CHAPTER 7: CHILL OUT - SUISSE YAK HOFFING IN THE ALPS
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress. Special thanks to the University of Vermont Humanities Center for providing a grant supporting research for this chapter.
Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Yak on!
“Close your eyes and tell me the first word you associate with Switzerland,” asks Diccon Bewes in his bestselling book Swiss Watching: Inside The Land Of Milk And Money. “Chances are you’ll say cheese. Or chocolate. Or mountains. Or banking, cuckoo clocks, skiing, watches, the Red Cross, snow, or Toblerone.” (p 1)
But will you say “yaks”?
And if not, you should.
Far-sighted Swiss yak lovers began importing the sexy beast to the Alps only a few decades ago, but have now emerged as 21st century Europe’s most organized yakkers. “Cautious, friendly, and punctual” are three adjectives describing the Swiss, says Bewes, “and add to this two very Swiss traits - “their love of formality and their need for consensus.” Swiss people, Bewes concludes, are “highly unlikely to see themselves as open, spontaneous or disorganized.” (p 288) Switzerland’s collective penchant for living lives so tightly-wound makes the yak – hairy, humpy, horny, and semi-wild - the perfect bovine for the Swiss, a hyper-organized culture in need of a collective “chill out.”
Before my November 2019 trip to “chillyax” in the Alps, I immersed myself in research about Switzerland. “The Swiss defy simple categorization,” explains Clare O’Dea in her book The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths. “Diversity makes any generalization about the Swiss character difficult or even pointless, and yet, for better or worse, all of these so-called Swiss have chosen to create together a society that inevitably reflects something about them.” (pp 17-18). In my ten days of yakking in Switzerland, I was struck by this strange paradox – while the Suisse embrace the tensions between their radically decentralized linguistic and political culture, they also acknowledge a civilizational uniformity that seems to pervades everything they say and do. My first impressions of Switzerland? How clean and ordered everything seems to be, and how well put together everyone seems. The 21st century Swiss “are guilty of terrible excellence in everything,” explains O’Dea, “particularly science, industry, and the arts.” (p 70)
Like yaks, I quickly learned, the Swiss are an independent minded bunch, and historically prefer to go their own way. A single country comprising eight million humans inhabiting 26 cantons (provinces) speaking four languages – French, Italian, German and Romansh, Switxerland, geographically peaking, makes for prime yak country. Landlocked and defined by three great river valleys - the Rhone, the Aare, and the Rhine – Switzerland’s legendary defining geographical feature, the Alps, is Europe’s highest mountain range and western Europe’s watershed, with stunning peaks averaging an altitude of 1,700 meters - the highest 50 summits towering at over 4,000 meters. Taken together, the Alps comprise 60% of Switzerland, arcing northeast from Monaco on the Mediterranean into the Eurasian interior and Austria to the west. If I was a cartographically smart yak thrown out of my Himalayan homeland, I’d aspire to be Swiss. And, as it turns out, yaks are Switzerland’s newest bovine species, first imported decades ago by Daniel Wismer, whom I first met online and now affectionately refer to as the “Godfather of Suisse Yakking.” From Facebook, I learn that Wismer lives with yaks in the mountains of southern Switzerland on a farm built to resemble a Himalayan tea lodge, and my Suisse contacts, including the legendary Rosula Blanc, schedule me to meet him towards the end of my tour.
Disembarking from an Irish Aer Lingus red-eye flight which touches down in Zurich the morning of Saturday, November 16th, I blearily stumble through the airport to a coffee shop meeting location, the appropriately named “Hello Bar.” My host and guide, Benjamin Wiedmer, appears just a few minutes later. Lean, young, and quiet, with a touch of mischief around his eyes, Benjamin immediately makes me feel welcome. We pay for temporary parking, hop into his car, and head to our first of two yak visits. Not a moment to waste.
Driving out of the airport and through Zurich, Ben and I immediately fall into conversation. At age 36, Ben proves surprisingly candid about the pros and cons of growing up Suisse. As an instructor at Munsingen’s Agricultural School for Organic Farming, one of Switzerland’s largest organic “biodynamic” farms , Ben teaches about the relationship between trees and data, and explains that an agricultural certificate was a popular “side hustle” for 28-55 year old Suisse – and the Swiss take their farming seriously – marrying soil science, ag management, organic chemical-free fertilizers, farm machinery, and farm ecosystem management. Ben seemingly has done it all - having raised corn, potatoes, wheat, oats, and barley, and practiced everything from paddock management to a working as an electrician. “Switzerland sometimes feels rigid and stifling,” Ben says, his eyes on the narrow roads, describing the country as overly orderly and very regimented.
“Tell me about agriculture here,” I ask. He smiles. Our system is communist,” he explains, laughing. “Our government excels at calculating size, volume, inputs, outputs,” he tells me. “You want to plant a tree in your yard? You need permission, and the tree will be added to our national agricultural data base.”
“Like Big Data meets the Alps?” I query.
He nods, and then explains his love for the land, animals, and growing stuff. “My partner Tina has nine Buudun Oberlander sheep,” he explains, and, noticing my quizzical glance, explains that they are a sheep breed descended from those bred by Suisse tribes hundreds of years before.
“Do you know about Otzi?” Ben asks me. “He’s our most famous ancestor, a prehistoric hunter from the Little Ice Age whose body was found near here.”
I nodded, remembering photos of the legendary archaeological find.
“Modern Swizterland was founded in 1291 at the Bern clock tower by three cantons - Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, which means ‘the lowland woods’),” he explains,” “and people think we’re all about precision - watches, high tech – but we also have deep roots in the land and mountains here.”
Tell me about how Switzerland is organized,” I ask, remembering my research.
“We have 26 cantons, like provinces, across the Alps,” Ben explains, “and we consider our most famous mountains - Grindewald, Eiger, the Matterhorn, Niesen (“pyramid mountain) - to be our version of the Pyramids – we do not need to build them like the Egyptians.” I laugh, glad for Benjamin’s sense of humor.
“I live in the village of Brientz, village, our canton is called Bern, same as our capital city Bern – one hour west of our village,” he goes on. “We have “amts” -which are like regions, slightly larger political units, and then our cantons, which is our central organizing unit, and then other layers -language zones, agricultural zones, nature parks, and cities, like Interlochen or Bern.” We agree we’ll check out Bern one night while I am in town as we zero in on our first of 13 Suisse yak visits. The landscape is now decidedly rural, narrow roads running through tiny neatly organized villages flanked by immaculately kept pastures and fields.
Arriving in the municipality of Altburon (population just over 1,000), Willsau district, Lucerne canton, Rot river valley (Rottal) we pull up a small road and into a driveway in front of a small house that might have been built by hobbits, dwarfed by a simple but impressive barn complex just above. Mount Rigi, the region’s most famed tourist destination, lies off in the distance. Paul and Monika Muller greet us with smiles at the door and Ben introduces us. Paul is of average height, lightly bearded and resting on cane walkers, while his partner Monika does most of the talking, with an affable demeanor and fashionable spiky coif that could pass her off as a middle-aged punk rocker.
As I would learn, like most Swiss farms (hofs) Yak Hof Muller is a neat, understated and well-kept affair, an extended family project with Paul’s parents living up the hill. “Why yaks?” I ask, as Monica serves a simple but delicious lunch of yak meat soup (add carrots and potatoes), salad, and brown bread. Their answer surprises me at first – “yaks do all the brush hogging,” they explain, Paul waving an arm over his shoulder at the fields that surround their home “this is yaks’ primary use.” Ben nods, and says to me, “the yaks help keep Switzerland looking orderly, manicured, and green,” he adds – which is to say, very Swiss.
Visiting with Paul and Monica.
Monica also sells their yak meat at the imbiss – a Swiss term referring to a local lunch eatery, as well as managing the couple’s on-farm marketing and regular e-newsletter. Though quiet, the couple become animated when discussing their yaks, sharing that they had recently had a three year old yak calf eaten by a luchs (lynx, in Swiss), and then relaying a story about how smart yaks are – a mama yak insistently led Monica to her baby calf trapped in a thorn bush on the far end of the farm. Paul tells us that even in the eyes of Swiss law, yaks are special – national legislation prohibits milking barn strings from being attached to yak tails (unlike most other Swiss bovines like the famed Simmontels). Monica smiles at this, and explains that yaks are a calming influence on them and their neighbors – she moves her hands downward in a relaxed motion to make her point, as Paul nods in agreement.
