Tibetan Herdsmen 
in the Snow

Tzu Chi reached out to herdsmen reeling from a slew of snowstorms in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, China.

An aid recipient carries supplies home after receiving them at a Tzu Chi distribution for snowstorm-affected herdsmen in Qingshuihe Township, Yushu Prefecture.

Snowfall is characteristic of winters in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, northwestern China. A typical snow season there lasts three to four months. This past winter, however, bouts of snowfall persisted for half a year. More than ten snowfalls were recorded after November 2018, leading to the death of tens of thousands of livestock. The local government promptly swung into action and delivered food and fodder to herdsmen impacted by the extreme weather events. Even so, the affected area was so large that many people were still in need of help. After learning about the situation, Tzu Chi volunteers in Qinghai mobilized to help with the relief efforts. On March 9, 2019, when the snow had eased up and it was safer to travel to the disaster areas, three volunteers—Qi Haiming
(祁海明), Tang Guoliang (唐國梁), and Wang Yong’an (王永安)—formed a small delegation and set out for Yushu Prefecture to assess the disaster there.

This wasn’t the first time Tzu Chi volunteers had set foot in Yushu for a relief mission. Back in 1996, volunteers from Taiwan twice visited the area and distributed highland barley and cash to snowstorm-affected villagers. Nearly 16,000 residents in four townships benefited from those distributions.

Now, 23 years later, there are local volunteers in Qinghai. The three-man team arrived in Chengduo County, Yushu, and were greeted with a temperature of -10°C (14°F). Eighty-six percent of the county was covered in snow. The volunteers started their assessment trip in Qingshuihe Township, one of the areas the foundation had rendered aid to 23 years earlier.

Local government officials told the volunteers that the snowfall this time had been the worst since a weather station had been established in the area in 1956. Records for both the amount and frequency of snowfalls had been broken this year. With such heavy snowfall, livestock was left with nothing to graze, and herdsmen had had to spend almost all their savings buying fodder or feed for their animals, even though their own food supplies at home could last them for only about two to four weeks. Even so, a lot of livestock had died, resulting in heavy losses for the herdsmen. The situation was dire: Judging from the thickness of the snow and the large area covered, it wasn’t likely to melt until May—perhaps even June or July.

Excessive snowfalls this past winter left livestock with nothing to graze and adversely impacted lives in Qingshuihe Township, Chengduo County. Residents mostly make a living by herding livestock. The county is located at an average elevation of 4,500 meters (14,763 feet), and agriculture is impossible there.

Good companions

As the volunteers traveled across the region, they saw carcasses of dead animals everywhere on the vast stretches of snow-blanketed landscape. The animals had either frozen or starved to death. Many had become food for wolves or vultures. Local herdsmen had done what they could to pile together the remains of the animals.

The volunteers arrived at the home of Suocai, 55, who lived in the village of Zhama. His family used to own 110 yaks, over 70 of which had died as a result of the excessive snowfall this winter.

Many people had advised Suocai to sell some of his cattle before the snowstorms to cut his possible losses. The government even sent for a cattle merchant for this purpose, but Suocai refused to sell his cattle. To him, his yaks were not just a source of income but his good companions as well. “They might freeze to death if I keep them,” the herdsman explained, “but at least they’ll die of natural causes. If I sell them, they will be slaughtered and die a miserable death. I’d rather lose money than do that to my cattle.”

Many local herdsmen are like Suocai and do not easily sell or slaughter their animals. They have depended on their livestock all their lives to get by, and there exists a bond between animal and herdsman. Many herdsmen couldn’t stand to see their cattle die off one after another during the snow disaster this time, and so they spent all their money on fodder for their animals, putting food for themselves last. They even draped their comforters or coats on their yaks or brought them indoors to help them keep warm.

A yak that froze to death lies in the yard of herdsman Suocai, of Zhama Village, Qingshuihe Township. Suocai used to own 110 yaks, but less than 20 of them remained alive after an exceptionally snowy winter.

Gejia told the visitors that he lives on traditional Tibetan food staples: tsampa (flour milled from roasted barley), butter tea, cheese, yogurt, and butter. All those food items, except for tsampa, are obtained from yak milk. The weather had turned so cold he would be grateful if his cattle could stay alive; he didn’t expect them to produce much milk.Dried cattle droppings are an important source of fuel for local herdsmen. However, a lot of droppings this year were covered in snow and were too wet to be used. When the volunteers visited Gejia, of Zhaha village, they saw a small bag of cattle droppings in his house. It was running low, and Gejia was using it very sparingly. His house was inadequately heated, but he didn’t have any money to buy fuel. As a result, a thick layer of ice and frost had formed on the walls.

