CHAPTER 1/TO HACK THE YAK - TREKKING THE TRAIL OF ONE OF OUR PLANET'S MOST MYSTERIOUS MAMMALS
Updated: Sep 7
NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress. Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Yak on!
Begin by considering this book’s title, from end to beginning.
I use the term “sexy beast” to describe the yak with no intent to exaggerate.
“Sexy,” because other than its unique vocalizing, the three physical features that most distinguish the species currently classified as bos grunniens (the “grunting ox”) – hairy, humpy, and horny – turn human heads everywhere yaks go.
The Yak As "Sexy Beast" - Hairy, Humpy, and Horny.
“Beast,” because yaks have an awe-inspiring otherworldliness about them. Up close and personal, a yak harkens back to another time, a different place, a world in which humans did not exercise so much dominion, a planet upon which wild animals and prehistoric humans shared both a close working relationship with and a mutual respect for one another – a more mobile, more magical, more mythical universe.
Sexy beast? The yak? Oh yes.
“The yak way” refers to the collection of behaviors that define the yak as a species, characteristics honed by thousands of years of evolution, yak traits that we as homo sapiens– “wise humans” – may find useful in adapting for life on our 21st century planet. My hope here? We sapiens might learn how to “hack the yak.” Bos grunniens, in other words, might serve as a map to guide us sapiens through what surely will be challenging territory ahead. Consider “the yak way,” then, as a yak-derived behavioral model we sapiens might adapt as we grapple with the unique opportunities and challenges of this global historical moment for us as a species.
Finally, consider this book’s title. “Life by the horns” captures the evolving inter-species relationship between yaks and yakkers, human communities such as the transhumant pastoralists that inhabit some of our planet’s most inhospitable places – the wilds of western China and Mongolia, the expansively rugged Tibetan plateau, northern Nepal’s remote herding villages, Bhutan and Afghanistan’s pastured mountain highlands – as well as the North American and European farmers and ranchers who have embraced the yak as their own. I have spent more than a decade trekking the globe gathering their stories, which comprise this book’s heart.
Let’s get technical. Yaks are an 8,000-year-old bovine sub species whose origins, history, and habits are not well researched, appreciated, or understood. Even biologists who specialize in classifying Planet Earth’s every species into distinct phylogenic categories cannot agree on what exactly to do with the yak. Speaking like Linneus for a moment - are yaks bos grunniens – the “grunting ox”? Or bos poephagus – the “grass eating ox”? And what of bos mutus – the “wild ox”? This taxonomic confusion about yaks is complicated by a decided lack of available scientific information about yak history and behavior, a problem this book will address.
Three central questions frame Life By The Horns: Is it possible for we homo sapiens to hack the yak? If so, what do yaks have to teach us? And finally, are yaks as a species, mysteriously absent in the annals of world history, elusive by evolutionary design? Placing these questions in a Darwinian frame, I am wondering how we sapiens might apply what we learn from bos grunniens’ evolutionary story - “the yak way” - to our own evolving sapiens experience. The answers, I am convinced, must be derived in considering, as best as we can, the individual lives (the yak “genotype”) and collective evolutionary history of behavior (the yak “phenotype”) of bos mutus / grunniens / poephagusfrom the yak’s perspective, identifying those traits central to yaks’ evolutionary success on terms that yaks themselves would affirm.
