Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bhutan needs Yaks and Yak Herders

As I gazed into the lush green towering mountains, with one foot in Bhutan and one in Tibet, at a height of 5000 meters; on my right was the majestic Zangtopelri, clad in silver melting summer snow, a mountain that half belongs to Bhutan and half to Tibet, also revered as the abode of Guru Rinpochhe. On my left lay the rocky black mountains, covered with pebbles and boulders too little, too many, that one could easily hurt one’s feet while walking and when you get to the ridges with much difficulty and you are short of breath, you realize what paths the magnificently clever and illusive snow leopards walk and why they love it so much. On these mountains the only humans who have acclimatized themselves are the yak herders, and even them with much experience do at times suffer from altitude sickness. The bases of these alpine mountains are covered with shrubs and rhododendrons and beautifully coloured purples and pink, yellow and red wild flowers, most of which are medicinal herbs. These mountains are accessible after trekking strenuously for three days and are considered one of the most difficult treks. These mountains are also the habitat of some of the most exotic and high altitude living beings in the mountain ecosystem including the snow leopards, cordyceps, hedgehogs, high altitude endangered birds and so on.

Shingphel, the north eastern most village in Bhutan, under Tashi Yangtse dzongkhag is also considered to be a pious Guru Rinpochhe’s ney (pilgrimage) and since the journey matters more than the destination itself, it is the pilgrimage that makes you contemplate on the wonders of life like any other spiritual journey does, be it travelling to places or living life itself, everyday. At an altitude of 3100 meters, the village comprises of five yak herding households and about sixty household members, and 500 yaks, cows and genetically mutated socially considered incompetent and not taken care of- bochus (breed between a yak and a cow, one of the snow leopard’s favourite dish). Yak herders for your information are more politely in western academia now a days, no longer called nomads, or semi nomads, so these semi mobile people live travelling, in between shifting seasons and sheds.

They have sheds for themselves and their animals, and please do not imagine stitched up yak skins, they have quite nice mud pack wooden houses (of course with the regular one hole unhygienic outdoor toilets). In their main settlement Shingphel, they have some expensive possessions as well; television sets, sweets from China, cushions known as Damtse dens’, and yak sized woolen blankets that could keep you warm and make you sleep through the entire winter without waking up. And how can I forget the harsh tobacco, Chinese cigarettes and Lhasai Birak- beer from the roof of the world, nice rice beer and yaksha bathup and chugo! Reminds me, do we not need receipts for tobacco that side, I wonder if they even know of this ACT? The annual shopping list is given one year earlier to the Tibetan traders. I also found the remains of a coral reef which is revered as a jewel in a herder’s altar, lingering scientific proof of the rising of the Himalayas from the Tethys sea. Also, the higher you go the more sand that you encounter, perhaps from the timelessly forgotten beaches.

Over a cup of suja I get questioned and I am thrown rhetoric questions to which I did not have answers to. Is development equally distributed and emphasized in Bhutan? The tshogpa tells me NO; we all know that the cities get the first priorities and here we urbanites sit and complain about rural urban migration and discuss it over tea or the microphone and sleep over it. Another herder tells me that and very strongly so, how important they are to our political system, which I completely agree. Our northern borders are guarded by these yak herders who go through chasing Tibetans to go back to their national territorial space to collect cordyceps or when the Tibetan horseman with a Texan hat occasionally visits, rides in majestically and rides out because he is forced to. They are the ones who guard Bhutan and what do they get in return? Muddy pathless paths, two standing logs for bridges, one for each foot and we complain about our flyovers! Mountains slashed and sliced that your monkey instinct tells you to swing like tarzan to cross a big old log that was strangled to death by falling boulders, that could get your head and smash your skull, bridges that are made of old creaking bamboo nets with loosely strung wires which could give way any day and what if that is your expressway home? Life is hard for them and here we are complaining of pot holes on the road, yes rightly so traffic jams too. Campsites or migratory sheds are tick filled marshy lands, they are beautiful settings and have scenic views, don’t get me wrong, but what good is beauty without comfort?

