- by Cherry
- Last Updated: 2019-03-07
Although Tibetan Plateau had been believed to be inhabited by humans at least 21 thousand years ago, tradition says that the earliest nomads of Tibet came from the ancient Qiang People. These ancient nomads from China intermarried with the local tribes and resulted in the present-day Tibetan nomads. The present-day Tibetan nomads—numbering around 2 million (both nomads and semi-nomads)—rely heavily on pastoralism for survival, and as an ethnic group, they coexist side-by-side with nature and their livestock. They are traditionally known to be sturdy and resilient and have the uncanny ability to foresee the unpredictable character of the Tibetan weather.
Understanding the Very Extreme Environment of Tibet
The Tibetan nomads are definitely different from other nomads of the known world. Since they are living in a very high-altitude place (4,500m on average) with inhospitable weather, they become distinctly different. First, their physiological makeup becomes highly adapted to the limited supply of oxygen and to extremely cold weather that is mostly below zero degree Celsius on average. The weather in the Tibet is likewise characterized by intermittent natural weather phenomena like extreme hail storms, heavy snowfall, and landslides.
Faced with these weather extremes, the Tibetan nomads have become very resilient and sturdy. Moreover, they have also found a way to prosper in the face of these extreme adversities. At a young age, the young ones of the Tibetan nomads have already acquired great adeptness in foreseeing the extreme weather patterns of their land.
Due to the plateau background, it requies a long time for the growth of the grassland so Tibetan nomads need to migrate from time to time.
Distinct Lifestyle of the Tibetan Nomads
Tibetan nomads have been able to develop a harmonious relationship with their environment. Moreover, their lives revolve around their closely-knit families. Both mothers and fathers work rigorously to eke out a living for their families. They mostly rely heavily on pastoralism as a source of livelihood and they make good of the limited resources that they have.
One of the most useful animals to the Tibetan nomads is the yak and it plays a critical role in their lives and survival. Although the nomadic males are often engaged in pastoring, they also spin yak's wool and hair and create sturdy ropes and slingshots. On the other hand, their women engage in wool weaving to create materials for blankets, tents, bags, and clothing. Tibetan women are very hardworking and versatile. Their daily chores include milking the yaks or sheep, making yogurt, butter, and cheese out of yak's milk, grinding barley, fetching and boiling water for household use, weaving wool for clothing and blankets, creating fuel for daily consumption out of dried yak’s dung, and keeping their tent cozy and livable for their families, etc.
Tibetan women are very hardworking and versatile. They do lots of housework to keep their tents cozy and livable.
The kids also have their share of responsibilities in the household. They are trained to herd livestock and they sometimes go with their fathers to look after their livestock. They are also tasked to purchase hay for the livestock and salt for household usage. Moreover, they are trained early in their years to become traders.
Another indispensable part of the Tibetan family is the Tibetan Nomad Mastiff. This dog breed provides great loyalty to their owners. With the Tibetan Mastiff’s uncanny ability to remember each of the hundred yaks in the herd, it provides an invaluable service to its master. It also serves as the protector of the family and defender from dangers posed by wild animals.
Getting the Firsthand Experience of a Tibetan Nomad Tent
It would be good to follow some simple etiquette when visiting a nomad's tent.
If ever you get a chance to visit a typical Tibetan nomad's tent, you will surely see the following things inside it:
- a stove at the center of the household
- small Buddhist altar, butter candles
- some pictures
- and the small pile of dried dung of yak
It seldom happens that a tourist gets the chance to enter the household of a nomad in Tibet. Yet, given a chance, it would be good for you to observe some simple etiquette when visiting a nomad’s tent. You should, for example, not fidget in front of their Buddhist altar or ornaments. Moreover, you should never point your feet towards their stoves for they consider their stoves as sacred. Your host will also keep on refilling your cup of barleywine once you have consumed the wine in your cup. Be courteous enough to tell your host that you had enough.
Encountering Tibetan Nomads While on Tour
Since Tibet is a veritable tourist destination, many tourists usually long to experience and learn more about the actual life of the Tibetan nomads. As mentioned earlier, Tibetan nomads are either complete nomads or semi-nomads. During the nomadic season (from April to early October), you may encounter (as a tourist) along the way some nomads, especially if you are trekking between Tsurphu Monastery to Yangpachen, Ganden Monastery to Samye Monastery, or along the beach of Lake Manasarovar.
Although Tibetan nomads usually stay in the northern parts of the Tanggula Mountains during the months of February to March, they usually migrate south to graze their herds at the lush southern pastures, wherein they would spend the rest of summer. During this time, their female herds would give birth. Because of these newborns, the movement of the nomadic caravan slows down, and the caravans usually stay longer in one place. They would then slowly move towards the north in the month of August.
