Tibetan herder with a yak Nomadic herders are known as drokpa. They make up about 25 percent of Tibetans in Tibet. In some Tibetan counties they make up 90 percent of the population. Herding families tend to be very poor, with a family typically getting by on an income of between $100 and $300 a year. Money is earned by trading animals for grain or selling them or their meat for money. Some traders and pilgrims are regarded as nomads.
There are an estimated 2 million Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas that practice some form of nomadism. For centuries these nomads have ranged across the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau with their grazing herds of sheep, cattle, goats and yaks.
Many of the inhabitants of the highland plateau are nomadic shepherds and yak and horse breeders. Southern Tibet—where the climate is less hostile and where there are a number of valleys where barley and other crops are raised— is main agricultural area and where most Tibetans in Tibet live. Most of the Tibetans that live there are farmers. Farmers and herders have traditionally exchanged products at annual and biennial markets, fairs and horse festivals. Herders in remote areas usually make grain-getting expeditions in the fall.
About half a million Tibetan nomads live on the Chang Tang, a huge, remote, 15,000-foot plateau rimmed by mountains. Tens of thousands of other Tibetan nomads can be found in other remote regions of Tibet. The nomads in the Phala region of the Chang Tang live in small camps consisting of two to eight tents. They herd yaks, sheep and horses, and reside throughout the year at sites ranging from 16,000 to 17,500 feet, which makes them the highest known resident native population in the world.♠
Most herders and nomads live in Nagqu prefecture—a 4,500-meter-high, 446,000 square kilometer region on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau that accounts for 37 percent of Tibet Autonomous Region. Nagqu has the largest pastoral area and the highest productivity in the region. Breeding livestock accounts for 70 percent of the prefecture’s income and more than 90 percent of Nagqu residents make their living from it. Nagqu accounts for one third of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s animal husbandry.
Tibetan nomads have a lot in common with Mongolian nomads.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Center for Research on Tibet case.edu ; BBC pictures news.bbc.co.uk ; Nomad portraits asianart.com ; More photos by Daniel Miller taragsdalephotos.com Travel Pictures traveladventures.org
Links in this Website: TIBETAN PEOPLE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOOD, DRINK, DRUGS AND CLOTHES IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN HEALTH AND MEDICINE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN FUNERALS AND DEATH Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN NOMADS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MINORITIES AND TIBETANS ABROAD Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages
History of Tibetan Nomads
Tibetan horseman in full regalia Tibetan nomads have traditionally lived beyond the reach of the government. After the Chinese came to power in China in 1949 Tibetan nomads continued to live pretty much as they had for hundreds of years. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the Communist government began imposing restrictions on the nomad's "primitive" lifestyle.
In the 1960s and 70s, many nomads had their possessions confiscated and were put in communes. The nomads who weren't forced into communes often had their animals confiscated and were not given a place to live. Many however managed to tough it out on the plateau with a few goats. Some families survived for years on nothing but goat milk and a little money they earned doing odd jobs for the communes.♠
During the Cultural Revolution, the Communists not only confiscated animals from Tibetan nomads but also took their jewelry (ripping earrings right out of their ears in some cases), their robes and blankets they used to keep warm, and the yak tents that were their homes. One family with nearly 1,400 animals, had nearly everything they owned confiscated. "They left us only one pot, some barley grain, and a little tsampa," one family member said, "We were stunned. Our whole life's wealth was eliminated in minutes. We didn't know how were going to survive."♠
Tibetan nomads on the plateau tried to hold off the Red Guard and the People's Liberation Army, but the nomad's matchlock weapons were no match for the automatic weapons of the Chinese. Today, nomads live under a system almost the same the one that existed during feudal times, except that the taxes go to Chinese government instead of lamas. ♠
Tibetan Nomad Tents and Possessions
Many nomads live in four-sided or eight-sided tents made from black yak hair or wool and held up with wooden poles. There is slit to let out smoke. In the old days some had a bearskin front. Sometimes they live in yurts.
Adults and children share the space inside the tent. They usually each have their own area and gather around a fire made of yak dung and juniper branches in an open hearth the middle of the tent. Yak cheese hangs from the walls above piles of heavy blankets.
