“Who wants to give up on society and go live in a treehouse with me?”
This message and it’s accompanying photograph have been doing the rounds in social media circles for a couple of years now. You’ve probably seen it half a dozen times. It’s symptomatic of people’s frustrations with modern living, with the stresses, the difficulties, and the frequent monotony of day to day existence in the 21st Century.
And like those optimists of the sixties and seventies who abandoned the nine to five job and went ‘back to the land’ following John Seymour’s self-sufficiency lifestyle, the wannabe treehouse dwellers seem to believe that a return to the ways of the past would lead to a simpler, easier and somehow more ‘wholesome’ existence. It’s a seductive thought isn’t it? that one’s modern troubles would wash away, and that happiness and utopia could be obtained through an act as simple as hurling your car keys and mobile phone in to a river, and planting some turnips in your back garden.
But it’s a fantasy. The reason we have have sculpted our civilised society the way that we have, is to make our lives comfortable. Our cities, our technology, our appliances and conveniences are crafted to grant us more leisure, more pleasure, and fewer working hours. And the reason that the ‘Simple Life™‘ appears to us so simple, is that the very obstacles and hardships that accompany it simply do not occur to us, we’ve never had to face them. We know the difficulties of our lives, but we often see only the good side of someone else’s. The grass is always greener on the other side.
To illustrate, allow me to take you on an adventure to a place where the grass is, undeniably, greener. But where very little in life, is ‘Simple’.
The Tibetan Plateau, often called the ‘Roof of the World’ begins in Sichuan province, China, and extends as far as the border with Kashmir 2,500km to the West. At 2.5 million square kilometres, it’s about ten times the size of the UK, and almost all of it at altitudes upwards of 5000m. And who lives in this vast expanse? Hardly anybody.
Aside from a handful of small towns and settlements scattered like islands in the ocean, the overwhelming majority of it’s inhabitants are pastoral nomads, living largely the same lifestyle that they have for the last 30,000 years.
And it’s to here, to a nomad family currently encamped on the Tagong Grassland, that our tired little motorcycle delivered us.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. Our motorcycle delivered us as far as the small town of Tagong itself. The nomads were camped in the hills about 30km from the town, necessitating a prelude adventure (and therefore, in my usual manner, an 800 word deviation from the narrative of my article) before the real adventure began.
“You can’t take a motorcycle up there” we were told. “There aren’t any roads”.
We didn’t fancy the hike. Marie and I are hardly icons of fitness at the best of times, and the lack of oxygen at 4,800m results in a capacity for roughly 43 seconds of physical exertion between five minute rest periods.
“How do the locals get around?” I enquired.
Awesome. I’ll need an appropriate hat.
For a small fee, it was arranged that a Tibetan chap would meet us in town the following morning with some of his horses, and would act as a guide to lead us to the home (tent) of the nomad family that we planned to stay with. One small complication in this otherwise perfect masterplan, was me. I am quite large, and Tibetan horses, while sturdy, are not exactly behemoths of the genus. A message was urgently passed to the aforementioned Tibetan Horsemaster, that in the absence of any suitable elephants or Bactrian camels, he ought to bring forth the biggest, baddest equine in his stable to bear the load of one fat-arsed foreigner.
‘Racha’ was his name. The steed, not the guide. Chestnut brown, and visibly more stout and muscular that his stablemates. A handsome specimen. However, in horses as in Homo Sapiens, big alpha males rarely come without their share of attitude issues. As I was to learn to my peril.
A bit headstrong, but manageable if you’ve ridden a horse before, was the gist of the advice given.
“I have”, I stated. Boldly and quite truthfully.
I may have neglected to mention that it was just the once. In the boy scouts. When I was 12. For about 15 minutes and with a handler holding the reins at all times. I do have a tendency to blame the Gods when misfortune befalls me, but from time to time, even I am forced to admit that occasionally, I do bring these things on myself.
We began auspiciously. Racha carried me effortlessly, and responded well to my clumsy ministration. Within a couple of hours I had him totally under control and was even able to vaguely assist a few locals in the rounding up of their errant yaks. Until that is, a mere hour from our destination, and for no discernible reason, he bolted. From a gentle trot to a full gallop in the blink of an eye, hurling yours truly from the saddle on to some rocks. Worse still, in the course of my fall my foot became entangled in the stirrups, and my once-placid steed proceeded to drag me along behind him like a string of cans on a honeymoon car.
Total injuries for this misadventure include: a strained/ twisted/ generally knackered foot, a broken hand, a dozen or so cuts and bruises, and a very unsightly crease in my new cowboy hat.
