Soko, as she is called, is a woman formed by a life of endless grasses and the beasts that roam them. She is a Tibetan, a nomad, a yak herder, a mother of four children, and a widow. She is a daughter of generations with calloused, leathery hands and soft black hair that sweeps below her waist like the clouds against the curved horizon.
The hillside is dotted with tents, white like gapped teeth against dark gums. This camp is shared by Soko's extended family by marriage, though her husband passed away a couple years ago from liver complications. She shares a small herd of yaks with her brother-in-law, and much of the daily husbandry tasks fall to her. Up the hill behind us is the grandmother's tent, her yaks also mingling with the others, and as the evening light falls, all the women are out yelping and tugging at the wandering beasts swollen with milk, while the younger kids race along, helping to pull in the calves who will help to persuade their mother's to follow suit.
When we arrive, we are invited in and offered small bowls of fresh yogurt made from the yak's milk. The tent itself, when viewed up close, is actually long woven strips of yak's hair. Each year, a newly made strip is added to the outermost edge while the innermost strip is removed. This prevents wear and tear without requiring the effort of making an entire tent again, which looks a formidable task. Most everything it seems is made from some part of these scraggly, yet docile animals. They are the lifeblood of the place, and their necessity is apparent.
Inside the tent there are bundles of coarse brush gathered for fuel as well as bedding, and we later find they make a surprisingly soft layer of comfort and warmth when covered with blankets. The middle ground is reserved for the fire pit, and Soko pulls back the tent above to form a small gap to let the smoke escape, though much of it still fills the tent. Our eyes water, but she and her two small boys along with our guide (her nephew) Dorje, seem unaffected.
All around us, in a kind of organized mayhem that must be a necessity of any nomad who moves all that they have from camp to camp squarely on the backs of the beasts they own, are piles of yak dung, blankets and hides, dishes and bags of supplies.
Soko's young sons (her other two children being away at school most of the year) roam in and out of the tent, whimpering against instructions to put an extra layer on, digging through piles for a snack, playing childish games with their older cousin. They have no shoes or socks on, though a pair of worn gum boots lies on the floor. But they seem not to mind, hardened to the weather in a way we clearly are not.
After our yogurt and some conversation, Soko is eager to get to milking. Her daily tasks seem numerous, if not endless. When we crawl into our beds, shoulder to shoulder, hugging each other for warmth, she heads out for awhile before coming back to wash up bowls from dinner and pack away the flour and board used earlier to roll out noodles for our soup. She spends several minutes brushing her teeth furiously over the fire before crawling into bed with her boys, something that catches me off guard and then makes me feel guilty for assuming these small bits of hygiene are not a part of her routine. They did tell us after all that the bathroom was suibian, basically anywhere, and that was soon proved when the four year old wandered over, pant-less to just before the doorway, and peed nonchalantly as the tent flaps flew in his face.
The family has just days ago moved from the low summer camp to high camp, for better grasses. The grasslands themselves seem more like a busy highway than rural tranquility, with wave after wave of yak caravans being herded to higher lands for the summer months. The people are friendly though, and curious as we are, willing to stop and say Tah-shi de-leh, a quick hello, and to ask a few questions or show the kids a day old calf buried under their robes.
Soko is equally friendly and willing, answering endless questions from the kids and in the midst of all her tasks, she is loving towards her boys and enjoys laughing with her nephew. Later, under the glow of firelight, a sister-in-law stops in for tea and noodles and their laughter is gentle like an evening song on the night air.