I’ve always loved my felt hat. I bought it in western China in 2008, and it travels with me every time I go there. On this particular day I loved it more than anything; head down, wind and blizzard ahead as I slogged away turning the pedals of my loaded mountain bike on route to our new source of wool some 120 km further up the plateau. Today this trusty felt hat was my great protector, and the following day, as the high-altitude summer sun beat down, it once again proved to be an item for all seasons.
This was the first time I’d travelled by bike to the plateau. I was tired of buses, and bus schedules and wanted the chance to breathe the fresh air and stop wherever I felt like.
In a bizarre twist of traditional meeting modern, we came to meet this herder community through LinkedIn. Dorjee, who is from the village I was heading to, contacted me through the networking platform last year to talk about wool. We spoke over Skype about how we might do something that would benefit herders from his region. His own village had lots of yaks but no market for the fibre, so clearly we could help.
Dorjee is bright, educated and represents a new generation of nomads who are keen to maintain cultural traditions, but recognise the need to move with the times. I first met him this winter in Qinghai, where we spent a few days with herders and the village leader, who thought our wool sourcing plans were good for his community. We all agreed I would come back in the summer and make our purchase.
So summer rolled around and here I was. Gone were the frozen rivers, replaced by verdant pastures, clear bright skies and a breeze that had chased away the snow and clouds from the previous day. The herders once again showed tremendous hospitality - large helping of yak meat were washed down with butter tea and "momos", the traditional (yak) dumplings. Vegetarians you have been warned.
Although the food was plentiful, there was not quite as much yak wool as I was hoping for. Shedding had come later this year, and herders were busy collecting caterpillar fungus (the lucrative little worm often used in Chinese medicine), so our wool collection plans were running behind schedule (I’m pleased to report everything is now back on track), but we have enough raw wool stockpiled for this year so it was no big issue.
One other important visit that needed to be made was to the “bone cutter”, who I met on my first visit, and was so impressed with his carving skills that we asked him to make buttons for us.
Tsegong is in his sixties and moved into the main town several years ago to help look after his grandchildren who were attending school there. Without yaks to tend to, and with grandchildren at school during the day, he became bored and began carving small trinkets out of yak bone. Over time people began to appreciate what he was making – in fact, what he was making seemed so good that local Tibetans believed his products came from Nepal, such is their faith in their own artisans!
With buttons being carved, (some) wool collected, and deposits paid to our suppliers, it was time to leave. There was not a cloud in the sky as I rode through a herd of yaks and down the dirt track that led from the village. There would be no blizzards on the long ride back, just big blue skies, burning sunshine, and much appreciated fresh air.