And yet, Shayam—Sangpo and Dolker’s home for the summer in Upper Mustang at 4,300 metres—is a relatively easier place to live in than Khengyab, their winter destination, which is a two-day walk from Shayam. Set between a gorge, Khengyab’s winters are brutal, with heavy and frequent snowfall and strong winds. The nearest settlement is more than a two-day yak ride away.
“If you die in Khengyab, you don’t even get a monk to perform your death rituals,” said Sangpo. “You die like a dog.”
Sangpo and Dolker are nomadic yak herders, among the last who are practicing a dying way of life. At 46, this harsh lifestyle is the only one that Dolker has ever known, moving every season with her yak herds, living in tents made of yak wool for the winter and tarpaulin for the summer, and subsisting on roasted barley, rice, milk and yak meat. But Dolker’s son, 20-year-old Sangpo, wants a different life—he doesn’t see himself living as a nomad for long.
Ever since Sangpo’s father passed away last year, he’s the only male member of the family, and so it is his responsibility to take the family’s 40 yaks grazing every day. Yaks graze all the time, whether it’s snowing, raining or windy outside, and Sangpo has to follow them.
“I have to work from pre-dawn to long after dusk,” Sangpo told his mother, sitting under the dim light of a pair of solar bulbs. “I don’t think I can continue living like this for long.”
Sangpo reflects the changes that are sweeping through the small, scattered communities of yak herders in Upper Mustang. While older people like Dolker continue to live the way their families always have, Sangpo’s younger generation doesn’t want to consign itself to relying on nature’s mercy—a lifestyle that’s become all the more harder in recent decades, with China restricting cross-border trade and movement for nomads and climate change leading to erratic weather patterns.
In recent years, several dozen nomads from Upper Mustang have abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and settled in villages in Upper and lower Mustang; some have migrated to far-flung cities, or moved to different countries. Today, even nomads like Dolker, who have managed to hold on to a lifestyle that dates back thousands of years, are questioning the practicality of it all.
The nomads of Upper Mustang migrate twice a year, once in the spring and again in autumn. In spring, the nomads climb up to summer pastoral land, generally in the mountains where its cooler. In autumn, they come down to lower altitudes, where they can stay warm through the winter months. The majority of nomads have fixed pastoral lands where they migrate to every year. The migration is crucial because it gives grass the time needed to regenerate.
“During the six months that we spend in Shayam, grass in Khengyab, our winter pastoral land, will grow again. So by the time we get there in autumn, our yaks will have plenty to eat,” said Dolker. “If we just stay in one place for the whole year, there won’t be enough grass for our yaks to eat, so migration is crucial for our lifestyle.”
When they migrate, the nomads usually move with at least one or two other families. The majority of the nomads in the region are ethnic Tibetans and Lhobas who follow Buddhism, and most of them fluently speak both Lhoba and Tibetan.
As long as they’re well fed, the yaks provide nomads with almost everything they need to survive. Yak milk is used to make butter, curd and cheese—all integral parts of their diet. Yak wool is used to make tents, carpets, blankets, shawls, and slingshots, which are the only weapons nomads have to protect their animals against predators. Even yak dung is put to use—as cooking fuel and to warm the tents during cold winters.
“My parents and grandparents used to make coats, trousers, and chupas out of yak and sheep wool. They grew up wearing shoes made with yak leather and sheep wool,” said Dolker. “Our whole life revolves around these animals, and we consider it our duty to take good care of them.”
For Sangpo, that means waking up every day between 3am and 4am. As only yak calves are tethered in pens at night, Sangpo’s first task of the day is to herd the adult yaks that have been grazing overnight back to the tent. This can take two to three hours, as yaks wander throughout the night, grazing across the hills. Once the yaks are back at the tent, female yaks, called dris in the vernacular, are milked. After milking, yaks again head to the hills to graze, and Sangpo has to follow them to keep an eye out for snow leopards, wolves and feral dogs.
“On an average day, I walk five to six hours. I walk when the yaks walk and sit down when they sit down,” said Sangpo. “On most days, I don’t encounter a single human. It gets pretty lonely and days get very long.”
To occupy his time, Sangpo watches Chinese and English movies downloaded to his phone, and tries to learn the languages. Every time he goes to the village, he downloads new films, so he has something to do during his herding.
Back at the tent, Dolker spends the first half of the day turning the morning milk into curd, cheese and butter. The second half of her day is usually spent scouring the hills for fresh yak dung, which is collected, turned into cakes and baked under the sun. This baked yak dung is used as cooking fuel and can also be sold or traded. A sack of baked yak dung goes for around Rs 150, and can generally be bartered with vegetables and other household items in the neighbouring villages, said Dolker.
“My head hurts carrying all that wet yak dung up and down the hill, and in the evening, my vision gets blurry,” said Dolker.
Their day usually ends by six or seven in the evening, when Sangpo returns to the tent with the yaks, and the younger calves are herded inside the pen and tethered.
“So many people I know who lived as nomads have sold everything and moved elsewhere. Sometimes, I wonder if I should do the same,” said Dolker, “but I know I don’t have the skillset to make a living outside this world.”
For centuries, nomads living in Upper Mustang moved freely into Tibet for trade, with some even living there for months with their livestock.
