On a 1991 climbing expedition in China, Wade Brackenbury—a Utah chiropractor and passionate mountaineer—met an adventurous French photographer who persuaded him to change his travel plans. The trip they really wanted to take, Pascal Szapu insisted, was a dangerous foray into the remote Drung Valley near the border between Tibet and Burma, an area never before visited by Westerners and one that the Chinese government had declared off limits to foreign tourists. On their first attempt, the two men were expelled by the Chinese police; undeterred, they dyed their hair, disguised themselves in Chinese clothes, hired Sophi—a plucky French-Chinese interpreter—and tried again.
Brackenbury's Yak Butter and Black Tea recounts their second effort to reach the homeland of the Drung people. En route, they endured illness, hunger, vermin, foul weather, vicious dogs and military arrest. Eventually, Szapu and Sophi left Brackenbury, who ventured on alone to the Drung Valley, where he found the local society more familiar with radios, tape players and Chinese pop music than he had imagined. Brackenbury lacks the descriptive powers and cultural insights of the great travel writers and at times displays a disturbing insensitivity to the possibility that his adventure may be putting the Tibetans and the Chinese officials in serious political and personal jeopardy. But his straightforward, unpretentious narrative allows us to accompany him vicariously on a journey that will fascinate—and terrify—even the bravest armchair traveler. (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $19.95)