Luden in a winter hat. While nomadic women show off a bit of color with jewels and their colored aprons (pomden), men show off on horseback or with a flashy hat. The Tibetan and Han Chinese populations separated 3,000 years ago but the high-altitude lifestyle of the Tibetans means they have undergone a dramatic genetic change. Their bodies maintain low hemoglobin levels, so their blood does not thicken.
Tibet – Long Read

Surviving five kilometers into the sky

Photo by Jeff Fuchs

Tibet – Long Read Surviving five kilometers into the sky

Hello Tibet, whose Drokpa nomads live in tents almost five kilometers into the sky, one of the last peoples to hold out against the incursion of the modern world. But the modern world’s impact on this isolated culture is increasingly felt through climate change which threatens the life of yak herding by which they survive. If they cannot depend on the land, what else do they have?

Jeff Fuchs
Jeff Fuchs Explorer

A hiss rips through the frigid winter air and I know that morning has silently arrived. Water drips onto the heated stones of the clay stove which sits roaring in the middle of our “ba”, a yak wool tent. Fire is an essential to life here. I am lodged stubbornly under a pile of smoky yak wool blankets from where I balk at starting the day. An icy patch of wool is frozen stiff where my breath has damped it. At 4,300 meters in the barren Ganzi Prefecture, winter mornings are a true force of nature.

Omu, the indestructible matron of the household and my hostess, ghosts into the tent, wrapped in great layers of wool, somehow smoothly negotiating two 20-liter buckets of water into the tight, yet-to-wake household. She calls both of her sons to get up, “Luden! Chamba!” Feeble groans are the reply.  The aged matriarch of the family, Oje, asks about a missing yak from under her blankets. “Has it returned”? Omu answers “No”, and, as she does every morning, repeats a mantra asking the spirit world for peace, prosperity, and health. She also adds a request to the deities for the return of the yak. “The cold is intense and the yaks are covered in ice,” she tells us all. “The missing yak might be dead.” Omu’s husband Ajo then asks her the question I’ve heard every morning: “Is tea made?” Omu’s answer is also the same: “Of course!”

Omu has been up since the sun first touched the sky. She always is. Her morning journey to fetch water from a nearby stream involves digging through thick ice that refreezes each night. The only sign of the six other bodies in this homestead, still wrapped in woolen balls, are the vapor trails of humid breath. In the tent there are none of the physical or psychological divides of walls. Everything is shared here. Our tent could easily sleep 30 and every space and item is entirely communal. Stacked around the inside are supplies, blankets, tools and an enormous pile of the yak dung patties that we use as fuel.

The nomads find my efforts amusing

Staggering up in this raw morning air requires a certain mindless faith. In the bitter cold, I am good for the mindlessness but perhaps lack a little of the faith. At 6:30am it is a very raw ten degrees Fahrenheit, -12ºC, inside. Lurching around the scattered bodies, I go outside into the still shadowed morning light to ‘wash’. A single bowl of hot water is used to rinse my face and brush my teeth. The nomads find my efforts amusing, telling me that I’ll be dirty again minutes after I’m ‘clean’. This little bowl is my eating, drinking, and washing container all in one. Nomadic life strips life to its essentials but coping in this environment at the top of the world has been a way of life for these nomads for at least a thousand years.

I am in Horchu’ka, one of a belt of hidden valleys in the far west of China’s southwestern Sichuan province. We are just a mountain range east of Tibet proper, in a region traditionally referred to as both the physical and cultural heart of Kham, or eastern Tibet. Here, the nomads say: “Listen to the land or you will not see what is happening.”

All over the three areas that make up Tibet, nomadic communities are waking up with the same rituals, ready to face the hard reality of an unforgiving environment with which they live in close harmony. This valley offers a homestead and rich grasslands to these families and their herds based on ancient usage rights. None of the land is privately owned, but there isn’t any question of simply showing up and laying down stakes. Honor codes exist about who can use it and when, and all is agreed upon using that rarity in the modern world, the “word”. To go back on your word in the world of nomadic blood oaths would be a dangerous business. An old nomadic trader says: “If someone needs a paper contract, they must themselves be a liar.” Outside in the shimmering cold, the women are wrapped in their traditional long woolen robes, collecting frozen yak dung, using small shovels to scoop it into baskets on their backs.

