Qijia had to help his family move, so, I found a new translator, one of the drivers’ son. He turned out to be quite good even though he was still in high school.

It became a routine for me to go out to film a few days, and back in town for translation. My threshold for coming back to town for a shower had gone lower.

I don’t know how I would feel if I have to live on the pasture all my life. And for that reason, even though I try, I could never capture the herders’ lives in their view, just my view of their lives and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do so.

I dreamed strange dreams. I dreamed about booking a flight from Banff to Seattle, and I dreamed about being at the taping of Seinfeld’s finale. I might have too much America in me than I wanted to realize already.

All is OK. One more pasture trip.

Moving Tents

Yidan and Ah-Ji prayed at nights in front of the TV. They decided, together with their neighbors to move. The grass where they put their tent was getting thin, and because of the diseases, the yaks were better off moved to a new place as well.

So, they started packing the next morning after milking was done. Herders live very simple lives. A couple of wooden chests, few bags of things, a stove, a butter-making machine, a TV set with satellite dish now, and they were ready to move. They packed the tractor belonging to her maiden family, one load was enough for them. They used a lighter tent too, without yak hair patches on the wall. Their parents used the full tent at their home pasture.

Their new spot was within walking distance, right next to a wired fence.

Blazing hot again. And we didn’t have any food and water all morning. The move had to be done first.

Choosing a location, unloading, setting tent up, they worked under the scorching sun.

When the tent was finally setup, I hid inside. My endurance was no comparison to the strong women of the pasture.

Yidan took no break even after the tent was up and their stuff loaded. She had to make another stove base with mud and sand, and her hands. She skimped no efforts making it looked nice and smooth.

Sangku came back on motorcycle along with the old herder’s daughter and her newborn child. The baby needed some medicine from the clinic nearby. First I thought that was a girl because of the full head of hair but later found out that was a boy. Tibetan babies don’t get a hair cut, and name too I believe until they are a year old.

Barley Burning Ceremony

Very cold at nights and the guard dogs barked all night long — that is their job to guard the sheep. Hard to sleep and was awaken often.

Work continued from early morning for the women while the men slept. The surrounding wasn’t as picturesque as their own pasture, lots of fences around. But, it would be good to tell the story, that the herders are fenced in more and more nowadays.

I filmed Yidan milking the yaks, good sound this time without strong wind that could be used in some of last year’s shots.

Sangku came back again from the village and started playing chess with Ah-Ji again. He helped asking a couple of more questions when Yidan returned to tent, making butter and cheese crumbs. Not as much milk as previous years. Yidan thought the yaks didn’t like their new, fenced home very much. And there were diseases. A couple of yaks got foams on their mouth.

Another round of thunder, lightening and yak dung covering. Sangku left for home after I exhausted my questions. I shall learn to be a better interviewer.

Just before the yaks were to return home for the night, the women prepared several piles of fire in the field where they would tie the yaks. Yidan made three piles. She put coal from the stove to light the piles. Then, all the women started fanning the fire piles with pot lids. Smoke soon permeated the three-tent camp.

The men herded their animals back. With fences everywhere, it was an easy ride out. Soon the yaks showed up at the camp. Fires didn’t seem to bother them. The women prayed while they fanned harder. Yaks walked right into the smoke, to where they were supposed to stand for the night.

Yidan prayed while tying their yaks. She also gave a bucket of whey to a couple of yaks and they seemed to like that a lot.

When all the yaks were tied, Yidan walked back into the tent and brought out a bag of barley flour. She scooped some on each pile of fire, sprinkled some water around and prayed loudly while doing that. I missed the first fire pile, filmed she did the second, and while preparing for the third, the girls came to watch me film and bumped the camera out of focus. Ugh! The little camera with a super fast lens is great for low light scenes such as this, but really difficult to focus when I couldn’t even see very well.

It smelled very nice, the burning barley smell. Perhaps that has some curing power indeed. Yidan said because their yaks were ill, Lamas told them to do a barley burning ceremony (Serpa).

Black River Pasture

It was time to head out again. Yidan and her husband Ah-Ji moved out to Black River Pasture this summer along with the family’s yaks. Their home pasture was not big enough to keep all their animals so they rented her maiden family’s land. I liked her way of working and even though she was shy, she talked slowly with a good voice which I also liked. I wanted to film some more of them together.

It was an easy drive to the Black River pasture. I met Sangku at the nearly empty winter village, had lunch at a tent site set up for local Tibetan travelers and then drove out to Yidan’s pasture, very close to a cell tower.

She walked out of her tent to greet us, wearing the same cloths I remembered seeing her last time. She was still shy but not as giggly anymore. Ah-Ji wasn’t home yet. Sangku stayed to help translate my questions. To my pleasant surprise, Yidan was very willing to do interviews this time. Though she still requested Sangku to be away while she talked, I was fine to stay and film.

