The story of Langtang cheese

My name is Gyalbu Tamang, and I was born in Kyangjin Gompa of Langtang Valley. I am now 44. My father Pasang Norbu worked in the cheese factory here when the Swiss first established it in the 1950s. My mother Tshering and us children grew up helping him with chores.

My father was trained by the early Swiss experts who first came to explore the feasibility of having a cheese factory in Langtang. I think they found Langtang very similar to their own country so they liked it here. My father used to mention the names of Toni Hagen who first came here in 1952, and was probably one of the first white men to come to the village.

Most people in this remote village of Langtang had goitre then caused by iodine deficiency. The valley was at least a week’s walk away from Kathmandu in those days, and people did not have access to sea salt. Tibetan rock salt did not have enough iodine. Goitre was so common that it was even seen as a sign of beauty among some.

When children in Langtang saw western mountaineers and Swiss cheese makers, they used to run away and hide. They called them “go sherpu” (Yellow Head) or “ni karpu” (pale eyes) and kept away.

My father worked with Sepp Dubach and Werner Schulthess, both Swiss cheese makers who were convinced that cheese had a future in Nepal even though at that time Nepalis did not really eat cheese. We had chhurpi but that was hard, and took hours to melt in the mouth. We were not used to the taste of cheese.

After spending a year in Langtang, Schulthess concluded that the best way to preserve the surplus yak and nak milk production in the high mountains of Nepal was to convert it into cheese so it could be transported to market. He was convinced that yak cheese from Nepal would be as good as if not better than Emmentaler cheese from his home country. He brought the technique of Swiss making, and trained my father and others in Langtang. Most of them have passed away now, and Schulthess himself died in 2011.

My father remembers that the Swiss were very passionate about their work, and were impatient with the laid back attitude of the Langtangpa. At first, the yak herders were so suspicious, they refused to provide milk to the Swiss cheese factory, even if they were paid for it. The Swiss gave a milk quota for each herder depending on the number of their yaks which they were forced to sell to the factory.

On days when there was not enough milk the Swiss would hike up to the pastures, break into herders’ huts and confiscate the milk. Sometimes, they would be so angry they would even kick the milk bucket and spill it. After that, my father used to tell me, many of the herders started hiding their milk.

Then Schulthess and his team brought the village Lama on their side, got him to convince the yak herders that it was for their own good. We also came to realise that the Swiss had a different culture, they had come to Nepal to do a job, and they wanted to do it well. Especially Schulthess, he was convinced that cheese making would uplift the nutritional level of the people of the mountains, and provide them income to send children to school and benefit from their pastoral livelihood.

The Swiss ran Nepal’s cheese-making program with other dairies in Jiri and elsewhere, and handed the facilities over to the government’s Dairy Development Corporation in 1964. It was because of the Swiss devotion to quality that Langtang cheese soon became popular in Kathmandu, and Nepalis slowly developed a taste for it. The tourist industry started buying cheese in bulk, and even local sales picked up in Langtang’s guest houses.

My father used to wake up every day while it was still dark, and walked over to get the fire going before the yak herders arrived with their morning milk. When I got older, I used to help him stir the milk as it was heated, watch him add the culture, and go through the whole process. I accompanied him to Langsisha and down to Ghora Tabela to check up on the yak herders.

My childhood memories are of a holy valley steeped in culture and religion. We were deeply ingrained into our traditions, carrying on as the spirits of our ancestors looked down upon us. For us the mountains are not inanimate, they are spiritual beings as well. Every rock, tree, the breeze fluttering the prayer flags, the water gushing out of the glaciers, herds of tahr grazing above the treeline, the alpine choughs soaring on the updrafts, were all fellow-sentient beings connected to humans through a divine bond.

We learnt about the impermanence of life, how the cycle of birth and death and rebirth defines existence. Being a human being is but a small segment of this cycle. What we do in this life, the karma that we earn will determine our reincarnation in the next life. The body may come and go, but the soul lives on in the cosmic realm.

I went to primary school in Langtang, and then after Grade 5 my family sent me down to Dhunche to complete Grades 6-8. My father knew schooling was important and wanted to make me smart, but my heart was not in reciting sentences from the bland text books and I longed to be back up in Kyangjin with my family and amidst a familiar landscape.

My father retired from cheese factory, but he was not planning a sedentary lifestyle. Dairy farming was in his blood. So with his pension he bought ten yaks and carried on doing what he did before, and selling the surplus milk to the cheese factory. His, and our, life revolved around the yaks. In summer, when the snow-covered slopes were replaced with a carpet of green grass with brilliant coloured flowers, we took the yaks up to graze on the slopes below Naya Kanga. It was the herbs mixed into those grasses that gave the milk its unique flavour, which is passed down to the cheese.