We are far above the treeline and dung is the only fuel. Other women and girls kneel on the frozen ground, milking the yaks into wooden pales. Glistening frost coats the backs of the animals who remain in tethered rows. This morning’s scene has changed little in centuries and is being played out by nomads across the breadth of the Himalayas. Our neighbors are all in some distant way related to one another but family relations aren’t necessarily straightforward. I ask how a nomad living two tents down is related but am soon lost by the answer: “He’s my cousin’s, brother’s, wife’s, father…”

Measured mounds of dung sit drying, acting at the same time as enclosures for sheep. The six tents which make up this community all face east, positioned in an ancient formation to catch the morning light. The hand-woven tents with their handmade wooden poles are marvels of the mountain world: windproof, waterproof, and utterly indestructible, they can last 40 years and stand against the worst of the mountain’s furies.

To reach here one needs a brave driver

The community of Horchu’ka stretches almost a kilometer in an oddly formed string of life that only exists for three months of each winter. The rest of the year, their migration patterns lead them separate ways. We are 30 km from Litang – one of the nomad’s pivotal center-points and supply depots. To reach here one needs a brave driver, an iron constitution, specific directions and three or four days of driving from Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu and, depending on the season, perhaps an additional three days by foot and mule.

You will also need an invitation. A decade ago, I spent almost a month with a nomadic clan studying their way of life and language. I now return every year and, while my host family is inviting and warm, other outsiders are not always welcome. Many of these nomads prefer to be left alone, feeling misunderstood and that outside forces at times intrude and introduce changes that aren’t always welcome. They are traditionally fiercely protective and private, and also consider their lives too harsh for outsiders.

Their massive tents are further protected by fiercely efficient Tibetan mastiffs who, like the people and land around them, are unambiguous forces of nature. At night the thick-boned animals are set free in packs to keep watch for their mortal enemies, wolves. They make any night-time exit from the tent to relieve myself a daunting prospect. One time, at 3 am, having completely forgotten the dogs, I heard a dull growl while mid-flow. In my headlamp, I saw one of the beasts staring at me with teeth bared. Following Omu’s advice, I started muttering like her in high pitched tones, and chucked a nearby yak patty with full force at the beast. That bought me enough time to yank up my thermal underwear and make it back to the tent, sweating despite the cold.

This cold morning, Omu’s 20 year-old son Luden emerges from the tent barefoot and hunched. Long black hair coils over his threadbare yak-wool jacket and his eyes rise briefly to meet the approaching sun, taking in far more information about the coming day than I can know. His senses process every small detail of sun, grasslands, and wind. Of all of his extended clan, only an uncle has ever lived in a fixed place for more than a year. Like most nomadic youth, Luden’s formal education is minimal at best but his natural skills on the land, under the sky, or with a horse, mean his family can ill afford his absence for even a day.

Pray one moment, and kill the next

The nomads’ life is one of ritual and ceaseless movement and they learn all they know by simply living. Nomads on the Tibetan Plateau still make up almost half of all ethnic Tibetans, and, as pastoralists, they are driven to migrate by the unrelenting hunger of their beloved herds of yak, and flocks of sheep and goat. Luden’s reckless and hard-edged good looks and massive hands reminds me of how a Tibetan friend once described the Khampa nomads as the people who could: “Pray one moment, and kill the next.” They are rarely without their heavy knives.

Nomad’s ‘breakfasts’ are consumed when the chores are done and the one absolute morning chore of every single day is to take the yak up into the highlands to graze. Luden and his fleet- of-foot 11-year-old brother, Chamba, join me ten minutes later to gently urge the family’s 200 yak up a ridge in this daily ritual. Our community of 33 people have 1,000 yaks and the beasts will all be on the grazing slopes by 8am. All that is but the old favorite that failed to make it back home last night. In these lands, where everything is intimate and precious, a single missing yak constitutes a crisis. A search party will depart… but only after breakfast.

