Where the Vultures Circle
It was unclear what the man had in mind, but it couldn't be good judging from the way
Tashedekyid had begun to sob, slumping in the corner of the tent. Our host Shureb had just warned us to be
careful and alert that night, for the man who had been hovering around us all afternoon - a distant relative
with a goofy face and a shifty gait - had been boasting around the encampment that he would sneak into our
tent in the cover of night. But what exactly did he want? In her distress, Tashedekyid didn't elaborate, and
I didn't push her. Did he intend to steal my things? Or did he want to rape Tashhedekyid, my
Both are common incidents in the Khampa grasslands: theft from neighbours and friends and even
distant family members is common, and so is the cornering of single girls for sex. The latter is perhaps
accepted as a cultural norm – after all, in Khampa customs, a visiting male relative has to sleep with the
wife of his host – and I had heard Khampa girls say that they enjoyed the semi-forced sexual encounters, if
you could call them 'forced', for the girls didn't seem to resist. And Tashedekyid was a Khampa herself,
hailing from a nomads’ family. But she was a prude - she had studied hard and already secured herself a
scholarship at university - education had given her different moral sensibilities that set her apart from her
Khampa brethren. “I have never had sex,” she said now, sobbing. She was 18, and every day I had seen her go
to pedantic lengths to cover every part of her body, including shoulders, when she had a shower.
It was our first night in Tashka, a tent settlement of Tibetan nomads in the eastern Tibetan
region of Kham, and already we were experiencing the dark side of Khampa culture. The Khampas are notorious
for thuggery and thievery and promiscuity, but I had assumed that as an outsider I would be spared and so
would my interpreter. Now our situation didn't look good: we were conspicuous and exposed in the flimsy
ceremonial tent they had put up for us, whose flap couldn’t even be zipped or fastened shut. "Get fully
dressed and ready to run," I told Tashedekyid.
But if we had to flee, would we make it to the nearest road at night, ten hours walk across the
windswept mountain grasslands, without getting lost or without being attacked by wolves or savage guard
I had to take charge, and I accompanied Sherub to the tent of one of the clan leaders. The wind
was howling in the dark, and the guard dogs were barking furiously as we hurried across the encampment. I
told Wangchen, the senior leader, that I would fight any intruder, and he reassured me that he would tell the
goofy man to stay away from us. Still, I didn't take any chances - Khampas are notoriously unruly - and
Sherub and I prepared ourselves. Sherub slept behind the flap of the tent with a dagger on one side and a
medieval home-made gun on the other; I tied my belongings to a string attached to my wrist, and tucked a
knife and torch under the jacket I used as a pillow.
I hardly got any sleep that night, woken up repeatedly by the yaks popping their large dark
heads and emphatic horns through the flap of the tent. They appeared like comical spectres in the dark, only
the whites of their eyes visible in their silhouetted heads, and I thought that even these huge dumb animals
had noticed the arrival of the tourists, pompously sleeping in the white ceremonial tent. So the yaks wanted
to have a peek, something that unnerved me in my livid state.
There were a lot of yaks in Tashka, a clan of nine households in the Tagong grasslands who
follow a seasonal migratory pattern dictated by the weather. In the winter the herders hunker down in stone
houses in the valley; in spring they migrate to the shoulders of the undulating mountains with their herds
and moveable tents made of yak hide; in summer they move again to the highest pastures, at
4,000-meters-plus-high, in a shallow valley of marshy terrain. Now we were in the summer pasture, and we were
hosted by Sherub, 21, and his sister Sukou, 23, who tended a herd of 50 yaks. Sukou had two children and her
husband had gone off to a nearby settlement to help his parents with their herd; Sherub had then moved in to
his sister's tent to help her tend the herd during her husband's absence.