Nomad tents and other possessions are carried by horses or yaks or by truck. Inside the tents is an altar dedicated to various Buddhist deities and protector gods. Next to the altar is a box for jewelry and other valuables. Other possessions include a cooking stove, sheepskin sleeping mats and yak-hair blankets. Because there is so little rain they often sleep outside. A nasty dog is kept around to keep away predators.
Tibetan Nomad Life
Most nomads are only nomads in the summer. In the winter they live in valleys in houses with wooden beams and earthen floors and pens or shelters for their animals. An increasing number have access to electricity. Some get electricity from small generators or solar panels.
A typical three-generation nomad family with nine members has 70 yaks and 200 sheep and makes about $6,000 from selling animals.
The staples of the nomad diet are tsampa (roasted barley flour), and yak butter tea. Peasants sometimes ground the barley by pouring it into a funnel and crushing it into flour with a small millstone turned by water in a stream. Barley is often cooked on sand to keep it from scorching.
Tibetan nomads who live above 15,000 foot can not grow barley. To obtain the grain they generally trade salt taken from around lakes with sheep and yak caravans that carry barley up from elevations. The water in the lakes of the Tibetan plateau is usually too salty too drink, therefore nomads always camp near a spring.♠
Anthropologist Melvyn Goldstein was impressed by the efficiency of Tibet's nomads. "They perform their tasks with very little wasted motion," he said. "When goats are milked, for example, a group of 30 or so animals is tied together and when the milking is done the animals are released with a simple pull on the rope. The milk itself is made into yoghurt, butter and cheese."
Nomads have to deal with cold weather and lots of walking. One Tibetan woman recalled that when she was a child her brothers would wrap her in their coats when she got cold and on long treks her father would carry her when her legs became weary.
Tibetan Nomad Society
Nomads typically live in groups of 10 to 25 families, with each family living in a four-sided yak hair tent. Sometimes newlyweds live in small subsidiary tents. The tents are usually set up a considerable distance from one another so that each family has enough land to graze their animals. The descions to move on is made by all the families in the group.
Women usually stay close to camp doing various chores like weaving blankets and making butter while the men graze the animals. In the autumn when the animals are fattened up, the nomads head to markets, cities or trading areas to sell or trade their animals for supplies to keep them going through the winter and the entire year.
Nomad marriages are often worked out with the help of matchmakers who arrange meetings for young men and women from different groups. If a couple likes each other they meet with each other when they can over a long period of time and exchange gifts. The actual marriage ritual is a feigned kidnap attack, with the friends and family of the groom trying to help the groom abduct the bride and the friends and family of the bride reigning resistence, sometimes for several days before inviting the groom’s group for a feast and the allowing the bride to be taken away.
Nomads, Hunting and Livestock
Nomads typically raise yaks, goats and sheep and migrate between their winter homes in the valleys and highland pastures in the summer. They typically spend two thirds of the year in the valleys. Often the summer pastures are no more than 40 miles away from the their valley homes. Most nomads tend their flocks from horseback or on foot. Some do it by bicycle or motorcycle. The tents and other supplies are transported on the backs of yaks or on trucks.
Animals can survive in the Chang Tang during the summer even if the rainfall is poor but they need to build up a layer of fat if they are to survive the winter without supplemental fodder. As is true with other nomadic people like the Masai in Africa and the Sami (Lapps) in Scandinavia, animals are a sign of wealth for nomadic Tibetans.♠
A typical nomad has 50 yaks, 300 sheep and six horses. Some herds of sheep extend for more than a mile. Nomads say their way of life is much easier than farming. "The animals reproduce themselves," one woman said, "they give milk and meat without or doing anything. So how can you say our life is hard?" To keep the Chang Tang from being overgrazed a "pasture book" is kept collectively by the nomads to determine how many animals can graze a specific pasture.
Yaks are the most valuable animals. Seven goats or six sheep usually equal one yak. Nomads used to be required to sell certain numbers of animal to government agencies at a certain price. By the late 1980s they were selling their animals at market prices.
