Monthly Archives: June 2016

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.