Withering Heights: Water At Over 5,000m
By Jeff Fuchs 7 August, 2013
Explorer Jeff Fuchs gives us a glimpse into local nomadic perspectives on climate change
All photographs published in this article are courtesy of the author. All images © Jeff Fuchs, all rights reserved
“It is in the mountains that fate is decided”
A hiss rips through the still blue air and I know that morning has silently arrived. Water has dripped onto the heated stones of the jeoo (Tibetan: clay handmade stove), which hosts the day’s first fire. I am lodged stubbornly somewhere under a pile of smoky yak wool blankets balking at the morning’s coming. An icy patch of errant cover is frozen stiff where my nighttime breath has been aimed.
Winter mornings the world over have this ability to delay and humble all beginnings, but here at 4,300 meters in a nomadic ba (yak wool tent) in the famously barren Ganzi Prefecture, winters humble with a more potent force than most. Here in this vast expanse of remoteness everything linked and every sigh and breath of the earth is heard by a people who listen still. Where I wake is in a strip of hidden valleys in Sichuan provinces’ far western flank near to Litang. Winds, earth and people are both compelling and exacting and the land is known for its rugged clans, ancient blood feuds, and uncompromising directness. It is also a land where vestiges of the ancient drok’gè (nomadic language) can be still be heard, and where daily nomadic life has changed very little in centuries and is lived on the frontline of Mother Nature’s every mood. Now though, as in many of the nomadic strongholds, conditions are changing at a increasingly rapid pace for some of the modern world’s last holdouts.
Amidst these arid highlands of mountain, that powerful condition, change, is making itself felt by the people who perhaps understand the term better than most, the drok’pa (nomads). Their very moniker, dro – to move or go, and pa – people, speaks of their lives of constant passage and eternal movement. In the words of local nomads, the winter sky that once brought predictable white from above sky now shimmers in cloudless blue, day after day. Winds that once brought predictably furious precipitation from the monsoon’s distant force, now bring only more azure skies, more winds; and the sharp toothed peaks which for so long remained encased in gleaming snow-bound glory, now show ever-widening patches of exposed rock. The mighty snows are not coming as they once did here in the east and with their absence, the silver snow-streams and glacial run-offs, the very water that irrigates and provides is proving scarce.
The mighty snows are not coming as they once did here in the east and with their absence, the silver snow-streams and glacial run-offs, the very water that irrigates and provides is proving scarce.
Statistics and numbers might reflect facts, but the observations of a people whose lives are inextricably joined to the land could scarcely provide more crucial information on the globe’s ‘third pole’.
The indestructible matron of my tented dwelling, and my hostess, Omu, ghosts into the tent, wrapped in great layers of wool, somehow smoothly negotiating two 20-gallon pales of water into the tight, yet-to-wake household. Like many of her people, she has long mastered ‘impossible tasks’, living in an environment that dwarfs all other forces, including the will. Here amidst the great spires of stone, one adapts or one perishes. It is one of the mountain’s clear-cut laws. Omu has been up since the sun first stained the sky as she always is. Her morning journey to take water from a nearby stream has not been eased by a lack of snow, as she must still dig through 5 cm ice that carefully refreezes each night.
The morning before, Omu took me to the stream that has for so long provided water. The tributary that was a meter deep two years ago is now less than half that, and it is not a question of ‘ebbing and flowing’. The water has steadily dissipated, drawing Omu to comment “the mountains are dying”. Water and its vital and fertile touch is largely dependent upon melting mountains snows, and with snow making less frequent and consistent appearances, nomadic families like Omu’s are speaking more and more of having to drastically alter their lifestyles. Changes here are not made rumours or distant perceptions, but rather upon instant perceptions.
The water has steadily dissipated, drawing Omu to comment “the mountains are dying”.
Morning rituals here have varied little in centuries because rituals here are based upon what works. Everything in the life of the nomad is tied to cycles. Movement, diet, birth, and even death are all part of cycles, and it is these cycles that are experiencing a great flux.