After lunch, Paul, Ben and I walk out to meet the herd and tour the barn. Paul tells me they started with four yak cows from a neighboring farmer and have gradually expanded their herd, including – he gestures – Safir the Bull, a handsome white male who is the patriarch of their current hairy configuration. Currently, their herd looks to be over two dozen, scattered peacefully across this Swiss pasture, contentedly munching on grass or quietly ruminating. Paul and Monika’s yaks are a diverse patchwork of sizes and colors, much like Swiss culture itself. Looking at the herd more closely, I see blacks, browns, whites, dappled grays, and a striking specimen with a gray shaggy coat and a white bar across its back,a deep black eye and nose markings on its face completing the picture. Unusual, to my eye. “A lineback yak,” Ben explains through Paul, and I tell them I’ve never seen this colored yak before.
Walking up the driveway to the barn, Paul explains that their farm hof is committed to energy efficiency and a low carbon footprint, showing off their solar panel photovoltaics running on special batteries comprised of a salt natrium chloride /nickel combination. He tours us around his beautiful barn complex – through the meeting room, main feeding area, concrete corral platform, shower area, and upper haying and equipment storage - explaining with modest pride that he designed and built the entire space. I gaze around the expansive yak complex, nodding in admiration. Impressive, especially considering the unimposing stature of this modest middle-aged fellow, smiling and gesturing while leaning on a cane directly in front of us. With a lull in the conversation, I lean into a giant round hay bale, sticking my nose directly into the aromatic bundle, inhaling the sweet aroma. Hay smells similarly the same the world over, and I am immediately transported back to Vermont, and the Mad River Valley, and a grassy world of yaks that suddenly seems to materialize right in front of me.
On the barn wall, I see a beautiful full-color poster produced by the ASEY – the “Association Suisse des eleveurs de yak” (the Swiss Yak Federation – SYV), the national networking group for Suisse yakkers, featuring a sketch of a yak below two pointy mountain peaks and Tibetan symbols in the logo’s top left. The poster, entitled “Yak Farbschlage” (“yak color hitting,” literally translated to English) details the varied colors of Suisse yaks: blacks, imperials, royals, and trims (standard North American colors), as well as stunning local Alpine colors: lineback (like the one in the pasture below), white-headed blue and black, silver, speckled colorsided, even brown, dun and golden (all colors rare to nonexistent among North American yak herds). Paul tells us that all dues-paying SYV members prominently display this poster in their yak barns, a sign of community membership as well as promoting the Suisse yakking community for all visitors.
Official SYV posters - found across Switzerland in yak farms.
After a few more photos of Monika and Paul with their yaks, we say our goodbyes, and Ben and I head to our second visit, driving to the Alpine town of Stalden – district of Visp, canton of Valais – as the sun begins to light up Sarner Lake on its way to setting. Paul and Matthias Britschgi are two brothers who got into yaks several years back, Ben tells me when we pull over and pause for a photo opp overlooking the lake. “These guys are old school,” explains Ben, smiling, as we arrive at their hof – “no Internet, no Google maps, barely any emails.” We park and walk down to what appears to be the yak barn, which turns out to be three mid-sized wooden frame hangars covered in green tarp big enough to house towering piles of hay, with a stunning view of the mountain valley off towards the east.
The brothers – Paul in a leg brace and Matthias a bit more spry - are doing evening feeding, and the yaks are grunting with pleasure, happy to be consuming grass on such a fetching hillside. The three Swiss converse and I listen, and Ben reveals to me that in 2011, heavy flood rains eroded and “slow slide collapsed” this entire ridge hill, destroying the brothers’ traditional Swiss style milking barn and leaving homeless fifteen brown Swiss dairy cows. Without a milk barn, the family sold off their cows, and bought four yaks from a neighbor over in the next valley as an “emergency investment.” Almost a decade later, they now have 25 yaks, meat animals, they explain. “Yaks are more mobile and have no need for a big barn,” the two brothers explain, while shoveling pitchforks of hay in the swiss twilight. “Plus, the yaks are much more calm when you approach them, almost like they know you are on their side.” My ears perk up. This is the second time in today I’ve heard the Swiss celebrate their yaks’ even-keeled temperament, as well as their resilient qualities as high Alpine cattle. A lone yak, meanwhile, saunters out to the edge of the farm platform and stands staring, perhaps ruminating on the alpenglow off in the distance, now fading to a deep purple.
Twilight at the Britschgi yak farm.
As darkness descends, the brothers invite us into their modest homestead for a visit. Their mother, the Britschgi matriarch, already has tea and cookies on the table. She doesn’t speak English, but she knows why I am here, handing me a copy of Daniel Wismer’s new photo book The Yaks Go West, which I thumb through with interest. Switzerland’s yak godfather seems to have collected yak stories and images from all over North America and Europe, and I nod repeatedly as I turn the pages, my hosts looking on in amusement. At the book’s end, I uncover a photo of our Vermont Yak Company team on a yak rodeo day from years before, and I laugh out loud in wonder, showing the photo to my four Swiss friends. A tour of the main barn, meanwhile, reveals that Swiss farmers like to hoard as much as Vermonters do – old handmade rope, yak bones and skulls adorning the simple wooden walls, and burlap bags and farm equipment in various states of use clutter up the interior. We take a few last photos, and Ben and I say our goodbyes, the night now near pitch black. An hour later, we arrive at Ben’s modest Brientz home, where his partner Tina and Max the Cat have dinner waiting. My first day in Switzerland feels like a week, and I am tired from the flight and the full day of visits. Sleep is not a problem.
Early winter snow begins falling overnight, and by the time Ben, Tina and I arrive at the village of Lauenen after a slow morning drive through snowy mountainous country, the flakes are flying fast and the muddy ground is blanketed in white. We pull up in front of giant barn with an equally massive crane in front, a white caked hill pasture running up behind the complex into the snow-covered mountains beyond, and yaks – black, and speckled with newly fallen snow, completely in their element. We are greeted by farmer Regula Oerli - “little ear” is her last name translated into English, Ben tells me.
In her late 50s and dressed for the weather in a blue Arcterx jacket, canvas work pants, and muck boots, Regula’s piercing eyes, hawk-like visage and friendly but tough demeanor immediately convey that she is no nonsense. Her grandfather owned this farm, Regula tells us, and her parents were cottage hosts, running a seasonable tourist operation for visitors on an expansive summer pasture above the main property - 260 hectares total. “No men for me – I do not have time for this hobby,” she answers Ben when he asks if she runs the farm by herself. “Marrying a neighbor in this farm valley - ‘getting hitched over the shit pail’ as our old expression goes - is a best/worst case scenario –” she adds, smiling. After years as a “wordly” travel agent, Regula tells us, she came back to the farm – “much better, to be outside all the time” – but she does wonder what will happen to the farm with no heirs once she is too old to manage all the animals – twelve Simmontel dairy cows (the famed local Swiss breed), eight goats, plus her 25 yaks. “Government subsidies are not enough to fix what needs to be fixed with our barn,” she explains, “plus our tourist cottages,” gesturing up the mountain with her eyes.
I point behind us at the snow-covered herd. “Why yaks?” I ask her.
“After fifteen years with yaks, I feel a deep spiritual connection to these animals,” she answers, immediately diving deep. “Yaks have ancient instincts, they are connected to an older way of being.” Seeing my quizzical look, she goes on. “Yaks are smart, safe, and they know the way on these treacherous mountain trails when we head into the mountains every summer,” she explains. “If you lose your way or get lost, follow the yaks,” she says, smiling.
Our snowy morning visit with Regula.
Swiss summer seems a world away now, as we stand together and talk in the swirling snow with the yaks grazing all around us, ice flecking up on their hairy backs, the morning muffled by the swirling wind and sleet. “What else about yaks?” I prompt. “Yaks love to swim - fording rivers with only their snouts showing – and they will stay in the water for hours up in the mountains,” Regula says, almost laughing. “And yaks are clever,” she goes on, relaying a story of a yak mama walking 90 minutes from her calf to find a hole in the fence, track down and eat some wayward corn, and then returning to her calf without any human the wiser.
As the snow intensifies, we move into the dairy barn, warm, dry, and smelling of shit and hay. Regula introduces us to her goats, curious and energetic, and her herd of Simmontels, tails tied to the milking wall in the traditional Swiss way. Remembering the “no tail tie” Swiss law for yaks, I ask Regula about the differences between working with her Simmontel and working with her yaks. She thinks for a moment. “Simmontels are inside cattle, fat and lazy, with big udders,” she explains, “They are covered with piss and shit, but they are warm and dry.” We all laugh. “Yaks are different – they are wild and belong outside. Their feet are smaller, they are more compact, and weighted for mountain travel.”
“Wild – like Pleistocene?” I ask her.
She nods. “And the Simmontel are domesticated - Holocene cows. Different than yaks.”
“And you work with both daily,” I conclude, nodding, secretly astonished that her observation confirms my emerging understanding of yaks as different than most other cattle.
Stepping out into the snow, the four of us take a few more photos with a yak background, and then say our goodbyes, Regula disappearing back into the swirling snow, her blue jacket faintly outlined against the ice-covered backs of her black yaks.
