Sunday, August 5, 2018

Yaks in Yunnan

                                                                          by Jim Goodman

yaks grazing in Diqing Prefecture, Yunnan
       The road running from Lijiang, which sits on an elevated plain at 2400 meters, to Shangrila, high up on the Tibetan Plateau at nearly 3300 meters, offers some of the greatest scenic variety in Yunnan province.  After leaving Lijiang the road cuts through hills speckled with Naxi villages to the Jinshajiang, then turns upriver as far as its confluence at Qiaotou with the Chongjiang, a cleaner, swifter river than the usually muddy, sluggish Jinshajiang.
       From Qiaotou Shangrila County begins and about 20 kilometers north the road passes into Yi territory, characterized by log cabin hamlets and potato and maize farms high up on the slopes, gurgling streams below and pine forests all around.  After another 15 kilometers the road begins winding its way uphill until it reaches a chorten with strings of prayer flags attached, marking the entry into a broad, high, rolling plain.  This is the southeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, studded with villages of whitewashed houses and flat tile roofs, with huge wooden drying racks in the fields and thickly forested mountains behind them.  And in the pastures between the settlements and along the rural streams roam the yaks.
yak on a village path, Shangrila County
       Bigger than the largest breed of cattle, with a hump over the shoulders and cloven hooves, these domesticated yaks are yet smaller than their wild yak progenitors.  Long gone from Yunnan, and now found mainly in northern Tibet, southern Xinjiang and Ladakh, India, the wild yak males are 1.5-2.2 meters tall at the shoulders and 2.5-3.3 meters long, with a tail of 60-100 centimeters.  They can weigh from 300-1000 kilograms.  Females are smaller, about one-third the size and weight.
       No doubt in prehistoric times people living at high altitudes hunted wild yaks for their meat.  Eventually they realized the animal could be of greater use to then if they domesticated it, which ethnic Qiang herdsmen achieved about 4500 years ago.  This proved to be quite successful.  Nowadays estimates of the wild yak population range around 15,000, while domesticated yaks number in the millions.  They are classified as a separate species—bos grunnians, the ‘grunting ox’, after the sound it makes, rather than the ‘moo’ of cattle.
spring plowing
       Domestic yaks are somewhat smaller than their wild cousins, but are still pretty bulky, males weighing up to nearly 600 kg, females usually about 250 kg.  The male’s horns extend 49-100 cm, slightly curved upward at the tips.  The female’s horns are straight and 27-64 cm long.  Yaks primarily use their horns to dig through snow and ice to get at the edible plants underneath.
       The layer of atmosphere at this altitude is about two-thirds the density of that at sea level and even significantly thinner than that at Lijiang.  Visitors coming up from lower altitudes notice this right away in their breathing, suddenly a little laborious, especially if walking around or uphill too much.  The usual advice is to take it easy the first couple days until the body is used to it.  Presumably, the same thing happens to lowland animals brought up here, though that’s rare anyway.
milking a yak
       Yaks, and their human keepers the Tibetans, are already physically adapted, for they have bigger hearts and lungs.  Yaks are also better fitted against the cold than people, who must don layers of clothing to insulate themselves.  Yaks have a thick layer of subcutaneous fat and their chests, flanks and thighs are covered with long, shaggy hair over a thick woolen undercoat.  Able to withstand sub-freezing temperatures in the winter, they can suffer from heat exhaustion when temperatures climb above 15 degrees Centigrade.  Likewise, they can become sluggish, with breathing difficulties, if taken to the denser atmospheric layer below 2600 meters altitude.
selling yak cheese in the Shangrila city market 
       Mating season is July-September, with a single calf per mother born in April-June.  The newborn yak calf can stand and walk ten minutes after birth.  After about five years they are fully grown and usually live about twenty years.  They do not eat grain, but feed on grasses, herbs, leafy plants and occasionally lichens and mosses.  Because they ferment the food slowly, they only consume 1% of their body weight daily.  Cattle, by comparison, with a faster digestive system, require 3%. 
