Mountain People - Himalayan Expedition Part 2
As you climb higher, the number of houses increases, and so does the number of agricultural fields, until almost 75 percent of the land is being farmed. In places it is very hard to see the original vegetation. In fact, you can see some locals working in a nearby forest, cutting down trees. Laxmi explains that this wood will be used in their homes for fuel. When they finish cutting down the trees in this area, they light the remaining brush and weeds on fire. Laxmi refers to this practice as "Khorea," which translates into "slash-and-burn" in English.
There are several men working on a nearby patch of land that looks like it has already been burned. This field has been rained on and the ashes have settled into the soil. All of the men have ropes tied around their waists that they use to climb up and down the hillside. As they move along, they dig a small hole in the ground with a stick and spit a maize seed into it.
When the men stop for a break, you decide to ask them about Khorea. They generously offer you some of their tea. It's delicious, but it's not like any tea you've ever tasted! It is made with milk, butter, and salt and has a consistency more like soup, but it sure hits the spot!
One of the men explains, as Laxmi translates, that Khorea is practiced on a piece of land every 5 to 15 years. This makes the land very productive because the burning recycles nutrients in the soil. These nutrients enable farmers to grow a large crop of maize that, when harvested, leaves soil fertile enough for forests to grow back. These forests can then be harvested again for fuelwood. Unfortunately, as the farmers destroy more and more native forests, habitats--for the red panda and Himalayan black bear, for example--are also being destroyed. As populations increase on the mountain, these farmers are forced to shorten the length of time for each cycle to produce more food. The removal of forests at this rate is increasing the amount of soil erosion that takes place, which, in turn, decreases the amount of nutrients in the soil. This ultimately reduces the amount of food a piece of land can produce.
In addition to maize, rice and millet are still grown at this elevation. Cows and goats continue to graze around the fields. Although the cows are mostly used to plow the fields below 6,652 feet (2,000 meters), some milk is also produced for use in the household. The goats, as well as pigs and chickens, provide meat.
Continuing up past 6,652 feet (2,000 meters). You notice there are fewer and fewer houses as you climb higher and higher. Over the next 3,000 feet of climbing you pass by small agricultural fields, separated by stone and mud walls, where potato and barley are growing.
In the distance you hear bells jingling. A few minutes later you see why-yaks are coming down the hillside with sacks of wool, meat, salt, medicinal herbs, and handmade products. They stop for a rest, you presume, near where some horses are tied. Then, the women who were walking with the yaks begin to unload items and pile them into packs hanging from the horses. After everything has been transferred over, the women continue down the trail with the horses in tow. They are headed to a market in the valley that is held every Tuesday and Friday. Here they will sell their products and pay or trade for the supplies they need-rice, tea, sugar, kerosene, and clothe.
You stop to watch some potatoes being harvested. The soil looks a little moist, like it has been softened with water to make harvesting easier. How do they water the soil without hoses? Several women are pulling potato plants out of the ground and beating them against their legs to shake the soil loose from the potatoes. Once they are cleaned off, the women tie them in a bundle. These bundles must be what you saw piled on the rooftops of the houses you passed earlier! All around them are cows grazing, but now they are in the company of buffalo. All along it has seemed as though there are just as many animals as people inhabiting these hills!
That's probably because animals play such an important role in the lives of mountain people. Just as you are thinking this, you see a piece of land being tilled by two yaks. The first yak is pulling a plow, turning up the soil behind it. The second yak is pulling a long piece of flat wood (called a "maddin") with a person sitting in the center. After the second yak passes over, the ground is completely smooth and ready for planting.
In no time at all these two animals have prepared a huge field for planting. In the last 1,000 feet or so, you've started having difficulty breathing just while walking! How can they be doing so much work at this elevation? You note that they really aren't out of breath, either. As you get closer, you also notice their wool-thick and shaggy. It's perfect for life in the mountains! You wonder if they might also have special adaptations to help them breathe the thin mountain air. You've noticed that these animals are used for more than plowing, too. Some of the villages have leather tents made from their skin and you've seen yak cheese drying on rocks in the sun. Their wool must be used to make some of the beautiful clothing being worn by the mountain people, too.
Off in the distance you see some women and children returning from a collecting trip to the woods. They must have covered a lot of ground because they are loaded down with tons of water, leaves, wood, and wild plants!
At 9,843 feet (3,000 meters) you've reached the last permanent village. Soon after, the Sherpa porters who have been with you from the beginning of the expedition are joined by mid-altitude Rai porters.
This makes you think about the many different people who call the Makalu-Barun region home and how they seem to peacefully live and work around one another despite their differences. So far on this expedition you have come across people who practice at least three different religions-Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. And although all of the people you have met speak Nepali, you have heard seven other languages spoken along the way! Not only do these mountain people speak and worship differently, but they also have their own unique way of living.
Thinking about a village you passed earlier in the expedition, you recall meeting people of the Rai religion. Unlike Hinduism or Buddhism, Rai is practiced entirely through the spoken word. When you passed through the village, a ceremony was taking place in which an elderly member of the community was reciting a myth to the gods. Although the translation was rough, Laxmi was able to tell you that the myth was about the relationship between the Rai people and nature.