Tawashuma Tsampa

tawshuma-compThe time had come on our journey across Qinghai to sample the local porridge – tsampa – ground and roasted barley to which black tea, butter and sometimes sugar, and sometimes little hard bits of cheese are added . This is an energy rich  food whose calories enable the nomads that we were seeing outside the window of our speeding pajero, to lead hundreds of yaks to pastures  5000 metres high with little more preparation than strapping a kettle their horse, a sack of ground barley in their saddle bag, and a pouched flint on their sash.
From lake Kokonor  where we’d camped the night before to Holy Mt.Amnye Machen, our destination, was a full days drive.  We crossed blood vessel popping passes feeling the altitude as blinding stabs to the temporal lobe   that got a little better as we descended into the village of TawaShuma. Here we searched out to the house of a yak train driver called Ledger, whom  we’d been told pilgrims typically hired pack animals to carry their tsampa and and tea kettles . Bone tired,  we set up  tents in  front of his house.  Ledger had gone to Xining with the guesthouse keys, so we prepped  ourselves for tsampa as the easiest dinner option.  Jamian Phuntsok – now more a “dishes” loving city boy than a tsampa eating Yak-boy,   gave our vegetables  to the pretty daughters of Ledger who before we knew it had  cooked us a  hand pinched  noodle soup which we ate to the tune of  ledgers father, an old village patriarch, telling us stories of Amnye Machen and the multitude of merit  earning Koras he had performed. ” I have walked it , herded yaks around it, prostrated around it, even driven cars around it he said… too many times to count .

The driving cars bit was of most interest to us. We had  heard that this kora was  a whole eight walking days  too long for the single  day we had allocated it in our tight  schedule. We’d not entertained thoughts of more than a glimpse of this holy mountain, and a lucky photograph if the clouds  raised themselves from  its snowy peak. We discusssed the food  prospects in this potentially barren wilderness  should we be stranded on roads that could be  treacherous,  washed out even in all this rain we’d had, but with Driver- Namgel’s  blessings,  backed up by thermoses and   the security of Jamian Phuntsoks 10kg sack of tsampa, we decided  to  hit the holy road into the mountains , camping out wherever we might  end up – such is the freedom that porridge allows.

The chained guard dog   barked us to sleep in our tents that night, and we listened to the rain falling on Nylon as small rocks under our tents massaged our spines. I dreamed of the  deliciousness of the   porridge we would have for  breakfast. Dawn arrived with more music from the dog,  Jacqui and I walked across the fragrant grasslands releasing minty  oils with every footstep, then returned to the homestead for plunged coffees,  and before we knew it  bowls were being layed before us  and the much anticipated barley porridge breakfast was dissolving into the strong black tea with an oil slick of home churned butter forming on top. I took a crunchy fried dough twist and dipped it into the warm soupy gloop,  relishing the fact that i was finally having the exotic porridge experience that i had crossed a continent for. “There is a lovely nuttiness ro this tsampa,”  I commented to Susan who was downing her bowl with a couple of headache quelling Nurofens. “And a very peanut buttery mouth feel,” I said to Jacqui, who had refused tsampa in favour of actual peanut butter which she was spreading on a two week old loaf of European bread that she’d bought in Lhasa. Jamian Phuntsok and Namgel were bent over, faces inches from their bowls, sucking the tsampa down, totally at one with the eating experience, too tsampa absorbed to  join the discourse on the blue cheese undertones to which  I was waxing poetic.
Actions spoke  far louder than my words, both picking up their bowls  to lick them clean.
“This is what I love most about Tibet” said Jacqui. “The freedom to lick your  bowl  if you want to. It makes me   feel so at home.”

Fueled on tsampa, butter and black black tea, we hit the road with new  lessons learnt from the porridge; to listen to old yak train leading patriarchs for they have  the experienece;  that  freedom belongs to those who keep their needs simple; and  that happiness is  licking the bowl clean with relish and appreciation.

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