As participants in modern society, we rarely get the chance to step completely outside of our world as we know it. However, on rare occasion, we find a place that questions all the assumptions about what we need to live and how we prioritize our lives. The grasslands of Tagong are exactly such a place.
The grasslands are home to tens of thousands of yaks. The livestock and their nomadic owners are in constant motion, moving from one grazing site to the next. Their herding patterns follow a highly organized game of musical chairs, whereby plots of land are negotiated for and divided among the nomads.
Pinyin: Tǎgōng Cǎoyuán | Chinese: 塔公草原
Location: Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China
Getting There: Hike or ride a horse from Tagong Village
Where to Stay: A nomadic herder tent
Attractions: Epic views, yaks, sheep, wolves, bad-ass Tibetans.
Access to the nomads is fairly easy, as at their nearest plots bring them only 30 minutes by horse from Tagong Village. However, that 30 minutes is enough to bring you to a place that seems worlds away.
We embarked on a three night day horse trek. Each day consisted of around 5 hours of fairly easy riding. The rest of the day was spent exploring the grazing fields and soaking in the nomadic lifestyle. The weather frequently changed from rain to sunshine. And, although it was only mid-October, the nights were bitterly cold. The following is a day-by-day recount of our journey.
Day 1 – White Out
We woke up at 7am, poked our heads out of our sleeping bags, and looked out the window. The condensation was entirely frozen. I tipped toed across the hall and looked out a small window in the bathroom. The grounds was covered in about 2 inches of snow, and the flakes were still falling hard. My heart sank a little, as I wasn’t sure what this meant for the horse trek we had planned.
We layered our warmest clothes and made sure we were 100% waterproof. Then we went over to the Khampa Cafe, where we waited for our guide, Panzo, who showed up wearing a traditional Tibetan robe.
The robe is basically a heavy fur-lined tunic with extremely long sleeves, reminiscent of the large sleeves worn by Beijing opera singers. His pants were wool, but not terribly thick. And his shoes were of the 20RMB cloth variety. He also wore a large Indiana Jones-like hat.
Given what he was wearing, which would be his only outfit on the 4 day journey, he smiled when he saw our attire, plainly able to judge our toughness by our severe overdressing.
In his broken Mandarin, he told us it was time to go. We trotted out of Tagong Village. After about 15 minutes, the town was out of sight behind us, and we were engulfed in the white hills. As the temperature began to rise, the snow turned to rain, and we were thankful for our gear. Our guide, who walked along side our horses, wasn’t bothered by the snow or rain. He happily plodded along, alternating steps in freezing puddles and slushy mud.
We followed a dirt path, passing small clusters of homes that became less and less frequent. Every now again, we’d turn a corner and the adjacent hillside would be covered in prayer flags. In the distance was a wall of white. The clouds had descended upon us, and seemed trapped in the rolling hills.
Eventually, in a place that can only be described as no particular place at all, we abruptly veered off the dirt path and began ascending a somewhat steep hill. There was no path to speak of, just a snow covered incline.
Our horses kept slipping on the wet grass and rocks. At the hill’s steepest section, we dismounted and walked our horses up. Upon reaching the hilltop, we were treated to a very unexpected view of the snow covered valley. Coming to the grasslands in October, I had expected brown and green, not white.
We made our way down the other side of the hill. What first looked like black specks littering the landscape quickly became clear as yaks. We were looking down into a massive valley that was currently occupied by several hundred yaks. In the distance, we also saw many empty stone houses, which are the seasonal dwellings for local farmers.
At around 1pm, we arrived at Panzo’s home. His tent housed himself, his wife, and his two sons. The eldest third son, a teenager, had already left the nomadic life to find work in a city. The tent consisted of a large metal stove in the center, surrounded by cooking tools, food supplies, blankets, and clothes. There was no furniture, and the ground served as the primary storage area. Items were cast around the tent in a manner we might consider messy. However, given their lifestyle of constantly being on the move and always being outside among large livestock, when it comes to cleanliness as we know it, one quickly arrives at the conclusion, ‘what’s the point?’
Panzo’s lovely wife greeted us with warm milk tea, steamed buns, and some delicious boiled potatoes from her garden.
The largest item they owned was perhaps the giant metal pot they used to boil the curdled yak milk. Once sifted out of the water, the curdled chunks of milk are used as flavoring for their beloved tsampa and milk tea.
