Photography by Jill Schneider
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Talking Yak

Shaggy icon, backbone of Tibetan culture, hardy pack animal—it’s hard to overstate the importance of the yak on the Tibetan Plateau.

Get a crash course on all things yak—and their role in Himalayan life—with these surprising facts about Tibet’s version of a cash cow.

What is a yak? Distinguished by handlebar horns and long hair, this high-altitude bovine cousin of the cow grazes across the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. With three times the lung capacity of typical cows, yaks take in stride the thin air, rugged terrain, and harsh weather of Tibet—with frigid winter temperatures that can dip below zero—and have subsisted for thousands of years on a meager diet of grasses and sedges.

Yak attacks: Though the yak is mighty, it isn’t invincible. As recently as half a century ago, a million or so wild yaks roamed the Tibetan Plateau. Today the International Union for Conservation of Nature puts the global population at under 10,000 wild yaks—in other words, officially vulnerable to extinction—due to poaching, habitat loss, and interbreeding.

Home on the range: Historically, yaks were essential to the survival of the people of the Tibetan Plateau, much like bison were to American Indians. It is believed that ancient Qiang herdsmen domesticated yaks some 10,000 years ago. Sturdy and sure of foot, these ultimate pack animals can cross high mountain passes carrying heavy loads of up to 150 pounds and are sometimes called the “boats of the plateau.”

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Tea time: Po cha, or Tibetan butter tea, is not for the squeamish—then again, nothing about a nomad’s life on the “roof of the world” is. Yak butter and milk as well as salt are added to a special black tea from Pemagul to make the soupy traditional drink, which fortifies against the thin, cold air of the Himalaya Mountains. Some Tibetans are said to sip the high-calorie tea all day long, though that’s mostly restricted to nomads of the higher plateaus above 17,000 feet. The energy boost from traditional butter tea so captivated one Western traveler, Dave Asprey, that he returned from Tibet and formulated Bulletproof Coffee, a buzzy brand that combines grass-fed butter with coffee.

Chew on this: Yak milk also makes yogurt and cheese rich in nutritious omega-3 fatty acids, including chhurpi—hardened yak milk cheese that can be stored for years. Consuming the hard-to-chew cheese can take several hours, making it an ideal snack for a trek across the grasslands—and, in recent years, a popular dog snack in North America, Britain, and Japan.

Breakfast of peacemakers: The Dalai Lama starts each morning with tsamba, flour made from toasted barley that is often added to salted tea that has been mixed together with yak butter—a traditional and popular meal in Tibet

Grass-fed meat: Though Tibetan Buddhists typically minimize their meat consumption, nomads have long survived harsh conditions on high-protein yak meat, sometimes even consuming fresh meat raw. Preserved yak meat—aka jerky—comes in handy on long treks, and is popular among tourists. Outsiders also flock to storefronts across Tibet hawking yak dumplings and even yak burgers.

Bio-fuel hazard: For centuries, Tibetans have fired their stoves with cakes of dried yak dung. It’s a resourceful and practical system, but unfortunately one with a steep environmental cost: recent studies show that yak dung burning in Tibet may produce more than 1,000 annual tons of black carbon, which is said to be the second leading cause of global warming. The effects of black carbon are particularly disastrous in the Himalaya, where the climate is warming at a rate of three to five times faster than global trends.

Body check: Each summer, yaks shed their downy undercoat, and Tibetan nomads comb out and process the soft, cashmere-like fiber. The courser outer hair makes its way into ropes, tents, and even theatrical wigs while yak hide becomes bags and boots. Once a yak has died—of natural means, per Buddhist tenets—the animal’s bones also find new life as jewelry and tent-fastenings.

Buttered up: Lhasa holds the Butter Lamp Festival in the first month of the Tibetan calendar. Leading up to this centuries-old tradition, Tibetan monks spend months carving colorful sculptures out of yak butter—from flowers to Buddhist symbols. During the festival, the ornate sculptures line streets lit by lamps burning yak butter.

Glimpse firsthand the importance of the yak in Tibetan culture on a trip with National Geographic Journeys.