Weekend Warm-Up: Yak Life and Death, Insurance, and Butter Tea in Tibet

Welcome to the pastoral world of Norbu, Dolma, and their children and neighbors — Tibetan nomads in Nganang County, elevation 4,800 meters.

Life up here revolves around yaks, butter, Buddhist rituals, and fires with special fuel. There are multiple pleasing facets in this 25-minute production, but a central one is its “a day in the life” structure. You’re with Norbu and company from when they awake in the morning until they go to bed in the evening.


What happens in between is often tranquil, sometimes surprising, and consistently impressive.

Right away we learn that Dolma, Norbu’s 52-year-old wife, spent last night in the mountains. She returns on foot in the early morning to no particular ceremony, wearing ordinary clothes, with a nonchalant expression.

a tibetan woman

Dolma. The caption is the narrator’s dialog. Photo: Screenshot


She was looking for a lost yak. She found it.

Life goes on. Yak dung burns longer than firewood, so yak chips fuel the earthen cookstove. Butter tea is nutritious, and so is tsampa, and the nomads take a slow breakfast of it.

As you’d think, that’s one of many sharp contrasts with Western culture. But the demands of the outside world do intrude in some perhaps surprising contexts.

The neighbors have lost a yak, too. When they find it, it’s dead, probably from a long fall in the rocky crags above the camp. The neighbors solicit Norbu and Dolma’s help to “bury” the animal. It’s a touching insight into one dynamic of animal husbandry, sure. But it also points to a side of the trade that’s the opposite of ceremony — a business proposition.

The nomads recover the dead animal and dig a grave for it alongside a river. They then snap a photo with its body, holding up some notarizing document that will, ostensibly, produce an insurance payoff. The occasional on-screen graphics enhance the fringe-y feel of this film.

a group of tibetans with paperwork and a dead yak

Photo: Screenshot


The nomads also practice making butter lamps every day. With the naturally derived candles, they seek to “offer the light of wisdom and knowledge, to eliminate the darkness of ignorance.”

tibetan man twirling a prayer wheel

Norbu. Photo: Screenshot


I’ll be thinking about that while I guzzle coffee and fight traffic, hungover and hustling to beat the clock to another eight-hour shift.

And I’ll suppress the urge to look up butter tea recipes on my phone.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.