Rains (nom’bu) are no longer predictable, snow falls but in decreasing amounts, and at different times and this introduces an unheralded speed of change in a people whose skills of adaptation are revered
Lurching around the scattered bodies, I exit into the still shadowed valley of Horchu’ka, and into an area devoid of the modern world’s ungainly structures. The six other bodies that make up this homestead remain wrapped in balls, with just vapor trails of humid breath marking their presence in the faint light. It is an area where nothing can hide. My return to Omu’s family after months of absence has reemphasized the dependence upon cycles – however varied – in the nomad’s lives, cycles that are now being threatened. Rains (nom’bu) are no longer predictable, snow falls but in decreasing amounts, and at different times and this introduces an unheralded speed of change in a people whose skills of adaptation are revered.
Omu’s massive black woolen tent faces east as do all of the six, which make up this seasonal community, positioned in an ancient formation to catch morning’s first hesitant rays. These six nomadic households stretch almost a kilometer in an oddly formed string of life, and only ‘reconvene’ in the winter months as for the rest of the year their migration patterns lead them to separate seasonal resting areas. Horchu’ka is perhaps the most crucial of all of Omu’s clan’s half dozen annual stops, as it is the site of their winter home, the gunra. It is from here that the vital spring migration departs from for a three day journey south. Migrations are set in motion by ‘rough times’ based on traditions and the Tibetan lunar calendar. The yak’s grazing opportunities are still of prime importance. It is not so much accessibility that matters but rather the quality and availability of grazing. For the nomads the notion of land rights are straightforward. Either land is ‘rented’ in an informal agreement, or land is traditionally owned by a clan where honor codes still hold sway and are not taken lightly.
Horchu’ka sits in an isolated belt of hidden valleys in Sichuan province’s far western extremes, a region that has traditionally been referred to as both the physical and cultural “heart of Kham” (Kham being eastern Tibet). It is an area where the dual prongs of modernization and the elements have sandwiched the great movers in a wedge. Omu’s extended family has wintered here for longer than she has been alive, and every tributary, valley, and shade of color is noted and known.
Every tributary, valley, and shade of color is noted and known … Timepieces and ‘weather reports’ here exist as abstract concepts
The Tibetan Plateau and the health of its famed peaks of rock and stone; the sacred source for Asia’s great waterways and supplies, are intensely intimate places for the nomadic clans. “What might appear grand to you is simply our home,” I was once told by Omu’s mother-in-law, Oje. Just as those other unseen points of isolation on the globe: the north and south poles feel the earth’s changes and sufferings so acutely, so too does the highest geography on the planet. The difference here is, there are longtime residents who discuss every shift in colorful but straightforward language and who measurements are those of memories and narratives.
Outside in the icy still of morning, with my own morning necessities safely complete (nomad’s mastiffs are released to roam free each night to protect against wolves making for some interesting nighttime escapades), I turn to find 20 year-old, Luden, emerging from the tent barefoot and hunched. Long black hair coils into his threadbare yak-wool jacket and his tawny eyes rise briefly to meet the approaching sun, taking in far more information about the coming day than I can know. The sun (nyi’ma), the grasslands (thang or tang), and wind (rlung pronounced ‘loong’) are observed and processed by senses that observe every small change. Timepieces and ‘weather reports’ here exist as abstract concepts. Practiced instincts here haven’t forgotten how to read the elements though now even these abilities are proving futile.
Ten minutes later Luden, his fleet-footed eleven-year old brother Chamba and I are gently urging the family’s two hundred yak up a taupe colored ridge in a daily ritual that is carried out each morning of everyday. Similar morning migrations are taking place throughout the valley with each household of Horchu’ka pushing similar bands of black bodies, flocks of sheep and even lines of goats to their ‘hilltop’ grazing sanctuaries. A single yak is missing and even within a herd of two hundred this constitutes a kind of crisis. All lives here are tied to one another, and these incidents are constants in an environment that withers most living things.
Chamba points to a small wedge of a stream that in years previous froze over in silver ice and burbled under the coating. What we now look at is a dry brown V-shaped trench with not a spot of moisture anywhere. Even at twelve years old Chamba’s view of the world is intensely affected by weather and moisture.
He notes that the conditions don’t bode well for the summer feeding grounds upon the grasslands (tang) that depend so much upon precipitation. He explains that the nomads have always moved in rotation systems, intuitively understanding that over-grazing is a slow death in itself a traditional system of living.
