Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trip to the Mei Xiang Yak Cheese Factory

Only a few days after getting back from the gorge, another trip was promted. With the help of Zhuo Ma and Mrs. Yang, we had been organizing wine (local Shangri-La wines) and yak cheese tastings. Three Israelis who attended and enjoyed the cheese were interested in joining me on my trip up to the factory. I don't think they were quite ready for the journey, despite my warnings that it wasn't the quickest ride. We were told to arrive at 9:00am for the 10:00 bus because it filled up. Arriving at 8:48, we found only four seats left, and were packed in in a fashion reminiscent of Bangladesh, with people sitting in the the aisle and seats they created themselves. Grueling roads made the drive slow, and 2 1/2 hours in we came to a stop. The ruts were so deep that the underside of the car had gotten beached. Seeing the problem, no one really didn anything at first - just looked at each other. Did we have any wooden boards or materials for traction for the wheels? Of course not. Eventually, Umi, one of the Israeilis, and I started gathering large pieces of stone with the other Chinese passengers to create a track for the bus. Half an hour and much pushing on the bus later, we were back on the road again...only for about 60 seconds. Then we got stuck again. The same routine and 45 more minutes of tinkering got us going for good. When it was all said and done and we arrived at the factory, it had taken 6 hours to travel less than 50 miles. Now it might be a bit easier to see why the Tibetans' dairy hadn't made it to big markets until Mei Xiang got involved.

The factory itself is small, but is surrounded by a campus of guest houses, a restaurant, dormatories for the workers, and a nearby power plant. The guest house we stayed in was complete with scalding hot showers and heated blankets - at nearly 11,000 feet we needed them. Through a factory tour and conversations around the fire, we learned that the entire cheese factory is run by three people - none of whom have more than an elementary education, the factory manager included (but of course they have been trained extensively how to make cheese!). The nearest high school is in Shangri-La, and because of attendence costs and distance, most of them never make it. This precludes the chance of going to college, and starts the whole cycle over again. The teacher I interviewed in a nearby village could actually name the handful of people who had attended college over the past several years. I asked workers what most people (children) do instead of school: "Work with yaks or farm" came the answer. All the workers at the factory, all the workers at the Shangri-La shop where I spend most my time, and all the nomdic herder families who source the milk are Tibetan minorities.

I had the opportunity to accompany Liu Jin, one of the workers, up to the plateau where the yaks graze and their owners live for half the year. The land was amazingly pristine and people were surprisingly sparse, a word that doesn't get thrown around often when describing the population of the most inhabited country on earth. Liu Jin's mother and father happened to be one of the four families that currently supply Mei Xiang yak milk. Too cold to grow much of anything most of the year, yaks really are the only choice for livelihoods. Before Mei Xiang, one of the herders said, they would sell nai zha (a type of yak cheese) and su you (a type of yak butter) in Shangri-La for about 5 yuan (7 USD) per kiliogram of milk. However, they had to produce the products and take them to Shangri-La, where "it is hard to sell". She said before Mei Xiang "it was such a hassle". Now she gets at least the same price, but Mei Xiang comes to them and purchases the raw milk. This saves them time and money.
One of the most interesting things I saw was the herders signing off on the amount of milk for the day. Instead of pins and their names, they used ink and their thumbprint. Illiteracy is high for older Tibetans. I don't think Mei Xiang pretends to be able to make a dream come true for this generation of Tibetan minorities, but by helping to raise their incomes enough for their children to continue schooling, have health care, and other vital necessities, the next generation just might be able to escape the cycle of poverty.


  1. SO glad to hear from you again! I'm also glad that while you were in China, you were able to raise economic output enough to significantly raise the value of the RMB? 5 yuan to 7 USD is quite a feat for less than a month there - good going.

  2. Grampa Arlie would be so proud of you taking an interest in the cheese business....he made cheese for many years...cow, not yak!