Interview with Brandon Wilson, Author of Yak Butter Blues
"We had been travelling for years as budget travelers, traveling light, with only a backpack to sustain us for months on end. In the process, we'd made our requisite trip around the world for a year and had seen many of civilization's greatest achievements."
This interview with Brandon Wilson, author of the new Tibet book YAK BUTTER BLUES: A Tibetan Trek of Faith was recently conducted by book reviewer and editor Norm Goldman at Bookpleasures.com.
Norm: Bookpleasures.com and Sketchandtravel.com are pleased to have as our guest, Brandon Wilson, author of Yak Butter Blues. Brandon and his wife Cheryl travelled 40 days from early October to the end of November in 1992 over 1000 kilometers along the ancient pilgrimage route across Tibet. Evidently, they were one of the first Western couples to trek this ancient route alongside, by the way, a horse they named Sadhu.
Good day Brandon and thank you for accepting our invitation to be interviewed.
Brandon, could you tell our readers something about yourself and your wife Cheryl, and why did you want to trek across Tibet and did you ever had any fears prior to your journey?
Brandon: Tashi delek, Norm! We had been travelling for years as budget travelers, traveling light, with only a backpack to sustain us for months on end. In the process, we'd made our requisite trip around the world
for a year and had seen many of civilization's greatest achievements. We'd also traveled overland across Africa for nine months (which is the subject of
my book to be released in 2005, Dead Men Don't Leave Tips.) So, we were ready for a more intense experience?something more in line with that of the great explorers.
Our decision to attempt to trek from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal sprung from the notion that this was the ultimate adventure. The more that I read about Tibet, the more I was fascinated by its remoteness, inaccessibility, and its exotic reputation.
Then, as luck would have it, we were told several times that a Western couple had never done this trek?and that it was "impossible!" That ultimately sealed our fate.
As far as "fears" prior to the journey, first, I had real concerns that we wouldn't be allowed into Tibet as independent travelers, since the border had been closed to them for many years. A Chinese organized group tour was simply out of the question for us.
Then, although we were assured the trip was "impossible" due to lack of food, water, accommodations, and maps, personally I was more worried about the weather. Knowing the severity of weather conditions in the Himalayas, would we be able to reach the lower altitudes of Nepal in time before the roads closed, stranding us until May's thaw?
Finally, I must admit that I was also wary about the reaction of Uzi-toting Chinese soldiers along the way, as well as the various cadres of bureaucrats unused to dealing with outsiders. Guess I'd prefer to deal with nature any day, rather than the vagaries of human nature.
Norm: What were the most harrowing experiences you encountered during your journey?
Brandon: It's a toss-up. This entire journey was chock-full of uncertainty. The spectre of running out of food and water was a daily concern. Where would we stay? Would our bodies be able to physically able to make 1000 kilometers at 12-17,000 foot altitude for 40 days? But I'd have to say that the most singularly harrowing experience we had was being shot at by
Chinese soldiers as we overlooked Mt. Everest from a hilltop in Tingri. What do you do? As second runner-up, I'd nominate that morning where we awoke to a blinding blizzard?and realized that we still needed to press on.
Norm: What impressed you most of all about the trip?
Brandon: First, we were impressed by the unexpected generosity of the Tibetan people. We packed a tent, stove and fuel for the trek, expecting to be totally on our own along the way. However, after our first night spent camping in a potato patch, we were taken-in by local villagers who shared their meager possessions, including yak butter tea and a warm spot around their fire. We really grew to look forward to these human exchanges, even though we had to rely on clumsy sign language and a limited phrasebook to communicate. Fortunately, we started to run into former monks who'd received training in Nepal and still spoke limited English.
Through talking to them, we became better informed about the hardships of living in Tibet today under the Chinese Communist occupation. We learned that Tibetans are prevented from making pilgrimages along the same
route that we trekked into Nepal, as they've done for centuries.
So the trip for us became more than just an "adventure" trek. It became a political statement. If we could make their trek as pilgrims, we'd show to the
Chinese that it could be done, even by Westerners, without disrupting the geo-political balance of power.
In fact, on the trek's conclusion, we presented a set of prayer flags to the king of Nepal's personal representative at the palace with the hope that the
king would fly them as a symbol of solidarity with the Tibetan Buddhists.
Finally, we were impressed by the unwavering faith shown by many of the Tibetans. At night, in the dark stillness of their homes, we shared photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with them that we had secreted into the country. Gingerly holding the photo, they touched it to the foreheads of the members of their family, blessing them. Then drawing back several layers of curtains, they reverently placed it in their private altar beside other statues and holy instruments.
After over 40 years of oppression and death, could we still be so patient?or retain so much faith?
Norm: If you had to do it all over again in 2004, would you still jump at the opportunity? Would you advise anyone to follow in your footsteps?