..the great grasslands becoming increasingly ‘skam’po’ (dry). The informal irrigation rivulets and systems fed by snow run-off are no longer assured. Chamba’s elder brother, Luden referred to this phenomena as “water is being slowly shut off in the sky”.
What is happening now, according to nomads, is that the traditional systems of determining migration times are no longer working, that the changes in the environment are taking place with a speed not recalled. Nomads point to the great grasslands becoming increasingly ‘skam’po’ (dry). The informal irrigation rivulets and systems fed by snow run-off are no longer assured. Chamba’s elder brother, Luden referred to this phenomena as “water is being slowly shut off in the sky”.
My host tent’s inhabitants include the seventy-one year old elder of the family Oje Lhatso, who is both Omu’s mother-in-law and the sun ravaged, soft-voiced authority of the clan. Additionally the hazel-eyed son Ajo, the family head who is Omu’s husband, Oje’s unmarried daughter Dada, who since youth has been hobbled by horribly twisted leg, and the stunning workhorse of the clan Omu make up the adult population.
A young mercurial cousin Dorje who has been raised in this household joins Luden and Chamba who are Ajo and Omu’s sons in the youth ranks. But it is to Omu, and to her fierce-boned face and pleated hair that I defer to again and again. She, in her tireless strength, sees and observes every aspect and sigh of the land and comments on it in a descriptive but simplistic way. One day she simply tells me that either her eyes are failing or that the weather and the earth are transforming. “The sky is confused and it is changing the earth. The earth will then change us. I do not know how to read the sky anymore.”
“The sky is confused and it is changing the earth. The earth will then change us. I do not know how to read the sky anymore.”
Nomad’s ‘breakfasts’ are consumed when the chores are done, so upon our return we feast. Butter, (of the yak) cannot be avoided, and the mainstay of this household is yak meat and kardee; roasted ground barley, dried yak cheese and butter tea thrown together. The eating utensils of choice are a supple tongue and dexterous fingers. Beyond the tsampa (barley) all of the dietary necessities are ‘yak born’: which includes sho (yoghurt), o’ma (milk), and mar (butter). All are high in amino acids, minerals and proteins and the meat is low fat, chemical-free pure-protein. All of these benefits derive from the purity of the locale: high-mountain grasses untouched by any of man’s precocious pesticides, injections, or modifications.
Ajo, as the man of the tent speaks endlessly about the weather. He is an imposing but thoughtful man prone to great silences and the ‘weather’ is his great obsession and his worry of every day. In Tibetan, the word for sky is ‘gnam’gshis’ or ‘sky’s character’, revealing a language that is at once personal and intertwined with the vast elements. The nomadic dialect is a kind of lingua franca of the plateau, understood by all nomads across the great expanse of the Himalayas. It is perhaps perfectly suited to describing the lands and its variations. Linked linguistically and bound to these vast almost delirious spaces, the nomads are engaging in dialogues amongst their own clans and communities to come to grips with what many simply call the increasingly “sa cha skam’po”, or ‘dry lands.’ Some fear the earth is tired of providing, while others quietly speculate that the fates are inflicting a punishment or issuing a warning.
|*Words in Tibetan are spelt according to drok’gè (nomadic language) which often differs greatly from Lhasa Tibetan. I think it important to impart some of the Tibetan Plateau’s oldest dialect. The nomadic dialect is based on a pre-Buddhist (pre 7th Century) script and much more closely aligned with the dialect of Kham (eastern Tibet)examples:|
- rain – Lhasa dialect = char pa, Nomad dialect = Ngom bu
- yak – Lhasa dialect = g’yag, Nomad dialect = Sok
- family – Lhasa dialect = tshang, Nomad dialect = de’ka
Ajo often speaks not of ‘change’ but rather the speed by which change has asserted itself, how his children are seeing as much change in five years as Ajo saw in two decades in his youth.