       People also cross breed yaks with cattle, producing a slightly smaller animal called the dzo.  The male dzo is infertile, so the female may later be mated with a full-blooded yak.  The Shangrila plain has many of these, but still has a vast number of pure yaks.  All types are used the same way as draft animals and sources of food.
yaks on the road north of Diqing
       Tibetans use their male yaks for heavy tasks like pulling plows and hauling logs.  Being bigger and stronger than the females, they are the pack animals carrying loads on the caravans.  The females are more valued for their milk, with its high butter fat content, from which Tibetans produce butter and cheese, essential parts of their diet.
       Usually men milk the yaks and women turn the milk into butter and cheese.  To make butter they pour milk into a meter-tall wooden tube and churn it with a pole until it reaches a certain temperature.  Then they add a little cold water (warm in winter) and the butter floats to the top and congeals.  Scooping it out, they next press it into round cakes in cold water.  To make cheese they heat the milk over a low fire, which separates it into curds and water.  After cooling, the resultant curds are strained into a cloth and dried into lumps of cheese.  Each area produces a different taste.  That of Shangrila is slightly tart, while that of Diqing tastes best when boiled and served in melted butter.  That of Benzilan, where they add sugar to the milk, is rather sweet.
yaks in winter on the Shangrila plain
       Most rural families own one or two yaks, or at least a female dzo.  Yaks are tame by nature, easy to train and don’t require breaking in like horses.  When not put to work they roam freely to feed and can be easily led back to the owner’s compound.  They are kept in a separate shed or occupy a ground floor room of the house, as the family living and sleeping quarters are on the upper floor.
       The life of a yak follows a seasonal pattern.  During the winter they stay on the Shangrila plain.  The only work required of them might be to haul timber to the site of a new house.  In the spring farmers yoke a pair of yaks together to pull a plow across the barley fields.  A woman guides the animals in the front, while a man operates the plow behind them. 
Yaks in Baimashan
       Spring is also the time the yaks shed their downy undercoat, which people comb out to collect, then process into a fiber similar to cashmere.  The long outer hair makes belts, ropes and bags.  The undercoat and outer hair grow back during the summer.
       Besides the farmers’ family yaks, herders manage numbers of them in the open spaces between the villages, especially in the glens around Bita and Shudu Lakes, east of Shangrila city, Napa Lake to the north and the valley beyond Songzhanlin.  These yaks won’t be put to work as draft or transport animals, but instead are raised for their meat and hides.  In the summer the herders take them up into the mountains, to elevations over 4000 meters.  Baimashan, between Benzilan and Diqing, is a favorite destination.
yak herders' summer camp in Baimashan
Each family takes charge of up to 40 animals.  They must stock up ahead of time on rice, barley flour, tea and other provisions, for the nearest villages are often quite distant.  To ensure they have the means to ignite fires they carry chips of resinous spruce, and pieces of flint and steel.  They build temporary shelters for themselves, either simple log cabins or tents, often reinforced with a stone foundation.  The rains having brought out fresh grass, flowers, herbs and plants to the pastures, the yaks fatten quickly and the cows yield lots of milk.  In October herders bring them back to lower altitudes, like the Shangrila plain, to stay for the winter.
dueling male yaks
       Herds can be as large as 200 animals, but they are usually much smaller, of 10-20 females and their calves.  Males stay solitary or in groups of four to six.  They can be cantankerous towards each other, sometimes fighting by ramming their heads and pushing the opponent until he gives way.  At night the females huddle together, with their calves in the center, to protect against the cold.
