Asia Photo Essays Tibet

The Tibetan Yak | A Celebration of the Country’s most Important Animal

November 27, 2018

by Simon Urwin

Life in Tibet revolves around the yak, the long-haired beast of burden which the nomadic people of the Himalayan plateau have herded for over two thousand years

Tibetans feast on their meat set fires with their dung, knit tents with their hair, and cherish the precious milk of the female ‘dri’, which is whipped into creamy yoghurt and aged into rock-hard strings of cheese.

In ornate ‘mdong-mo’, fat-filled yak butter is churned with salt, soda, tea leaves and water to make the national beverage, butter tea, a pungent concoction which is consumed in copious quantities, as much as 40 cups a day, to provide hydration and energy in the punishing high altitude.

A vital part of the spiritual lives of Tibetan Buddhists, yak butter is artfully sculpted for adorning temples and monastery altars during times of celebration, while sacred lamps of clarified oil are lit daily by pilgrims to symbolise the illumination of wisdom during the quest for enlightenment.

Lamu, a Khampa ethnic Tibetan, owns a herd of 40 yaks. She milks them daily and sells yak butter, yoghurt and cheese in the local market.

“I am simple and have no education, but I know how to look after yaks and that is all I need to survive and make a good life for my family.”

Yak butter sculptures and lamps fuelled with yak butter can be found in monasteries across Tibet.

In a village on the outskirts of Gyantse, a housewife makes butter tea in a traditional mdong mo.

Artisanal yak yoghurt is sold on street corner stalls in Lhasa, as well as specialist shops where it is flavoured with the likes of Himalayan honey, raisins and red dates.

In Lhasa, butter is sold in huge pats in the city’s covered market.

Lunch in a traditional Lhasa restaurant: a dish of yak meat stir-fried with radish, and right, slow-cooked in a broth with goji berries.

Eric Wu is one of Lhasa’s leading chefs. He takes traditional dishes and gives them a contemporary twist such as stir-fried yak tenderloin Sichuan-style and steamed eggs with scallions and Tibetan saffron. Wu also has his own spin on afternoon tea with petit fours; he serves butter tea with scalloped tsampa, made with roasted barley flour, yak butter and yak cheese.

A yak in the grounds of Rongbuk, the highest monastery in the world, sunrise hitting the north face of Mount Everest in the distance.

Simon Urwin is an award-winning travel & portrait photographer whose work has been recognised by the likes of Nikon, the Association of Photographers and Taylor Wessing. Travel has always fascinated him and he continues to visit the four corners of the world in search of naturally beautiful, often hidden photographic stories which shine a different light on a country and allow for a deeper understanding of its culture and traditions. His photo stories and writing have been widely featured in publications including The Guardian, Lonely Planet Traveller, Sidetracked and Traveller magazine.

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