Tsampa (糌粑 – zānbā) is ground up barley, sometimes mixed with flour. The barely powder is then combined with varying amounts of water to either create a milky soup (lots of water) or barley balls (less water). We were offered tsampa at every meal. In its milky form, copious amounts of butter and sugar are dissolved into the water. The taste is not terribly difficult to stomach in small portions, but after about three meals in a row of tsampa, the taste can become somewhat objectionable to those who can’t stomach heavy, sweet, super starchy food.
The two boys, 12 and 13 years old, looked like young boys you’d see anywhere. They wore jeans and fleece tops, and were generally dirty as one would be from playing and working outside.
They didn’t speak any Mandarin, but we nonetheless made quick friends with them by letting them play Doodle Jump on our smartphones. Unsurprisingly, they loved the game, and after a while they reluctantly gave us our phones back at the behest of their parents.
The elder of the two brothers was a bit quieter. We got a too-cool-for-school attitude from him, which reminded us of ourselves as young teenagers. The younger brother was much more outgoing, and was happy to answer questions translated through his father. His father explained that his sons were allowed to decide, based on their personal preference, whether to go to school, work in a city, or to continue living life as a nomad.
A recurring theme during our horse trek was the implicit rebuttal made to our questioning of the nomadic way of life. Namely, the simplicity of their lives and their lack of dependance on an overabundance of material things created an honest quality to all their actions that somehow outweighed any of our perceived observations of their naivety or ignorance.
After about two hours of eating and getting to know each other, we departed. We’d make a short journey over to the tent belonging to Panzo’s cousin. Her tent was of the larger nomadic variety, which is the standard for those who are further out in the grasslands. The tent is much larger as it needs to have sufficient space to house all the baby yaks at night, lest they by eaten by wolves. The baby yaks are strung up on a line on one side of the tent.
Again, the tent had no furniture, and was strictly utilitarian. There were no decorations or homey touches. Everything in the tent was either built for purpose or was garbage. Garbage is somewhat of an issue for the nomads. Historically, everything they used was rapidly biodegradable, so waste wasn’t an issue. However, today they’ll use an occasional aluminum can or plastic bag. After these items are used to their limit, there simply isn’t any place to discard them, which means they tend to pile up in the tent.
We’d be sharing the tent with our guide, his cousin and her two young boys, and about 14 baby yaks. The two boys were 5 and 7 years old. And they were naughty as ever, sticking their hands into all our stuff and constantly acting silly to get our attention. They were also undeniably adorable.
As always, as soon as we entered the tent we were offered a hot cup of milk tea. Being lactose intolerant in this area is tough, as basically all their food is dairy based. So if you need to, bring your lactaid pills, or be prepared to be gassy. Fortunately, with all the yaks around, literally no one will notice even severe flatulence.
After about an hour of messing around with the kids, we noticed a commotion coming from outside.
Everyone left the tent. Our guide tried to explain what happened, but we didn’t understand until we saw it. Apparently a young yak had died. The carcasses lay on its side with its legs curled up. We could see across the field numerous other men coming to check it out, along with a young women and her beautiful daughter. A dead yak is somewhat of a big deal, as it’s not only a financial loss, but also could be evidence of disease or a local predator.
In this case, the culprit was allegedly a wolf. Apparently there were two small teeth marks on the neck of the yak, but we were never able to see them.
However, another man was equally confident that the yak had simply gotten a cold. Clearly, no one was sure. And in the end, how the yak died really didn’t matter.
Everyone was just happy that we’d all get to eat meat tonight. The men and women started skinning the carcass.
All the while, the young boys were playing with the carcass. The youngest boy stuck his fingers into the yak’s mouth and played with its tongue, while the other played the drums on the skinned belly.
With smiley bloody hands, the two boys seemed to be having a grand old time. The boys would later use those same unwashed hands to mold their tsampa into balls for dinner. Many nomads do have intestinal problem due to unsanitary conditions. However, I’m certain their immune systems are also much tougher than ours, at least when it comes to large animal exposure.
In minutes the yak was clean, hoisted onto a wooden pole, and carried away for butchering. Our guide smiled at us and assured us we’d be eating meat tonight. The yak meat would be shared among all the neighbors, even though it belonged to our host.
We then saw one young lady picking up fresh yak patties. She was flinging these wet masses of dung and grass at the area where the yak had died. Apparently, covering the site with dung was the best way to prevent wolves from picking up the scent of a dead yak. We wanted to help, but simply couldn’t bring ourselves to pickup Frisbee-sized yak patties with our bare hands. When she was done, she simply brushed off her hands and was on her way with her daughter.