From any point in the Tashka, I could allow my eyes to rove on the grasslands that undulated
towards infinity, only the summit of Jhajtre Mountains breaking the monotony on the eastern horizon, a
Buddhist holy mountain that rose in a forbidden summit of granite and ice. At first I was bewitched by the
exoticness, emptiness, and timelessness of the vistas around me. I gazed at the vultures soaring overhead,
the marmots calling from perches, the sky larks uttering their high-pitched trills on the wing, the young
Khampa cowboys whooping and trotting on their horses in a display of libido or machismo. I followed the
progress of Khampa herders leading their herds along distant ridges to seek fresh pastures. And in the
afternoon I found myself drawn to the women as they rounded up the calves for the night, and hauled water
from a brook, all the while singing heartfelt Buddhist recitations and Tibetan songs in wailing voices that
rolled and echoed in the empty terrain and intoxicated my spirit. How harmonious it could appear in the
purest moments, like a life without constraints and without endings.
But it had a flipside, and the infinite landscapes also had forbiddingness – even the climate is
inexorable and fickle, swinging between searing sun and bitter squalls in a matter of hours. It's an
unproductive and harsh terrain, reflected in the diet, which mostly consists of tsampa, a mix of dried ground barley and tea and milk and butter, all
crudely kneaded into a mash. Other times we had noodle soup with sliced potatoes and crumbs of dried yak
cheese, and the best we had were the steamed buns filled with wild onions and dried yak cheese. I found the
food terrible and bland and monotonous. I lost my appetite and it made me feel conscionably callous – I was
ashamed, for surely my hosts, who displayed their hospitality by cooking so much, could see that my loss of
appetite was the symptom of aversion at the food they kindly heaped in front of us. It made me feel
ungrateful, and I felt inadequate when they gave me a piece of dried yak meat, and I couldn't even eat a tiny
bit of it - but how could I, it was as hard and dry as the root of a tree?
And how could I learn to acclimatise to the interior of my hosts' tent? The low, black tent was
cluttered with cowboy paraphernalia and thick yak-hide blankets laid out on the ground as sleeping pads, and
more blankets serving as covers. At the centre of the tent there was the fire-pit, fringed by a scatter of
blackened pots and bowls and buckets. The fire-pit never stopped belching: the tinder and heather and dung
didn't give off a flame (no tress grow beyond 3,500 metres), it only burned in cindery embers, giving off
heat and emanating smoke, the smoke swirling in the tent, making my eyes burn and water and making my throat
I spent as much time as possible outside the tent, pacing around the encampment, charting family
histories, researching social and political organisation, and probing the issues that stood out saliently in
my sensibilities – the thievery, the violence, the banditry, the health afflictions, and the killing of yaks
for meat. There are also other larger development issues, some connected to the government's efforts to tame
the nomads by giving them free houses and free education, and introducing the concept of fencing to get their
minds thinking about the structured and compartmentalised way of navigating the modern economy, and to start
thinking of herding as agro-industrial production.
The results have been mixed and uneven, and the absence of an advanced sense of community or
political organisation didn’t auger well, as a knack for organisation and management is essential for modern
economies. Wangchen, one of the two senior leaders who in turn oversaw a council of junior leaders, didn't
actually have any big influence in the clan. His role was to decide the time of seasonal migrations and to
act as an intermediary with actors outside the clan, which included leaders of other clans and government
officials and lamas. The clan simply seems to be a loose structure of households bonded together by kinship
and neighbourliness, or a collection of households or families who seek safety in numbers.
But Wangchen's seniority and resourcefulness was evident in his tent: it was bigger and cleaner
than others I had seen, and it even had an opening in the pitch that allowed the smoke to escape. He had more
pots, and the women in his family were cleaner and more beautiful – they were dressed in traditional apparel,
with colorful aprons and hair combed up and makeup smearing their faces, especially their cheeks powdered a
reddish-pink. Wangchen himself wore western-style clothes, unlike some of the other men who wore traditional
robes. As we talked, he cooked me a lunch of semi-dried slices of yak meat fried in butter and garlic. It was
delicious and I wolfed it down, and he cooked me some more, and then he watched me eat with wry amusement.
Perhaps he was thinking about the goofy man whom I had made such a fuss about on the first night, the man
that, as Wangchen had promised, would never show his face again in my presence. Or perhaps he was wondering
why I was eating with unmitigated gluttonousness.
