I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited,
but I couldn’t stay away, couldn’t fight it…
Adele, Someone Like you
We got out of the white SUV and the driver, the pudgier one, introduced us to his grandfather, a hardened-looking, cut, seventy-year-old man with a faded yellow cowboy hat and a hearty laugh. Grandpa lived in a small, metal building with a glass-enclosed porch that was half store, half home for him and his wife. The glass case in the store was lined with simple foods, instant noodles and bottles of Coke. On top of the glass were almost fifty cups of yogurt.
“Do you want your yogurt warm or chilled?” our driver asked, handing us cups. After he sprinkled each cup with over a tablespoon of sugar, we sipped at the stuff. In contrast to what other bloggers have reported about Tibetan yogurt, it was the tastiest, freshest yogurt I have ever eaten. The yogurt was not uniform, but had thick, solid bits floating in a liquidy base. Having been made from yaks milked a mile away, we expected it to still have hints of yak smell, but there was nothing. It was delicious.
Three brown, urn-like vessels sat atop small stools pressed against one of the walls of the building. Each of the urns contained a local moonshine, which the police gladly poured us a cup of. I sipped it, but it was like fire water going down my throat. I could not finish half of the cup, giving my remainder to Galen, who drank it and then did another two ounce shot with grandpa, who was happy to see that at least one American could handle his liquor like a real Tibetan man.
At this point, our police escort left, carrying some yogurt and telling us that we could sleep in a tent beside Grandpa’s building. The tent was a twelve by twelve square, with carpeted wooden pallets laid out on either side, to keep occupants from sleeping on the cold pasture ground. We should have realized it then, but it was going to get cold that night. We laid our sleeping bags out on the pallets and then left to hike.
We were in a mountain valley that led down into Qinghai Lake, China’s largest lake, though we could not quite see the lake. We crossed over the highway and onto a rutted dirt road that led towards brown mountains. The valley around us was green with a thin layer of grass, dappled with small clusters of yaks and sheep, with a handful of horses. Otherwise, the landscape was desolate and moon-like, without a single tree. Across the valley, some of the mountains were iced with a white layer of snow.
We hiked for an hour without seeing anything new. The land is so raw and open that you can walk for miles and feel like you have not moved at all. The landscape never changes. We were passed by several herders on motorcycles, off to tend their flocks or lug yogurt back to their stores. We talked to them briefly before they headed out to tend to their farms and flocks.
Wisps of rain clouds breezed over us. Galen and I decided to head back in, since his camera gear was exposed. By the time we returned to the tent, the sun was setting and the temperature was dropping quickly. After saying good night to Grandpa, watching tv with his wife on the small bed inside his metal building, we crawled into our sleeping bags on the wooden pallets inside the tent.
In the car, the two police officers had told us that we had gotten to Qinghai a little before the tourist season really began. I thought that was great news, but they corrected me. “No. It’s going to get real cold tonight. It would have been a lot nicer in maybe twenty days.”
It did get cold. That late June night, the temperature fell into the high twenties. Galen had a thin sleeping bag and only a single extra layer of clothes. He took one of my shirts and wrapped himself in the tent’s rain fly, but still, he was only able to get two hours of sleep that frigid night. A Tibetan Mastiff, unable or unwilling to go to sleep, barked all night as if trying to remind Galen that he could not sleep in this cold.
The next morning, everything was covered in frost. A car appeared outside our tent and Grandpa signaled to Galen that I needed to wake up because this car was taking us into town. We squeezed into the back of a beat-up jalopy and bumped a few miles down a dirt road into town. In the town, they delivered some of Grandpa’s yogurt to a store and left us on the sidewalk, trying to figure out how to get back into town as several Tibetans on motorcycles passed by us, dead sheep slung across their laps.