Tibetan nomads have traditionally hunted animals such as antelopes, blue sheep and gazelles. To hunt these animals nomadic hunters use dogs and matchlock rifles, 18th-century weapons that are so heavy and have so much kick they need a brace to keep them in place. The firing mechanism on a matchlock is a wick with a flint striker, which ignites the powder in the gun. "It is only accurate up to a hundred feet," a hunter said, "and it takes very long to fire...By the time I have done everything, the sheep would be long gone. That is why we use our dogs; they tilt the odds in our favor."♠
Journey on the Tea Horse Road to a Nomad Camp
“Today Nagqu sits on modern Highway 317, the northern branch of the Tea Horse Road,” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic. “All signs of the former trade route have vanished, but just a day's drive southeast, temptingly close, are the Nyainqentanglha Mountains, where the original trail once passed. I am captivated by the possibility that back in the deep valleys Tibetans might still ride their indefatigable horses along the original trail. Perhaps, hidden in the vast hinterland, there is even still trade along the road. Then again, maybe the trail has vanished as it did in Sichuan, wiped out by howling wind and tumbling snow.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]
“One rainy black morning halfway through the festival, while the police are looking the other way, Sue and I slip off in a Land Cruiser to find out what has happened to Tibet's Tea Horse Road. We race all day on dirt roads, grinding over passes, almost rolling on steep slopes. We don't stop at checkpoints, and we creep right past village police stations. By nightfall we reach Lharigo, a village between two enormous passes that once served as a sanctuary along the Gyalam. Surreptitiously, we go door-to-door looking for horses to take us up to 17,756-foot Nubgang Pass. There are none to be found, and we're directed to a saloon on the edge of town. Inside, Tibetan cowboys are drinking beer, shooting pool, and placing bets on a dice game called sho. They laugh when we ask for horses. No one rides horses anymore.” [Ibid]
“Outside the saloon, instead of steeds of muscle standing in the mud, there are steeds of steel: tough little Chinese motorcycles decorated like their bone-and-blood predecessors—red-and-blue Tibetan wool rugs cover the saddles, tassels dangle from the handlebars. For a price, two cowboys offer to take us to the base of the pass; from there we must walk.” [Ibid]
“We set off in the dark the next morning, backpacks strapped to the bikes like saddlebags. The cowboys are as adept on motorbikes as their ancestors were on horseback. We bounce through black bogs where the mud is two feet deep, splash through blue braided streams where our mufflers burble in the water. Up the valley we pass the black tents of Tibetan nomads. Parked in front of many of the yak hair tents are big Chinese trucks or Land Cruisers. Where did nomads get the money to buy such vehicles? Certainly not from the traditional yak meat-and-butter economy.” [Ibid]
“It takes five hours to cover the 18 miles to Tsachuka, a nomad camp at the base of the Nubgang Pass. The ride thoroughly jars our spines. The cowboys build a small sagebrush campfire and, after a lunch of yak jerky and yak butter tea, Sue and I set off on foot for the legendary pass. To our delight, the ancient path is quite visible, like a rocky trail in the Alps, winding up meadows speckled with black, long-horned yaks. After two hours of hard uphill hiking, we pass two shimmering sapphire tarns. Beyond these lakes, all green disappears and everything turns to stone and sky. Mule trains of tea stopped crossing this pass over a half century ago, but the trail had been maintained for a thousand years, boulders moved and stone steps built, and it's all still here. Sue and I zigzag through the talus, along the walled path, right up to the pass.” [Ibid]
“The saddle-shaped Nubgang Pass has clearly been abandoned. The few prayer flags still flapping are worn thin, the bones atop the cairns bleached white. There is a silence that only absence can create...In my imagination I see a mule train of a hundred animals plodding up toward us, dust swirling around their hooves, loads of tea rocking side to side, the cowboys alert for bandits waiting in ambush on the Nubgang Pass. Our motocowboys are waiting for us the next morning when we return from the pass. We saddle up and begin the long ride out, bumping and bashing down glacial valleys.” [Ibid]
Visit to a Tibetan Nomad Tent
Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “At midday we stop at two black nomad tents, surrounded by neat stacks of yak dung. A large solar panel hangs on each tent, and parked in the grass are a truck, a Land Cruiser, and two motorcycles. The nomads invite us in and offer cups of scalding yak butter tea.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]