Throughout this whole ordeal I had a familiar feeling. When I was living at home I’d sometimes watch my dad fix things. He, being an engineer, went about repairing things with precision and purpose. I of course would stand by genuinely interested, but lacking the confidence and wherewithal to actually contribute. That’s exactly how I felt when watching the Tibetans dismantle the dead yak. Next time I’ll be ready to pitch in.
That night at dinner we feasted on “meat”. What we came to realize was that the big juicy red hunks of meat would be cured and saved for later. So tonight, we would eat all the innards, i.e. intestines, stomach, and organs. Given the sanitary state of things, we were quite confident our “sweet breads” were not adequately cleaned. Moreover, fears of bacteria from the dead carcass lingered in our minds. But, to be polite, we closed our eyes, swallowed, and smiled. In that situation, it was the right thing to do.
That night we settled in as best we could. I wasn’t feeling great after another big bowl of lactose filled tea, but the sounds and smells of pissing and pooping baby yaks in the tent more than covered my digestive problems. We slept on yak hides, which work well enough in insulating us from the cold wet ground. However, it was literally freezing at night, so our sub-zero sleeping bags were a must have. Exhausted, we managed to sleep relatively well.
Day 2 – Deep in the Grasslands
Although the prior day had started with white skies and snow, today we awoke to a brilliant blue sky. The snow had melted, and October’s green, brown, and yellow earth was in full view. I was first out of the tent, and was treated to a peaceful oasis of grass and yaks. I inspected the yaks more closely, admiring their size and thick, coarse coats. Most of the yaks were quite friendly, and couldn’t be bothered to react to some scrawny stranger staring at them.
As the full morning sun began to bear down, smoke began to funnel out of the tent’s rooftop slit, and the little tent was at once alive with activity. All the baby yaks were let out, and now were running around with the little boys.
The little fella was quite the hyper rug-rat. He ran around throwing rocks at the neighbor’s dog, chasing the little yaks, and playing with various sticks and stones.
Quite simply, for a little boy, this place is a dream come true. You get to be as dirty as you want and never have to shower (and get to wear the same outfit for literally months at a time). Your playground is endlessly vast. And there are tons of animals to play with at any given time.
Moreover, you’ll never get yelled at for being too rough, because honestly this little guy is probably the most likely one to get hurt out here. Sure, he kicks the dogs and throws rocks at them, but these dog are absolutely ferocious, and spend their nights fending off wolves.
Seeing these kids grow up out here definitely made me appreciate growing up near the outdoors. I got to play in a big forest growing up and I can’t imagine depriving my own kids of such an experience.
With fat balls of tsampa in our stomachs, we were off by about 8am. Today would be our longest riding day, as we’d be making our way to Panzo’s niece’s tent, which was about 5 hours away. Originally we were going to spend night two by a lake about 8 hours away, but with sub-zero nights and the chance of another snowstorm, we opted to not risk camping with no fire by the side of a lake.
When you’re out in the grasslands, it’s much like being out at sea. Describing the scenery is rather easy, as it doesn’t really change in all directions. However, the feeling is much harder to articulate. You get that sensation of being small, alone, and insignificant, mashed up with an equal feeling of purpose, adventure, and wonder. Like so many wondrous landscapes, pictures cannot do it justice.
As we plodded in silence, Panzo chanted prayers in muffled repetition. His demeanor, soft voice, and easy slouched riding posture fit the landscape perfectly. All the while, he was tremendously patient with us, always smiling and nodding, even when our poor riding skill probably became rather frustrating for him.
The campsite was largely similar to our first night’s. However, Panzo’s niece didn’t have any kids, so the tent housed only her and her husband. The couple had only been married a couple months, and it wasn’t clear how well they actually knew each other.
When we first arrived our host scrambled up from her bed. She had been watching a Tibetan soap opera on her laptop. Outside the tent was a large solar panel hooked up to some lead batteries. Clearly, the younger generation was not totally cutoff from the rest of the world, and TV watching was probably a very common mid-afternoon downtime activity.
She quickly started to boil some water, and then began scraping all the baby yak poop out of the tent (it builds up every night). She was clearly a little surprised to have foreign guests, as her uncle hadn’t told her we were coming. Nonetheless, having surprise visitors isn’t really much of a surprise at all in this area, as housing other nomads is exceedingly common.
After we got settled, we decided to go take a walk around the surrounding area. For the entire day we had spurts of rain followed by sunshine. As we made our way up across the the hilltops, we found Mt. Yala directly in front of us in the distance. A rainstorm had just moved off its peak, revealing one of the most breathtaking views of our entire trip. We stood in awe until the sun finally set behind the mountains and forced us home before dark.
