Just a little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to travel to China, Tibet and Hong Kong. I had always dreamed of going to China and Hong Kong, having friends and family who lived in those places, but when Overseas Adventure Travel offered Tibet, too, I jumped. Looking back, I am so lucky to have left March 2019 and not planned the trip for 2020.
After traveling through China – Shanghai, Beijing, Xian and the Terra Cotta Warriors, and then Chengdu with the most adorable pandas – we flew to Lhasa, Tibet. Luckily, I had a window seat next to two Tibetan monks. What a beautiful sight as I gazed out the window. The highest mountains in the world covered with snow, deep valleys in between rivers, and a few villages a long distance down. We had been warned to bring medicine for heights, taken the night before, and then landing at 12,000 feet. After an hour and a half drive from the airport to Lhasa, we passed fields of canola, water buffalo, and snow-covered mountains off in the distance. The cold got to me first, and then a slight headache, but nothing to worry about.
The next morning, we visited the Jokhang Temple where everywhere people were prostrating themselves and the rancid smell of yak butter used to fill the candle holders filled the air. The golden domes of the temple, spectacular artwork, and elaborate Buddha graced the building inside and out. In the afternoon we visited the ornate Sera Temple where many families brought their children to receive a black mark on their face (be good). Intricate mandalas were being designed or completed, monks were being educated, and we even visited the kitchen that looked like something out of the Middle Ages with huge pans and very primitive. Later that day, we viewed the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace, seeing only a few rooms. This was built in 1954 to 1956. He really did not get to enjoy it very much as he fled the country in 1959.
We were always looking up no matter where we were in Lhasa. The Potala Palace was blinding in its size and another thousand steps up. Built in the 700s and enlarged by a king in the 1500s, there are more than 1,000 rooms, but we visited only 17 of them as well as the Treasury, which is laden with jewels, jade, tapestries, and pottery. By the time I reached the top, my breath was taken away. I stopped for a moment to breathe in the fresh air and make sure I was not dizzy. It was hard to imagine hundreds of monks living here with the Dalai Lama, so overwhelming in its size, and splendor. Returning to the hotel, I walked around Lhasa for an hour before we met with a Tibetan family. Outside the home was rubble, but inside luxurious fabric and setting.
Something of note is that Tibet is an autonomous region of China and has been for a long time. In every home there must be a picture of Xi Jingping, and perhaps his wife. Family and friends can tattle on you if this is not hung prominently, and prison, or worse, may follow. We were served yak tea (I declined as I did not like the smell) and other sweets. The family spoke to us for a short time and we were able to tour their modest home. They all have an altar as worship is part of their lives. Women go to market daily, homes do not have dryers so laundry is hung out, beds might be in the kitchen for warmth, and most people still wear their native dress.
The next morning, we woke to snow and a flight to Chongqing for our Yangtze River cruise and a visit to the Three Gorges Dam. Over 1 million people were uprooted and moved from their villages and towns when the dam was built. Before leaving mainland China, we spent the night at a hotel outside Wuhan and left for Hong Kong the next morning.
I am so blessed to have experienced China, Tibet and Hong Kong when I did. Between the protests in Hong Kong, the Corona virus outbreak in Wuhan, and the crackdown on the Uighars in China, and basically Tibet cut off from the world, we do live in a new era. Everywhere in China, Tibet, and Hong Kong there was a military presence, especially in Tibet with so many armed soldiers and tanks. It was forbidden to photograph the military.
On my return to the States, there was an editorial about the plight of Uighars in western China, their reeducation, imprisonment, and not knowing who might be alive. I sent a letter to the editors saying I had seen much the same in Tibet. Radio Free Asia and writers reporting in China for the Washington Post were in touch with me and eager for my pictures since they are not allowed to travel there. Sadly, the writers were recently expelled from China as part of the government’s crackdown, I am sure, so not to let the world know what really happened there concerning the virus. While we do not know as much about these countries, I hope in time things will open up and we can once again enjoy the splendor of these ancient kingdoms.
Bulug (New Year Pastry)
Bulug is a type of khapse often cooked for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Lhasa folk say kar sum, ngar sum in reference to the bulug batter, meaning “three milk, three sugar.”
Please be very careful when cooking khapse. The hot oil is extremely dangerous and you don’t want to splash it on you. Make sure any utensils you put into the oil are free of water, as the water will pop in the hot oil.
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar dissolved in 1 cup of warm water (more sugar if you like sweeter pastries)
2 cups milk
1 quart of sunflower oil for deep frying
Combine the flour, sugar, and milk in a bowl. Stir the batter in a single direction for about 20 minutes with long handled wooden spoon or chopstick. The consistency of the mixture should be like pancake batter, with no big lumps.
Pour the oil into a large deep pan. Better to do this outside on a campfire than inside. Heat the oil until it smokes a bit.
Pour your batter into a pastry bag.
When the oil is ready, squeeze a steady stream of batter into the oil, working to make first the outline of a large circle and then to fill into the circle. Keep in a circular shape. Once you have a fairly stable circle shape, you will squiggle on more batter to more or less fill the circle with dough.
Cook the bulug on high heat for a few minutes, until golden brown. After a minute or two, turn it over very gently, with a long-handled utensil. Turn it only once or twice.
Remove the bulug from the oil with a slotted spoon or large straining utensil, letting the oil drain over the pan. We place the bulug on paper towels to absorb as much oil as possible.
It’s common to sprinkle some powdered sugar on the bulug after they have cooled a bit, but usually we eat them just as they are, with sweet tea or Tibetan tea.
Most Tibetans arrange the bulug as part of their stacks of khapse on their Losar shrine. If you have extra, store them in an airtight container and you can keep them quite a while, though they do get hard over time.
During Losar, Tibetans often eat khapse in a dish called changkol or koenden, which is khapse together with chang and a few other ingredients. Broken up pieces of bulug are very tasty in the changkol. Recipe and comments courtesy of Lobsang Wangdu and Yolanda O’Bannon of Yowangdu Tibetan Culture at www.yowangdu.com.
~ Written by Katie Barney, a local author and world traveler. For more recipes from around the world by Katie Barney, consider purchasing The Enchanting World of Food at www.conduitpress.net or call 410-820-9915.