Last season of a nomad camp


The low shrub above our basecamp is changing a coat of colours, into yellow, orange, and crimson red. We are at 3900 meters. It indicates that frost has arrived at 4000 meters, thus the foliage change. Not far from our camp is the high pasture for the Tibetan yak and zho (a hybrid between yak and cow) grazing ground. Tseren Sangmo and her aunt Yishi Lacho are the only souls at this high pasture. The log shed they built some seven years ago can be considered the first household at the Irrawaddy source. Here they would spend two months of the year, from August to early October. In another five days, their family members, perhaps three men, would arrive from home, four days march away, to help them decamp to go home. For the previous two months, June and July, Sangmo and Lacho were at a higher camp, another 200 meters higher, at another grazing ground. There, they live in a shed similar to this one. Back home in the village of Gula, pasture is scarce and thus kept only for winter grazing. They herd their livestock here to the adjacent Quwa village and paid a fee to use their pasture for summer grazing. For each animal, they would pay 30 Yuan for seasonal usage. Herding over 30 animals belonging to three families from their home, they would pay upward of a thousand Yuan.
2001-household01 But things are not as rosy as generations ago, or even just ten years ago. This will be the last season for Sangmo and Lacho to herd their animals here. Lacho told me that her family would soon sell all their animals while she would look for other work. Going to work in towns or cities promise better pay, and easier work. Xangmo is not sure whether she alone could handle the remaining livestock and would unlikely return to the herding ground next year. “Won’t you miss this place?” I asked of Lacho. “Yes, I would, though work is really hard,” answered Lacho. Be it rain, shine or hail, they’ll be working all day long. “I think I would only keep a couple of our animals at home, while the rest would be sold,” she added. “I knew each animal by name and by heart,” she said with a slight smile of intimacy as she squatted low while milking her cow. “We are already the last three families to keep to our livestock,” Lacho spoke with a soft tone of sadness. It seems less and less equitable as the years go by. The nineteen yaks and cows they own yields enough milk for one season which are churned by a hand-crank machine into maybe a hundred kilos of yak butter. The residual milky water is dried and made into a hard yogurt. Both are mainly for their own consumption, with the hard yogurt mixed into congee as part of their staple. Perhaps a few dozen kilos of yak butter would be sold to friends and neighbours.
2001-household02 As in past years, when the two ladies arrived at the high pasture, it would be also cordyceps collecting high season. Lacho is more experienced in looking for such high-country fungus and took in about 350 pieces, each worth Rmb 35 Yuan. Sangmo is new to this and only managed slightly over 100 pieces. A thousand-year-old tradition is coming to a close. Livestock raising is no longer even enough for subsistence, replaced by newer and more lucrative work and business opportunities. The new condition and transportation convenience have made much of the Tibetan traditional lifestyle obsolete. Nomadic culture, even pastoral tradition, that of tending to both livestock and agriculture, are no longer in style.
2001-household03 Sangmo is 18 years of age. Her aunt is twelve years older at 30, with two children. Both Sangmo and Lacho were born in the Year of the Dragon, an auspicious sign. “Are you married and have kids?” I asked of Sangmo, seeing that she is very beautiful and standing tall at over 1.8 meters. “No, I’ve never even had a boyfriend or ever been in love,” came her reply. “But you are so beautiful you must have many suitors,” I pursued further. “At my family, I cannot choose to get marry by my own free will. My parents would arrange whom I should marry,” said Sangmo while looking down with shyness. Her Chinese is totally fluent, thanks to six years attending a local school before she started herding animals at age 15. As for Lacho, she and her elder sister are both betrothed to the same man. Each has produced two kids for the husband. Through Sangmo and Lacho, I found out that practically all marriages at their village are arranged by parents. In that sense, their livestock seems to have a more liberal and free life than their masters, being able to choose their own mate. When it would be Sangmo’s turn to get married, the five hybrid yaks belonging to the family would become her dowry, going with her to her husband’s home.
2001-household04 I invited Sangmo and Lacho to visit our camp and join us for dinner. But they declined, citing that their day’s work would take up all their time. For us, the two are very special, the first household closest to the Irrawaddy River source. Downriver there are thousands and tens of thousands of families living along this great river which flows for over 2200 kilometres until it reaches the sea. Yes, this is literally the First Family at the Irrawaddy source. No, they don’t have an Air Force One to travel in. But as they begin their last journey home from this grazing ground, they would be on their horses, driving with them their yak and cow herd, breathing the fresh mountain air that many of us in the city has never even know to exist.

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