Updated (6/6): Planning a trip to Jiuzhaigou? Check out my Jiuzhaigou travel guide for more information.
One of the unofficial perks of my teaching program is an instant community of fellow travelers with plenty of advice about traveling in Asia. A quick rummage through my e-mail inbox would turn up travel tips from fellow teachers that helped me plan many of my recent trips: Fujian, Gansu, Japan and more. The subject of today’s post — Zhuo Ma’s Tibetan Experience, in Jiuzhaigou — is another product of this network of travelers.
Last spring, in the course of planning a trip to Jiuzhaigou, my friend H learned of a cooking class being offered by a Tibetan chef in a village outside of the park. When she booked the class, she also arranged to stay for a few days at his home. She became good friends with his sister, Zhuo Ma, and spent a couple of days in the area hiking and exploring small Tibetan villages. Even months later, she couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was. So when Dan and I began planning our trip to Sichuan, we knew we were going to include a stop there.
Zhuo Ma and her brother now operate a full-fledged homestay out of their two-story Tibetan-style home. After visiting the park, they arranged for us to be picked up and whisked off to their village, only a 15-minute drive away. We spent most of the evening with Zhuo Ma’s mother, who also made us a delicious meal of Tibetan barley tea (tsampa), potatoes, noodles and dried yak meat, which is a lot like beef jerky. As she served dish after dish, she patiently explained Tibetan customs and foods to us in simple Mandarin. For most of her life she spoke only Tibetan, and has begun to learn Mandarin in the last year so that she can communicate with homestay guests.
The next day, we spent the morning exploring the surrounding mountains. And by “exploring,” I mean, hiking for about 30 minutes until we found a sunny, grassy knoll, and then basking in the bright sunshine. We came down just in time to do a cooking class with Ke Zhu, Zhuo Ma’s brother. He learned how to cook in Lhasa, where he worked for several years before returning to his hometown to open his own Tibetan restaurant. He showed us how to make a few Tibetan dishes, including a deep-fried yak meat dish and two different curries. Curry is apparently hugely popular in Tibet, having migrated over from India. This aspect of the homestay was the most in need of improvement. Although we each chopped a few things, we mostly watched Ke Zhu cook, and there were no recipes or written instructions to take home. It was fun, but expensive at an extra 125 RMB each. After the class, we relaxed a little more in the brightly painted living room and then headed back to the park area to get ready for an early-morning bus back to Chengdu the next day.
At 180 RMB per person per night, including two simple meals, the price of the homestay tested our backpackers’ budget. But unlike many other accommodations in Jiuzhaigou, this one is entirely locally owned, by a wonderfully generous family. In fact, you’ll probably get to meet most of the people who benefit from your visit. This is money you can feel good about spending.