I suppose this brings me back to the original point of my article. When you break your hand at home, you nip down the road to the local clinic where a medical professional will x-ray and assess the damage, fit a quality and sterile bandage or cast, and send you away with some painkillers and a note entitling you to a fortnight off work watching Netflix.
Here on the plateau, where the Simple Life rules absolute, you have two options:
A) Man up, and get back on the horse.
B) Fashion for yourself a rudimentary field dressing/splint from wet wipes and duct tape, then man up and get back on the horse.
It’s simpler, no denying that. But is it preferable?
On then, to our reason for being here. We had arranged via a lady we know in the town of Tagong (details later for anyone wishing for a similar adventure) to spend three or four days living with a family of Tibetan nomads, to learn a little about the traditional crafts and skills that have allowed this culture to endure almost unchanged for millennia. Specifically, we wanted to learn about the Yaks. Those shaggy, lumbering, mountain cattle that are central to the way of life here, and without which, most of the plateau would likely be uninhabitable.
The family we would be staying with consisted of just three people. Soko and her two young children.
Soko lives the Simple Life ™. And on the face of it, it seems idyllic. The family live together in a large tent situated in an endless expanse of rolling hills and lush green grassland, broken only by patches of heather, mountain flowers and crystal clear streams. She has a herd of 50 yak which provide all the food and milk that the family could need, three horses for transportation, and a couple of large furry working dogs.
They live far from any traffic or pollution. She has no boss, no bills to pay and no schedule to keep beyond her own. They are self-sufficient, the food is all-natural, and the family take all meals together free of modern distractions, often cooking over an open fire while chatting, bonding and learning. All beneath a clear blue sky, or in the evenings, because of the altitude and total absence of light pollution, the kind of starry sky that normally only astronauts get a look at.
All this and the total freedom to go where and do what they like. Neighbourhood getting crowded? Another family moved in a little too close for comfort (say a couple of kilometres away)? Did the herd run in to hostile Yetis? They can load the tent and belongings on to the yaks, and set up home on the next mountain over.
But it’s not an idyllic life. It’s a hard one. It’s really, really fucking hard.
Here follows; A Day In The Life Of Soko. (juxtaposed with excepts from ‘a day in the life of Dave. The Man on the Clapham Omnibus’)
4:30am: Soko is up and about. During the night the yaks have wandered, as usual, and must be found and herded back to the home. This can be done on horseback, unless the horses have also wandered off. . .
Dave remains asleep.
6:00am: The yaks have been found and rounded up, but before Soko can have a cup of tea she must first gather the milk. Around 20 of her yaks are to be milked this morning, and this is far more difficult than with dairy cows. The yaks don’t like being milked, so first she must tie their front legs together so that they don’t move, then she must find the correct calf and encourage it to start feeding from it’s mother. Then it’s on to the old switcheroo, in which she must quickly pull the calf away and take over the milking herself, before the mother yak notices. This takes her 5 minutes, to net about half a litre of milk, and needs to be done 20 times.
Dave is still asleep.
7:30am. Soko now has milk, but to make the tea she’ll need water as well. This can be collected from a stream a mere 10 minutes walk away. Might as well take the kids too, it’s time for their morning bath. The stream is melt water from the nearby snow-capped mountain, so during the summer months the water will be a merciful few degrees above freezing. In winter, she’d need to chip a hole in the ice.
Then it’s back to camp to start a fire, as the water must be boiled before it’s safe to drink; just because it’s natural and free of pollutants doesn’t mean it’s free of bacteria or parasites. And besides, she needs to cook breakfast anyway. Cigarette lighters don’t work at this altitude (did you know that?), luckily, she has a book of matches, but if they run out or get damp, then it’s back to caveman methods. Oh, and if you’re wondering about firewood, there isn’t any. You’ve seen the pictures, do you see any trees up here? No, the fuel for this fire and all other fires, is yak dung. A surprisingly efficient fuel, but the less surprising side effect is that every meal you eat, and every drop you drink tastes just a tiny bit like yak dung.
Dave has a hot shower and switches on his espresso machine.
8:45am Breakfast is Tsampa, made from barley, yak cheese, yak butter and yak milk. Like almost every meal. Yak meat itself is only eaten when one of the animals dies of natural causes. As Buddhists, the nomads will not usually kill an animal for meat. Besides, they’re more valuable to the family alive, as a steady source of milk. But when one does eventually keel over, they won’t waste the calories either. Soko can also trade her yak cheese and butter at the nearest town, and this allows her to occasionally purchase things like potatoes, rice, and flour to vary the diet a little, but the vast majority of dishes the family eats come directly from the underside of a hairy cow.
