The Yak Herders of Yaye Tso
Unspoilt by tourism these places retain their old world charm. There are no gaudy restaurants and tented camps crying out for your attention. No pollution. No garbage. And the people living here do not expect to make money out of you and as a result they are genuinely welcoming, warm and friendly. And I love experiencing life in places such as this.
I first visited Yaye Tso in September 2014. The apple shaped lake was smaller than I imagined. It was sitting pretty in a bowl like depression with sloping hills on all sides. At the head of the lake was large marshland with numerous streams flowing through it to feed the lake. A few horses were grazing in the plains and I spotted what looked like a small settlement but these houses were all locked up and empty. It was too late in the season for me to expect any nomads there.
Fast forward to August 2015 and I was back. This time I was delighted to find the place full of life. There must have been atleast a thousand goats grazing near the nomadic camps and hundreds of Yaks were grazing in the marshlands further towards the lake. And to top off, a pair of black necked cranes were nesting in the marshes with a their offspring.
The Changpas camping there were from the Chumathang village (famous for its hot springs). They had spent some 2 months already at Yaye Tso and were now preparing to move camp further up in the mountains near the Kaksang La pass. One of the nomads told me not pitch my tent out in the open as the roam freely during the night. He then went on to invite me to his home and I happily obliged.
I always feel privileged to be invited into homes like this. I genuinely enjoy the experience and look forward to experiencing their way of life first hand. Especially through the food they eat. And in this aspect I was not disappointed at Yaye Tso.
My first surprise was when I entered the house. It is a temporary home used for 2 or 3 months a year, so I expected the interiors to be basic. But I was taken aback when I saw that their kitchen was as elegantly furnished as any other home in Ladakh. Life has been kind to them and it showed in their home and in the way they carried themselves.
The main produce the Changpas get from their goats and yaks is milk. Which they turn into curd, cheese and butter. I tried everything during the course of my stay there.
I enjoyed a dish called Lakpha (shown above) which is essentially large bowl of fresh curd, with a few dollops of butter (Yak) mixed with Tsampa and sugar to taste. The Tsampa was made locally in Chumathang, ground in one of the fascinating water mills they have in the village.
Fresh Yak milk tasted absolutely delicious. It was the favroute among all the items I tried. And sweet Yak cheese that they made for their children was a lot of fun to eat.
Dinner was interesting as well.
My host cooked dal and rice. It was August 15th, Independence day, so he wanted to make it special by cooking some meat along with the dal. Meat is a rarity here and they save it for special occasions such as this. As he was cutting the meat, I noticed him popping a few raw slivers of meat into his mouth. He offered me a few pieces as well. At first I was a bit sceptical about eating raw meat, but he assured me that It would be perfectly safe so I tried them. It was not bad. Sort of like sushi but a bit tougher and chewy. I quite enjoyed it, more so for the experience of eating raw meat rather than its taste.
In the evenings they were quite busy corralling the Yak calves into their pens. The adult Yaks are free to roam and graze during the night, but the moms do not like being far away from their calves so they come and sleep next to the pens.
In the morning the whole camp bursts into activity. Fires are lit at every home. Breakfast is eaten and lunch is packed for the men who then proceed to lead their goats out to graze in the mountains nearby. The women then tend to the Yaks. The Yaks are milked first and then their calves are released to reunite with their mothers. It is a joyful sight to see the Yak calves running happily towards their mother and play around in general. They looked and acted like puppies. A bit large but just as cute.