A truly exhilarating taste of tea and unity

By Lin Qi and Daqiong | CHINA DAILY
Updated: June 27, 2024

Editor's note: An array of Chinese cities have maintained their cultural memories in the form of historical neighborhoods that have only added to their multilayered charm and vigor with the passage of time. China Daily is taking readers on a journey to some of these timeless areas, where President Xi Jinping has left his footsteps and remarked on the preservation and vitalization of heritage. In this installment, we follow local people's pious steps along Barkhor Bazaar, which encircles the sacred Jokhang Temple, where a traditional Tibetan lifestyle flourishes alongside a modern vibe.

Drop in on the Woser Gamchung Tea House on the first floor of a four-story compound building on popular Barkhor Bazaar in the old town of Lhasa in the Xizang autonomous region at around 2 pm, and you may be surprised to find that the time-honored spot, known for its Tibetan sweet tea, is still bustling with customers.

Some are tourists, curious to have a cup or two of sweet tea, while the rest are local residents addicted to this traditional brew, and who stay for hours, chatting, and ordering one cup after another to accompany plates of local delicacies.

A corner of the 1,300-year-old Barkhor Bazaar in Lhasa, Xizang autonomous region, a bustling center of commerce, and home to multiple cultural, artistic and religious venues, as well as residential compounds. LHAMO/FOR CHINA DAILY

Among the staff busy serving and greeting loyal customers is Penba, manager of the Woser Gamchung Tea House.

"There are even more people on weekends," he says, raising his voice a bit to be heard above the hustle and bustle. "We sell up to 11,000 cups a day."

Tibetan sweet tea, which is made using black tea and powdered milk, is a must for many local residents as they begin or complete their day, and many of them visit tea houses of repute, such as the one Penba manages.

He says when the tea shop opened in 1978, it only served between 30 and 40 people a day and some customers described it as being "as small as a box".

Business began to grow about 20 years ago as increasing numbers of tourists, business owners, migrant workers and other customers also began to drop in and join local residents for a cup of sweet tea. Consequently, the tea house had to expand.

Today, a relaxing moment and a cup of sweet tea at the Woser Gamchung is on the to-do list for many spending their time on the 1,300-yearold street, the evolution of which was linked to the construction of another landmark, the Jokhang Temple.

The former office of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government's grand minister in Xizang is now a public museum and community center for elderly residents. LHAMO/FOR CHINA DAILY

First built in the seventh century, the temple has undergone numerous renovations and expansions to become the complex it is today.

In 821, the central government of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the Tubo regime, which ruled the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau from the seventh to the ninth centuries, formed an alliance. Two years later, that alliance was recorded on a stele in both Chinese and Tibetan script that was erected outside the Jokhang Temple. The Tang-Tubo Alliance Monument, as it is known, chronicles the history of that alliance between the Han and Tibetan ethnic groups.

A circumambulation path for pilgrims formed around the Jokhang Temple and gradually expanded into prosperous Barkhor Bazaar. Throughout the ages, the extended area has been a bustling center of commerce, and is home to multiple cultural, artistic and religious venues, as well as residential compounds.

The area centered on Barkhor Bazaar and its neighboring alleys and courtyards is known as the Old City of Barkhor.

Meanwhile, Barkhor Bazaar has been marked by the stamp of joint development among the different ethnic groups of Xizang.

A rich display of traditional Tibetan architecture adorns the street. LI HENG/FOR CHINA DAILY

In July 2021, President Xi Jinping visited the street during his tour of the autonomous region, during which he inquired about the development of tourism, cultural and creative industries, and the protection of Tibetan cultural heritage in specialty stores.

"I visited this street 23 years ago. Today it is truly flourishing. The (more than) 1,000-year-old Barkhor Bazaar was jointly built by China's various ethnic groups. Cultures of different ethnic groups have come into contact, communicated, and blended here. It is a place where all members of the Chinese nation have realized happy and harmonious relations," President Xi said.

In addition to the Tang-Tubo Alliance Monument, the street is also home to dozens of examples of historical architecture, including the former office of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government's grand minister in Xizang.

The 300-year-old Tibetan-style compound is now a public museum, and Sonam Drolkar, the venue's director, says the cultural relics, photos and other objects on display show how Xizang has been an indivisible part of China since ancient times.

She says the museum also serves as a community center for elderly residents living along Barkhor Bazaar to spend time together.

This is much the same situation at the Woser Gamchung Tea House. Having worked there for many years, Penba has become friends with many of the regulars, and as he goes about his business, he sometimes stops to sit and chat with them for a bit. He says winter is the busiest time, as people need hot sweet tea to keep warm.

