I woke up in the little hotel in Zhongdian, looked out the window, and saw the crisp lines of powder-white mountains. It was like being in a treehouse at the top of a tree at the top of the world, in every respect. Even the stairs leading up to the third floor, narrow and steep, invoked a rope ladder. In English, they call the place Shangri-La.
The hotel was rectangular and open in the middle, with a window to the sky shining fresh sunshine onto each level. There, the sun felt harmless, like a close friend. It was so cold you could see your breath. When the shops opened later that day, I would buy a scarf like a thick blanket, red-white-blue and so thick it fatigued my neck and shoulders just to hold it up. I put on every layer of clothing I had and waited for the group to assemble, mostly tourists from Australia and New Zealand, there for a bicycle tour led by our British guide William.
When we were finally together, William led us down the hill and around a corner or two to a tiny shop. The kitchen was near the street. A stack of round, shallow drums stood over a pot of boiling water, steam rising off the top. We sat down inside on tiny chairs around a tiny table. A small Chinese woman with Tibetan features, wrapped in gloves and scarf, brought us bowls of soup with heat peeling off the surface in opaque white curls.
It was cold, but not unpleasant. The clear edge of the air made every line stand out and every sensation visceral. I dumped la jiao, a thick chili paste, into my bowl, waiting for the heat to pull it apart from itself. The spiciness brought my head to life. Soon, the woman began to deliver us drums from the front of the shop. Inside were steamed buns, chewy and full of soft meats. We ate as many as we could, slowly getting to know one another.
I have had many memorable breakfasts in my life – thick Tibetan pancakes packed with scallions, warm fermented Cambodian soups, sprawling New York brunches – but my everyday waking choices are hardly even afterthoughts. I fry an egg or two, perhaps with some sausage, or I slice fresh fruit into a bowl of yogurt and squirt honey onto it from a plastic bottle. Anything healthier and more thoughtful than a scone added on to a to-go coffee and choked down in small crumbles on the bus feels like an accomplishment.
But as I reflect this morning on that glorious breakfast in Shangri-La, it seems to me that each day deserves more. Waking up to life is such a gift. Waking to life, my own kitchen, and a refrigerator full of food seems even more fortunate. If the way we begin life each day sets the tone for what is to come, then perhaps the breakfast ritual deserves better. More attention. More sharing. More love.