1940s Archive

In a Tibetan Lamasery

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One method of cooking their maize was to make a dough of it with water in which a lump of rock salt had been soaked, knead it into little balls, and cook it as a sort of dumpling with a few leaves of bei-tsai and a tiny piece of fat pork. Another was to bake it in a shallow, curved iron pan in the ashes of the camp lire until it was like hardtack, and hence would keep for many days and obviate the necessity for cooking on the trail.

In the lamasery, Wang cooked the meal into pancakes for me, or into “johnnycake” with native baking powder made up in the hills, or into mush with coarse brown sugar, or into dessert with eggs, walnut meats, and dried milk. We even had a version of Scottish scones which Wang called “skonks.”

The oven in which he turned out these delicacies was a little gem that had been lovingly and artistically made from a ten-gallon Socony gasoline tin. It had a tiny door and a rack, and it could bake to perfection over the little brazier which was Wang’s stove, and by which he squatted by the hour, his long blue gown tucked up under his knees, stirring some delicious mess with a pair of chopsticks. His fuel was charcoal, or slicks and twigs.

Meat was very scarce in that far and almost uninhabited country; there was only a tiny collection of huts at the base of the rambling old lamasery, and the people were very poor. Wang, however, could usually manage a chicken every few days, a few eggs, dried bamboo shoots, and a casual roundup of odds and ends that he could always put together and make a delicious meal. There were chestnuts and walnuts (the walnuts had the deeper flavor of black walnuts rather than that of the English) from the surrounding hills which he served with chicken, and a little bei-tsai seasoned with soya sauce until it was fit for a king. Soy beans are one of the commonest of Chinese products and are used in many ways, including the delicious salty sauce universally known.

As news of the foreigner living in the lamasery spread, nearly every day saw a few picturesque tribes people straggling down the valley with something edible to sell. A Jarung man would put his hand into an inner pocket of his long homespun robe and proudly produce a packet of wild honey wrapped in leaves. Or a Chang woman, smiling shyly at me from tilted eyes, brought out from the pack on her back (in which she also carried her sloe-eyed baby) a kind of strange squash that I had never seen before, which was mine for a few cents. These women always worked as they toiled up and down the mountain trails. A little basket of raw wool hung from their belts, and deftly they shredded and twisted it into yarn, which, with a flip of the wrist, wound itself on the spindle that hung dangling and swinging rhythmically.

There was, of course, always tea, delicious pale Chinese tea, and I was seldom without a bowl of it. To drink unboiled water is an invitation to disease; so one becomes accustomed to tea instead of water. The Chinese country people make their tea differently from the way the city people do, and I think I prefer the peasant way that you sec in the village tea shops all over China. These shops are usually open to the street, and are the common meeting place for exchange of news and local gossip. The tea bowls in no matter how poor a place are always pretty, even though much mended (and to see an old Chinese carefully tying the broken pieces of a delicate bowl in place, and then riveting them together with tiny copper clips is an unforgettable experience). A pinch of tea is put in the bowl and boiling water poured over it.

In our kitchen in the lamasery shrine there was always tea for the “neighbors,” for the tribes people who came drifting in, or for any chance traveler. Never a day passed that my kitchen was not enlivened by the hum of Chinese talk over tea.

The feasting really began with the return of the hunters from their first forays in the hills. They brought me slabs of wild boar, venison, sometimes coral, which is a species of wild sheep, and partridge and pheasant. This border country between China and Tibet is sometimes called the “lost triangle of the world,” and abounds in strange animals that are to be found no place on earth. Within a week's march of the lamasery could be found giant panda, the little panda which the Chinese call “fire fox,” takin, the goat-antelope creature, serow, coral, the tiny musk deer, blue sheep, Ovis amnion and Ovis poli, rare species of mountain sheep. There are also sambur deer, tufted deer, black bear, and several species of small wildcats, as well as the beautiful snow leopard.

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