In 1989, I travelled with my wife through Kham, the eastern part of Tibet in Sichuan Province. Bus trips took multiple days. The buses usually left before dawn, drove up and down enormous valleys and passes on single lane roads, arriving at the next town in early afternoon. Passengers would stay in a hotel and wander the town until the next dawn.
We were turned back at the border to Tibet Autonomous region, and decided to go up to Amdo in Qinghai province instead. This required a three-day bus ride back to the town of Kangding, and then another three days to the town nearest the border of Qinghai.
At the last town before Kangding, we looked at the map and saw a road that cut north and joined the road to Amdo. This would have cut our travel time down by at least a day. We learned that no buses travelled this road. People discouraged us from hitchhiking, telling us that the Tibetans out in the mountains were wild and would hijack and kill us.
We chickened out and went back to Kangding.
On the road across the border to Qinghai, we still had to hitchhike and several young Tibetan men showed us their long knives. I also learned that the Chinese word for vegetables sounds a lot like the word for firewood in the local accent. When I asked if people grew vegetables in the next town, I was told, “No, only yak shit.” Our hotel room did have a closet full of dried yak shit. We were supposed to shovel it into the cast iron stove and burn it to keep warm.
Tibetans cooked in yak oil, burned yak butter candles, lived in yak skin tents, wore yak skin clothes, decorated their homes with yak bones, and even smelled like yak grease (because they rarely showered). Yak meat is a dark brownish-red, with bright yellow marbled fat. In towns, we would see men and women with long dreadlocked hair, long knives, dark weatherbeaten skin, and wild pirate clothes coming down from the mountains with piles of reeking yak meat on their backs. It was often topped with a yak head, split open on top to reveal the brain. They were always friendly and smiling. But I probably had this image in my head when we chickened out.