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From Tibet to Bavaria Mountain boots made from the finest yak leather


Fits like a glove – a yak herder with his brand new Hanwag Lhasa boots

HANWAG – the Bavarian bootmakers – are about more than just traditional, German high-quality craftsmanship. The experts in handcrafted footwear now also make sought-after hiking and trekking boots from anually limited amount of yak leather, imported from the Lhasa Leather Factory in Tibet. The Tibetan leather manufacturer and Hanwag have concluded an exclusive agreement. In particular, Hanwag is interested in acting in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner and not just sourcing the best materials. As part of the agreement Hanwag insisted that production is accordance with strict European environmental standards – the Lhasa Leather Factory not only meets these standards but exceeds them. This is good to know, but Hanwag wanted further assurances. It was decided that Peter Wilson, a Hanwag employee from Vierkirchen, should travel from Bavaria to Tibet to report back.

FROM BAVARIA TO TIBET What are conditions actually like in the factory? This is what I wanted to find out when I arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. This is where our yak leather supplier, the Lhasa Leather Factory, is based. I spent a little

Employees clean and tan the 1.5 centimetre hides for approximately three weeks, before they are stretched out to dry.

more than a week in Lhasa, finding out more about the factory, its manufacturing techniques and environmental principles. At both management level and on the shop floor, I was met with openness and enthusiasm.

I was also invited as a guest into employees’ own homes. Hospitality plays an important rÔle in the Tibetan culture – but more of that later. To begin with, I would like to explain more about the yaks.


The respect afforded these animals is clear for all to see. In the centre of Lhasa, near Potala Palace, is a statue of two enormous golden yaks surrounded by flowers. The monument receives a steady stream of visitors and is protected by armed guards day and night. Visiting pilgrims, tourists and locals all hold it in enormous esteem. This is not surprising given that the yak has a very special status in the Autonomous Region.

Golden yaks: Tourists, pilgrims and locals honour the so-called ‘grunting oxen’.

YAKS: TREASURE OF THE PLATEAU Yaks are honoured in Tibet for good reason. It is only thanks to the yaks that people can survive up here on the arid Tibetan Plateau over 4,000 meters above sea level. From high lamas (priests) to humble monks, from rich land owners

Yaks are well equipped to survive in harsh conditions. They feel perfectly at home at altitudes of up to 5,400 meters and in temperatures down to -35°C. Their long, shaggy hair hides a dense felt-like woolly undercoat. Like felt, it also

Why are they called the grunting ox? Because they do. Yaks, unlike cattle, do not make the characteristic bovine lowing (mooing) sound, instead they grunt. Hence their Latin name bos grunniens (bos = ox, grunniens = grunting).

freely with nomadic herdsmen. Nyima Tashi, the deputy managing director of the Lhasa Leather Factory, drove me to the regions north of Lhasa to find them. When I ask Nyima where they might be, he looks out

to the poorest of servants (Tibet was a feudal state until 1959) – everybody relied on the yaks. They were a vital source of food, fuel for heating, clothing and footwear, and were also beasts of burden. And to this present time nothing has changed. No wonder then that the inscription on the golden yak monument in Lhasa reads “treasure of the plateau”.

provides excellent insulation. The yaks’ dense undercoat is also enhanced by a special sticky substance in their sweat which helps keep their underhair matted and also provides extra insulation. Yaks are well adapted to high altitudes and thin air. They have larger lungs and hearts and a greater capacity for transporting oxygen through their blood than cattle found at lower altitudes.

The English word “yak” only refers only to the male of the species. The female is called a “nak” or “dri”. I only found this out later on. The Tibetans are so overwhelmingly polite that no one ever laughed when I thanked them for the yak milk in my tea!

over the vast, empty landscape and answers, “They don’t stay in any one place. We’ll set out and see.” It could of been boring but the driving and searching through the empty land was fantastic. After heading north through the hills for five hours in the company 4x4, we reach Namtso, a mountain lake that is sacred to the Tibetans.

