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Yoghurt and beer paths to salvation

It's a bit like our Lassi festival. Ok, so we don't have a Lassi festival, but the lines of people winding their way up to the Drepung monastery to celebrate Shoton, the Tibetan Yogurt festival, have all the signs of a Kumbh.

world Updated: Aug 14, 2010 16:10 IST
Indrajit Hazra

It's a bit like our Lassi Festival. Ok, so we don't have a Lassi Festival, but the lines of people winding their way up to the Drepung monastery to celebrate Shoton, the Tibetan Yogurt Festival, have all the signs of a Kumbh. Most of those walking from Lhasa in the 6.20 am darkness are pilgrims to Drepung, some 20 minutes by road from central Lhasa. The remainder are like Confucian me are curious folks getting a glimpse into the heart of Tibetan culture in Tibet.

The climb up the steps, not too steep, not too long, is still tortuous because of the air being even more rarefied than 3,650-metres-above-sea level Lhasa. Climbing up the unlit alleys, I'm somewhere medieval, back to a land of monks, yaks and yeti ('migu' in Tibetan) even as my thumping heart is convinced that I'm running and smoking at the same time.

And then it's there - a large slab of cliff face dotted by moving torch lights. We've got the best seats in the house. And like a giant photoshop lightening the sky, slowly, the thousands of people stacked up on the mountain-top become visible. Last year, there were 180,000 pilgrims. For comparison: Lhasa has 550,000 people. It's like a rock concert with the pit of the cliff serving as stands for the audience and the cliff face as the centrestage. As the 'fans' wait impatiently like all fans do for the 'band' to start, older monks unsmilingly swagger by like Hell's Angels in red robes while the younger smile and serve hot water in cups.

Almost two hours later, the giant thankha (37 x 40 metres) is fully unfurled from bottom to top to display the Buddha with monks blowing low, booming and long blasts on the original vuvuzela. I ask my minder, a Tibetan, what they are called. She replies, 'Horn'. In the chilly, wood-smoke filled air, under the gaze of a giant, calm Buddha on a Serlift medication, I look up the mystical Google to find the horn's called 'dhunchecn'.

Lhasa in translation

Madam Daji (most Tibetans have just one name), the vice-chairperson of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), has invited us, along with some Nepalese journalists for an interaction. I sit facing some ministerial folks - one who comes 40 minutes late and wears a cowboy hat throughout.

Daji drones on telling us what we already know, both about Tibet and about how China wants all of us to see Tibet. "[Tibet before the 1959 'liberalisation' by the People's Republic] was more backward than the Middle Ages in Europe. There was no mention of human rights at that time," I look up to see her speaking with a straight face.

"With the formation of TAR in 1965, Tibetan people became their own masters." I let out a quiet burp that tasted of the Rhodiola can of drink , a local Red Bull, I've been having every morning.

Then, in between figures of grain output and average housing area, for the first time in my trip - perhaps for the first time ever - I get a clear Chinese definition of freedom from Daji: "You can eat what you want here. Tibetan people eat tsampa [fried barley powder mixed with yak butter into a paste], Han people have rice. It's not true that we're forced to do anything we don't want to do."

Vice-Chairperson Daji is Tibetan, she has invited us in Tibet for a Tibetan festival, and she spoke in Tibetan-accented Mandarin throughout our meeting. "That is for the benefit of the three Chinese journalists who were there. Speaking in Tibetan would have meant more interpreters," explains my bright-eyed minder, a Tibetan working for the information office.

Yes, They Can (Beer)

In true soviet style (I mean 'soviet' as in collective, not as in Stalin, et al), I'm touring the Lhasa Beer factory. At the main entrance, a man in white overalls serves me a pamphlet that has all the information you need to know about the new high-end beer, Green Barley - in spotless Mandarin.

Equally spotless is the interiors. As I enter the People's Hall of Giant Vats (I can spot six giant stainless steel monsters on this floor) I hear the guide tell us beer is one of Tibet's biggest industries. This factory, operational from 2008 after the old factory (established in 1988) became too small to handle growing volumes, is a 'limited company' - 70 per cent owned by the Tibet Green Barley Beer Company and 30 per cent owned by the Chinese State. (All Chinese cigarette companies are also 'limited companies'.) Some 80 per cent of the machinery here is imported, unsurprisingly, from Germany.

The company's mainstay is the popular no-nonsense Lhasa beer. Ninety-five per cent of the beer is consumed in Tibet, the rest 'exported' to China. Green Barley, introduced in May, is focused on a higher-end clientele (read: rest of China).

Sitting on a long table listening to various facts and figures, I empty a can of Green Barley. It's nice. Unlike the no-frills Lhasa Beer, I can taste the tasty roasted grain in this pale beer. I open a pint bottle and wonder why Mr Mallya hasn't invited me to one of his factories yet.

All I can say is: let a million cans (and bottles) bloom across China and beyond from the near-automated, eerily quiet plant overlooking the craggy and dirty mountains of Lhasa. Now to see through my evening of Kweichow mao tai (Chinese 'wine'). Ganbei! (Cheers!)