The edges of the pond around me remains frozen in the morning, though by mid-day it will thaw somewhat. This may not be deep winter yet, but for someone from the south like myself, it is certainly cold enough. Five to ten degrees below freezing may not seem much for someone who has survived four winters in Wisconsin in the northernmost edge for the US, but then that was half a century ago. And once windchill is factored in, it pierces my face like a knife.
That is only the impression of weather on the high plateau for us humans. As for the yak, which are superior to humans as far as nature and the elements here are concerned, the narrative is quite different. With a thick coat of hair, this may just be the right climate for them. And for the Wild Yak, with yet thicker layers of hair, deep winter may well be their preferred temperature. Four thousand meters elevation is ideal pasture for the yak, but for the Wild Yak, they flourish best at 4500 meters and above, be it summer or winter.
And so it is in Litang, a high plateau at over 4100 meters, that the Tibetan former-nomads are experimenting with crossing domestic yak with Wild Yak. Why “former-nomads?” Today every family is living in solid houses and herds their yak or sheep to summer pasture higher up the mountain with temporary sheds or tents, and then retreats to their winter homes down lower where usually they are shielded from the brutal winter winds and storms.
My earliest encounter with the wild yak started thirty years ago, when I first went to the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve in Xinjiang. At that time, it was the largest inland reserve in the world with an area of over 45,000 square kilometers, larger than the size of Taiwan yet with only thirty some Uighur herder families living in it. Subsequently, I became Chief Advisor of the reserve for a number of years, and went there many more times. Later we were to also observe Wild Yak in northern Tibet’s Changtang Nature Reserve, as well as those in the Aksay Kazak region of the Qilian Mountains on the border between Qinghai and Gansu. Dr. Paul Buzzard, former CERS field biologist, published several scientific papers on this species of Class One endangered animal.
The largest herd of Wild Yak I have seen numbered over 400, deep inside the Arjin Mountain, blackening the distant foothills. But everywhere we have seen these gigantic animals, almost twice the size of domestic yak and weighing up to a ton, there are single bulls that stray away from the herd.
One might think that these lone bulls are the former kings of the herds that aged and lost mating battles to younger bulls, losing face and dignity, and so strayed away to lead a lonely life from then on. But Paul Buzzard discovered that when females in the herd comes into estrus in August and September, these big bulls can return. In fact, his team only observed copulations during or after frenzies of fighting with intense battles between many large bulls, who often came from outside the herd. So some of these lonely kings, with redeeming value in reproduction, may still exercise their royal authority, when it matters most.
As a herd, the Wild Yaks would move away as humans come closer, protecting the young and infants from potential predators. But the single bulls were generally oblivious to our approach, even to relatively close quarters. Several times when our photographing and filming demanded closer encounters, the yak bull would turn, raise his tail high, lower his head, kick his heels, and charge at our vehicles. Engaging our four-wheel drive while accelerating, we always hoped that the ground below would provide enough traction for us to race off before this entire ton of bull hit us. There were times we barely managed to get away from disaster. Such incidents add new meaning to my vocabulary for words such as bulldozing and bullying, and that is no bullshitting.
Excitement of such encounter notwithstanding, these single bulls would occasionally stray far enough to get near to Tibetan herders who drive their domestic yaks high up into the high slopes, at times close to 5000 meters elevation during the summer months. During these times, the Wild Yak would occasionally mate and cross-breed with domestic cows. Their offspring would be enriched with the fresh genes of the Wild Yak, growing bigger and stronger than normal domestic yaks. For this reason, domestic yaks living closer to habitats where Wild Yak roam generally are larger in size than those at lower elevations of the Plateau.
Over the last few decades, nomads have seen their yak herds degenerating to a degree, in that the yaks are becoming smaller and smaller. As such, many would not be able to brave the brutal winter storms on the high plateau. Experimental programs started in Qinghai to capture and crossbreed Wild Yak with domestic ones have shown some early results that are very promising. It was here in Litang on the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau that I finally witnessed such a program being implemented, over a thousand kilometers from the current stomping ground of the Wild Yak, where they roam free.
We camped at the Foqu Jixiang pasture co-op. Some 240 families have joined the co-op, which was founded in 2016. Each family contributed purchase of one yak to begin with, and now the herd has grown to over 500 yaks using the pasture nearby.