To be clear, I am not suggesting we “anthropomorphize” yak traits, imposing our human interpretation of yak behavior onto our emerging understandings of bos grunniens. Rather, I am advocating a more radical notion –seeking to make sense of yak behavior from the yak’s perspective, and then figuring out if we humans can “reverse engineer” these behavioral lessons, adapting yak traits as our own. Sound crazy – like biomimicry carried to extremes? Perhaps, but having spent more than a decade immersed in the world of yaks, I find myself feeling, thinking, and acting more yak-like, drawn to what first I could only dimly surmise must be a yak’s unique approach to moving through our shared world. Encouragingly, as I have “gone native,” traveling more deeply into yak country, I also have begun uncovering scientific support for this co-evolutionary inter-species approach
“Each and every living thing is a subject that lives in its own world, which is the center,” explains scientist Jacob von Uexkull in his ground-breaking if largely forgotten 1933 book A Foray Into The World Of Animals And Humans. Estonian by birth, von Uexkull founded the Institut für Umweltforschung as a University of Hamburg professor,and was among the first of the world’s cybernetic biologists and ethologists, as well as pioneering the field of theoretical biosemiotics. His concept of the “umwelt” is central to understanding von Uexkull’s approach to animal behavior. Variously translated into English as “surrounding-world,” “phenomenal world,” ‘self-world,” or “environment,” von Uexkull’s “umwelt” suggests that every planetary organism subjectively inhabits a complete perceptual universe of its own making, moving through the world as an active agent, rather than as an objectively passive unconscious creature or a mindless mechanistic machine (two unfortunate scientific paradigms still in vogue even today.)
Pioneering biologist, bio-semiotician, and ethologist Jacob von Uexkull and his 1933 book A Foray Into The World Of Animals And Humans.
“Perception and functionality pervade all living things, and ignoring them, while convenient, is not scientific,” explains Dorion Sagan in his 2010 introduction to von Uexkull’s book. We must “construct a broader, more evidenced based biology – a biology that embraces the reality of purpose and perception without jumping to creationist conclusions.” For scientists, applying the general idea of the “umwelt” means striving to understand a species’ evolving understandings of the universe on its own subjective terms. Presaging the invention of cybernetics and robotics by more than two decades, von Uexkull argued that all creatures, including yaks, have evolutionarily encoded in them active information processing systems, beginning with their five senses, that collaboratively work to interpret their subjective world on a moment-by-moment basis.
Having traveled in the close company of yaks for years, I immediately grasped the implications of von Uexkull’s “umwelt,” which provided a conceptual scientific framework for what had until then been only an intuitive understanding of my yak encounters. To wit: applying von Uexkull’s “umwelt” to yaks begins with a simple but provocative revelation - a human and a yak traveling together in close proximity – over the same rocky pass, for example - will experience dramatically different “realities” while traversing the exact same section of high mountain terrain. The challenge, therefore, is not just to think like but to bemore like a yak, to crawl into and inhabit a yak’s perceptual universe – the yak “umwelt” - to better understand a yak’s approach to our shared world. To put this in von Uexkullian terms, we must merge our sapiens “umwelt” with the grunniens “umwelt” – two “umwelten” in dialogue – to create what von Uexkull called a “semiosphere.”
Creating a “semiosphere” – a shared symbolic interspecies dialogue - may sound like an impossible challenge, until we consider the interconnections, evolutionarily speaking, among all living things. “There is overwhelming evidence of likeness, from molecular to mental, between men and animals,” observed Paul Shepard in his 1969 book The Subversive Science: Essays Towards An Ecology Of Man. The brilliant and eclectic Shepard founded the field of human ecology, authoring many provocative books exploring the co-evolutionary history of human-animal relations, and it was Shepard’s wisdom which helped me crystalize the possibilities of a co-evolutionary approach to grunniens/sapiens relations.
The brilliant and eclectic ecologist Paul Shepard and his 1996 book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human.
“We are hidden from ourselves by habits of perception,” Shepard argues. “Man is in the world and his ecology is the nature of that inness.” We sapiens cannot, Shepard repeatedly suggested in all of his published works, separate ourselves from the rest of creation, though we have tried mightily to do so for thousands of years. “Human evolution is a long, tangled tale that ties us inextricably to everything on this earth and, plausibly, to everything in the universe,” Shepard explained. “We began as the species homo sapiens in the Pleistocene about 500,000 years ago, but our genome is as old as life itself…passed on to us not only through our parents and generations of humans, but from archaic ancestors: primate, mammalian, reptilian, amphibian, ichthyian, and down to bacterial forbears of life on earth.” If Shepard’s analysis is accurate, yaklike qualities are embedded deeply within us. Such a prospect, I realized, was at once liberating and daunting. Is it possible, I wondered, to comb out and stitch together a story of yak/human relations that served as a sort of co-evolutionary instructional manual for we 21st century sapiens?
