There are few places in the world that I’ve had a more romantic view of than the “rooftop of the world,” Tibet.
Tibet! It’s the home of the Dalai Lama, rainbows of prayer flags, yak’s milk tea, and the devoutest Buddhist monks. It’s one of those magical, lost-in-time places where tradition trumps all, a place impervious to both western cultural imperialism, and the culture-crushing Chinese government.
Or so it’s supposed to be.
After a forty-five hour train ride through stunning ice-capped mountains, I arrived in Lhasa, expecting to be greeted by rosy-cheeked women in colorful bonnets selling doughy buns dipped in honey, spry monks singing hymns, and wooly yaks wandering through cobblestone streets.
Instead, I found myself in a modern city, complete with animated cross-walk signs.
The streets are paved with asphalt and are uncommonly clean for China, and the herds of yaks I imagined seem to have been replaced by taxi cabs. Traditional Tibetans, like the proud and happy people I saw in DanBa just a few days ago, are few and far between. Instead what I saw were Tibetan hipsters.
Yes, hipsters. Apparently the people of Lhasa are a pretty fashion-conscious bunch. They’re clad in tight, stone-washed, pre-ripped jeans and leather jackets. Their hair is dolled up, or hidden behind a trendy trucker’s hat emblazoned with English catchphrase or ironic mascot character. I’ve never seen more hip clothing shops in a row than I have walking down the block outside our hostel, and I’ve been to Beverly Hills. Yes, the people are Tibetans — I can tell by their dark skin, long hair and pink cheeks — but they dress and act way more like my friends in West Hollywood or Williamsburg, Brooklyn, than the Dalai Lama.
A tad disappointed, my tour group checked into the Lhasa International Youth Hostel. We are a motley group of 8 people of 6 different nationalities, bound to stay together for the next ten days due to our shared Tibet permit and China’s outrageous government regulations on foreigners visiting Tibet. We have to do just about everything together, whether we like it or not.
The first thing on our agenda: eat some authentic Tibetan food. Where better to find it than the capitol of Tibet?
We asked the hotel clerks for a recommendation, and the best that they could do was point us toward a street with “many” restaurants. Wandering in that general direction, we first passed a Dico’s (a Chinese fast food chain with a menu indistinguishable from KFC’s), and then several Chinese restaurants specializing in Sichuan or Chengdu style food…from the province 1,000 miles to the east that we had just arrived from. Tibetan food was nowhere to be found.
When you’re traveling with a big, hungry group, mutinous feelings tend to spring up pretty quickly, so when we saw a restaurant painted with some Tibetan designs, the group consensus was that we were tired of walking.
Inside, we were greeted by genuine Tibetan waitresses, complete with long, braided hair with colorful head dresses. “Finally!” we thought, “We’re in Tibet!”
We gathered around the table and excitedly flipped open the menu….to find almost nothing even the slightest bit Tibetan. “Do you have any momos?” our group’s one Mandarin speaker asked, hoping we could get some of the Tibetan-style dumplings we’d read about in our Lonely Planet books, a staple of Tibetan cuisine. The waitress looked at us like a yak looks at an on coming train, before finally telling us that they didn’t make momos.
Taking the cue, we asked her if there were any dishes with yak meat. Nope. The best they could do was some Yak’s Milk Tea, which they made especially for us.
As we ate yet another meal of pork fried rice and Sichuan-style noodles, we sat in silence. Finally, someone raised up his cup of yak tea: “We’re in Tibet, guys!”