Before the snow disaster, Gejia raised 70 yaks for a cooperative. He received no pay for his labor, but any calves delivered within the herd belonged to him. Likewise, if the cattle produced more butter than was owed to the cooperative, the extra also went to Gejia. Sadly, nine of those 70 yaks died during the exceptionally snowy winter this time, even though he had spent all his savings—48,000 renminbi (US$7,000)—on buying feed for them. When his wife fell ill, he even had to borrow money to pay for her medical bills. “Those yaks belong to the cooperative. I have the obligation to take good care of them,” said the herdsman. “I bought fodder, feed, highland barley, and eggs to feed them—otherwise they might have all died off. This type of food isn’t their normal fare; this is the first time they have had this.”

There aren’t enough pastures in local villages for all the local herds. To save money, herdsmen take their flocks around mid-May every year to higher areas over ten kilometers (6.2 miles) away for feeding. They return in early November. During the snow disaster this time, Gejia let his weaker yaks spend their nights in the tent he uses on his summer nomadic trips. Almost every herdsman in Qingshuihe Township did the same.

The three Tzu Chi volunteers visited five villages in Qingshuihe in a week’s time. Their hearts went out to those animals that had starved or frozen to death and whose carcasses now littered the snow-covered land. They were deeply concerned about the local people who didn’t have fuel to keep themselves warm and whose food supplies were running low. In the shortest time possible they obtained from the local government a roster of herdsmen spread across seven villages. A distribution was quickly planned to take place later that same month.

To help his yaks survive the severe winter, Gejia spent 48,000 renminbi (7,000 US dollars).

Aid coming in time

After the assessment trip ended on March 14, volunteers rushed to make purchases for the distribution. They wanted the much-needed supplies to be delivered to the affected areas within a week. There wasn’t much time to work with, so the volunteers were under a lot of pressure. One of the aid items was roasted barley flour. It wasn’t easy just to get 83 tons of roasted barley flour ready. This kind of flour has a shelf life of just a month, and it is usually made fresh to order. As a result, sellers rarely have large quantities in stock. Since no single supplier could fill the foundation’s large order, volunteers ended up having to buy from four factories. Many other matters like that had to be attended to in the purchase process—from finding suppliers, to negotiating the prices and delivery deadlines, to signing contracts. On top of that, volunteers also had to work with the government on various distribution issues. Thankfully, all was duly taken care of ahead of the distribution.

Early on the morning of March 23, when it wasn’t even light yet, a team of 15 volunteers from Qinghai and Sichuan provinces set out from Huangyuan County, northeastern Qinghai, to Chengduo County. The distribution would be held there on March 25 and 26. The team had to travel 682 kilometers (424 miles). The cold weather made their long journey even more challenging. Volunteer Tang Guoliang explained: “We had to set out so early because the roads freeze after sunset, making them dangerous to travel on.”

After 11 hours on the road, the volunteers arrived at the warehouse of the Qingshuihe town government, which was serving as the distribution venue. Many villagers, who were also aid recipients, were already there helping move supplies for the distribution. They were sweating heavily despite the freezing temperature of -7°C (19°F). The volunteers were very thankful for their help. The area sits at an elevation of over 4,000 meters (13,120 feet) and the physically challenging work of moving heavy stuff was beyond the volunteers, who lived at a much lower elevation and who got winded just walking at such a high attitude.

Roasted barley flour, flour, cooking oil, sugar, salt, and brick tea—box after box and bag after bag of daily necessities were unloaded from trucks and placed in neat order in the warehouse. Pengcuo, the warehouse keeper, took his job of signing for the delivery of the goods and overseeing their storage very seriously. He helped move the supplies and kept a sharp eye on the goings-on around him. He made sure that the unloaded goods were neatly arranged and piled. “Every item for this distribution is hard to come by,” he said. “I must tend to them with the utmost care.”

A volunteer and a government official work together to check the recipient lists and the identifications of the attendees at the distribution site.

The lowest temperature on March 25, the first day of the distribution, was -25°C (-13°F). Despite that low temperature, volunteers arrived at the venue to find that many herdsmen were already waiting there for the event to begin. The Tibetans set great store by the distribution, and many had shown up in their traditional costumes. A herdsman who had lost half of his yaks to the snow disaster said, “We’re really in need of these supplies now.”

