HENGDU, China — I knelt down beside fried dough twists, jasmine tea and a bowl of candies. The Tibetans watched me closely. As instructed, I used my thumbnail to scoop yak butter from the oiled wood tub and drop the yellow, waxy gobs into my tea.
Yak butter tea is a staple for Tibetan nomads and an honor for distinguished guests.
I did not consider myself distinguished, just one of the first foreigners to visit the Tibetan Highlands area of China in almost 25 years.
Boojum Expeditions of San Diego had negotiated for two years to get permission from the People's Republic of China to explore northwestern Sichuan Province on horseback. I was one of the 13 Americans who took part in the journey last summer.
Sichuan is the largest of China's 18 provinces, 40% larger than California, with a population of almost 100 million. Only in the most remote areas are you free of the crowds.
The mid-China province is subdivided by vast valleys, monsoon-swollen rivers and mountains soaring to 22,000 feet.
The western third of Sichuan consists of the 12,000-foot-high Tibetan plateau, which stretches to the Himalayas, about 750 miles. The only way to get here is by a dusty and pulverizing two-day bus ride from the provincial capital of Chengdu.
The fact that our trip was detoured only once because of a landslide was remarkable. Landslides are commonplace. More than once we followed a bulldozer as it pushed boulders from the treacherous roads.
The beauty of the highlands alone is worth the trip. The grasslands look like a wildflower carpet of pink daisies, red poppies, buttercups and purple violets.
Eagles, hawks and ravens circle the hillsides. We saw several of the rare and elegant black-necked cranes, the official bird of China.
The lush pastures are dotted with grazing sheep and yaks. The latter are herded by the nomadic Tibetans and used for transportation, shelter and food.
The thin air at these high elevations is no problem for the yaks--or the Tibetans--but we foreigners felt every 15,000-foot pass squeeze the breath from our lungs and the blood from our heads.
Although the Sichuan highlands are primarily Tibetan in culture, they are governed by the Chinese. But the cultural tensions are not as apparent here as they are in the Tibetan autonomous region and its capital, Lhasa.
The grassland towns, where trade brings sidewalk merchants and shoppers together, bustle with a cacophony of sounds.
Beginning at 7 a.m., propaganda blares over the loudspeakers with local and Beijing news and popular military marching songs such as "The East Is Red."
Worn pool tables are wheeled into town by people who charge a nominal fee for their use.
Eventually I got used to the Chinese drivers' love of honking their horns. By comparison, Manhattan cab drivers seem patient.
We gathered curious crowds each time we bargained for ethnic art, Tibetan knives, riding boots and food.
As part of our 24-day trip we went on a 250-mile horseback expedition. For 12 days we rode spirited ponies supplied by our four Tibetan "wranglers." We camped in pop-up tents and ate a variety of food from Chinese noodles to peanut butter and canned sausage.
During the trip the most courageous males bathed in the swift, mud-colored rivers, but everyone else went without a bath for two weeks.
While riding and camping with the wranglers we were able to get a glimpse of the 1,200-year-old Tibetan culture.
A respect for religion and spirituality was apparent wherever we rode. Majestic monasteries, temples smoldering with incense, moaning ceremonial trumpets and monks in flowing robes create a mystic aura around almost every village.
Prayer wheels, from hand-held to two-story models, continually generate invocations to Buddha. Gargoyles, swastikas and gold-skinned Buddhas reinforce the power of the Tibetans' spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Tibetans are famous for their skill on horseback. We saw them gallop past, sometimes with saddle and bridle, sometimes bareback. One hot and cloudless day we even saw a young man herding yaks across a muddy river with nothing on the horse . . . or on himself.
At sunset one evening the sound of a faint bell drew me away from our campsite. In the distance a weathered shack stood guard over a water channel. A small paddle-wheel churned beneath the floor. The faint sound I heard was a spinning prayer wheel inside the shack, striking a tiny bell. Each "ting" was a message to Buddha.
When a smiling Tibetan rode up on a white palomino and gently patted his horse's rump, offering me a ride, I thanked Buddha for my luck. The rider wore wooden prayer beads around his neck and a broad smile glowing with gold-capped teeth. He had visited our encampment and wanted to take home a foreigner to dinner.