The only known Tibetan puschcart is parked outside the 74th Street train station in Jackson Heights.
Last year, the Chinese government completed a railroad from the mainland of China to Lhasa, Tibet, which China took over in 1951. They named the train “Shangri-La Express,” which refers to the myth of a legendary Tibetan paradise. The train has brought many wealthy urban Chinese tourists from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and even government-sponsored migration into Tibet. The exiled Dalai Lama described it as the ‘cultural genocide’ of the Tibetan people and the greatest threat to the hope of achieving genuine self- rule.
In 2007, another Shangri-La Express runs in Jackson Heights, Queens, far from the Himalayan Mountains. Namgal Ghongpa and his uncle, Weser Dorjee, Tibetan immigrants who live in Elmhurst, opened the Shangri-La Express, the only known pushcart serving Tibetan food, outside the 74th Street station in Jackson Heights. The duo wants Shangri-La Express to serve mouth-watering Himalayan Cuisine to neighbors.
“Tibetans really love the name, ‘Shangri-La’, “said Ghongpa, “That train is the fake one and this is the real Shangri-La Express, run by Tibetan people. China doesn’t even respect our religion. How do they get to use Shangri-La for themselves?”
Their main dishes are Momo, which Ghongpa once successfully attracted people to at the festival, and Shabaly, a beef patty encased in fried flaky dough. Customers can get eight momos with a salad and hot sauce or three large pieces of Shabalay for four dollars and ninety-nine cents. Shangri-la also serves Gyuma, a Tibetan sort of hot dog, and Hymalayan chicken curry, an Indian-Tibetan dish.
“There are a lot of Tibetan people living here, and they know what is good and bad,” said Gongpa, setting timers for the steaming frozen momos that he brought from the kitchen he uses. “So you have to be a momo artist. Otherwise, Tibetan people won’t want it again.”
After two months of people trying their foods, Shangri-la Express seems to have passed their first test. Ghongpa said that on a good night they serve about one thousand momos.
A Tibetan customer who did not want to give his name said, “You can’t find these kinds of momo with that money. You usually pay more than $10 for eight pieces of momo when you go to restaurants.”
Coincidently they opened their food cart the same day the Dali Lama visited New York, on his way to Washington D.C. to receive a congressional medal. At that time, Ghongpa and Dorjee closed their new business for a week and went to Washington D.C. to celebrate.
When his family moved to Seattle, where Ghongpa went to high school, he started to experiment with his love for Tibetan food.
Ghongpa, who had honed his cooking skills in Tibetan boarding school, participated in a local festival, where more than 200,000 people showed up. He bought a stand in the festival for 4000 dollars for four days and sold Tibetan food, especially momos, a steamed Tibetan dumpling stuffed with seasoned beef.
“There were a lot of people who tried it and they loved it,” said Ghongpa.
He moved to New York and started to work at a ”well-paying job” as a computer technician at the New York Power Authority in 2003. But, at the same time, he was still interested in food.
“I was always looking for the possibility to serve Tibetan food,” said Ghongpa “I didn’t have much money at that time. I looked around and thought that a pushcart would be perfect for me.”
After researching for about a year, Ghongpa estimated that he needed at least 50,000 dollars to open up a pushcart business, to buy a cart and trailer and to pay for the garage and kitchen. After a year of researching and planning, they finally saved enough money to start their business.
Ghongpa and Dorjee made a decision to open their business in Jackson Heights, where more than five thousands Tibetans live.
The business is known mainly to Tibetans, but also to Nepalese, Burmese and other food-lovers living in Jackson Heights. Ghongpa also mentioned that they have customers come even from Brooklyn to try their momos.
“I usually stop by here before I go to work,” said Zulf Tahir, a Tibetan immigrant waiting for his momos. “The momos here are really juicy. That’s what I like the most. I tried other Tibetan restaurants, but their momos were too dry.”
Now two months after opening the Shangri-la Express, Ghongpa and Dorjee have been working every day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. As a father of a 5-month- old boy, Ghongpa wishes he could spend more time with his family. But he is still taking steps to promote his business further. Utilizing his skill as a former web technician, he is currently working on the website for the Shangri-la Express.
“I have been working on our website since we began planning for our business,” said Ghongpa with smile, “It’s not just for giving information about our foods. I also want to do internet orders. Maybe I can open up an e-commerce.”
Outside of their pushcart, Ghongpa and Dorjee have displayed American and Tibetan flags.
“I feel very grateful to this country and for this opportunity,” said Ghongpa, “If I was back home in Tibet, I wouldn’t have the freedom to start my own business.”
After the sun sets, people continue to visit their cart and wait for their food. Ghongpa believes that the pictures of the smiling Dalai Lama being greeted by George Bush, attached inside his cart, help him to remember a very important teaching.
“The Dalai Lama said that the purpose of life is helping people and to earn Karma for our next life,” he said, rubbing the shelves. “My business has everything to do with my religion; all I do here is part of my life. As an owner of a pushcart business, I try to give good, clean food. If only I could serve all this food for free.”