Horses, Herding and the Nomadic Lifestyle in Upper Mustang
As in Tibet, animals were long an integral part of life in Upper Mustang. The nature of the landscape made horses both necessary for trade, transportation and other work. Horses are also culturally significant in Upper Mustang, as evidenced by the horse festival of yarthum that takes place towards the end of the rainy season in August/September. With the road that now runs through the region, horses are no longer as necessary as they once were – but they remain important culturally. Nearly every household in the region still retains a horse for festivals and travel between villages, and the sound of pony bells is still common in villages throughout Upper Mustang and out on the trails. Goats, sheep, and yaks were historically important for food, clothing, and trade. Hardier than other kinds of livestock, these animals could survive the rugged terrain of Upper Mustang. In a land as dry as Upper Mustang, where only a few crops can be grown in a year, animals were necessary for survival and herding was the key livelihood for most families.
These days there are fewer herders than there once were, but it continues to be an important source of income for some and a traditional way of life. It is common out on the trekking trail to run into herders shepherding hundreds of their animals up and down the mountainsides. The eastern route especially runs along many herders’ paths and a couple one of the key campsites sits by a rare green meadow that herders from Tetang frequent. Some families in this part of the world also live nomadically – wandering back and forth across the Nepal-Tibet border seasonally with their animals according to the seasons and the pasture-lands. Though fewer in number than before, some of these families can still be found for a few months of the year in Upper Mustang, sometimes near Lo Manthang. It is best to ask locally for their whereabouts (and if they are open to visits), but if they are nearby it is a once-in-lifetime experience to pay them a visit. The best way to reach the nomads is on horseback – as it is crucial to reach their camp early in the morning before they take their yaks to pasture. Many nomadic families are very generous and they will share yak milk or salt tea with visitors in their warm yak-hair tents before showing visitors how they milk their yaks and mark their goats. If you are lucky enough to be in Upper Mustang while there are nomads about it is well worth visiting them!
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