HORSES AND THE HAY-CUTTING TRIP
"A HORSE IS NOT A HORSE if it does not carry uphill, and a man is not a man if he does not walk downhill" goes a Tibetan saying. The nomads are extremely fond of their horses which are bred locally and, like most Central Asian horses, are quite small, not much bigger than ponies (approximately 47 inches at the shoulder and 49 inches long). But they are tough; as the saying indicates, their main job is to carry a rider uphill where the going is very difficult. Horses in Pala are a true luxury item, having no relevance to subsistence since Tibetans, unlike the nomads of Mongolia, do not milk mares nor eat horse flesh, nor herd on horseback. They are also scarce-out of almost 9,000 head of livestock in Pala there are only 28 horses, and only 25% of Pala's households own a horse. Horses, therefore, command a high price. In 1987 one horse sold or traded for about five yak or 40-50 sheep, thus placing them out of reach of all but the middle- to upper-income households, particularly when one adds to this the need to supplement their diet with grain and hay and then the need to purchase saddles, stirrups and saddle rugs. The expenses for "tack" are substantial since nomads feel about horses much the way Americans feel about their cars, and there is real competition among horse owners to have beautiful saddle rugs and gear. For example, when we expressed our thanks to the nomads for all their help by making each household a present of a few Polaroidphotographs, more often than not the male household head would spend hours rounding up and saddling his horse so that he could take a picture with it.
Because horses are not nearly as hardy as the nomads' other livestock (and because they are worth so much), they are given more attention and expenditures than their other livestock. For example, they are usually covered with a blanket when they are let out to graze in winter and spring and are commonly fed grain supplements of approximately one-and-a-half pounds per day (mixtures of boiled grain, leftover tea leaves and lentils. The only livestock to receive such treatment, they are also fed hay obtained annually from a special pasture that is left ungrazed throughout the growing season.
Hay cutting commences on a specific date in mid-September set by the government (or by the lord in the "old society") and at a specific location at the intersection of three nomad districts. By this time, the wool has been shom and the grass-growing season is at an end. Nomads, mostly men, from the three adjacent districts (Tsatsey, Tshochen, and Nakdzang) ar-e involved. Some of these, like those from Pala, travel three to four days to reach the site. In 1987, word was transmitted to all nomad encampments by letter and oral message about two weeks before the starting date. The nomads had been anticipating this date and inunediately set about finalizing preparations for the trip-how many and which yaks to take, and who to send with them. Some nomads shared tents with friends or relatives, thus messages went back and forth between households to arrange whose tent, whose tea churn, whose pots and pans to bring and when to depart.
As soon as we arrived we understood why this was the "hay-cutting" area, for unlike the rest of Lagyab lhojang, it consisted primarily of tall vegetation (about one to one-and-a-half feet) thick enough to be gathered into a handful and cut with a sickle. We counted just over 100 tents and were amazed at the activity there. In contrast to the few people and the slow pace of life at a nomad encampment, the grass-cutting camp was bustling with activity-some taking their horses and yak out to graze, others talking and joking with friends they had not seen for a year or more. The bazaar-like atmosphere was enhanced by a dozen or so traders, some nomads, and others, villagers from weeks away. Even the government store opened a temporary branch. They all sat behind heaps of miscellaneous wares including everything from prayer books and rosaries to wooden saddles and bowls, to pots and ladles and plastic jerry cans to Chinese "boom boxes" used to play prayer chants and traditional melodies typically on cassettes imported from Nepal.
At 8 a.m. on the specified day, an official blew a whistle to start the cutting. Everyone rushed to the adjacent slopes and plains in search of the perfect spot. People would cut for an hour or so, stuffing handfuls of grass into their cloaks, then pause to fashion them into two-foot-long twists and carry bundles of these back to their tent to dry. Then they returned to start all over again. In the evening, attention focused on the traders and their wares, the nomads making the rounds of the 10 or more "stalls" set out on blankets on the ground, exan*ting goods, asking prices, and bartering energetically. Wlen darkness made business impossible, other activities began: some younger nomads danced and sang, others played Tibetan dice or ma jong, while most just sat around drinking tea and talking. The festive atmosphere was contagious and we had a steady stream of nomads from other areas who wanted to see and chat with the chigye (foreigners) who spoke Tibetan. Scores of nomads now know that U.S. astronauts walked on the moon and that it is evening in American when it is daytime on the Changtang. For us it was a wonderful opportunity to talk with nomads from adjacent districts about their conditions.
The impact of hay cutting on the overall pastoral economy, however,
is slight since this area provides too little hay to accommodate livestock during those times when snow prevents the animals from grazing, let alone for general use as a food supplement in winter and spring. And although some is occasionally given to lactating sheep and goats, virtually all is used to supplement the winter diet of the horses owned by the more affluent households. And nowadays, each nomad household also has to provide a small hay allotment to the district officials for their horses. Poor nomads go to cut grass to sell to the richer households who want more hay than they can cut (or who were unable to come at all that year). This is one of the ways that the poor supplement the insufficient income from their small herds.
The flurry of activity is short-lived. As soon as a nomad household has cut enough hay to load their yak, they break camp and leave. Five clays after the tent city materialized out of nothing, the plains again were empty-and stay so until the following September when the cycle of nomadic pastoral life will again bring 100 or more tents to this obscure spot on the Changtang.