In the car, Ben, Tina and I debrief as we head to our next stop. The snow begins to abate, though the sky remains gray and the afternoon raw.
After a meandering drive, we arrive in the village of Saanenmoser (loosely translated as “swampy river”), a place, Ben explains, that historically has collected dry swamp turf and burned it for heat. After a few missed turns, we arrive at the hof of Andreas and Carol Gruenig, “mountain people,” Ben tells me, farm folk who trace their roots back to old Swiss traditions and culture. I nod, intrigued, as we drive past their home and up the hill to the farm above. Andreas meets us at the main door. Tall, ruddy, friendly, and radiating a quiet physical strength, he is a man who chooses his words carefully. University educated, he enjoys the hard work of farm life, he explains, having purchased this farm property three decades ago and, beginning with a tiny two-wheeled carriage on skids, invested six years building the main barn and home, “optimizing” his homestead ever since, which shows in his attention to every detail. Even at first glance, his property seems hand crafted and lovingly built - Andreas seems a true farm’trepreneur.
He ushers us into the main yak stable, two stories with a party room on top, an area so Swiss style clean and immaculate – no mud to be seen, and very little dirt - that we could probably eat off the floor. “Our stable and system of feeding is our showpiece of our yak farm,” Andreas explains through Ben. “Our primary goal is to keep our yaks happy and stress-free – no screaming or grunting – while they interact with each other and with us.” He introduces us to the three adult yaks in their herd – a handsome bull named Sambo, and Dawa and Dara, the two dominant breeding cows – all contentedly munching evening hay while Andreas scratches their heads, all of which are encased in an easy-locking head gate system. Several times, Andreas flags their desire to keep their yaks “chill.” “Yaks are calm,” he explains as we pat each animal in turn, “and I like my yaks to be relaxed, not frantic or stressed out.” It is clear Andreas has combined Swiss functionalism with a simple admirable aesthetic that seems to be benefit both yaks and yakkers alike. Even my fellow Swiss guides, Ben and Tina, seem impressed with what Andreas and his family have accomplished here.
Carole and Andreas' yak homestead.
Andreas invites us down to their farmhouse for dinner, where we meet his wife Carole, flanked by a fuzzy French dog and a content black cat who seems to have the run of their place. Like their barn, Carole and Andreas’ home is immaculate, spare and stunning in its simple sturdy functionalism. Carole serves us a delicious dinner (a “snack,” they call it) of pumpkin soup, zupfe bread, and hoblkase (a type of Swiss cheese) with pumpkin seeds, sour cream and hot chile sauce as side condiments. Delicious all around. Carole and Andreas are gracious hosts, and the five of us yak about local politics and their region’s development, as well as their ongoing work as teachers and farmers.
As we are eating, Carole brings out a copy of Daniel Wismer’s yak photo book, as well as Rosula Blanc’s book Avec trois yaks vers la mer (Yakking To The Sea - English translation). I tell them that Rosula has helped me organize this entire trip, and they laugh. “Rosula is an energetic champion of Swiss yaks,” Andreas says, “and she doesn’t totally like our approach to yak farming here, finding it too rigid and confining for the animals – she has very strong views.”
“So I have heard,” I say, nodding, once again anticipating the prospect of meeting Blanc and Wismer in the coming days.
“What’s the best thing about yakking?” I ask them both as we finish our meal.
“Walking up to our farm stable and seeing the yaks all relaxed and calm and happy,” Andreas replies without hesitation. “The worst thing? Taking them to the butcher.” Carole nods.
That night, after we arrive at home, Ben and Tina serve up raclette, a Swiss local favorite and national dish, comprised of a hard cheese melted together with combination of meats, fruits and vegetables in a center table heating unit. “You Swiss know how to eat,” I say, “and the yaks remind us to relax,” Ben replies with a grin.
Tina and Ben tell me they are toying with the idea of buying a small farm property, and perhaps yaks might be on the list. “Tell me more about the Swiss approach to farming,” I ask, conjuring up a few mental questions from our epic day. Ben nods, and thoughtfully explains that Swiss state funded farmer’s education programs emphasize rotational growing and grazing, nutritional balances, and animal-friendly stabling, with at least 7% of Swiss farmland embracing “biodiversity” programs. “15% of Suisse farms are now organic, and all farms must follow Swiss government laws to receive subsidies,” he explains. “Is this why your Swiss landscape looks so uniformly well-maintained?” I ask, and he nods. The “bio Suisse” label is the most difficult certification to get,” he elaborates, “100 pages of ‘bio Suisse richlinien” (super strict regulations) conducted by two private companies -Bio Inspecta and Biotest Agro – which make unannounced on-site farm visits to ensure compliance.” Suisse farming, he explains, is focused on five pillars – biodiversity, food supply, landscape quality, resource efficiency, and (agri)cultural improvement, preserving traditional Suisse farm practices even when they don’t make financial sense, “like making hay on a steep hillside to hold on to old Swiss traditions even if we lose money.”
The three of us all laugh.
“We call this kulturlandschaftbatratrage,” Ben says, “the collective practice of land management, like our professional foresters who manage Swiss forests by dictating local managerial choices right down to decisions regarding whether or not to plant a single tree, and where.”
I whistle. Very different than the United States, I say.
He nods. “If you are a Swiss farmer and you want diversity funding from the Swiss government, you must share all agricultural information with the state via detailed databases, and follow the five-pillar model,” he says. “No mono crops, but instead rotational grazing and nitrogen fixing legumes every few years – alfalfa and red and white clover – just like we have done since the Middle Ages when every Swiss farmer had his own clover breed. It’s Swiss pride.”
“So where do the yaks fit in?” I ask.
“Good question,” he replies. “That’s why you are here.”
Our bellies sated with raclette, our heads spinning with good local wine, we lift our glasses in celebration of our day, and retire early.
The next morning, Ben and I find ourselves standing on a snow-dusted pasture ridge at Yakhof Gumpi surrounded by eight happy yaks on the outskirts of Wakringen (Emmentel region). The morning is cold and clear, with the sun cresting over the eastern ridge and onto the backs of our hairy companions, pushing steam off of their black backs as we all gaze across the valley towards the west. A mystical morning here in the presence of these other worldly creatures, all of whom seem to take it in stride, an Alpine Swiss morning like any other.
Dressed in deep blue wind pants, muck boots, a black fleece sweater, knit cap, and glasses, our 67-year-old host Martin Silfverberg– skinny as a scarecrow and endlessly energetic – is perhaps the most peripatetic yakker I have ever met. Staccato syllables fly out of his mouth in a combination of English and Swiss, with Ben translating and me struggling to keep up as we traverse the muddy hillside below Martin’s 1823 farmhouse. On our way here, Ben tells me that Martin is a legendary pop star – born in Berne, a drummer for two famous Swiss rock bands (Zurich West and Patent Ozhsner) and a former Los Angeles studio percussionist, Martin is now a yak star, raising his small herd here and summering his yaks in the mountains with Regula’s herd. His life partner, Ursula Lehmann, is traveling, so Martin shows us around the Yakhof Gumpi property solo.
Morning yakking with Martin.
“I leased this place, then bought it, and built my musical studio on the top floor, and play music, and raise these yaks,” Martin breathlessly exclaims, herding stick in hand, as we climb the muddy single track road back to his farm house with his eight black yaks grunting and following closely behind, anticipating hay for breakfast. Back home, we grab piles of hay and pile them up below his porch, and the yaks dive in. “They love their hay,” Martin says, scratching the head of a friendly cow who sidles up to sup. The three of us admire the small herd, accompanied by the occasional soft grunt and jockeying of animals for the pole position next to the hay piles.
He leads us up the stairs. “Welcome to my boat,” Martin smiles, ushering us into his incredibly messy but oddly endearing ramshackle farm home. Peacock feathers, yak hides, stacks of books and records, and odds and ends are piled up seemingly everywhere. Over tea, Martin tells us of his grand grunniens plans. “Yakrindfleish!” he exclaims, holding up a small vacuum sealed pouch of flattened yak jerky. “I want to sell yak jerky far and wide!” He offers us a small taste of the delicious dried meat – my first time with Swiss yak jerky. The texture is chewy, the flavor mouth-wateringly tasty with a potent combination of spices.
“Can I buy a few packages to take home?” I ask.
Momentarily, Martin looks crestfallen.
“I am still waiting on my new jerky supply to return from the butcher,” he admits. “But give me your address back in the United States – I will ship you some as soon as it arrives!”
As I do so, he plies us with yak paraphernalia – postcards, price lists, stamps, handouts. If the Swiss need to uncork a yak enthusiast to drum up support for bos grunniens across the Alps, Martin may be their poster guy. “We are totally a bootstrapped operation,” Martin confides, proud of his use of this English word. “I figure we can sell 1,000 grams of our premium yak jerky for 150 swiss francs…” his voice trails off, unusual for our morning’s conversation, but I admire his Gumpi-style gumption, and tell him as much.