Dave is on his way to work. He picked up a sausage roll at the cafe, and is now in his air-conditioned car listening to Creedance. Dave is a man of taste, after all.
9:15am Dave has arrived at the office and like all self respecting men, is spending the first 30 minutes of company time in a toilet cubicle reading the newspaper.
Soko and her family have the same biological requirements as Dave, but alas, no toilet cubicle. No latrine either. Basically, when nature calls on the plateau, you pick a spot. Even the old faithful ‘hiding in the bushes’ technique will avail you none. It’s a grassland, there are no bushes. Choose a spot far enough from your water supply, and hope to god that any family living upstream is doing likewise.
10:00am Dave is sitting in his comfortable chair, drinking his third coffee of the day, looking over his inbox and daily meeting schedule and thinking “I wish I lived the Simple Life”.
Meanwhile Soko is collecting enormous piles of wet yak excrement with her bare hands. This is a daily task, she must collect the droppings of her 50 yaks, then smear them thinly (again, with bare hands) across a patch of earth so that they will dry in the sun. Later these dung pancakes will be collected and stored at the foot of her bed. That’s tomorrow morning’s firewood.
11:00am Soko is hard at work turning the morning’s haul of milk in to butter and cheese so that it will keep for the winter months when the yaks will not produce. Making butter and cheese by hand is exhausting work, I couldn’t keep it up for more than about 20 minutes before my muscles gave in, Soko does this for one to two hours a day. She hasn’t yet had time to escort the herd to it’s grazing grounds either, so instead she dispatches her eldest son (aged 7) to do the honours on her behalf. At age 7 I think I had just learned to ride a bike without stabilisers. Off this kid goes, on horseback and alone to muster fifty cattle, the family’s entire livelihood, and bring them to a grazing site about 10km over the mountains. At his age, I don’t think my dad trusted me to hold the TV remote.
Dave is in a meeting, watching a powerpoint presentation and muttering about how that fat cow from accounts has troughed all the chocolate bourbons.
12:30 Soko is in a panic. While she was showing Marie & I how to make cheese, her youngest Son (aged 2) has gone missing. With the older boy (who is normally responsible for keeping an eye on his little brother) away with the cows, Soko has to go searching. With all the open space and freedom that their home affords, the boys are accustomed to roaming far and wide, but the youngest shouldn’t be out alone; the terrain can be dangerous, and many of the other nomad families in the hills nearby keep fierce guard dogs, who might well view the youngster as an intruder to be dealt with.
Dave has spurned the office cafeteria in favour of a steak pie, and a cheeky pint with a colleague at the local boozer.
3:00pm The escaped toddler has been tracked down. He’d evidently remembered the path his brother once led him on to where another family were camped. But lacking their own horses and having duties of their own, they’d not yet been able to bring him back. Mobile phone coverage would have solved this problem in moments.
Also, while the tent was unoccupied, a rampaging Yak, or one of those Yetis again, had careened through the guy ropes, snapping several and carrying one away to god only knows where. Soko can’t just buy new rope, she has to make it from yak hair. Going back out to round up the herd is therefore delayed until she can weave some new rope, otherwise their home is in danger of collapse.
Dave is in his second meeting of the day. The topic is which font to use on next year’s company brochure. After 90 minutes of heated debate, the votes are in; 6 for Franklin Gothic, 11 for Lucida Console, and 1 for Comic Sans. Fucking Bernard.
5:00pm. Dave‘s day is done. From here on he can do anything that his modern world offers. He could go swimming or ice skating, he could take a course in oriental yoga, or learn to play the banjo. He could eat food from any of a hundred counties, and wash it down with his choice of beverage. He has the opportunity to socialise with people from a myriad backgrounds, he has the free time to learn and practice any skill, to study any subject, and to relax any way he sees fit. Or, he has the option to sit on his sofa, eat takeaway pizza, and watch three hours of Scandinavian pornography. No one’s judging you, Dave.
Soko‘s day is far from over. She needs to retrieve her herd, prepare food, gather the dried yak dung, milk the yaks again, ‘encourage’ some of the yaks to mate (something that they’re strangely reluctant to do. More than once we witnessed Soko having to quite literally give a ‘helping hand’ to the males so they’d get down to business). Maybe she needs to weave some fabric to make clothes for herself and the children. Some days she needs to do all of this plus make a six hour journey to town.
In the days we stayed with her, she was never up later than 4:30, never to bed before 11pm, and never at rest at any time in between.
