Yaks are gentle creatures. They are like very large cattle. The word yak comes from the Tibetan and Balti languages and in that language refers, in fact, to the males of the species. In English, the word yak refers to both male and female animals, but then one would say a “bull yak” or a “cow yak”!
Wild yaks live in the high mountains in parts of Tibet, China and India, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Central Asia, all yaks are domesticated. Yak herding is common in Tajikistan, Mongolia and the Xinjiang province in China.
Research shows that the yak may have become a different species from those of both cattle and bison millions of years ago. This earth is very old and we humans have not lived on it as long as some animals. Fossils show that the yaks lived in the North of both Russia and America – in the cold regions – as they still do today.
There are herds of wild yaks, as well as herds of the yaks that have been domesticated. Yaks are heavy animals; they have a large body and strong legs. They carry a lot of fat on their bones, which keeps them warm, along with their long, thick, hanging fur.
Wild yaks are mostly a dark, blackish/brownish colour. Domestic yaks have many colours that go from cream to dark brown. These animals have small ears and big horns. Yaks have a big bump on top of their necks, called a hump! Yaks make strange grunting noises.
Yaks are very tough, much tougher than horses, especially in the cold. Wild yaks are not picky eaters and can certainly survive on their own if they can eat grass on the plains. They do not eat grain, so they can’t be given sacks of food.
Domesticated yaks have been kept for thousands of years for transport, milking (for butter and cheese), meat and fur/wool (used to make clothing and blankets).
The dried droppings (poop) are used as fuel, which heats up homes and provides a means to cook food.
In the high mountains of Tibet, people use yaks for sport. “Yak racing” is much like horse racing. In parts of Tibet and Karakorum, yak racing is a form of entertainment at traditional festivals, and it is considered an important part of their culture.
As ancient people used yaks to move from place to place in those very cold northern European countries, it is understandable that yaks are still used today. But tourism has sprung up and people want to go on “trekking” holidays through these mountains, and riding on the backs of yaks is the “in” thing these days.
Some people buy their own yak for these “treks,” and sell or donate the yak to a poor family at the end of the trip. This works out cheaper than renting when it comes to very long treks. Trekking is not for the weak or those with medical problems. Hospitals and doctors are miles and miles away. If you get hurt, you would probably need to be rescued by air services, but helicopters don’t work so well in these high elevations.
Up in those mountains, there is most likely little power source to charge your phone and iPad; you would be out in the wilderness. This is very exciting for some people, but others never want to leave the comforts of the modern world.
When a large group of traders moves with a herd of yaks, it is called a “caravan”. These caravans move across the high mountain passes from one country to another. Nomads (people who have no fixed home and move around from place to place to live) live so high up that they can’t farm and grow anything, not even grain.
These nomads gather salt from beds near Tibetan lakes and trade it for barley, buckwheat, rice and maize with the yak herders/traders that travel these mountain passes. The caravans have been traveling these same routes and trading salt for food for more than a thousand years. These days, motorcycles and trucks do part of the route lower down the mountains, but they can’t be used higher up.
The reins and bridle on a yak are not the same as on a horse. The yak is guided by a rope that goes through the nostrils of the animal. Slow animals are encouraged to get a move on by small rocks/pebbles that the drivers shoot from a slingshot.
When it is time to stop for the night, tents are pitched. The men, women and children, who travel these routes, all sleep together under the same blankets – the best way to keep warm. Most of them drink tea and eat butter and salt, which give them energy to survive the cold conditions.