Thanking Martin for his hospitality, we head to our afternoon visit, arriving in Fribourg in time to meet our hof family hosts, Sergio and Priti Casini, and their toddler son Jeronimo. Their farm, nestled up against the center of a stunning ridge above a steep mountain valley, sports a barn enclosure behind, with fencing running up the side of the mountain beyond our view. Two excitable dogs and a small army of cats greet us as we arrive, making Ben and I feel welcome, and I suddenly realize that Martin’s yak rindfleish snack has made me hungry for lunch. Priti is of Sri Lankan descent, sporting dark eyes, a warm smile, and a colorful dress, and immediately invites us to the sun-soaked front room family table for a delicious meal of yak sausage and polenta punctuated with turmeric and hot chili spices. Sergio, her husband, is shy at first, and does not speak much English, but he and Ben fall into conversation while I coach Jeronimo into eating his lunch, after which the toddler retires to a little trundle bed in the corner to play with his toys. “Why yaks?” I ask Priti when she returns from the kitchen to eat with us. She pauses, and then launches into a thoughtful meditation on her relationship with their four leggeds.
“It takes a certain kind of human to be with yaks,” she begins. “I listen and talk with our animals, and yaks are very spiritual. We are very close with them, interacting with them every day here on our farm.” By way of example, she illustrates with a story about a yak bull named Ledo helping coax a butcher-bound cow named Maria onto the trailer rather than pursuing amorous flirtation after being asked for help by Priti, and Ben and I exchange glances.
“How are yaks in terms of their personality, their temperament?” I ask them, as she takes a pause.
“If you approach the yaks with respect and openness, as we try to do,” Priti replies, “they become like close friends, and have such a calm and relaxed energy.”
Twilight with Sergio and Priti and their yaks.
After lunch, we walk up behind their farm into their pasture, snow melting all around in the mid- afternoon sun, to say hello to their yak herd and tour their fledgling fish aquaponics operation in a high mountain meadow. After an hour of steady conversation, Ben and Priti yakking and me listening, we loop back down to the yak enclosure and stand among the yaks for close to an hour, observing, listening, and sharing stories as the sun starts to disappear below the western ridge above us.
“Not everyone is the right person to work with yaks,” Priti says thoughtfully, calling one of the cows to her and then stroking her flank as the cow gently hooks her horn under Priti’s arm. Quiet now, we watch as the yaks slowly shuffle out of their feeding paddock and up the ridge trail for the night, one cow stopping and grunting for her wayward calf, who eventually skips past us and around the fence pot to rejoin her mama. I ask her what they most enjoy about their yak life.
“The yaks ground us,” she replies, motioning to Sergio and Jeronimo across the paddock saying good night to the remaining stragglers, their horns swaying, backlit against the sunset.
I nod, and after a few more minutes of observation, Ben and I say our “Auf Widersens” and head back to Brienz for the evening. The evening is cold, with a hint of rain (or maybe snow) in the air, but tomorrow promises sun and warmer temperatures, perfect for heading to the southern end of Switzerland for meetings with two legendary Suisse yakkers – Rosula Blanc, who helped me organize this visit, and Daniel Wismer, the Godfather of Swiss yakking.
The next morning, before I head south, Ben and I sit down with Peter Ernst, the newly elected president of the Swiss Yak Federation. To prepare for our meeting, I review their latest publication, entitled “Yak breeding in Switzerland: establishment of a herd register,” published at www.syv.ch. In true Swiss fashion, SYV’s official name is featured in three languages: “Schweizerischer Yakzucht Verein,” or “Association Suisse Des Eleveurs De Yak,” or “Associazione Svizzera Degli Allevatori Di Yak,” and their web site and publications provide a wealth of information about the history of yakking in Europe and Switzerland.
The official SYV web site home page.
The SYV publication provides a valuable snapshot of 21st century European yakking: a mere 3,000 grunniens in Europe, including the countries of Austria (400 yaks – 35 owners and zoos), France (500 yaks – 40 owners and zoos), Germany (600 yaks – 40 owners and zoos), England (30 yaks – 2 owners and zoos), Italy (150 yaks – 15 owners and zoos), Sweden (250 yaks – 20 owners and zoos) and Switzerland (700 yaks, 45 breeders, 1 zoo and 10 owners). The Swiss yakkers are the only European country with an active livestock registry and herd book, thanks to the hard work of SYV members over the years.
A capsule history of European yakking? Yaks began arriving in Europe between fifty and one hundred years ago and kept in zoological gardens, with the French leading the herding charge – 1854 saw yaks shipped from Shanghai to Paris, with the French figuring that yaks “could add something to French mountain agriculture.” A short paragraph summarizing the 19th century French yakking experience proves revealing, as yaks once again manage to elude the grasp of human co-domestication.
After a few years it was concluded that yaks acclimatized well to France, but it couldn’t be resolved what its role in French agriculture would be. The soft quality of the yak wool was appreciated, as well as its robustness, frugality, and extraordinary ability in mountainous terrain. It was thought to be an interesting animal for small mountain farms, but the habits and mentalities of the farmers were not ready to cope with a new animal. Also, the number of yaks was too small to guarantee proper breeding and money was running out.
Ten years later, meanwhile, the Germans imported their first yaks. An 1864 lithograph illustration features an image of a giant yak bull - hairy horse tail, massive hump, and impressive horned head on full display – with two junior yak bulls locking horns in the background. Beyond France and Germany, the SYV publication notes the lack of official documentation of yaks imported to Europe, other than 15 yaks imported from Mongolia to an East Berlin zoo (1956) and from Kyrgzstan’s Pamir range to Erfurt (1958). Switzerland seems the “go to” country for European yakking, with the first yaks arriving in 1895 to the city of Basel’s zoological garden. Not until 1973 did the Swiss conduct “a first experiment with yaks as productive livestock outside zoological gardens,” importing thirteen yaks from Germany “to counter the abandonment and going wild of the alpine pastures,” a project that was stopped about ten years later because of personal problems with the owners.” I paused here, chuckling, reminded that often its humans, more than yaks, that create problems for co-domestication.
Swiss yakking at present? Led by Daniel Wismer, “the most engaged breeder in Switzerland,” the Swiss began diversifying their breeding stock, first importing yaks from German dealers and zoos, most famously “Massoud,” a genetically hornless Mongolian yak specimen imported from an East Berlin zoo in 2006. Three years later, Wismer imported a duo of Kazakhstani yaks - “Kalev” and “Hiiuma” - from the Tallinn, Estonia zoo, and in 2012, followed up with “Jay Singh,” imported from northern Germany in 2012, “the only existing European brown line from Sweden probably originating from the SU,” according to the SYV guide book.
In addition to providing detailed herd records of every registered Swiss yak in the SYV, the guide book also makes a compelling case for both the “exotic and majestic beauty of the yak,” and yaks as “perfect animals for ‘low mountain farming’ in mountainous regions – “rarely needing a veterinarian, modest in feed, low cost in buildings,” states the SYV literature. The SYV also ties yak husbandry to Switzerland’s agricultural history. “Swiss agricultural regulations promote extensive grazing in the mountains for which yaks are ideally suited,” explains the SYV booklet, “to maintain utilization of agricultural land in mountainous regions, which are too steep for the actual large cattle breeds or in places where grass is too poor for cattle, yaks are an interesting alternative on poor steep land, which would be otherwise used for sheep.” Beyond agriculture, Swiss consumers prize the “excellent quality’ of the “free range” yak meat, allowing for diversification and innovation of agritourism: the selling of yak meat and local yak products, yak tourism and lodging, recreation and trekking opportunities.
In sum, the SYV is unique to European yakking, and the Swiss have emerged as the most organized country of yak breeders on the continent. “Yaks have very well adapted to Switzerland,” explains the SYV report. “To keep a healthy stock and control inbreeding, a group of passionate Swiss yak breeders founded the SYV in 2003 and started to register their stock in a federally recognized herd-book from 2005 onwards.” According to the book, the SYV “quality controls” their yak registry through DNA testing, linear description and review, and regular meetings among SYV membership to keep abreast of all things yak. “The vision of the pioneers of the French acclimation society who brought the first yaks to Europe in 1854 finally became a reality in Switzerland now: the yak found a niche in mountain agriculture,” concludes the SYV paper. “Innovative farmers appreciate the unique qualities of the yak in mountainous terrain for landscape conservation and the production of a high-quality meat on poor land.”
Kudos to the Swiss Yak Federation.
