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 interpreter? 


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 dogs?


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 raspy. 


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 combat.


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 way.


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 child's accommodation.”


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 development.”


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 medicinal properties.


“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 thirty percent.


“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


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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