Ajo speaks of the high mountains lakes steadily dropping in levels, or menacingly building up to bursting points, collecting melting run off in dangerously high levels. He often goes back to an adage of the elders, “Change comes from above”. Spreading his powerful arms referring to all around him he speaks of how every single life-form here is intimately connected to one another. Ajo often speaks not of ‘change’ but rather the speed by which change has asserted itself, how his children are seeing as much change in five years as Ajo saw in two decades in his youth. Ajo in describing these rapid changes makes repeated reference to the “crazy springs” (yi’ka nyomba’gerè) seasons, which now bring worry rather than any optimism.
At Horchuka’s north end within one of the communities’ tents, the ‘ancients’ – the elders of the community who still live the nomadic life – offer up their own insights while sitting around a smoking fire. A seventy year old elder named Daba – who looks to have been involved in every battle every fought – speaks unprompted, of the change of the land around him.
The famed caterpillar fungus (cordyceps sinensis), picked in April and May has been one of the mainstays of the nomad’s annual income and it is extremely prone to even slight fluxes in precipitation.
“All that lives here suffers together and when one thing changes, everything changes,” he mutters. Precious medicines grow in these regions and some of the very last herds of Blue Dwarf Mountain Sheep on the globe still live “just beyond the hill”. The famed caterpillar fungus (cordyceps sinensis), picked in April and May has been one of the mainstays of the nomad’s annual income and it is extremely prone to even slight fluxes in precipitation. Bounties of the fungus are down in the surrounding regions, not because of over-harvesting say the nomads, but because of erratic precipitation or a complete lack of.
All here is rare and like all things rare, susceptible to the slightest alterations. Daba makes reference to the nomad’s ancient nemesis, wolves, (jun’ke) meanwhile and how they are expanding their hunting empires, finding previously snow-encased lands open and accessible for their forays. “It is good days for them,” he remarks grimly.
Around Daba on the yak wool rugs, lie the essentials of the nomadic life. Dried yak dung patties that are the fuel of the highlands, a solar powered battery, an enormous pan of yoghurt, and beddings that lie rolled up on the edges of the tent. ‘All-things-yak’ make up the contents of a nomad’s life. Rope, twine, clothing, bedding, and even bones that are used as tools show an age-old dependence on their compatriots.
Nomads on the Tibetan Plateau still make up almost half of all ethnic Tibetans, and as pastoralists, they are driven to migrate by the unrelenting hunger of their beloved herds of yak (called sok or g’yag by the nomads), and flocks of sheep and goat. Many nomads are referred to by where they are from or where they migrate because of their yak. Luden, might be known as either as ‘Son of Omu’, or as ‘Luden of Horchu’ka’ – the land and yak are the two inextricable links to nomadic life.
Within our tent of elders, Daba, another ancient “cousin”, Oje and two other younger nomadic women make up our tent. In some way or another all are related, though the ‘extended’ families of the Plateau sometimes appear to include everyone into one clan. Yak butter tea is served in pitted and battered bowls, and a beam of potent sun comes bolting through from a tent flap above. In the corner a young nomadic woman sorts yak wool into piles according to quality. Within the tight nomadic clan networks, and families (de’ka) there are very few disconnects within the immediate environment. Within the tent, there are none of the physical or psychological barriers of walls and when words are spoken, others listen. The words of the elders are especially coveted, as they are the words of those who have observed the longest and it is they whose frame of reference is broadest.
“Somehow, man seems to be behind most problems and I’m sure he is behind this”. He refers to the increase in ‘tsa’da’ (hail) that falls, “it is neither rain nor snow…this shows the sky’s unhappiness with people”
Communication amongst families is free flowing, remarkably light, and always conclusive in some way, but the weather bewilders all. The golden skinned Oje, who has lived all of her seventy some years as a nomad, observes in her quiet gravelly voice that in the last ten years, snows are more unpredictable than ever, coming later, coming in lesser quantities, if at all, and making her family’s migrations harder to gauge.
Daba’s sun-worn face explains his view of the source of the troubles, bellowing, “Somehow, man seems to be behind most problems and I’m sure he is behind this”. He refers to the increase in ‘tsa’da’ (hail) that falls, “it is neither rain nor snow…this shows the sky’s unhappiness with people”. His words are perhaps closer to the truth than many might give him credit for.
