Interview with Adventurer Brandon Wilson, Author of Yak Butter Blues

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BootsnAll: Today we welcome Brandon Wilson, author of a book called Yak Butter Blues. It’s a newcross–Tibet trekking adventure. Tell us how it all began.

Brandon: A few years ago my wife, Cheryl, and I were living in Vail, trying to settle back down into the daily routine again. It was extremely hard, since we’d recently come back from a year spent crossing Africa. Being cursed with an adventurer’s wanderlust, we found ourselves say, “Okay, so now what’s next?”

One day I was in the library and came across a brief account about an ancient trail crossing Tibet, 1000 kilometers (650 miles) from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Nepal. Then I heard about how the trail had been closed to independent travelers since the Communist invasion in 1950 and only open for very brief periods since. So, I thought, maybe, just maybe no Western couple has trekked this trail before.

BootsnAll: Why Tibet?

Brandon: I guess I grew up with the legend. Of all places remote and exotic in the world, Tibet ranked right up there – and remember, we’d just returned from crossing Africa. So it seemed like a logical next step.

BootsnAll: What types of challenges did you encounter?

Brandon: At first, the Chinese authorities told us it was “impossible.” There was no place to stay, no food, no maps, severe weather, high altitudes, illnesses, etc., etc. On top of that, they refused to grant us a visa. That only made us more determined.

So we decided to go to Kathmandu and apply for a visa there. If they still refused us, well, we’d sneak in and go from village to village and hope for the best.

BootsnAll: And is that what you ended up doing?

Brandon: No, as luck would have it (and there was a lot of luck with us on this trip), we found that the border opened for the first time in decades just the day before we arrived in Kathmandu! Their only restriction was that we had to take one of their propaganda tours in Lhasa, but then we had permission to trek back to Kathmandu on our own. So…never tell a madman it’s “impossible.”

BootsnAll: So for you it was just an “adventure?”

Book Cover
Book Cover

Brandon: No, it began as that. But when we landed in Lhasa, we learned that Tibetans are prevented from making this same traditional journey. So, we decided to make it in their place and carry prayer flags with us to Kathmandu. If we reached Nepal, we’d try to present them to the King to fly as a symbol of solidarity with the people of Tibet.

BootsnAll: I won’t give away the ending by asking how that turned out…But, what about those challenges? Did they really exist?

Brandon: Yes, they did and more. Altitudes ranged from 12-17,000 feet, there were daily sandstorms for weeks, temps ranged from 80 degrees (in October) during the day to freezing at night. There was always the fear that we’d wake up to blizzards and the passes would be snowed in until May. The “very latest” map that we picked up in Nepal was anything but recent. Plus, we didn’t know from one day to the next where we’d sleep or find food.

BootsnAll: Surely you brought food along with you?

Brandon: Yes, but just enough for ten meals. After all, we were trying to be very weight conscious and every ounce counts on a trip like that. Although we had hopes of buying a yak or horse to carry our packs, we figured we’d be passing through villages and just stop into the same shops the locals use. As it turned out, outside of Lhasa, Shigatse and a couple of other tiny places, there were very few stores and they usually only stocked some type of Chinese mystery tinned meat and dace, whatever that is. We did discover 761 Bars though, that fatty, graham cracker concoction with the Chinese soldier on the wrapper. Our horse loved those.

BootsnAll: Oh, so you did find a horse?

Brandon: Yes, Sadhu, an older gelding, became our constant companion. He was a virtual eating machine – but an invaluable member of our team.

BootsnAll: Where did you stay along this trail?

Brandon: Well, the “trail” is now the road – and mostly dirt when we trekked it. Shortly after leaving Lhasa, we ran into two Buddhist monks and walked with them for a day. They taught us how to approach villagers and beg for a place to sleep.

BootsnAll: And it worked?

Brandon: Yes, it was amazing if you can picture it. Imagine two grungy, tired strangers with a horse showing up in your garden some night. How many of us would invite them into our homes like the Tibetan people did?

BootsnAll: Were they all this open and kind to you?

Brandon: No. Traditionally, showing kindness to strangers is a basic tenant of Buddhist practice. However, the Communists changed that. There are soldiers along the trail with bases near most of the larger villages. In fact, there are now more Chinese in Lhasa, the capital, than Tibetans (and they are very different cultures). In some cases, we were taken in by former monks who’d studied in Nepal and still spoke a little English – certainly more than we spoke Tibetan. In those cases, we shared their food: yak butter tea, homemade beer called “chang,” or some yak meet or cheese. Then we slept in their house around their fire, or out on their porch or in their corral among the stacks of yak dung, their fuel.

Sometimes there was such an atmosphere of fear in these villages that the people reluctantly sent us on our way, maybe another hour up the trail. But amazingly, out of 40 days, we only used our tents two nights.

BootsnAll: Did you ever have any trouble with the military?

Brandon: Well, we always had this sense that they were keeping an eye on us. It’s a little hard to disguise two white people and the horse out on the wild Tibetan plains. You can see people for 5-10 miles in any direction. One day, armed soldiers escorted us for a few tense hours. On another, we were shot at.

BootsnAll: What? How did that happen?