Drolma and her son Lobsang, our collaborators for almost two decades in pioneering the making of yak cheese, have also moved here to set up shop at the invitation of the government of Litang. It is believed that yaks from high elevation are more pure and do not mate with cows to produce yak/cow hybrids, which the Tibetans call Dzo. Such a mix in a herd would diminish the purity of the yak milk thus produced. The mother and son are just finishing their first season’s production of 400 kilos of yak cheese here, and confided to me that the quality is obviously superior.
For yak cheese production, each season is necessarily short, given calves are born usually in March and need to nurse from the mother. Thus surplus milk can only be collected and used beginning in May and lasting until only September when the mother would gradually produce less milk before winter sets in, sufficient only for the calf.
In fact, seasonal changes to the milk on the high plateau are quite unique. For example, during the summer it takes 2.5 kilos of milk to produce 0.5 kilos of cheese, whereas by autumn, the milk becomes much thicker and less than 2 kilos would be adequate to yield the same 0.5 kilo of cheese. Much more data and knowledge are needed to eventually understand the relationship of altitude, pasture, and seasonal changes to define various grades of cheese. Though we arrived out of season, nonetheless Drolma and Lobsang managed to order a small supply just to provide a chance for us to record the procedure on film.
As our team observes the last round of cheese making, I gingerly go out to the back of the farm and approach the few Wild Yak from a safe distance. At last; unlike their relatives in the wilds of Tibet, these beautiful animals of the high plateau can be approached even on foot and observed close up.
In 2018, the co-op started introduction of the Wild Yak. There were six males and a dozen females, all bought and trucked over from Qumalai of Qinghai province near the headwaters of the Yellow River. At that time, a full-grown three-year old bull cost 18,000 RMB for a first generation Wild Yak, whereas a second generation one would cost only 13,000.
Through cross-breeding over the last three years, now each year there are five to six new-born Wild Yak calves. In the beginning, the Wild Yak had more wild character and were very difficult to herd. They resisted being driven back into a ring for the evening, so roamed freely and were difficult to manage. But after these few years, they seem to have adapted to the local climate, pasture, terrain and protocols. Now they mix gladly with the domestic yak herd.
Among new born infants, the survival rate is now quite high, thus achieving the original goal of improving the stock quality of the domestic herd. The co-op does not slaughter any Wild Yak for beef, not even the offspring, hoping the stock will continue to improve. Thus no one can tell how different, superior or inferior, their meat may taste. Caring for these yaks is now of utmost importance, as the co-op hopes that one day these animals would even become an attraction for tourists. Indeed, they have attracted me to make a stop here for two nights.
As of 2020, the co-op had a total of 555 yaks. First and second generations Wild Yak annual production of calves had reached a total of 70, whereas the domestic yak, though many more in numbers, could only reach 25. A heavy snowstorm hit the area between March and April of 2021, and 15 Wild Yak and 20 young domestic yaks died during that period. These figures suggest that Wild Yak probably have dominated domestic bulls in mating battles, thus producing more offspring than their counterparts. Secondly, these offspring are stronger in the fight against nature than the domestic ones.
By late 2021 when I arrive at the scene, there is more good news. The co-op now has a total of 618 yaks in their herd. Among them there are 68 newborn Wild Yak, against only 30 domestic calves. None has died, and, as of now, no yaks have been sold.
In the meantime, we await anxiously to see results of improvement in the yak cheese thus produced. Perhaps in days ahead, the yak cheese production process that has been the hallmark of our collaboration since 2004 would produce yet another cheese type, worthy to be called Wild Yak Cheese.
A customer from Beijing took a wheel of our original artisanal yak cheese, wrapped in bark from the local red birch tree, to the International Contest of Cheeses in Paris in 2015 where it won a Gold Award. That is not a small accomplishment for a start-up cottage industry, impressing even French connoisseurs, who are renowned for being hard to please.
As I descended from the frozen plateau to where the autumn foliage is still showing a rainbow of colors, I pondered upon the future of the yak cheese project we started two decades ago. This Wild Yak Cheese, so organic and natural, should sweep up more awards and drive the world’s cheese lovers “wild” as well; Wild Yak Cheese from over 4000 meters in altitude. That statement is not just catchy, but sets a standard that would be difficult to match anywhere, a unique pedigree from a unique species in a unique habitat.