(Courtesy of www.happy-nomads.nl)
If you are fortunate enough to go trekking in the high Himalayas during your visit to Nepal, you will undoubtedly come across the yak. This shaggy beast, a sort of high-altitude cow, is the animal most often associated with the Himalaya. In mountain mythology, yaks frequently served as messengers of the gods, but for Himalayan villagers, they are an indispensable part of the daily life.
In the high Himalayan valleys, most people have several means of livelihood: farming, trading, and herding sheep and yaks. Originally the yak was a wild beast which roamed the Tibetan plateau. Particularly suited for high altitude living above 3000 meters, the yak is one of the mainstays of Himalayan life. Over the centuries they have been domesticated and sometimes cross-bred by the local population, but they remain shy creatures, wary of strangers and prone to erratic behavior.
Male yaks provide the major means of transporting goods in the high-altitude Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau. They can carry up to one hundred kilograms of cargo over precarious trails and snow-filled passes. In the mountains between Nepal and Tibet, long yak caravans are a common sight. The lead yaks are well trained animals who respond readily to their owner’s commands and know the trails without faltering step-they can plow through four feet of unbroken snow. The respect given to the lead yak is shown by the fact that it does not carry a load like the rest of the caravan and is adorned with bells and bright red tassels.
In these caravans, which can have up to fifty yaks or more, the main cargo brought from Tibet is rock salt, dried sheep meat, wool, saddle carpets, worked silver, and Chinese manufactured goods such as shoes, thermoses flashlights, and tea cups. Often these traders sell their wares in the high valleys, but if they decide to trade at lower elevations, the loads are transferred from the yaks to mules and horses. Rice, tea, sugar, kerosene, and cloth are carried on the return trip.
The females, call dri or nak, are even more productive than the males for they give rich milk, essential to the diets of the mountain people. This milk is especially tasty because of the diet of high mountain herbs; the locals say the higher the dri grazes, the sweeter the milk. In mountain areas, where the variety of food is limited, the products derived from dri milk assume great importance. The people of this region drink more tea than anywhere else in the world, thirty to fifty cups a day. This tea is not what the foreigner would expect. It is made with milk, butter, and salt, blended in a tall wooden chum. It resembles a soup more than tea, and it fortifies the people against the cold. The milk of dris is also made into cheese and yoghurt. The cheese is dried in the sun or over an open fire to preserve it for the winter months when dairy products are scarce. This is called chhurpi, a favorite snack of mountain people.
Both yaks and dris provide a high quality wool, rich in lanolin and long of fiber. This creates a whole weaving industry of tents, blankets, ropes, and clothing. The meat of the animals is eaten fresh or more often, dried into jerky.
Yak herders are semi-nomadic people. They live in their own villages only during the cold winter months. Following the seasons and the grass, they move as often as six times a year. With the warm weather they move up the mountainsides, reaching the highest pastures in the summer. Some go up as high as 6000 meters. The trekkers will hike by and perhaps even camp in the high summer settlements of the yak herders. The construction of these settlements varies from place to place. Some are solid stone buildings, as found in Langtang, complete with hearths, shelves, and locking doors. Other’s, as in the Solu district, are simple bamboo dwellings which are moved with the herd from pasture and pasture. The herders and animals stay in the summer pasture from May to September. In this period the females give birth, thus increasing their capacity to produce the milk. Half the daily milk is left for the young, while the herders take the rest for their own needs.
With the advent of autumn, the herds are slowly moved back down. Spring is a time of festivals for the departure of the herders from their homes to the pasture above. Summer is probably the favorite season because the weather is warn and the grass and milk plentiful. Fall brings much work, for the winter fodder must be cut, dried and stored.
The number of yaks in a man’s herd represents his wealth. A yak is a substantial investment for the Himalayan dweller and an important piece of property. Yaks may live thirty years, their age is visible by the length of their horns. They mate and produce milk between the ages of three and twenty-five. Young virile yaks often test their prowess in competitive battles over the females. These fights are fierce clashes sometimes resulting in the loser falling over a cliff or into a gorge.
Yaks that have been cross-bred with cows are called dzo (male) and dzomo (female). They can live at lower altitudes and are easier to handle when carrying loads. The dzomo retains the fine milking characteristic of the dris. The visible difference between the two types of animals is very slight: dzos and dzomos are smaller and do not have the long shaggy hair falling from their flanks and sides as yaks do.
Listen for the tinkling of yak bells as you trek through the mountains, along the steep trails and through high pastures. You are hearing the age-old sound of the messengers of the gods, the sound of a way of life unique to the Himalaya.