The Barley Harvest
October is nearly over, so the barley harvest should be completed by now. July was very hot so the barley probably ripened a little early. I don’t know -- I have been state-side since early August (to return next week), so don’t really know how the harvest went. I hope it was a good harvest -- heaven knows they need a good year, what with the earthquake and all.
Barley is the staple food in Tibet. Barley is highly adaptable to rough climates and has a short vegetation period, so it can be cultivated at 3,500 meters (nearly 12,000 feet) elevation, whereas many other crops are difficult to grow at this altitude. Toasted barley flour, tsampa, is the main staple of the Tibetan people. It is mixed with yak butter (usually rancid) and salty tea (this is an acquired taste), until it is about the consistency of cookie dough. It is then dipped in salt, or sugar -- and sometimes a little cinnamon or other spices if they have them. Tibetans eat this at least once a day, and often twice a day. It is very nutritious, although they still need fruit and vegetables to supplement for a balanced diet, which most of them do not have. Barley is also used for making barley beer (chang), and a much stronger, harsher alcohol ("Bai Jiu" in Chinese) which is very much like a raw ‘white lightening’. Barley’s cultural importance is reflected in that it is also used as a unit of measure: 8 barley grains are equal to a finger-width, or ‘small measure’.
Tibetans usually hold a harvest festival a few days before the harvest to celebrate it. The Harvest Festival lasts about three days and is where the Tibetans walk around the field, wishing for a good harvest. Sacrifices are offered to gods in the hope of receiving a good harvest. People dress up in their best holiday clothes, carrying colorful flags, some carry barley stalks, and some may carry white “khada” or prayer scarves. There is singing, banging on drums and dancing. In some areas, they may even have horse races, yak races, and singing and dancing contests. Of course, there is a lot of barley beer drinking!
When it is time to harvest the barley, everyone helps, as the harvest takes place with intensity. The barley is collected in small bundles, and placed on yaks or horses. The same technique has been used for many, many years. Small tractors are used in some areas these days, which makes the harvest a little faster. Drying, threshing and winnowing usually take place on the flat roofs of houses in some areas of Tibet, and on the ground in others.
People are learning new and better techniques in how to harvest and store the barley flour. In the past, and still in many places today, it was stored in gunny sacks, in damp storage rooms. Who knows how many rodents got into it! In some areas, people got really sick from this, especially with myco-toxins forming on the barley. Once I treated a woman who had lost both legs to ergotamine poisoning. Both her parents and two siblings died from it. Her remaining brother was really sick, but made a full recovery. The ergotamine poisoning cause both her feet to feel like they were on fire (ergotamine poisoning’s nickname is “Saint Anthony’s Fire”). This is because of the constriction of the blood vessels which can cause dry gangrene. Then, this was complicated by the fact that she put her feet into cold water during a harsh cold winter, developed severe frostbite, so she got a double gangrene, and both legs had to be amputated. Not an easy disability for a young woman on the rough Tibetan plateau.
Another project I worked on was dealing with a disease called “Kashin-Beck’s Disease”, or more commonly, “Big Bone Disease”. This has many environmental factors behind it, including high altitude cold climates, lack of selinium in the soil, high iron oxides in the water, and myco-toxins on the barley. People with this disease end up mainly with large joints and short limbs, and a variety of other symptoms. I still wonder how much of it was environmentally induced, and what part did the person’s own health play... Because of these diseases and others, newer, cleaner ways of storing barley are coming into practice. In some places they are starting to build humidity and temperature controlled rooms out of concrete. This should help significantly in reducing the terrible disabilities that I have seen in the past. So much still has to be done in these areas of Tibet. Whether the diseases affect one family, as in this case of the ergotamine poisoning, or 2.5 million people like Big Bone Disease, I would still like to be able to help these people. Unfortunately, some people in authority don’t think that these are significant problems, so just ‘relocate’ the Tibetans.
Regardless, I am hoping that the barley harvest was good this year. I am hoping that all areas of Tibet had a bountiful harvest, and that all people will have enough tsampa for the year.