In Search Of

yak sign

Yakgurt.

There is such a thing, tasting more of gurt than of yak. We came to Yunnan province and the city of Lijiang hoping to see, among other things, yak in the flesh, the great furry, horned beast. We did not close to, but it felt like we did.

This was a trip that began with something of a fool’s errand, which led us to serendipitous yak. Having checked into our hotel, our kids did what they usually do; did, it could be said, what they learned from us to do: look for a good place to eat.

We left the hotel in the late afternoon with two restaurants to choose from.  And set out to find choice number one.

“What’s it called?” I asked my son-in-law.

He said he didn’t know.  Nicholas, the guy at the desk, couldn’t remember the name. But it was supposed to be good.

“How will we find it?”

“It’s supposed to be nearby.”

I think he had the name of some roads that Nicholas had written in Chinese characters. And a vague description of the place: wood, eat upstairs.

Living in Shanghai for close to two years, my son-in-law speaks pretty good Chinese.  Speaks. To a non-speaker like me, he speaks impressively; miraculously. But his is Chinese by mouth and ear, not by hand and eye. I wondered if he could match the characters Nicholas had written on a sheet of paper with street names we passed. In my total ignorance all the characters look the same to me.  We would ask for the place we could not name. We would look for that restaurant using its physical description…wood, eat upstairs.

We looked.  For about two hours we looked. Everyone we stopped for help glanced at Nicholas’s characters and pointed in various directions.  We set off in various directions, eager, hungry, confused.

canal

Picture a maze. Now put a series of canals throughout this maze, canals 12 to 72 inches wide and running with fresh cold water. Everywhere you are in the old city of Lijiang you hear the sound of water—soothing, easeful, burbling water. Cobblestone streets, 250 bridges, and gardens.  Gardens more of the vegetable than the flower variety. And temples and water wheels and a gazillion tourists (it was a few days before Chinese New Year). And horses? Yes, those, too, many of them, with jangling bells worn around their horses’ necks. And street food. Glorious and in all likelihood perilous street food for a Westerner.  Bread is bread. Meat on a stick is meat on a stick.  Unless it’s fried duck intestine on a stick. How do you say that? Hey, is that the character for intestine?

We looked, we inquired, we did not find the unnamed wood restaurant somewhere around there with eating upstairs. At last, exhausted and hungry, we stopped in front of a Tibetan restaurant, where we enjoyed a yak hotpot.

hotpot

The specialty of the house.

“It’s chewy,” my wife said to our daughter.

“I can’t pick it up,” I said, fumbling my chopsticks.

“This is so COOL,” the four-year-old grandson said.

The server brought greens, mushrooms, and sprouts to the table, to souse and cook in the hotpot, and then a platter of yak sausage and yak bacon, to cook around the edges of the pot.

Picture a campfire in the middle of your table with a steaming pot of yak broth. Around the perimeter of the fire, a strip of metal three inches wide, essentially a griddle in a circle.

“You don’t eat that yak,” our daughter said, pointing with a chopstick, “the yak in the pot, I mean.” She lifted a strip of fried yak bacon, laid it between two pieces of soft bread, dunked it in a spicy sauce, took a bite.  “Delicious,” she said.

We were happy.  Yak bacon and sausage sputtered, guttering in accumulated melted fat.

“I can’t pick anything up,” I said, fumbling my chopsticks.

Yak, I am pleased to discover, is an English rock band. Their genre is described as indie, alternative, and noise. It is also, of course, a great beast that can be domestic, and numbers in the millions, and wild, numbering between 12,000 and 15,000. The domestic creature will weigh anywhere from 500 to 1300 pounds. The wild animal does not consent to being weighed. Don’t try coaxing it to the scales.

We were in wild yak country.

yak meadow

Next day we hiked the Yak Meadow on Snow Mountain, where we were told we might encounter yak of the wild variety. It was a long drive up to the cable car that would take us to the trail head.

Riding along, on a curve we saw sheep.

“Yaks!” yelled the four-year-old.

Chorus: Those aren’t yaks.

On another curve we saw goats.

“Yaks!” yelled the four-year-old.

Chorus: Those aren’t yaks.

On another curve we saw cows. Large animals with horns.  Yak-like. But, still, cows.

“Yaks!” yelled the four-year-old.

My daughter leaned close to me, quoting her Saturday Night Live.  “He’s got a fever. And the only cure is more yak.”

Would we find yak? What is a day without yak? As luck would have it, somewhere that morning, while my wife and I were lost in the maze, she had picked up some yak milk candy. She was feeding it to the baby. No one else would try it.

“It makes his breath stink,” my daughter said.

At the cable car dismount, at the beginning of the Yak Meadow trail, we read this sign to the four year old.

Yak will hurt you please don’t close to

yak

Delightful syntax mangle.  Fearful message, which sort of freaked the boy out.

In the end we were in no danger. The wild yaks, our guide told us, move around with changes in the weather. They had probably gone to higher ground in search of open space and yak quietude. Leaving behind many yak muffins near and along the trail, which the grandson, avid about poop, thoroughly enjoyed.

A few days later we have a hot lunch: spicy beef, spicy noodles, spicy cucumbers, spicy cabbage, and a few other spicy dishes. At the end of such a meal you have a ring of fire around your lips; your mouth is a hotpot all its own. There is one thing will control the burn: yakgurt.

Think frozen yogurt, only with more density, probably more milk fat, a cold convection with the consistency of putty, in a cone or dish.  We went with the dish. The baby ate it, avid about his yak. His dad ate it. I ate it.

We came, we did not close to. Nonetheless we felt yakked.

yak

 

 

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