“All things yak” sums up breakfasts, lunches and dinners in a nomadic home, where butter, milk, dried yak meat and yoghurt are eaten in staggering amounts. In a corner of the tent a 25 kg flank of raw yak meat dries like a massive slab of prosciutto. Pieces of it are shaved off as needed, taken as snacks, given as gifts or used in stews.

Yak is the only meat most nomads will ever eat. The eating utensils of choice are a supple tongue, dexterous fingers, and gigantic knives. Tsampa (ground barley) and the odd treat is bought in distant market towns and thrown into everything with abandon. One inevitable must in every tent throughout every nomadic community within the Himalayas is the salted yak butter tea, which is more food than beverage. “Without tea, the day cannot begin,” they say.

Our tent’s other inhabitants include the 73-year- old curly-haired elder of the family, Oje, who is Omu’s mother-in-law and undisputed matriarch of the clan; Ajo, who is Omu’s soft-spoken husband and the family head; and Dada, Ajo’s unmarried sister. There is also a young cousin, Dorje, who has been raised in this household. Extended families often live within one tent, with elders living out their days as a nomad contributing in any way they can.

She rules through sheer force of character

We sit in our assigned spots upon ancient rugs for breakfast around the hot stove. Omu is simultaneously serving tea, stoking the fire and berating Chamba for some wayward comment; all while insisting I eat more. She rules through sheer force of character. Oje the elder sits wrapped in layers of wool and fur, perching next to the fire to take in the warmth. Behind her, a simple but immaculate altar sits on the ground. Faded black and white photos of lamas, the Buddhist holy men, seven spotless silver cups filled with water offerings to purify our day, and some animal bones all sit next to each other. The bones are remnants of the ancient animistic religions practiced by nomads, and hint that the old beliefs are not entirely gone. Many nomads still circumambulate particular mountains or lakes in honor of the old deities, though these traditions are slowly coming to an end as the elders die off.

The morning chatter is all about our missing yak. Omu knows the most likely points to find the beast and everyone listens as she fires off instructions about where we will search. Ajo murmurs ominously about the nomad’s ancient nemesis, the wolf. “If the yak made it through the night, he is fine. If not we’ll find the bones.” Lack of winter precipitation is not only emboldening the wolf packs, it is also affecting the fertility of the grasslands, drying them out and altering the nomad’s herds to search out new grazing lands migration times.

Omu says that the yak is either making its way to salt pans near Litang, further south, or that the wolves (jun’ki) have finished him off. While the rest of us search, Dada and Omu will remain at home preparing food, separating cream from milk to make one of the staples in every nomadic tent, butter. Oje will make spin yak wool to make lengths of rope. As she is forever pointing out, there are no ‘days off’ for nomads.

Luden and a neighbor will go by horseback over a high-mountain ridge towards the salt flats, Chamba and I will go by foot and Ajo and two other clan members will circle the entire valley. Chamba throws a fit, wanting to ride with his brother Luden, and is promptly swatted sideways by Omu with a growled warning. All of the men wear small felt hats, cocked at angles to protect from the sun’s rays and in a wonderful little display of vanity. Horses are quickly prepared and the energy levels lift in the heat of activity. There is no more sacred a place for nomadic men than atop a horse. In times of strife or need, the nomadic community instantly and wordlessly fuses together.

An essential defense against wolves

Chamba, my 11-year-old partner, and I ascend into the strangely snowless mountains where he bounds up the 45-degree slope. He offers me a lollipop – a treat from his father. Like all in his community Chamba wears only a full-length handmade robe, with a meter-long leather slingshot slung over his shoulder. The sheepskin and wool clothes protect and retain heat like few materials on the planet. On his head is an ornate fur cap that marks him clearly as a nomad. Chamba still simmers and sulks telling me that he is “as good a horseman as his brother … almost”. To take out his frustration, he slings rocks at the distant yak with menacing accuracy. While effective in herding yaks, the slingshots are also an essential defense against wolves, and no one leaves the tent without one.

