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Tibetan herder with a yak
Nomadic herders in Tibet 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. [Primary Source: "At Home with Tibetan Nomads" by Melvyn Goldstein, National Geographic, June 1989 ♠]

Generally, Tibet can be divided into farming areas and pastoral areas. Those living in pastoral areas are called nomads or pastoralists. These people sometimes build houses as home bases, for their old folks and for storage. Otherwise, they live the nomad life and in traditional nomadic tents.

Nomads are people who graze animals within particular places. Those in Tibet are specially adapted towards high altitudes. Their primary aim is to feed their animals with the best available grass and foods. They have traditionally worn thick clothes, lived in tents and moved from place to place in order to feed the animals. Their income is derived from their animals: namely from selling their meat and skins, which they have traditionally had to do in towns and cities. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Tibetan nomads have a lot in common with Mongolian nomads. Tibetan nomad culture is quickly disappearing as more Tibetans each year are being relocated off of the grasslands.

Good Websites and Sources: Center for Research on Tibet case.edu ; BBC pictures news.bbc.co.uk ; Nomad portraits asianart.com

Places Where Tibetan Nomads Live

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.

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 a slit to let out smoke. In the old days some had a bearskin front. Sometimes Tibetans live in yurts.

Every nomadic family has several yak hair tents that can be easily dismantled and moved. In hot weather, the loose wool weaves let wind blow through, keeping the air fresh and cool inside. On cold weather, the tent weaves become tight, keeping wind, cold and rain out. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

There are two kinds of tents: black yak wool tents and white cloth tents. People in pastoral areas are used to living in yak wool tents. In agricultural areas some people still use Tibetan cloth tents. The black yak tents generally have no adornment, but whenever people raise a tent, they hang prayer flags to bless the grassland and their animals and other living creatures with enough food. The black yak tent is viewed as a huge sky mastiff (sky spider) resting in the vast plain. At the top of the tent is a smoke escape symbolizing the highest mountain’s tallest gate.

The smaller and elegant white tents have traditionally been used by Tibetan girls. Pastoral people generally have a couple of these lighter white cloth tents. They are good for traveling and multitudes of them are set up at religious or racing gathering. Elders, teens, and guests usually stay in these kind of tents. The fireplace is usually outside the tent. There are big hexagonal tents, well decorated with religious signs, set up around monasteries or for the use of religious occasions.

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.

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Summer camp

Making and Erecting Tibetan Nomad Tents

To make a black yak wool tent, people use yak wool to make big ropes first, and then tie the ropes together. A good size tent, which covers about 28 square meters, requires about 90 kilograms of wool. The tent is square at the base with a window at the top that let smoke out and sunlight in. On snowy and rainy days, the window can be shut. The front part of the tent is split into two pieces to make a door. There are generally no beds, chairs or furniture inside the tent. People sit on carpets and cushions. In the middle of the tent, a stive is set up. Behind is yak dung fuel.

Nomads traditionally have spun the yak hair into threads and weave it into striped cloth, then they sewed the cloth into a square tent of 2 pieces, which are joined by 10 ouches or so to form a completed tent. This kind of tent is usually square-shaped supported by 8 upright pillars. On one end, more than 10 strings of yak hair are tied to the pillars at the top of the tent, while the other end is tied to the poles about 3 meters away, making the tent flat and firm. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

To pitch a tent, people first use sticks to make a frame as high as 2 meters, and then they cover it with black yak felt, leaving a chink in the middle with a 15 centimeter width and 1.5 meter length. This split lets smoke out and sunlight in. As well, the 4 sides of the tent are secured to the ground with yak wool ropes.

Inside a Tibetan Nomad Tents

A Tibetan tent is about 20 square meters in area and 1.7 meters high with a ventilating slit at the top to let out smoke and heat when opened and to keep the tent warm and protected from wind and rainwater if covered. In the front of the tent there is a string tied to the door curtain which can be drawn to control the opening. On hot days, the door curtain can be propped up to let air in making the inside cool and comfortable. The yak hair material is instrumental to the success of the tent, making it wearable, thick, and durable enough against strong winds and snowstorms. Meanwhile, it is also convenient to be dismantled, put up, and removed, fitting for nomadic life. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Inside, people build a 50 centimeter high wall made of grass-earth blocks, earth blocks, or stones, on which barley, butter bags, or yak dung (used as fuel) are usually placed. The tent is typically poorly furnished, without many household items. In the middle (near the door) of the tent, an earthy fireplace is set up, and behind is a worshipping place equipped with Buddha statues. People often spread a sheepskin rug on the floor for rest or sleep.

