1940s Archive

In a Tibetan Lamasery

continued (page 4 of 4)

Just at dusk of the eleventh they straggled up the crumbling, steep stone staircase of the lamasery (its age was estimated in the neighborhood of seven centuries) with all sorts of strange bundles in the baskets strapped to their backs, and the sacrificial cock—a magnificent one—tied on top. There were rice and ginger, a bit of dried sea food for Wang, shrimps and sea slugs; they had replenished our supply of coarse brown sugar and Chinese spices and condiments; there were the golden tangerines and, unexpectedly, sweet potatoes. They brought also a tin of kerosene for our lantern and some hard green pears. I could hardly wait for dinner.

But Wang, who was not only managing the expedition, but practically every detail of my life, said that first we must sacrifice the cock, because Whang Tai Hsin, my chief hunter and the local priest, was leaving early in the morning for the mountains. So as darkness deepened, Wang, Whang, several hunters, and I all trouped down from the lamasery, past the huddled huts at its base, and up a steep mountain trail, our way lighted by a flickering torch.

We came to a sort of grotto overhung by a forbidding, fire-blackened rock painted with cabalistic signs, with a sort of crude wooden altar before it. The torches cast weird shadows on the dark faces of the men and gleamed in their slanting, inscrutable eyes; the scene might have been something from an age gone and forgotten a thousand years. Whang of the gentle face and thin drooping moustache held the cock; he repeated certain phrases in a language that was not Chinese three times before the burning incense on the altar. He stamped first one foot and then the other three times. Then he stabbed the cock in the neck three times and allowed the blood to drip on the ground. Three tufts of the cock’s feathers were pasted with blood to the altar, and we poured three libations of wine to the gods of earth on the ground. Then we made little piles of paper money which were burned, and set off the firecrackers, and, the ceremony finished, we all trouped back through the darkness to the lamasery.

Wang had put two sweet potatoes in the ashes to bake before we left, so that, what with cold Lady Amherst pheasant, the potatoes, tangerines, and nuts, I should dine like a queen. After weeks of pheasant (even for breakfast), the thought of new food was exciting.

I broke open a potato and sprinkled it with coarse, unbleached salt (I hadn’t seen any butter for many a long month), and with expectations high, took a bite of it which I promptly spat out, choking. It reeked of kerosene.

And for dessert I had a tangerine which, in spite of its Standard Oil flavor, I managed to eat.

It wasn’t long after, that the expedition came to its successful conclusion (I still think the red cock did the trick), and there was all the excitement of packing for the long journey back to the great plains city of Chengtu and the 2,000 miles more to Hong Kong and Shanghai. As presents for my friends in Chengtu, I had nearly fifty rare pheasants, which required three men to carry them.

In Chengtu I reveled in the luxury of a hot bath, coffee, and buttered toast for breakfast, and a dean dress instead of dirty, ragged trousers. I dispatched Wang with the pheasants, and he returned with dinner invitations. And that night I again dined on tragopans, but in the beautifully appointed home of my American hostess, whose table gleamed with snowy linen and beautiful silver, and whose guests wore dinner clothes. There were delicate goblets with white wine. and the table was strewn with pink camellias, although it was still winter.

Since that night I have not eaten pheasant of any kind, and I doubt certainly that I shall ever again have the opportunity of eating ten thousand dollars’ worth in the course of a few months’ time.

Subscribe to Gourmet