Shepard’s provocative ecological legacy helped clarify why the yak story ought to matter to us. We sapiens have more in common with yaks (and all other species) than we realize, and now is a good time to wake up to this deep evolutionary reality. Geologists tell us that Earth is entering the Age of the Anthropocene, millions of species sharing a 21stcentury planet reeling from the collective pressures of intense transformational human activity. As a species, our ability to collaborate flexibly and in large groups over time has made us the masters of this planet, but all available evidence suggests we are bringing about a “sixth great extinction,” as the world annually loses thousands of other living creatures whose very existence we have pushed to the margins by our stupendous evolutionary success. Historically, our planetary influence goes back at least 10,000 years, to a time when homo sapiens transitioned from hunter gatherers to Neolithic agriculturalists, launching us on a global quest to expand, explore, control, and conquer Earth’s most every nook, cranny, and species. The rest, as they say, is history.
Speaking historically, most of us traditionally learn from an early age that 10,000 years of “farmer power” (as UCLA ethnobotanist Jared Diamond refers to the “Neolithic Revolution” in his 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies) liberated hunter/gatherer hominids from scarcity, want, and deprivation, leading to unequivocally positive advances – including ever-complex feats of social, economic and technological prowess - under agriculture’s magical power. More recently, in his recent global bestseller Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues the “Cognitive Revolution,” our collective human ability to imagine and sustain belief in “collective fictions” – money, religion, and nation states, to name but three - led to sapiens’ domination of our planet and all other species.
To put Diamond and Harari into perspective, consider how we sapiens have spent several millennia engineering the evolution of a select few species to serve our own expansive needs, while marginalizing thousands of other life forms (including yaks) we deem incidental or unimportant. Diamond point to six different sapiens criteria that make other creatures suitable for domestication at our hands – a flexible diet, reasonably fast growth rate, ability to breed in captivity, pleasant disposition, a modifiable social hierarchy, and a tendency towards a “herd instinct.” Harari, meanwhile, tallies up some eye-opening numbers. In Sapiens, he identifies the four most ubiquitous domesticated animals in play on the planet today: 1) chickens (200 billion squawkers); 2) cattle (1.5 billion cows, including domesticated yaks); 3) house cats (600 million meowing); and 4) dogs (400 million barkers). The wild ancestors of these exploding domesticated populations, meanwhile, are on the ropes. Wild bird populations are dwindling globally, wild cattle are largely extinct (excepting a few outliers like bos mutus– the wild yak), and it is difficult to find wild cats and wolves without plunging deep into the “wilderness.” A damning single statistic reveals all - on the other side of the “domestication” balance sheet, the World Wildlife Federation alarmingly reports that we’ve lost fully 60% of our planet’s animal species since the 1970s.
Given these revealing numbers, it is perhaps no surprise that the collective consequences of 10 millennia of sapiens-sponsored agriculture and 8,000 years of animal domestication have come under intense criticism by experts in a wide range of disciplines. In her 2018 book Close Encounters With Humankind: A Paleoanthropologist Investigates Our Evolving Human Species, Sang-Hee Lee describes the Neolithic Revolution and animal domestication in more cautious terms. “Yes, humans became ‘free’ in the sense that they no longer had to rely 100% on their foraging skills or the environment to acquire food, and could, in fact, produce as much food as they wanted, even a surplus,” she writes of agriculture’s arrival. “Productivity increased, populations exploded, and civilizations expanded. At the same time, however,” Lee continues, “surplus populations led to the privatization of property, and class structures began to develop, along with warfare in which humans killed each other in large numbers for the first time in human history." (And, we should note, began killing off other species in record numbers).
