WildChina > WildChina > Yak ‘Beauty’ and a Switch

The following is an excerpt from Jeff Fuchs’ Tea and Mountain Journals, a blog by explorer, photographer and writer Jeff Fuchs.  Jeff is the 2011 recipient of WildChina’s Explorer Grant.  He and friend Michael Kleinwort are currently traveling through unknown portions of the Tsalam route in Qinghai.

Below is an update from their journey…


We awake with a shudder to mountain cold and the realization that something has changed overnight regarding our ‘team’. Clear air with a hint of blue in the sky as dawn gives way to day waits…. while by the fire a strange figure coaxes more heat from the coals. Our canine friend is stretching out his little limbs to rid them of cold. The larger mastiffs have all disappeared – home I guess. It is the figure near the fire that holds me as I emerge from our tent. Where is our guide Neema?

The figure, however, is clearly not that of our guide Neema, but rather his wife whom we had met upon our arrival to Xiadawu. An ‘exchange of bodies’ has taken place in the night. Little Neema has left in the dead of night and in return his sturdy, bullet-proof wife and her pink turban have arrived.

Yak ‘Beauty’ and a Switch
Our new guide Gamzon atop a horse pauses near Darde Lhatso pass

She explains in a soft voice with the requisite hand signs that Neema the previous day had succumbed to chills, headaches and fever as the cold had been too much for him and as the day and night wore on. He had found enough phone coverage to convey the need for a substitution, so here we were. As she speaks there is the slightest smile around her eyes of apology, as though she has long been aware of his susceptibility to the cold. Looking at her wrapped in her wools with one arm free I suspect that she suffers no such issues.

Michael and I react with shrugs and a bit of disbelief that Neema’s constitution could not hold up. The deep cold that we have encountered thus far, while not extreme, is unseasonal and the fresh snow hints that winter is not yet done with its sermon. Perhaps it is better that this happen now rather than later on.

Moving on from camp each individual body of our group spreads out in a staggered line as we ascend from over four thousand metres ever higher. The snow is deep and heavy and the light in the sky seems content to hang behind a body of low lying cloud. Snow from the sky feels imminent and I am thankful for the litre of bitter tea that now streams through my body warming limbs and insides.

Yak ‘Beauty’ and a Switch
Our caravan making its way east using the valley as an informal route

No bodies appear on the horizon, no migrating nomads and no mythic trade caravans, we are utterly and happily alone. It is too early in the season and there is a feeling that our little group is at one with the elements. As time passes I note with a satisfaction that our present guide, Gamzon, is managing the yak with a gentle precision that her husband lacked. The animals respond to her competence and sanity with more kinship than they did to Neema’s slightly jittery personality. This coupled with the fact that she strapped our tent and gear to the yak’s backs in half the time it took Neema suggests to me that this has been good fortune to have her taking over.

Winds whip up, ice pellets drive into us and the sun plays peek-aboo as we ascend the 4,600 metre Darde Lhatso pass.

Yak ‘Beauty’ and a Switch
Our faithful yak atop Darde Lhatso pass, pause as if to pay homage for their (and our) safe passage.

Prayer flags whip about in gusts. Below us an entire landscape of glaciers line the valley floor. The look ancient and powerful and utterly patient. Once they ruled here cutting up landscapes in slow unstoppable movements. Now only their icy bodies and scars remain.


Join Jeff on his next journey along ancient trade routes.

For the full post, please visit http://www.tea-and-mountain-journals.com/

Images: Jeff Fuchs

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