Brandon: Frankly, no. This trek is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. From what I've read since then, and I receive Tibetan news every day now,
the country has vastly changed?especially Lhasa. As inundated as it was then with Chinese settlers, solders and foreign culture, it is even more so today. Now, they're in the process of completing a railroad line into Lhasa from western China, so the transformation will be accelerating, the assimilation complete. The world saw the same effect in Inner
Mongolia and Manchuria with the arrival of the railroad.
With that said, I'd love to return, perhaps to the more remote Mustang region this time, far removed from the propaganda tours. Of course this is assuming I would be granted a visa.
I'd advise readers to explore any part of the world that interests them by walking. There is nothing so satisfying as discovering a culture
one-step-at-a-time. This traditional way of exploration a creates a total immersion in a culture: its food, history, art, architecture, people, language
and nature. I like to think of it as a walking meditation, too. You place your body on "auto-pilot" and travel outside, while traveling within.
If readers are interested in this rewarding mode of travel, they can check out several options on my web site (http://www.YakButterBlues.com) where I have free "how-to" articles about walking some of Europe's most spectacular pilgrimage routes, along with web links for more information about Tibet. Walking across Tibet was the beginning of this, my latest passion.
Norm: How would you describe the relationship with your wife after the trip? I recall there were some tense moments between you during the adventure.
Brandon: I really admire Cheryl's courage and willingness to take a chance. Traveling with daily hardship, uncertainty, and often life-threatening
situations, will put any relationship to the test. Fortunately ours survived and this experience provided an even stronger foundation. If we could survive that, why, we could survive anything.
Norm: Did you keep a daily journal while you were travelling?
Brandon: Of course. It was sometimes hard to find the energy or time at the end of one of these 14-hours days to sit down and write. But I wanted this account of our journey to be real, raw, and authentic ? not some romanticized notion of adventure travel. To capture that essence (while the blisters were still fresh) was vital. Time heals all wounds, as they say, and if you wait to write about it all later you lose much of the minutiae of the moment until it becomes merely a Disney version of your memory ? without the dancing hippos, of course.
Norm: After returning home, did you write articles or lecture about your adventure?
Brandon: I wrote magazine and newspaper articles about the experience, and would have liked to lecture about the journey and situation in Tibet. Living in the middle of the Pacific, that's always a logistical problem. Now that the book is published, if there's great enough interest throughout North America, I would welcome the chance to talk to groups about this life-changing experience and about the Tibet we grew to appreciate.
Norm: Why did you choose the title Yak Butter Blues for your book?
Brandon: Well, I was so disturbed by seeing the destruction of this ancient culture; the dismantling of temples, the corruption of monastic life; the
re-education of a population where the children are prevented from learning Tibetan in schools; the removal of Tibetan food and clothing from the stores,
plus the mass settlement of Han Chinese into Tibet causing Tibetans to become a minority in their country.
It is reaching the point where yak butter tea, that nourishing food that has traditionally fed and sustained a people throughout the centuries will soon
be all that remains of an enlightened culture, while all the world looks away. These are the "Yak Butter Blues." (Besides, I liked the kind of Jack Kerouac-ian ring to it!)
Norm: Did you ever hear any news about your horse Sadhu that you had to leave behind?
Brandon: As you may remember, I took us a lot of time and effort to find Sadhu a new home in Nepal before we left. But the Internet is an amazing tool. Although we wrote to his new owner, the fellow who ran the
Kathmandu guesthouse, shortly after our return home, we never heard back from him. Just recently, I "Googled" the hostel and was able to reach his
brother. Sadly, Sadhu, our old friend, passed away a couple of years ago at a very ripe old age. He spent his last years in a luxury resort, but will always be remembered by us as the only Tibetan we could bring to freedom.
Norm: How long did it take you to write the book?
Brandon: The first draft of the book was written in a few months. After that, it was revised through several drafts. Then I added the most current news on Tibet I could find, sorted through photos, and incorporated some of the simple truths which were initially planted in the mountains of Tibet and blossomed along more recent pilgrimage treks. After all is said and done,
"It's been years in the making," as they say.
Norm: How are you going to market the book?
Brandon: I consider this, in many ways, an extention of the journey. Perhaps, in retrospect, it's just as difficult with over 100,000 books released each year.
We're trying to get the book before a diverse international audience of Tibet supporters, adventure travelers, fellow wanderers, trekkers, the outdoor
industry, displaced Tibetans, peregrinos, Buddhists?and those who just love a good read. After all those small moments along the trail where we felt
like we owed our survival to some mysterious force, we have learned to "have faith," to trust that we were meant to have this journey and that I was meant to write this book.
I can only trust that once again we will be blessed ? and that our audience will find us along life's trail.