A chapter from Gaiety of Spirit about a visit so long ago… 35 years. Now, fewer and fewer Sherpas keep yaks.
Heavy mist obscures the mountainside where I wander along an overgrown trail among fences of stone. The mist and thick, damp grass muffle all sound as I search for the stone hut where I have been invited to spend the night. The tiny settlement appears deserted except for a few shaggy yaks.
An elderly lady appears in the fading light, wading through a field of wildflowers and grass. It is a relief to see my friend’s mother, Ama Yangin. In the Sherpa language, ama means mother, and everyone calls her that out of respect and affection.
Entering the tiny door of her hut, I bend double and leave my damp pack in the anteroom where supplies and the remnants of last year’s hay were stored. In the main room, benches that doubled as beds line the walls around the hearth.
Ama Yangin poured milk from the wooden barrels into a large metal pot and quickly set about preparing us tea. Sitting quietly by the hearth, warm and dry after being damp outside, we watched flames lick the tea kettle and each seemed absorbed by our own thoughts. Despite the rain that started outside, we are warm and dry by the hearth.
In the eastern Himalaya, the summer monsoon lasts from June to September. During this quiet but productive season people carry out the chores of herding and farming with calm dignity and quiet purpose. Farming is not easy on these mountains, but almost everyone, including businessmen, owns plots of land on which to grow potatoes, buckwheat, or barley to feed their families.
Most fields for cultivating food crops are at relatively lower elevations of about 3300 meters near the main Sherpa villages. During the cold winter, herds of yaks are grazed on nearby hillsides; when the summer comes, the yaks are taken up to high valleys where the rains have changed the dry mountainsides to rich, green pastures.
I marvelled at the contrast seen in this valley between the summer monsoon months and the rest of the year. Surrounded by snow and ice mantled mountain peaks, the Sherpas’ valleys transform with the seasons. In autumn and winter, when almost all tourists visit, the land is dry and barren with not a blade of green grass to be found. Snow often blankets the valleys after winter storms.
Summer rains color these valleys unimagined hues of green. Hillsides become carpeted with lush, green plants and wild flowers. Monsoon is a gentle season in the mountains; the rain and humidity are less intense than in the lowlands and colors are muted by the misty skies. Though there may be several days of clinging mist, the sun does sometimes shine in the monsoon.
Many days dawn clear. The hills vibrate with color and the mountain peaks sparkle with fresh snow. Clouds form rapidly in the lowlands. Rising, they first envelope the peaks and then fill in the valleys by noon. Mist becomes drizzle and then rain by late afternoon and evening. People time their activities to the daily weather patterns, retreating indoors as the afternoon rain begins.
Despite the weather, this is a favorite time of the year for the Sherpas. Those who have moved to Kathmandu wistfully compare the cool, green mountain monsoon to the hot, muggy summers in the lowlands. Since most visitors avoid traveling in Nepal in the monsoon, many Sherpas who work as guides and porters return to their homes in the high country.
Ama Yangin offers a plate of hot potato pancakes. After we eat, Ama Yangin talks about two of her sons. Both are far away from Khumbu; one works on climbing expeditions and the other, a graduate of a foreign university, works for the national park. From Ama Yangin’s questions, I realize she cannot imagine how they spent their days on expeditions or in offices.
The pace of her days in the summer pasture is steady and predictable — fetching her animals, milking the females, heating the milk and making it into yogurt and butter. Between her herding chores, she fetches water, cooks, and looks after her grandchildren.
This maze of fields, stone walls, and huts was an oasis of habitation amidst isolated, sprawling valleys at 4300 meters. Sherpa families use these valleys as summer pastures for their yak herds. The shaggy bovines provide dairy products, wool, transportation, and perhaps an excuse to spend three months in these mountain meadows.
