Men vs. Desert

Sanji made arrangement with his friends at nearby village to show me how they used yak and sheep manure to cover the sandy spots on their pastureland. Yak dung plays such an important role in the herder’s life. In addition to being their only fuel source, it has become the main if not only means for the herders to save their grassland.

We met them at one of the hillside by their tractor. Even the men giggled when I let them talk about their plan. They’ve got a lot to say but they spoke so fast it would be nearly impossible to cut. After loading up the tractor, they drove over to the deserted mountain side. With the old herder acted as sort of a director, they dumped the manure and spread them around. The contrast between the enormous desert and the tiny pile of manure was startling and sad. While they worked, they joked about me, and themselves all the times.

Two of the guys were brave enough to come out and talk on camera. One of them talked way too fast while the other one had a very comic look on him. They later showed me a few of the smaller pockets where their earlier effort had restored the desert back to much richer soil where grass and mushroom were growing. A promising sight.

As soon as we got done filming, thunderstorm came. They also wanted to show me their grassland on the plains so we followed them through the dried-up wetland to their camp. Hail and rain mixed with moments of sunshine added the thrill to most bumpy ride I’ve experienced.

Their camp was on an used-to-be wetland that has since turned to black soil with very little grass on. Numerous plateau pikes and a bigger sized rodent dug holes and shoveled soil from the depth. For whatever reasons, few grass grow on the the black soil and yaks don’t like to eat those type of grass. The herders here blame the pikas but what are the reasons behind the imbalance? With deteriorating grassland, their herd quota has gone down to 30 sheep a person, hardly enough to support themselves. If it continues like the way it has been, they would become eco-refugees in no time.

Sanji’s friend made us stay for lunch. Two girls, one with a hunched back made us noodle soup. Three little boys played outside the tent. Not far away, a basketball hoop stood eerily in the middle of the darkened grassland.

Moving Herd

My alarm clock rang just after 5 in the morning. Even without the alarm clock, Danku and her mother were already getting up. Summer is the busiest time for the herders, women to be exact. They have to get up by dawn to let their yaks out for a morning feed before herding them back for milking. Sanji’s family was the pasture-watcher for their group’s plot this year, so they had the added responsibility of making sure no one else’s yaks come over to eat their grass.

For most of other families in his group, their yaks, horses, and sheep were going to be moved here very early that morning. From conversation the day before, I knew they were contemplating on sneaking their herd overnight through a short cut, cutting across another group’s plot. If they succeeded in their night move, the big herd would show up just after sunrise.

Filmed Danku and her mother did their morning chores. The sun had brighten the whole sky, it didn’t look like their plan came through. I wished I had followed them, that was one regret.

After breakfast, Danku first spotted the herd, still too far for me to see. The mother led me to a higher spot. I set the tripod up, ready and waiting.

In a short while, a dark line showed up on the horizon, then dipped into a small valley. And then, a white line followed. And then, another black line. Soon the first dark line emerged again at the flatter part of the pasture, where the line spread out to dark dots. The dots became bigger and bigger. At that time, I could start to hear the horses neighing. Among the herd, the old herder came in to my view finder, I liked the way he rode his horse, very Tibetan herdsman -ish.

I moved to another mound for a different angle. Danku’s mother insisted on following me to make sure their guard dogs don’t come charging at me. I had just enough time to set up before the horses arrived. The excitement was easily felt. Fresh tall grass!

The white line turned into sheep and the black line yaks, the slowest of the herd. Words came that the other group of herders found out about their night plan and stopped them at the fence, so, they had to retreat and made the longer trek early in the morning. I wished I had followed them instead. Would have a lot of drama recorded.

That sense of “I missed it” haunted me for hours. It took a while to make the adjustment to focus on the present again.

Danku and her mother fed everyone who showed up to their home tent. This group of herders, a clan of 10 families are all relatives of some sort. It must be great to feel one belongs to a big family. For this clan, their herd has made it safely at the summer pasture.

It shall continue

Many days of translation work in Langmusi. The driver’s son was my new translator, he was great.

Village heads, Daerji, etc. came in to discuss bringing the restoration organization to their land. They love the idea but the upper bureaucracy is not helping their cause. They are more concerned about their own position. They even threaten the herders to withhold future government aids, which most likely would not be given to them anyway, if they accept outside help.

Humans are greedy, herder DJ said in his interview. The land is blessed, but people have changed.

Something needs to be done there for sure, I’m not sure which ways are the right ways to help them. The local politics is more problematic than I have the mental capacity to deal with.

Finish the film first, something will work out, help will come in one way or the other, I believe.

Bye Pasture

With batteries all out, it was time to go back.