We meet SYV president Peter Ernst in a downtown Brienz café. Over coffee, the three of us dive right in. “When I turn 50 next year, I thought I wanted to be a full time yakker,” explains Ernst in solid English. “Not happening,” he concludes, laughing ruefully. Tall, handsome, and friendly, Ernst, by day a carpenter who owns a trailer business, then shares a giant full color photo calendars of his family with their yaks, and tells us that his three kids are now fully grown “and not as interested in yaks as I am,” he says, smiling, though their family loved growing up with their hairy humped companions.
“Why yaks?” I ask.
“I saw a yak for the first time in 2006 and I realized immediately this animal was for me,” Ernst explains, growing animated. “I was always looking West towards Europe, Canada, the States - with the yak, I started looking East towards Nepal and Tibet.”
“Tell me about SYV?” I ask, remembering Wismer’s new photo book and nodding.
“Well, I’m new and still learning and no one else wanted the president’s job,” he replies, laughing. “We have 60 yak farms and 440 or so registered yaks in SYV, and somewhere between 600 and 700 yaks in Switzerland.”
“As president, what do you see the role of the SYV?” I push. “To sell meat?”
“SYV’s mission is to promote yaks in Switzerland,” he explains with pride. “We are the only country that has all five breeds of the yak, and we are the only country with a yak herd registry.”
Yakking with Peter above Brienz.
I make a mental note to check the “five breeds” observation, and we settle our bill and head up the mountain to Peter’s farm. Once there, Ben and I help feed Peter’s yaks in a small corral with a stunning view overlooking Brienz village, the old town church, and the expansive beautifully blue lake below, admiring his small herd in the midst of the melting snow and sunny warming morning. Happy to eat their morning hay, the yaks grunt quietly and rub up against us, welcoming our human company, and we return the sentiment, scratching their hairy flanks and necks while Ben takes photographs. After four days on the ground here, I have learned through the Swiss yakking grapevine that Peter as SYV president has his work cut out for him – herding yakkers is even harder than herding cats, even in the well-organized Alps – and I am grateful for the chance to visit with him.
After our visit with Peter, Ben takes me to the famed town of Thun (in the Bernese Oberland region) for a quick tour and sidewalk café lunch before I jump a train to southern Switzerland for phase two of my yak hof trip – with plans to meet Rosula come late afternoon. A missed train transfer connection in a Swiss town called Brig found me mistakenly crossing over into Italy (European countries sure are tiny) at exactly the same time as a drug-sniffing train hound caught wind of my cannabidiol capsules (CBD – for sleep) in my luggage. After a respectful if direct conversation with the Italian constabulary, punctuated by a stern young officer overseeing me flush my remaining CBD capsules down the train toilet, I disembarked, purchasing a one way ticket back to Switzerland, and made my transfer in Brig, ending up in the town of Sion two hours late, much to Rosula’s frustration.
“What am I to do with two hours in town?” she WhatsApp’s me, clearly annoyed. “Go Christmas shopping?”
I could sense her eye roll all the way down here on the Italy/Swiss border. Not a great way to start off our visit.
“Let me buy us drinks and dinner when I arrive,” I message back, and she agrees via text, barely mollified.
Disembarking two hours later in Sion (canton of Valais, near Lake Geneva), I make my way up the stairs. Amongst the crowd surging to the top, Rosula and her dog – an Aussie border named Anuun - were immediately apparent, she with a slightly annoyed smile on her face and Anuun clearly interested in getting back to the mountains. I apologize profusely, and ask her where I am taking us for dinner.
“I know a French place nearby and they take dogs,” she replies.
I laugh. “Allons’y, avec le chien,” I say.
She smiles. Let the healing begin.
We take her white Land Rover (“too big, too low, I don’t like it, but it hauls yaks,” she says) to a nearby restaurant. Over a delightful meal of local beer, wine and delicious fare, Rosula and I dive right in. Dressed in fashionable casual clothes, including boots and a festive scarf, Rosula’s charisma is immediately bubbles to the surface. Impatient, witty, and observant, with a nimble mind and flashing eyes, she begins asking me of my impressions of Switzerland, the yaks, and the SYC community, responding to my observations with pithy, direct, no nonsense statements I occasionally ask her to unpack.
As we talk, I learn more about her background. Born in Basel, Rosula became a dancer and intellectual, studying in Japan for many years, and returned to Switzerland to take over her mother’s mountain farm after she died. Rosula met and partnered up with famed Swiss mountaineer Andre George, obtained her first yaks in 2009, and together, the two of them staged a number of Alpine trekking adventures in company of her yaks, most famously in 2011, when she, a friend, and a trio of shaggy companions – three yak steers - walked through the mountains from Switzerland to Italy to France to the Mediterranean. She published a book the next year called Avec trois yaks vers la mer chronicling her journey and what she learned (With Three Yaks To The Sea, the same book Andreas and Carole had shared with me a few days before).
“What is your interest in yaks?” she asks, having already reviewed my book outline before I arrived.
“What does the yak have to teach us?” I ask by way of answer, lifting my wine glass. “Can we humans hack the yak?”
She laughs. “But what if the yak does not want to be hacked?” she asks.
“The yaks often seem to feel this way,” I respond, laughing. Clearly, this is going to be a fun visit.
As we eat, Rosula and I discuss the idea of “co-domestication,” a phrase she learned from a researcher in Mongolia, one she applies to her own work with yaks.
“Yaks have wild instincts,” she says, promising to share the book with me tomorrow. “Unlike most cattle, they have not been over-domesticated.”
Seeing me nod, ears open, she goes on.
“Many researchers talk about ‘co-domestication’ or ‘co-evolution’ between humans and yaks,” she muses, “but no, every individual human and animal has a different unique personality – not every human, for example, wants to be wild. So why then hack the yak?”
Instead of answering her question, I urge her to say more.
“I have spent years trekking with yaks, and the Alps have become my mountain classroom for exploring the yak/human partnership,” she explains. “With yaks, the leader always walks in the front with confidence, knowing the way, while the rear yaks protect the herd – all of this is an ‘energetic thing,’” she explains. “The Chinese have tried to isolate pure genetics from wild yak – bos mutus – but it is rare to find such genetics in North America or even here in Switzerland. Maybe better to work with the yaks directly and let them teach us.”
“Exactly,” I say, fascinated.
We Land Rover up into the town of Evolen, nestled in the nearby mountains, and the three of us hike down a snowy hillside off the main road through the snow in headlamps to “Grandpa’s” B and B – my home base for the next two nights. After making plans for a morning rendezvous, we bid each other good night. “A demain,” I say, “et merci beaucoup for a most informative evening.”
The next morning dawns bright and clear, and after a delightful breakfast with my Grandpa’s hostess, I walk up the snowy ridge to the main road and find my way to Rosula’s farm complex to spend an entire day visiting with her and her yak herd. Rounding the bend, I see Rosula spreading hay for morning feeding in front of a sunlit barn structure, an entire village of empty cabins spilling out behind her and around the mountain ridge. Her yaks, meanwhile, resplendent in the early morning sun, are ambling towards breakfast, steam rising off of their shaggy backs, an occasional grunt echoing towards me across the morning air. I swivel around, doing a 360, drinking in this scene. A bluebird morning, not a soul in sight beyond my herd hosts, beautiful bright orange meleze tree foliage fading to yellow as winter begins to settle over the Alps, and stunning mountain peaks surrounding us with the valley spreading down to Evolen below – the overall effect is breath taking.
Rosula warmly welcomes me as I approach, bustling about with morning chores and introducing me around to her yak herd, all of whom are remarkably calm and quiet, clearly used to being in the presence of us two-leggeds. Her yaks, each endowed with powerful Asian names – Kubilai, Naulekh, Chele, Tsarang, Nayan, Umsunai, Julong, and Ogotai – remain mostly quiet as I greet each, repeating their names out loud, pleased to be in the presence of these remarkable creatures who seem so relaxed. I remember that Rosula refers to this farm as Yak shu lo che (“Yaks on the rocks”) – and it is from here that she has staged years of yak research in intimate proximity to bos grunniens. “Freed of the old yak ways, yaks as constant beast of burden, yaks for milk and meat, Rosula has opened up a path back to yak as long distance trekker – something not observed in Europe for millennia,” notes Dan Richards in a 2018 article entitled “Those Swiss Yaks.” “This is a joy to both parties - the yaks love to boldly go.”
“Joy” is the right adjective, I note, watching Rosula visit with her yaks. Imediately apparent is their deep and affectionate co-evolutionary bonds, and as we visit, she shares stories about each yak, including a non-yak calf named “Chibi” whom Rosula and her yak herd recently have adopted, a stubby-headed stubborn hairless little energy ball, zipping in and around the yaks. “Chibi is cute, domesticated to appeal to us humans,” Rosula observes, picking right up on our conversation from last night, “but like most cattle, he is stupid and short snouted and loud and slow.”
I laugh, agreeing.