The whole family is responsible for looking after the yaks. This includes the children too.

A date with the yaks Yaks don’t live on farms, but roam

Tibetan yaks are tough creatures that can survive in extreme conditions at over 4,000 meters above sea level.

YAKS: TREASURE OF THE PLATEAU Left page: Yaks are to be found everywhere in daily life. They are frequently depicted on jewellery and in paintings and there are even yak rides for tourists. Yak is also used to make many different dishes – from fresh steaks to dried snacks.

Free to roam. The nomadic herdsmen follow their yaks across Tibet.

The lake might be sacred, but it is also a good source of income from pilgrims and tourists as witnessed by the booming business of catering to the numerous visitors.Yaks are also to be found at Lake Namtso. However, instead of herdsmen they are accompanied by officially-registered yak ride operators. Their animals had coats the colour of dirty snow and would carry tourists for a few yuan (local small change). As we continue on our search, Nyima explains that the Lhasa Leather Factory purchases its yak hides from three different markets held in December some 50 to 100 kilometres

from Lhasa. “We generally buy around four thousand hides. But in a good year we might buy up to six thousand. Most hides are used to make leather goods. The finest examples – normally about one hundred hides – are set aside, specially prepared and then sold as decorative items to tourists, companies or hotels.” We find our yak herds further inland, strewn across a dark-green hillside, not far from the brown tents of the nomads. Clouds of smoke rise up from their stoves into the stormy skies. The nomads live in yurts, traditional woodframe structures covered by wool felt. Next to almost every yurt stands a decorated motor bike. In a country

with such limited public transport and long distances, these bikes are indispensable. Some of the yurts are even equipped with solar panels on the roof. We are warmly welcomed into a dimly-lit yurt that is pleasantly heated by a yak dung fire. Our hosts serve us cups of steaming, hot buttery tea with ‘yak milk’ and dried yak meat. I just happen to have brought the perfect present for our host with me – a brand new pair of Hanwag Lhasa boots made of yak leather. I had brought them from Germany with me especially as a present for someone, someplace. Out host promptly tries them on and they fit like a glove, as if he had ordered them himself.


The Lhasa Leather Factory is the only yak leather manufacturer in Tibet – and it’s run solely by Tibetans. Around 80 people work in the factory and 30 in laboratories or administration. The company’s commitment to its employees is reflected in the fact that every one of them is guaranteed a job for life. And anyone who is unable to continue in their original department, for whatever reason, is found a different position, whether as a driver, assisting in the kitchens or selling in the company shops in Lhasa. Most of the employees live in subsidised company flats built on the factory grounds.

Taking fresh hides to the tannery.

HOW YAK LEATHER IS MADE Some 90 per cent of the factory’s revenue comes from footwear and the factory originally had eight per cent of the total Tibetan market. However, due to the company’s ongoing success and new investment, its market share increased to 36 per cent in 1995.

The best hides are hand-picked. A small team of experts are responsible for the selection.

The elaborate cleaning and tanning process takes about three weeks. The yak hides are then stretched out to dry on special wooden frames.

In addition to producing yak leather, the Lhasa Leather Factory runs three shops in the capital. I saw for myself that their customers are mainly Tibetan. Tibetan people prefer shoes made of yak leather even though they are more expensive. The factory started producing commercial products from yak leather in 1960. Today their collection includes some 90 products, from smooth, hardwearing leather doctors’ bags to colourful, decorated boots for folk groups (there are lots of them in Tibet). Every day the factory makes 15 pairs of these boots and 120 pairs of other footwear. Due to its commercial success, in 1989, the Lhasa Leather Factory

was granted major investment for a key technical reform project by the Planning Commission of Tibet Autonomous Region. In the same year, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl selected the factory as an aid and regeneration project during his visit to China. Now we have come full cycle. Today the Lhasa Leather Factory supplies Germany with highest quality leather that complies with strict European environmental standards. Before German involvement, the factory’s waste water used to run untreated into the river. This caused many problems. Today, the waste is filtered out using purification methods and subsequently dried out to be used as fertilizer.

