I was born in 1949 during the Year of the Ox. But having spent a good part of my life on the high plateau, I prefer to call it Year of the Yak. Better yet, that of the Wild Yak, which I have had the opportunity to observe numerous times in the wilds of Tibet. At times, it seems strange to me that we put so much emphasis on the year of birth, but not so much that of death. But then, people remember someone while living, not so much when they are gone.
As that matter goes, I would like to take this moment to reflect on several things, as the Chinese New Year is just around the corner, in two more days. First, contrary to popular belief, the Year of the Ox does not begin with the First Day of the New Year in the Chinese lunar calendar, commonly known as Chinese New Year. The Chinese zodiac is actually based on a solar calendar set up within a largely peasant population in the past for the benefit of the farmer who found the sun more relevant to the seasons of growing.
Each year is divided into 24 climate segments under the Chinese Almanac, and it begins with “Li Chun” or, as literally translated, “Standing Spring.” Generally, this falls between February 3rd to 5th, but mainly on February 4 with some slight variations. For example, this year it begins around 11pm on February 3. But for convenience, these days most people, westerners included, consider the animal signs to start with the lunar New Year. (The mythical dragon is not quite an animal, but we will let it be the exception.)
By traditional and common belief, we are already in or stepping into, the Year of the Ox respectively. To return to the question of Year of Death that I raised above, I would comment on George Shultz, former Secretary of State of the U.S., who passed away at age 100 a few days ago, during the beginning of the Year of the Ox.
On December 11, two days before George Shultz turned 100, he wrote for the Washington Post ten points he had learned over the century of his life. They are all about trust, starting from childhood to old age, including stints in the marines during World War II, as a student at MIT before teaching there, as Dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, in business becoming President of Bechtel Corporation, then as Secretary of Labor, of Treasury, and finally of State. His career spanned fields from academia to business to government.
A few of his ten points stood out for me. One I relate here:
Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust was in the room, whatever room that was – the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room – good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is detail.
One day, as secretary of state in the Reagan administration, I brought a draft foreign policy speech to the Oval Office for Reagan to review. He read the speech and said, “That’s fine,” but then began marking it up. In the margin on one page, he wrote “story”. I asked what he meant. “That’s the most important point,” he said. Adding a relevant story will “engage your readers. That way, you’ll appeal not only to their minds but to their emotions.” Telling a story, he made me understand, helps make your case in a way no abstraction can: A story builds an emotional bond, and emotional bonds build trust.
Since a child, I wanted to be a storyteller, though knowing neither the reason nor the effect it could have. But now, I know.
If I were to look at the difficult times we now face, not only with the pandemic, but also the challenges facing China and the U.S., I recall it was under George Shultz’s watch that great trust was built between the U.S. and China. America was able to set up listening posts in even distant Xinjiang’s border with the then Soviet Union, in order to monitor nuclear tests and collect other sensitive intelligence. Today, Xinjiang instead has become a rhetorical battlefront, and trust is rare.
Joe Biden, should perhaps put a small framed photo at his Oval office as reminder of the good old days. It was soon after China and the U.S. normalized their diplomatic relations on January 1 1979 that he first visited China as a junior Senator from Delaware as member of a Senate delegation. He also met for the first time with Deng Xiaoping. It was during Biden’s conversation with the senior Chinese leader that Deng showed his willingness to permit the U.S.-equipped listening posts to monitor compliance with the SALT II arms limitation treaty.
That same year, as a young journalist living in the U.S. and on assignment for the Architectural Digest, I was able to visit and meet the first US Ambassador Leonard Woodcock at his relatively modest but beautiful Embassy Home in Beijing. Shortly thereafter, I participated in the 30th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.
That was almost two years before I started exploring the Tibetan plateau and met my first yak in the spring of 1981. Now forty years later, no wonder I prefer calling this year the Year of the Yak. The yak is not only familiar to me, but has become something very close to my heart.
At this moment, I’m wearing a yak wool scarf with a photograph I took imprinted on it. The photo, taken in 1991, depicts a Tibetan in traditional costume milking a yak. Behind me hanging over my chair is a yak wool blanket. And in my refrigerator are a few wheels of yak cheese made by our Tibetan partner in Shangri-la, a project CERS started almost twenty years ago. Over the years, we have also launched several expeditions to track down and study the little-known Wild Yak where they live, in the remotest and highest region of the plateau.
The Wild Yak, a globally threatened species still in great need of protection, may number as few as only 7,500 remaining. Much larger than its domestic cousin, game records cite Wild Yak bulls of over two meters at the shoulder in height. Nomads have claimed that they have seen some more than 2.5 meters tall at the shoulder. It is one of the least studied animals due to its remote and extreme habitat. However, Paul Buzzard and Bill Bleisch, under the auspices of CERS, have published several academic papers about this unique animal.
For some of us, the yak may be just a subject of study, a challenge to photograph, a fashion accessory, or something exotic for our taste buds. But for the Tibetans, it is an all-essential animal, ubiquitous on the high plateau. There are over 13 million domestic yaks in China, some 90% of the world’s population.
It accounts for up to a quarter of the beef supply in the country and almost the same proportion of the country’s milk production. Yak milk has up to 8% fat compared to regular milk at about 4%. Highly adapted to extreme elevations up to 5,000 meters, a yak’s lungs are about 1.4% of its total weight, as compared with 0.5% for a domestic ox.
The yak provides reliable and sure-footed transportation over difficult terrain and is the preferred riding animal for pregnant women who enjoy the relatively smooth and stable ride. Its hair, not only strong but water resistant as well, is used to make tents that can protect a family from the harshest of weather and climate.
Dairy products from yak milk are the basis for the nomad’s diet. Cheese and curds – dried, soft, or smoked; milk – fresh, boiled or mixed with tea; and yoghurt, are delicacies reserved for special occasions or when special guests are visiting. They are to be found inside every nomad’s black-hair tent. Yak butter is considered the most precious offering to the gods.
Yak meat, used in stews, made into sausage and, during the cold winter months, eaten raw, provides extra protein to an already high-protein diet. In an environment where the air is too rarefied for trees to grow, yak dung, when dried, is an extremely efficient fuel source, burning readily even in altitudes in excess of 5,000 meters above sea level.
Even after death, or after life I should say, the yak continues to provide its service. In many areas, individual vertebrae are used as tent pole supports and the horns of both the domestic and Wild Yak are used as milk containers. Four to six hides sewn together makes a coracle – a skin raft ideal for crossing the dangerous torrents on the plateau. While such crafts have now become obsolete, CERS in a last-ditch effort was able to rescue two specimens of these coracles after years of search. Now they preside at the entrance to the main hall of the CERS Center in Zhongdian, a.k.a. Shangri-la. Likewise, the yak tent which has become fewer and fewer has now taken a permanent display position inside our Center.
In short, for Tibetan nomads, the yak is by far their most important natural resource, an animal that they can trust to provide. It seems fitting here to end with the words of George Shultz, who died in this Year of the Yak. His last point, Number 10 in his essay, sums up trust.
“Trust is fundamental, reciprocal and, ideally, pervasive. If it is present, anything is possible. If it is absent, nothing is possible. The best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and you know what happens as a result? Their followers trust them back. With that bond, they can do big, hard things together, change the world for the better.
Musing on these words, I trust my colleagues, friends and supporters, and I hope they trust me. Together we can take CERS through good times and bad, through the Year of the Yak for now and then on into the future.