Cordyceps Sinensis is a caterpillar fungi; when a fungi grows on a half dead caterpillar, it becomes a medical herb of wondrous economic and medicinal value and a kilo of it can fetch the herder roughly eighty thousand Ngultrums. The legalization of the annual harvest of cordyceps was originally an idea to empower the mountain people from the alpine to have an extra source of income and it was His Majesty the fourth King’s idea, but the herders of Shingphel complain, and strongly asserting so because the scenes have changed with democracy. These days the collection of cordyceps have been extended to a larger space and includes places from next to towns till high pass Tibetan mountains. People who live at 1500 m go up to 5000 m to collect cordyceps and the joke amongst the herders is, some cannot stand the altitude and suffer from altitude sickness and head back. They also say sometimes people with their census in the capital cities and so, go back to their gewogs to send a person each for collection only during harvest season. Over brushing the cordyceps with a tooth brush, one herder tells me that “few years back we earned about 3 lakhs from auctioning cordyceps but these days they say to get a lakh is difficult.” One of the herder, a mother of eleven with her youngest one still being breast fed tells me that one of her son is studying in Bangalore and they spend about a lakh ever year. I was amazed. I also suspect that the large herbivores which are the yaks play a very important role in keeping the pastures open, without shrub growth and this should have a link with the growth and size of cordyceps. Both yaks and their herders are crucial for this ecosystem and this country to survive.

Migration is a big problem. How do you solve this problem? Keep the migratory birds happy where they are. So, the herders were a year ago planning to move down to the city/town, change professions to cow herders, and become one of us, really. As much as they love their high mountain passes, where time for them passes moving from a pasture to another, singing songs and smiling under harsh conditions, with no vegetables! They are torn between making a choice of continuing a yak herding tradition they started few decades ago migrating from Sakteng and nearby villages and carefully guarding this kingdom called home, and now they are tempted and lured towards a modern comfortable life where if not anything, there are flat roads to walk and bridges over rivers. Tomorrow should they be gone, tomorrow if they be in T town, for two days you could trek into wilderness and not find a human soul. We live between two giants.
I would like to also take this opportunity to thank all who were a part of this journey that I shared with, porters, ponies, friends- some are dead and some are living, and the hospitality of the herders who are not just tough mountain people, but are very kind and generous. I do hope the concerned authorities will do the necessary and keep Shingphel alive.

We don’t have budget for bridges, roads, pathways, land slide prevention and so on, is a commonly used phrase, I can already hear that familiar phrase ringing again. Can the money spent in implementing the quite unnecessary Tobacco Control Act- in terms of its importance and significance to this nation, please be put to meaningful measures such as these, please?

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting piece!!! I thoroughly enjoyed reading through it.
    I have been closely associated with Yak-herders since 2008 (not in one place but in various high altitude areas of Bhutan). I have been to Lingshi, Gongyul, Chebisa, Laya, Chajeyna, Gangkar puensum base ect. but have never been to Shingphel, Merak and Sakteng. I will be visiting Merak and sakteng in fall 2011 to conduct my research (Have posted in my blog).
    I totally agree with you on the life they face and the power they possess to take the toughness of their life happily and with a smile. People in the town have totally forgotten how to smile and is leaning to becoming self centered. We got to learn from the important task our high altitude dwellers are carrying without asking for anything. If analysed properly they deserve to be paid for protecting our borders in the North, East and West.
    I think it is high time for the government to realize "who our yak herders are" and respect them and provide them with all the possible infrastructure (good footpaths, bridges and cordyceps). I know cordyceps harvesting has been granted to them since 2004, but with the increase in the number of permits issued to low land people, our high alpine dwellers' major source of income is losing out slowly to the greed of people who wants comforts on comforts and money on money.