Grassland provides inspiration

A Tibetan clothes shop along Barkor Street attracts customers in Lhasa, the Tibet autonomous region. [Photo/Xinhua]

Entrepreneur's yak dairy creates jobs for nomads, allowing them to stay on the land

Lhasa entrepreneur Dondrup Tsering, born to a nomadic family and captivated by the grasslands, has a distinctive dual motive: earning a profit while preserving Tibetan culture.

His vision, in which the nomads of Maqu county in Gansu province earn enough to maintain their traditional lives among their pastures and livestock, started with a robe shop and then expanded to include a yak dairy.

"Fast-growing urbanization means many nomads no longer continue their traditional nomadic lives on the grassland.

Instead, they come to the cities to live," Dondrup said. "Their living conditions changed with the migration, and many parts of Tibetan culture are vanishing in this way."

Keeping young people on the grassland will help to preserve the singular traditional Tibetan culture, including nomadic singing, storytelling, weaving, horse racing and yak racing, he said.

"I want to help them to stay on the grassland, and the key to that is to make it possible for them to make good money on the grassland," he said.

Launching a business

This is no old man's fantasy. Dondrup is just 30. He had been working as an editor at the Tibet People's Publishing House for more than three years when he quit his job to pursue his dream.

He first opened a Tibetan clothes shop in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet autonomous region. Competition is daunting, both in both design and pricing, Dondrup said, forcing continual innovation and lower costs.

Competitors "will either copy or create similar products, or lower the price for the same products, so creativity is always needed", he said. "I've had many failures with businesses, but I have never given up, because I want to live for my dream."

Born in Maqu county in the Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Gansu province, an area famous for its wildflower-carpeted grasslands, flocks of sheep and herds of horses, Dondrup exemplifies the changing prospects for Tibet's youth.

With rapid economic development and social progress, more young people are leaving the nomadic lifestyle to move to the cities for employment, business ventures and other opportunities.

"Most local young people choose to find government jobs, such as government workers or teachers. Meanwhile, some people, especially young people from outside, like to do business in Lhasa," said Zhang Lina, a postgraduate student at the College of Economics and Management of Tibet University.

"The number of young Tibetans engaging in business is rising as there is relatively less competition compared with other Chinese provinces, and Tibet is in the process of rapid development."

The Tibet government is also encouraging young people to create businesses by making it cheaper and easier to get started, such as reducing requirements for registered capital, the amount investors must have to start a company.

"In the past, the registered capital for a small or medium enterprise was at least 10 million yuan ($1.56 million). Last year, the government reduced the registration to zero," Zhang said.

Influenced by his parents, who have long operated a Tibetan robe business in Maqu, Dondrup started his first business in 2005, while still a college student studying Tibetan literature at Northwest University for Nationalities.

"There is an annual horse racing festival on the grassland in my hometown. I sold horse-related products during my summer vacations a decade ago," he said.

Dondrup Tsering at his shop. [Photo/China Daily]

New-style robes

The inspiration for his clothes shop came from seeing how many rural Tibetans exchanged the colorful robes they wore in their villages for ordinary city clothes when they traveled to Lhasa.

"When I saw how many Tibetan people do not wear Tibetan robes in the city, I became sad and I began to think how to encourage them to wear Tibetan robes in the city," Dondrup said.

So he innovated.

"With their long sleeves and heavy volume, traditional Tibetan robes were produced according to the aesthetic standards of Tibetan people in the old days," he said. "New robes had to be made in order to satisfy the needs of modern Tibetans."

He chose the Tibetan word Khawajan, which hearkens to the snow-capped hills, for his company's name. The clothes have caught the fancy of young Tibetans, especially students who study outside of Tibet, but want clothes that signal their roots, Dondrup said.

Mimar Tsering, a student at Tibet University, said he likes the fit and the style.

"As a student, I find the clothes made by Khawajan more convenient than the traditional ones because the robe has short sleeves and a popular style," Mimar, 23, said. "It's convenient to wear, and with Tibetan design, it is more fashionable."

With increasing interest in the brand, Dondrup has opened 10 branch shops in other Tibetan communities, such as Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, and Hainan Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Qinghai province.

Milk from grasslands

With the clothes shop off the ground, Dondrup turned his attention to opening a yak dairy store near the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Its products include butter, yogurt, cheese and milk.

In a nod to modern times, while traditional yak dairy products are made by hand, all of Dondrup's goods are machine produced in sterile conditions.

Although the production process has been modernized, the dairy products retain "the real traditional taste", he said.

Dondrup was determined to buy his dairy's raw materials directly from the nomads. The goal initially proved financially disastrous.

"The dairy products were transported on flights for a distance of more than 2,000 kilometers, and I had almost closed the business as I suffered many failures at first," Dondrup said.

But he was determined to succeed, as so many of his fellows on the grasslands benefited from the business. More than 20 nomadic families provide him with yak milk daily for the dairy.

Kalzangyal, a nomad in Machu county who sells milk to Dondrup, said the dairy's purchases have helped them to significantly increase their incomes.

"With our income doubling, we no longer need to sell our yaks to make money," Kalzangyal said.

Sumyar Mar, the name of Dondrup's yak dairy shop, is derived both from the renowned Tibetan poem The Epic of King Gesar and the rare butter that is made from the milk drawn from the mother of a three-year-old yak. Tibetans prize this butter as the most nutritious.

The shop is still struggling financially, as too few customers have discovered it as it is hidden near the palace parking lot in Lhasa.

"I had almost closed the door of the dairy shop, but I continued, because I do not want to see nomads disappointed by my decision," Dondrup said.

During his last visit home to the grasslands, he was presented with many white hada, the silk scarves representing purity and gratitude. It inspired him to continue the dairy, despite the setbacks.