The tent is divided into two quarters. Males occupy the left half, and females the right half. The inner part of the left side is the worshiping place equipped with Buddha statues, scripts, and lamps. The right side is for utensils and food storage. Outside the tent, sometimes people build a wall of sod or dung to guard the animals or protect them against cold wind.

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.

Tibetan Nomad Life

Nomads live a hard life. They often eat little more than old hard cheese, dried raw meat, butter, yoghurt, sour milk and black tea. Normally they don't like taking showers. Sometimes their boots and straps are made of wild asses skin tied together with thread from the tendons of wild animals. Family members take of tame yaks, sheep and goats. They endure frigid cold, storms and blizzards. They erect votive cairns to honor mountain gods and venerate strange spirits that dwell in the lakes, rivers and mountains. Often when they die their bodies are taken to a mountain, and left to the wolves and vultures.

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.

On the life of young woman from a herding family, Annie Gowen wrote in the Washington Post, “When she was growing up, the local school taught classes in Mandarin, not Tibetan, so she received only rudimentary schooling at home. Her family, nomadic herders, could not travel from village to village without permission. They dared not speak the Dalai Lama’s name — even when they were alone in their tent of yak hide. They assumed their cellphone calls were monitored. [Source: Annie Gowen, Washington Post, October 19, 2014]

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.

According to the Chinese government: Animal husbandry is the main occupation in Tibet where there are vast expanses of grasslands and rich sources of water. The Tibetan sheep, goat, yak and pien cattle are native to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The yak is a big and long-haired animal, capable of with-standing harsh weather and carrying heavy loads. Known as the "Boat on the Plateau," the yak is a major means of transport as well as a source of meat. The pien cattle, a crossbreed of bull and yak, is the best draught animal and milk producer. [Source: China.org china.org |]

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 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]

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

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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

More than two million Tibetans, most of them pastoralists, were relocated between 2006 and 2013, according to Human Rights Watch, as well as hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau such as in Qinghai province. The human rights group said in a report the aim of the resettlements is in part to help economically, but also to combat separatist sentiment “and is designed to strengthen political control over the Tibetan rural population”. [Source: Reuters, June 27, 2013]

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

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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.”

In June 2013, New York-based Human Rights Watch appealed to the Chinese government to end what it called forced “mass rehousing and relocation” of ethnic Tibetans. A report by the human rights group said Chinese authorities threw lives of nomads into disarray by denying them rights to forcibly relocating them with insufficient compensation, sub-par housing and lack of help in finding jobs. “The scale and speed at which the Tibetan rural population is being remodelled by mass rehousing and relocation policies are unprecedented in the post-Mao era,” said Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson. “Tibetans have no say in the design of policies that are radically altering their way of life, and - in an already highly repressive context - no ways to challenge them.” [Source: Reuters, June 27, 2013]

Reports: “‘They Say We Should Be Grateful’: Mass Rehousing and Relocation in Tibetan Areas of China” by Human Rights Watch hrw.org/ ; New York Times article of the Human Rights Watch report: nytimes.com ; for download, 31 photos accompanying the report can be found here ; and a short video here youtu.be

Woeser on the Resettlement of Tibets Nomads

The Tibetan activist wrote: In August 2012, I drove back to Lhasa in the car of my friends and spent one night in Gormo, a man-made city with a very short history. Five years ago, I also stopped here to visit fellow Tibetans living in the outskirts of the city in the Gobi desert. The word “living” is not really accurate, they were migrants who had “been moved” there, approximately 200 to 300 households; all of them had lived in “the first county of the Yellow River”, in Yushu Prefecture, Chumarlep County and were then moved to this place, arranged to live in a migrant village in barrack-like housing. This many Tibetans who used to be herdsmen, keeping livestock, had been forced to integrate in what is referred to as a modern environment. Their language, food and lifestyles underwent great changes, not to mention that there was no place to practice religion in this new place; it becomes clear that this kind of “integration” was extremely passive and painful. [Source: “The ‘Mani Stones’ in an ‘Environmental Migrants Village’” By Woeser, High Peaks Pure Earth, July 1, 2013, translated by High Peaks Pure Earth from a blogpost by Woeser written on September 27, 2012 for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on January 31, 2013 ]