“Moreover,” Lee notes, “as people abandoned their generational knowledge of ecology and respect for nature, years of crop failures resulted in mass starvation, and the concurrent shift to humans and their domesticated animals living in close proximity set up the perfect environment for infectious diseases to jump from animal species to humans, where some virulent diseases with deadly outcomes. High-density populations became quickly vulnerable to disease epidemics,” she explains. “The price we paid was quite high for the reward of civilization.” Lee’s sobering conclusion? Sapiens "have become the strongest and most dangerous form of life in this world,” she states. “Now it is time for us to take responsibility for the disappearing world that is paying the price for us. Let’s take action.”
In his widely acclaimed book Ishmael, meanwhile, futurist Daniel Quinn reminds readers that for most of human experience, hominids lived as hunter/gatherers (he calls them “Leavers”) in much more accord with the earth and its evolving species, but agriculture’s arrival gradually separated sapiensfrom the rest of the world, creating what Quinn calls a “Taker” mindset promoting the notion that “the world was made for man, and man was meant to conquer and rule it.” “We are prisoners of a civilizational system that compels us to destroy the world,” Quinn concludes, “because we cannot find the bars of the cage.”
Back to bos grunniens and "the yak way." How do we heed Quinn and Lee’s advice and “take action?” I contend that the yak may help us sapiens break out of the civilizational prison in which we find ourselves. How so? Yaks as a species have approached planetary life much differently than we humans. Life By The Horns maps the unique evolutionary geography yaks have quietly trod through world history, highlighting the ways in which their journey offers lessons for us 21st century humans. While historically elusive, the yak “umwelt” has much to teach us about how to survive and thrive on our finite 21stcentury planet. Beyond being sexy beasts, yaks have a very distinct way of living, a radically different approach to the world than we sapiensdo, and we humans might do well to learn from “the yak way.”
To fully appreciate what the yak has to offer us, begin by acknowledging the intimacy of yak/human relations. Bos grunniens and homo sapiens – those humans who have lived “life by the horns” - have enjoyed deep and intimate connections for thousands of years. Yakkers who have co-existed in the proximal presence of these remarkable creatures have developed a respect for yaks that infuses folk tales, religious rites, and mythological traditions. Beyond stories, the yak has done yeoman’s work for we sapiens, serving as the “companion creature” for a wide variety of civilizations, from the sharp tips of their horns down to their uniquely sculpted hoof bottoms. For millennia, yaks have provided human communities with everything from hair for rope, hides for clothing and shelter, meat and milk for sustenance, blood for rituals, brains for paper, skulls and bones for ceremonies, butter oil for lamp light in the darkness, directional wisdom when we have lost our way, and spiritual sustenance as symbols in stories, legends, and rituals that still continue to ground and inspire. In sum, grunniens and sapiens history is intimately intertwined, and people around the world whose very existence depends on living life by the horns have not only relied on yaks, but have made a point of celebrating this extraordinary animal’s unique features.
So why are yaks largely absent from the historical record? The more I contemplate this question, the more I began to wonder if yaks themselves have somehow conspired to remain largely absent from the pages of human history. I first started ruminating on the mysterious marginalization of yaks in history books when we began Vermont Yak Company in 2007. As a yak farmer by choice, I set out to learn more about them, but I soon discovered from talking with the North American yakking community that the western world possesses little information about bos grunniens – a smattering of cute kids’ books (Go Track A Yak!), a few scientific monographs (most notably, the United Nations FAO guide to “The Yak”), occasional articles, a short yak primer here and there, and a handful of documentary films with yaks appearing as supporting cast members (Himalaya! Sherpa! Dropka!) Frustrated, I began to reach out more broadly to yak enthusiasts in North America and Europe to learn more about what a new yakker friend fondly called her “ultimate ungulates.” (I soon discovered the Western world’s yakking community is an intimate one, and easily found online). Even after several years of networking, I still hadn’t uncovered much of systematic substance about this mysterious mammal, so I began including yak research as part of my travel to yak-rich places with students in my university travel courses. Overseas, I met my first Asian yaks by accident in 2008, while traveling in China’s western Qinghai province, and decided to start collecting yak-related impressions, images, and interviews while traveling.
