They had warned us about the altitude sickness, but I had assured myself that my strapping twenty-eight year old physique and mental acuteness could overcome something as trivial as natural response. Turns out, not so much.
My head was throbbing like I had just survived a Skrillex concert having been duct tapped directly to a two story subwoofer. Rising to over 11,000 feet (about 3500 meters) Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world. If you're not from there, then you'll quickly notice the drop in partial pressure of oxygen. There isn't really less oxygen, but since there's less pressure in the atmosphere, it's not as tightly bound in the air. Imagine that instead of drinking water from a cup you poured it on the floor and like the animal you are you're licking it up. There's the same amount of water, it's just not as neatly compact as at sea level. This means you're drawing in significantly less air in Lhasa.
The result is a feeling of being hungover after a night when the next morning you look at the bottles strewn about the living room and wonder how you're still alive. Heahache, dizziness, aching muscles, and a gut punch of nausea are all common symptoms. I was feeling all of it, as were the rest of the people in my tour group and when we checked into our hotel at two in the afternoon more than a few people went straight to bed (or broke into the canisters of oxygen, which were available for $12 in the mini-bars).
We were told our bodies would adjust within twelve agonizing hours. Most likely. "So you'll just have to deal," said our guide.
Upon fumbling into my hotel room I collapsed onto the bed and set the alarm for two hours. The ride up had been more twisted than a psychopath dry humping an his mother's high school prom dress; that is to say it was very, very, very windy and it left my stomach feeling as if it had been used as the high jump landing futon at the last Olympics. I figured a long nap, a fistful of Advil, and a Dramamine crushed up and added to a bottle of China's equivalent to Gatorade would make it all better.
Two hours later I was still tired, dizzy, and as sore as a King's fan in Sacramento. However, I was no longer wanting to heave up the zero contents of my stomach. In fact, I was rather hungry, so I shambled down to the hotel restaurant where dinner was being served.
I arrived and - to my delight - the restuarant turned out to be one of the fanciest joints in all of Lhasa. Yes, they served American food, and served it well with a twist; foie gras torchons with ginger, hairy crab dripping with yak butter, handmade pastas cooked to order and slathered with a Sichuan spiced ragu. La dee da! Heaven at every corner. Most of it was served in a cooked-to-order buffet style so you could go to town.
Still, I found myself diving into more of the cultural foods as I had throughout my trip. Stir-fried cloud mushrooms that looked like glazed leather but whose texture was soft as fresh mochi. Firey hot-pots that glimmered garnet with rippling pools of chili oil. Pork buns served with black vinegar and rock sugar. I ate it all.
And then, of course, I was sick again.
Too much, too soon.
It must have shown. "Sir, are you feeling okay?" asked one of the waitresses.
"Bu, xie xie," I replied in my butchered Mandarin, which wasn't the language of Tibet (it's Tibetan), but I was trying, damn it. "I think I thought I was ready to eat after the plane and bus ride. I must be still adjusting."
"One moment," she whisked herself away to a corner and opened a large earthenware jar where steam billowed out in an aromatic cloud that overtook her. She deftly ladled a dark liquid into a bowl and swiftly returned in a demure but determined gait and placed it in front of me.
It was a simple soup from the looks of it. In the broth bobbed chicken, Chinese dates, and a mushroom that I couldn't identify but was similar in appearance to a peeled chestnut and looked like a tiny brain (and tasted like quail and cream).
It was rich and light all at once. Allium notes of onion. Or leek? Maybe roasted garlic? There was something sweet with a mellow spice. No, not garlic, roasted or otherwise. Was this chicken? Beef? It was bright and heavy, creamy without cream, and a richness of marrow. I couldn't begin to break it down, but I felt rejuvenated.
Untold amounts of wonderful food was at my beck and call, but in the end it was this simple soup that my broken and adapting body craved.
I quickly devoured two bowls of the stuff as if I were six and it was made of Lucky Charms, but just the marshmallows and with none of those healthy bits getting in the way. Afterwards, I felt glorious and alive again. My head was still spinning, but the nausea was gone and my muscles began to loosen.
As I was about to leave I quickly asked the chef for the recipe. He had, apparently, foreseen this coming as he already had it printed and waiting for me. A clever and cheeky chef that one. I thanked him profusely ("Xie xie. Xie xie."), and then crawled back to my room and into bed; wherein the next morning the altitude sickness was gone and I bounded down to the lobby for a breakfast of congee and pickles before an excursion to Potala Palace and its 4000 steps that demanded my conquering.
In my own kitchen I make western style chicken stocks often. The carcass of a picked over roast from the night before, some veggies, spices, water, and plenty of time come together with time and I slowly craft enough stock for a few weeks. It gets packed in the freezer and it is always delightful to use.
Still, when I want something special I make this Tibetan stock made of chicken and pork bones, which gives it a wild and intriguing flavor. Each sip is haunted by the earthy, sugary flicker or roasted ginger and onion. It's rather strange - the taste is deep as a well, yet as tender as summer's last peach. It has a presence on your palate, and then it whisks itself away over the horizon not to be seen again until the next spoonful.
Is it really Tibetan, though? Not so much. Possibly... Maybe.
The chef explained to me that most soup stocks were crafted using chicken and yak bones, but pork bones were generally better received by tourists and other Chinese. His stoicism seemed to wane a bit in his explanation and I commiserated with him. "What's the point of coming to Lhasa and not eating the food of Lhasa?" I whined. He smiled and told me that most of the restaurants in the city would most certainly serve yak.
These rules don't make a lick of sense to me so I don't always follow them. Pork bones aren't always easy to come by (you can't use smoked bones or the bone from a ham as the flavor it imparts is just all wrong). Still, if you feel like a rebel then by all means go right ahead and use beef bones. I have and it works dandy. It's just different.
Tibetan Soup Stock
Makes about 8 cups of stock
2-3 pounds beef, pork, or yak bones
2-3 pounds chicken bones (I used a carcass from a previous night's roast)
a piece of ginger as big and wide as your hand
1 yellow onion
1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Give the pork/yak/beef bones a thin rub of oil. Place all the ingredients into a roasting pan and roast for 40 minutes, giving the bones a turn about halfway through.
2. Remove bones and place in a stockpot. Add some water to the roasting pot to deglaze the browned, delicious bits stuck to the bottom. You may need a bit of arm strength and a spatula to scrape it all off. Add to the stock pot.
3. Bring to a boil, and then lower heat to a bare simmer. Cook for about 3 hours. You'll have to check on the stock once in a while as scum and oil will rise to the top. Carefully spoon this gunk off as it will add bitter, icky tastes to the broth and cause it to be cloudy.
4. When done, pour the stock through a wire mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel to catch any remaining bits. Store in the freezer and use as needed.
Other Recipes That Don't Suck
Chicken Feet Stock - Simply Recipes
Dashi Stock - Just Hungry
Crab Stock - Hunter Angler Gardener Cook