ONCE the white tents of the Tibetan nomad encampment appeared nestled in the high, grassy mountain valley, the trials of the journey seemed to float off as lightly as summer clouds.
Over the past six days, the trip had been obstructed by roads and rail lines shut down by mudslides, jam-packed airports where stranded passengers had waited weeks for outbound tickets, and a dilapidated orange Fiat that kept breaking down. A corrupt Chinese conductor demanded bribes for every berth on his overnight train, and leather-jacketed thugs bartered state airline tickets for huge sums. My Chinese travel companion, Li, temporarily vanished when suddenly forced to take a separate flight.
We finally arrived at the Tibetan camp, clutching the railing of a metal cart hauled by a rickety diesel tractor. The Tibetan tractor driver, a hefty man with curly black hair and light brown eyes, had gunned his vehicle up the mountain valley, charging across rocky streambeds and small gullies. The tractor's chugging shattered the tranquility of the windswept grassland. But once it sputtered away, peace returned to the nomadic encampment, and to my mind.
The journey to the Tibetan region within China's northwestern Gansu Province covered a landscape that was as dramatic culturally as it was physically arduous.
Along the Yellow River valley, the cradle of Han Chinese civilization, farmers steeped in Confucian tradition live in close-knit villages tilling the same postage-stamp plots that their ancestors had for ages.
Farther west lies the dusty, Muslim-dominated territory of the Hui people, with their mosques, white skullcaps, and fiery beef and mutton dishes. Famed for their skill as traders, the Hui today deal in everything from richly colored rugs to illicit drugs.
Finally the flatlands and villages gave way to verdant hills dotted with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Monks on pilgrimage to a holy mountain strode past, their full, maroon robes swinging gracefully. We ascended by car, foot, and tractor into the pastureland of Tibetan nomads. A furry Himalayan marmot scampered along a hillside. Shaggy black yaks grazed on thick green grass scattered with mountain wildflowers.
Hearing the tractor from a distance, a Tibetan nomad stepped out of the first white tent of the summer encampment. Sonam invited his visitors in and offered steaming bowls of Tibetan tea. When the tea was partly drunk, Sonam's daughter added spoonfuls of homemade yak-butter and tsampa (roasted barley flour) to the bowls. Everyone mixed the butter and flour with the tea by hand, forming balls of dough to be pinched off and eaten.
After this traditional Tibetan meal, Li lay down on a sheepskin rug and dozed off. Aided by a Mandarin-speaking Tibetan friend, Sonam began talking …