My quest to uncover the yak’s secrets, to shed more light on this historically marginalized mammal, has taken me deep into the Himalayas - China, Nepal, Mongolia, and the Tibetan borderlands, yaks’ ancient Asian evolutionary home, where I’ve collected stories about yaks. As a researcher, I wish I could claim to be as surefooted as bos grunniens. Honestly, though, the first several years of yak digging – both at home in Vermont and abroad in Asia - proved unsystematically unscientific. It was only after we sold our Vermont yaks in 2013 that I had more time to pursue yak research more globally. As I did so, three central yak-related questions gradually emerged from trekking the trail of the yak, and I return to them here:
Can sapiens hack the yak?
If so, what do yaks teach us?
Are yaks elusive by evolutionary design?
If my mysterious midnight encounter with the ghostlike yaks on Nepal’s moonlit Mount Manaslu slope provided this book’s spark, then an adventure to the yak-rich region of western Mongolia the following year helped me begin to frame and explore these three central questions – ones that had evaded me until this first visit to the Land of The Eternal Blue Sky. In planning a trip with university students on the heels of a semester-long comparative Mongolia/China global studies course, I decided to organized a full week for our students in the Mongolian outback, one of the planet’s richest historical, archaeological and geological repositories. Eager to find yak-related sites to visit with our students, I began my research, and soon discovered that even yak-related evidence from our earliest hominid ancestors on the Asian steppe, where we know from the fossil record yaks have existed for millennia, seemed hard to find.
Consider, for example, the presence of ancient art - hominid-crafted paintings and petroglyphs - some of our most reliable cultural indicators that the humans who came before us were not only aware of other species, but conducted lives inextricably and intimately bound up with them. As a historian and musician, I was taken with the acclaimed work of Iegor Reznikoff, a University of Paris music ethnographer studying France’s Arcy-sur-Cure caves, who discovered one of the world’s largest collections of Neolithic paintings located more than a kilometer deep in the ground. According to Reznikoff, the paintings “had been intentionally located at the most acoustically interesting spots in the cave: the parts with the most resonance.” Reznikoff’s theory? “The Neanderthal communities gathered beside the images they had painted, and they chanted or sang in some kind of shamanic ritual, using the reverberations of the cave to magically widen the sound of their voices.” (Wheal and Kotler, 141) My hope was that Mongolia’s ancient archaeological sites, like France’s Arcy-sur-Cure caves, might provide critical insights into the co-evolutionary human/yak relationship.
Lascaux cave painting of what is probably the ancient auroch, located in modern France.
Did our hominid ancestors, I wondered, ever sing the song of the yak?
Located in northwestern Mongolia, the Tsagaan Salaa-Baga Oigor Petroglyph Complex is one of the ancient world’s greatest collections of rock art, “the most complete and best-preserved visual record of human prehistory and early history of the region at the intersection of Central and North Asia,” according to the United Nations, which now oversees this archaeological treasure as a World Heritage Site. Rising above the Tsagaan Saaa River’s north bank, this region’s bouldered slopes and outcrops, where Mongolia’s Altai Mountains merge with northern China and Russia’s Altai Republic’s southern edge, provide a remarkable look, via the petroglyphs layered across their stone surfaces, at sapiens’ co-evolutionary past. “The persistent relationships between rock art, surface monuments and the larger physical context of rivers, ridges and cardinal directions create a vivid sense of the integration of human communities with the land they inhabited,” wrote one scientific observer, noting that the sprawling site captures the broad evolutionary arc of human transition from hunting to herding to a horse-dependent and more mobile way of life, as the colder Pleistocene period gave way to a warming Holocene Era. (Jacobson-Tepfer, 160)
The Tsagaan Salaa-Baga Oigor Petroglyph Complex, as seen from a satellite photograph.
Chronicling an astonishing 12,000 years of changing geological and emerging sapiens activity, the human created images pecked into the rocks here include those of late Pleistocene creatures such as mammoth, rhinoceros, ostrich, and argali (a species of ancient mountain sheep whose “ankle bones” now provide the pieces for the popular Mongolian game of the same name). These species all thrived in the colder and drier Mongolian climate comprised not of forests, but of a Pleistocene landscape of forbs and rough grasses. As the earth gradually warmed, ushering in the more forested landscapes of the early Holocene era, older glyphs give way here to carved creatures such as the ibex, elk and auroch – the yak’s impressively bodied ancient ancestor.
