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An icy path to pastures new

Xinhua, February 17, 2017 Adjust font size:

Migrating to pastures new in the depths of winter is tough, but traveling across a frozen lake with thousands of sheep in tow poses extra challenges, and that is exactly what is happening at Puma Yumco Lake, one of the world's highest lakes.

It is the coldest point of the year in Tibet, and time for the annual migration of herds of sheep across the icy lake, a dangerous and exhilarating ancient practice.

Transhumance involves moving livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures, and here it means thousands of sheep being taken across frozen water to two islands on Puma Yumco Lake.

Such herding practices have lasted for a thousand years at Dowa village in Nakartse county, Tibet Autonomous Region. The village is 5,070 meters above sea level. The summer is short here, and herders have to find grass for their animals.

Herders spend a month with the animals on the islands, where grass grows to waist height. The sheep are better fed there, and give birth to lambs during the month.

On Feb. 9, Kunsang Cering, 47, a herder, led the first trip across the lake this winter.

Before dawn breaks, Cering and his fellow herders lead their sheep to the lake to prepare for the crossing.

"I could not sleep well. There is too much work to do," he says.

Though the ice can reach a meter thick and is as hard as rock, anticipation hangs in the air, and the herders take every precaution to ensure a safe crossing.

"The older and better experienced men walk on the ice and mark a path they deem safe. Then women in our village carry stove ashes and spread them on the ice to make a safe path," he says.

As the sheep hit the frozen lake, the Tibetan herders become alert.

"We need to move the sheep fast. The earlier we set foot on land, the better," Cering says.

Hundreds of sheep move forward, one after another, and the icy surface squeaks under the enormous weight of the animals.

Plateau sheep weigh many kilograms and are valuable, selling for at least 100 dollars each; the herders are careful to protect their fortune.

Some sheep dare not move on the ice, and Cering has to take them from behind and force them forwards. When smaller animals wander off and fall, the herders take them back by carrying them in their arms.

It takes more than two hours to complete the three-kilometer journey across the frozen lake.

Halfway across, the sun rises and Cering quickly starts to whip the herd onwards.

"We drive the sheep forward, and the sun drives us forward. We need to quicken our steps before it gets warm," he says.

Meanwhile, Yeshe Wangyel, a monk in a local monastery, prays for a safe and smooth crossing for the herders and their sheep.

"When I was young, I also herded sheep across the lake. It was so cold, and we were afraid that the ice would crack. There were some heart-stopping moments, but as far as I can remember there were no accidents," he says.