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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
Yaks say cheese in rural China
A woman with some of the cheese
Villagers say the cheese tastes a bit like haloumi
Villagers in Langdu, western China, are taking advantage of improved infrastructure and help from NGOs to develop a sustainable yak cheese industry, Simon Montlake reports.

China's economic boom has left a yawning gap between its coastal boom towns and inland communities where growth is much slower.

In recent years, political leaders have begun to pay attention to this divide.

One of the results is Beijing's "Go West" policy to promote investment in western China, which has lagged behind the rest of the country.

The village of Langdu is starting to feel the impact. It is a community of ethnic Tibetan yak herders who live in an isolated fir-lined valley not far from the border with the restricted Tibetan Autonomous Region.

"In the past, the road conditions were so bad, that it was hard to transport products. The market economy hasn't arrived in Langdu," said Sang Ji Zhuo Ma, a community leader.


That is starting to change. Last month, a cell-phone tower was installed to extend coverage to Langdu. Electricity is coming next, and the bumpy road to Zhongdian is being improved.

And every morning, nomadic yak herders deliver stainless-steel pails of milk to the village's cheese factory, a log cabin equipped with wood-fired burners.

A man milking a dri
Nomadic herders milk the dzomo, a cow-yak crossbreed, every day
Inside the factory, villagers trained by a US dairy expert begin the process of turning the milk, which is higher in fat and protein than cow's milk, into cheese. It takes around five hours to produce each batch.

The finished product is a far cry from the sour-milk yak cheese sold in Tibet, or the butter-milk tea that tourists often struggle to drink.

It is a mild, semi-soft Haloumi variety that can be cooked in stir-fries or eaten on its own.

The cheese makers also produce a harder Italian variety that can be aged and spiced up with other ingredients.

'Best milk'

The project began four years ago when Wong How Man, a conservationist and explorer in western China, was invited back to the University of Wisconsin in the US to receive an alumni award.

While there, he invited Renee May, a dairy professor, to travel to Yunnan and help him to develop a cheese using milk from the dri, as female yaks are called in Tibetan.

Cows are often crossbred with dri to produce dzomo, which are better milk-producers.

Mr Wong has a project centre in Zhongdian for his organization China Research and Exploration Society.

Sang Ji Zhuo Ma recruited young villagers who wanted to learn a new trade, including a yak herder who is now a full-time cheese maker.

Two workers making the cheese
Villagers ensure the cheese is made in a hygienic way

"Yak milk is the world's best milk. We have beautiful pastures and a history of yak herding, so it makes sense to make cheese here," she said.

Yaks are a staple of Tibetan livestock. They provide wool, milk, meat and transport, and their dung is used as fuel.

Wong, who was born in Hong Kong, says he wanted to find a yak product that could be made locally and marketed to tourists in Yunnan, which is becoming a popular destination for China's emerging middle-class.

The idea is to provide an alternative for villagers who may otherwise be forced to migrate to the city to find work.

"Some Tibetans aspire to move to the big cities. But there are also people who want to stay in their community and build something," he said.


Cheese may seem like an odd choice, given the low consumption of dairy products in China.

Many Chinese think of cheese as a weird foreign taste.

In 2003, China's cheese market was worth just $30m (15.8). The same year, France wolfed down $7bn in cheese.

But a group of young Asian and Asian-American investors who run a non-profit foundation have rallied behind the concept.

Ventures in Development aims to help poor communities in China to build businesses that can spread the benefits as widely as possible.

The US-based foundation invests in projects and advises on marketing strategies, without losing sight of the need to make a return.

"We wouldn't be doing this if there was no profit. It needs to be sustainable, and it's only sustainable if the business can run and renew on its own," said Esther Hsu, chief marketing officer.

Ms Hsu and her partners, who met at US graduate schools, travelled to Langdu this year to fine-tune their business plan.

They say that yak herders stand to make huge gains from selling their milk to the cheese factory.

Next month, the factory will begin sending its first deliveries by road to trial customers in Zhongdian, including a luxury hotel resort.

Everyone involved in the project is confident that there is a market for local cheese that can be blended into Chinese and Tibetan dishes.

Despite the factory's modest setting, there is a strong emphasis on hygiene and keeping the milk clean.

"If you've got a good product, you will have a market. But you've got to ensure good sanitation," said Marie So, CEO of Ventures in Development.

The cheese makers plan to install electric stoves, when the power is finally on. This would double their capacity, currently 20 kilos a day.

They are also investigating yak fibre as a secondary cash product, hoping that where there's a wool, there's a way.


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