The wolves act in unison to split flocks of sheep into groups, when one ’kill team’ will go in and simply kill as many as they can, at which point the remaining wolves move in to gorge themselves. They know they have limited time before the nomads arrive in force, on horseback or motorbike, having grabbed any guns available. They tend to leave humans alone although rogue wolves will try for children if they can.

Roaming in large packs, the cunning wolves are the only major predators left in much of the Himalayas and, because of an ominous lack of snowfall, their hunting grounds have widened immeasurably. “A few weeks ago, a wolfpack ripped a rider off his motorcycle and consumed him not far away from here,” says Chamba. Above us, the undertakers of the sky, vultures, cruise in their monotonous circles and monitor our progress, and he studies the sky for telltale signs of a death or kill. Chamba himself has defied the odds already by simply surviving. Many nomadic children do not make it past infancy but those who do are perfect examples of Darwinism. Medical facilities far away and viewed with suspicion.

Yaks, fungus and not much else

We follow a trail upwards amid winds that hurt the teeth and shudder the bones. Little can endure but for a fungus, cordyceps sinensis, that provides some extra income for the nomads. Oje sums up the nomad’s income possibilities as “yaks, fungus and not much else”. Harvested in late spring by legions of nomads throughout the Himalayas, the fungus is a stimulant and aphrodisiac that is much in demand by Asian markets. Seldom used by Tibetans themselves, a single fungus can be sold for eight or nine dollars. Watching the enormous valley of Horchu’ka from above, Chamba traces the paths that the herds take with a finger, able to pick out individual animals that are but black dots to my eyes. A loud ‘whoop’ from him signals good news: Luden, far below us, is riding next to the lost yak.

That evening, our celebratory dinner of yak-filled dumplings is lit by a single white bulb swaying above us. Powered by a small solar-charged battery, it gives off a bleak light. Neighbors pile in to share our joy about the safe return of the yak. After a snort of arra, the potent local barley whisky, the discussion centers around an ever- growing concern for the nomads, the environment. The Tibetan Plateau is the source for Asia’s great waterways and supplies. The Salween, Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Brahmaputra Rivers all pound and twist their way downwards from the highest peaks on the globe, affecting hundreds of millions of lives but, for these nomads who live at or near the very sources, variations are felt instantly.

Water issues here alter mountain lives in days and weeks rather than years.  There is no need for statistics or numbers to prove that the earth is disgruntled. Truth here is in the winds that gust empty; truth is a peak in January with not a speck of snow on it. Here, where it snows even in summer, a winter with so little snow is unheard of.

Something ails the land

The nomads know something ails the land. “The grasslands are dying,” says Oje. “Life is under threat from the sky.” She has lived all of her 70 some years as a nomad, and observes in her quiet gravelly voice that in the last ten years, the snows are more unpredictable than ever, coming later, in lesser quantities – if at all – making her family’s migrations harder to gauge. “Nomads have dealt with cycles and changes for as long as nomads have existed,” she says. “But this present situation is unnatural. Our lives have always been affected by nature’s change, but now we are affected by a speed of change that we cannot see or understand”.

Ever philosophical, Ajo wonders aloud, “If we cannot depend on the land we have lived on, what else do we have? We cannot step away from the land.” Chamba blurts out that “something must be done”, and Omu growls that the only thing that needs doing is the dinner cleanup. With all of the anxious talk of the lack of snow, Luden decides to lighten the mood. Bursting into the tent, he squeals that snow is finally falling, stirring us all to bolt joyfully towards the open air. Outside, the only specks of white are the outrageously clear pinpricks of the stars against the blue-black sky. Huge laughter ensues but the one laughing the hardest is Luden, belying the seriousness of the issue.

The next day, while tracking his yak herd at close to 4,500 meters, I ask Luden if he will ever move to a town and buy a house. He answers with a slight twist of his lips and looks to the surrounding peaks. “Maybe we’ll move further into the mountains,” he says. “Might be safer there.” Might be.

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