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Kiwi on the Plateau with Khunu

September 15, 2014

When finance guy Jay Dignan joined us for a trip to the Plateau he found strong contrasts but some underlying similarities to his native New Zealand.

I am a finance guy and have been working with Khunu for several months, but this trip was the first time I’d seen first-hand the source of where their wool comes from. For me it is fascinating to be involved in a company that not only operates with local communities directly (they form communes to collect and sell the wool to us), but also one that has certain similarities to parts of my native country New Zealand, where there is a strong connection to the land, livestock and nature. These photos help tell a personal story of a trip by bicycle that opened my eyes to a remote and often unseen part of the world:

  • Yaks, and lots of them. Yaks, like cows, are bovines, and we have lots of cows in New Zealand. Back home a portion of the milk is kept for making butter and cream, but the majority is sent to factories for processing on a pretty industrial scale. This is in contrast to the plateau where families live a subsistence existence or trade surplus dairy products at local markets.

  • The bicycle is the perfect vehicle for “slow travel”. It moves at a pace that allows distances to be covered, but maintains a sense of being “connected” to the environment through which you travel. Many encounters with people on the road led to memorable offers of kindness that would never have happened had we been in a car.

  • “Momos” (Tibetan dumplings) and yak butter tea were staples once we reached the high plateau. This high fat diet, although theoretically very unhealthy, seemed strangely suited to our environment.

  • Four generations under one roof. This host family’s effortless hospitality made us feel like an integral part of their home. Although living on the outskirts of a town, they maintained a herd of yaks and a number of horses, including one stud originating from Australia.

  • A bend in the Yellow River. China’s giant waterway starts in the remote region of Qinghai and winds its way to the eastern flatlands where it provides valuable irrigation. The mountains of Golok stand invitingly in the background, many rising to over 5,000 metres.

  • Ever changing weather and a lack of shelter meant refuge from the elements was sometimes challenging. Here we joined a group of nomads to shelter from the snow in a small roadside store where we drank tea and ate noodles. Thirty minutes later the sun came out and we all enjoyed an impromptu game of basketball!

  • A shameless selfie with school kids. The growing number of nomadic children attending school is a reflection of how lives are changing on the plateau. Many children will spend the week attending school in town and return to their families at the weekend. Education provides opportunity, but it also makes children less willing to continue with the nomadic life of their parents.

  • We were guest teachers in an English class and it was the first time any of the children had spoken to native speakers. They seemed to understand my accent (which is not always the case in all parts of the English-speaking world!) and were extremely curious and asked lots of questions about where we were from. We were all in agreement that yaks are cool.

  • This arduous climb reminded me of the famous Stelvio Passo in northern Italy which was built in the 1820’s to link Lombardy to Austria. China’s huge investment in infrastructure has linked many previously inaccessible regions to the outside world and brought about new opportunities and challenges for the nomadic communities living there.

  • Simple pleasures. An elder enjoys a drag on his cigarette whilst sheltering from a storm. In an era when people pay good money to fight the overt signs of aging, his lined face and grey hair exuded a charisma that demanded respect.

  • On a dirt road we encountered this camp of nomads out searching for valuable “caterpillar fungus” (ophiocordyceps sinensis), a highly prized medicinal supplement that is believed to improve the health of internal organs and prevent erectile dysfunction. It provides a valuable income to Tibetan nomads, with prices often exceeding $3,000 p/kg.

  • This herder proved that you can ride a yak, and ride it fast! Individual families own between 30 and 300 yaks that roam freely during the day but are tethered outside tents or winter dwellings at night. He decided to use this male yak to herd other yaks rather than a horse, but we never got to understand why.

  • Yak wool collection is nothing like shearing merino sheep in New Zealand. Khunu uses the soft under-layer of the yak, which sheds naturally in spring when the weather warms, the grass becomes green, and the yaks get fatter. Yaks survive winter temperatures down to -40 C so are pretty well insulated and keen to lose their winter coat in spring. Here I am at a small de-hairing facility looking at yak wool drying on the ground after being washed and prior to the coarser guard fibres being removed.

  • These awesome yak wool socks were perfect for keeping our feet warm during the trip. I’m looking forward to getting a few pairs later this year for winter cycling and exploring. They were great at keeping odour away too!