“Unlike yaks,” she continues, waving her arm around at the shaggy assembled, “who are hairy, quiet, long snouted, and not built to emotionally appeal to us humans.” I nod. Rosula is a practitioner of a form of meditation called “chi gong,” designed to quiet the “monkey mind,” and she brings this sensibility to her analysis. “If you watch yaks eat, you’ll notice they are not greedy and selfish animals, nervously chasing after food, and they are never in a hurry,” Rosula explains. “They take their time eating, and you can see this in the softness of their jaws and tongues while they munch,” she observes, gesturing to the hay pile where the yaks break their fast.
“Are yaks spiritual?” I ask. “They seem to help you tightly-wound Swiss chill the heck out.”
She laughs, and then pauses, patting the flank of a beautiful white yak bull – Naulekh - contentedly munching on hay.
“The yak mind is open, deeply meditative, and naturally quiet,” she explains quietly after a few moments. “If danger appears, yaks can quickly leap into motion, but they spend much of their time in a deep resting meditative state – I see this all the time with yaks.”
I nod, listening.
“And yaks are very loyal to people who respect them,” she says, while quickly and quietly clambering up onto the back of yak bull Kubilai, who remains completely unphased.
Rosula Blanc - the Godmother of Suisse Yakking.
I am impressed, and for the first time, I notice Rosula’s hands – large, strong, and powerful – as she gesticulates to make her points.
“Every yak is unique, and some yaks bond with me, while others are better at bonding with other people – it’s energetic,” she explains, her hands gesturing across the herd.
The three of us stand together gazing over the valley for a few minutes, and then Rosula hops off Kubilai’s back, gesturing at the cabin complex behind us.
“I live here alone with the yaks most of the winter, and summers I take the yaks and whenever I can, I head into the mountains like all good Swiss,” she says, smiling. “Most Swiss here in Evolen are part time farmer and carpenters, and work at the ski areas during the winter.”
Remembering my conversations with Ben, I ask her if she is subsidized by the Swiss government for her yak work.
“Americans are very entrepreneurial, while we Swiss are conservative, not always willing to try new things,” she replies. “We get wages from our government so yes, we are state employees because we are cleaning Suisse land with our yaks,” she says, smiling. I ask her to tell me more.
“The Swiss government wants the yaks to graze, promote botanical diversity, provide avalanche protection – short grazed grass rather than long grass - as long as we are careful and protect the old stone walls and the health of the land,” she explains. “We go to the city of Visp and do a two year weekly evening training to learn the regulations and paperwork to follow the rules and get government wages, and the government doesn’t really care how we graze – they just want us to get it done and then we get our money. They are not really interested in promoting yaks.”
“How do they know what you’re up to, way up here?” I ask.
She tells me a government official shows up once yearly without warming. “They always tell me my yaks seem very happy,” she says, laughing. “But yes, the Swiss government can be very controlling.”
I ask her how she supports herself way up here in the mountains. She explains that 90% of her income comes from state subsidized yak grazing and her maintaining the area’s old stone walls.
“I am caring for this land, and I feel like an artist just passing through here with my yaks,” she muses. “The land will go on long after I am gone.”
After morning feeding, Rosula invites me up to her cabin for tea, lunch and more conversation. We walk up the hill to her home - a tightly built and aesthetically stunning wooden cabin featuring a large traditional wood stove, bedroom loft, and multi-tiered main floor with a cozy kitchen spilling up a small flight of stairs into an open and high-ceilinged living space. “I built this place with my ex-boyfriend, mountaineer Andre Gige,” she says, seeing me admiring the interior. The cabin – a beautiful mix of rustic Swiss mountain chalet meets high end Himalayan tea lodge - is an homage to all things yak: blankets, rugs, paintings, carvings, photographs, shawls, and several bookshelves frame the space. “You should see my basement,” Rosula says, laughing. “Yak harnesses, packs, and all my trekking gear is under the cabin.”
Rosula and I spend the next several hours eating and talking, exploring her various yak-related projects, including beautiful handmade collections of yak cards, several books of intimate full color photographs of yak development and herd life, and various yak-focused papers and articles she has produced over the years. She shares the Mongolian “co-domestication” book, recounts her visit with professor Li in Datong, China at a recent international yak conference, and gives me a copy of her paper entitled “Yak as a pack animal in Switzerland: Transalpine 2011 – Thoughts on training and work performance.”
“Biggest takeaway?” I ask, joking, soaking up her wisdom and energy.
She points to two bullet points under “basic behavior observations.”
“Yaks are very sensitive to energy inputs and can be guided without touch, only with voice, movement and presence,” I read aloud. “When working with a herd, the herd is regarded as an organism and worked as a whole – I would define the relationship to my leading yak more as a partnership than dominance.”
“I am working on a new paper trying to capture what our trekking trips have taught me about the energy involved in working with yaks,” Rosula says, promising to send me her findings once finished. After lunch, we sit on her front porch overlooking the yaks, Evolen valley, and the Alps in the late afternoon sun, enjoying the warmth, the blue, the bright orange, and an occasional grunt from below. We plan our next few days of yak adventures, and then I head back to the B and B for the evening, my mind at once full and contemplative after a transformative day in the presence of Rosula and her herd.
I meet Rosula and Anuun the next morning at the bottom of the mountain road, schlepping my guitar and duffel down the long hill in the midst of another beautiful Alpine morning. On the way to our rendezvous with Daniel Wismer, we drive to the nearby town of Raron to meet yak farmer Josef Ingeboden, who “does high end yak meat for some of Switzerland’s best restaurants,” Rosula tells me on the ride. A semi-retired Chrysler car dealer whose daughter works for Porsche, Ingeboden lives on a rambling farm property a short walk above Raron’s town center, featuring a stunning church right out of the Middle Ages.
We arrive at Ingeboden’s home, which feels like medieval castle mated with a monastery labyrinth and birthed this unique combination of stone and wood with Eastern overtones – prayer flags, Buddhist icons, and Hindu statuary punctuate his property. Tall, nimble, and funny, the elderly Ingeboden greets us with a smile, dressed in dirty muck boots, canvas work pants, a work jacket, and a brown fedora covered with hay. We immediately walk up through a series of fences to his high pasture, Ingeboden and Rosula catching up in Suisse, me listening and looking around.
“Yaks are intelligent, sensitive, amazing animals,” Ingeboden tells me, suddenly switching to English as we encounter a small herd of yaks in the upper pasture. “Always treat them with respect.”
I nod, and we spend an hour visiting with his young yaks, all mature calves and young steers, before walking back down the hill and touring his main farm operation, a well-designed barn for hay feeding, with several dozen yak cows and their soon-to-be yearlings spread across a small hill and basking in the morning sun. In his kitchen, Ingeboden walks us through the logistics of his yak meat operation while preparing tea and snacks, including some of his delicious yak rindfleish – dried yak jerky, which proves well spiced and delicious.
“To be a great yak butcher is to make the investment of time, money and attention to preparing the best quality meat, from pasturing to butchering to yak cusine,” Ingeboden explains, passing around to us his meat labels, price lists, and various menus as we talk around his kitchen table.
“Most meat operations spend millions to make a catastrophe, such bullshit,” he exclaims, referring to industrial meat slaughtering companies that render inferior meat. “I have found only a few chef/owners here in Switzerland who are the right match for my yak meat, willing to invest the money and prepare the yak in the best ways.”
I ask him if I can find his yak meat in Zurich – my departure city in just a few short days - and his eyes light up. “Restaurant Rosaly’s in downtown Zurich,” he says, “tell them I sent you.”
After thanking Josef for his hospitality, Rosula, Anuun and I drive to the mountain town of Embd in Switzerland’s famed Zermott region to meet Daniel Wismer, the man who spearheaded Switzerland’s strategic importing of yaks several decades before. No roads lead to Wismer’s high mountain yak pad – you can either trek via a mountain trail or take a helicopter – and so Rosula and I park her car at the Embd cable car station and make the short steep 20 minute ascent to Wismer’s farm property, passing through a series of gates, the trail taking us by a series of pastures. As we round a short bend and come through a fence gate, a sign greets us - “Welcome to Roti Fluo Yak Resort” - with his sprawling farmstead off in the immediate distance.
“Resort?” I say to Rosula. We both laugh.
Coming closer, it is clear that Wismer has designed his place with the look and feel of a high Himalayan trekking tea lodge, right down to the aesthetics of the lodge signage, with a Mongolian twist in the form of a “ger” (a bright orange traditional Mongolian yurt) nestled above the main complex. A covered concrete farm paddock system full of yaks, hay, and various farm implements, adorned with a giant yak statue on the roof, are on full display as we walk up.