“I was eight when my family moved to the Chang area in Tibet with our livestock. There were some 20 nomadic families living in the same area,” said 52-year-old Karsang Gyatso, a fourth generation nomad who now lives in Dhongo Dhangra in Upper Mustang with about 30 yaks. “Nomads in the region thrived because of this unrestricted mobility and access to Tibet’s vast grasslands. During the summer, we lived in an area called Tsowa, and during the winter, we migrated to Na Gyabkah, both in Tibet.”
But around 30 years ago, entry into Tibet was restricted and nomads from Upper Mustang were no longer allowed to graze their yaks across the border, Gyatso said.
This restriction was instrumental in leading many nomadic families to abandon their lifestyles. Upper Mustang is arid, with rolling hills of rock and sand. Vegetation is sparse and there are fewer grasslands for yaks to graze on. Tibet’s plateaus had once provided the nomads with oases of lush greenery. Many nomadic families that Gyatso grew up with sold their livestock and settled in nearby villages.
For those families who continued herding on the Nepal side of the border, a major blow came last year, when China imposed a ban on Tibetans purchasing yaks from Nepal, say the nomads. A major chunk of their income came from selling their livestock, particularly yaks, and their biggest market was no longer accessible.
“Before the ban, we used to sell at least seven to eight yaks a year to Tibetan buyers,” said Gyatso. “Depending on the size and age of the yak, calves fetch around Rs 15,000 and adult male yaks up to Rs 120,000.”
The money generated from the sale of yaks had allowed Dolker to pay her children’s school fees and their expenses. “I don’t know how I am going to manage now,” said Dolker.
The demand for yaks in Upper Mustang’s local market, many nomads say, is negligible compared to Tibet’s. Nomads like Gyatso and Dolker sell just two to three yaks to local buyers.
“If the ban continues, I am afraid nomads like us will have no option but to watch our yaks die,” said Dolker.
Chinese restrictions might have killed the market for yaks, but it is something more acute and dire that is slowly leading the yaks themselves to die. In the past few years, thousands of yaks have died due to adverse weather conditions. Heavy snowfall in the winters of 1996, 2013, 2016 and 2019 killed thousands of livestock, including yaks. If such erratic weather patterns, such as weeks of snowfall, strong winds and delayed rainfall, continue, nomads say it won’t be long before entire herds die.
“Last winter, we were pounded with snow for almost two months, and for several weeks the ground was buried under several inches of snow,” said Sangpo. With no grass for the animals to graze on, it wasn’t long before yaks began to starve. To feed his yaks, Sangpo dug through waist-high snow to collect whatever little grass he could find underneath.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, yaks consume 18 to 25 kg of fresh forage during summer and six to eight kg during winter, every day.
“Our yaks were so starved that they started eating each other’s fur. It was heartbreaking to watch them,” said Gyatso.
That winter, nearly 30 of Sangpo’s yaks died of starvation, reducing the family’s livestock count by more than half. Gyatso said he lost more than 70 yaks.
According to data provided by the government authorities of Upper Mustang, 3,921 sheep and goats, 522 yaks, 151 cows and 30 horses died in the winter of 2018.
“In the normal world, one’s wealth is measured by the size of their land, the number of houses they own, and how much money they have in the bank. In the world of nomads, wealth is measured by the number of livestock one owns, and the last few years have led us to realise how one bad winter can reduce us to nothing,” said Sangpo.
In Monthang Panga, which is a two-hour walk from Lo Manthang, 300 sheep and goats belonging to 61-year-old Dorje Rithen also died last winter.
“Some died out of starvation, and some were crushed to death by snow. It was tragic,” said Rithen, who does not own any yaks.
It was the winter of 2016 that convinced Rithen to sell all his yaks. That winter, as he watched his 23-year-old son Tsering Dhargyal take the family’s yaks out to graze in heavy snow every day, he realised that the weather could kill not only his animals but also his son.
The winter of 2018 was followed by a dry spell that lasted for months this year. For the grass to grow, light rainfall from April to June is crucial.
“This year, we received rainfall only in the middle of July. This dry spell left the hills dry and our yaks without enough fresh grass to eat,” said Dolker. Her yaks, which barely managed to survive the winter, are still weak, and the lack of fresh grass has only prolonged their recovery.
When Rithen was growing up, going to school was unheard of—the only way to make a living was by rearing livestock. Herding livestock is labour intensive, so their tents were filled with family members and everyone helped with rearing the animals and with household chores.
But a generation later, much has changed. Rithen’s youngest son is a monk in Lo Manthang and his eldest son lives in Lower Mustang. His daughter is married in a nearby village. In his tent, it’s just him, his wife, and his other son Dhargyal.
For Sangpo, all four of his siblings, who are in their late teens, go to school in Pokhara and Kathmandu. One of his sisters is training to become a traditional medicine doctor. All of them left the family when they were less than 10 years old.
“They are used to the comfort of modern life and are learning the skills required to survive in that world,” said Sangpo. “Why would they come back to the mountains and voluntarily choose a life filled with hardships and uncertainties?”
Dhargyal, Rithen’s second son, says living as a nomad made him realise how difficult this life is, and also made him appreciate the hard work his parents have done. But he is quick to admit that he doesn’t see himself continuing the same lifestyle. He also wants his parents to leave it all and settle elsewhere.
“I can empathise with him,” Rithen said about his son’s choices. “Generations of my family have lived this lifestyle. It has helped me raise my kids and put food on the table. Realising that this might end with me makes me sad, but I try hard not to think about it too much.”