Jaine Blackman meets a couple who defied the odds to build a life together

Yeshi Jampa and Julie Kleeman come from very different worlds.

He grew up never learning to read or write, tending sheep and yaks in the Tibetan mountains; while she was a university educated city girl with an international career.

But fate brought them together, love followed and the couple are now married with two children and running the Taste Tibet market stall which is delighting Oxford foodies.

“I knew this was the man for me after he cooked me my first meal,” jokes Julie, 39. “He was living in really simple accommodation and I couldn’t believe what a great cook he was and that such delicious food could come out of such a basic kitchen.”

The couple met in northern India where Julie, who was working in China at the time, was taking a holiday and Yeshi was living. “Yeshi and I met in Dharamsala on only my second day there,” she recalls.

“I was on the road out of town taking pictures of the area’s famous snow monkeys and Yeshi was also out with his camera looking for inspiration, as he was taking a photography course at the time.

“Dharamsala is in the foothills of the Himalayas and the area is beautiful. Yeshi took me on some wonderful walks in the mountains, as far as the snow line.”

Smitten by the man – not to mention his cooking! – back in China Julie began planning a return visit.

“I was working freelance at the time and I was able to do my work from any location,” she says.

“The next time I went back I spent two months with Yeshi in Dharamsala, and I also brought two friends with me from Beijing to check the man out!

“After this I was backwards and forwards to India from Beijing until I secured a staff job in Oxford and Yeshi and I could start planning our return to the UK.”

The path to be together in the UK wasn’t easy.

“It was really hard. We had to put together a very detailed and well-thought-through application that included proof of our financial status, photos of the two of us together over the course of time, email and instant messaging conversations, and so on,” says Julie, who studied Chinese at Cambridge University and has worked in TV, for NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) and in publishing. She is the chief editor of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary.

Friends and relatives wrote letters of support that were included in the application and Yeshi had to take an English exam, which involved a ten-hour round trip.

“We bit our fingernails for three long months before Yeshi received notification of a decision, and he made the long journey to Delhi to retrieve his passport.

“I didn’t sleep all night waiting for the news to come through. I couldn’t believe it when he said the visa had been granted,” says Julie.

The couple are now happily married with two children - Leo, three, and Uma, 10 months.

Yeshi runs Taste Tibet, a market stall serving food from his homeland, and Julie has recently resigned from OUP to give more time to helping build the business and spend more time with her children. She hopes to work for the dictionaries department on a freelance basis.

The popular food stall, which was recently listed in the Guardian’s top ten budget food options in Oxford, serves Tibetan momo dumplings (meat or vegetable), curries, soups and home-made flatbreads.

Oxford Mail:
Uma Jampa, 10 months, Julie Kleeman, Leo Jampa, three, and Yeshi Jampa

“I cook fresh food, using the freshest possible ingredients, some of which are home-grown,” says Yeshi, 35.

“Others come from specialist suppliers, including a worker cooperative that sources ethical, organic produce.

“I buy my meat in Oxford’s Covered Market. I also use some ingredients that come from Tibet. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to receive by hand a large quantity of peppercorns from my home village, but when this supply runs dry I may struggle to come by it again as no channel to Tibet is guaranteed.

“I try to keep the food as authentic as possible.”

You can try out the food that wooed Julie at Yeshi’s regular pitch at Gloucester Green market on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.He also takes part in #BittenStreet food markets events and caters for private events.

Follow Taste Tibet on Twitter @TasteTibet


My family are semi-nomadic farmers, and from the age of seven I would accompany my father in the mountains, looking after the animals and helping with duties at our camp, including cooking.

By the time I was nine or ten I was responsible for about 100 sheep for up to nine months of the year. When I was 16 I was looking after yaks as well, maybe as many as 50.

Some of my brothers and sisters did go to school but I made the choice not to. I really enjoyed the outdoor life, and it suited me too: I was famously never ill in all my childhood.

I was 19 when I left Tibet by foot over the Himalayas. My brother wanted to go to India to become a monk, as this was not easy to do in Tibet, and the best teachers are now in India and other parts of the world.

I left in order to help him, with no plan to stay away long-term. However, when I got to India, I discovered a world of opportunities that were not available to me in Tibet, and I stayed and went to school for several years near Dharamsala.

This is where I learned English, and how to read and write Tibetan.

Unfortunately, the longer that I stayed away from Tibet the harder it became to go back. I have not seen the rest of my family for 15 years now as it has not been possible to return home. I hope that once I become a British citizen, and hold a British passport, that I will be able to see family members again, but of course there is no guarantee.

Life was not easy as a refugee in India, especially at the beginning. Luckily Tibetans do have a culture of helping one another out, so I never felt alone, nor lacked support. I went to school for four years (1999-2003) and then moved to south India, where there are several large Tibetan settlements.

Here I worked as the full-time carer of an elderly monk, a family relative who had spent many years in India. My job involved cooking him three meals a day.

After my relative passed away, I moved to Goa, where I worked for some time in retail, selling Tibetan arts and crafts, and specialising in jewellery. I moved back to Dharamsala only shortly before I met Julie.

After I met Julie, we would talk often about how we could be together. She was keen for me to join her in China, but since I had left Tibet without a passport (it is practically impossible for people from the Tibetan Autonomous Region to obtain one) this really wasn’t an option for us. Then Julie got herself a job at Oxford University Press, which set us on our way.


Oxford Mail:
Yeshi working the dough

I have been cooking for as long as I can remember. It is a way of life in Tibet, and not something that you “learn”.

There were no restaurants or shops in my village, and no such thing as ready-made food.

We grew all of our own vegetables, so cooking from scratch was the only and obvious way.

I always had a hand in it, even when I was very young. On the mountains, cooking was for survival!

In India I learned different ways of cooking as the techniques and ingredients are different there. Again, it was a question of survival. Without family around, or even friends, and without any disposable income, cooking for myself was the only way to eat. Luckily it is something I have always enjoyed doing.

I am passionate about food, and passionate about Tibet. When I arrived in the UK I was quite shocked to discover how much processed and pre-prepared food people eat here.

I want to share with British people the joy that Tibetans take in cooking with fresh, organic ingredients, and I also want to share something of Tibetan cuisine and culture, which are very under-represented in the UK.

Ultimately I would like Taste Tibet to be more than a market stall. I envisage it as a space where people can enjoy Tibetan food, learn about it, and even learn to cook it, and I would like it to be a showcase for my culture in general. I plan to sell fair-trade Tibetan produce, including some of the hand-made artefacts that I once sold in India.

Meeting people at the stall, I can see that there is a very real interest in Tibet here in Oxford, and it would be fantastic to develop that interest in a number of different ways. Food will always be the focus though. It is a culture in itself, and a great way in.

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