Her maiden family’s tent was right next to Yidan’s. They have a sort of a pet goat they raised on yak milk. Two girls giggled around when I filmed. One teenager looked really pretty on horse and had an elegant pose carrying basket. Another family was on the same grassland. The man was annoying and the daughter tried very hard dancing and singing to get my attention.

Very hot. The sun squeezed every ounce of energy out. I walked to a little sandhill to see how to film and got tired after a few steps. Women on the pasture have no time to rest. Yidan had lots of dry yak dung to collect to piles before the afternoon thunderstorm hit — they must have known.

Ah-Ji came back with some vegetables from town — he sent their sons to school there. While Yidan worked, he played chess with Sangku. That’s the way things work with the herders’ family.

Then the loud thunder came, rolling from distance then cracked very low above us. It was another mad dash, by the women of course to secure the covers of the yak dungs.

Sangku and Ah-Ji went back to Black River village, Yidan milked the yaks, prepared dinner, and watched TV while waiting for her husband to come home. I filmed a little bit of them during TV dinner. It was good.


The end of Ramadam, my Muslim hosts invited me to have brunch with them. Their children came back home from wherever they worked, their youngest son ran an internet shopping site in Shanghai. Earlier in the morning the men had gone to the Masque while women prepared for the biggest meal of the year at home.

It was all great until a phone call came and both of the hosts started crying. Later they told me their oldest daughter just passed away. When her young son called, the festival was cut short.

Most of the shops in Langmusi are run by Muslims. It was obvious when their holiday arrived and the shops were shut and the street were much less busy.

Langmusi is an interesting little town indeed for this reason. Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists seemed to live peacefully together. The hostess told me at her grandmother’s time, they would prepare little gift to the monks when a Buddhist holiday came. The conflicts between the two monasteries and those pilgrims dedicated to a specific branch of Buddhist teaching were, and are still more notable. The appearances of the monks from the two monasteries are very different two. One wears no watches and only black cotton boots, the other would be seen with Adidas and iPhones.

Taking a Break

Another sunny morning. I felt it would be a good time for a break. I was getting a bit tired, needing a shower, and my senses were getting a bit dull. Filming is an intense experience. I could only hold the focus for so long.

The way out seemed easier than coming in. Daerji took a little different path. The bad section was still muddy with knee high water but it didn’t feel very long.

A tragedy struck the village the day before. A group of people tried to crossed the Yellow river to Maqu, a short cut from their pasture than going many more times the distance by land, and their overloaded boat sank, killing seven people, four in one family. Zuba was busy handling the case so didn’t have time to meet me. Daerji arranged a driver to take me back to Langmusi. We took the back road, through the mountains. It was a gorgeous drive.

Qijia came to do translation. It was much smoother this time. He is experienced now. Things have also gotten better for Sangku’s wife. They would return home in a couple of days while I worked on translation.

Zuba and a few from his village also came to Langmusi and we met. I told them about the restoration idea I had already told Daerji. They seemed lukewarm. Hopefully my good intension would generate some good results.


It has always been difficult for the herders to talk on camera. Daerji luckily wasn’t too shy so it was easy with him. He talked about what he wanted his children to become. The factorial stuff about the desert is probably enough from just one or two persons. I still like the personal stories better.

It was a pleasant surprise that the wife agreed to talk as well. I liked her look and voice. And I liked it that there were so much contrasts between her and her daughter. She spoke in a somewhat helpless way, very moving.

I couldn’t get the daughter to speak. A bit disappointing but I have to live with that fact.

My batteries ran out when the interviews were done and I tried to film just a bit more. Dealing with limitations, developing expectations and having expectations broken are all part of the process.

An older herder with some Mandarin came to visit Daerji and he told me they had no outside visitors to their summer pasture. He said he dared not do something like this himself and he commended me for what I do. If nothing else, at least I am having a unique life experience. And I shall be pleased with that.

Life is short, Art is Long, Live Difficulty — I miss Les and his inspiration immensely.

Sunny Days and Clear Nights

One early morning, I got up just when the wife got up and filmed her work in the morning mist — beautiful. Spreading wet yak dung was probably the hardest chore for the summer. In the winter, frozen dungs just needed to be picked up to burn, but in the summer, they had to be spread by hand to let dry.

One villager came to talk to me while I sent text messages on the hill in the morning. He told me that 30 something years ago they were given poisons to mixed with barley flour to put by the pike holes. Pikas died and soon they discovered dead vultures too and that scared them too much to continue that task. Pika population soared. They are considered a pest to the grassland by the villagers even though I do not share that opinion. It is the drying of the land that attracted the opportunists instead.

I tried to have him talk on the camera later with no vail. Had I have a crew I could have had the first encounter filmed. Oh well. Can only work with what I got.

The daughter was still sleeping when the wife had finished all the morning chores. It was a struggle getting her and the boy up. The daughter helped with milking and butter and cheese curd making, the boy played around, causing troubles when I filmed.

