TIBETAN YAKS AND THEIR SIGNIFICANCE FOR TIBETANS

FACTS ABOUT YAKS IN TIBET

Wild species name: Bos mutus
Domestic species name: Bos grunniens, translates as ‘grunting ox’ from Latin
Wild yak: drong
Male animal: yak
Female animal: dri
Yak-cattle breed: dzo

Yak, along with bison, buffalo and cattle belong to the family Bovini. It is impossible to imagine Tibet without yaks. They are the largest animals in the region and the most significant for local people. The presence of yaks and their ability to survive in high altitudes made it possible for people to settle on the Tibetan Plateau. Both domestic and their ancestors – wild yaks are living in Tibet. 

Nowadays, you can see many domestic yaks grazing in valleys and mountain regions in Tibet. 

However, it is very unusual to meet wild yak, and you can only see them in remote areas. Although most of the yaks prefer to ignore people or run away when approached, you need to be careful especially with wild yaks. There are many cases when wild yaks charge people and even cars. 

WILD YAKS IN TIBET

Large yak in Tibet and snowy mountains in the background

Despite being an ancestor of domestic yaks, the wild yak is recognized as a separate species. They are larger than their domestic relatives. Adult males can be 1.6 – 2 meters tall and 2.5-3 meters long not including the tail, and weigh an impressive 800 to 1,200 kg. Females are smaller, weighing only about 300 kg on average. Wild yaks are the second-largest bovid species (the largest one is the gaur) and the largest mammals in Tibet.

They live and thrive in high-altitude areas due to special adaptations. First, they have larger heart and lung capacity compared to other cattle. Second, they have a higher red cells count. All that allows them to breathe deep, distribute and absorb oxygen more efficiently. Their thick and long hair keeps them warm in the frigid climate. They have very few sweat glands and unlike most other animals feel uncomfortable when it gets warm. On bright sunny summer days, we often see yaks cooling down in cold mountain rivers. They prefer elevations between 4,000 and 6,000 meters. Moreover, yaks become too hot at elevations below 3,000 meters. Their hair is usually black or dark brown. There are very few wild yaks with golden hair. 

YAK BEHAVIOR

Yaks on the field in Tibet
Herd of domestic yaks

Both domestic and wild yaks are social animals. They live in herds of typically 10-20 animals but in some seasons they can form larger groups. In the wild, there are females and their offspring in herds, males are usually solitary or form bachelor groups of 10-12 animals. If the weather is very cold or there is a snowstorm, yaks stay together keeping youngsters in the center. Their ability to stay in herds served as an important factor in their domestication.

The rut season is in summer, usually from July until September. During that time males return to the herd. They become more aggressive and compete with each other for a dominant position. 

Females usually give birth every other year and have one calf. The calves are born at the beginning of summer the following year, fully developed and ready to walk within 10 minutes. They stay with their mother for the next year. 

Tibetan wolves, snow leopards, and brown bears hunt yaks. When threatened, yaks in a herd gather together.

WHAT YAKS EAT

Grazing yaks in the remote areas of Tibetan Plateau
Grazing yaks

Yaks are active during the day. They spend most of their time foraging. They eat grasses and herbs, shrubs, flowers, and lichens. In summer, when food is abundant, they can eat 18-25 kg of forage per day. During winter, when food becomes scarce, they sometimes have to starve for periods of time. Luckily, they have a hump on their backs for fat storage that helps them survive through these periods. Wild yaks usually come to lower elevation areas at the beginning of summer to forage on fresh growing pastures. Later in the summer, they move to higher elevation areas close to the snowline to escape the summer heat. The wild yaks’ lifespan is about 25 years.

WILD YAKS THREATS AND CONSERVATION

It is estimated that about a million wild yaks lived in the region only a century ago. Unfortunately, excessive hunting endangered them. Another factor is the ability of wild yaks to breed with domestic. It can introduce diseases from the livestock to a wild population. On the other hand, herdsmen voice their concerns about cases when domestic female yaks leave following wild animals. There are about 15,000 – 20,000 wild yaks in nature. Most of them live in Changtang reserve. Wild yaks are currently classified as Vulnerable species

YAK DOMESTICATION

White yak at the Namtso lake in Tibet

It is not known when exactly yaks were domesticated. Most likely, they were first used for carrying loads. Herdsmen probably started using yaks about 8-10 thousand years ago, and domesticated yaks about 5-6 thousand years ago. It is fascinating how men were able to tame wild yaks. They are huge and fierce animals, especially bulls. 

It is likely that pastoralists started catching young wild yaks. They could underfeed them and use salt to tame the animals. They also let wild yaks breed with domestic cattle. Such offspring were larger than cattle and better adapted to life at high elevations. Since yaks could survive at higher elevations than sheep and cattle, the domestication of yaks enabled people to populate high-altitude areas. There is also a belief that the importance of yak dung as a source of fuel was one of the reasons why people domesticated yaks. Dung provides much-needed fuel in areas with almost no coal or timber. 