“Inside the tent, an old woman is twirling a prayer wheel and mumbling mantras, a young man is cooking in a shaft of light, and a few middle-aged men are sitting on thick Tibetan rugs. Through sign language and a pocket dictionary, I ask the men how they can afford their vehicles. They grin wildly, but the conversation strays. “ [Ibid]
On his visit Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “ The nomads' tent is a pinprick of white against a canvas of green and brown. There is no other sign of human existence on the 14,000-foot-high prairie that seems to extend to the end of the world. As a vehicle rattles toward the tent, two young men emerge, their long black hair horizontal in the wind. Ba O and his brother Tsering are part of an unbroken line of Tibetan nomads who for at least a thousand years have led their herds to summer grazing grounds near the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, April 2010]
“Inside the tent, Ba O's wife tosses patties of dried yak dung onto the fire while her four-year-old son plays with a spool of sheep's wool. The family matriarch, Lu Ji, churns yak milk into cheese, rocking back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm. Behind her are two weathered Tibetan chests topped with a small Buddhist shrine: a red prayer wheel, a couple of smudged Tibetan texts, and several yak butter candles whose flames are never allowed to go out. "This is the way we've always done things," Ba O says. "And we don't want that to change." [Ibid]
Caravans crossing the Himalayas still operate between Tibet and Nepal. Nomads, who live at an altitude above which the grain can not grow, gather salt from beds near Tibetan lakes and trade it for barley, buckwheat, rice and maize with caravans that come from up Nepal and Bhutan. Sometimes things like kerosene lamps, Indian cloth and even bicycles are carried in. [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993, ☺]
Salt caravans with 150 or so yaks have been operating in Tibet for more than 2,000 years. Caravans between Tibet and the Dolpo area of Nepal have been traveling the same route for more than a thousand years. Within Tibet, caravans have been replaced by trucks. The trucks able to reach the salt-producing lakes but still can not take the salt over high mountain passes into Nepal. Thus there is still a need for the caravans.
Salt is used in the preparation of meals and, more importantly, to feed it animals. In some places it is still used as currency or as a commodity to barter for rice or other commodities with lowland people. For people in Nepal, salt from Tibet is considerably cheaper than salt from India.
Caravans are usually organized in the fall so herders and grain growers can get supplies to last them through the winter. Caravaneers in the Dolpo only raise enough grain to meet about half of their needs. With the money made by trading salt they buy additional grain and things like tea, sugar plastic bowls, and tools. Members of the caravan usually deal with same trading partners year after year. Trust is important. Salt and grain are measured out in sacks or wooden khekours. Typically two measures of salt are traded for five measures of grain.
Tibetan Sheep and Yak Caravan
The salt caravans traveling between the Dolpo region of Nepal and the Chang Tang region of Tibet are made up of sheep who wear 30 pounds saddlebags. The sheep wear the bags even when they are sleeping so the nomads don't have to waste time taking them off and putting them on. At night the caravan members sleep in make-shift yurt-like tents made from canvas stretched over a circle constructed of piles of sacks and other equipment. Meals are prepared over fires made inside the tents.
The salt comes from the bottom of shallow lakes in the Chang Tang region. It is raked it in heaps which dry out in the sun and then sewn into huge sacks that are loaded on the back of the animals. To keep from getting frostbite the caravaneers wrap their feet in woolen rags. And to prevent snow blindness men wrap their long braids over their eyes and women smear black roots under their eyes.☺♠
Twice-a-year yak caravans ply a route between the Tsangpo river valley area of Tibet and the Tsangpo upland valley in Nepal. The caravans move with one man following behind four yaks. Each yak carries about 150 pounds placed in two sacks, one hanging on each side of a wooden saddle placed on the yak’s back. The journey takes about 10 days. Yaks from Tibet carry salt, animal fat and wool, which is exchanged for grain and sometimes lowland goods like rice, pears and sugar. The governments of China and Nepal tolerate the caravans because the people involved depend on the caravans for their survival.
Tibetan Caravan Rituals
Before a caravan begins, a consultation with the gods using a lama or shaman as an intermediary takes place and yak butter is placed on the brow and horn tips of each yak with the understanding that gods like butter and will protect the animals to show their gratitude. Wives also dab butter on the heads of their husbands. These rituals are believed to offer protection from rock slides, blizzards, falls from cliffs and dangerously cold and wet weather.
