Yak Butter Tea: Students Visit Tibet - Humboldt State Now

Yak Butter Tea: Students Visit Tibet

"There is no more remarkable strip of crust on earth than that where the great rivers of eastern Tibet almost jostle each other in their eagerness to escape from the roof of the world…Deep down in their troughs they rage," so said British botanist, F. Kingdon Ward, in 1922.

It was these evocative words that inspired 13 HSU undergraduate students as they explored and documented the geography of this region.

Eastern Tibet is graphically defined by its deep river canyons, snowcapped mountains, and expansive grasslands. Days exploring such places as the alpine valleys of Konkaling and viewing its sacred peaks provided this group of students a firsthand appreciation for the physical and spiritual attributes that define the region.

Recently designated a nature reserve, Konkaling is a trinity of sacred peaks, all of which exceed 19,000 ft. and has for centuries been a site of devotion and pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhism.

Until recently, isolation offered a measure of protection for the rich biodiversity of eastern Tibet; unfortunately China’s rapid economic development is placing pressure on its natural and scenic resources. Identifying the problems confronting the preservation and wise use of these assets was an ongoing theme of this trip. Seeing the skin of a freshly killed, endangered Red Panda, and the seriously eroded slopes of the Upper Salween River Basin was a vivid reminder of the challenges facing conservation efforts in China today.

Sponsored by the Department of Geography, the China and Tibet Field Research Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in an active learning process. There are three main goals for the program: first, to provide a greater awareness and understanding of the land and peoples of China and Tibet; second, to foster and develop specific technical and personal research skills; and third, to develop and engage in community service projects.

Study sites were chosen that best represented significant aspects of eastern Tibet and defined its distinctive sense of place. Led by Geography instructor Tony Rossi, participants traveled overland by 4-wheeled vehicles for nearly six weeks and pursued a range of extensively prepared research projects. Some topics addressed important issues relating to water use, medicinal plants, nature reserves, and land use, while others chronicled such defining characteristics of the region as its vernacular architecture and Buddhist monasteries. Some studies involved surveys of regional economic development, public health and local banking as well as noting the nature and impact of globalization and eco-tourism. Two projects explored personal religious themes, one involved pilgrimage within Tibetan Buddhism and the other addressed the current status of Islam within the region.

The hospitality of the Tibetan people is reflected by the experience of geography major Sam Hart. Describing an old nun who graciously shared her cave hermitage with him, he said ““She grabbed an old kettle from off the fire and poured me a cup of yak butter tea. It became an endless cup of tea. Every time my cup was close to empty she came over and insisted I drink another. I must have drank close to a dozen cups before I finally had to refuse, and even then she was hesitant to let me stop.”

Community service is an integral part of the program and this year the group returned to the Tashitang Rigsalling Middle School in northeastern Tibet in order to complete a project begun last year. Based on local needs, a solar power system was designed by one of the 2005 participants, geography major Morgan Zinger. Funded by All Under Heaven, a locally owned business, the necessary equipment was provided and Morgan was able to return to the school. With the help of this year’s class, the system was installed. Plans are currently underway to help another Tibetan community construct a greenhouse next year for their village primary school.

For more information please contact Tony Rossi at afr2@humboldt.edu or (707) 826 4114.