Totem of the plateau

Totem of the plateau

A yak specimen on display at the Capital Museum. [Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

A champion of the yak as an emblem of the Tibetan highlands brings the spirit of the animal to a Beijing museum, Wang Kaihao reports.

On China's online social networks, Wu Yuchu called himself Yagebo, which means old yak in Tibetan.

An ongoing exhibition in Beijing features more than 500 artifacts related to yaks through March 15.

Earlier this month, when the show kicked off in the Capital Museum, the hundreds of visitors at the opening ceremony surprised this longtime advocate of yak culture.

"I never expected so many people to come," Wu says. "I even didn't send any invitation letter, and only released information of the exhibition on my WeChat."

The yak is closely connected with many aspects of Tibetan people's daily lives, ranging from transportation and sports to medicine and food.

Nevertheless, as an ethnic Han, Wu is determined to bring the yak spirit beyond the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

"Yaks are known for their loyalty, benevolence, diligence and honesty when serving people," the 64-year-old says.

"Their symbolic meaning will be easily accepted by people not only in Beijing but even overseas."

The native of Jiangxi province is the director of the Yak Museum of Tibet in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region.

The institution claims to be the world's only museum fully dedicated to this animal species.

"It was the yaks that saved my life," Wu recalls. The winter of 1977 made the yak a mesmerizing totem in the rest of his life.

Wu was a recent college graduate, who volunteered to work in Tibet. He and his colleagues were besieged by a blizzard on a mountain for five days without food.

"Neither the jeep nor the horse could cross the snow. We had 30 or 40 people, and I thought we were doomed."

Then, a rescue team arrived with a herd of yaks carrying food.

"Many of us couldn't help but cry while eating," he says.

He worked in Tibet for 16 years before moving to Beijing.

He believes his relationship with yaks is destiny.

In 2010, three years before Wu was supposed to retire from his position as head of Beijing Publishing Group, an accident changed his life.

"I had a dream in which I saw the word 'yak' and 'museum' both appear on the computer screen," he says.

"Well, I had to do something."

Wu resigned and returned to Tibet alone. He started his project from almost nothing.

Inspired by his passion, several old friends helped him raise funds, and four volunteers joined his work.

Following the migrations of yaks, they have traveled more than 30,000 kilometers on the plateau to do field research. His perseverance also brought good fortune.

For days, they looked for the golden wild yak, one of the rarest yak species living in Ngari, in the north of Tibet.

"A local township head laughed when he heard we were looking for golden yaks, and he told us he had only seen them twice after working there for six years," Wu recalls.

"However, the next morning, we saw 21."

The Beijing municipal government also helped to finish construction of the Lhasa museum, which was listed as a key supportive project of the capital city on cultural relic work in Tibet.

On May 18, 2014-the 38th International Museum Day-the Yak Museum of Tibet finally opened.

The museum has collected more than 2,000 artifacts relevant to yaks, including specimens, daily-use articles made from yak fur or bone, and art pieces showing people's enthusiasm for the animal. About half of the artifacts were donated, and the rest were bought.

A yak skeleton that dates back 45,000 years is among the highlights of the collection.

"The yaks are so good, so we're building a palace for them," Wu repeatedly explains to local herdsmen, who sometimes don't even know what a museum is.

"The ideas of a museum have to be recognized by local people, or it is only an empty building."

About 150,000 visitors have come-not only the nostalgic older generation but also young people stirred by an emotional connection to the past.

"Before coming here, I didn't realize that the yaks are so benevolent to us," says Tashi Phuntsok, a Tibetan employee in his 20s at the museum.

"I grew up in the city, and I didn't know much about life on the prairie. However, after participating in the exhibition, I feel there would be no Tibetan people without the support of yaks," he says.

Wu explains: "The yak is the most crucial basis of the old lifestyle of the Tibetan ethnic group.

"I hope that all the Tibetan people can enjoy a modern life, but cultural memories cannot be thrown away. Such a museum is a place to keep their memories."

Wu says he plans to organize a touring exhibition in Europe and North America.

"Speaking of Tibet, many may think of Buddhism, lamas, and temples," he says.

"But maybe the yak can offer the world a different cultural icon."

Wang Yiran contributed to the story.

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If you go

Yak Culture Exhibition in Beijing

9 am-5pm, through March 15. Entrance until 4 pm (closed on Mondays). Exhibition Hall A, B1 floor, Capital Museum, 16

Fuxingmenwai Avenue, Xicheng district, Beijing. 010-6339-3339.

Free ticket, but online reservation is needed.

Yak Museum of Tibet

9 am-5 pm, and entrance until 4:30 pm (closed on Monday). 6 Chagu Avenue, Liuwu New District, Lhasa.