When a sheep caravan is ready to embark on a journey to the lowlands, the event is heralded with handfuls of barley thrown into the air and chants from lamas and honks from conch shell horns. The leader of the caravan thrusts his arm into the chest of a slaughtered sheep and draws out a cup of blood, which he drinks slowly. This is done to protect him from malaria and dysentery.
Instead of saying grace before a meal some everyone dips their forth finger into their tea and flick the droplets in the four directions. To forecast, the weather salt is thrown into the air and then tossed onto a fire. If it crackles it means a storm is far away if it stays silent it means a storm in near.
The caravaneers sing and chant during their journey in a "salt language" known only to themselves and the Buddhist deities that are important to them. If an accident occurs, the caravan will not continue forward until the spiritual cause of the accident is found and something is done to atone for it, even if it means falling behind schedule and risking getting caught in a storm. To appease spirts, a lama or shaman may recommend making 108 little cakes as offerings or making effigies of people who have been injured and who are ill. The effigies are throw down a gorge to fool the spirts that they are the real people.
Travel With a Tibetan Caravan
Caravan camp The lead yak in a yak and sheep caravan has a red tassel hanging from it ear and prayer flag tied to its coat. Other yaks are adorned with pom poms and bells. Slow beasts are urged on with rocks slung from a slingshot and calmed with clicking noises.
On sheep caravans the saddlebags on the animals have to constantly be adjusted. On the narrow trails an off-balance, lopsided bag can send a sheep hurtling over the side of a cliff. During the night one of the caravan members stays up all night to make sure the sheep don't get picked off by leopards and jackals.☺
When its time to go to sleep men, women and children disrobe and sleep together under the same blankets and on top of the same goatskin mattress. The mainstay of a caravaners diet is tea flavored with rancid butter and salt. "Tea is the horse of the traveler" a saying goes. "It gives us energy and keeps us going."☺
When an unexpected snow storm hits, small yaks are forced to return and large yaks are relieved of their bags so they can break a trail for the rest of the caravan. Describing a snowbound caravan heading Nepal to Tibet, Christine de Cherriey wrote in Smithsonian, "It is an arduous hike. Sometimes Chusang [the caravan leader] has to walk in front of the yaks in snow up to his thighs. The men shield their eyes from the sun; those who do not have glasses cover their eyes with their braids. Two thirds of the way, one of the yaks collapses on the path, exhausted, and is unloaded by Lobsang and abandoned."
“Four days later, we stop some 14,000 feet above sea level at the last camp in Nepal...The next day when we reach the pass. The weather turns foul again, but this time the men are no longer worried. They are back in their own country and from here on the trip will be downhill or on flat land. The high-lying plateaus of Tibet stretch out before them in the distance. It will take six more days for the caravans to reach their villages."
Caravans on the Karakoram Pass
One of the Himalayan region's most famous caravans traveled for 34 days over 18,290-foot Karakoram Pass between Ladakh in what is now India and the Silk Road oasis towns of Yarkand and Kashgar in western China. The caravan traded cotton, pearls, spices, wools, dyes such as indigo and brocades from India for silk, tea, carpets, gold, musk and medicines from China. The caravans operated for hundreds of years and continued until the hostilities between India and China closed the Karakoram Pass in the early 1960s. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic, May 1963]
Between 30 and 100 horses, Bactrian camels, yaks and sheep were used to transport goods on the 30- to 40- day one way journey. The caravaners said there was little danger of getting lost and they were seldom bothered by bandits in the frigid highlands. In fact they often ferried their loads to the pass and left them there unguarded until the snow on the pass cleared. Then they would ferry their goods down the other side. Sometimes some of their merchandise was left unattended for an entire year.
The Karakoram caravan trails were so demanding that the noses of some of the mules and ponies had to be slit open to allow them to breath better. One of the last caravaners, a man named Hajji Tokta, told National Geographic magazine, "Bleached bones of animals and men regularly marked the trail. It is only by the grace of God my own are not strewn there with them. In a bad fall near the pass I broke my hip. Luckily, a companion stayed behind with me. It was a month until I could be moved. We nearly starved." While he was recuperating in Ladakh the pass was closed and he never again saw his wife or family, who lived on the other side in China.
