I first started working with Tibetan-speaking nomads (drokpa) 32 years ago in Nepal. As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in agriculture, I was posted to the Langtang Valley north of Kathmandu, which at that time required a half-day bus ride and then a trek of about six days to get there. Walking on the trail towards Langtang, with snow-capped peaks in Tibet visible in the distance and the 7,000 meter peak of Langtang Himal looming large in the foreground, I ran into a yak. It was the first yak I had ever seen - a big, black bull yak with large horns that curved out, up, and then swept back. With long tresses of hair hanging from its belly and brushing the ground, it was a magnificent animal.
This beast was nothing like the scrawny cows I had seen in the Kathmandu Valley. The yak matched the splendor of the snow peaks of the Himalaya. He was standing in the middle of the trail, shaking his massive, horned head and waving his bushy tail in the air. A bunch of men, with their hair in long braids, had ropes tied on to the yak and were trying to lead it down the trail, but they kept their distance. It did not appear that this was an animal you wanted to walk up to and pet on the nose.
I had just spent three months in Peace Corps language training in Kathmandu learning to speak Nepali and could converse in it quite well. Trying out my new language skills, I made an attempt to talk with the men escorting the yak, but they didn't seem to understand what I was saying. As I tried to get a photo of the yak, the men started yelling at me using words I had never heard in Nepali language classes. Waving their arms, I suddenly realized they wanted me to get out of the way so they could proceed on down the trail with the yak. I stepped to the side of the trail and watched the yak go past, in awe of such a stunning animal.
Growing up on a dairy farm in southern Minnesota, I was acquainted with cows. We also raised sheep on the family farm and I knew a few things about sheep. Milking cows every morning before going to school, I understood the hard work that was involved in raising livestock. Cows had to be milked twice a day, every day. Barns had to be cleaned, crops had to be grown and hay had to be baled in the summer to feed the livestock through the long, cold Minnesota winters. In Nepal, I was eager to help the farmers and herders improve their animal husbandry practices.
When I finally reached the Langtang Valley a couple of days later, I found that few villagers spoke Nepali. Instead, their mother tongue was a local dialect of Tibetan. Great, I thought to myself, I just spent three months in Kathmandu learning Nepali and now everybody here speaks Tibetan! Little did I realize then how that assignment to work with yak herders in Nepal would transform into a career of working with nomads throughout the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau. I learned to speak Tibetan and began to learn about yaks and yak herding. Having bought my first camera just before leaving the States to come to Nepal, and with black and white film easily available in Kathmandu and fairly inexpensive to develop, I also began to take photos.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was officially assigned to a Government of Nepal pasture development farm and was responsible for maintaining some grass and legume trials in the Langtang Valley. However, I quite freely interpreted my duties to entail surveys of yak pastures throughout the highlands of epal,
which meant I trekked all over the country checking out the pastures and yaks wherever I went and photographing the grasslands, animals and yak herders.
Two years after that encounter with the yak, and with sufficient Tibetan language skills, I spent the entire summer herding yaks with the yak herders of Langtang. I milked the female yaks, the dri, and the yak-cattle hybrid crosses, known as dzo-mo. I learned how to churn butter from dri and dzo-mo milk and to make Tibetan cheese, known as churpi. I had learned how to use a Tibetan sling-shot, which is braided by the herders from yak hair and, when bringing the animals in for milking, I could hurl a stone at them almost as well as the children, whose job it was to go and get the animals. I ate with the yak herders, relishing tsampa (roasted barley flour) and Tibetan tea, made with butter and salt. The big bowls of rich dri yogurt we would have with every meal was a real treat. I even learned to enjoy eating stinging nettles, the only green 'vegetable' available in the high pastures. I had pretty much gone native. Some of the diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu jokingly labeled me, "our Peace Corps Volunteer in Tibet."
In the late 1970s, with travel to Tibet impossible, the region of Dolpo, located to the north of Dhaulagiri Himal in northwest Nepal, was renowned as a place where nomads still lived in yak hair tents and where yak caravans continued to ply the trails as they had for centuries. Few people had been there but their accounts indicated that it was a region where traditional Tibetan culture continued to thrive. Dolpo was still closed to foreigners and with tales of renegade, CIA-supported Tibetan freedom fighters still operating there and horse races a feature of summer festivities, the place had a tempting allure.