Brandon: Well, we were in the small village of Tingri and trying to decide whether we’d risk a 6-day diversion to trek back to Mt. Everest base camp. Now, on any other occasion, this would be a non-issue. However, by now it was November, and those snows could hit us at any time. And I hated to risk completing the expedition. As we sat on the hilltop and considered this option, I heard this whiz and ping, followed by another and another. They were hitting pretty close and we started yelling and ducking. Then we realized how futile that was. We sat back up and focused on the image of Mt. Everest on the horizon. I wanted that to be the last thing I saw–if it came to that. Anyway, a few soldiers soon surrounded us. I did my charades to ask them why they were shooting at us. The officer, now a little flustered, apologized that he was only shooting at birds. Yea, right…

BootsnAll: Other than bullets, a trek like this is probably hard on your health…

Brandon: Well, before we left Lhasa, Cheryl contracted some sort of bronchial infection, probably brought on by the altitudes, dust and cold. I managed to miss most of that but came down with bad digestive problems. Actually, when we reached Kathmandu I was shocked to see that I weighed only 129 pounds. I’d lost nearly 30% of my body weight. But hey, the Himalayan diet is not one I’d recommend to anyone. Stick with low-carbs, if you must.

BootsnAll: How far would you trek each day?

Brandon: Twenty to twenty – five miles. It depended on the weather, altitude, how much food we’d eaten, and where the next village was. Typically, we’d walk from 8 am to 6 at night. But on some days we’d be trekking until 10 at night to find a village. When you’re on a journey like this, pacing is everything. You can only go so fast – and if you expend too much energy one day, you might not have enough to face another. Besides, walking in the pitch black is a real challenge, as you watch out for icy patches and the sudden edges of cliffs.

BootsnAll: What surprised you most on a trek like this?

Brandon: First, it taught me the importance of traveling lightly. Carry only what you need on the trail–and in life. It taught me to not be afraid of “letting go” of trusting and having faith. For so long, we tried to muscle our way through, depending on our strength and tenacity. But that only takes you so far.

One evening, after an incredibly hard day, as we were unpacking in a small house, we discovered that one of two fuel bottles for the stove was missing. And on it was our connector to the stove. Now, we wouldn’t even have hot water for tea or cereal. As we started to sink into a depression, there was a knock at our door. It swung open and our hostess walked in with a huge thermos of hot water.

To me, that was a “brick to the head” telling us not to worry. We were meant to be there – and would be taken care of.

Another thing: Don’t put off following your dreams. There are always excuses and the world is full of naysayers. Chart your own course and do it! No excuses, no regrets. Life is too short.

Finally, I was impressed with the generosity and kindness of the Tibetan people, again and again – from those who shared their house and food – to those who shared their unshakable faith in the Dalai Lama’s return. It impressed my deeply.

BootsnAll: Would you make the same trek today?

Brandon: So much has changed in Tibet since then. So many more Han settlers have arrived from China, and the Tibetan culture is being rapidly assimilated even as we speak. A railroad running from Beijing to Lhasa will be completed in 2007, and I’m afraid that will only escalate the destruction of this peaceful culture.

BootsnAll: By the way, where’d you get that name–Yak Butter Blues?

Brandon: Yak butter tea is a traditional food for the Tibetans. This drink and broth has sustained them through the ages. Today, with the way things are so quickly changing in Tibet, yak butter tea is symbolic of what little remains of their proud culture. Those are the “yak butter blues.”

BootsnAll: Why’d you write Yak Butter Blues?

Brandon: The book is a message in the bottle for the Tibetan people. I just had to write it when we returned, while the blisters were still fresh and the smell of yak dung was still in my sleeping bag! Sure it’s an adventure story, but I hope it enlightens people a little bit more about life in Tibet today and convinces them to support the Tibetans however they can. Tibet’s not Iraq and maybe there aren’t huge oil deposits. But it does have a significant role in the world’s culture, history, geopolitical balance and religion. Too many have needlessly died already. In this age of uncertainty, it’s time that human rights become as important as trade. I’ll get off my soapbox for now.

BootsnAll: Was this your first big adventure?

Brandon: No, far from it. We’d been traveling for years, through over 90 countries, including crossing Africa. We always traveled lightly on a shoestring, stayed and ate with locals. Besides Africa, we were in Eastern Europe for months including the time that the wall came down, we spend 6 months exploring Asia, spend a year living in an Arctic village with the Inupiat, and awhile “down under.” Since then, we’ve taken a extended trip through South and Central America by Blue Bird bus, and concentrated more on long-distance treks through Europe.

The man, the myth, the legend
The man, the myth, the legend

But a seed was planted on our trek across Tibet. I discovered the beauty of traveling one-step-at-a-time. Since then, I’ve gone on to trek the Camino de Santiago across Spain, the Via Francigena from Canterbury, England to Rome and the St. Olaf’s Way across Norway. Cheryl and I trekked the Dolomites to Salzburg then through Bohemia from Ceske Budjovice to Prague. I firmly believe there’s no better way to escape the noise of everyday life, for total immersion in a culture, or for a walking meditation or personal reflection. So, yea, we’re still out there walking the talk.

BootsnAll: What are your plans for the future?

Brandon: I’m jamming to get out my next book, DEAD MEN DON’T LEAVE TIPS. It’s about our trans-African safari and is one adventure after another: crossing the Sahara, climbing Kili, whitewater rafting down the Class V Zambezi River, dancing with Pygmies, photo-stalking mountain gorillas, catching the gun-run through a civil war…It’s a laugh a minute! But hey, it’s serious fun. After that, this fall, we’ll be hitting the trail again. There’s plenty left to explore. The Ruta de la Plata? Shikoku Trail? Kashmir? Any suggestions? My walking stick’s calling me from the doorway!

BootsnAll: Thanks for being with us. Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith is available from all major online book sellers, including Amazon, If you want to learn more about Tibet, see expedition photos, explore Tibetan links (talk with Tibetans), read a chapter, get a signed copy, or just say “hi,” be sure to visit Brandon’s web site at Yak Butter Blues

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