I handed over a well-worn 10 yuan note (US $1.60) for a ride and approached the yak. Its handler guided me to the side of the hirsute bovine (the name in Chinese, 牦牛, is homophonous with “fur ox”). When I prepared to mount, the yak backed away several paces, presumably apprehensive of such a large foreigner climbing into its saddle. The handler, a young lady of the Qiang 羌 ethnicity that populates this region of Sichuan, told me that her yak was somewhat skittish around strangers. No problem. I had ridden horses before and knew how to get my foot in the stirrup and throw my other leg over the saddle—even if my mount was moving. On my second attempt, the handler suddenly shouted, “no, no, no” as I put my foot in the stirrup. But hadn’t I paid the 10 yuan for a ride? No. The handler told me I was too large for her precious, white yak. So, I only ended up getting a photo op next to the beast.
The yak is an interesting creature. It can only survive 2,000 meters above sea level or higher. So you won’t be seeing any at the Brookfield Zoo. The yak’s thick, long coat keeps it warm at higher altitudes. It has long, curved horns, which are often festooned with brightly colored ribbons or knots. As one climbs higher and higher into the mountains northwest of Chengdu 成都, yaks become a fairly common sight. They can be seen grazing on the mountain side or being herded along the highway. The yak provides much to the livelihood of the local Qiang, Hui 回 (Muslim), Tibetan 藏, and Han 汉 inhabitants of Aba 阿坝 Prefecture. The meat, if prepared properly, is actually quite good. During our travels to Jiuzhaigou 九寨沟, Huanglong 黄龙, and Song Pan 松潘, I enjoyed yak kabobs, yak-meat noodles, and a dish that can be best described as yak loaf. While making a stop on the grasslands, Cheryl and I enjoyed a refreshing cup of yak yogurt served by local Tibetan ladies. Yak bones are made into combs; their tails are sold as “feather” dusters. There are, I’m sure, many other uses of which I am not yet aware. Yak products are prevalent everywhere in the region.
This is not my first encounter with yaks, however. I actually have visited this area of northern Sichuan twice before and had seen yaks both times. As a student, I traveled from Chengdu two days by bus to Jiuzhaigou. The ride in our mini-bus now took “only” 7-8 hours on the much improved highway system. After teaching in China for a year, I made another trip all the way down from Lanzhou 兰州 to the north, passing by Tibetan monasteries in Xiahe 夏河. From Xiahe I hitchhiked with my friend Joel part of the way to Chengdu since at the time there was no bus service at all between southern Gansu province and northern Sichuan.
Because the previous two trips has been so memorable, I was excited to return to the area with our research team. It has stunning scenery and is interesting with Qiang, Hui, Tibetan, and Han culture on display. It did not come as a surprise that much had changed since my last visit. After the devastating Wenchuan 汶川 earthquake, which struck just months before Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, a new four-lane highway was built between Chengdu and Wenchuan. The highway past there leading north to Songpan and Jiuzhaigou was much improved, too, cutting down travel time. This has helped to develop tourism in the area. During my last visit, Songpan was a dusty stop along the way. Now, the city gate and wall have been rebuilt, new hotels have sprung up, and thriving businesses line the main thoroughfare. Inside the new, old city walls, shops selling cell phones and leather shoes are adjacent to stores plying traditional goods. It’s not hard to find yak jerky and other yak-related products either, of course.
On my last trip to Jiuzhaigou in 1988, there was no development in the area at all. We hiked unfettered around the beautiful lakes and waterfalls, infrequently running into any other travelers. Then, it was possible to stay in Tibetan log cabins. There were no tourist shops lining the streets. Now, new hotels, including the Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, and the Korean-financed Gesang where we stayed this time, have sprung up kilometers before one even reaches the park entrance. We saw only a handful of visitors before; now, Jiuzhaigou is limited to 10,000 day to protect against environmental damage. Odd then that the buses shuttling park visitors up the valley are diesel rather than electric powered.
After visiting Jiuzhaigou, our group went to Huanglong 黄龙 (Yellow Dragon), which is some 100 kilometers away. The trip there requires crossing some high mountain passes. As we climbed higher en route, we passed a herd of yaks (surprise) on the road and noticed some snow in the air. Our driver stopped at the highest pass, 4,700 meters, and we were all able to frolic for five minutes in the snow. After such a brutal Chicago winter, we all passed on shoveling, however (there actually was a shovel there). Huanglong is known for its yellow calcified pools, which are terraced down a lush mountain valley, and for its waterfalls. The scenery there is also stunning. Clouds and mist linger around verdant peaks, and the “yellow dragon” winds its way down the mountain. The hike up was enjoyable, especially since there were fewer tourists than Jiuzhaigou. My memory is certainly getting worse with age, but I don’t recall a cable car and luxury hotels the last time I visited Huanglong.
Change is, of course, inevitable. So I am not waxing nostalgic about some lost Shangrila. Tourist yuan have helped to raise the standard of living in the area. Loquat, cherries, and apples are profitable cash crops helping farmers who were once impoverished. Buddhist temples and mosques have been rebuilt and refurbished. They are more conspicuous than before, especially the gilded rooftops of the temples and shiny crescents of the mosques. Tibetan prayer flags flutter on hillsides and on every mountain pass. Also more conspicuous than before are the many Chinese national flags flying atop households in the area. This is not common practice in other parts of China, and is certainly a significant change. A new rail line, scheduled to be completed in 2019, will link up Chengdu and Lanzhou, making hitchhiking and travel by local bus between the two cities a less attractive mode of transportation.
Such changes and “progress” incur certain costs as well, of course. Ways of life are changing. Some older residents of the region lament the loss of certain traditions and cultural heritage. Ethnic culture is repackaged in the form of song and dance performances for busloads of tourists. Development of tourist infrastructure appears to far exceed any realistic capacity, leaving behind ghost towns of hotels and inns. I feel fortunate to have visited before such changes took place. But I also understand that nothing ever really remains the same. Change is inexorable, and a complicated issue, to be sure, when it involves nature, culture, and tourism. If there is an exception, however, it may be the natural beauty of the area, even with the eyesore of development. In that I can take some form of solace, even though I am reminded that things are in a permanent state of change.
As to yak rides, I may have been light enough to ride during my earlier trips to the area. But then no rides were offered for a tourist’s amusement. Ironically, now I was too large for at least one yak. Later after reaching the grass highlands, I had another opportunity for a ride. My stature there was not an issue. But I was told that this yak was more expensive since it was a “plateau yak.” The more difficult life and hardships caused by the high altitude drove up the cost according to the handler there. I was having none of it. It was looking as though I would never get a ride until our last stop at one of the yak ranches. Third time’s a charm.