The baby in the yak belly
Our friend Tashi Bista was helping with some information about trekking routes and places to visit in Upper Mustang.
I was asking about sticking out tongues, as this was mentioned Michel Peissel’s 1964 book as a form of greeting among Mustangis. “Not really,” he said to my disappointment, “it’s more of a close contact thing, a sign of surprise to see a friend after a long time. But is also used as a symbol of respect to the higher castes at times.” **
“But,” he continued, “there are quite a lot of other traditions and beliefs we have in Upper Mustang.” After a few seconds, he brought up a rather interesting picture on his laptop. It was a young girl of just a few years old immersed in a Yak’s stomach.
“If the baby is thought to be a bit small, or their talking ability is developing late, then they get put into the belly of a freshly slaughtered yak. It’s stomach is still warm and full of fodder. They take out the baby when it starts to cry, but wait at least a minute even if it is crying anyway! It’s believed that will help talking and walking skills to develop faster.”
But who kills the yak? Aren’t Buddhists vegetarian?
“Well, this is before the harsh winter when some animals are cut to make a winter stock of meat. It’s unbelievably cold through winter for the few people that stay up there, and they need nutritious food that can sustain them. The harsh weather makes it very difficult to grow green vegetables without a green house.”
And what other traditions should we know about in Upper Mustang?
“Well, there’s the Himalayan marmot. We believe if you rub your skin against marmot fur, dead or alive, it can cure some skin diseases. If you have a mouth ulcer, you can rub the white underbelly of a common lizard against the ulcer to cure it. However, most people prefer to do this if the lizard is no longer living!”
Tashi goes on.
“If you have a hat made from fox or wolf fur, that’s very good for your status, and putting hair of a rabbit on your door, that brings good luck.”
He also has a good tip for any group taking horses on their Upper Mustang trek.
“We ride horses a lot in Mustang. If you get pain on your backside from the saddle, then you have to find some dung from the horse that gave you the wound and rub that on your own behind. If your horse catches cold, the villagers will feed black beetles (the common ones found here) to the horse.”
Should you get snow-blindness [NB. totally avoidable if you have good sun glasses], then you can mix some wheat flour with hot ghee, like a hot ball of tsampa, and rub against your eyes. To prevent snow blindness, the lobas, the people of Lo, have developed two tricks: the first is to mix ash with water to make a black colouring and wear on the under and upper part of your eyes; the secondly, is to wear a good bunch of black yak hair over your eyes.
And for other trekkers, who might not have been in the best shape at the start of their trek and suffer from joint pain, then some marmot fat rubbed on the joint should apparently ease the pain. For that you might have to join forces with someone with a skin complaint to find a marmot.
Now with basic health posts dotted around, the marmots might have less to worry about, but still these remedies are strongly held in the culture.
All of this goes to prove the point that no-one knows an area like a local, and if you are organising a trek, try to make sure you have a local guide in the team. They might not always be immediately forthcoming with insights like these – for all of this is totally normal to them – but engage and enquire and you’ll slowly get a deeper understanding of the cultures you’re visiting.
** A friend mentioned that when she was in Lhasa in Tibet in 1999 she accidentally bumped into a man in the street. He immediately pulled a face, poking his tongue right out and opening his eyes wide. “What on earth was that about?” she wondered, a little shocked. She later was told that this man was just demonstrating that, “my eyes are not red, and my tongue is not black, so I am not a demon, you don’t need to worry!”
Yak blood drinking festival
There are several other festivals that involve blood happening in Lower Mustang. Here is a video taken by Chetan Raghuram from Bangalore. Interesting!
[The] festival of drinking fresh blood of Yak to cure diseases, like gastritis, is being celebrated in Nepal’s north-west district Mustang. The festival is celebrated twice a year during April-May and July-August by local people. Some 5-10 glasses of yak blood is taken out by piercing its neck and drunk without killing the animal. It costs around Rs 60 to drink a glass of yak blood and people drink instantly before it freezes.