The valley echoes with the rattle of tractors, piercing the stillness of the atelier. The employees have two days off but it is hardly a holiday. The air is heavy with anticipation. The nomads have just a few days to take in their winter oats from the fields. After that the floodgates will open and thousands of yak and sheep will descend from the hills, devouring whatever remains of the oat harvest. While summer rains had come in a steady drizzle, Ritoma nomads have more animals than the land can sustain and hunger has become a part of their existence. Oats need to be planted annually to compensate for the lack of winter grazing land, a practice that’s unheard of in larger nomadic areas.
Strong arms swing dramatically as three wheelers prattle by bobbing and swaying precariously under the weight of oats stacked high. The plateau stretches out, white washed with a menacing snow that dampens the drying oats, and makes the already short blades of grass even more inaccessible to the famished animals. Blotches of black veer back and forth as herders steer the yaks away from the direction of the fields. It is a difficult time to herd. The hungry animals are restless and the smell of oats is in the air.
This year, once again, the nomads were greeted by a disappointing fall. The price of animals dropped dramatically and this time it wasn’t because of disease or lack of grass. Nature had graced the plateau with a steady rainfall and in most areas animals are large and fat, but their value has dropped by half since last year. Everyone ventures a guess as to why, but no real explanation filters down to us. Frustrations are voiced with loud echoes throughout the nomadic communities, but no one seems to be listening. In Machu the nomads took to the streets with banners demanding that the government interfere. If the price of their animals drops, then so too should the price of fuel and other basic supplies. In Huayuan nomads toppled a few of the local Muslim stores in frustration. The Muslims are first in the chain of buyers for animals from the Tibetan nomads and this year they stand united in drastically lowering their price. Most Tibetans laugh at the futility of attacking Muslim stores and nod in approval at the demands made by the Machu nomads.
On the day that the oats are brought in from the fields, everyone has a chore. The oldest tend to the kids and cook the meals, others herd the anxious yaks and sheep, and the strongest go to the fields, where with icy fingers and sweaty backs they perform the drudgery of loading and unloading tractors full of oats. I have the day off but my husband and I also have chores with the onset of fall. Our pet project, Norden, is a scenic encampment of tents and cabins secluded in the winter pastures of a nomad friend outside Sangke. While the camp and our twenty nomad staff are sustained by a trickle of high-end travelers, to us the camp is more than a glamping business, it’s also a weekend refuge for my family. But the animals are descending in Sangke too, and tents need to be packed and cabins shut down. Soon the plateau will be ruled by ice and snow.
“Norzin, can you hang out in the village today?” I ask hopefully.
“Where are you going?” she asks, her eyes piercing me as she examines my boots, scarf and overcoat. “Camp?”
I nod. “Your father and I will be back by seven. You can go to Acha Tsering Kyi, Ama Tsomo, or hang with the old foggies at the guardhouse.”
“Oh my God!” Norzin exclaims as she throws her hands up in the air dramatically. She has on a striped blue and white dress pulled tightly over sweat pants, thermals and a T-shirt. Her face is already smudged with dirt and a pink bow hangs lopsided from her head. “Always, the camp, the camp!”
“You can come, but you’ll be in the car for four hours.”
“Fine,” she scowls. “I guess I’ll stay.”
We drop Norzin off at the workshop guardhouse where the three old men hang out day and night, even on holidays. This will be her base as she visits families through the village, returning every now and then for meals or to complain about something or other. Apa Gompo will be on the look out for her. Norzin pushes the rattling green door open and skips into the guardhouse having forgotten her scowl. This dirty and grimy room has become a refuge for all. During break time up to twenty men crowd in, cramming every nook and corner of the tiny shack. Laughter frequently booms out of the small house making visitors ask, “What are they laughing about?”
“Oh, it’s just break time,” I’ll say.
When sharing secrets it has now become common to say, “This is not something to share in the guardhouse.”
After work, Yidam and I often venture into the guardhouse, especially if there’s overtime to be done and we’re in need of a few minutes break. The stove runs for twenty-four hours and in the evenings the old men cook their dinner. Norzin often eats with them. The scavenging kittens, the grimy walls that hold no objection to being scribbled upon, and the old men with their interesting tales of wolves and gazelles, make their dinnertime far more appealing than ours.
“I’m on meal duty today at the winter house,” smiles Apa Gompo as he steps out to see us off. He too has his assigned chore on this bustling day. “Norzin, do you want to come and help me prepare lunch?” he asks.
Older people have a patience with children that we younger ones seem to lack. Apa Gompo laughs through all of Norzin’s wildness. “A naughty child is a smart child,” he reassures us. “She has a good heart.” Norzin has strategically nurtured her relationship with him, much to the sixty year old’s amusement. She’ll generously provide him with a $2,000 yak wool blanket from the office if the weather takes a sudden turn, or grab some cough syrup from the medicine bag if his foot pain starts up again. He thanks her for her gifts and then returns them to us when her attention is elsewhere.
In exchange, Apa Gompo once brought her a pair of Gazelle antlers, black and shiny. I examined the twists of the horn as it turned and tapered into a pointed furl. His grandson had found the dead Gazelle when herding. On other occasions, Apa Gompo gives Norzin kneaded barley, sweet and buttery, or strings of dried meat to snack on. But it is the clunky old motorbike of Apa Gompo’s, and the possibilities of adventure that it offers, that makes him an exceptional investment to Norzin.
“Let’s go through the village, Apa Gompo,” she’ll say swaggering through the workshop gates. “Let’s go see what people are up to. It’s a bit quiet around here.”
On Saturdays Norzin has to strive to get Apa Gompo’s attention. The children of workshop employees, having the day off from school, hang around the guardhouse, talking to the old foggies, and playing with the kittens. In all its odor and filth, the room serves as a comfort to the nomads. In the clean and shinning workrooms nomads work all day as they embrace their new role as an artisan or manager. The guardhouse is a nostalgic break into a previous life, a life that everyone likes to visit but no one wants to live in anymore.
The next morning the plateau is jammed with yak and sheep. Every herder is impatient to get their animals to the oat fields first. The tents are folded and packed up, brown patches of earth left in their wake. Most families are close enough to the village to drive their animals home at twilight and back to the fields at sunrise. One lone army tent stands out in the otherwise clean landscape. I point it out to Norzin.
“Oh, Apa Gompo and I went there yesterday. He took me,” she says nonchalantly.
“Who’s still there?” I ask.
“Chinese mole killer,” she shrugs and then her eyes widen. “I say there are at least sixty moles killed and strung up. Apa Gompo says there are over a hundred.” She reflects upon this. “Who do you think counts better, Apa Gompo or me?”
Later Apa Gompo explains to me that Norzin got restless after they had cooked for his family and returned to guard the workshop. Norzin convinced him to go on a ride and see something new. Apa Gompo was curious about the green tent in the distance. They approached the mole guy stationed all alone at the edge of the world, a miserable, shivering man with a cigarette hanging limply from his lips. Fall was the time that moles emerged, preparing for their winter hibernation. The man spent days driving small menacing holes in the mounds and then waiting for the mole, who would inevitably appear, to fix the source of the cold draft in its burrow. A sharp stab from the awaiting man ended their short lives. They were strung up to dry in long lines. Later he would eat the meat and hand in the skin to claim his price per kill.
Apa Gompo laughed. “Silly, yes, Norzin? Moles are incarnates of hungry ghosts, the more you kill the more they will plague you. Only prayer and good deeds can drive them away.”
Norzin nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe someone should tell him that. I don’t think he knows.”