Horse Lords of Tagong

Seeing yaks was a novelty at first, but as we went further into Kham, they became a ubiquitous part of the countryside.  In the one-street town of Tagong, the local people herd their yaks through town in the morning and evening. We could watch them coming and going as we sat in the cafe area at the Himakayak Guesthouse, our base in Tagong.
Views from Tagong.
Many people in Kham still live nomadic lifestyles, spending the summers in tents in the grasslands areas where their herds can graze, and spending winters in more permanent structures where they can keep their herd warm and alive.
We had the chance to spend a night with a Tibetan nomad family on the grasslands west of Tagong. To get to the our overnight destination we opted to do a full day horse ride. It ended up being much more intense than expected, as the route took us over streams and up huge hills and back down the other side.  Emily named her horse Munchie, for his frequent stops to eat grass, bushes, and anything green.  Doug called his horse Toaster, because it tried to eject him right away.
The first part of the ride was through Tibetan villages on the outskirts of Tagong.
And then we started to go up…and up….and up.  Toaster and Munchie certainly earned their keep in this section.
Finally at the top!
We gave the horses a bit of a rest for this steep downhill section.  The tents in the distance are the nomads who are grazing their yaks in this valley.
For Emily, getting back on a horse came naturally. Doug found out he might be more of a motorcycle person. Though, by the end of the ride he had managed to work out how to at least steer his horse. Stopping and starting were still elusive.
We stopped for lunch in a small town, around 3 hours into the ride.  Lunch was traditionally Tibetan – Tibetan bread (sort of like naan, but tougher), dipped in a mixture of yak butter, yak cheese, and hot water.  Honestly, it wasn’t the best lunch we’ve ever had.
When we finally saw the black tent that was to be our destination for the night, we were both glad for a break from riding.  The tent was set high above a valley, with shockingly good views of snow capped mountains in the distance. The tent itself was somewhere between a yurt and a lean-to. It didn’t look particularly waterproof at first glance, and sure enough it was to be a very wet night.
Views from our overnight camp.  The peaks in the distance are just shy of 6000m tall.
A Tibetan black tent, our home for the night.
Our horse guide making some tea inside the surprisingly spacious tent.  It had a opening down the middle of the roof to let out smoke from the cooking fire, but it didn’t work very well. The tent was constantly full of smoke.
Wood is rare at these elevations, so the fires consist mostly of dried yak dung.  Small branches from shrubs are used for kindling.  Surprisingly, the burning yak dung didn’t smell bad. It just smelled like campfire.
Our hosts were a mother named Silka (we think – there was a bit of a language barrier) and her young son Sonatenzin.  Those names might be spelled totally wrong –  we are just going phonetically here.  Our hosts arrived shortly after as, and almost right away Silka went off up the hillside to herd her 50 yaks. To our amazement, she herds them on foot, running around and yelling to get them moving. It’s amazing to see how fast she can move despite the altitude, whereas we are both out of breath from a short uphill section.
This is one incredibly hard working lady, taking care of yaks and her son out on the grasslands.  She didn’t stop working the entire time we were there.
Yak herding on foot.
After collecting the yak herd, we helped to bring the calves inside the tent for the night.  This was a surprise for us at first, learning that we would be sleeping beside around ten baby yaks. Periodically throughout the night the mother yaks would take turns coming into the tent to check on their young.  They were surprisingly docile, even when we were handling the calves.
Unfortunately we don’t have a good photo of the yaks inside the tent, because as soon as we finished tieing them up a crazy storm moved in.  The hail was marble sized, and started coming in through the many, many holes in the tent.
Emily grabbing one of the baby yaks (yaklings?).  You can see how dark the sky is getting, only moments before the storm hit.
The storm turned the previously-green landscape into a winter scene.  We were hiding inside the tent, trying to keep warm and dry.  Plus, getting hit with marble sized hail hurts!

Inside the tent, our host strung up some clear plastic sheeting to try and keep our sleeping area dry.  This was mostly successful, though everything not under the sheeting became absolutely soaked.  Thankfully, our bed consisted of many layers of blankets over top of a bed of branches.  The branches acted as a mattress, and also kept us off the cold wet ground.  It was really cold when we tucked into bed, so we slept in all our clothing.  Thankfully the blankets warmed up and we were pleasantly toasty when we woke up in the morning.


At first light Silka was up and reuniting the calves with their mothers.  She would bring the calf outside and tie it up beside the mother, and then milk the mother before releasing them both onto the grasslands to graze for the day.  Emily got to try milking a yak, so she can cross that off her bucket list.

The calf waits patiently for its breakfast.
After finishing milking the yaks, we were served a breakfast of fresh (one day old) yak yogurt, yak milk tea, and an oatmeal-like substance.  Its a practical meal for out on the grasslands, if not the tastiest thing we’ve ever eaten.
Finishing breakfast, we packed up our gear and said our goodbyes.  Rather than more horse riding, we were to hike back to Tagong.  We were told this would take around 3 hours, but the ground was completely saturated from the ongoing rainfall.  So what should have been a fairly straightforward hike turned into quite a challenge – how to cross streams and marsh areas and keep our shoes at least somewhat dry.
Views on the morning hike back to Tagong.  The temperature wasn’t much above freezing, and the ground was completely waterlogged so that it was like traversing a never-ending marsh.  New respect for Frodo and Sam, who did it barefoot.

After several hours of walking we were still a long, long way from Tagong.  Thankfully when we reached a road, a couple of young guys stopped and offered us a ride back into town.  By this point we were really wet, and more than a little tired, so the ride was very welcome.


We arranged this experience through a local guesthouse owner named Angela.  She is originally from Colorado, but now runs a guesthouse just outside of Tagong.  Angela warned us in advance that some people find the nomad experience to be “more rustic than expected”, and we can certainly say that’s true.  But despite the weather, it proved to be an incredible experience.  But next time we would bring more waterproof clothing!

  • Emily and Doug / June 20, 2017 @ 8:24pm / Ganzi, China @ Dzachusama Guesthouse



5 thoughts on “Horse Lords of Tagong

  1. What a unique and unforgettable experience…..such rugged beauty all around…..much respect for the people who face the daily challenges of living in the Tibetan mountains! Nancy passed on your blog, Emily…..really enjoy following your travels.


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