the medicinal qualities of yak butter

November 1998 – Tibet – Lhasa

The early morning flight from Chengdu was spectacular. The glossy black and white pictures that I’d pored over in my high school geomorphology text paled in comparison. Glaciers, moraines, lakes, snow, cirques, arretes – they were all up there in the thin blue air. Some peaks were so high they rose above the clouds.

At the airport, it was bags loaded onto the bus then a communal push-start to get us going on the next leg which, over a distance of 60 kilometres, took as long as the flight. We bumped our way through the post-glacial landscape of wide flowing streams, swampy marshes and smooth river rocks. Prayer flags adorned the corners of white washed houses with yaks, goats, sheep and pigs in nearby enclosures.

Our hotel was a three-level concrete block structure with no lift. The entry steps were covered with a painted wooden portico. A heavy woven mat protected the foyer from the cold outside.

Despite spending a few days in the higher climbs of Chengdu, we were not yet acclimatized to altitude sickness. As we were checking in, our 12 year old lost consciousness briefly. Just as she was coming to, an old man appeared from nowhere and carried her up the stairs with us following quickly behind. He laid her on the bed and disappeared.

We were hatching plans to go and buy some canned oxygen from the markets outside when he returned with a container of yak butter and proceeded to apply the butter between her toes and fingers, under her ears and around her hairline. Surmising it could do no harm, yet still somewhat bemused, we thanked him for his care.

We spent the next day or so taking it easy as each of us succumbed in varying degrees to the symptoms. We got very good at sourcing provisions of dry biscuits, toilet paper, tissues and water to supplement our own supplies of Gastrolyte and black tea. The fact that our room was a good distance away from the bathrooms and toilets on the floor added to the adventure.

It was a couple of days before the first patient had the strength to take a shower by which time ….. well you know what butter does when it’s left out of the fridge for any length of time.  We both remember that shower and appreciating the warmth and light of the sun shining through the window.

Once we were all well enough, we took the long walk up to the Potala Palace to wonder at the golden halls lit by yak butter candles. Our fair-haired girls attracted much attention, none the least of which was from a group of Chinese Army recruits who, one by one, had photographs taken with them wearing their hats.

Potala Palace - Nov 1998

And my last, but not least memory of being in Lhasa?  Every time I look at the photograph below, I’m reminded of the kindness of this woman who asked if we would like a photograph of her with our children. No common language was spoken between us. A monetary exchange was refused and there was no luxury of an email address to which we could send a copy to reciprocate her gesture. She took and gave pleasure in that one moment. 

Why do we travel? This.

Potala Palace rooftop

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