• Posted by Jacquie Bellon on July 13th, 2008, 3:31 PM

    The Sichuan–Tibet highway, a sporadically paved two-lane road, winds through forests of birch and willow trees turning gold, spruce, pines, and mountainsides of no fewer than 190 species of rhododendrons. The highway then descends rather abruptly into a lush sub-tropical zone dense with ferns, bamboo, and an evergreen canopy. It skirts rushing boulder-strewn rivers with unending, raging class-five rapids, spanned with occasional prayer-flag-bedecked, flimsy wire-and-plank bridges. The road then ribbons over 18,000-foot passes festooned with prayer flags after crossing through wet meadows full of impossibly blue gentians. It is also boulder-strewn, dusty, and occasionally commandeered by languidly browsing yaks, heavily laden buses and trucks, and groups or solitary pilgrims prostrating their way to Lhasa.

    Although it traverses a remote landscape, the road is alive with new and old villages, with houses fashioned of pressed earth and carved, brightly painted doorways and window frames. Haystacks dot harvested fields of hay, and yaks graze on the stubble left behind, along with chickens and small, agile black pigs. Terraced plots of buckwheat, brassicas, and flowering rape fan out below the houses.

    Click any image for slideshow.

    Our Tibetan drivers know all the best restaurants on the route from Lhasa to Chamdo. The restaurants are simple in décor and sometimes undetectable from the street to the unaccustomed eye. In some towns, with identical establishments lining the road, they choose the one place where the soup is superior, local vegetables more varied, and the most talented cook in the kitchen. They order without a menu and, while we wait for the food to arrive, we munch on the ubiquitous bowl of sunflower seeds, tossing the husks on the floor as is customary. The ample roll of toilet paper on the table serves as napkins.

    We are promptly served eight to ten superb dishes made from fresh local ingredients: several varieties of wild mushrooms, ginseng, black fungus (also called tree ears because of their shape), unfurled fiddlehead ferns, just-picked greens from the terraces, bowls of rice and noodles, run-around chickens, pigs, and yaks, and fish du jour from the pristine river.

    To enjoy your meal fully you must leave your prejudices at the door. If you do not eat pork, bacon, or homemade sausage, if you are afraid of wild mushrooms and leery of tiny, hot, red peppers, or you are concerned that you cannot identify the platter of steamed greens, relax, let go, it’s the best meal you’ll ever eat.

    Stone soup is the specialty of Lulang, a tiny town on the shore of a spectacular alpine lake. A hollowed-out rock shaped into a large tureen sits in a hole in the middle of a round wooden table with a gas burner heating it from below. A whole chicken, complete from head to toes, is doing the backstroke in a steaming broth redolent of garlic, ginger, ginseng, and onions. The bird was probably happily scratching in the dirt outside with its fine feathered friends this morning. Arranged around the stone soup are plates of chopped cabbage, tofu, green onions, rice noodles, and spinach-like greens. Tradition demands that these be added to the soup only after everyone has had one bowl of clear broth.

    I can say enthusiastically and without hesitation that, after decades of chicken soup for this traveler’s soul on several continents, stone soup from Lulang is the best I’ve ever had. It must be the stone and the terroir.

    Of the places along the route, though, one stands out for me from all the rest, a traditional Tibetan restaurant that is our first stop for lunch after leaving Lhasa. The tables are low, gaily painted with flowers, and topped with bright oilcloth. The sitting benches are covered with luxuriously thick, hand-woven Tibetan wool rugs.

    A huge heating stove fueled with yak dung patties is host to kettles of boiling water for butter tea and a large pot of soup. A tin pail next to the stove door is brimming with dung patties that the woman serving us diligently feeds into the fire. Behind the stove, time-polished copper water dippers hang from a strung wire, waiting.

    The fare is simple and deeply satisfying in this high country, where the altitude requires constant hydration: yak soup with chunks of meat and bones, floating thick slices of pale daikon radish, and warm, round, just-baked flat bread to dip with. On every table sit the ever present small bowls of crushed red peppers for heat. Never mind that the beautiful, ruddy-cheeked woman just stoked the stove with yak chips before refilling our bowls with soup, passing more flatbread, and topping off the cups of yak butter tea, a rich brew with a pleasant salty taste.

    After such a meal I am tempted to recline on the Tibetan rugs in the dark quiet room, and dream of Arctic wetlands filled with gentians as blue as the sky. But, there are miles to go before we sleep and a formal banquet waiting at day’s end, which, I’ve been warned, will approximate if not supersede last night’s feast in Lhasa.

    The banquet in Lhasa was an endless défilé of succulent, provocative, and exotic platters spinning by on a central lazy Susan. Take pig’s ears for example, not something I would ordinarily order but, sliced thinly and pickled, sprinkled with cilantro, green onions, and red pepper flakes, they were pleasantly chewy and quite delicious. Equally foreign to my palate was the jellyfish, which closely resembles rice noodles. It was finely textured and remarkably tasty in its brine. The yak tongue, boiled to perfection in broth, was presented au naturel in thin vertical slices; dipped in a roasted red pepper paste, it had a reassuring down-home taste. The two dishes of yak meat, one with wild mushrooms from northern Tibet and the other with pine mushrooms from Linsi, were to die for, as were the mounds of vegetable potstickers. The subtle savory egg custard with thin slices of wild mushrooms was irresistible at every turn. I could have eaten the whole succulently deep fried fish from the Kyichu River by myself, but I had to behave and only pinch little bites with my chopsticks as it glided by on the lazy Susan.

    There were, of course, dishes of unfamiliar but perfectly steamed greens and broccoli to balance the richness of the meat, fowl, and fish. Once, during the feast, I asked the translator to identify the dish in front of me. She answered “lamb” and I helped myself to a couple of pieces only to be told later that she had made a mistake and meant to say “lung,” but by then I was dipping into pig’s ears.

    Toward the end of the feast I noticed that the platter of thinly sliced cold meats was hardly touched (I tried it of course, but only one piece), while the roast duck was all gone.  I wanted to polish off the last remaining Vietnamese shrimp and the asparagus spears sliced to pencil thin perfection. I wanted to strip the meat from the few remaining lamb ribs. I fantasized about taking a doggie bag home with me to the hotel. But that would have meant giving the lazy Susan a few more turns and I suspected that banquet protocol insisted on the hosts doing that, to place the best dishes before you, time and again. Besides, the final obligatory bowl of noodle soup had arrived, followed by the signature wedges of local watermelon, signaling the end of the banquet, and, anyway, I had eaten quite enough for one night.

    Jacquie Bellon, an artist, has lived and worked on the San Juan Ridge for the last 39 years. She presently teaches the practice of the illustrated journal (a process involving writing, collage, drawing, painting) to cancer patients, their families and caregivers. Her other discipline involves looking out at the view of the South Yuba canyon from her house, which she built from scratch with her ex-husband.

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