Ancient images at Mongolia's Tsagaan Salaa-Baga Oigor Petroglyph Complex.
“It is not surprising that so many images of aurochs (bos primogenius primigenius) here and elsewhere in the Mongolian Altai are archaic in appearance or that their images seem to disappear from rock art well before the end of the Bronze Age,” explained a scientific paper describing the historic importance of the Tsagaan Salaa-Baga Oigor Petroglyph Complex. “Significantly, images of aurochs disappear by the mid-Bronze Age, at about the time when wild yak (poephagus grunniens L.) also disappeared and were replaced by domesticated yak.” As I read further, I grew more annoyed. We know from the fossil record that yak replaced auroch – but why? “What combination of elements caused the aurochs (and wild yak) to be lost from the representational pantheon is unclear,” concluded the author, unhelpfully. “It does seem certain, however, that the appearance, survival, and disappearance of large animals represented in rock art must be associated with the climate and vegetation history of a region.” (Jacobson-Tepfer, 162)
Finishing the article in frustration, I took small measure of hope from a single passing observation in the scientific paper describing in detail the various glyphs comprising the Tsagaan Salaa-Baga Oigor Petroglyph Complex. The site, the author explained, features a number of “unfinished aurochs,” images where “the head may be rendered in silhouette form and the body in contours,” pictures in which, while the image is only “partial,” the “treatment of the animal’s powerful neck, deep chest, and thrusting head conveys strength combined with grace.” (Jacobson-Tepfer, 156-157) Turns out that among the site’s rocks, somewhat mysteriously, are featured undecipherable four-legged auroch-like images, rudely pecked into the rock and unfinished, glyphs marked by “simplification of the animal’s body” which appear to reflect an “archaic production.”
Could these unfinished images present at Mongolia’s most celebrated archaeological site be of bos mutus – the wild yak?
My interest piqued, I rounded up my students and we headed halfway around the world to Mongolia. Upon arrival at Genghis Khan International Airport (featuring a “head shot” of the famed conqueror in the form of a giant colorful billboard strategically placed at the airport exit) we were greeted by our tour guide, a middle-aged Mongolian woman named Doya, who grew up herding yaks outside of Ulan Bator (the world’s coldest capital city) and now works with Goya Travel, shepherding global visitors across the “land of eternal blue sky.” Lean and fit, mentally sharp, drily funny, a masterful “ankle bone” player, and quick to down a vodka shot or three after hours, Doya proved a wealth of knowledge about yaks. “As a girl herding with my grandmother, I once had a yak as a pet who never left my side,” she explained. “Every yak has its own personality,” he went on, “and our Mongolian blue yaks have ‘anger management issues’ – stay away from them.”
Even today, yaks are a central part of traditional nomadic life in western Mongolia.
“You want to hear one of my favorite yak stories?” she asked our students shortly after she met our group and we exchanged introductions. We all nodded, visibly intrigued. “We have an old funny tale in traditional Mongolia about yaks,” Doya explained. (Turns out, Doya loved funny stories about almost everything.) “Back in olden times, when all the creatures of the world were getting to know each other,” Doya told us with a hint of a smile, “the yak went around to all the animals, asking to borrow a single hair from each of their coats, and then, laughing, stitched all the other animals’ hairs together into a warm winter jacket and went up to live high in the mountains all by himself.” We all laughed. “Yak as Trickster,” I mused out loud to the group. “What do you think this story means?” one of my students asked Doya. “Yaks like to do their own thing,” she answered, with a grin.
