"You'll find it rather difficult to be a vegetarian in winter here," our driver said to me during one of those late dinners on the road (every day we so avariciously exhausted the long Xinjiang summer days to do our travel and sightseeing that we did not start eating until after the sun had set at about 10pm).
"In summer, there is an abundance of vegetables," he went on. "Tomatoes, onions, string beans, spinach, potatoes... we have no shortage of these. But the short summer only allows one harvest per year. Come winter, when the snow is more than one and a half metres thick and the temperature is minus forty, nothing can grow. There may be some vegetables coming from southern China, but they are very expensive. So the people here eat few vegetables but a lot of meat. Lamb especially, because it gives them warmth. And they consume a lot of milk products. I don't think you can survive the winter here on vegetables alone."
Another time he asked me why my wife and I chose to become vegetarians. I said it was because we would like to be kind to animals and don't want them to suffer. 'Animals are raised to be slaughtered,' he said, in a matter-of-fact manner.
These conversations seemed to challenge my faith in vegetarianism. While I will always think that going veg has been one of my best decisions in life, I cannot deny that what the driver said does make sense to the people of Xinjiang, all of whom have to endure bitter coldness for much of the year, and many of whom have been nomads and herdsmen for centuries. Does it then mean that vegetarianism is not necessarily good for everybody - apparently not for those ethnic minorities who have since ancient times lived on those beautiful grasslands and depended on their herds and flocks for survival? If vegetarianism has such universal benefits to the animals, the environment and our physical and spiritual well-being, why is it that Nature does not give equal opportunities for everyone to practise it?
Yet another time the driver said: "The herdsmen in Xinjiang have short lifespan, because they eat much meat but no vegetables. On average they only live to be fifty or sixty." Sounds a bit sad, but most probably these people have accepted this as their destiny.