A flour massage and some kind words bring memories of Tibet flooding back for Louise Southerden.
I MISS Tibet. One week in the place and I love it - and its people. Which explains why, as soon as I arrive in Chengdu for a stopover en route to Australia, I check into the Tibet Hotel and promptly sign up for a "mountain tsampa rub" at the spa.
Tsampa is barley flour Tibetans put into their yak-butter tea. They don't, I'm sure, have it rubbed all over themselves. Could this be a prank the Chinese like to play on foreign tourists returning from Tibet? What the hell, I decide, you only live once (unless you're a Tibetan Buddhist, of course).
On meeting my therapist, I momentarily forget I'm now in China and say, "Tashi delek" (hello in Tibetan). She says, "Ni hao" (hello in Chinese) and shows me a massage menu card to ensure we're both on the same page (literally). Then I undress, put on a pair of those oh-so-flattering paper underpants and lie face-up on the massage table.
Suddenly noticing the exhaust fan in the en suite is on, I point and imitate its sound but my therapist doesn't understand. I try to practise equanimity. She starts massaging oil into my left leg. Then her soft hands leave me and I hear her make an urgent, whispered phone call. She returns to rub more oil into the same leg and I wonder where the tsampa is.
There's a knock on the door. She leaves and returns with a container. "Tsampa?" I ask hopefully. "Tsampa," she smiles back. I relax until she starts sprinkling flour on the tops of my legs. It's like having thousands of butterflies landing lightly on your skin. Then, a new worry: will it coagulate with the oil already on my legs to make a glue?
Then she uncovers my top half and sprinkles barley flour on to my stomach, arms and breasts. "It's beautiful," she says and I agree (meaning that it feels beautiful), before realising she's complimenting one of my boobs. But which one?
I can smell the tsampa now - which makes me feel like a beautiful Tibetan dumpling.
"Other side," she says. I roll over and although my head almost falls through the table's enormous face hole, having my back, shoulders and neck massaged with oil and tsampa feels delicious (pardon the pun) - until a speaking clock announces in chirpy Chinese that my time is up.
As I wash off the tsampa in the en suite shower, it turns to beige slime. Glue!
At least my skin feels luxuriously smooth and the experience has been soothing - aside from the exhaust fan, the phone call, the knock on the door, the enormous face hole and the speaking clock.
After getting dressed, I am bustled down to the hotel's reception to pay. My post-massage hair and squashed, sleepy face make me feel conspicuous. But as I hand over my credit card, I remember something no one else in this chic, five-star hotel knows - I've just had barley flour rubbed all over me and now Tibet doesn't feel so far away.
The writer was a guest of Helen Wong's Tours.
Cathay Pacific has return flights to Chengdu via Hong Kong in May from $1249. (13 17 47, cathaypacific.com)
The Tibet Hotel Chengdu's Sacred Spa (10 North Renmin Road, Chengdu) offers 60-minute "mountain tsampa rub" massages for Yuan298 ($47). Call +86 28 8318 3388. See tibethotelchengdu.cn