Yak by Eileen Moran for In The Know TravelerEverything here smells like Yak.

The smell I have been mistaking for Yak for the past few days is actually the smell of urine mixed with clay. The “bathrooms” here are actually sometimes semi-enclosed spaces of ground/clay with a high end and a low end. To use it, you stand/squat on the high end and aim for the low end. Sometimes (only in one bathroom I have found so far) the low end is covered with boards and you squat/stand over the rectangular hole in the middle. The problem is that the hole is large enough to fit two people and the wood looks about 100 years old. Living with the fear that your purse or worse, you will drop through the barely boards is not fun. I am going with the theory that not touching anything will keep me from getting sick – so far, so good. It is strange to me that for so long I identified the smell of the “bathrooms” with the smell of Yak- but the clay really holds on to the smell so it is in the air everywhere.

The food is OK- mostly yak products and breads. Butter, yogurt, candles (not eaten but found everywhere) cheese, milk, and milk tea are the yak products. The bread is steamed and flavored with saffron or cardamom or deep-fried like an unsweetened donut – or flour seeped in oil. Did I mention that the yak butter and cheese are left out to “dry” on the hillsides? They are mostly rancid and always chewy. I have been eating a lot of pears and spinach, as they are the only non-yak, non-bread products that are available, which are not candy. Although we are all keeping up the sugar intake to keep our blood heavily oxygenated, I do not want to over do the sugar.

It is really, really cold here and the air thin. That may have something to do with why I finally got a Tibetan jacket and scarf. The jackets are 100% wool with a fake yak lining – because the real ones are not cured well and smell like rotting meat, because they are rotting meat! The clothing is interesting here. Most wear many layers, mostly wool, and mostly black, but adorned with many bright colors. The women wear lots of jewelry. It is common to see $10,000 to $15,000US worth of coral, gold, and turquoise on a Tibetan woman. They sell plastic replicas (that would not fool even a small child) for pennies, but the real stuff is very valuable and priced accordingly.

The hillsides are lovely, spotted with sheep, yak, and tent villages. Small adobe homes sprout out of the mud like strange plants, and the clay is a beautiful color in contrast with the green grasses and wild flowers. We drove by a Chinese army outpost – rather scary. They had tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and a whole lot of soldiers…makes me think.

The monks are so much fun. We picked up a monk in ReKon and brought him with us to Labrahn because he needs to buy new robes for his monastery. He is a Tanka artist. Tanka is the traditional Tibetan way of painting Buddhas, protective demons, and life themes to decorate the walls of temples. He is very skilled and we saw a lot of his work. Each small tanka takes over a month to complete, and some of the larger ones can take over 3 months! If he is lucky, he sells one tanka a month, usually the equivalent of $50US and that income is his monthly salary. Of course, the money goes to the temple, not to him. It is a lot of work for $50!

Monastery by Eileen Moran for In The Know Traveler on Tibet monks and travelI bought a tanka of the Buddha who is in charge of learning. In his right hand he holds a sword to slice ignorance, and in his left he holds a rose with a book resting on the bloom. It is beautiful but not too high quality as the higher the quality and detail, the higher the price. I think it would be good in the baby’s room because it would impress cultural understanding and the importance of education.

Here in Labrahn, we are staying in dorms. The five girls are in one room, and the monk, the professor, and boys in the other. Our married couple, Missy and Brian from San Francisco, get their own room. The hostel is nice, and breakfast is served on the premises. Breakfast is roasted Barley flour mixed with water, yak butter, yak cheese and sugar. You stir it for about five minutes until the only lumps left are the cheese. The cheese is actually yak yogurt that is spread on a blanket and left to “dry” on a hillside/mud pile. It is fine as long as you do not chew the cheese. Anyway, this is served with the steamed and fried breads, and yak milk tea, which is salted and smells like old candles too.

The temples here are immense and amazing. They burn a kind of pine that gives off the same smell a crematorium gives off, so each trip to a temple is an olfactory adventure. In Rekon we went to the temple of the Living Buddha, amazing! Unfortunately, photos cannot be taken inside the temples. The Buddhas are big and the ornate decorations inside the temples are mind-blowingly beautiful. There is such a sense of calm and beauty inside these temples. Many were destroyed in the cultural revolution, but were re-built in the ’80s. Many of the roofs were reconstructed in the traditional 1680’s style when the emperor was into Tantric Buddhism and liked gilded roofs.

Here there are three kinds of Buddhism: of the head, the heart, and the belly/body. Meditation practice by those focusing on the head and is the only kind I had any contact with in the states. One cultural practice I saw was people have to collect merit by walking off karma around the temples clockwise, praying and turning the prayer wheels. Many people bring their children here to gain merit for them. Children are taught to walk around the temples and spin the wheels. It is very cute. The idea is that all selfish deeds/thoughts build up bad karma, and that gaining merit by praying, giving to the poor, and walking around the temples etc. wipes out the bad karma and gives good karmic merit.

I have been spending a lot of time with the monk, talking about his life here, and what his goals are. We spoke for 3 hours last night about the American dream of all things. He is very interesting and very nice.

Written and photography by Eileen Moran