SYV president Peter, tour guide Benjamin, and Daniel are in mid-conversation, surrounded by a few of Daniel’s yaks, and we all greet each other in the late afternoon sun, walking a snow lined trail into the woods-filled ridge behind Wismer’s lodge to visit yet another pasture. The late afternoon sun, combined with the snow, the orange meleze trees, and the stunning vistas off in the distance (Switzerland’s famed Matterhorn is just up the valley) are sublime, especially with the yaks – some pitch black, some snowy white – spotlighted in the foreground. After soaking up the yaks and the late afternoon energy, Rosula, Ben, and Peter depart, leaving me alone for 36 hours with Swiss yakking’s eminence grise.
In his mid-50s, grizzled, lean, with piercing eyes and chestnut brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, Wismer is a magnetic character. There is a “rough around the edges” sadness about him, and he uses words like “stupid,” “bullshit,” and ‘asshole” a lot. A self-described Facebook addict, Wisner has used the social media platform to learn, research and connect with yakkers all around the world. As mobile as yaks themselves, Wismer also has traveled extensively, including to North America – Denver, Colorado - to attend an annual meeting of the International Yak Association (IYAK) several years ago
In the Alps with Daniel Wismer, the Godfather of Suisse Yakking.
Over a delicious dinner of raclette and yak jerky, complete with tangy local bier, Wismer and I get to know one another. Having talked quite a bit on Facebook, we fall right into a wide-ranging conversation – about yaks, Switzerland, travel, adventure, politics, love. Wismer reveals that his long-term romantic relationship with a fellow yakker (and friend of many in the Swiss yakking network, including Rosula) ended badly, and he is still feeling the sting of loss.
“Tell me about you,” I suggest. Subtle conversational redirect.
Born in 1964 in the Suisse lowlands, Wismer grew up with a homemaker mother, his father working for the Swiss railroad industry. At age 15, his parents died (talk about loss!) and after receiving an “orphan subsidy” from the Swiss government and fed up with high school, Wismer pursued various creative projects – techno-bands and nightclubs among them. “The Suisse way is to always say NO, this idea will never work,” Wismer tells me over our yak jerky, his frustration evident.
By his mid-twenties, fed up with being Swiss (he jokes), Wismer took off and traveled around the world. While adventuring by train on Kyrgyzstan’s Silk Road, Wismer saw his very first yak, a giant bull swaggering through a Kyrgyz pasture “in the middle of nowhere.” When the locomotive blew its whistle, Wismer tells me, the yak bull immediately dropped into a dead gallop alongside his train - an astonishing spectacle to imagine over raclette, let alone witness in person. “This was an animal I was immediately attracted to,” Wismer tells me, with emotion, pounding at his heart with one hand, raising his beer with the other. “Fourteen months later,” Wismer explains, “I met an old Italian man in north Yemen who said to me – ‘go live in the Swiss Alps – this is the place for you.’ So, I came home.”
After returning to Switzerland, Wismer spent seven years searching for the right farm property in a “very competitive” real estate market. “I found this place for sale, with twenty buyers lined up to make an offer,” he tells me, grinning, “and I told the owners about my vision for yaks and they signed over the property the next day.” I ask him about the design. He grins even wider. “You know cause you’ve been to Nepal – I’ve created a Himalayan tea lodge right here in Switzerland,” he says, laughing, describing the flat stable (in a nod to new Suisse style), the avalanche-proof concrete and wooden frame structure carved into the hillside, and the peacocks, pigs, cat, signage, and Eastern adornments – prayer flags, banners, the Mongolian ger – all contributing to Wismer’s singular yak-focused high altitude vision. And the hairy, humpy, horny piece de resistance? Partially hidden below Wismer’s main lodge in an old converted cattle pen is a miniature museum devoted to all things yak: a single stone room, plumbed, winterized, insulated from the harsh elements, electrified – a yak researcher’s treasure trove.
My head spinning after a second beer, I rack out in Wismer’s lodge main bunk room, empty this time of year but for me, while he heads up to the ger (just assembled two months ago) for a night’s rest. We rise early for chai and a light breakfast of bread and honey (Wismer is a connoisseur of the sticky sweet stuff, with honey jars of all sizes, shapes and consistencies from all over the world stashed throughout his kitchen, including up in the rafters) I spent the bulk of the morning in Wismer’s yak museum, browsing through posters, books, postcards, textiles, bones, videos, and yes, even Stereo Vue yak memorabilia, making notes, taking photos of relevant images and articles for later review, and shaking my head in astonishment at Wismer’s curatorial creativity.
After a late morning coffee, Wismer and I head down to the Embd cable car station grocery store to drop off his trash and recycling, and shop for dinner. Along the trail, we continue yakking, reviewing his pioneering work importing and breeding yaks in Switzerland, including bringing in the hornless Mongolian variety through Germany. “Mongolia is easily my favorite country,” Wismer confides, to vigorous nods from me. “You can smell the spirit of the land, and the combination of big mountains and flat expanse is amazing.” Wismer tells me he rode the trans-Siberian railroad from Switzerland across Russia all the way to Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, for the annual nadaam national summer festival years ago. We compare nadaam notes, and agree we should return some day.
“What’s ahead for the Swiss Yak Federation?” I ask him as we ascend the trail back to his lodge.
He frowns, clearly frustrated, and throws out a number of ideas as we walk, from an annual Swiss yak exhibition at the national farm show to SYV tee shirts (“easy, but no one does it.”)
You seem cranky with the SYV,” I say, goading him a bit.
“We Swiss yakkers have lots of problems,” he replies, and then elaborates: not enough interest in and accountability for responsible yak breeding, too many yaks, too low “per yak” sales for fleish and animals, not enough “doers” within the federation, too much self-interest and not enough teamwork generally. “Sounds like the SYF needs you back,” I say. He doesn’t answer, lost in thought.
“So how do you support yourself up here?” I ask him. He breaks down his annual revenue streams: 75%’ish comes from the Swiss government for homestead ecological upkeep, landscape projects, summer watering projects and land maintenance generally, with 20% from lodge visitors and the remaining 4% in yak fleish sales. I ask him about meat prices. “Cervin Zermatt, a five star restaurant up the road, will pay very well for a kilo of yak jerky, but that’s eight weeks of work drying the meat before sale,” he observes, as we reach the lodge.
After an afternoon of chores and yak visiting, including trimming a shredded yak toe nail with a giant pair of sharp cutters, we raise our glasses over dinner, dream again of new adventures, and I thank him profusely for his generous hospitality, promising to send along a Vermont Yak Company care package when I return to Vermont. The next morning, after an early coffee, we part company, and with a quick wave of his hand, Wismer disappears into the woods to check on the pastured yaks below the lodge. I watch him go. If the Swiss yak community had to name a prime mover, a founding father, an author and creator, then Daniel Wismer is that guy.
An early morning storm is blowing in, and high winds have shut down the Embd cable car to the valley train station, so I hitch a ride with a local who drops me off in the town Visp in time to meet Rosula and Anuun in the Land Rover for the day’s adventure.
“Perfect weather for a rodeo,” I say to Rosula by way of greeting, with a hello to Anuun, the wind whipping through Visp’s empty streets, the cold rain flirting with sleet and snow. We drive through the mountains, jump onto a car-carrying tram train and cruise through a long and narrow mountain tunnel (“we Swiss are mountain moles,” Rosula jokes, “great tunnel builders”) and soon arrive in Andermatt and the yak farm of Adrian Regli. Short, bespectacled and all bustle, Regli runs the largest yak operation in Switzerland, housing between 130-150 yaks at a time. “Regli is a smooth operator,” another Suisse yakker (who asks to remain anonymous) tells me. “He would sell out his own mother to make a buck.” Switzerland is a small country, and the national yak community here is an intimate one – as elsewhere, wrangling Suisse yakkers into consensus about how to proceed with the SYV often proves more difficult than working with the yaks themselves.
Clearly a respected presence in the greater yak community, Rosula introduces everyone over hot tea and a light breakfast in the chilly barn, the yaks stirring behind us in the corral, an occasional grunt wafting in our direction. I meet Regli’s son Sam, a young local Romanshe-speaking farmer named Jacob, SYV treasurer Angelica Bandli’s son Beat (I will be staying with the Bandli family this evening), and Urs, a rising star within the SYV network – 29 years old, married, and well named – he carries himself like a big bear, and is, Rosula tells me, the new keeper of the SYV herd book. A white-haired woman named Regina is working with Rosula to spearhead our rodeo – a veteran breeder, she is friendly, self-effacing, and (Angelica later tells me) “one of Swizterland’s most famous animal judges.” Clipboards in hand, our team’s goal for today is to assess and judge dozens of yaks in Regli’s herd for possible registering with SYV.
