Tibetan Food and the Tourist Treatment in Western China

Former Traveler staffer Ashley Thompson gives us a glimpse of travel and food in Western China.

Out the bus window, the Wild West of China began to unfurl, as did lush peaks towering over muddy rivers. We whizzed past tiny Sichuan mountain villages, whose daredevil residents sell exotic fruits mere inches from the highway, affording them harsh breezes as tourist buses came and went. We even passed one particularly brave woman doing her daily exercises using the highway guardrail as a makeshift ballet bar.

We had left Sichuan’s comparatively glitzy provincial capital, Chengdu, that morning. After a total of nine hours of winding up and down cloud-cloaked mountains, we arrived in Kangding at about 8 p.m. Most of Kangding, considered by Chinese standards a mere blip of a town with a population of 80,000, is squeezed into a valley and sidles up to two rushing rivers that converge near the center of town. The water sounded distinctly frothy, the air crisp. Local street-goers were adorned in a wide array of attire, from sleek blazers to traditional colorful Tibetan robes to Adidas T-shirts. My travel companion and friend, Thomas, and I wore shorts and T-shirts, expecting a climate similar to the one we left in sweltering Chengdu.

But we were cold. And hungry. Through last-minute research before venturing off into this mountainous region near the Tibetan frontier, I had jotted down the name of a Tibetan restaurant very near the bus station called Re Tibetan Restaurant. Bags in tow, we made that our first stop.

There’s no door leading inside Re, but instead a heavy-duty, brightly decorated curtain, with eye-catching red, blue, yellow, and green designs. The colorful Tibetan theme continued inside, and certainly leaked onto the menu, which included myriad dishes with yak meat, a Tibetan staple. The tattered, multi-page menu had pictures and was peppered with occasional English translations. We decided on minced yak meat tomato casserole, curry potatoes with yak meat, “beautiful valley” vegetable cake, and yak butter tea to drink.  The vegetable cake was a flaky pastry stuffed with vegetables. The spiciness of the food, particularly the curry, and the butter tea’s intense saltiness interacted in a way that both were dampened to a very pleasant level.

We enjoyed our meal so much at Re that we decided to return there the next afternoon after hiking Paoma Shan, Kangding’s premier peak that leads to a secluded Buddhist temple. I’ve always considered “re-restauranting” while traveling something of a foodie faux pas, but let our decision to go back to Re be a testament to just how wonderful the experience was.

However, it soon became clear that this experience would be a bit different. After we were seated, we were presented with much newer, much pricier menus that were clearly not the same as the night before. I successfully defeated my rage and pitiful Chinese and expressed to our server that we had been there the night before and were given different menus, with prices nearly 50 percent cheaper. Somehow, we had averted the typical tourist treatment our first time here. She pretended that she didn’t understand me, but the jig was up. She looked sheepish, and started laughing nervously with her co-workers. Finally, the youngest of the bunch presented us with the tattered menus we recognized from yesterday’s dinner. We had won, yes, but something had changed about that place. It was no longer the same in our eyes.

We decided to boycott Re, and walked mopily out of the restaurant, sad and hungry. Still yearning for Tibetan grub, we walked aimlessly for a block or two, until I looked up–lifting my sad gaze off my dragging feet–and saw a cute little Tibetan teahouse. “Too bad they don’t have food in there,” I said to Thomas. But Thomas, the literate genius that he is, read the sign about three feet above the door, which triumphantly announced “Tibetan Restaurant.”

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We hurried inside and took a seat along the benches that lined the walls so that diners faced each other, eating on blocky tables that went up to your knees. This place was hoppin’. Thomas and I squeezed next to a grandmother and grandson. She was dressed in a bright blue traditional Tibetan dress, her long hair woven intricately with a ribbon and tied in a bun. Across from us were two swankily dressed local men with gold jewelry and sport coats. Their hair was gelled enough to properly withstand any amount of mountain wind they might encounter.

We decided on beef baozi (a type of dumpling similar to Central Asian mantas), two orders of beef and yak butter rice, and a pot of Tibetan butter tea–this time sweetened. The beef was quite tender, and the yak butter made the rice smooth and heavenly. The sweetened butter tea was a great choice for this meal, because this time we didn’t have to battle piquante curry sauce.

The real joy of this meal, though, was having a front-row seat to the diverse segments of the Kangding population, smack in the midst of acclimating to the hordes of Han Chinese migrating to the country’s western frontiers. We ate our food very slowly, mostly because it was quite hearty and rich, but also to soak up the culture. We asked one of our fellow diners to take a picture of us. We wanted to capture the moment. After being treated like typical tourists at the other Tibetan restaurant, it was a welcome experience to be treated a little bit like one of the locals. Or at least dine shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

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