We used to watch the sun rise from behind the fluted summit of Gang Chhenpo to the east, and the shadows travelled across the valley as the afternoon clouds moved up, bringing the misty monsoon rain. At night the clouds would part, and we looked up at the dome of stars with occasional meteorites cutting across the ghostly celestial river of the Milky Way. My father did not like sleeping indoors, and if the weather was all right he would take a nap in the grass as the yaks grazed nearby.

Looking at the children of Langtangpa today in schools in Kathmandu, I feel sorry that they cannot experience the kind of idyllic childhood we had. My own four children only get glimpses of this life when they came home for holidays, even though this year Langtang’s children have got to stay is longer up here because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

When I turned 18, I got a job at the Langtang Cheese Production Centre that my father worked in, starting from the bottom – weighing the milk as it came in, collecting firewood, turning the blower to get the fire going, doing all the back-up work that was needed to make cheese. I knew much of this from assisting my father when I was a boy, so it was all familiar territory.

Tourism really picked up in Langtang after 1990, there were people from all over the world: Americans, Israelis, Japanese, Australians, New Zealanders. The fact that people from so far away came all the way to Langtang to admire its wilderness made us proud of our land, and convinced us that we needed to protect it as much as we could.

By now, the valley was a part of the Langtang National Park, and there were strict rules about trail-building, cutting trees and killing wildlife. The new road to Dhunche was built, so we did not have to walk all the way down to Trisuli to catch a bus to Kathmandu anymore.  Langtang was now only a two-day walk up from Syabru.

This meant that it was easier to transport the cheese to market in Kathmandu, and with more trekkers coming in, local demand for cheese also rose. This meant more income for the yak herders, and it started becoming really busy during the peak milk season during the monsoons.

In Langtang itself, locals started adding floors to their homes as trekking traffic increased and their earnings went up. The hotels became fancier, there was electricity, solar panels for hot showers, and better rooms and meals. Attracted by the scenery, and the fabulous day hikes in the surrounding mountains, many tourists started stayed longer, and local incomes rose. Porters got jobs ferrying chicken, eggs, meat and other provisions from Trisuli. People started flying in by helicopter for day trips.

The spring trekking season in 2015 had started well, there was a steady stream of trekkers walking up from Syabru to Lama Hotel. Those who had come earlier were on their way down to take transport back to Kathmandu. I remember the morning of 25 April was overcast and I left my parents in Langtang, and walked from Kyangjin to the cheese factory. My three children were in the home a 10 minute walk below the factory.

Just before noon, there was a deep rumble from below the ground, and the building started to shake. The wall of the cheese-making building collapsed, the roof caved in. The shaking was still going on, when there was a more ominous roar from abovebut we could not see anything because it was cloudy. Things turned dark, and there was a terrific blast of wind with bits of dust and ice blowing down the mountain. I realised it was an avalanche, but initially we could not gauge where it came from, or what it hit.

I rushed home to see if my children were ok, my son and one of my daughters were still hiding under the bed. They had been told in school to go under the bed if there was an earthquake, and that is what they did. It probably saved their lives. When the air blast of the avalanche hit the house, it blew in through one window and across the room to go out the other window, hitting the next door house. My children were shaken, but safe.

I then hurried down to Langtang village to see if my parents were all right. The closer I got to the village, the most worried I got. The scale of destruction got worse the nearer I got to Langtang village. There were dead and injured people everywhere, yaks and horses had been blown away. The ground was white as if it had snowed – but it was ice from the avalanche.

There was nothing left of Langtang, it was all gone, buried under 100m of ice and rock. My parent’s house was on the outskirts of the village. Still, there was no trace of it. My father was 62 then, and had been outside grazing his yaks. We found him only after five days, down the slope resting with his arms under his head as if he was sleeping. His face was turned towards where the yaks would have been. His body was perfectly preserved by the ice all around.

My 65-year-old mother was inside the house, and we found her buried in the debris as the stone walls collapsed around her. Nearby, two of my aunts were killed, my younger sister and brother-in-law, a sister-in-law. There was no time for elaborate rituals, and we cremated them nearby. Probably about 300 people died that day in Langtang, and some of the bodies were found on the other side of the valley, while others were forever entombed in the debris.

