The yak (འབྲོང་། ) is considered the backbone of Tibetan nomad life, with this animal being important to the economic and personal wellbeing of the family. From the products crafted from yaks, the nomad family is able to clothe, shelter, and feed their family, so it is little wonder that some say their yaks are treated with similar importance as members of the family.
Random Yak Facts
- The domesticated yak is known as Bos grunniens (literally: “grunting ox”), while the wild variation is called Bos mutus.
- A fully grown yak typically weighs between 350-1000kgs (approx. 670-2200lbs), and can stand at the shoulder between 1.6 meters to a whopping 2.2 meters (5.2-7.2ft).
- A Tibetan nomad family may have more than 100 yaks, and each one will likely have a name. With so many animals, the names will usually be assigned based on physical characteristics such as “Two-Spot”, “Long-Tail”, or “White-Hoof”.
- A female yak that is about to give birth will often have homing instincts. If the pregnant yak has been traded previously, the owner knows they need to watch them carefully in the days leading up to birth as they can be a flight-risk. If the mother yak decides to go walk about, they may be found several villages over in their place of birth. As a result, at certain times of the year, someone from the nomad family may simply wait down the road for the wandering yak to take them home!
- Yaks are easily trained. When fetching the yaks in for milking, a person can use a slingshot and a stone to throw it near the yaks as their signal that it is time to come home. Once the stone is thrown, the yaks come running because they know what’s expected of them.
- Similar to the English language calling female cattle cows and a male a bull, the Tibetan language actually uses the “yak” to refer to the male of the species, while the female is called a “bri” or “nak”. However, English has adopted the use of “yak” for both genders.
Yaks on Tibet Plateau
It is not an overstatement to say the yak is incredibly important to the Tibetan nomadic family. When we say they use the whole animal, we aren’t joking! From head to tail, the following things are just a few of the products that can come from the yak. Any of these products can be used directly by the family, traded, or sold.
The horns are traditionally carved into combs or pipes, while the skull is used as a Tibetan decoration.
Yaks have several different types of hair with each type typically having a different usage. On the top of the yak (originating at their spine), the yaks tend to have coarse hair which is woven to make very durable products such as the black tents Tibetan nomads are known for. Moving successively lower on the animal, the hair becomes finer making this wool better for softer items such as clothing. Other products woven from yak wool include bags, blankets, carpets, accessories, sling shots, string, and other household or farming items, etc.
A black Yak Tent
If you visit a nomadic house, you may be offered a seat on the floor with a yak skin as your cushion or mat. When the skin is made into leather, the leather can also be used to make shoes, belts, and packaging bags for food.
As the yak is a livestock animal, it should be no surprise that the meat is eaten too. Similar to beef, but with a wilder flavour and typically a little tougher, most Tibetan dishes will use yak meat (even if the menu says beef). For example, yak meat is commonly found in Tibetan noodles, momos (Tibetan dumplings), and it is dried to make yak jerky.
Yak Meat and Sausage
The tails are used for brooms and dusters around the Tibetan home, although today you can also see them as decorations in Tibetan businesses as another representation of the culture. The tail of a fully grown yak will typically be between 60-100cms long (24-39in.).
While the Western nose might find the smell a little strong, yak dung is a valuable source of fuel for the Tibetan fireplace. The dung is collected daily, dried, and stored in a pile to last the entire year. From the energy of the dung, the Tibetan family is able to stay warm and cook, making this “waste-product” anything but waste!
Obviously the milk itself is drunk, but it can also be used to make the typical dairy products such as butter, yogurt, and cheese. Without the yak milk, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy that cup of yak butter tea!
The yak is a very strong animal, which makes it a perfect pack animal for the nomad family as they move around. It can also be ridden or used to plough the fields.
Two strong yaks stand with packs on their back.
Just like any livestock animal, the family will also profit from the breeding of this animal. Not only is this animal breed for the sake of making the previously mentioned products, but a family can profit by trading or selling their extra animals, thus directly impacting the financial well-being of the nomad family.