Yaks, Creases and Nomads




The calm force that is Songjem

The man we pick up in Nyimalung has the calm eyes and weathered face that the mountains create and sculpt almost at will. Songjem is in his early sixties and his face and countenance have a lived in quality that seem universally recognized; appreciated for what it shows. We head south towards Gansu’s border with Sichuan. Somjem is one of those absolute necessities in any travels in this part of the world – a one-man source of tales, geography and of that rare quality in the modern rush, calm.

More of a collection point town than a 'city', Maqu's bulk can be found along two main streets

He will be our informal guide to the Maqu area, where we are headed. Maqu has yak, goat and sheep in quantities that almost nullify the landscapes…it also has nomads that have long lived amidst the rolling hills. Our old friend, the Yellow River (Ma Chu to the locals) coils its muscular way east acting as an accidental guide to our own wanderings.

To Michael and I, the Yellow River, to the Han Chinese the Huang He, and to the Tibetans the Ma Chu (Peacock River). Whatever its name, its presence and influence were always with us

Maqu is yet another crucible – a town that now sits where two main roads collide. No trees interrupt the horizons; and there are many horizons cut by the hills and mountains. While travel along the main road takes time, once we hit the dirt tracks south of Maqu – which access the nomadic bases – we are lucky to hit a top speed of 10 km’s per hour. Valleys are little nations of nomadic communities with the telltale black tents and sprays of black herds of the precious sok (yak).

Fold upon fold, layer upon layer

Here, there are the dual forces of magnificent green highlands contrasting with rampaging winds which take sand from nearby sand dunes and hurl them to every point of the compass. Along the dirt tracks nomads fly upon their motorcycles with a reckless competence that inevitably brings an admiration. At one point a dozen motorbikes partially block the road. Our little group stops to take in one of the Plateau’s great annual ‘harvests’ – sheep wool. No electric clippers here, no pens to steady the flapping bodies, just an ancient aptitude with the hands and a strategy that is fool-proof. Men and young boys fly around with yips and yells corralling the sheep with a long strip of white canvas which is set up to create a three sided box. One by one the agile sheep are grabbed by a hind leg and dragged (and in many hysterical cases drag their ‘draggers’) out to be bound by foot in mere seconds. This done, one of four seniors in the group wields a spectacularly massive pair of scissors and relieve the sheep of their rangy coat. At one point a young boy insists on displaying some of the native skills, which make the nomads revered as pastoralists and ‘hardmen’ of the mountains. No more than six years old, he, with his lean and toughened little body, attempts to grab the hind leg of an equally youthful sheep only to receive a flaying hoof that takes the little boy in the mid-section with a lightning thump. There is a huge roar of approval from his peers urging a continuation of the festivities.

A nomadic boy tries his hand at rustling

More than a match for the little boy the young sheep has the kind of desperate power that makes prey far dangerous than one might imagine. The boy’s clothing and expressions are running the full gamut of colour and dirt until finally (with some very needed help from his colleagues) he manages a vice grip on the sheep only to discover that even with three free legs animal is simply too agile and high strung to ‘take’. Here in this region, this tradition of wool harvesting takes place once a year and as with much in the lives of the drok’pa (nomads) work is injected with a communal sense of unity and fun. IMG_1658_2.jpg – Our arrival to a great valley hemmed in on all sides and to Songjem’s clan and their enormous herds of yak The language flying around is the nomadic dialect that rings with intonations and nasal grunts – the lingua franca of the spaces beyond cities up ‘on high’. Simultaneously brash and vulnerable the nomads take life by the literal and figurative horns and live it intensely; there is no other way at over 4 km’s in the sky. Almost four hours later we arrive to Somjem’s clan and their sprawling valley summer abode of streams and insulating mountain peace. There is the clasp of hands and the kind of non-fussy joy of a genuinely happy reunion. Somjem, like so many of nomads I’ve met doesn’t make introductions immediately; he is taken with his own pleasure and that of his clan. IMG_1650.jpg – Valleys lead into other valleys, which in turn lead to smaller valleys and pockets, and each one resides a nomadic community for the extent of the summer We are almost immediately served up thick and potent ‘sho’ – the thick curd like yoghurt offered up (and taken) in heaps. The tang grips and almost stings the tongue. Like everything on the homestead, it is fresh. We sit around a stove that gives of the acrid almost narcotic waft of yak dung burning.

About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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2 Responses to Yaks, Creases and Nomads

  1. Peter says:

    Jeff, you say ” … the Maqu area, where we are headed.” Have you a specific plan or goal for this trip, e.g., to follow another ancient trade route?

    Best wishes,

    • JeffFuchs says:

      Yes, we had a rough idea – rough being very rough. Both of us want to explore (re-explore) the remote nomadic regions of southern Qinghai province. We were close by during our recent exploration of the Salt Road back in May and that experience pushed us to wanting to travel more of this virtually untravelled zone of nomads, yak and mountains. It is an area that gets very little attention but is unique in that locals speak the ‘Amdo’, ‘Kham’, and ‘Dro’k’ dialects of Tibetan. Travel like this also sometimes spawns or uncovers a route or bit of knowledge about a route that previously was unknown….one has to take the odd chance to find those gems.
      Always a pleasure getting your queries and comments.


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