1940s Archive

In a Tibetan Lamasery

Originally Published March 1944

During the course of several Asiatic expeditions, it has been my good fortune to have had many adventures in eating. There have been highly “civilized” ones, such as shark’s-fin soup at the fashionable Hotel Cathay in Shanghai, rijsttafel at the Raffles in Singapore, and many less formal ones, in the way of raw fish with strange sauces and fried lotus root in a tiny Japanese inn, old eggs in a Chinese temple, and, once, fried cucumbers and coagulated chicken blood for breakfast in a cave on the Tibetan border.

I think that in all my explorations of eating by far the most extravagant was the winter in which I ate an estimated ten thousand dollars’ worth of rare pheasants. At least, after the expression of astonishment finally faded from the face of Robert Bean, curator of birds and mammals for the Chicago Zoological Society, when I told him about the tragopans, Lady Amhersts, and impeyans, and others the names of which I did not know, that had been served to me by my Chinese cook, he said, “Well, if they could have been brought to Chicago, I think ten thousand would have been a modest price for them.”

But of that there could have been no possibility, because the scene of my solitary banqueting was in far Western China in the Tibetan foothills, where I spent a winter in a crumbling old lamasery from which all the monks had fled during the rout of the defeated Chinese Communist armies. And war raged over China, so that travel with or without pheasants was well-nigh impossible. Besides which, any fancier of pheasants will tell you that these birds, which live at altitudes of 8,000 feet and more, are most difficult to transport alive from their mountains.

An expedition had taken me to Western China for the second time, and because of the war I could find only my former Chinese cook to accompany me; my Chinese guide and interpreter had disappeared, so I was at the mercy of fat old Wang, who regulated my life as well as the expedition. It was he who decided that we should camp in the lamasery, who chose the least ruined room for my living quarters, told me when I should call on the local mandarin and the native Prince of the district (making sure that I took my Chinese calling cards with me), gave me Tiger Balm when I had a cold. advice as to what to buy from the Tibetans who offered me coral and turquoise jewelry, and what to pay.

Outside the cubicle which was my bedroom, living room, and dining room, was a great open terrace that overlooked a wild valley through which rushed an icy aquamarine river. In one corner of the terrace was a tiny enclosure which had been a shrine of some sort, and Wang decided it would serve very well for the kitchen. There were painted gods of many varieties on the walls, and an ancient, spicy odor of incense. High up in a niche reposed what surely was not meant to be the god of my kitchen. When I asked Wang what it contained, he said tersely, “Tiger bones, goodee joss, Master.”

As I had left the war-torn city of Shanghai more or less as a refugee, with only two small suitcases and a typewriter, there was no question of taking anything in the way of tinned or preserved American food, as I had previously done. It would have been utterly out of the question on the long detour through French Indo-China and into the western hills, as transportation, to say the least, was varied, precarious, and very scarce. The only commodity we bought in the far city of Chengtu was dried milk; so we “lived on the country”—and very good living it was, too, both on the caravan journey and for the duration of the expedition conducted from the lamasery, which was headquarters for my hunters.

These hardy little hunters of the hills … my chief hunter was no bigger than a boy and was also the local priest … have never ceased to be a matter of wonder to me. In the preparations for the long trips which they made for me high into the snows of the mountains, sometimes to be gone for a week or ten days, they took with them as their only rations a homespun bag containing perhaps eight or nine pounds of corn meal, a lump of grey rock salt, perhaps a few bunches of bei-tsai, which is a Chinese green like a cross between romaine and cabbage, a lobo or two—reminiscent of both radish and turnip—and, if they could get it, a piece of fat salt pork. In the hills, rice is very dear and very scarce; so the staple food is good Indian maize. Many, many times I have watched the hunters, in camp after a long day's trudging up and down mountains, prepare their corn meal over a tiny blaze under an improvised shelter of bamboo. Not only did these people travel lightly as to food, but most of them carried no blankets, sleeping dose to the fire on snowy nights. Not one had a pair of socks, only straw sandals and thin blue cotton trousers and jackets.

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