yaks in Yao Shan, Ninglang County
      Besides Shangrila and Diqing Counties, yaks also live high up on Yao Shan—Medicine Mountain—in northern Ninglang County.  The herders here are Yi and the yaks are raised for their meat, hides and milk products and not put to work.  Yak meat is very nutritious, full of protein and with low fat content—3.9%, compared to 9% for chicken and 24% for beef.  The hairy hides make warm blankets and the tails are sold as flywhisks.  In areas short of firewood, dried yak dung serves for fuel.  People also use the skulls as house decorations, sometimes inscribing them or the horns with prayers.
skinning a yak in Shangrila city
       Beyond their ubiquitous physical presence on the Shangrila plain, the importance of yaks in the lives of the local people is plainly evident on a trip to the city markets.  Tibetan women sit behind tables laden with lumps of yak cheese and discs of yak butter.   Nearby stalls sell yak tail flywhisks, belts and bags made from yak leather, slings and pouches of yak hair, tubular wooden churns for making yak butter, combs and pipes carved from yak horn and rows of dried skulls.  Vendors sell fresh meat as well as strips of dried yak meat jerky. 
yak jerky on sale in Shangrila city
       When receiving guests into their homes Tibetans traditionally set them by the fire or other warm place and prepare refreshments.  The hostess will churn some butter, add hot tea and serve the standard Tibetan drink—buttered tea, believed to warm the body better than tea without butter.  A bowl of barley flour and a plate of cheese slices come with the tea.
       Yak products are also found in the temples.  Monks use yak tail flywhisks to shoo away insects indoors.  Rows of small yak butter lamps line the altars in front of the images, some of which are yak butter figurines painted with bright colors.  Butter images melt when the temperatures warm up.  Like the sand mandalas swept away after their ritual use, they are thus symbols of impermanence and new ones made for the cooler months.
yak tails, Shangrila city market
       When welcoming visiting dignitaries, high officials or renowned lamas, or at the start of an important festival, Tibetan communities will stage a yak dance.  Two performers dance under a single yak skin, one at each end.  They cavort while surrounded by spectators and occasionally dash into the amused crowd and scatter them out of their way.
       Yaks are also part of Tibetan mythology as embodiments of gods and demons.  The wild yak was an obvious inspiration in ancient times.  It was unpredictable and prone to violence much more severe than the head-butting contests of domestic yaks.  It was a dangerous prey, too, and so difficult to hunt that those hunters who did succeed were feted as village heroes.
making butter tea for the guests
yak skulls, Shangrila city market
       In the usual Good vs. Evil contests, the Lords of Heaven may assume the form of a white yak, in one story a huge white yak that emits blizzards from its mouth and nose.  Black yaks, with fiery eyes, are the incarnation of the demons of Hell.  In the Tibetan epic of Gesar of Ling, the goatherd Palé happens to witness a duel between a white yak and a black yak.  When he sees the latter is about to win, suspecting it as a demon in disguise, he kills the black yak. 
yak passing by the barley drying rack in autumn
       The surviving white yak reveals itself to be Gyamzhin, the Lord of the Gods, and offers half his palace or half his kingdom or whatever his rescuer demands as reward.  Palé requests that one of Gyanzhin’s sons be sent down to rule over Ling.  Eventually Heaven sends Gesar to be born in Ling.  Among the adventures Gesar has in his career are periodic duels with yak demons.   
       During the winter festivals at Songzhanlin and Dongzhulin, as well as the Horse Racing Festival the fifth lunar month in Shangrila city, masked lama dances are part of the program.  The skits depict some kind of gods vs. demons battle and both sides wear horrific masks.  And on Hell’s side will be at least one performer in the mask of a black yak demon.
       When the dances conclude and there’s a pause before the next event, the audience breaks up into small groups for refreshments.  Most likely this will be buttered tea from a thermos and pieces of jerky and cheese.  They might even consume it while sitting on a yak leather mat.  Yaks are in one way or another connected to practically everything Tibetans do.  It’s hard to imagine what they would do without them.
herder milking a yak in his sumer Baimashan camp
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We’ll see plenty of yaks on Delta Tours Vietnam’s route through northwest Yunnan.  See the schedule at

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