Fortuitously, Doya proved a wealth of yak-related knowledge, and we had a full week in the outback to discuss yaks and how they fit into the larger landscape of Mongolian culture. One night, in the midst of a late-night game of “knuck bone” (“shagai” in Mongolian), Doya explained to me that yaks just aren’t quite ubiquitous enough to make the cut in Mongol country. To grasp the full import of Doya’s nugget of Mongolian wisdom, understand that “knuck bone” is a famous Mongolian dice’like rolling game in which players shake and then throw onto the nearest table or floor a predetermined number of small sheep or goat ankle bones (the astragulus – a portion of the hooved foot’s talus structure). Once thrown, each of the bone’s four sides forms one of the four shapes of Mongolia’s four most loved animals – sheep, goats, horses, and camels - depending on the position in which each bone lands on the playing surface. We soon discovered that “shagai” is a somewhat confusing game for newcomers, best played, Doya explained, in the dead of a cold winter night in a traditional Mongolian “ger” (yurt) with plenty of vodka on hand. On this vast and storied Asian steppe, the 18thlargest country in the world by size, where animals vastly outnumber humans, I ask Doya why yaks don’t get any billing in this famous shagaigame. In the midst of thrashing us, Doya explained that “horses are sexy, camels are curious, and sheep and goats are everywhere, all part of Old McDonald’s farm, like your funny American kid story.”
"But what about yaks?” I asked again, casting about for a grunniens-focused central casting moment.
“Yaks?” she paused to think, and then looked up intently from her shagaibones, as if anticipating my disappointment. “Yaks in Mongolia are on the margins.”
Indeed. Doya’s stories about the yak stitching a winter mountain jacket and why yaks are invisible in the shagai game (near-universally played across the Asian continent, I later learned) got me thinking. Exactly why are yaks on the margins? For years, I’d been hard pressed to find any mention of yaks, even on the Internet, and now Doya’s stories about yaks only confirmed my suspicions. Could it be, I wondered, that yaks, in cultivating their evolutionary “umwelt” - “the yak way” - subjectively sought out the margins as part of a deliberate evolutionary strategy? And why so little mention of grunniens in the history books?
Could these two questions be somehow related?
"Going nomad" in west/central Mongolia's semi-Gobi region.
Four quick “yaks on the margins” snapshots by way of an uncertain answer.
1: Illiterate and impoverished Mongolian orphan Temujin, who grew up to become Genghis Khan and conquer most of the entire known world, gave his horses all the recognition, and every historian since has followed suit. This, despite the Mighty Khan riding into every battle sporting a staff topped with nine yak tails, accompanied by herds of yaks following close behind his horse mounted mobile warrior armies. While the Mongols conquered the world on horseback, the yaks did much of the heavy lifting at higher elevations, providing the “Golden Horde” with meat and milk, as well as humps and hooves for carrying the pillaged loot Genghis and company confiscated from across Eurasia.
2: Ethno-botanist Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies, mentions yaks only once in passing in a single sentence, spending much of his time discussing a dozen domesticated animals– horses, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats, and cattle (which, technically, a yak is) in much greater detail.
3: In his last June 2018 “Parts Unknown” episode, which aired three weeks after his tragic death by suicide, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain traveled to the Kingdom of Bhutan, where he visited with yak herders just long enough to conclude that their traditional yak-centered way of life was probably no match for a 21stcentury globalized and digitized market economy.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky in Bhutan.
4: For ten years, I’ve wandered into book shops all over Asia inquiring about yak literature, including visiting dozens of book stores named for yaks. I’ve purchased every yak book I have been able to find. My literary discoveries now barely fill a single small book shelf in my home. This quest to find books about yaks has become somewhat of a joke among my trekking friends. Guess what, everyone! Rob walked into yet another book store called The Yak Book Shoppeand walk out empty handed, no yak books to be found. Funny, and odd.
Why are yaks, as Doya freely and repeatedly acknowledged, on the margins – not only in Mongolia, but seemingly all over the world?
As Doya's Goyo Agency travel team led us across the Mongolian outback - on camels and horses, and in Russian-made uaz transport vans (say “waz” –a stripped down van shaped like a rounded bread box mounted on four heavily tired wheels with an independent suspension for traversing rough roads and river crossings), Doya’s “yaks on the Mongolian margins” insights kept rolling around in my mind. Her phrase nagged at me, but I didn’t quite know why.
