EASTERN TIBET, China - Evening is approaching, and 10-year-old Maju Dorje has one last chore on the mountainside. He has to coax home a herd of baby yaks.
He yells at them, hurls rocks at them, chases the animals down a steep, scrubby slope toward his family's tent, and finally in a chorus of grunts they arrive. One of Maju's sisters is waiting to grab each yak by the collar and tether it to a rope line. His mother is waiting with a dinner of sheep's ribs and noodles cooked over a yak dung fire. His father, Tsedoe, who goes by only one name, is waiting for the end of the meal, to talk by firelight about the day's events and to tell a Tibetan legend.
In a few weeks, when the animals have eaten all the grass on these hills, the seven members of this family will ride their horses and yaks to another valley in Eastern Tibet and make a new home, until the grass there too is gone.
Maju and his family - parents, children, grandchildren and sons- and daughters-in-law - are among Asia's last semi-nomadic peoples. They live much as their ancestors did when they arrived in the grasslands in the 18th century from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, but their way of life has never seemed so incongruous with the world around them.
From March to October, the family tends its yaks on grasslands covering an area more than twice the size of California, open countryside whose existence would surprise many Chinese. It is a remarkably tranquil landscape in a country where seemingly every acre of arable land, including steep hillsides, is cultivated to feed China's 1.3 billion people.
China is a nation where old city neighborhoods are razed in a couple of weeks to make way for new roads and apartment blocks with barely an outcry. It is where major cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, have become metropolises of shimmering skyscrapers and jammed expressways. And it is a culture in transition where some of the new rich prefer a Starbucks mocha to green tea and kids prefer pizza to Chinese pancakes.
Altogether, about a third of the country's population lives in cities, two-thirds in villages and hamlets, many of them poor farming communities of drab brick houses on muddy lanes.
Then there are Tibetan herders, numbering about 2 million - one one-thousandth of China's population.
Eastern Tibet, accounting for large parts of four western Chinese provinces, is deep river gorges and Himalayan peaks and the rolling grasslands. It is home to more than half of the country's 5 million-plus Tibetans. Almost all the rest live to the west in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the "Land of Snows" once ruled by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.
Xining, with 1.8 million people the largest city in Eastern Tibet, is small by Chinese standards. It relies on money from tourists who visit the Ta'er monastery and Qinghai Lake; the tourism and the crass commercialism that dominate urban China are spreading into the grasslands.
In Gansu province, promoters have built a tent city where herders dressed in traditional garb offer horseback rides. Small plastic flags, no different from those at an American car dealership, flutter above blue and white yurts at the foot of green mountains. A six-story hotel, which calls itself an "Ethnic Paradise Resort," rises from a meadow.
While in the grasslands, herders have no access to government services, but they must pay up to one-third of their meager annual earnings in taxes. Officials say the taxes serve as grazing fees for the government, which owns all land in China. And there are abuses.
After heavy snowstorms in 1998, when more than 300,000 animals died, some tax collectors continued to demand payments from the herders.
"When nomads had no money to pay them, they just confiscated their household wares such as stoves," said Nanji Cairang, a herder who is also an official in a social insurance department in Gansu province. "They even detained some nomads for three or four days."
Beyond the fences
You reach the camp of Maju's family by horseback, riding through a broad valley carpeted with flowers. Barbed-wire fences mark the edges of pastureland. Eagles circle overhead. After some miles, the fences disappear, and a creek wanders into a series of valleys that are home to herders who say they have never before seen foreigners.
The herders live in an accordion-pleated landscape of stream bottoms and rocky ridges, the crests rising more than 14,000 feet and stretching as far as the eye can see. Sheep with long curved horns standing on the hills look like white pebbles strewn across green velvet. Marmots lope from burrow to burrow in the valleys. And lumbering through the creeks are the yaks.
Yaks fill the niche occupied by cattle or oxen at lower altitudes, weighing 400 to 500 pounds each and at home here on the Tibetan plateau but nowhere else.