Tibetan Nomad Hardships
Weather, namely rain, determines whether nomads have a good year or a bad one. When the rainy season brings enough rain pastures are green and full of edible grass for the animals. In dry years and droughts there isn’t enough food for the animals. Winter storms can also be damaging. Freezing temperatures can kill sheep and a thick layer of hard snow or ice can make it difficult for the animals to forage. Ideally herders try to collect enough grass and hay for the animals to eat in the winter and keep them indoors in stalls
A long rainy season can cause trouble by making it difficult to dry yak dung, Many years a wet spring and summer portends snowstorms in the winter.
Deep snows and long periods of cold can kill large numbers of animals and force nomads into poverty. The winter of 1997-98 killed an estimated three million yaks, sheep and goats. In some areas herders lost as many as 40 percent of their animals.
The worst winter snows in 50 years occurred in 1996. An estimated 1.2 million yaks, sheep and goats—some 40 percent of the regions domesticated animals—were killed. About 80,000 Tibetan herders were affected. Piles of animals could be seen on the side of the roads and hungry, desperate people broke into cars of foreign tourist looking for food.
The herders often fed their own food to their animals to keep them alive when the weather is bad. After a terrible winter storm in the 1930s, an entire clan committed suicide at the base of Qilian Mountain.
Sleeping in the damp ground can make people sick. Many old people suffer from arthritis.
In open grazing areas livestock can be easily stolen.
Tibetan Nomads and the Modern World
Large tent The Chinese government is urging nomads to settle in communities were they have access to housing, health care and other services—and are under government control. Some nomads have moved from yak skin tents into brick houses and sell "yak cashmere" sweaters, yak meat, bones (used for glue) and fur for a steady income.
Nomads have been taught how to make the most of money earned from their resources and animals by, for example, not letting their animals go free to earn merit in their next life. One Chinese official told Reuter, "Many of these people have assets but they are still poor because they don't know how to use them. So we send people to teach them how to open their minds to a market economy."
In some parts of Tibet, nomads are encouraged to fence off their pastures to prevent overgrazing and erosion, switch from subsistence herding to industrial livestock production and use the latest animal husbandry technology. Nomad families that go along with the government’s wishes sign long-term contracts for state-owned land. The size of the plot is determined by the family’s size and the number of animals they have. They are given money for fencing and access to yak sperm banks. Nomads who don’t go along with the government’s wishes face fines.
Many nomads and environmentalists object to the policy of using fences and industrial livestock methods, arguing the policy breaks down the centuries-old way of life of the nomads, cuts off their access to drinking water, blocks migration routes of wild animals, and may cause more environmental damage than just letting the animals roam.
Nomads have been resettled on farming communities while their land has “literally been taken from under their feet.”
Nomadic ways are blamed for overgrazing. Tanzen Lhundup of the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center, “Nomads are human beings—they also want to maximize their interest. It is impossible for them to protect the environment voluntarily. So they need guidance and control. In my opinion, the first step is control...If we don’t do this, the grasslands will disappear and the nomads will suffer. So in the end, as the Chinese saying goes, short-term suffering is better than long-term suffering.”
Resettled Tibetan Nomads
At great expense the Chinese government has resettled hundreds of thousands of Tibetan nomads. The goal is to resettle all two million nomads of them in what is billed an effort to improve the lives of the nomads and protect rivers and save grassland from overgrazing. [Source: Maureen Fan Washington Post, September 28, 2008]
More than 100,000 families in Qinghai Province—almost half the Tibetan population there—has been resettled. In 2007 officials said they would spend $80 million to settle most of the nomads by the end of 2009. In 2008, the Gansu Province government said it would spend $189 million to relocated 74,000 nomads there, most of them in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Region
Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “The Tibetan plateau’s lunar landscape is littered with clusters of houses the Chinese government built for nomads. Yet like some American real estate developments abandoned during the subprime-mortgage crisis, many of these houses in Kardze are empty. Few Tibetan nomads want to live in Chinese houses. The government worker does not understand it. They are nice houses, he says, much warmer in winter than a yak-wool tent. “If we were to give the Tibetans independence,” he says, “they would starve and have no clothes on their back.”
The impact of programs on nomads varies. In some cases the nomads are encouraged to give up their animals completely and take jobs or work as farmers and do things like sell horseback rides to tourists for $4 a an hour. In other cases they keep their animals behind fences in areas near the settlements and move between winter and summer locations. In yet other cases some family members live in settlements while other family members move with their animals and return home every 10 days or so.
Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Along the road near the town of Madoi are two rows of newly built houses. This is a resettlement village for Tibetan nomads, part of a massive and controversial program to relieve pressure on the grasslands near the sources of China's three major rivers—the Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong—where nearly half of Qinghai Province's 530,000 nomads have traditionally lived. Tens of thousands of nomads here have had to give up their way of life, and many more may follow. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, April 2010]
“The subsidized housing is solid, and residents receive a small annual stipend. Even so, Jixi Lamu, a 33-year-old woman in a traditional embroidered dress, says her family is stuck in limbo, dependent on government handouts. "We've spent the $400 we had left from selling off our animals," she says. "There was no future with our herds, but there's no future here either." Her husband is away looking for menial work. Inside the one-room house, her mother sits on the bed, fingering her prayer beads. A Buddhist shrine stands on the other side of the room, but the candles have burned out.” [Ibid]
Nomads’ New Village
Making butter tea In a newly-created town called “Nomads’ New Village” former nomads live in brick-and-tile houses that are considerably warmer and more comfortable than nomads tents. Generally children have better access to education, families have better access to health care and people are easier to manage in terms of offering heating in bad weather and informing them of new programs and offering medicines and new technology for themselves and their animals. For those that keep their animals it is easier to keep an eye on them and prevent them from being stolen.
A government researcher working there told the Washington Post, “Some people who are flexible sell their livestock and buy vehicles to do business such as transportation and tourism. Definitely, settling down will affect their nomadic culture, but from the aspect of social development settling down is using an advanced lifestyle to replace a backwards lifestyle.”
Many who have settled down keep their tents as a reminder of the old days. Most remain loyal to the Dalai Lama and show no sign of compromising that loyalty. Some aid workers say if the resettled nomads need anything it is more temples to fulfill heir spiritual demands.
A typical herder that once had 600 sheep and 150 yaks and ate meat every meal now lives in a concrete house and receives a $1000-year stipend and get by making deliveries with tractor for $1 to $3 a day and get by on noodles and fried dough.
Problems with Resettled Nomads
Many nomads are illiterate and there are few jobs in the resettlement towns. Some have returned to herding because there is nothing else for them to do but even doing that is hard because they gave up their large herds when they were resettled have to start from scratch with just a handful of animals. In any case, many want their children to go to school and achieve a better life.
In places where the nomads have been force to give up their animals rates of alcoholism are high. In other places poor planing has left residents without reliable water add power sources. Those that move to cities are often out hustled by the more aggressive and entrepreneurial-minded Han Chinese for jobs and businesses.
In many cases children stay in the towns and settlements with their grandparents while the parents tend animals in some far off place. One 64-year-old Tibetan woman told the Washington Post that she appreciated the subsidized house she received but she missed the old days because “Life was harder but at least we were together. Now we old people have to take care of ourselves.”
Researchers also worry that by resettling the nomads, valuable, ecological knowledge and animal husbandry skills will be lost. Diseases spread easier among animals and people living more close together. Because they are stuck in one place the animals eat less nutritious grass than they would if they were more free ranging.
Researchers say the social fabric of nomadic life has broken down to some extent. Liu Shurun of the Inner Mongolia Normal University told the Washington Post, “Before nomads were quite selfless. It was very important to help each other when they moved around in groups. But now each family settles in one place with their own plots of land, and they don’t rely on each other so much.”
Criticism of the Resettled Nomad Program
Critics of the nomad resettlement program see the program is as way for Beijing to control the Tibetan population by keeping an eye on them and countering the influence of the Dalai Lama. Communist Party chief Zhang Qingli wrote in a party journal the “peace and contentment” that nomads derive from their improved housing “is the fundamental condition for us holding the initiative in the struggle against the Dalai clique.” The riots in March 2008 have stepped the relocation of the nomads,
Addressing some of the criticism Tanzen Lhundup of the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center, said nomadic culture will not disappear. “First, not all the nomads are being moved, just some of them. Second, nobody is stopping them from carrying on their culture, their religion, their customs. They can still sing and dance.”
Image Sources: Purdue University, University of Washington, Snowland Cuckoo, Mongabay, Tibet Train
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2011