Woke up early to pack my bags. Left the tent to the herder’s family to use. The daughter and her husband stayed in a small lean-to, would be nice to have a tent with zipper.

Bid simple farewell to herder DJ’s family – a great family with the exception of the daughter’s husband who does basically nothing. Young herders don’t have much to do around here, especially at pastures with lots of fences. What would become their future?

One of my bags went with a tractor taking the summer tent back, and I put the other one on the bumpy moto ride. I have gotten used to the ride, and Sangku is a good friend now. Without his help, I could never make this film.

Back to his home, Danku was preparing breakfast, which the herders have at lunch time. We made steamed buns (momo) together and waited for my bag and the driver to show up. I interviewed her Mom but she was so timid her voice was close to nothing. After some chatting, Danku agreed to say a few words, in her new room with a nice bed and some stuffed animals. Sangku won a lottery earlier this year and brought in enough money to pay off all their debts, some of his relatives, and made this new home. Wonderful for them. But for Danku, with the new baby and the pressure of making a living subsided, she decided not going to the city for more schools. She just wanted a simple life on the pasture with her Mom and her son.

The driver was a friend of Sangku so he stayed around for quite sometime. Danku insisted on making another meal for us before we leave so we stayed even longer.

It was after dark when I got back to Langmusi. My hosts were all worried. They tried calling me many times, my phone battery was out too.

Music to their Ears

I love the way Herder DJ whistles while he herds, very musical. There are long ones and short ones, fast and slow, forceful and gentle.

With my camera batteries nearly running out, I had more time to do sound recording which is quite nice. Lots of interesting sounds, I still want to make an experimental film with very detailed location sound and very simple images. That’s later.

Sangku came back to the pasture to take me back to the winter village.

At herd-in time late in the afternoon, I put wireless mic on the herder and recorded the whole concert of his whistles.

What do the sheep and yaks think about those sound?

Full Moon Prayer

Has not rained. One afternoon a big thunder brought in strong wind and lightening, but no rain.

Early mornings and dusks are the busiest hours for the herders, dusks especially, and those could be the only time men did any work, if they happen to be around. Some of them rode horses, more younger ones rode their motorcycle to herd their animals back for the night. Each night, that was quite a scene.

Herder DJ went out to fix the fences one day. He is the most hard working herder I’ve seen on the whole pasture. When he got back, his wife, as with all women on the pasture would do for their man, prepared his wash bucket, soap, lotion. And after his was done washing, brought him breakfast. The family eat very traditionally. Tsampa – roasted barley is the staple in every meal. And for breakfasts, that was all they have.

Herder DJ made Tsampa – hot water added to yak butter, then barley flour, milk crumbs, and made a dough by hand in the bowl. The wife heated some yak butter and mixed that with hot pepper flakes. That became the sauce to dip the Tsampa with. More often, they added sugar to the dough mix instead.

I had been wanting to film they eat Tsampa, it was a perfect setting.

My batteries were running low. Maybe because of the bumpy road, one of them stopped working, bummer.

Before herder DJ got back from his evening herd-in, his wife prepared a yak-dung fire pile, the grandson helped fanning. When he got back, he walked out to the fire pile with a bag of Tsampa, while praying, put some Tsampa on the fire, let it burn, then a few spray of water. Then he walked around the fire, holding the little boy and praying.

All looked so wonderful except I didn’t turn my camera on. Was so fixated with the scene I got the on/off switch wrong!

Some scenes are probably meant for memories only. And I think I’ve got a new title for my film.

It was a full moon night. A good day to do the barley burning ceremony.

Making Blanket

Herder DJ’s wife gestured to me one day that they would make a wool blanket that day and I should film them.

The day before, I helped the women cut sheep wool – cut off the hard, twisted tips with scissors and then fluffed them up so they were ready to be used.

Early in the morning, the wife directed me to another tent where she had patted down a big sheet of wool. She kept adding more while I filmed. Women back in her family tent kept up with the wool supplies.

When the whole sheet was nicely covered, the daughter came in with two other women. They rolled the sheet, tied it up, set it on the grass, and rolled it as if it’s a giant rolling pin.

To keep the rhythm, they started singing. Later I found out they were simply counting numbers from 1 – 100. That has to be the best sounding number counting I’ve ever heard.

The roll got thinner and thinner in the sound of women singing. I recorded the sound separately. It was fascinating to me how they worked and the women had good laughs seeing me puzzled at the beginning. Many hundreds and many laughters later, the blanket started to take shape. From fluffy sheep fur to strong blanket, all hand powers.

The wife sprayed more of the whey and water mix to the blanket and let it cure for the night.

