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The one “fun photo” I managed to snap before the wild yaks came careening in my direction.

Two wild yaks placidly gazing at absolutely nothing as they go about a typical mountain day.  Typical, that is, until Bikram starts madly chasing them across the tundra...

5/21/09-- Yak Attack in the Himalayas

    The Himalayan yak emerges from the mist slowly, first a tip of a horn, then an eyeball, and finally a shadowy body rising from the ground like dust.  Large cumulus clouds had been sliding down the mountainside all morning, making our search for the infamous wild mountain yak  difficult. More than once, I was certain we had found ourselves back on the same winding path, walking in circles, our guide Bikram chatting away, assuring us that we were hot on the trail.  Finally, at 15,000 feet, after a breathless climb up a steep mountainside, we had our first glimpse of true high-altitude wildlife.

    Me and the Merman were on a ten day trek to the base of Mt. Kachenjunga, the third highest peak in the world.  Complete with guide, cook, two porters, two yaks, and  a yakman, our trek was more like a royal entourage, with five course home made nepali meals served piping hot. After exactly five days we reached a view point where we were able to see the entire range, with wild yaks grazing below.  “Today I take you to see wild yak.”  Our guide pointed to the specks far below. “Good yak, wild yak.” And here we were.

A frosty wind picks up and parts the fog, revealing a field of over thirty wild yaks grazing peacefully on the rocky terrain.  The thinness of the air magnifies each sound, and as the yaks whisk their furry tails back and forth a gentle whoosh surrounds us, pulsing like the ocean. A timid calf takes one cautious step towards its mother and peeks up with wide glistening eyes. She gazes down and licks its face with a wide pink tongue.  The magnificence and magnitude of the creatures looms around us in an undulating mist, the whole scene otherworldly.

Suddenly a high-pitched scream pierces the air, shattering the stillness. I whip my head around to see my guide running head straight into the field of yaks, yelping. “Photo!  Photo!   Fun photo!” He peers over his shoulder in our direction and motions wildly with his hands. The yaks freeze-- backs erect, tails tensed, eyes pinned on the oncoming human-- and take off full speed across the valley.  The thunder of hundreds of hoofs fills the air in a deafening roar as Bikram chases them down the hill. “Garrrrr!” He shouts and tumbles into the fog.

I start to nervously make my way up a hillside, trying to distance myself from the roar of the stampede, but in a second they come bursting from the mist, heading straight in my direction.   “Good Time. Good yak time!”  Bikram smiles gleefully as he races to their side, deliberately chasing all thirty of them towards me, including a group of feisty mothers and their babies. I scramble behind a cliff as they run by, Bikram following behind, screaming.

My heart is pounding, head throbbing.  These are wild yaks, not the domesticated ½ bull ½ yak that lugged our gear up the mountains with frequent stops to much on flowers.  Shaggy, frosty, wild, mountain creatures, taller and heavier then me, with hooves the size of half my head were stampeding unrestrained in my direction—and it seemed they had no intention of slowing as long as they were being pursued by our  guide. 

“Bikram STOP!” I yell as I dash up over a hill and behind a bush  “Stop RIGHT NOW!”

But he is too caught up in this mad running of the yaks.  Cackling deliriously, he chases them forward, his eyes scanning the fields in search, I’m sure, of me. Now the fog has begun to grown even thicker and visibility falls to less then ten feet.  Sounds travel at lightning speed and I become disoriented, it seems as if Bikram’s crazed laughing and the yaks naying and hoofs stomping are all around me, surrounding me, closing in on me.  I tear down a hill in the direction that I think will lead me back to the main path, though I can’t be sure, it is so hard to see.  I stride across huge boulders and slide down dew drenched mud in a mad scamper that stems from pure instinct—a desperate animalistic flight.

Finally I catch sight of a footpath that leads me to the crest of a hill and then down.  Slowly, the sound of the stampede begins to wane, though Bikram’s high-pitched chanting of “Photo! Photo!” still slices through the fog as sharp as a knife, so I keep on my way down the path at a brisk pace.  At last I hear a sound I never though so sweet: the delicate tinkle of bells.  They are undoubtedly hanging from the necks of a group of domesticated yaks carrying the loads of trekkers on their way to another campsite.  I slow my jog to a leisurely walk—these yaks respond best to gentle movement-- and sure enough, a tourist caravan comes bumbling down the path. Stopping at the side of the road, I let them pass, the yaks moving at a slow steady pace, the trekkers following behind.  These yaks are beautiful, shiny black coats, large polished horns, red feathered ornaments dangling from their pierced ears apparently for the yak’s benefit—so when they go to drink from a pond, they can gaze at their reflection and think “What a handsome strong yak I am” and become a handsomer, stronger, yak.

A giddy relief washes over me and I become ecstatic, returning to the campsite with a happy bumbling gait.  I know this is some sort of high that comes from a close encounter with danger—the stuff that mountain summiteers and sky divers live for.  Even so, a near yak attack was enough for one day—  one lifetime.

This domesticated 1/2 yak 1/2 ox remains unfazed by the presence of a mermaid in such an unlikely place: the Himalayas. While pure yaks can only survive above 10,000 feet, this mix can weather the hot jungle as easily as the frozen mountains.  Check out its sweet earings.

Fog slowly devouring the path leading to the valley of the yak.