Yaks are large, hairy animals who live on high elevations from 2000m up to the treeline above 5000m. There is a small population of wild yaks still living in parts of Tibet, China and India, but in Central Asia, all yaks are domesticated. Outside of the Himalayas and Hindukush, yak herding is common in Tajikistan, Mongolia and Xinjiang province in China, and small herds exist in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.
A few tour companies in Mongolia offer yak riding tours in nature reserves, but elsewhere, riding a yak or using it as a pack animal for a longer trek will require some communication skills on your side, or a guide or translator, to negotiate the rent or purchase of your very own yak.
Does buying a yak sound like a crazy idea to you? Not really, if you think of it. Unlike horses, yaks are very tough, not really picky with what they eat and basically take care of themselves. They’re also less expensive. Mongolia will be the cheapest place to buy a yak, but even a decent-sized yak in Tajikistan will only set you back around 500$. Not too bad, considering you can sell your yak to the local butcher (or donate to a family) once you have to leave the country. In other words, the yak is the perfect animal to help you navigate the highlands of Central Asia.
Yak riding tours
Tour companies in Mongolia have experience in this. Most of them have a package for yak, camel or horse riding.
Yak riding in Mongolia
Mongolia has around 600 thousand yaks, or about 1 yak for every 3 people in the country. The yak grazing lands are typically above the tree line at 2 000 m in the north rising to 3 000 m in the Mongolian Altai. There are a few small herds in districts of the central and southern Gobi province. Seventy percent of the yak herds are concentrated in the Hangai and Hovsgol mountains, 29 percent in the Mongolian Altai and only about 1 percent in the Gobi Altai and Hentii mountains.
The Khovsgol yak festival is the biggest of its kind in Mongolia with yak racing, yak lassoing, yak cheese tasting and other such delights. It runs annually in June or July.
Yak riding in Xinjiang
Yak herding in Xinjiang is confined to Taghdumbash Pamir. In the heart of the Taghdumbash Pamir, a veterinary station specializing in yak breeding was established in Mazar (south of Dafdar along the Pakistan-China Friendship Highway) by utilizing the local knowledge of Tajik and Kyrgyz animal herders who found employment there. About 400 persons reside at Mazar breeding farm, which has about 5 000 sheep and 500 yak.
Much larger herds of yak are kept by the Wakhi and Kirghiz of the Karachukur Valley, which drains the western-most part of the Taghdumbash Pamir. One day, when the Chinese grip around Tibet loosens, it will be possible to take your yak all the way from the Pamirs to the Himalayas. Until then, you can make a nice trek in Xinjiang around the Tarim basin.
Yak riding in Tajikistan
In the eastern Pamir, part of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan district, Kyrgyz herders, and a few Wakhi, keep yak herds nowadays around traditional supply stations like Murghab (formerly Pamirski Post) and Langar in Rajon Ishkashim. From there they undertake seasonal migrations to the summer pastures at higher elevations. The biggest herds are in the region around Murghab.
Yak riding in Kyrgyzstan
There is a small population of yaks in Kyrgyzstan. In the center, and near the borders with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the elevation of Kyrgyzstan is too low to support yaks. But if you stay near the Chinese and Tajik borders, yaks could be a good option for your trek.
Yak riding in Afghanistan
Yak keeping in Afghanistan is restricted to the Badakhshan province, in Zebak and Wakhan, including the Little and Big Pamir. The herds are also small.
Other yak uses
Besides being used as a pack animal, yaks also produce high quality milk, meat, fiber and fuel. Yak buzkashi is played in Xinjiang by Tuziks, Chinese Tajiks.