People also had to adapt to yaks’ living requirements. Because in many areas of Tibet vegetation is so sparse, yaks have to migrate during the year. Up to this day, nomads move to different locations following the yak preferences.

YAK HYBRIDS

Wild and domestic yaks can interbreed and it sometimes causes problems for the wild yaks population. They can contract diseases from domestic livestock. In addition, domestic female yaks sometimes leave with wild herds. Nomads sometimes try to cross their female yaks with wild bulls. The offspring of such a union tend to be larger and more aggressive, but males are sterile. 

The hybrids of yak and cattle are also possible. They are called dzo in Tibetan.

DOMESTIC YAKS

Herd of Yaks by the lake Manasarovar in Tibet
Herd of Yaks by the lake Manasarovar

Presently, there are about 14-15 million domestic yaks in the Tibetan Plateau. There are 10 different breeds of domestic yaks. Gorgeous white-haired yaks are actually a different breed than their black-haired counterparts. You can see them in the Namtso lake area. Also, sometimes you can see white yaks by the Yamdrok Lake where Tibetans offer to take photos with these majestic animals for a small fee. 

Domestic yaks are smaller than the wild ones. Males weigh 300 – 500 kg and are about 1.5 meters tall. Females weigh between 200 and 300 kg. 

Tibetans love their yaks. Even though nomadic families can have up to 100 yaks in a herd, they give them individual names and often decorate them with colorful tassels. Tibetans love yaks so much that they even erected a golden yak statue in Lhasa to the West of Potala Palace. There is another smaller version of it to the West from Jokhang Temple. 

YAK SIGNIFICANCE AND NOMAD CULTURE

Traditional nomad tent and grazing yaks
Yaks grazing by traditional nomad’s tent

These large creatures were the most important factor for nomad survival and the history of their coexistence is intertwined. 

Tibetans use everything that yaks produce: meat for eating, milk for butter, skins for clothes and boots, undercoats for woven scarves and clothes, hair for making tents, and even dung for warming up tents during the winter and for cooking. In return, they take good care of yaks, 

Below are the most common uses of yaks in Tibet.

YAK MEAT

Dried meat and cheese in the market in Lhasa Tibet
Dried yak meat and cheese in the market in Lhasa

Yaks are, of course, an important and often the only available source of meat. You can try yak meat in virtually any restaurant or tea house in Tibet in a variety of dishes. The most popular meals are meat momos – large steamed or fried dumplings, yak steaks, fried yak meat with rice or vegetables, and rice, potato and yak meat curry. Following the Western cuisine example, yak burgers are offered in some restaurants in Tibet. You can also try strips of dried meat. Their blood and fat are also used to make food.

YAK MILK AND MILK PRODUCTS

Torma figures made of flour and butter
Torma figures made of yak butter

Female Yaks’ (Dri) milk is dense and richer in nutrients than cow’s milk. Tibetans use yak milk for consumption, as well as for making yogurt, butter, and cheeses. Butter is extremely important for Tibetans. Traditional Tibetan drink – butter tea is made with black tea, milk, butter, and a pinch of salt. This hearty drink not only keeps nomads warm but also provides calories and energy. Mixed with tsampa – roasted barley flour and cheese, butter tea makes a delicious traditional breakfast. 

Tibetans make hard cheeses that serve as perfect snacks. Tibetans can eat these hard and chewy cheeses sometimes for hours, making it a great snack for hiking or long traveling.

Finally, Tibetans use butter in the butter lamps in the monasteries and at homes, offering them in front of Buddha paintings and statues and during the special festivals, such as the Butter Lamp Festival. In winter, monks construct elaborate sculptures from the butter called Torma.

YAK HAIR AND UNDERFUR

Traditional Tibetan yak wool nomad's tent
Traditional Tibetan yak wool nomad’s tent

Yaks have a soft undercut that they shed for warmer months. Tibetans brush it off and use the yarn to make warm and soft scarves, shawls and other garments, as well as blankets. Combined with sheep’s hair it makes a great felt. The coarser and longer fur is used to make ropes and threads that are woven into the traditional nomadic tents, bags, or even ornaments. These tents are naturally waterproof.

YAK DUNG

Cakes of yak dung drying on the fence
Cakes of yak dung drying by Tibetan house

In a land sitting mostly above the treeline, with timber in such a short supply, yak dung becomes an important and often the only source of fuel for the stoves. Even nowadays when traveling in remote areas of Tibet you will see cakes of dried yak dung drying on the fences around the houses. Tibetans use it to warm up their houses and nomadic tents and to cook food. It is also used in the construction of fences and storage rooms. Each year, yak produces 3 to 4 times its weight in dung. 

YAK SKIN, HORNS AND BONES

Yak skull with horns by Manasarovar Lake
Yak skull with horns by Manasarovar Lake

The yak’s hide is used to make boots, as well as bags and other leather accessories including traditional leather tsampa bags, belts, and various bindings. Some bones are used in tent construction. Tibetans use yaks’ tails in religious practices or as decorations, and heart and some intestines for traditional medicine. 