I asked him about the thievery and the violence. “It’s decreasing,” he said, “as the lamas are
always preaching about it.”
Yet Sherub kept warning us not to leave our things unattended and not to dawdle near other
people's tents. Each tent had a couple of guard dogs, to ward off thieves from within and more crucially to
hinder or discourage the bandits. The region has a history of banditry, and although their reach has been
curbed in recent times, they remain ever-lurking predators, mostly raiding settlements and stealing yaks. Few
challenge them, perhaps because the loss of a yak is not worth getting engaged in potentially mortal
Everyone carries daggers tucked under their robes, and violence does erupt when someone steals a
yak from a neighbour. A yak has no monetary value; a herd confers status in proportion to its size, and that
signifies an importance for the Khampas, who are macho and proud and unruly, men descended from warriors.
Many families have a brush with violence, and that includes the two families I was associated with –
Tashedekyid’s family and our hosts’ family.
“We were very close to each other as families,” told me Tashedekyid when she recounted the feud
her family had become embroiled in. Then their friend and neighbor stole one of their yaks, and Tashedekyid’s
uncle killed the thief. Traditional justice holds the eye-for-an-eye principle, meaning that a man from
Tashedekyid’s family had to be sacrificed, but the lamas intervened – as they do most of the time now – to
broker a non-violent settlement. For Tashedekyid’s family it meant selling everything and giving the money to
the feuding family and then moving away. They moved to a village to stay with some relatives and, ironically
and unexpectedly, their life actually took a turn for the better. Tashedekyid, relieved from the herding
chores, attended school and studied assiduously, becoming one of the only two students in the entire village
that persevered at school; now, after the summer, she was due to go to Beijing to take up her scholarship at
the minorities university. And her brother had moved to Chengdu where he worked as a labourer – so now the
family was better off, even though they didn’t have any herds.
In the case of our hosts, the family of Sokou’s husband had killed a man during a fight over
grazing rights. Then the dead man’s family pinpointed Sokou’s brother-in-law, Djarga, as the son who had to
be killed in a spirit of vengeance and restoration of justice. Once again, the lamas intervened, and money
was paid to the family to stave off another murder. (The fights over grazing rights increased when the
government introduced fencing in the grasslands, and now fencing has been banned entirely.)
After four days in Tashka I had had enough. I had gotten a cold, my ears were like peeling
beetroots from the sun, and I felt filthy. Every night I slept fitfully and didn't get warm – I slept with my
clothes on, crouched in my sleeping bag, on the hard and cold ground, the yaks waking me up with their grunts
as they poked their heads through the flap of the ceremonial tent that is normally used for festivities. So
we rode our horses back to Tagong, the small town that serves as the hub of the Tagong grasslands. The town
has a large monastery and one main street that had been widened and beautified by the government – globe
street lights had been erected and trees had been planted on the pavements – to make it more attractive for
tourists. The idea is to turn the town into a tourist attraction, thus giving the nomads the chance to have a
better way of life servicing tourists. But no one watered the trees and they had shriveled and died, and no
one turned on the street lights – it was pitch dark at night, and one needed a torch to find the
The government had also built quasi-free houses for the herders and some of them did move to
town, enticed by the big stone houses. But they moved to town and then they didn't know what else to do: they
had no education and no sense of entrepreneurship, and they simply loitered in the streets doing nothing. And
then they resorted to thievery to get the money for clothes and food.
The government was also offering free education for the herders’ children – everything was free,
including clothes and food and accommodation. But there was more that could be done, according to Lobsang
Rinchen, who had set up a charity organization designed to nurture the careers of the nomads’ children.
“There are about 700 students that can be educated,” Lobsang explained, “but the capacity for accommodation
at the government school is only about 200. So we are looking for sponsors outside China that would finance a
Lobsang gave me a tour of the new boarding house for students that his organization had
constructed, where 63 children were having all their needs taken care of when I visited. Lobsang, like
Tashedekyid, was a rare success story: he also hailed from a nomad’s family, but he studied hard and advanced
in the school system and then got a scholarship. Afterwards, he found employment as a tourist guide in
Yunnan, and now, after seven years working as a guide, he had returned to his home town and started the NGO.