From hide to leather Every year in December, ten employees go to the yak markets to select the best hides. As soon as they arrive in the factory, these are carefully stored underground for four months until the spring. Tibet is extremely cold in winter, so the factory is closed during the winter months due to the large amounts of water the tanning process requires. In spring, the approx. 1.5 centimetre thick hides undergo a cleaning and tanning process that lasts around three weeks. First, they are thoroughly washed to remove the hair (I saw large piles of yak hair during my visit, which I was told is sold to fill sofas with… nothing is wasted). Any remaining flesh is then scraped off, before the hides are trimmed and thinned to a standard thickness and then bleached in huge wooden tanning drums. The hides turn a blue – white colour. Next the soaking wet hides are stretched out and nailed to wooden frames to dry for days in a large hall. The factory also has a modern drying facility where the skins would dry more quickly. However, Niyama tells me that slower drying creates better quality leather. These are the hides that Hanwag buys to make its sought-after yak leather shoes.


Jong Dra is 42 years old and has been working at the Lhasa Leather Factory for 26 years. His mother worked there before him and government policy meant that her children were also offered jobs in the factory. Jong Dra first worked in the kitchens for seven years. Then he was invited to work in the tannery. Here he learnt all about about leather production. Today Jong Dra is a master tanner. His colleagues all agree that he is the most hardworking employee in the whole factory.

Jong Dra welcomes us into his home. Behind him is a panoramic photo of his native Lhasa.

VISIT TO AN EMPLOYEE AT HOME Modern energy generation – employees heat their kettles with parabolic reflectors. Jong Dra’s Lhasa Leather Factory employee ID card. Jong Dra hard at work. The master tanner pulls the heavy leather hides from a drum.

Jong Dra is also a member of the factory’s specialist team of buyers who visit the yak markets in December to select the highest quality hides for next year’s production. He invites me into his subsided company flat. He’s lived there for six years. At first employees are granted a basic company flat, but after twenty years of service they are offered a

better one. Outside in the garden he has a solar-powered kettle, which brings water slowly to the boil. It’s simple, but effective. Two parabolic reflectors focus and concentrate the sun’s energy on a kettle. On a clear, sunny day it takes around fifteen minutes to boil a litre of water. As we sit in Jong Dra’s comfortable

and lovingly furnished living room, there is a huge impressive panoramic photo of Lhasa which completly fills the wall behind him. “I’m very proud of my city,” he explains. We sit and drink cups of yak butter tea (that tastes much better than it sounds) while Jong Dra shows me his family albums. I also notice the framed picture of the Dalai Lama which has

pride of place on the television. Life in Tibet Jong Dra tells me about himself and of the people and life in the Tibet Autonomous Region. During my stay in Lhasa, the week-long ‘Sho Dun’ Yoghurt Festival is held. It is a traditional festival where the monks leave the monasteries after

a period of fasting and are given yoghurt to eat by the people. Jong describes the festival, “We went to Drepung Monastery (approximately 10 kilometres west of Lhasa) to see the ‘sunning’ of the Buddha.” This is part of the celebrations where a huge image of the Buddha is unfurled over the hillside – 100 lamas are needed to carry it. People come from far

and wide to see the spectacle. Some 20,000 lamas, pilgrims, Tibetans and tourists join in the celebrations. Apart from that, his life outside the factory is pretty normal Jong tells me. After work, he usually takes the bus to his brother’s tea house, which is not far from the factory. He also plays basketball – it’s been a popular sport in Tibet since the seventies.

Background image: map of Tibet, 1888

The Lhasa Leather Factory seal– only the finest quality is worthy of this mark

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From Tibet to Bavaria - HANWAG YAK PROJECT  

HANWAG – the Bavarian bootmakers – are about more than just traditional, German high quality craftsmanship. The experts in handcrafted footw...