Now, some will say I’m making unfair comparisons here. Especially given that Soko has children and my fictitious Mr Dave does not, but that also supports what I’m talking about. Dave has the luxury of choosing not to have children, Soko does not. Dave has a pension plan, and knows that when old age, ill health, or terminal idleness render him unable to work, his modern society will provide for him. Soko‘s children are her pension plan, an investment, and from a very young age will be given important duties to help support the family. And when she is no longer able to work, they will be the only people to provide for her.
Dave‘s life might be easier, but it’s soul-destroying and monotonous” I hear you say. “Her life is exciting and free, riding horses all day and producing her own food, I’d much rather have that than my office job!”
Oh really? Riding horses is exciting, yes. The first few times. So is driving a car. But within a few weeks, rounding up the herd would become as tedious as your morning commute. Milking cattle and making cheese are much less interesting and much more strenuous than your daily email inbox, once the novelty wears off. Imagine what this life is like every day. Soko does not get weekends off, she doesn’t get five weeks annual leave or a dozen National Holidays, and if she or one of her children gets sick, tough. The cows still need milking, they’re unlikely to accept a doctor’s note.
Also worth pointing out that we stayed with Soko during the summer, when, as she put it, “living is easy”. Imagine the winter. In sub-zero temperatures, when the ground is frozen solid and the rain and snow is constant, when you can’t get a fire going (because the yak dung will never dry out), when the grass doesn’t grow and your animals, and maybe even your children are starving.
And for all of you would-be treehouse dwellers and wilderness survivalists who still think this life sounds better than yours, here’s a few things you haven’t thought about:
Flies. Living in a tent surrounded by 50 cattle and all their resultant waste, means flies are constant. Stand still for a moment and there’s a dozen on your body. Mosquitoes too.
Illness & injury. No doctors, no emergency services and no modern medicine. In places like this, people die from things that those in the developed world can fix with a $3 bottle of pills.
Finding love. No ‘plentyoffish’ or ‘tinder’ out here. The nomads have very small communities, and travelling matchmakers have the unusual job of roaming the plains to see which families have unmarried young men and women, and pairing them up with one another.. If one of the other families in your community has a daughter roughly your age, that’s your bride. You don’t get a choice in the matter. Even if she has a beard.
Noise. You always associate this kind of life with peace & quiet. Let me tell you; dogs, horses and fifty cows make the kind of racket that’d soon have you dreaming wistfully of the time when all you had to block out was the neighbour’s tv and the odd lorry driving past.
Growing old, fast. Not just the children, who, as young as five are given work and responsibilities that I wouldn’t trust a British 20 year old with, but the adults too. When we first met Soko, we were surprised to find that a woman in her late forties had such young children. She doesn’t, and she isn’t. She’s 30. Take another look at her picture. That’s what hard work and harsh winters do.
Fear of the dark. Most of us cease to be afraid of the dark in adulthood, because we know that artificial light is always close to hand, and there isn’t much out there in your darkened bedroom to fear anyway. Out in the wilds, with no light source available and unfamiliar sounds all around, this very primal fear soon returns to the surface once darkness falls and the campfire goes out.
On our first night, as we slept on our makeshift bed (composed of dried heather and an old blanket) I was awakened by movement nearby. Blinking in the darkness I became aware of an enormous silhouette looming over me, and as my eyes adjusted further, the horrifying details began to fill in. A hulking monstrosity, expelling it’s foetid breath in deep raspy pants bare inches above my face. Huge black eyes and great gnarley horns, like some Boschian nightmare come forth to carry me away to the netherworld.
A yak. He’d grown tired of the rain and decided to seek shelter inside the tent. That or he’d decided to exact revenge by scaring the living shit out of the fat foreigner he’d seen milking his missus a few hours earlier.
My point, if I have a point, is: the Simple Life™ is hard. It’s a gruelling daily slog just to keep food on the table and clothes on your back. Entertainment and relaxation don’t get a look in, even during childhood, and the skills and knowledge required to pull of the lifestyle successfully take decades to learn. The average day to day of modern life can be boring and frustrating, but so can the Simple Life™. And at least yours grants vast amounts of free time to relieve the tedium any way you choose. Going off to live in a treehouse in the jungle or a smallholding in the wilds will merely add danger, worry, exhaustion, and a profusion of biting insects to your humdrum existence.
ps. We didn’t just turn up at the tent unexpected, a lady called Angela who runs an eco-lodge outside of Tagong is the go-to person for anyone wanting to sample this sort of thing. Angela is married to a Tibetan man and has good ties with the community, she arranges home-stays with the nomads as well as workshop courses to learn many of the skills, such as weaving and leather-working. You can find her website here
This was not a sponsored tour or article, just something that we enjoyed and considered worthy of writing about.
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