From her main house in the village far below, Ama Yangin has brought just enough to meet her simplest needs. Only essential kitchen utensils line the shelves on the far wall. Though she stays here alone, her eldest son with his wife and children are in another hut just across the hay field. They help Ama Yangin with her heavier chores and she keeps an eye on the younger children. They visit in their huts several times a day. Sharing a few moments together seems just as important as tending the herds.
Her hands were busy even as she sits. Those who spin wool, work at it continuously during the monsoon. Wool is plucked from the yaks in the spring, then beaten and rolled by hand into loops, which are coarsely spun by the men. Women do the final, fine spinning. Eventually the yarn is woven into long narrow panels that are sewn together to make striped brown-and-gray blankets for sleeping.
The next morning Ama Yangin rises before dawn to start the fire and brew the traditional butter-salt tea. After three quick cups of tea, we ventured out to the corral where her female animals and their young are tethered for the night. She deftly binds the rear legs of a slightly perturbed nak. Talking gently, she squats beside it and coaxes the milk from its udders into the wooden bucket.
“How much milk does a yak give each day?”
Ama Yangin laughed and giggled. I mentally reviewed my Nepali phrasing to make sure I hadn’t just embarrassed myself.
“Yaks don’t give milk,” she chuckled, “yaks are the males, we call the females NAKS. …That’s why we Sherpas laugh so hard at foreigners asking for Yak Cheese.”
She describes the sex and parentage of her animals: three yaks, seven naks, ten yakbees (the young of the species) and several dzopchioks — male crossbreeds that are sterile and are used as pack animals, especially on trips down to the warmer elevations which the high-altitude yaks can’t tolerate. Female crosses are called dzooms. They produce milk that is almost as rich as a naks, and in greater amounts.
In the trekking season her male animals, the yaks and dzopchioks, are sometimes hired out to carry loads for trekking groups. Besides being a traditional status symbol, yaks are a good investment of the family’s earnings from trade or tourism.
Ama Yangin explains that she first makes the milk into yoghurt so it will keep for three or four days until she has enough collected to churn it into butter.
“The butter has to be churned enough to squeeze out all the buttermilk. Then it should keep without smelling for a year. In a good summer, I might make enough butter for my family’s needs and have some extra to sell to a tourist hotel in Namche.”
Owning a herd necessitates having pastures away from the main villages.
“Our traditional Sherpa rules prohibit us from keeping livestock at the main villages during the summer while the crops are growing,” explains Ama Yangin. “It’s in everyone’s interest not to have animals breaking into fields and devouring the crops. A hungry yak can quickly destroy a potato field.”
Some families have huts at three or four pastures in the higher valleys where there are grazing areas of rich grass during the monsoon. They move from their spacious homes in the main villages in late June just as the rains begin. “We shift our herds to a new pasture at least twice in the monsoon. It depends on the size of the valley and when the grass is at its prime in each place.”
By fall, the herds have thoroughly grazed plants on the high pastures. Some fields are walled to protect grass that will be cut for hay to feed livestock during the winter. The field in front of Ama Yangin’s hut is knee deep with pale blue fleabanes, golden ragwort, and bright yellow cinquefoil.
The morning is clear and bright — good conditions to cut and dry the grass for hay. The eldest son and his wife wield a scythe in each hand, mowing the grass close to the ground. Ama Yangin and her two older grandchildren follow with wooden rakes, gathering the cut grass and piling it into stacks, filling the air with the scent of freshly cut grass.
After two hours, everyone takes a break, sitting cross-legged in the grass, consuming cups of tea and two pots of boiled potatoes dipped in chili sauce.
The grass cutting ends as the late afternoon drizzle began. Ama Yangin went off in the gentle rain to milk her naks and dzooms. Finally retreating indoors as the rain pours down, we repeat last night’s routine of tea, potato pancakes, and conversation.
The next morning, the sun is bright and clear. Except for the vivid green of the near hillsides, this could have been a day in the dry, clear winter. Though I have a long day’s walk ahead of me, I linger.
“Don’t forget,” reminds Ama Yangin, “Walk early in the morning, before it rains.”