Sheep are the largest contingent of domesticated animal on the Tibetan plateau. It is said there are about 20,000 in the small village of Ritoma, owned by 200 families. They are everywhere, light spots on the hills around us, moving in the distance like a tide of insects. They are quick to devour the grass, and when the numbers become too high, there is not enough to go around, and they don’t survive the harsh spring. Unfortunately, the local sheep’s wool is very coarse and used only for felting into mats, stuffing boots and matrasses or weaving the rough fabrics the nomads use for drying cheese.
Driving to Gyantse from Lhasa, the driver was asked to stop at every flock of sheep on the road. The first flock turned out to be Australian sheep, identified as such by Yidam, quite a sheep expert, and who scoffed, finding the large nosed creature to be an aberration. Down the road, we finally came across a small flock of the elusive Tibetan sheep that looked quite different; small, delicate with tiny horns. Locals made things clear; Northern sheep as they were called, yielded the perfect carpet wool, the one that had been exported in the old days, and Lhoka and Tsang sheep yielded the fine wool used to weave cloth. Northern sheep found Southern Tibet too warm and Southern sheep couldn’t survive in the north, so they all remained in their places until the global Australian sheep made its appearance. I have no idea how many there are or how much of its wool is used. Another expedition, another story.