Later that night, at around 10pm, our host’s husband returned home. He had spent the day in a somewhat nearby town, which he gets to by motorcycle. We asked him if he had been at work, to which he simply replied, “no.” Later we’d come to realize that Tibetan men (and obviously this is a generalization to which there are many exceptions) often spend their days at pool halls or just hanging out with friends. They work occasionally when it suits them, but that’s it. The husband’s interaction with his wife seemed cold at best. They barely spoke. Instead, the husband smoked cigarettes with a friend who had come home with him and would stay the night.
Then the husband popped in a VCD of Spiderman III. It was dubbed in mandarin, so his wife and our guide couldn’t understand it. The husband smiled, laughed, and chatted with his friend. His wife sat silently behind him. Needless to say, we weren’t terribly impressed with the husband, and felt sorry for his young wife. Of course, it’s probably not fair of us to judge them based on a single night’s interaction. That night we again fell asleep to the rustling and shuffling of the baby yaks beside us.
Day 3 – A Temple in the Hills
The next morning we were off bright and early again. We’d be making our way to a temple located near a small town. We’d spend the night in the temple, and find a car back to Tagong the next morning.
Again, the sky was cloudy, but occasionally beams of light would break through revealing the vast open plains. The terrain would vary greatly, alternating between dead flat fields and rocky declines. We walked for large portions of the trek through small loose boulders that clearly made our horses uncomfortable. Eventually, we came upon a temple tucked under a small hill.
The temple’s surrounding buildings were largely empty. Apparently over 50 families used to live here, but today only a handful remain. A quarrel between the village leaders allegedly resulted in the mass exodus. We walked through the narrow alleys, and eventually found a plump old man standing outside a doorway. This was the grandfather of the young bride who was our previous night’s host. His wore a big smile and guided us into his wooden home.
As always, we were offered some milk tea. This time we also got to sample an exceedingly sweet flaky cheese-like food.
We mixed the flakes into a bowl of white rice (white rice hallelujah!) with some hot sauce. The meal was a welcome non-tsampa sight.
The grandpa, Renchin, spoke mandarin very quickly, probably because 2/3 of the words he used were Tibetan. Nonetheless, we managed to slowly communicate with him.
Panzo sat down for a cup of tea as well. He’d quickly leave though, as he wanted to make it home by night fall. That meant covering in a matter of hours what took us 3 days to ride across. Renchin and his wife lived in a spacious wooden cabin. With them lived two young boys who they had taken in as students. Renchin used to run a school in the village when there were more families living there, and now he takes in children as live-in students. The elder boy wore robes, while the younger one was still trying to decide if he wanted to become a monk. Renchin was clearly the remaining village elder, and held the keys, literally, to the temple doors. He was very excited to take us on a tour of the village.
After circling the village, Renchin went home to rest and we walked up the hill to play with the boys. The boys were with another child from a neighboring house.
The three boys were building various forts with discarded prayer tablets. The flat rocks were ideal for stacking and making floors.
With boundless energy the boys ran up and down the hill, the young monk directing traffic all the while.
Throughout the day the two young boys would be periodically called in by Renchin to practice their chanting. The youngest boy had a crackling voice clearly going through puberty, while the young monk’s voice sang in a timid staccato. Their chanting is what we went to sleep listening to, and what we woke up to.
The family unit was a pretty endearing experience to behold. The grandparents clearly had been through a lot, and moved with the slow deliberate actions of people who are used to a certain routine, but who also don’t sweat the small stuff. The kids in contrast were balls of energy. They clearly enjoyed prodding and joking with their elders as much as possible, but also deeply respected them and were very obedient. At night we brought out our cards. We couldn’t think of any card games to easily teach them, especially since they only spoke Tibetan. Instead, we started to build card houses. The boys were immediately interested. And although they were shy to try it out themselves, after a while they were hooked, lying on the floor carefully trying to stack the cards. We hoped that the patience needed to build a house out of a deck of cards was in line with the Buddhist notions of focus and calm.
Visiting this Tibetan family was the perfect way to end the horse trek. Tired and dirty, on day four we descended the mountain, walked into a small town, and waited for a car that we arranged earlier to pick us up.
We had a great feeling of accomplishment, and felt that we learned a lot from all the people we met along the way. The folks in this area are truly as nice as everyone says they are. Moreover, they can open your eyes to a way of living that is entirely different from our own, yet 100% as equally meaningful and beautiful.