"The key is education,” Lobsang told me. “I also want to set up a project that would assist students who have
gone through the education system but failed to find good jobs. We will help these students learn things like
languages and making crafts, skills that would give them an opportunity to find work in tourism. I also want
to set up a travel agency, and then plough some of the profits into community education and
Afterwards I went to see Cherku Shiremena, a senior monk and traditional doctor, and started by
asking him about traditional medicine. He told me he spends a lot of his time roaming in the mountains to
gather medicinal herbs, a task he had to do himself as many others wouldn’t recognize the plants that have
“The commonest health problem among herders is stomach-related ailments caused by unhygienic
food preparation,” he told me. “Sometimes cases are severe. I also see many complications caused by anger,
hate, stress, and other mental imbalances. I give these patients some herbs to help them relax and advise
them on changing their lifestyle and mental outlook in order to avoid these conditions.”
Cherku charges token amounts to administer health services and medicine. "The tendency among the
nomads is to ignore a health problem until it becomes intolerable,” he said. “Sometimes, by the time they
come here it's already too late."
I asked him about the thievery, and he said: “It’s much better now as we have managed to reduce
the incidence of thievery to ten percent or less of the population."
Then I raised the issue of killing yaks for meat. In Buddhist tradition it's of course forbidden
to kill any animal for meat or whatever else, whether for personal consumption or to sell the meat. And
traditionally, the herders only ate the meat of yaks that died naturally, either through old age or disease
or lightning strikes (something that’s common in the high mountains). But now religious refrains are starting
to weaken, and the number of herders who are raising yaks specifically for meat range between twenty and
“Those are corrupt people,” Cherku told me when I mentioned that figure. “At every opportunity,
we remind our people that this is sinful, and I think we’re slowly beginning to reduce the number of herders
who kill yaks for meat.”
I admire people who don’t eat meat for moral reasons, and there is also an environmental case to
be made – if we all had to desist from eating meat, our environmental impact would be substantially lessened.
But there was a contradiction here, for the nomads still raised herds, simply having yaks just for the sake
of having herds, increasing one’s status in proportion to the size of one’s herd, but still living in utter
squalor and poverty. The yaks are also denuding the grasslands, and pushing out animals like wild yaks and
bears and antelopes. Isn't it a waste of resources to have yaks for the sake of having herds? And wouldn’t
the nomads be healthier if they ate some more meat?
I enunciated these thoughts to Cherku. “They can sell things like butter, cheese, and the furs
of yaks that die naturally,” he said. "And they can eat the meat of yaks that die naturally."
They had been doing that for hundreds of years, and all throughout they have been caught in a
cycle of poverty. Cherku explained that the lamas’ effort was ultimately focused on drawing the nomads away
from a life of herding and towards resettlement in towns, where they could have an education and then find
work in services and tourism. “That’s the long-term answer,” told me Cherku.
The herders, despite their unruliness, believe in the lamas with religious totality. One rumor
that was circulating at the time of my visit was that the price of meat had doubled due to the lamas’ anger
(the truth was that the price of meat had gone up due to higher demand for yak meat by Chinese consumers, and
yak meat is the most expensive meat in Sichuan’s cities).
“In the summer it’s difficult for us to reach the nomads,” Cherku said. “But in the winter they
live in the valleys close to town, and hence we reach out to them to help them and talk to them about the
proper way of life.”
I thought that maybe one day there will no longer be nomads in Tibet's grasslands – the lamas
and government and charities are all attempting to lure the herders away from the grasslands. I felt
ambivalence towards the whole situation, and perhaps my feelings were a reflection of the paradoxes that
exist in the high mountain pastures – the sense of freedom juxtaposed with the sense of peril and uneasiness
with one's neighbours, or the harmony versus the discord, or the proverbial beauty and the beast. And the
herders themselves also appear torn between two worlds, on the one hand lured to the prospect of comfortable
life in a town, and on the other hand clinging to the life they have always known – they believe that the
nomadic life in the mountains is the purest form of life that exists.
© Victor Paul Borg