Last fall, independent producer Stephanie Guyer-Stevens went to the Kham region of Tibet to do a radio story on a family of nomadic yak herders, which recently aired on KCRW’s UnFictional. Below, she talks about why she needed to tell their story, and what she learned from the nomadic yak herders of Tibet.
I’ve been curious about nomads, nomadic life for so many years. It’s a way of life that’s slowly leaving human culture. I don’t want them to go. I want to know about who they are, how they live. There’s something about their ability to move, to cross borders and boundaries that the rest of us stay within that intrigues me. Now, especially I wonder what it feels like to be nomadic, to be someone for whom the norm is change, a part of a whole community of people who up and leaves, moving with the seasons to better pasture, better weather, more opportunity – not staked down to a piece of land. What is the real measure of a whole people who would do that? Who would say step off to social conventions that the rest of us are so confined by?
That amazes me and attracts me.
I grew politically in the early 80’s when many nomadic people were being stopped from their traditional migration patterns by new wars, newly defined boundaries, new expectations of nationalism. Now I had the chance to go to Tibet. I took it as a chance to seek out nomads, yak herders.
Most great human civilizations are renowned for the cities they’ve built. The human edifices they’ve created remain centuries later as an indicator of their success. The fundamental core of Tibetan civilization instead is built on the movements of nomadic life, shaped and formed by people who move, migrate with seasons. It’s defined by herders, who are essentially dairy farmers, but their pasture is the spreading grasslands, and the rarefied air of the highest mountains in the world – the mountains and valleys of the Tibetan plateau.
Last October I travelled to southern Qinghai province in China, a region the Tibetans call Kham. It’s wild, open, empty of people. There at the end of autumn, the end of the dry season, stark brown plains rise into wheat colored hills which rise into snowy peaks that alternately disappear into clouds swirling with rain then snow reappearing blanketed in white – a sharp contrast to the blazing blue crystalline sky.
Mile after mile, the plains rolls into hills roll into mountains, all empty and deeply quiet, solid and comforting.
The Himalayas feel more deeply stable, more like the core of the earth that is not going anywhere than any place I’ve ever been.
Driving from the plains up to cross through the mountains the car climbs slowly. At 11,000 feet in elevation there are more people – here the road begins as a two lane paved road, available and secure. After a long meander sidling up the side of some hills you’re soon immersed in snowy clouds the road climbs ever steeper, now snaking across tight switchbacks to keep making it possible to go up. Soon you’re above it all, with that impossibly endless panorama spread below you, a space so vast you can’t hold all the edges of this expanse of horizon.
As the road climbs up the hills, further from people, into the wilderness that is these mountains, it also becomes progressively wilder, finally only a dirt track as it reaches the 15,000 feet in elevation where finally it’s completely buried under snow, with more snow falling, the peaks rising high above the road on either side barely distinguishable here in the white. Here the road is not so domestic as it was. It’s humbled – it belongs instead to the lha, the spirit of the pass. Strings of multi colored prayer flags whipping in the wind, prayers to the lha, asking for protection.
Looking out from here there’s nothing. No one.
Finally we’re at the last pass before the road winds down towards Central Tibet. We stop and my friend Tsebtrim pulls out the chains. We chain up the tires roll over the pass and down, towards the next valley over, the last valley in Kham.
We’ve come to stay at Tsebtrim’s cousin’s house. He and his family are yak herders – nomads.