Outfitted with aged wood panels and dangling Edison-style bulbs, Charu looks like the kind of coffee shop I avoid in the States—but in Chengdu, it's trying to offer new opportunities for Tibetans.
When I first walk into Charu—right after the waitstaff notice me but moments before they can reach me with a menu—I hastily walk out without a word.
"Uh, I can't find it. Are you sure it's on the 16th floor?" I text my friend.
I had arranged to meet a friend at a new Tibetan cafe in Chengdu and the space I had just sauntered into looked nothing like what I had imagined a Tibetan cafe to look like. The Tibetan establishments I had frequented in the past were usually decked out in mismatched textiles and gold-covered antiques, supplemented with earth-colored motifs.
This place is the stark opposite: It's spacious, outfitted with aged wood panels, edgy houseplants, and dangling Edison-style bulbs. It's staffed by young people and the couches are upholstered in different shades of blue—the sort of patterns you would expect from a swanky Malibu patio by the beach. I had already blundered my way into another wrong cafe just ten minutes ago, and I'm convinced this one was also a mistake. This was too modern, too hipster.
"Yep. That's the one," my friend texts back.
I walk back in, much to my own chagrin. The staff is kind enough to re-notice me and seat me. I had come to expect a place of antiquities; Charu, as the owners would like to emphasis, is anything but.
"The word charu refers to the toggle that links yaks together," Tsehua, one of the owners, tells me in fluent English. "It connects the tents and the yaks together. Like the charu, I started this cafe to connect people together."
Tsehua comes from a family of nomadic herders from Hongyuan County in the Amdo Region of Tibet, located in modern-day Sichuan. They live in black tents fashioned from yak hair and rotate around the grasslands according to the seasons.
"I herd and raise yak," he says matter-of-factly. Tsehua picked up English at his university and moved to Chengdu in the hopes of starting his own business. Every now and then he goes back home and help out his family. He tells me that when he puts his nomadic clothes back on, his friends often find him virtually unrecognizable.
"Once I had an English teacher who was visiting and she told everyone in the village there's another nomad who speaks fluent English. She didn't recognize me," he says with a laugh.
At first glance, Charu is indistinguishable from any other hipster cafe. But it is the subtleties that make all the difference. It has a beverage menu of yak-based drinks—among which is yak milk coffee, decorated with the cafe's logo. The milk is brought in weekly, sent overnight from Tsehua's nomadic village of Hongyuan. There's yogurt, which is made in the same place, and as an option, it can be supplemented with highland barley and raisins. The menu also features a juice squeezed from sea buckthorn, a berry from the Himalayas that tastes like a cross between a mango and an orange.
"Whatever we do, we try to make it as real as possible," Tsehua says. "I personally know the people who are milking the yaks."
He gives me a tour of the space. There's an elaborate mural at the bar painted by Tsehua himself. It tells the story of a nomad going to school and work in the city. "This is my own journey," he says, noting that the landscape in the illustration is based on the actual mountains in his hometown.
The wood panels on the ground are reclaimed from old Tibetan homes. A section of the wall is made with mud Tsehua personally dragged into the city from Tibetan lands. Yak hair charus are on display. Woven slingshots hang from the ceiling as decoration and many of the products that they sell in the cafe are made, with love, by Tibetan artisans.
The pillows are decorated with sketches of birds drawn by his friend, a lama (a Tibetan monk). "He travels around the Tibetan Plateau sketching birds," Tsehua says. "He is obsessed with birds."
Charu also functions as a co-working space and community gathering hub for Tibetan expatriates. Chengdu, for many Tibetans, is the closest metropolitan city. In fact, the city has an entire Tibetan quarter filled with restaurants and specialty shops.
Charu sets itself apart from the fold with weekly events. "I want to empower Tibetans to start their own businesses," Tsehua says. The space hosts workshops, yoga sessions, and public speaking workshops.
For Doujie Zhouma, one of the employees at Charu and a recent college graduate, the cafe is a place where she can gain valuable work experience. Raised in the nomadic grasslands of Mai'erma, she says she eventually wants to return to life as a nomad.
"Life is much simpler in the grasslands," she says. "But I had the opportunity to go to school and come to the city so I want to learn as much as I can before I go back."
It seems that my first impressions of Charu, though misjudged, were correct. Charu is indeed place of modernism. It's a breath of fresh air in a world where Tibetan culture is often talked about in past tense and tackily displayed or appropriated.
"It's not about preserving all traditions," Tsehua says. "Some will inevitably fade away. We learn new things from technology. We should learn things from the past—as long as you don't forget where you come from."