Herds of yaks graze in a village that overlooks Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region in southwest China. Every day, more than 200 kg of yak milk produced here is sent to a bar near the Potala Palace to be fermented into yogurt.
Lhasa celebrated the Shoton Festival last week. Shoton means "feasting on yogurt" in the Tibetan language. As more and more tourists have come to know the festival, having a bowl of yogurt while taking a selfie in the most popular yogurt bar in Tibet has become the latest trend.
Stepping into the bar, one can easily feel "overwhelmed" by the many boarding passes, train tickets, postcards and snapshots left by its customers that have been stuck to the walls, the ceilings and under the glass tabletops.
Kelsang, the bar owner, said over 1,000 bowls of yogurt were sold every day during the Shoton Festival.
Kelsang was born into a noble family of a prestigious branch of Tibetan Buddhism in Xigaze and raised as a "princess." In 2007, the 19-year-old "princess" was sent to pay homage to sacred temples in Lhasa on behalf of her family. After the pilgrimage, instead of coming back to inherit her family's Tibetan incense business, she decided to stay.
Soon she came across two tourists from Shanghai and Shenzhen, who loved Tibet so much that they wanted to open a small business in Lhasa. After some brief discussion, the two agreed to invest money in a yogurt bar with Kelsang in charge of the operation.
"The three of us had never met before. But we shared the same vision and had total trust in one another," Kelsang said.
Traditional Tibetan yogurt may taste too sour for non-Tibetans. To help make it more appealing for tourists, Kelsang modified her yogurt to make it a bit sweeter. Yogurt with honey, ice cream balls, or rose petal jam on top soon became popular and were widely recommended on the Internet.
Thanks to the booming business, the bar space is three times larger than before. A kitchen for desserts and meal preparation and a toilet have also been added.
But the prices for the yogurt have barely gone up. "The price of yak milk has constantly risen over the past 11 years. Many regular customers kindly reminded me to mark up our yogurt prices. But I'm reluctant. I'd rather have more customers come and enjoy my yogurt," she said.
The yogurt bar has attracted many loyal fans. Kelsang said over 1,000 customers had bought a pre-paid membership card. Besides a must-go place for tourists, her bar has also become the go-to hangout spot for local residents. Many members have made friends with Kelsang.
"Customers like my outgoing personality. I hope to make tourists feel the warmth of Lhasa and fall in love with the city through my hospitality," she said.
Since opening, Kelsang has hired eight waitresses, many of them from remote and impoverished Tibetan villages. She treats them like her own family. Besides solving their problems in life, she often takes them to hair and nail salons and nice restaurants.
"If the waitresses are treated well, they will treat their customers well," Kelsang said. "The girls have all become more confident and beautiful after working in the bar."
"After all those years, I can feel myself turning younger and prettier. Can you tell that I'm already 30 years old?" She asked, laughing.