“I will never forget the sad conversation that I had with these Tibetan migrants. I asked: “When you moved here did your mountain deity move with you?” My Tibetan friends, dressed in cheap western suits, lowered their heads and said: “How is that possible? We abandoned our deities, we abandoned our livestock, and all that for 500 Yuan per month.” But in fact, it was not at all because of this little bit of money that these Tibetans abandoned their ancestors and deities of their homeland. In 2003, the Chinese government persisted in claiming that the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau were degenerating, caused by Tibetan herdsmen’s several thousand years of nomadic lifestyles, so they launched a massive, never seen before project, moving Tibetan herdsmen from the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong River to the fringes of towns and cities. To put it positively, they tried to give the Tibetan grasslands some time off to breathe. But the result is probably the elimination of nomadic lifestyles, which is such an important part of Tibetan culture.

“According to reports, this project, which is called “Three Rivers Area National Nature Reserve Environmental Migrants Village Project”, migrated 16,129 families, 89,358 people, affecting over 10 towns and counties and autonomous prefectures. Of course, all those people were Tibetan herdsmen, described as “leaving their horsebacks and flocks of sheep”, these people actually transformed into “‘outsiders’ living at the edge of cities”. When I was in their newly built migrants village back then, what made me feel particularly desolate was that in this place there was not a single Mani Lhakhang or stupa for Tibetans to practice Buddhism; neither were there any resident monks who could have helped these Tibetan migrants overcome the emptiness in their hearts.

“When I entered the migrants village once again last year, I realised immediately that on the once spacious and empty Gobi desert had appeared many tent-shaped sacred flag masts, massive in size and extending seemingly endlessly into the distance, fluttering in the evening wind. Near those flags was a purple-red house, in its centre there was probably a big prayer wheel, existing to comfort those that went to turn it. Opposite to this, there was a building that looked a little bit like a monastery, which was separated from the rows of migrant housing by a road.

“I stopped a man who was passing by and got to know that he had been living here for six years but had still not got used to this place. Every year, each household only got about 5000 Yuan, which was nowhere near enough. He was sometimes able to find a job at a building site, digging holes or removing stones, which would earn him no more than 20 or 30 Yuan per day. “Since the monastery is here, I feel much more at ease”, he said turning his head towards the purple-red building that was disappearing in the dim light of the night. “We raised money ourselves to build it, what we are worried about now is whether the government will approve it, they should agree I think, but I really don’t know, I just don’t know.” After he had explained all the possibilities of what may happen, I felt full of sympathy.

“I also went to visit a family; a woman dressed in Tibetan clothes was raising three children, all of them were going to school, they could speak Mandarin, their clothes also resembled those of Chinese kids from the city, only that they were wearing protection cords given to them by lamas around their necks. The woman said that her husband could drive, but they still didn’t have enough money to buy meat and real butter, so they had to buy artificial butter to make butter tea.

“When I was leaving the migrants village, I once more looked at the field of sacred banners and was surprised to see that underneath them there were large mani stones; but they were not real stones, they were turned-over pool tables on which there had been engraved the six words of truth (Om Mani Padme Hum). I suddenly understood what had been going on. The migrants, facing the difficulty of having endless time but not knowing what to do, spent their time drinking, gambling and playing pool and then the pool table had somehow turned into a mani stone. Maybe this happened because of the enlightenment of lamas who passed on the Buddhist teachings, or maybe it happened more because of the strong belief of these Tibetans who had never wanted to abandon their homelands and deities; and only this is what really matters, it indicates the revival and continuation of vitality and the spirit to not perish.”

Image Sources: Purdue University, University of Washington, Snowland Cuckoo, Mongabay, Tibet Train

Text Sources: [Primary Source: "At Home with Tibetan Nomads" by Melvyn Goldstein, National Geographic, June 1989 ♠; 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.

Last updated July 2015

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