Suocai, whom volunteers had visited on their disaster assessment trip, helped out at the site two days in a row. Barely two weeks had passed since the volunteers had visited him at his home, but he had lost a dozen more yaks. Of his herd of 110, less than 20 were left now. Such losses impacted him not just financially but emotionally as well.

Even though he was going through a rough patch, he didn’t forget to ask people to record the aid he received from Tzu Chi in a small notebook for him—he was illiterate. He did that every time he received help from others so that he wouldn’t forget who had helped him and what aid he had received from them. “When you are in need and someone helps you,” said Suocai, “you must never forget it.”

Going back 23 years

Tibetans have a tradition of presenting others with khata scarves to convey respect and blessings. During the two-day distribution, volunteers received more than 1,800 khatas from local villagers. A government official told the volunteers, “That’s because many people have heard that you are from the same group that helped them 23 years ago; they are thanking you not just for the help this time but also for the help you gave them 23 years ago.”

Despite the passing of over two decades, 74-year-old Bajia still vaguely remembered that time, 23 years ago, when a group of Taiwanese people came to help after severe snowstorms. They provided money and highland barley to help them through a difficult time. He never expected that he would meet people from the same group again, 23 years later. He said with strong emotion, “The food you gave us this time can last us for three months.”

A volunteer gave Bajia a book about Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi, and he told him the person on the cover was the founder of Tzu Chi. He told Bajia it was because of her that they could come to the area to help them. Bajia immediately held the book high and lightly touched it to his forehead to show his gratitude and respect. He then took out his distribution notification and perused a consolation letter from Master Cheng Yen.

A volunteer helps an elderly villager check if she has received all her relief items. Six food items are enough to keep the recipients fed for three months.
Volunteers lead aid recipients in singing and signing the lyrics of the Tzu Chi song, “One Family.”

Some people not only remembered the distribution 23 years ago, but had kept their distribution notifications from that year. Ala, 70, was one of them. He had stowed his notification in a wooden box over the years, and when he moved he made sure he kept the notification with him. “It’s a treasured item of mine,” he said. “The resources available to us back then were very limited; very few people came to help us. I’ll never forget the kindness Tzu Chi showed us.” He recalled that the barley the foundation gave them that year was to have lasted them for two months, but he cherished it so much that he ate it sparingly so that it would last him for as long as possible. It ended up lasting him for a year.

Volunteers told Ala that he could say a few words to Master Cheng Yen and that they would videotape it and show the footage to her later. Ala expressed his gratitude to the founder of Tzu Chi by saying: “Master, I’ll never forget your kindness. In 1996, when we were hit by a snow disaster, you saved a man called Ala. He is now 70. Now we have been hit by another snow disaster and your people are here again to help us through the tough times. You’ve helped us so much. Thank you! I’ll never forget your kindness.” He repeated the last two sentences several times, choking with tears.

Nicai, 54, was another villager who had received aid from Tzu Chi 23 years ago. He too kept his distribution notification in good shape. He said that the snowfall this time was like nothing he had experienced before. “The snow season used to last for just three months, but this time it has kept up for half a year,” said Nicai. “It has really made things difficult for us. I really like the goods you gave us today; they are all very practical. When times are hard, you come here and help us. I’ll never forget that.”

In two days, the foundation distributed aid to 2,433 households, or 8,245 people, spread across seven villages in Qingshuihe Township. Local government officials thanked the volunteers for giving the villagers enough food to last them till June or even July. They said that the villagers were so grateful that they were asking for nine Tzu Chi flags to keep as mementos—they wanted their posterity to forever remember the help of the foundation.

Volunteer Tang Guoliang, in turn, thanked the local government for their assistance. He said that without their help, the foundation couldn’t have pulled this mission off. From assessing damage in disaster areas, to visiting affected herdsmen, to moving and distributing relief supplies, none of these tasks could have been accomplished if the government hadn’t had the villagers’ welfare at heart and gone all out to help them receive assistance.

Volunteers were more than happy to renew the connections the foundation had formed with local herdsmen 23 years ago. Sensing the villagers’ joy through their smiles, the volunteers hoped that the warmth and love they brought to the villagers could help them through the rough times.

Snow started falling outside when aid was being distributed in a warehouse. Volunteers sped up their distribution so that attendees could return home as soon as possible.


July 2019