Many nomads are slowly making the shift to living within ‘winter homes’, or more permanent fixtures. Some even comment that it is a better place to be than at the whim of the seasons, which in one nomad’s words have “abandoned us”
One morning Luden, Ajo, and I ride a day to an area near Litang, the nearest town. We are escorting six of the larger yak with us to an informal market located near a slat pan. It is not a trip that gives Ajo any joy but it is yet another necessary adaptation. Prices for yak meat are going up and the market offers up an opportunity to make up for lost income elsewhere. Every one of his two-hundred yak is known to him and their presence confirms his identity as a nomad, he tells me. Now, though, with the environment no longer providing as it had, he must now ponder the next steps, whether to keep less yak and use the profits to buy a fixed dwelling. Many nomads are slowly making the shift to living within ‘winter homes’, or more permanent fixtures. Some even comment that it is a better place to be than at the whim of the seasons, which in one nomad’s words have “abandoned us”. Ajo simply thinks that the future of his people will be within four walls, with one proviso: “as long as there is wind”.
In another of the nomad’s simple but eloquent observations, “wind is the origin of life”, they sum up their need to be on and of the land. “By feeling and hearing the wind, I feel life,” says a local, Abing. With summer, and the once-dependable late rains no longer counted on, the beginnings of that rarest of emotions among these tough people – fear – is appearing.
During a ‘nomadic’ dinner, days into my stay in Horchuka, with all bodies reassuringly pressed around a fire the ever philosophical, Ajo wonders aloud “If we cannot depend on the land we have lived on, what else do we have? We cannot step away from the land.” I had heard these very words, this query/plea to man and elements alike, from nomads hundreds of kilometers to the north in Qinghai, pondering upon the future of their lives and on the special binding relationship these people had with ‘their lands’. For nomads there is no need for stats and numbers to prove or convince that the earth is disgruntled …truth here is in the winds that gust dry; truth is a caramel colored peak in January with not a speck of white snow upon it.
For nomads there is no need for stats and numbers to prove or convince that the earth is disgruntled …truth here is in the winds that gust dry; truth is a caramel colored peak in January with not a speck of white snow upon it.
One night amidst all of the anxious talk of weather and snow – and its lack of – Lubden decides in a moment of necessity to lighten the mood. Bursting into the tent from the blue-black freeze of night, he squealed that snow was finally falling, stirring us all to jump up and bolt joyfully towards the open air. Outside, the only specks of white are the still and outrageously clear pinpricks of the stars. While for most, white from above would bring trepidation and fear, families throughout the highlands wish to see its return, as for many it would signal an ability to trust again in their land’s cycles.
“Nomads have dealt with cycles and changes for as long as nomads have existed. This present situation is unnatural and not of the earth’s doing. Our lives have always been affected by nature’s change, but now we are affected by a speed of change that we cannot see or understand” Oje
While some use the terms ‘global warming’ or natural climate variability, it is perhaps not surprising that the matriarch, Oje, has perhaps a more ‘indigenous’ description of the ails of land, “Nomads have dealt with cycles and changes for as long as nomads have existed. This present situation is unnatural and not of the earth’s doing. Our lives have always been affected by nature’s change, but now we are affected by a speed of change that we cannot see or understand”.
At one point before sleep night with the temperature hovering at 15 degrees Fahrenheit, after yet more talk and speculation of the weather, the ever-practical Omu brings everything back to the very sharp focus of the here and now of nomadic life. Swirling around in her long wool chu’ba she growls to Champa that discussions can wait, for now it was time for dinner cleanup. The winds gushed blue cold into our tent and young Chamba whimpered a short-lived protest.
- China Hydro: Tough Weather Ahead : Could a drier South derail China’s aggressive hydro expansion in Yunnan & Sichuan? Debra Tan discusses whether we should delay these plans.
- Eco-Compensation Schemes: A Way Forward?
- Food, Weather & Water Heading north : Shifts in weather patterns mean food, weather and water are all heading north in China. Mark Harper analyses the major implications for agriculture & agri-commodities.
Geopolitical Risks: Transboundary Rivers : China owns headwaters to at least 10 major transboundary rivers but has no formal agreements with neighbours on these. Sophie le Clue explores increasing tensions in South and SE Asia.
Read more from Jeff Fuchs →