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Say Cheese, in Tibetan: A Shaggy Yak Story

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/11/11; November 11, 2000.]

UPI, 10 November 2000.

It would be hard to overstate the gratitude Tibetan nomads feel toward their beloved yaks. The most common Tibetan word for yak translates roughly as "a wish granting gem that gives you everything you want."

Hairy yak hides shelter herders from blizzards; yak meat sustains them year round; yak dung provides fuel and warmth against bitter winter cold. And for its next trick, the Himalayan beast of burden will fund and build schools, medical clinics and orphanages in some of China's poorest counties.

This shaggy yak story is the dream of a group of U.S. aid workers, Tibetan monks and former government officials who see yak milk as a cash cow delivering social welfare to remote communities.

For centuries, Tibetans have churned yak milk into the butter they slurp into teacups or the lamps that illuminate every Buddhist shrine. The often rancid smell of yak butter sticks in visitors' nostrils long after any visit to Tibet. But Renqing Dawa, former director of poverty alleviation in Chindu county, Qinghai province, is pushing a more premium end-product. Stilton, Brie, Snowlands Yak Cheese. With time and a lot of luck, a new name may appear on a cheese board near you.

While Tibetan nomads have experimented with yak cheese for generations, Renqing's Snowlands cheese plant is the first commercial venture, established this year with support from New York-based Trace Foundation. Located inside a hill-top nunnery encircled by snow-capped peaks, start-ups don't come any greener than this. "Yak milk is different from ordinary milk," Renqing says. "Our yaks eat grass that has never been polluted, and they drink pure mountain water. This is truly a green foodstuff, and very nutritious." The 34-year-old left government bureaucracy for this hands-on chance to make a difference. "Tibetans have always herded animals but lacked a fixed income," explains Renqing. "Chindu is a poor area where average income is under 200 yuan (less than $25) per year. If we buy milk for 4 yuan per kilo, people can earn four times more than from selling yak butter." Once he tastes profit, Renqing promises to plough it back into the community, through basic medical clinics and schools.

When project founder Ethan Goldings of Trace visits the cheese plant, he foregoes the 30-hour drive from the Qinghai capital Xining in favor of the "more scenic" four-day route from Sichuan. Chindu is located in Yushu prefecture, an ethnic Tibetan area close to the 'Tibet Autonomous Region', and infamous for its fierce winters.

"In Yushu they have a saying," recounts Goldings. "A major disaster every 10 years, a minor one every five, and a lot of big snows every year." In the late 1990s, Trace supplied yaks, medicine and food to the worst-hit farmers, but short-term relief frustrated Goldings, who had learned Tibetan during a two-year stint in a Buddhist monastery. Then inspiration struck, perhaps when a glance in the mirror revealed his own shaggy beard. "Why not turn their most renewable resource into cash?

They recognize yak milk is very special but it spoils in two hours and they have no way to keep it fresh. When the Swiss faced the same situation, they invented cheese technology." Enter Nepalese cheese master Tashi Kumar Lama. Nepalese yaks have long been milked for cheese, "though they use animal feed," Renqing notes disapprovingly.

Trace Foundation paid Tashi to take low-tech equipment to China and train 15 budding cheese-makers. Besides Renqing, these include Monk Jigme Jyantsen from Golok prefecture, where he runs Qinghai's first 'private" school providing free education to more than 200 students. Another monk traveled from Sichuan with plans to build an orphanage on cheese profits.

"They look to a future that does not include selling off your herds and moving to cities to do manual labor," says Goldings. "They want to stop rural-urban migration and give people a way to earn a decent living on the grasslands." No one can doubt their commitment.

"To fund their trip to Qinghai for training, the Sichuan students sold their yaks, a real burning of the boats. They know they have to make it work." Now the first cheese batch is ready, the distant marketplace beckons. Whatever one's view of Chinese involvement in Tibet, the region does boast basic infrastructure. "We can get the cheese to a road in a day, and to a railhead in 24 to 36 hours, which is much quicker than in Nepal," says Goldings. Three days later, the specialty cheese could reach Beijing and Shanghai, where it will sell for 115 yuan per kilogram in up-market delis and hotels. Yet logistical challenges are only half the battle.

On their first marketing trip to Beijing last week, Renqing and Monk Jigme Jyantsen ran headlong into Chinese racial prejudice. "Hotel catering managers said 'it's from Tibet, it can't be clean' and slammed the door in their faces," reports Goldings, who hopes the experience has not shaken the Tibetans' confidence. Since the Chinese remain reluctant cheese fans, and Snowlands seeks a premium niche, marketing efforts will target the expatriate community, and possibly export routes to Europe and Asia.

Goldings keeps the faith that this protein and mineral-rich product will draw foreign consumers through its novelty value and philanthropic appeal. But how does it taste? At a fondue trial in the Chinese capital this week, Welsh business consultant Liza Lort-Phillips proved a willing guinea pig. "Anyone who has tried yak butter tea may have reservations, but thankfully there's not a whiff of yak to be had!" Her verdict on the one and a half-month Snowlands: "young, piquant, a little dry, comparable to a cheeky gruyere, or possibly one of the better British cheeses. Great with a glass of wine." And the three-month maturity: "bolder, fruitier, with a real hint of the Land of the Snows. Both could hold their own on a French cheese board."

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