The open grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau make trees a rare commodity. Some Tibetan nomads may grow up without knowing large trees—such as pine or cedar—that are common along the valleys on the eastern side of the plateau. Nonetheless, wood is collected in many nomadic communities since firewood is more durable than dried yak dung for cooking fires.
The process of gathering wood varies according to the type of wood that is available. If the trees are far from the tent or require great strength and endurance to cut, it often falls on the men to cut and transport the wood home—by yaks and cross-bulls (mDzo), handcart, or tractor, which have become more common in recent years with the introduction of motor vehicles in remote communities.
If the available wood comes from shrubs, shrub roots, or thin branches and twigs of smaller trees, it often falls on the women to transport it home in bundles on their backs or in large baskets. Carrying wood on one’s back for long distances is strenuous, and because the smaller wood may not last long, it becomes a repetitive daily chore.
A more common fuel available to nomads in most Tibetan communities is yak dung. However, converting fresh yak dung into fuel-ready dried yak dung is neither simple nor easy on the eyes. Herders drive their yaks away from home every morning to graze and then bring them home in the evening to milk, protect, and tend to them for the night. This overnight stay results in piles of yak dung everywhere around the tent area.
Women usually carry baskets on their backs to collect the fresh pieces of dung, place them in a large pile, mix them by hand, shape them into round platters, and then plaster them against the outside of the tent or on a nearby open slope to dry. Once fully dry and ready for use, the pieces are brought inside and stacked near the entrance. Some are placed closer to the center stove or fire pit for easier access for cooking.
Dried yak dung is an efficient fuel for the nomads. Because it is easy to prepare in the summer, that is when most nomads prepare a surplus to last during the long and cold winter months.