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Nomads spin yak wool into luxury yarn

Ninety percent of the world’s 14 million yaks live in western China and sales of luxury yak-fiber products are improving life for herders on the Qinghai Plateau. Andrew Chin reports.

Nomadic herders on the vast grasslands of Qinghai Province are finding that life is getting better, partly due to social enterprises and charities that focus on income-building and community development.

The people, most of them Tibetan, are gradually getting better tents, cars, solar cookers, health care and hygiene advice, as well as televisions and cell phones. These are made possible by government efforts, increased tourism and various social organizations.

Two hundred and fifty kilometers from the provincial capital Xining, Heimahe Township on the southern shore of Qinghai Lake is home to 14,000 people living in four villages — three are nomadic herder communities and one is agriculture based.

During an outdoor breakfast surrounded by yaks, goats and visitors, local Llaya Zhou reflects on the changes in life over the past few years.

“We have cars now and we can now buy and live in these white tents that are warmer and don’t leak when it rains,” she says. “Our meals have generally improved and we also have more things like TV and mobile phones.”

Zhou is the chief local organizer for Shanghai-based Shokay, which means yak in Tibetan. It’s the world’s first company selling luxury yak yarn and high-quality products and promoting sustainable development.

Zhou is also head of a household of six consisting of her grandmother, her daughter and son-in-law and their two children. Waking up daily at 5:30am, Zhou’s day is packed: cooking breakfast, milking yaks, making butter or cheese, cooking lunch, collecting fuel and water, tying up the yaks when they return in the evening, cooking dinner, and sleeping around 10pm.

It’s a common life for Tibetan women in nomadic herding villages. Men spend their afternoons going into the township to sell their wares to traders or digging for caterpillar fungus, a tonic that can fetch up to 150 yuan (US$24.50) a piece.

Zhou also works part-time cleaning at the township’s government offices and was an early Shokay adopter.

“I felt at the beginning that Shokay paid higher than market prices for yak fiber that provides extra cash for my family,” she says.

Her relationship started six years ago and now includes supervising the company’s hand-spinning program. It was initiated in 2010 and involves 17 Tibetan women working during their leisure time. Although many older Tibetans are familiar with hand-spinning yak fiber through a drop spindle, Shokay employs spinning wheels.

Participants like Pamoo Drurolma travel from as far as 30 kilometers away to join in. She completed all four training courses. Although the work requires careful concentration to meet internationally quality standards, it’s an experience that she enjoys.

“We like coming here. We enjoy spinning because we like being together, joking and gossiping. We talk about our families and tell each other that you spin really well,” says Pamoo.

While the income from hand spinning and yak fiber selling is much less than the revenue generated from livestock sales, the revenue from Shokay sales helps cover daily expenses.

Since starting its work in Heimahe Township, Shokay has committed 1 percent of retail sales to community projects.

Last year, it held its second Health Care Training workshop led by a Tibetan doctor from Xining. It provided cold remedies, STI prevention advice and hygiene recommendations. Health care workers appealed to villagers to stop eating raw meat since liver complications are a common cause of death.

“From interviews with villagers we realized there was a greater need for health care facilities,” explains Shokay’s Operations Manager Lillian Gatubdrolma. “There is only one clinic in the township that’s 3 kilometers away from where most people live.”

In recent years, the economy has improved due to greater tourism following construction of the Qinghai-Lhasa Highway, the growing demand for caterpillar fungus as a snack high in medicinal properties, and rising commodity prices for fiber.

Gatubdrolma marvels at the changes. “Years ago, there were no cell phones,” she says. “Now everyone has one and some have two.”

A growing number of social organizations are engaged in cultural preservation, environmental and educational projects. Shokay organized a workshop that provided a platform for these groups.

“Qinghai is developing so fast and while there are more opportunities, many people are finding it hard to adjust,” says Gasang Tsedan, director of the Lotus Charity Association. “All of our projects are small-scale focusing on local needs, and this year we received funding from the central government.”

Lotus Charity Association has completed more than 40 projects, including producing solar cookers, language training and digging village latrines. Much of the social work has been led by Tibetans including Gatubdrolma.

“As a Tibetan, I think what we are doing is important,” the Gansu Province native says. “We’re utilizing under-utilized resources to generate money.”

With 90 percent of the world’s 14 million yaks located in western China, Shokay aims to create another revenue stream for herders. The goal is to increase family incomes by 15 to 20 percent.

“We want people to think of Shokay when they think of yak fiber and to know that when they use our yarn that it’s sourced in the highest quality and most socially responsible way,” says Shokay Cofounder Carol Chyau from Taiwan. In 2006 she and Marie So from Hong Kong founded the company after meeting at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They decided to work on community development and antipoverty programs.

“The pie is big enough for everyone and it will take everyone to make it bigger. That would give us huge market demand enabling us to source more fiber in this area and other townships,” Chyau says.

Shokay has organized an exhibition of yak products and community projects. It also offers tours, providing outsiders a unique glimpse into life on the grasslands. Shokay will recap the exhibition at a new showroom in the Shanghai International Fashion Education Center (652 Changshou Rd) by Suzhou Creek on September 25.

Encouraged by this year’s tour experience, Shokay plans to offer three trips next summer that Chyau says will “give everyone a taste of Tibetan culture and history and the experience of living in the local environment. It will demonstrate sourcing and what other social organizations are doing.”

“People can connect with the nomads in a deeper way,” she says.

For more information, visit Shokay’s website (www.shokay.com).

(Andrew Chin is a Shanghai-based freelancer.)

 


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