The avalanche also killed 27 herders and 400 yaks, and the cheese factory building and equipment inside were all destroyed and was forced to cease operations. Cheese-making was already in crisis in Langtang before the earthquake because the older generation was unable, or unwilling, to do the strenuous work required. Youngsters wanted to leave for the bright lights of the city, yaks cost Rs50,000 each and the price of milk was too low to make farming sustainable.

But the disaster of 25 April 2015 turned out to be a chance for us to breathe new life into  cheese-making in Langtang. The Swiss connection was revived, and the embassy in Kathmandu helped compensate the herders who lost yaks, and donated nearly Rs18 million to rebuild the facility and replace the equipment with more modern ones. They have installed a new lab to check the milk and cheese. It even sent a quality control trainer to give us all a refresher course.

More importantly, the Dairy Development Corporation in Kathmandu which earlier did not listen to us small people from the mountains, finally agreed to our demand and doubled the selling price for milk to Rs120 per litre. Suddenly, it became quite feasible for the farmers to go back to yak herding. Many took out loans to buy yaks and increase the size of their herds. A herder with 17 yaks, for example, could now sell the cheese factory 45 litres of milk a day and earn Rs5,400 daily. These were unheard of sums. We are now collecting 300 litres of milk a day, and in the monsoon it can go up to 600 litres a day.

There are 63 farmers registered at the factory supplying milk to us daily. During this lockdown, with schools closed, I am glad to see that among them are younger Langtangpa. There are many 10+2 students who are learning to milk yaks and help their parents and grandparents. Some have found that the earnings are quite good, and have changed their mind about migrating abroad for work. Even if we can keep a dozen of our younger Langtangpa in our valley home, all the investment that has been made by the Swiss and Nepal government in making cheese here over the past many decades will have been worth it.

Today, the Langtang cheese centre is making 14 tons of cheese a year, in addition we churn out another 2,000kg of butter used for local consumption to make Tibetan tea and for the lamps in our gumba. It took a lot of effort to get the factory going again, but I think we have come out stronger than before the disaster. We have found new meaning in our work, and have seen that it gives us self-sufficiency and helps raise our living standards.

Every morning, I wake up at 4AM just like my father used to. I put on my white gown that makes me look a bit like a doctor, and starting heating water in the big vat, the herders start coming in a few hours later, and we weigh their milk, measure the fat content, add the cheese culture and begin the usual process. The cheese wheels have to be immersed in salt water for up to 48 hours so the rind becomes salty. It is then left in store to mature for up to three months.

Because of the lockdown the store is now brimming with 8kg cheese wheels, waiting to be taken down to Kathmandu. I have written to headquarters in Kathmandu to send transport to Syabru to take the cheese, but there has been no response so far. If it is stored for too long the cheese will start to dry and the quality will go down.

There is now so much milk we have added new cheese facilities in Langsisha at 5,050m and at Naya Kanga at 4,100m. I often travel to those stations to inspect and do quality control. This is very important, because if the cheese does not meet quality standards, it will not be sold. With some Italians we are trying to build another cheese station on Kyangjin Ri at 5,500m. If it goes ahead, it will be in the Guinness Book as the highest cheese making plant in the world.

Among the many changes I have seen in Langtang, most are for the better. But one worrying trend is that in the past 5-6 years, most springs have gone dry across the Valley. Even the ones that had water all year round do not have water. Some scientists from ICIMOD had come here, and they told me this is happening across the Himalaya. The reason, it seems, is that the ice in the glaciers is melting because of climate change and there is no more water seeping down to the springs. There are also years when there is no winter snow, or there are freak storms.

This directly affects dairy production. With less water, the nature of the grass in the high pastures have also changed. I have noticed that the quality of the yak milk is also going down. The fat content is lower, and the milk is not as tasty. Climate change is caused by burning petroleum, but even though we have no cars in Langtang, we are feeling its effect.

Gyalbu Tamang in Langtang Valley.

Everyone here in Langtang says that the 2015 earthquake destroyed only the areas with human habitation, and spared nature. It is true, the avalanche was selective in what it annihilated. We believe it was God’s wrath, and a warning to us to mend our ways, to be more compassionate towards other human beings and caring about nature.

And because we are now more grateful to our Gods and nature for the bounty that the cheese centre provides us, we are rewarded. Our children our now better educated and they have a sense of belonging to their home valley. We all eat better, we are healthier, especially the children. Langtang is being rebuilt for the day when the tourists will return, and hopefully they will find a place that has changed for the better. Where the nature is more resplendent than ever, and the people are kinder.

As told to Kunda Dixit.

Read also:

Langtang laments

The courage and endurance of the Langtangpa by Austin Lord

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