Umbrella and Herder DJ

Sangku returned to the winter village early in the morning. I was left to rely on the few Tibetan words I learned so far to communicate with the herder’s family.

Friends of the family – a young women with two little boys came to visit. Women sat on the ground separating yak furs from hairs and chatted, the boys played outside.

It got really hot during mid-day, hardly any activities going on. I took a nap in my tent, but soon woke up to the very distinct whistles of Herder DJ. Out on the other side of the fence, he walked with a very colorful umbrella to keep the sun out, and also to use it as a signal to the sheep that they needed to move. It looked kind of comical, and didn’t quite fit the herder on a white horse image in my mind – but that’s the joy of filming without a script I crave for.

Earlier during the morning, an airplane flew by, the little boy jumped around with excitement and called her grandma out to look. Herder’s wife brought the binocular with her and stood nicely in front of my camera.

Before the woman friend’s family left, they made the boys wash their face and I took a picture of them together. One of the boys looked a bit scared holding one of the kittens. But they all looked relaxed when their father came to ride them away, four people on one moto.

Nearby herders came to have dinner with the family at night. It’s common for them to do so. A great feeling actually to be among them. Maybe the whole modern world got it all wrong, I feel some times.

Go Herding

Dogs barked all night long but not as loud as when it was at the Black River pasture.

Lovely misty morning, grass all damp and yaks chewing freely, and noisily by my tent. The sun had not come out yet. In the morning fog, one tan colored yak with colorful ribbons clipped on her ear stood on a small mound looking at the sun. With those ribbons, she is one of the few lucky yaks who get to live her full life. The herders always leave a few of the yaks unused, raising them until death as a way to pay some tributes to the ones they have to kill. Shong and Tsertser are the names of these special yaks. Shongs for individual and Tsertser for the whole family.

Sheep congregated in the center of the herder’s tents. When the morning deepened, if Herder DJ didn’t come out early enough, they would walk out on their own toward the big sandy hill. “Sheep walked away!”, the little boy alerted us.

So, Sangku rode me on his motorcycle to follow herder DJ and the sheep. Over the sand hills, what remained of Bird Lake could be seen glittering in the sun. Filmed the herder perched on the highest point on the hill, and some close ups.

With the sheep wandering around for their own business, we rode back. Herder DJ’s dirty white horse looked very pretty.

I interviewed herder DJ, just few questions. I’m not sure how much interviews I’d use in the film.

Sangku went to visit a nearby village and stayed there. The family made steamed bread mixed with melted yak butter and sugar. Kids seem to like that a lot.

Meeting Old Herder Again

Sangku called and said they got stuck on the tractor moving their tent back to the winter village — the Old Herder would take care of his yaks while his wife recuperate at the comfort of a house. So I waited another day in Langmusi.

In the morning, my driver kept talking about reincarnation and the need for religion, Tibetan Buddhism that is, and the necessity to have children and grandchildren as the meaning of life, so one has something to live for for the old age and death. “Fear is good,” he said, “It keeps people from doing bad things.” He went on saying everyone has that greedy temptation, but religion and fear discipline those desires for the fear of punishment, and that fear for them, would be to come back next life as a non-human.

I couldn’t remember where Sangku’s house was until I saw the dirt mount where I climbed up with the little girl last year. The house had been remodeled, new living room with bright orange furnitures, new, added kitchen, new bedroom where it was dirt on the ground last year, and a separate kitchen where they used to store their yak dung. Something changed quite dramatically from last year for sure.

Danku came out to greet me. She was still a bit shy but she looked very good and stylish, in modern style black skirt, not the traditional Tibetan robe. And her hair was in a pigtail, not the traditional double braids. Her Mom looked a bit weak and looked like have gained some weight. The little girl wasn’t that much different from when I left here last year, but her little brother who happened to be there that day was much bigger I could hardly recognize. Last time when I visited, he started crying and hid behind his Mom, Danku’s older sister.

We chatted a little bit and waited for an other villager to ride to the pasture together — I had two bags that needed to go, hard to ride the super bumpy path like that.

Almost dusk, we rode in. Through a longer path but not having to cross the water logged section. I have gotten used to that kind of ride and actually enjoyed it. I remembered some of the landscape, but all seems similar in the vast open land.

Wife of the old Herder, Herder DJ I shall call him, were at the tent but the herder had gone out to tend the sheep — it was time to bring them back to sleep. The wife helped me set my tent up. When he eventually showed up following the bustling end-of-day activities on the pasture, we were all sitting around and the wife was making dried yak meat soup with noodle.

Herder DJ looked the same way as last year, dark, good looking face with prominent cheek bones, few teeth remaining when he smiled. I’m fortunate that Sangku introduced me to Herder DJ, he is a model herder in my book.