CHIGAGO TRIBUNE (source)
July 24, 1990|By Marc Kaufman, Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
In Tibet, The Gentle Yak Pulls Its Own Weight-and Then Some
XAGME, TIBET — They are the tractors of Tibet, the trucks.
They provide Tibetans their daily drink and their weekly religious offerings. Shoes, boats, cooking fuel-all come from this treasure, the incomparable, irreplaceable yak, found only on the “roof of the world“
“If there was no yak,“ said a dusty farmer, walking behind his shaggy animal, “there could be no Tibet.“
Most of the roughly 6 million people native to the vast sweep of the Tibetan plateau are farmers, coaxing wheat and barley from a dry, unpromising soil. Tractors are a rarity, and even trucks are seldom seen. The people, as they have for centuries, rely on farm animals for survival.
Much of habitable Tibet is two to three miles high, and the rest even higher. The winters are brutally cold and windy, the summers scorchingly hot. The air is so thin and vegetation so scarce that few animals can survive.
Enter the yak.
A relative of the ox, massive, strong, and yet gentle, the yak is among the few animals that thrives in the harsh world of the Tibetan plateau.
Covered by thick hair, it can withstand temperatures well below zero, and can climb above 20,000 feet.
So suited to Tibet is the yak that it barely can survive anywhere else. A few reside in the world`s major zoos; otherwise they seldom are found away from Tibetan highlands.
“Some Tibetans have tried to take yaks to India . . . but they don`t like it there,“ said Pasang, a Tibetan tour guide who also has lived in India. “They can`t do work, and then they die.“
The yak wouldn`t loom so large for Tibetans if there were an abundance of other creatures. But trees and bushes are scarce; except for goats, sheep and some hardy dogs, few other animals are here. Yaks must provide almost everything.
The yak chiefly is a beast of burden, but almost as important is the female`s milk.
Yak milk usually is congealed into yak butter and sold in blocks often weighing 50 pounds.Families keep them (never refrigerated) in their homes to make the staple drink, yak-butter tea.
The thick, sometimes greasy and frequently salty concoction is consumed in huge quantities by virtually all Tibetans. Yak butter, kneaded with a barley powder at the table, is breakfast, lunch and dinner for many.
If yak butter provided only this nourishment, it would be important enough. But melted yak butter also is central to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism: The faithful burn it in front of statues of Buddha and other shrines, filling the air with a heavy dairy smell that Tibetans consider divine.
Although the yak is central to Tibetan life, it is not venerated as the cow is in Hindu parts of India.
The yak can be slaughtered and eaten. Its skin is used to make clothing, tents and even the few boats found in Tibet. Nothing goes unused. Children scoop up yak droppings and women shape them into small patties and put them out to dry. Dried dung is the main fuel of treeless Tibet.
Given their importance, yaks are not inexpensive. A full-size yak, which weighs at least 500 pounds, costs all a farmer might earn from a good harvest.
At one time, the farmer couldn`t even buy a yak. All were owned by the state, collectivized along with other private property during the harshest years of Chinese rule.
China annexed Tibet in 1950. After an independence uprising was crushed in 1959, Beijing instituted a tough campaign to stamp out the distinctive Tibetan character. In addition to the abolition of most individual property, the Chinese forbade the burning of yak butter in prayer.
That experiment with harsh communism proved to be an economic and political disaster, and individual ownership was gradually restored by the Chinese after 1980, along with limited religious tolerance. Villagers, however, still speak bitterly of that time.
“What kind of people would take the yak from a family?“ asked a farmer contemptuously in Xagme, a small village in the Xigaze valley.
Today, many yaks seen in Tibetan fields are healthy and evidently well-cared for, but also are decked out in bright, embroidered garlands and pompons. Usually red and white, the decorations make the shaggy yaks look less like work animals than like huge stuffed toys.
“This is Tibetan tradition,“ the farmer said.