The Russian uaz, ubiquitous four-wheeled Mongolian transport.
A few days into our trip, humbled by Doya at ankle bone for several nights running, we arrived at Erdene Zuu Monastery, one of Mongolia’s oldest Tibetan Buddhist site of worship. The sprawling complex, constructed by 16thcentury Mongol leader Abtai Sain Khan, bears witness to Mongolia’s rich and often turbulent history, at one time containing more than 62 different temples and more than 1,000 meditating monks before being occupied and desecrated by an invading 20thcentury Soviet army. Partially restored to its former glory, Erdene Zuu is now one of central Mongolia’s most celebrated historical highlights for global travelers, located in the Ovorkhangai Province’s Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site, adjacent to the ancient city of Karakorum and within sight of Mongolia’s famed Kings Monument - a giant hilltop homage to Mongolia’s Hunnu, Turkic, and Mongol periods.
Mongolia's Erdene Zuu monastery.
With Doya in the lead, we walked past the ubiquitous vendor stalls selling everything from tiny stuffed camels to giant faux golden Buddha statues, through Erdene Zuu’s massive gate, and into the midst of the giant open-air complex, ducking into a side temple known as the Ayus-zom (north shrine) while Doya narrated the monastery’s remarkable history, along with insights into Buddhist mythology. On both the east and west walls of Ayus-zom hung gigantic and beautiful rectangular tapestries protected by recently mounted solid panes of plate glass, the tapestries themselves sporting iconic images of historic Mongolia’s most treasured animals. The shrine’s close quarters, combined with each tapestry’s staggering size (4 meters in width by 2 meters in length), created a disconcerting optical illusion, much like the wizard Gandalf might have felt in entering hobbit Bilbo’s tiny shire home for the first time. Guards prohibited photographs in this sacred space, but given the spatial design, photos could not begin to capture the sheer size of each tapestry at such close quarters.
Aerial view of Mongolia's Erdene Zuu monastery.
Ayus-zom is the small building located in the left / foreground of the main walled-in complex.
While listening to Doya, I peered closely at each tapestry’s animal iconography. At tapestry’s center, the Mongolian horse (of course!) stood proud and commanding, with camels, sheep, and goats in close proximity to the humans at the center. My eyes scanning the detailed ornamental cloth, I finally spotted yaks near the giant tapestry’s margins – black, hairy, and smiling, with a semi-crazy look in their large wild eyes. Their relative position vis a vis the rest of this Mongolian menagerie arrested me. It was almost as if the tapestried yaks were laughing at their good fortune, to be on the edge of between wild and domestic, able to come and go as they pleased. Their wild-eyed placement in this sacred space also confirmed Doya’s observation of a few days before – yaks are on the margins here in the land of eternal blue sky, and have been for a long time.
Could yaks, I wondered in that moment, have planned it this way? Have they chosen to be elusive by evolutionary design? Why did 16th century religious iconographers depict Mongolian bos grunniens as wild eyed and smiling, “placing” them on the margins of sapiens civilization in these sacred tapestries? It did not feel accidental. Discovering these wild-eyed and smiling black yaks on the edge of the Erdene Zuu monastery’s Ayus Zom tapestries, I was elated. As we walked out of Ayus zom and towards the main Buddhist temple, I realized that here in Mongolia, in this ancient and sacred space, Doya’s yak jacket tale, and a late night game of ankle bone, I now had more clarity on how I might to continue to trek the global trail of the yak.
Leaving Mongolia for the first time, I realized two things. First, if we sapiens were to hack the yak, we must understand the “umwelt” of this “sexy beast.” Second, yakkers, humans who have lived “life by the horns" and co-existed with yaks for centuries, possessed the cultural keys to unlocking the mysteries of “the yak way.” To successfully hack the yak, in short, meant uncovering and understanding the global co-evolutionary trail traveled together by yaks and yakkers over the past eight millennia.