Once we get to work, the morning goes by quickly, with our group moving through the barn corrals in small teams, discussing each individual yak’s characteristics, making notes, conferring with each other. Some yaks are happier about this process than others, and occasionally a yak aggressively tries to disappear into the larger herd, creating a pause while we stitch together fence gates to “pen” the yak long enough to get our judging work done. Watching the Swiss work together, I feel a bit of envy – despite the problems that accompany managing a co-domesticated national yak herd network, there is a calm comfort in having colleagues with whom you can share information, discuss, plan and compare notes.
Over a light lunch of yak jerky and local bread, I sit down with Urs and ask if he can share the latest SYV yak data with me. Affable, but with limited English, Urs agrees, and pulls out his laptop with Rosula looking over his shoulder, helping to translate. They tell me that the Swiss have registered close to 3,000 yaks total (2,869) since Wismer and company began importing the shaggy creatures. Currently, SYV has close to 1,000 registered, with 370 yaks unaccounted for – kept by Swiss uninterested in participating in the national registry, or “disappeared” for other reasons. Urs himself now has 13 registered yaks, including one of Wismer’s bulls. The Swiss yakking community is a small one, indeed.
After lunch, Rosula, Anuun and I hop in the Land Rover and take a quick side trip down the road to Regli’s relative Sepp. He lives just below a place called Devil’s Bridge, one of Switzerland’s most famous historical landmarks, running his yaks on a steep rocky hillside just above his homestead, complete with a horse stable and yak barn. He greets us warmly – he and Rosula share a special bond, having exchanged yaks over the years – and we tour his yak property, Anuun by our side. In a classic barn stable, Sepp introduces us to Jack, a handsome giant of a 20-year-old yak steer who Sepp still bottle feeds as if he were a newborn. Outside his brightly lit and warm barn, Jack enjoys an outdoor play space with a giant stone water trough in which he can immerse his entire face. “This may be the most chill yak in all of Switzerland,” I say to Rosula, who laughs and translates for Sepp. He smiles and nods, and we thank him for his hospitality.
After a cold and rainy afternoon of yak rodeo judging at Regli’s farm, I say heartfelt goodbyes to Rosula and Anuun, and we agree we will continue to collaborate on yak projects. Blanc’s charismatic energy and deep passion for both the yaks and the Swiss yakking community have been inspiring. If Wismer is the Godfather of Swiss Yakking, Blanc is the Godmother, and her deep knowledge of both the animals and this community, along with her powerful blend of tenacity, humility and adventure, have contributed much to moving forward Switzerland’s yak endeavors both here in the Alps and globally.
I ride with Beat and Urs through the mountains to Urs’ home, and then continue on with Beat to the Bunderland region for the last yak visit of my trip. “Our canton capitol, Chur, is the oldest in Suisse, and our canton, Graubueden, is the only one where three languages are spoken,” Beat tells me with quiet pride during our ride through the dark Swiss countryside. I ask him about his town. “We are at 1,300 meters in elevation and only 40 people live here,” he explains, “1,000 people total in four villages across our valley.”
We arrive home in time for a late dinner, and I meet the now-famous Angelica, her husband, daughter Mia and Beat’s older brother Andri, home from studying science at a college in Basel. The next morning after breakfast, Angelica and I walk down the road to their family farm under a cloudy sky, the morning slightly warmer than yesterday’s freezing rain. “Safien Tahl is the name of our mountain valley here where our yaks summer over,” she explains, gesturing at the beautiful expanse of mountain ridgeline surrounding us. “The Swiss government is pushing our four valley villages to consolidate – it’s too expensive to stay small.”
We talk about local politics, the SYV, and raising her three kids here in such a remote mountain valley – “love it or hate it here,” she says, “like paradise or prison, nothing in between.” I laugh. “Sounds like Vermont,” I answer.
She pauses and turns to me, her face serious. “The price people pay for running all around, flying everywhere, it is too high,” she observes. “Our valley is dying, too many old people, and all the youth are leaving.” She tells me that running the farm hof is time consuming work – eight hours daily in winter, and 16-18 hours daily in high summer season, with 12 hours on the shoulder months. “I love it, but we don’t take any vacations,” she says, smiling.
We arrive at their family barn, an immaculate and well-maintained several story structure, housing more than thirty yaks, a few llamas (another side project), and two enormous camels, one of the few animals in the world that can upstage yaks in the “exotic” category. Angelica’s husband and son Beat are already here finishing morning chores and feeding. Observing the yaks, who seem as happy as all Suisse grunniens, chilling out and munching hay in the gray of the morning, I ask Angelica about their approach to yak farming here. “We Swiss are interested in bio-organic farming, and are always looking for a ‘place correct’ cow,” she explains. “Yaks eat grass, live high, and are the perfect cow for me and my family here in this valley – we love working with them.” I ask about the local hay, harvested from surrounding fields. “The Swiss have a word – artgerecht – which means the giving of natural food to an animal according to what its stomach needs, not junk food,” she explains, noting that the high mountain grasses here are the perfect fodder for the yaks.
After farm chores, Angelica and I drive to the top of the valley to tour the yaks’ summer pastures. Gazing at the picture postcard tiny Swiss chalet homes, an old medieval church (“we got married here,” Angelica tells me, showing me the spare but stunningly beautiful interior), and the Alps rising all around – if I was a yak, I think, this would be heaven. “Every summer, our family walks the yaks up this road from our farm and into these mountains,” Angelica explains, gesturing up the ridge. “We all look forward to that day – us walking together with all the children, the yaks grunting, their bells ringing, and then 100 days – July to October - up in the high pasture,” she explains, “and we are the only family in this valley who still work by hand and by walking the yaks.” Again, quiet pride. I ask her the same question I’ve been asking all yakkers – are yaks spiritual creatures? She is silent, collecting her thoughts.
“The yaks give us energy, they are very powerful, like when we sit down in the middle of a summer yak circle in the mountains, and the yaks give us power - our breathing slows down, because the yaks calm us,” she reminisces. “Yaks are not for everybody – they are like a mirror for we humans – they reflect back to us ourselves.” We talk SYV politics. “Years ago, it was so nice to work with Danny Wismer – he is crazy, so well connected, and loves the yaks as much as we do,” she explains, “and I was the organized one. We made a great team.” More recently, she explains that different personalities and competing yak goals have led to infighting within the SYC leadership team. “Now,” she says, “I think we are all talking again.” I ask her about the future, and she says that she is hopeful. “Everything we do is for the yaks,” she concludes.
The next morning, Angelica drops me at the local train station. Back in Zurich, I check into my hotel and book a taxi to restaurant Rosaly downtown. Zurich is crowded, the streets congested, and being back in the big city feels disorienting after a week in the Swiss countryside. Eventually, I find Rosaly’s off a narrow side street and take a seat in the back below the “Yak Rind Fleisch” “specials” sign board, the server and the chef making me feel welcome after they learn of my research and my visit with Ingeboden down south. After an intense week in the company of yaks and yakkers in the Alpine highlands, sitting in stillness and anticipating a fine meal suddenly feels good, and the red wine’s warmth and the energy of the yak fleisch soon combine to settle my mind and spirit, all five of my senses savoring each bite of the tender savory meat. Ingeboden was correct – high end meat is expensive, but well worth the investment, and I lift by glass in silent celebration of the Suisse yakking community, and the single yak whose life energy now infuses my body and soul.
Chilling out in Europe’s most tightly-wound country?
Once back in Vermont, I assemble and mail several yak care packages to my new Suisse friends – Ben, Rosula, Danny, and Angelica -and our conversations continue. Ben sends along an entire folder of beautiful photographs in early December, a welcome addition to my own images and notes. Early in the new year, meanwhile, a small package turns up in our snow-covered mailbox with a return address featuring a yak-imaged stamp that reads “YAK rindfleish” care of “yakhof gumpi” – a vacuum-sealed package of yak jerky from Martin. I message him to say thanks, and tell him I am keeping the yak package in my backpack for day treks.
Early winter 2020, Rosula emails along her latest writing and drawings reflecting on yak energy. I sit down to read the short essay, accompanied by luminously colorful sketches of humans and yaks moving together.
In the final section, entitled “Presence and Silence,” Rosula writes:
Prey animals, like the yaks, rarely sleep deeply. But often you see them in a deep silence, an intermediate state between sleeping and waking which resembles a deep meditative state where the body is asleep, but consciousness is awake and present. The yak is relaxed, centered, composed, self-absorbed, but still present with the senses wide open, the information from the surrounding seem to stream through his consciousness and reflect themselves on the surface of an inner lake. As long as the surface of the lake is calm, the yak is calm. It feels like the whole animal is immersed in stillness, the calm of a deep mountain lake when there is no wind. But if the slightest breeze stirs the surface of the lake, the yak is immediately awake, up and gone, or ready to attack.
Relaxed. Centered. Composed.
Self absorbed - but still present with the senses wide open.
“If you lose your way or get lost,” Regula’s words echo in my mind. “The yaks will show you the way.”