On a trip to Jumla in western Nepal in the fall of 1977, a friend, George Miller and I met Tsewang, a Tibetan nomad living in a small refugee camp a few days trek east of Jumla. Originally from a nomad area in Tibet, Tsewang had married a Dolpo woman and went to Dolpo every summer with his yaks, carrying grain to trade for salt and wool. Inviting us to go with his yak caravan the next summer, Tsewang said he would take us to Shey Gonpa. From there he could arrange yaks or porters to take us throughout Dolpo. "Be back here the end of the fourth Tibetan month," Tsewang told us as we left to go back to Kathmandu. It was an offer we couldn't refuse.
By late spring the following year, we had finished our Peace Corps assignments (I had extended for a third year), and with the dates in our expired ''All Over Nepal" trekking permits suitably altered, we were ready for one last trek. Since we were planning to go back to the USA soon after finishing the Dolpo trek anyway, we figured the worst that could happen to us if we got caught by the authorities, for being somewhere we weren't supposed to be, would be that we would be deported from Nepal.
Doing Dolpo was a seminal experience. We were trekking for 10 weeks and crossed 16 passes over 4,800 meters. At one point, we were accused of stealing idols from a gonpa and put under house arrest by the drunken headman of the village of Phijor and only my Tibetan language skills convinced him of our innocence. On another occasion, when we unexpectedly ran into a Nepali military patrol in Tarap, we managed to make a getaway on horseback, feeling like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as we ran out of town in a cloud of dust. More importantly, the trek to Dolpo afforded an opportunity to travel with a yak caravan across the snow-covered passes, to experience nomads living in yak-hair tents and to learn more about the Tibetan nomad way of life. To this day, in spite of having made over 30 trips to Tibet, some of the best photos I have of nomads are from that trip to Dolpo in 1978.
Later, in Kathmandu, I was sitting in my friend Ted Worcester's house talking about Dolpo. Ted had spent over six months traveling through Dolpo in 1971 and had given up Ph.D studies at the University of Wisconsin to continue to live and work with Tibetans in Kathmandu. A big bear of a man, fluent in Tibetan and knowledgeable about many aspects of Tibetan culture, Ted had the best private library in Kathmandu. As we looked over maps of the Himalaya and Tibet, I suddenly saw the Himalaya as simply a large mountain range - a mountain range whose south side I already knew quite well and had even ventured across briefly while trekking in Dolpo. But the vast Tibetan Plateau, on the north side of the Himalaya, was a nomad landscape beckoning to be understood.
The Tibetan Plateau is largely a rangeland ecosystem and nomads depend on the forage produced from the grazing lands to sustain their livestock and their way of life. I concluded that the best approach to pursue working with Tibetan nomads in the future would be to obtain training in rangeland management and livestock production. After four years in Nepal, I returned to the USA and went to Montana to work as a cowboy and study rangeland ecology.
Cowboys, like Tibetan nomads, make their living taking care of animals. Managing cattle in all types of weather, cowboys are highly skilled livestock specialists. Working as a cowboy enabled me to acquire practical skills for handling livestock that would later prove valuable working with nomads in Tibet. For example, the knots cowboys use for packing supplies on mules and horses are surprisingly similar to those used by Tibetan nomads when packing yaks. With an understanding of the behavior of livestock and their requirements for forage, water and shelter, and with insights on rangeland ecology, I would be able to better comprehend the rationale behind many of the nomads' practices.
Five years later I returned to Nepal, first to lead treks, which afforded an opportunity to travel in the Himalaya and make grass collections and become familiar with the ecology of the rangelands. A chance encounter with an official from the Asian Development Bank in Kathmandu, who was looking for a high-altitude pasture specialist to help design a livestock project in Bhutan, led to the rare opportunity to work there. Like the highlands of Nepal, Bhutan has large expanses of grazing lands that are utilized by nomadic pastoralists with herds of yaks.
For a number of years, I spent many months each year working in the remote region of Sakten in northeastern Bhutan and other parts of the country. My understanding of Himalayan rangeland ecology and pastoralism improved and my portfolio of nomad photos began to expand.
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