It was damn cold in southwestern China on April 20th, 2010

Barley Bread and Yak Butter Tea

I could go for some yack butter tea and barley bread right now. Really. We were served the version with honey and not salt, although the yak butter was quite salty, which made a nice balance. The tea, made from smoked leaves of a Tibetan bush, is rumored to give the body strength and energy and warm the soul during cold days and nights. 

It’s a little crazy that at this time last year we were there in a hauntingly beautiful valley in southwestern China.  And it was damn cold. I remember looking for some warm clothes in Chengdu the day before we set out for Jiuzhaigou . We bought a bunch of warm socks (I still have them) and a few fleece jackets. We thought that would be enough. We had no idea how much colder Jiuzhaigou , China is at this time of year. Let’s see, while I’m typing this it’s 11:36 pm there. The sun will be up in 6 hours there. It is 58F today there with thunderstorms. We woke up the second day we were there to snow covered mountains.

Looking outside, it’s hard to believe the winter is over here, but it is. I’ve been running by blooming trees and flowers for over two weeks. Supposedly it’ll get to the low 70’s here today and sunny, while it’s expected to hit 97F in my hometown of San Antonio, TX. Weather is crazy. If we think too hard, we may get overwhelmed with all the crazy variations of weather around the globe right at this moment. Traveling makes you think about these things more often. I’m often wondering what it’s like in some tiny little place we were at a year ago. And with the proliferation of data and the power of the internet, it’s fairly easy to check and be aware at any time of day what is is, wherever. 

I remember the 12 hour bus ride up, which followed the river valleys for almost the entire way to the Tibetan valley of Jiuzhaigou, that is now and increasingly overrun by Han Chinese. If you are middle-class or upper-middle class, heading to Jiuzhaigou sometime in your life has become the thing to do. Our bus trip following the gorges and rivers, passed over the damns and rock quarry’s that supply a lot of the raw material for the vast Sichuan province. Here and there signs of the 2008 Earthquake that rent homes and lives lay amidst new towns and buildings. 

Jiuzhaigou has become a modern day wild west tourist destination and we hopped from the bus to taxi and were hustled down the main road, whistling past new restaurants and hotels that have sprung up over the last 15 years ending at a small village just outside the town.

It was in the hands and open arms of a Tibetan family that we had some of our most remarkable moments in China. The villagers there live with a mix of very old and traditional houses with a few modern amenities. Stark is an understatement. One of the houses we slept in had an outdoor toilet, a hole between old wooden boards, off the edge of the house, a 20 foot drop to the pile below. Wind whistles through the slats. The man that lives there was in his late 70’s, at least. 

But the love and embrace of life there is something I’ll never forget. And thinking back to that time, I get a little warmer thinking of the time we spent with that wonderful family and village. When Lo San the young cousin of our host was gently coaxed by his grandmother inside. 

So, today I took a walk through our not so distant past. Here Lo San, being a terrible two monster of a child looks up into my lens. 

His dad watches proudly while Lo San gets up to something else.

Then we huddle inside, warmed by the fire and the yak butter tea, some relishing it while others look upon with disdain and anxiety. 

Over that 24 hours that was this day one year ago, when looking back over the imagery, it looks as if we floated through the minutes. The day passed here while we went to bed and then rose early to walk the valley and national park in Jiuzhaigou. Here Tracie ponders the stunning quiet found in the noise of a bank of low waterfalls.

We walked a good amount of the length of the park, hopping on the constant hum of trams full of chinese tourists, here and there. We wanted to get our money worth at $50 US each for one day in the park. We strolled for about six hours. 


Birds gorged themselves by the dribbling streams


Phantoms arose from the mineral lakes


And slight changes in perspective, would change everything you saw



We were welcomed back to the Tibetan village by the prayers on the wind


With thoughts of that day we plunge into today.


The Jiuzhaigou experience

So we arrived in a big giant puddle in the parking lot of Jiuzhaigou and we had no idea what to expect. By far the best aspect of our visit was Zhuo Ma’s Tibetan homestay. Beyond the park itself, it made the 11 hour bus ride, fighting with hordes of domestic tourists, and my cold toes all worth it. We yet again found this homestay through an article we found on the internet (do you see a pattern here?), and it sounded right up our alley – we wanted to meet people that actually lived there and experience the local culture. We got that and a whole lot more!

Zhuo Ma is one of the most amazing people that I’ve ever met. She left her small village in Jiuzhaigou when she was only seventeen for Beijing without speaking any Chinese. She stayed for a few years, learned Chinese perfectly, came back to Jiuzhaigou and opened an acclaimed Tibetan restaurant with her brother. On top of that, she started the homestay last year and we happened to stumble in on it. With all of these accomplishments you’d think that she wouldn’t have time for anyone, but she is the total opposite – she is so humble, warm and generous. When we arrived, she invited us in, sat us down right next to the big stove and immediately gave us steaming cups of yak butter tea. And kept them filled the entire time we were there! And even though she was hosting a party that weekend, she went out of her way to help arrange our travels and to make us feel at home.

We really did feel like we were part of the family. She and her mother took turns in the kitchen, cooking up enormous and tasty Tibetan meals (yak, preserved vegetables, fresh vegetables, potatoes. Yum!), and we sat together and ate and drank lots of yak butter tea. We watched Losan, Zhuo Ma’s two year old nephew, run around and we’d play with him for a bit. We had friendly exchanges with cousins, relatives and neighbors who dropped by. We also chatted with Zhuo Ma about her life, the goings on in the village and why she wanted to have a homestay. For her, it’s so important to show visitors the other side to Jiuzhaigou. Many people who visit only see a very superficial, packaged version of Tibetan life if they do at all – basically tawdry “ethnic” performances geared to titillate rather than educate. Realizing that Jiuzhaigou was first and foremost a Tibetan area and seeing the economic and social reality for Tibetans colored our experience in a very different way than if we had stayed in a bland hotel in town.

The other advantage to staying with Zhuo Ma was the amazing landscape. We walked on the yak/sheep paths up the mountain and the views were spectacular. When we were high enough, we could see down into the next valley and the snow-capped peaks loomed over us. At night, we’d burrow under the warmest blankets ever to keep out the mountain cold. And when we woke up, we threw open the bedroom window to a view of Tibetan prayer flags, wooden houses, and craggy mountains in the distance.

There was also a flurry of activity happening at the house, which we also enjoyed. It turned out that the weekend party was for Zhuo Ma’s friend Kieran, an Irishman who works for the national park. People were coming from far and wide for the party, so we met all manner of ex-pats. Some were traveling through, others settled in Chengdu, and some were short term researchers in Jiuzhaigou. So we heard about their experiences of living in China and how it can be both rewarding and frustrating at the same time. One guy said he had to be glued to his mobile phone playing solitaire whenever he was a passenger in a car because if he paid attention to the way people drive he’d go insane.

After a few short days, Zhuo Ma gave us big hugs and we set out for a (very) long journey to Shanghai.