After a long, dirty, cramped and nerve-wracking ride on an overnight bus from Xining to Yushu, my husband and I were nauseous and exhausted and looking forward to getting out of Yushu as quickly as possible. When we pulled into the bus station we were quickly mobbed by men who were shouting out different destinations. It turned out that in these backroads of non-restricted Tibet, there are no public bus services or trains between cities, and the only way to get from place to place is to book a seat in a minivan. One of the drivers followed us, and when we told him where we desired to go he wanted to charge us more than a plane ticket. We would have to book every empty seat in the van to go that day.
While we were standing there forlornly with our map, guidebook and dictionary, a cheerful white man called out to us, asking where we were from. Hervé was from France, and he’s spent two months every year in China for the past 11 years. He spends his free time practicing Chinese, and it was such a relief having him take over our travel transactions. It turned out we wouldn’t be able to depart that day, so we booked seats for the next day, which gives the drivers time to fill up the entire car with passengers. Transport settled, he walked us over to the cheap hotel where he was staying and we booked a room, then joined him for a day of sight-seeing. We never would have found this hotel on our own. Most of Yushu was flattened by an earthquake in 2010, and rebuilding hotels was low on the priority list for a town that doesn’t get a lot of tourists.
Hervé wanted to go to Dicos (a fast-food chicken sandwich chain) for breakfast. On the way he popped into several shops looking for yak yogurt. He bought a carton when he finally found some and ate it along with breakfast.
The jolly Frenchman is the kind of person whose greatest joy is speaking to people and making new friends. He called up a taxi driver whom he’d befriended and we drove out to see the Princess Wenchang temple outside the city, one of the few buildings that survived minimal damage from the earthquake. This temple was the Princess’ stopover point when she was being delivered to the king of Tibet in marriage. This princess is one big reason why China claims sovereignty over Tibet. The temple itself was tiny and didn’t take much time to explore. It was filled with the features that for us had become ‘the usual’: butter lamps, incense, pilgrims prostrating themselves on the floor, walls of scripture, Buddha statues, piles of money placed at the altars, and monks in their scarlet robes. The beauty of this particular temple lay in the surroundings. The hillsides are draped in thousands of prayer flags, stretching across the road so you felt like you were walking into a colorful spider web.
While we were in Lhasa my husband and I tried greeting people in Tibetan. Either we didn’t say it correctly or they were too oppressed to speak it. I’d believe either. In the non-restricted areas, we found the Tibetans to be much more friendly and welcoming. As we walked around we heard a constant cry of “བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།!”, which was pronounced more like ‘tashi delai’ than ‘tashi dalek’ as the guidebook said. Everyone was very pleased and responded with big smiles when we answered in kind. As we were walking down the mountain there were many families picnicking along the river, and to all of them we waved and cried out “བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།!” One family beckoned us down to the river. About fifteen people were scattered on rugs, eating, socializing and playing cards. Another foreigner was already sitting with them (the only other foreigner we saw in Yushu) and he said he’d been waved down in the same manner. We were seated on rugs and handed cups full of yak yogurt and some kind of curry bread. The bread was dipped in the yogurt and then eaten. They kept pouring more yogurt into our cups, and also supplied Red Bull, grapes and watermelon. Protestations that we were full had no effect.
Some time later we waved our goodbyes and continued on down the mountain. There was a large monastery at the bottom, and it seemed to be devoid of life except for a few odd yaks roaming around the grounds. Everything looked very new and clean, and we guessed that the entire temple and grounds had all been built after the earthquake. A new sight for us was that this monastery was surrounded by tiny, plain houses, and we guessed that these were the residences of the monks. (There’s a lot of guesswork while traveling through China) A solitary monk saw us standing outside and beckoned us over. We followed him into his home, taking off our shoes to enter the very sparse but very tidy cell. A TV was on against one wall, but it was covered by a cloth so that it couldn’t be seen. I didn’t know if that was a restriction for all monks, or if he just didn’t want the light blaring. The program as viewed behind the lace was a monk reading scriptures. He had a narrow kitchenette off of the front door, then a small living room with a fridge in the corner, and then a small bedroom. All we could see of the bedroom was that the shelves were lined with religious texts. The walls and floor were made with simple wooden boards. It was the first time I’d seen a monk without his outer scarlet robe. Underneath he was wearing something that was similar to a jumpsuit in a vivid goldenrod color – a sleeveless top and baggy pants. Lucas said it was like Americans coming home to put on sweats after a long day of work.
Conversation was limited as he spoke only Tibeten with very limited Chinese. Hervé spoke much more Chinese than he did, so for the first time that day my Chinese was at the level needed for a conversation. The four of us mostly just stared at each other and smiled, but we made polite chit-chat about our families and told him where we were from. We learned that he had a sister with children and that his mother was deceased. (We wondered if she’d died in the earthquake. The official death toll was around 3,000, but local officials say it was closer to 20,000 dead.) Lucas showed him pictures of Montana from our tablet, and he showed us pictures of his family on his smart phone. The monk went back and forth to his kitchen to prepare tea and serve it to us, and he also presented us with yak yogurt. When we had finished eating and run out of mutual words we thanked him and went on our way.
We took Hervé to dinner, finding a Muslim restaurant in the midst of home appliance shops. We were the only customers in the restaurant and were greeted with great interest and enthusiasm. When I peered at a worker making noodles in the kitchen, we were encouraged to enter the kitchen and watch how they prepared the different dishes. I can’t imagine an American restaurant inviting a troupe of foreigners into their kitchen. The food was delicious, and I’d rate it in our top two meals while we were in China.
We enjoyed Herve’s company so much, and it was a pleasure seeing the city with him. It was a wonderful day with new sights and friendly people. He was a God-sent blessing who came along at just the right moment to save us from a bad day. We asked him just what it was that led him to wander around the bus station so early in the morning.
“I was looking for yak yogurt.”