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Nomads of Litang

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We picked up Genden, the 4 kids, and drove 60 Kms east of Litang.  A monk greeted us in a small village where we had lunch.  Yak yogurt, cheese, and some local dishes like Zamba.
After lunch we drove away from the main road a few kilometers inland, dirt road with wooden, flaky bridges. The monk came with us. In the land cruiser, we had 4 kids, Erin, Josh, Genden, the monk, me and the driver.


We arrived in vast grassland flat with small hills on each side which turned into snow-peaked mountains in the far. A dozen nomad tends were dressed, about 500 meters from each other, all facing the open valley. Thousands of yaks were scattered, peacefully grazing. The view was
stunning.

We stopped at the first tent, were greeted by 2 kids. Older girls and the father followed. The mom with her 3 month baby stayed inside by the oven.

The kids started to play with freezbees and balloons, Josh and Erin running all over the grasslands. The sky was covered, with hints of blue, with some intermittent showers. Nothing which stopped the plays.
We were invited in a few tents, warm welcomes by curious kids and adults. Yak tea was flowing abundantly.
We drove further on that dirt road until we reached a sacred lake we were told about. Tucked in a valley, a magnificent, pristine blue lake was waiting for us. Prayer flags were thoughtfully hanging reminding us of the sacred nature of the place. Erin and Josh walked around while the kids were picking flowers.
A surprise shower soaked us so we returned to the nomad camp. We (Josh, Erin and I) decided to spend the night with the first family we met. Everyone else left to town and the driver promised to pick us up in the morning. There was no phone signal in that area.
Needless to say that body language was a must. Only the middle 12 years old girl spoke a bit of Chinese, everyone else was pure Tibetan. Erin was actually doing rather well with her phrase book.
Hours passed peacefully as we walked around taking photos and chatting. We took many portraits with the polaroid which resulted in a few riots as every kid wanted their shots!


When the sun started to set everyone gathered the yaks to attach them for the night. Boys and girls were running around the grasslands herding the yaks, recognizing them by some piece of wood attached to their neck… and probably some marking which escaped us.  Some were singing, some riding horses, some motorbikes. Each family ended up gathering their yaks near their tents. Ours had around 60 yaks. Herding lasted hours, an immense task carried out daily and with collaboration among families… Imagine localizing your yaks among thousands… A yak costs around $250 when young and $400 adult, a small fortune that no family can afford to lose.
The square canvas tent is set right on the bare grass. On its periphery are stored clothes, dried meat, boxes with all belongings. Near the entrance, the wood oven heats the place while an opening in the roof let’s most of the smoke leave the tent.
Time for dinner. Dried yak meat, bread buns, chunks of fat, butter, and milk. No greens, wine, or dessert!

We arranged beds by disposing thick chunks of fabric on the grass, then borrowed blankets from the neighbor tent. To finish, we covered it all with the plastic of a large military tent. No pillows or bed sheets here:)
Women slept in one corner while men on the opposite corner. We were in the middle, near the wood burning oven. Mother and her 3 month baby, 22 year old, 12 year old and 5 year old girls slept together.  50 year old man and 10 year old boy.
When the sun went down, a battery powered light went on. These charge on solar energy during the day. No TVs here, only the bare minimum.

All the family was observing us with as much curiosity as we were observing them., but there were many smiles, games and eye contacts.

Curfew around 10. We were not expecting to get any sleep. Erin, Josh in the middle, then me tucked ourselves under a thick layer of blankets. The silence in the tent was contrasting the dogs barking and yaks panting. Some moonlight was coming through the opening of the canvas tent, letting us guess the inside of the tent. From the tents entrance we cloud see the grasslands and guess silhouettes of dogs passing by. At 2 am, just as I turned to face the ceiling, it started to rain and drops were bouncing on my face and Josh’s. Amazingly, the old man called someone to fix the ceiling. He was not sleeping either.

3 of us were waiting for the morning to come, listening to the sounds of the nights, sending off the dogs entering the tent, or rolling to find comfort on the tough ground. I think none of us slept more than 1 hour each.

Morning came with kids sent off to fetch water and mom cooking milk. Same menu: yak dried meat, chunks of fat, bread buns…. Where is my croissant?
After cleaning up our beds, we walked around neighbor tents. Most nomads knew us by then and we were invited again and again.

The car arrived around 9:30. Goodbyes were emotional. We became attached to this family. The staring eyes and generous smiles, silly but funny games, hand gestures, food sharing, and a night under the same roof built a bond.

We barely scratched the surface of this rich nomadic culture. We have memories of unforgettable moments with many photos, and they have polaroids with us, nearby pictures of their relatives, monks and lamas.

We can’t wait to meet them again.