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Tibetan Yak Butter Tea Is as Chunky as It Sounds

My job as a professional climber and photographer has taken me to some of the most remote regions in the world. When I was asked to join three of my heroes to traverse through Tibet's Changtang plateau, I drank yak butter tea as a sort of hazing...

by Jimmy Chin
Jun 16 2014, 2:29pm

I've been lucky enough to have a career that has taken me to some truly remote places around the world as a professional climber and photographer. I've climbed Mount Everest a few times, and even skied down it, too. But early on in my photography career, I was asked to join a National Geographic expedition with three of my heroes to traverse the super remote Changtang plateau in northwestern Tibet—a crazy, unsupported trek across 400 miles on one of the highest plateaus in the world, which averages around 17,000 feet. Crossing the Changtang plateau unsupported requires the equivalent commitment and effort as going to the North or South Pole, or climbing Everest.

I signed up with this incredible group of guys, one of them being Rick Ridgeway, who was the first American to climb K2 without oxygen andwho's also written a ton of books—a heroic explorer I've always looked up to. The other guy was Galen Rowell, who was a famous National Geographic photographer who had been all over the world. Conrad Anker was the third, one of the great climbers of our time. They were all much older than me, so I was super flattered when they invited me along. When we headed off to the drop-off point on this particular trip, we had to drive four days off-road into a super remote section of Tibet. Along the way, we met some nomadic Tibetans known as drokpas that lived in an encampment in yak skin tents. It was like meeting someone from 200 years ago: They're completely nomadic, living in the same way that they've been living for the last several hundred years. I was told that these people have very little, so when they offer you something to eat or if they bring you into their tent, it's customary and critically important to take with great appreciation whatever they offer. "It's all part of the experience, bud."

When we pulled up to the tent, there was a guy and a couple of kids running around with dreads in their hair, wearing yak skin jackets. They'd never seen white people before and were completely blown away by the sight of us. I actually look Tibetan, but they stared at Rick, Conrad, and Galen. The drokpa was holding a hammer and let it drop to the ground. His mouth hung agape as if he were looking at aliens. His wife walked over to him and smacked him on the head, saying something in Tibetan. He looked sheepish as his wife graciously invited us into their tent. It was surprisingly well appointed with images of Buddhist deities and the Potala Palace in Lhasa. My nose cringed a bit at the smell of something unfamiliar, a bit rancid and quite powerful. Rick, Galen, and Conrad had all been to Tibet; Galen was actually one of the first National Geographic photographers that photographed Tibet when it first re-opened to westerners in the 80s. He knew so much about Tibetan traditions. While our kind host was mashing up some rancid yak butter in a churn, I thought to myself, Oh man, I'm not really sure that's for me…. The woman proceeded to put it into a black tea and then poured a little bit into three shot glasses and offered them up. Being deferential to my seniors, they each picked one of the small cups up. There were no more glasses, so the Tibetan woman looked around and grabbed a mason jar. A giant one. While the other guys were reluctantly sizing up their yak butter tea shots, she filled the large one to the brim. The three guys were staring at me, smirking, you're going down. The guys slurped loudly, letting their shots dribble down their chins.

The smell is like walking inside of a cheese cave, but it's got this particular hint of yak fur smell… sort of like wet dog, but a bit more earthy with undertones of barn.

Standing there, I held the piping hot giant mason jar while the drokpa family sat patiently, watching and waiting for me to drink up. It's a black tea with this yellow, oily stuff floating inside of it. Since it's served hot, you're hoping that the texture of the yak butter melts inside of the liquid, but much of it stayed chunky and oily at the bottom. I smacked my lips and started chugging. When I actually got to the very bottom, I gulped down the last chunks of whatever it was floating down there. The smell is like walking inside of a cheese cave, but it's got this particular hint of yak fur smell. I don't know how to describe except that it's sort of like wet dog but a bit more earthy, with undertones of barn. I gagged down the entire jar. It stayed down but things didn't end very well for me later that evening.

The locals like to drink this beverage every day because it's salted to help flavor the tea, but it's not like pouring powdered salt into the liquid. They use a giant salt crystal that looks like a piece of quartz between the size of a billiard and ping-pong ball. To them, I think it must be like drinking a V8, but I don't know, because it's not a very vegetable-y taste.

The milk usually comes from the yaks they're herding. They say that yak milk tea has a lot of great medicinal benefits and some research points to yak milk as a superfood. It is known to increase your libido, help with insomnia, make you really strong, and increase your endurance for a day of hard work.

We thanked them profusely and got up to leave before they could serve another round. We had to pull over for a few emergency stops that afternoon, which is fine because we were in the middle of nowhere and I could run off behind the truck and drop trou. It didn't really matter. I'd impressed my mentors and had gone for it. I think the guys were actually kind of impressed and I felt like part of the club.

These days, I avoid most of these overly adventurous culinary experiences when possible, which actually happens quite a bit in my travels. I was recently in Chad, Africa, where we drove across a roadless desert for four or five days when we ran into some Bedouins. They jumped off of their camels and pulled out flasks of camel milk to share with us to show that they were friendly and not enemies. The milk comes out of a leather pouch that's been sitting in the sun for god knows how long. They carefully poured out part of the contents of the pouches and waited to watch us drink the unpasteurized milk.

I like to think I've paid my dues, so now a days I know when to step aside and make the uninitiated take on the cultural experiences. "Dude. You gotta drink it…"