift and split for a dingy local joint to order something cooked. The Muslim quarter huddles in the southeast corner of the old town a maze of cobbled lanes that spoke eastward from the Jokhang and it's here that you'll find Lhasa's most satisfying food: a tsa ra (tomato sauce sprinkled with scallions and minced yak); logo momo (dense hunks of steamed dough to mop it up with); bowls of pö thuk (a soup with stiff noodles and slivers of boiled yak); shog go sha momo (fried golden potato nuggets stuffed with creamy beef); and tsib ma (peppery fried mutton spareribs).
Not that you always need meat to eat well in Lhasa. I spend my final day in the city lounging at another cluttered teahouse, chewing ropy strips of yak jerky that's sold at spotless new supermarkets in flavors like Sichuan mala spice, curry and oregano. A scrawny monk robed in a burgundy cowl sidles over. He opens a filthy leather pouch of roasted barleycorn flour, or tsampa. I nod and he empties, according to custom, some of it into my cup of cha ngamo a sweet yak-milk tea still too gamey for my taste. I notice a dusty wall clock stuck at 8:09 as I ball some tsampa and eat it. It's no trout meunière. And I could really go for a Sazerac. But somehow it's enough. Somehow it tastes timeless, good and holy.
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