Home delivery is also popular, and different volumes of sweet tea can be purchased. Penba says that, once, the tea house received 200 requests for the maximum 3.6 kilogram order amount in a single day.

A Tibetan couple enjoy their neighborhood in June 2019. WANG JING/CHINA DAILY

The tea is normally served in a glass cup.

"In the past, a glass cost 1 jiao, a tenth of a yuan, now it is 1 yuan ($0.14)," he says.

Placing orders and paying is done in the traditional way and constitutes an essential part of the sweet tea culture in Xizang. A customer places 1 yuan on the table, then staff come with a glass, fill it, and retrieve the money. When the customer wants more, they place another 1 yuan on the table, and wait for the staff to refill the cup and take the money.

Those used to e-payment must go to the front desk to purchase banknotes and coins before taking a seat and ordering in the traditional way.

The way people enjoy milk tea is changing in Lhasa, where modern milk tea brands have opened, offering many new flavors and blends.

"It is totally fine," Penba says. "We are sticking to our tradition, and they are doing business in their own way."

Women dressed in traditional Tibetan attire pose for photos in front of the temple in March 2023. LI LIN/CHINA NEWS SERVICE

No wonder Zhang Kemeng, a tourist from Yinchuan in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, felt that it was a pity he missed out on authentic experience at the Woser Gamchung Tea House when he visited Lhasa earlier this year.

Zhang visited with friends in mid-February and stayed in the autonomous region for about a week.

It was his first time and he says they chose mid-February to visit because Spring Festival and the Tibetan Losar New Year both fell on Feb 10 this year, and they wanted to experience the festive atmosphere.

Zhang first joined his friends in Nyingchi city and from there, they began their journey.

After reaching Lhasa, their final destination, Zhang remained in the city for three days after his friends flew back. "Lhasa maintains a balance between modern structures and an authentic feel."

His hotel was close to Barkhor Bazaar, and he spent time there every day.

"One of the most fruitful experiences I had was a guided tour of the Jokhang Temple. I booked a two-person tour with a guy from Beijing. Our guide not only told us everything about the temple, but also elaborated on the history of Xizang, its culture and religion, and great historical figures. It was a very informative threehour tour."

The Jokhang Temple at the center of Barkhor Bazaar, originally a circumambulation path for pilgrims around the temple. LI HENG/FOR CHINA DAILY

He says it was a pity that some shops and restaurants, including the Woser Gamchung Tea House, were closed at the time because of the New Year celebrations.

"Still, I had the best yak milk at another tea house. It tasted quite smooth."

Zhang says he was impressed by the people's optimism. "They were so into dancing and singing together, and they always wanted to share the joy and blessings with us."

The harmonious atmosphere of Barkhor Bazaar binds people of different ethnic groups and those of different cultural backgrounds, among them Ratna Kumar, the Nepali owner of the Syamukapu Nepali Shop, which sells Buddhist statues.

Ratna Kumar says his family opened the shop on Barkhor Bazaar about 140 years ago. Born in Kathmandu, he came to Lhasa when he was 28 to take over the family business. He says he planned to stay for three years and has ended up staying for four decades and starting family in Lhasa after marrying a Tibetan woman.

"When I first arrived in Lhasa, and I visited Barkhor Bazaar and the Potala Palace, there were not many people and only few tourists," he says.

Customers to his shop at the time were primarily local residents and monks, but now he welcomes visitors from across China and abroad.

"Lhasa has become my home now. I like my home on Barkhor Bazaar a lot. I like what I have experienced here in the past 40 years."

Xu Meng, an urban planner at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, says Barkhor has set an example for the integration of different ethnic groups and cultures, especially since the Tang Dynasty.

A view along Barkhor Bazaar. LHAMO/FOR CHINA DAILY

He says it was also an important commercial hub where commodities transported along major trade routes like the Tea Horse Road were traded, and that today the area is home to a dozen ethnic groups, who live and do business in the area.

Zhang says that seeing people praying, reciting scripture, or prostrating themselves along the circumambulation path around Jokhang Temple was a striking experience. "I felt that the culture and history (of Xizang) was so vividly presented before me.

"Some things haven't changed much here as people are doing what those before them have been doing for centuries," he adds.

"They followed their routines while being watched by tourists and seemed totally oblivious to the curious looks they were getting. That aroused in me the wonderful feeling that those praying and the tourists were in two different worlds, and yet, we respected each other."

Palden Nyima and Yang Lurong contributed to this story.

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