Restaurants on the Roof of the World
"Hygienic Tibetan food" in a Restaurant offering a taste of Tibet in Lhasa
Several years ago, Chicago-born Kristin Koos took the money she had saved for graduate school and started traveling around the world.
Since 1996, she has spent at least seven months of each year in a place most people back home in the States only dream of visiting. She is a working partner in a restaurant for western tourists in the most evocative part of Lhasa, Tibet.
Named Dunya (the word means "world" in at least nine languages), the 164-seat restaurant and bar is only a five-minute walk from the Jokhang Temple, hidden in the dense and crowded alleyways of the old Tibetan district. The most important Buddhist temple in Tibet, pilgrims daily arrive at Jokhang Temple to prostrate themselves, where thousands of believers burn butter lamps and walk clockwise around the compound spinning prayer wheels.
With their two Dutch and one Tibetan partners, Koos and her Dutch husband Rene Schrama used good common sense in lieu of a formal training in catering when they designed the building and developed their business.
"Our aim is hygienic Tibetan food and a variety of dishes from around the world using local ingredients," explains Koos says. "We offer chicken cordon bleu, organic yak burgers, pizza, and fried Tibetan mo-mo dumplings made fresh." Heineken and various beers brewed in China are also available; most of their cheeses are imported from Nepal.
They also carry instant yak butter tea, sold in packages so visitors can share that experience with friends at home. They also sell a tea that helps people adjust to the high altitude. Dunya, claims Koos, is the only place in Tibet where foreign travelers can relax and chat with a native-English speaker.
As well as traditional Tibetan herbal remedies, Western therapies are on offer, with chef Fred Madern creating a chicken soup for a Dutch tourist who had become ill on the first day of his visit. While the soup simmered, fellow manager Jannette Troost gave advice to a frantic novice tour guide.
Staff can also tell you where to get Tibetan mani stones carved, as well as share plenty of stories from their time in Tibet. "One day," recalls Koos, "the engine of our land cruiser froze, and our backup truck broke through the ice and got stuck in a river near Mount Kailash for two days. We got out the windows, but our sleeping bags were all wet. We had to sleep in the back of the vehicles."
As guides, they had to convince their guests that freezing was a lot of fun.
On Top of the World
Koos admits her initial interest in the Himalayas was inspired by watching Indiana Jones movies. Her first foray into China was as a 19-year-old student from Indiana University in Bloomington. When offered the chance for an out-of-state exchange, she opted for the China program for the practical reason that it was cheaper than any U.S. university.
After four months studying Chinese culture at Hangzhou University, she taught English to local students, before teaching at a school in Taichung, Taiwan, for two years.
After that, she started to travel some more. She met husband Schrama in Lhasa, and convinced him to stay to help the Shigatse Travel agency. "When things go wrong, he reminds me it was my idea," complains Kristin lightheartedly.
Schrama says he became interested in Tibet while traveling in Asia, and works primarily in Shigatse Travel, although he is also a director of the restaurant. "My position with the agency now is only communication between overseas agencies and the staff in the office," he explains. "Tibet is a beautiful place and I like the Buddhist environment, although religion has never appealed to me."
It was the owners at the popular backpacker haunt, the Yak Hotel, who first suggested opening a restaurant. While they initially said declined, they later agreed to embark on the venture with husband-and-wife Troost and Madern, and Tibetan partner Dorjee Tashi. "Foreign and Tibetan guides all urged us to accept," says Kristin, and tourists were always asking for a good place to eat. Madern loved to cook, so he took over the kitchen. Schrama designed the interior.
They demolished the old restaurant building next to the hotel, hired an architect and opened the end of September 1999. They closed a month later, and the local staff spent the winter learning English on half salary.
Among their main problems at the beginning was "a Tibetan staff mistaking us for a charity," says Koos. "They didn't think they needed to work... but this has been solved now."
Business increased in 2001, but slid noticeably in the wake of the global travel downturn after September 11, 2002. Although they used much of their personal savings, the group admits they viewed the restaurant more as an interesting diversion rather than as a serious business venture.
As the winter winds howl across the Himalayas, the tourists retreat, and Dunya closes its doors until March, when the frost starts to melt. For the partners, it's a chance to spend a long vacation around Asia, Europe, and the U.S. Schrama organizes tours in Holland and stocks up on supplies in Nepal. Troost and Madern sell Buddhas at fairs and on consignment, and work for the Ashraf travel agency in Holland.
In the time since the four arrived in Tibet, there have been plenty of changes in the city of Lhasa. "There's been the development of an infrastructure and city planning," says Schrama. "The countryside is largely untouched though. Everything is centered around the bigger cities, especially Lhasa."
Koos points to a growing Tibetan middle class as another wind of change through the capital: "Some have their own businesses like computers and mobile telephone shops, or are in high government jobs. There's (also) more traffic, housing and food."
As for the future, the four have no plans for a change, except says Koos, to add "two rooms with a bath." She and Rene have been living in one room in the two-star Yak Hotel without a private shower. They may not have far to go to work, but they have to use the hotel's public facilities.
Dunya Tibetan Restaurant, Beijing Dong Lu, Lhasa, telephone 632-3496
Contact Author - Ruth Lor Malloy
Copyright © 2009 by Ruth Lor Malloy.
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