When visiting many places in Tibet, you will see yak horns used as decorations. Enormously long wild yak horns are sometimes displayed in monasteries. Nomads use large wild yaks’ horns to store milk or barley beer. You can also see combs, pipes, and other objects carved from yak horns.

SHIPS OF THE PLATEAU

Yaks on trek to Everest Advanced Base Camp in Tibet
Yak delivering supplies for climbers in Everest Advanced Camp in Tibet

Transporting goods in the region with many high mountain ranges is not easy even with all the modern technology. Up to this day, yaks or the “ships of the Plateau” are used to carry loads in the areas without roads. In addition, yaks plow fields for farmers.

Even nowadays we use yaks to help us during trekking. You can often see yaks carrying loads for trekkers walking the kora around Mount Kailash in Western Tibet. They also deliver all necessary gear and food supplies for climbers who attempt to climb Mount Everest or any other high mountain in Tibet. Yaks can go to elevations up to 6,500 meters high and carry loads of 60 – 80 kg / 160 lbs each walking 20-30 km daily.

WHERE TO SEE YAKS

Taking photos on Yak in Tibet
Taking photos on a yak

While we often see many yaks when traveling in Tibet, we don’t recommend coming close or petting the yaks you meet on the way. While by nature yaks are quite peaceful, they are wary of strangers. The best way to come close to these incredible animals is in one of the areas, where yaks are accustomed to travelers.

It is not easy to see wild yak in Tibet. They prefer remote areas mostly in Changtang Plateau in Northern Tibet and Western Qinghai Province. There is a chance of catching a glimpse of wild yak if you are traveling to Tibet through the Qinghai-Tibet Highway when passing through Kekexili. However, you will have a better chance of seeing many domestic yaks in Tibet.

YAMDROK LAKE

White yak by holy Yamdrok lake in Tibet
White yak by sacred Yamdrok lake

A very popular spot to see yaks and even take photos with them is Yamdrok lake. Local Tibetans bring their animals to the shores of the lake and you can take a photo with a yak (or even on the yak) for a small fee. Sometimes you can see rare white fur yaks there along with more common black-haired yaks.

NAMTSO LAKE

Yaks near the sacred Namtso lake in Tibet
Yaks by the Namtso lake

The shore of Namtso lake is another great place to meet yaks. Particularly, the white yaks are very popular in this region. Local Tibetans bring them to Namtso lake and you can take great photos with these friendly giants. Taking photos with yaks is a great way to come close to them and feel their incredible strength and power.

MOUNT KAILASH TREKKING

Yaks carrying goods and supplies on the way around the holy Mount Kailash in Tibet
Yaks carrying goods and supplies on the way around Mount Kailash in Tibet

If you are visiting Mount Kailash and trekking around it, you will also see yaks. Yaks here are not tourist attractions, they are working to help tourists carry heavy loads. When you are preparing for a trek around Mount Kailash, you can hire porters, horses, or yaks to help you carry on necessities. Even if the help of a yak is not necessary for you, don’t worry, you will see these animals along the road.

YAK RACES

There are well-known and popular horse racing festivals in Tibet. These festivals last for several days and include many other activities, including yak races. It’s a great place to see how mighty these gorgeous animals are. Although yaks are not as fast racers as horses, it is still fun to watch. Popular horse racing festivals are held annually in Damshung near Namtso lake and in Gyantse on the way to Shigatse and Mount Everest.

RECOMMENDED TOURS IN TIBET

Mount Everest and Rongbuk monastery in Tibet

LHASA TO EVEREST TOUR

A beautiful and exciting journey, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and going to the Everest Base Camp. The tour visits Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera, Drepung and Tashilhunpo monasteries, Kumbum Stupa, Yamdrok lake, and Karola glaciers.

Both group and private tours are available.

White yak at Namtso lake Tibet

LHASA TO EVEREST AND NAMTSO LAKE

This 9 days tour visits the most impressive destinations in Tibet. We start our tour in Lhasa visiting the highlights of the capital. After that, we will head to Everest driving by Yamdrok Lake, Karola glaciers, Gyantse town, Kumbum stupa, Pelkor Choede monastery, and Brahmaputra river. We will spend the night by the Rongbuk monastery with a view of Everest. At the end of the tour, we will drive to Namtso lake to enjoy its glorious beauty.

Pilgrims and yaks carrying loads on Kailash kora first day

15 DAYS MOUNT KAILASH PILGRIMAGE TOUR

One of our most popular group tours starts in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and goes to Mount Kailash for three-day trekking around this sacred mountain. During this tour, we visit Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse monastery and Kumbum stupa, Mount Everest, Lake Manasarovar, Mount Kailash, and much more.

Hoh Xil or Kekexilli Mountains North of Qinghai

XINING TO LHASA OVERLAND TOUR

This 11 days overland tour will take you through Tibetan wilderness. You start in Amdo, the Eastern part of Tibet, and travel through Qinghai Lake, Kekexili Mountain range, Changthang Grasslands, and Namtso lake. These areas are scarcely populated and many wild animals still live and thrive in these territories.

CONTACT US FOR DETAILS

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