Explorer and kora ambassador Jeff Fuchs describes a trip to Litang, home to a nomadic people with a reputation as formidable as the landscape they hail from.
The nomads of Litang, an area in the traditional Kham region of Eastern Tibet, have always been hunters, herders and warriors. For centuries they acted as mercenaries for settled agricultural empires, watching as others prospered, desiring only the freedom to wander their mountain abodes.
The land, unforgiving and stunning, has made these people fearless travellers. There are few places whose landscape and people are so inextricably bound as they are here on the 'highest of highlands'. At 4,000 metres the county seat of Litang is one of the highest towns on earth. It is higher even than distant Lhasa, where they call the people of Litang the ones who “pray one moment and kill the next”.
Big boned, fed on butter, yak meat and the protein-rich yoghurt of the highlands, the Litang were known for their long knives and an absolute devotion to their horses. Many travelled the great trade routes, settling in places their brethren would not dare attempt.
They often worked as honour guards, hired to protect caravans on their long journeys to market. They were chosen not for their ability to trade or load mules, but for their mere presence. These battle-ready guardians could march through blizzards, live on butter tea and keep even the famed Himalayan thieves at bay.
They were a people who prized their abilities in the arts of war. Warriors would have an amulet blessed by lamas and fly into battle believing they were invincible.
This land of warriors first welcomed me with dust and cold in 2002. It would welcome me yearly for the next six years, as I documented one of the world’s last holdouts to the proddings of the modern world.
On one visit I stayed with a nomad family living high within the realm of their summer pastures, in a series of huge open plains. It took me three days on foot to reach the enclave of clan members which makes up this remote community of wind-blasted yak wool tents.
The tents are like black smudges on the grasslands, shuddering under the wind but providing comfort, shelter and warmth. Luxuries in these lands are utterly simple: an extra day of rest, an extra hour of electricity from small solar panels, or just a season without illness.
The patriarch of my host family was away getting supplies from a nearby community. La’shi, the matron, was a blur of motion and smiles. One of the most forcefully tangible beings I’ve ever met, she radiated the muscular force that is needed to get things done in a world where every second of life hinges on seasons.
Her three children, a boy Gelanab and sisters Cheshi and Ajie, had raw sun-kissed faces and their mother’s power and restiveness. Tiny hands, already callused and competent, tugged at their clothes, their hair, and in 12-year-old Gelanab’s case, a long tether with a young yak on the end.
Their welcome was warm but without any time-consuming introductions. This is where I’ll stay, and this is where I’ll sleep. The afternoon light was still crystal clear, but the race was on to prepare for the disappearance of the sun, which seemed just ‘over there’. Another world awaits at night in Litang. Temperatures plummet as the earth breathes out its deep cold air.
I left the tent to see a mass of dark, horned figures slowly making their way towards us led by Gelenab, an agile little figure in a red sweater. Wiry, resourceful and utterly strong, he seemed to have an innate sense of nature’s laws and animal psychology. His coos, whistles and shrieks echoed through the valleys.
Cheshi brought up the rear, fearlessly challenging the yaks to make a break. Further behind, one last figure squished along in rubber boots. Ajie, who I would call “the Dreamer”, would become the third of my young teachers. A huge smile appeared on her face when she saw me and she started to laugh. It was a rare and startling laugh of joy from deep down, which released my traveller’s exhaustion.
Yaks are sacred to the Litang. They are an inexhaustible form of transport and provide meat, milk and hair for clothing, rugs, tents and ropes.
Our dinners were soups, dumplings and lura, a simple twisted bun that was steamed. So little plant life can survive at these altitudes. Barley and other grains cannot grow in the permafrost and intensely hard soils.
Years later I can still remember the sharp tangs of the tent’s relentless fire smoke and the pungent power of butter which imbedded in my pores.
That first night Ajie scratched a picture for me in the black earth showing me where her family would migrate every few months. The circular path was huge. These people are epic in every single facet of their lives.
Over time the nomads have limited their wanderings, now moving only between two or three valleys during the seasons. On rare days I could see the valleys in their entirety, rivers weaving their way – water, shelter and food all within reach. Ancient foundations dotted the landscapes.
While hordes of yak grazed in the high grasses, I would head into the hills to collect fuel with La’shi and the kids. At this altitude there were few trees, but the locals harvested roots using a rotation system so as not to deplete the supply in any one area. For hours we dug, tore and ripped up roots, collecting what we could. La’shi deftly tied the bundle on to her back and did the same for Gelenab. Dwarfed by their loads and hunched low into the wind, they sang a high-pitched tune on their slow journey back to the tent.
The Kham’pa language (and particularly the nomadic ‘dro’gè’) is known for its lack of honorific titles. Some - especially in central Tibet - view it as rude, but it is actually a lean efficient language, enlivened with intonation and sharp expression. La’shi would often startle me with high-pitched sounds denoting surprise, relief, or disgust.
Weeks into my stay, I was finally invited to the headman’s tent. La’shi warned me to be back by dinner time. In a rumbling of Chinese and Tibetan the headman told me why the nomad style of living worked so well. They had what they needed. If someone required help, it was given. When I asked about the outside world he responded quickly: “Yes, the outside world provides treats - but treats are temporary.”
As the day of my departure neared, Gelenab grew thoughtful and introspective. At night he made sure I was properly tucked in and kept warm. I had to fight off a feeling of dread. For nomads, departure is not a foreign event. Accepting loss is an inevitable part of life. It happens every day without warning all around these great mountains.
The day came and I collected my scanty belongings while the kids were up in the hills with their herds. I could hear their high shouts sending me off. La’shi tied some dried yak meat to my bag. Gelenab insisted on carrying one of my bags to my waiting horse. He nodded his head at me and commenced his hike back.
His little hands waved as his red sweater disappeared into the hills, back to his yaks and tent. The wind blew hard; winter was coming in all of its ferocious manifestations.