It was a hot day. I went out to film by a small water hole. Yaks come down to drink and bath. Yak moms cleaned their baby. Hopefully some good yak scenes. Lots of good yak eating sound too, and milking sound at dusk.

Clear nights on the pasture are gorgeous. Stars so bright and low. Scorpio came up every day from the hill top.

I learned a few more words of Tibetan and the family were eager to test me. They laughed whenever I got one right. It was good to be a laughing stalk once in a while.

Bird(less) Lake

One of the mornings, after Daerji herded their horses out to the open, he took me to film Xingcuo, Bird Lake. A few families in his group had their tent close to it. When I came to see these deserts for the first time, Sangku and Daerji took me to the other side of the lake and I filmed there. Nobody was around that time. I was glad I got to come back and filmed the people. Without people’s stories, a desert is just another desert.

It was quite a view. On the highest hill, both sides, the lake and the river valley were under full display. The lake was quite spotty, definitely not a continuous body of water and I could see no birds. The pity little stream that was supposed to flow to the Yellow River from the lake was a black, muddy cut on the ground at best. Where have all the water gone? It rained quite frequently this year, and last year too people said.

Filmed quite a bit. A handsome looking herder came on a white horse and we followed him to his home. Turned out it was the home of one of the thread making helper women. Their two daughters were preparing a meal. One of them goes to college in Lanzhou. That’s quite an accomplishment considering her family’s condition. She was so shy to speak Mandarin in front of her parents, and only spoke to me secretly on my way out — she wanted to get out of here, so much about the pasture she did not like, deserts, people. That’s the trend for young people here. Daerji’s daughter wanted to be a doctor and would not consider herding a worthy work to do.

I hoped to film a group of herders discussing their land. Daerji helped me gathered a few. But once the interview questions started, they became quiet. Either my questions were all wrong or they truly couldn’t say much. Or a combination of the two. For whatever reasons, that plan didn’t go. The wind picked up, afternoon rain came. Could have been a sign that that wasn’t quite a good idea.

Daerji’s Family

Women were doing thread-making in front of the tent. The sound of the very basic but clever “machine” — which consists of nothing but a few pieces of wooden board and sticks, along with bottle caps and strings — could be heard from afar. Daerji’s daughter was the puller by the machine, and three older women, one of them Daerji’s wife held the yak hair bundle and fed them to form the threads as the machine spin them. Nowhere else I saw such things. It would not be possible without a big open space — the women gradually walked backwards as the thread became longer and longer. One bundle of hair could feed out to about 30 feet. One machine could spin as many as three threads. On a full working day like the day I arrived, three were there threading at the same time.

Daerji’s youngest son was riding a horse, and came back to greet his father and made me take a photo of him holding their big guard dog, a really handsome looking dog. Women chitchatted. I was free to film. Finally filming something! And thread-making is very pretty to film, with good sound too.

With only a brief meal break, the operation went on all day long. At dusk, the boy herded their yaks back and the wife and the daughter tied them in and milked a couple of them. Good sound with yaks mooing, but not so much visual, even my fastest lens wasn’t bright enough.

Herders’ meals were around their work schedule. Here, dinner doesn’t happen until all the night chores are done, and after dinner people go right back to sleep. With the tractor where my blankets and covers were on still in repair, I had to share the ground blanket with the daughter.

A good night of sleep surprisingly. The wife was already up working when I awoke. Very pretty fog in the valley. Not so much desert around Daerji’s immediate surrounding, but plenty on hills near other families in his group. Women at herder’s family are really working machines. Picking yak dung, spreading, drying, milking the yaks — that would take a good part of the morning nonstop from day break. After a meal around mid morning, it was butter making then more thread-making. No helpers came in the morning, so the wife let the boy be the puller. Sitting there pulling strings for a long time wasn’t very fun for the boy, I did a little bit of that when other distractions got him.

Some time during day two of my stay, I realized the stupid video gain was turned on. F!@#$%^&! those shots would be so washed out they would be nearly useless. F!@#$%^&!

The family sells snacks in the nearby tent — that explains the soft drinks on the tractor. Somehow a basketball hoop got shipped in as well and young herders came to play frequently.

Daerji also fixes motorcycles. Black Tent Moto Repair would be a fine name for his shop. With roads so bad and herders seemed to be riding so recklessly, Daerji got quite many customers.

The wife became quite playful once my stranger affect subsided. The daughter, who went to high school in town and only came home for short summer break was quite modern — wearing western clothe and having her hair braided differently than the traditional ways. They put on modern music later when they made thread. Some kind of Tibetan rap music. Yak hair tent, making thread, drying cheese curds, fixing motorcycle, rap music — the combination of those are fascinating to me.

The second son came for a brief visit at dinner time. The family prayed every night before going to bed, with the prayer wheel passing from one person to the next while the men recited scriptures. I filmed some, and participated as well in the praying circle.