The ESEA Echo: 10 interesting facts you might not have known about Tibet, with Taste Tibet

NB: This blog post is part of a LinkedIn newsletter called “The ESEA Echo”, which aims to help amplify the voices and experiences of ESEA everywhere. It has also been posted here on Tan’s Topics because Yeshi Jampa and Julie Kleeman, Owners of Taste Tibet are not on LinkedIn.

What do you know about Tibet?

I can probably guarantee you that some of the following 10 facts are ones you might not know. I spoke to Yeshi (Yee-she) Jampa and Julie Kleeman, owners of award-winning Oxford-based restaurant Taste Tibet, who talked to me about Yeshi’s life growing up in the region and how the pair of them hope to share their experiences and knowledge of Tibetan culture for more people to learn about.

1. Tibetans can and do eat meat

Contrary to the popular perception that Tibetans are all Buddhists and stick to strict vegetarian diets, this is not wholly true. While the vast majority of people in Tibet are Buddhists (almost 80%), vegetarianism is encouraged but not a rule. Because many areas of Tibet are hard to grow vegetation in throughout the year, Tibetans will kill animals and eat their meat, but never beyond what they need. Yeshi is a self-proclaimed meat lover, while his fellow chef is vegan.

2. And they don’t let anything go to waste

Every part of an animal that is killed for its meat – usually a yak, for example – is used for other things, namely the hair for tents, skin for boats, bags and shoes, horns for snuff, bones for buttons, and even the tail for dusters. As predominantly Buddhist practitioners, Tibetans are as mindful of the environment as possible. When alive, yaks are milked for butter and to put in tea and dried dung is used as fuel.

3. Tibetans pray before eating and eat in silence

Paying respects to the animals who were sacrificed for the meal, the cook, the farmers and every other person involved in the preparation and origin of a meal is a common tradition in Tibet. And they will eat as noiselessly as they can with little to no talking – in comparison to say, the chat of the Chinese – and without distractions such as reading or being on their phones.

4. When you focus on your food, it’s better for you

Tibetan doctors will more often than not suggest dietary changes when someone is ill before they suggest medicine. And by being more attune to what you’re eating and how you’re eating – and that includes without talking and being distracted, they say it can help with your health and digestion.

5. Tibet is a huge area

Covering a space that is almost the same size as Western Europe, Tibet – specifically the Tibet Autonomous Region – is more than a sizable chunk of land in China. The Tibetan Plateau on the other hand, is double that. What most people might be aware of is that the average elevation is 14,000 ft and the highest mountain is of course Mount Everest in the Himalayas at 29,000 ft. It is the second largest region in China by area after Xinjiang, the second least populated (under 4 million people) after Macau and has the lowest population density at just 3 inhabitants per square kilometre. Lhasa is Tibet’s capital.

6. So this of course means that the differences across the area can be just as huge

Tibet’s climate can be cold and dry (mostly west and north) or moderate and humid (east and south). And of course the higher up you go, the colder it nearly always is. Because of this, some Tibetans lead nomadic lives, and others – like Yeshi’s family in Kham, the southeast corner – are semi-nomadic, spending half their time inside in the lower valleys and the other half in the mountains and on the fields with their animals.

7. It’s known as “The Water Tower”

Also known as “The Third Pole” after Antarctica and the Arctic, Tibet holds the third largest store of water-ice in the world. Melted snow water from the Tibetan plateau forms the source of ten of the world’s largest rivers in South, East and Southeast Asia, helping to support more than 1 billion people across the continent.

8. Losar is the Tibetan New Year

Tibet celebrates New Year according to their own lunisolar calendar, separate from others such as the Chinese calendar. Losar is sometimes observed on different dates in different areas such as Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and northeast India. It will often take place around a similar time as Lunar New Year; the 2023 date was 21st February, just under one month after LNY. Some sources cite this year as being the Year of the Hare rather than the Rabbit, and while of course they are different animals, it appears they are as interchangeable as the Year of the Goat and Sheep are.

9. Time in Tibet is fluid

Even though Losar has dates based on the lunisolar calendar, some Tibetans will actually celebrate beforehand. This is because, as it marks the start of Spring, they will more than likely be away on the plateau farming and tending to their animals. Times and dates are also not strictly observed or even used in Tibetan culture, so days of the week are not a thing, and nor are dates of birth – Yeshi does not know of his actual birthday, only the year he was born according to his zodiac animal.

10. There are more than 50 Tibetic languages

Tibetan comes under the umbrella family of Sino-Tibetan languages, where there are countless Chinese languages spoken by 1.3 billion people. However, it is in fact completely different to Chinese languages, both in speech and script, and known to be closer to Dzongkha which is spoken in Bhutan (where the film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is set) and uses the Tibetan script. Those 50-plus known languages are then split into over 200 dialects and spoken by more than 6 million people. Standard – or Lhasan – Tibetan is the official language of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Tibetans in Britain:

There are an estimated between 700 to 1500 Tibetan people in the UK or British Tibetans. There are few notable Tibetan eateries in the UK, but others as well as Taste Tibet include Tibetan Kitchen in Manchester, Four Friends in Congleton, and Tibet Kitchen in London. The UK is also home to several Buddhist centres that practise Tibetan Buddhism.

And if you’re ever in Oxford, why not pay a visit to Yeshi and Julie at Taste Tibet, which has been unanimously rated 5-stars on Trip Advisor? I know I certainly will if I am! You can also purchase their cookbook, Taste Tibet: Family Recipes from the Himalayas here and on other online websites or in most bookstores.

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