Dispatches from Abroad: Foraging Across the Tibetan Plateau

The last couple of days we took a break from exploring treelines to cross the high cold desert along the Silk Road between the once-oases but now thriving cities Dulan and Ge’ermu (a.k.a. Golmud). This 500-km stretch of the Xining-to-Llhasa highway provided incredible views of geology-in-the-raw, and today’s day-trip from Ge’ermu south to the Kunlun Pass added camel trains, huge herds of sheep, a glacier field, and a railroad built atop permafrost.

I’ll get to the sights later. The really fascinating part of the last two days was the foraging for wild foods in a desert that, in the main, gets < 100 mm, and in many places, < 50 mm of rainfall a year. René Redzepi could have a lot of fun here!

tibetfood-1-2-20160911-ame-8111Recall from a couple of days back that while Eryuan Liang and I were exploring the Picea treeline outside of Wulan that our driver Li was picking mushrooms from the Stipa clones for our lunch. Anyone who knows about wild mushrooms in the desert is likely to know a lot more about how to live off the land here. Which he does.

As we drove across the desert, we went through small towns and villages, including areas of extensive farmland of two dryland crops: the native goji (枸杞: gŏu qĭ) berry and the introduced quinoa. If I were into gambling, I’d wager that goji berries will be the next “miracle” fruit discovered by the health-food/diet industry, following close on the heels of acai, pomegranate, and blueberry. Native to this area, it is now a major cash crop, but it is also available to anyone who happens to want to pull off the road and grab a handful of berries. Although both Eryuan and Li recommended not eating more than 20 or 30 at a time to avoid stomach upset.

Like fragile fruit crops worldwide, goji berries are harvested by hand, by migrant laborers who live in tents in or next to the fields and who are paid by the kilogram. After harvest, the berries are laid out in the sun to dry before being sold in bulk in the markets of Ge’ermu or packaged for sale in Beijing, Shanghai, or other cities in China and the rest of the world (click on a photo above to start a slide show of larger images).

We took a short detour off the main highway to visit a Neolithic archaeological site located along the Silk Road. This is a vast area of ancient rubble and trash; bones and potsherds accumulated over the centuries litter the ground, and the provincial government is working to establish it as a tourist site.

Next up, we stopped at another site on the Ge’ermu circuit of sites of interest, this one an ?Eocene-era shell bed left over from an ancient sea that pre-dates the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau. Like the previous archaeological site, this one is still in development, and the shell beds have been dug at and raided by collectors.

On the way in to the shell beds, Li abruptly pulled the Leopaard off the road when he spotted some 沙棘 (shā jí: sea-buckthorn: Hippophae ?rhamnoides), which he and Eryuan attacked with relish. A few ants got into the act, too.

And behind the shell beds themselves, we collected a salad-bowl full of 盐爪爪 (yán zhuă zhuă, literally “salt claw”: Kalidium foliatum), a small salty succulent related to our glasswort (or samphire: Salicornia spp.), which is sold at farmers’ markets throughout northern Europe.

Salt claw at the shell beds

Other semi-wild edibles included yak (and yak-milk yogurt), camels, and sheep, all of which share the road with the slow-moving convoys of cars and trucks plying the highway. I haven’t had any camel meat yet, but I’m told it tastes a lot like yak. Or maybe donkey (see my earlier post, Two Feasts and a Biang-biang).

All of which could be washed down with pure glacial water from the Kunlun Spring.

The Kunlun Spring


And about those glaciers… pictures are worth more than any words I could write (click on either for larger versions). Just awesome.

The Yuxu Glacier field
The Yuxu Glacier field

Finally, we reached the Kunlun Pass, which at 4767 m asl (about 15,640 feet asl) is, I believe, as high as I’ve ever been with my feet still on the ground. The pylons of the Ge’ermu-to-Llhasa train are set into the permafrost. Which for now, is still frozen (click on any of the images below to start a slide show of larger ones)..

And we didn’t go hungry!

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