"Inspiring, Engaging, Compassionate! The story and writing had heart, adventure, devotion, and truth. When the book was over, I felt like I had treked with the author and his wife and was sorry it had come to an end. This book is a treasure to the Tibetan people and to the rest of the world. It gives us a true glimpse of Tibet and captures a beautiful land and culture that may not be around in years to come. Well done!" ~ Naomi C. Rose, award-winning author of Tibetan Tales for Little Buddhas

excerpted from Yak Butter Blues by Brandon Wilson, bonus photos also by the author © all rights reserved

Order Now

Excerpt from Chapter 2
A Hundred Yak Butter Lamps

Rangzen by Techung
(click above to listen to "Rangzen" (Freedom) by Techung, award-winning Tibetan musician)

The next morning, anxious to discover the remnants of that endangered culture, we set off for the Jokhang Temple, center of Lhasa’s religious and social activity. However, to reach that fortress-like complex, we needed to maneuver through and survive a living, swarming maze. For one fleeting instant, a moment frozen in time, a few wayward travelers became part of an eon’s old spectacle.


Everyone had something to sell; everything had its price. We skirted pushy jewelry vendors screaming, “Come look! Come look!” while tugging sleeves of reluctant passersby, and wove a path between rickety food carts stacked with a mosaic of colorful produce and squatting, sun-ripened women pushing pyramids of seeds piled high on yellowed newspapers.

As much as we tried to downplay our Western presence, we were as invisible as skinheads at a Hasidic temple. Beggars who hobbled past on a wobbly crutches cased out the strange-looking foreigners, while rickshaw drivers cried out in Chenglish, “Hey, take you somewhere, Misstah?”

Even religion was peddled, with prayer flag merchants and ceremonial khata cloth salesmen hawking holy offerings by the yard or strand to frenzied shoppers and Western heathens alike.


Outside the temple’s seventh-century facade, shrouded, gnarled men bought aromatic boughs of juniper and sage-like herbs, which they ceremoniously tossed into the smoky pyre. Then, heads bowed, they fervently chanted amid swirling white smoke, engulfing both the pious and not-so-holy in pungent wafts of incense as clouds billowed and surged from twin immense urns.

Their reverence was contagious and carried upon the wind.


Beneath fluttering strands of multi-colored prayer flags, a hundred Buddhist pilgrims feverishly prostrated onto the temple’s entryway, sliding well-worn calluses across polished bare stone. While a few fell on tattered straw mats, others wore cardboard squares on weathered hands. Trance-like, their rhythmic reclining and chanting repeated again and again. No beginning. No end.

A massive cylindrical prayer wheel the size of a Volkswagen guarded the temple’s monumental portal. Its metal inscriptions were rubbed smooth by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over the centuries who had traveled far to spin the missive millions of times, sending its prayer of “Om Mani Padme Hum!” soaring to the heavens.


We, too, drifted on a cloud of incense to an expansive inner court where flickering rays of a hundred pungent yak butter lamps cast eerie illumination across the grounds. We joined humble throngs shuffling through the temple in a clockwise procession amid maroon-robed monks chanting a mystic drone of devotion. Eager hands turned scores of prayer wheels mounted beneath exquisitely graphic thangka murals, tempting with the pleasures of nirvana, shocking with the agonies of hell.

Swept up in a tide of cherubic-cheeked pilgrims, we left the light-streamed courtyard, and wandered past a solemn inner sanctum holding the treasured seated Sakyamuni, Gautama Buddha. Then, climbing stairs, we ducked inside a tiny chamber and plunged into a stifling total void.


The walls oozed grease. The floor seemed to have a life of its own. There was an overpowering stench, a sickening scent of sweat, musky incense, and putrid yak butter matured over fourteen centuries. As our eyes adjusted to the murky light, we found ourselves pressed into a five-by-eight chamber with sixty others who reverently filed past the Medicine Buddha, as they rubbed brass plates and mumbled incantations to ensure their good health.

From there we meandered on several levels through another twenty crowded chapels dedicated to a confusing array of deities, royalty and saints; the only foreigners to be seen among hordes of joyous Tibetans. Although awe-struck by the temple’s craftsmanship and astounded by the tremendous devotion, we couldn’t help but feel intrusive, strangely out of place, as if we were missing something.


Envious, I searched the blissful faces around us, thinking, “These people have come huge distances and sacrificed greatly for this once-in-a-lifetime trip to their Mecca. Some, I’ve heard, have even crawled like human inchworms the entire distance! Unfortunately for us, this part of our trip, although uncertain, has been almost too easy. We don’t deserve to be here. If only the Jokhang was at the end of our journey… if only politics didn’t dictate Kathmandu as our destination, we could join them here in celebration… perhaps even as pilgrims.


Feeling insignificant, I fled the temple alone, swept up in a sea of civilization, swimming clockwise through the crowded bazaar on an inner pilgrim circuit. I became lost in a crowd, enveloped by nomad women, drokpa, garbed in black robes and turned-up felt boots. Their braided hair and blushed cheeks shone with yak butter pomade. I was surrounded by statuesque, fearsome Khampa warriors whose hair was looped in red braided rope; austere, wandering monks in burgundy robes; Amish-looking Muslims in battered straw hats and wisps of beards; gnarled women spinning miniature prayer wheels and bundled in ten layers of rags; wizened men with skin the texture of dried earth, curiously gazing out from under floppy felt hats.


And, it would be safe to say, the goods sold there were as diverse as the buyers. Lhasa’s ancient trade center was a street market goulash of mostly imported goods, peddled mainly by imported Han merchants and peppered with unbridled enthusiasm. If it could be bought in Tibet, you could buy it there: everything from fresh yak carcasses to boxes of apples, pears, chili peppers, persimmons and raisins; from barrels of dried or shredded yak cheese to dusty bags of tsampa, ground barley flour. Ladies hawked yak butter by the block, while Han shops offered every expensive import: flapped fur hats, bolts of material, thermoses, rice pattern dishes and tin plates, kerosene stoves, herbal remedies, beers and brandies.

It was a grand spectacle, much as it ever was, except for one frightening detail. As Tibet’s hub, it is not surprising that the Barkhor is also one of the most closely observed areas of that occupied capital. Video cameras and plainclothes police provide ever-vigilant eyes, ensuring protests are short-lived and retribution severe, as evidenced by the hundreds of political prisoners.


Sadly, even the hallowed Jokhang provided little sanctuary. During the 1959 uprising Tibetan freedom fighters took refuge there, reasoning the invaders wouldn’t dare desecrate the premises. They were wrong. After suffering a shelling, tanks rammed then rolled through its crumbled gates. However, we soon discovered that Tibet’s recent tragic history lesson only began there.

music courtesy of Techung, © all rights reserved

Order Yak Butter Blues