Nomads rely heavily on signs from nature when deciding to move from one place to another. They would usually refer to the wisdom of a lama to decide on the auspicious date to migrate. They also look for signs and offer sacrifice to their gods for a safe journey. Moreover, they rely on their horses and yaks for smooth movement from one place to another. Once they decide to camp, they usually take three hours to set up their tents. As said earlier, they are good at reading the signs of time, and their migration is prodded by the changing weather condition and the amount of grazing pasture.
You are likely to encounter Tibeten nomads especially when you are trekking in Tibet.
Opportunities in Tourism
Tourists, however, are drawn by the prairies and the unique lifestyles of the Tibetan nomads. They are curious about the lifestyles of these nomads and they want to know more about their nomadic life. They also want to take souvenir photos of the nomads and their tents.
Some nomads, however, see opportunities in these situations and offer those curious tourists some cozy accommodations and local delicacies. They also let these tourists experience horseback riding and other outdoor activities. Some prairie lands—where nomads flourish like those of Hongyuan prairie of the Sichuan Province and Gannan prairie of the Qinghai province—have become tourist destinations that showcase the lifestyles of nomads.
Six Famous Tibetan Prairies to Visit
Tibet is replete with prairies, and there are around six popular Tibetan prairies that are worth visiting by a tourist. These six prairies are the following:
- Gannan Prairie
Situated at the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau, this prairie covers four prefectures, namely: Hesuo, Xiahe, Luqu, and Maqu. This prairie has an extremely cold and humid weather with an average altitude of 3,500m. Gannan prairie is mysterious and a bit backward and is considered to be a virgin land. Its great alpine wetland sceneries, monasteries, and unique Gannan customs make this prairie a great place to visit. Moreover, the Luqu, Xiahe, and Maqu pastures are open for tourist exploration. Tourists likewise can visit the monasteries that dot this awesome place.
The ideal time to visit the Gannan Prairie is in the later weeks of August and the early weeks of September.
- Zoige Prairie
This prairie land is located along the areas of Sichuan, Ganshu, and Qinghai provinces. It covers an area of around 35,600 square kilometers. It is characterized by meadow steppe and swamps. Pastoral nomads occupy parts of this prairie landscape. The Yellow River also slithers along this prairie, carving its path along the way. The Zoige prairie is also characterized by hot springs, primeval forests, ancient Panzhou Ruins, and the Namo Grand Canyon.
The ideal time to travel to the Zoige Prairie is during summer.
- Changtang Prairie
The Changtang Prairie holds some of the best pastures in the northern Tibetan Plateau. It lies at the Nagchu Prefecture with an average altitude of around 5,000m. The landscape of Changtang prairie is characterized by highland lakes and exquisite grazing pastures. It also nurtures myriads of wildlife like the Tibetan antelope, wild yak, wild donkey, black-necked crane, alpine rabbit, and many more. For many generations, Tibetan nomads rely heavily on this prairie land for their livelihood. You'll also get to see in this prairie ruins of the ancient Zhang Zhung Kingdom and other impressive murals. It is best to visit the Chanting prairie during August so that you can witness some of the grand festivals of the land like the Nagqu Horse Racing Festival.
- Jinying Prairie
The Jinying Prairie is considered a 4A-level tourist attraction, 5A being the highest level. It is located in the Haiyan County in Qinghai Province. The beauty of Jinying Prairie has inspired artists like Wang Luobin—a respected Chinese songwriter and researcher on ethnic music. There is around 300,000 livestock that grazes this rich prairie. Additionally, you can visit the very first nuclear weapon research in China in this place. The best time to visit the Jinying prairie is from July to September.
- Sankoh Prairie
The Sankoh prairie is located in the Xiahe region of Gansu province. The Sankoh prairie spans an area of 70 square kilometers and is characterized by meadow steppe. The average altitude of this prairie is around 3,000m. The Sankoh prairie functions as a major livestock products' supplier in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The latest census says that around 4,000 semi-nomads inhabit the area.
Once you visit the place, you'll be tantalized by the myriads of sheep that dot the fields and by the sturdy horses and other livestock animals that graze near the nomads' tents. The popular festival of the place is the Xiangyang Festival celebrated in the month of June. You can also enjoy various recreational activities like horseback riding and racing, camping, shooting competition, and other outdoor activities. Moreover, you can pay a visit to the Labrang Monastery, a great monastery of the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism.
The best time to visit the Sankoh Prairie is in June and July when the prairie is full of green grass with spotted wildflowers.
- Ngari (Ali) Prairie
Ngari prairie is situated in the northeast part of the Ngari Prefecture. This prairie appears to be a boundless tract of grassland and wilderness that exists side by side with glaciers, mountain ranges, and alpine lakes. The view of this prairie is spectacular, and you may be able to see an amazing mirage during noontime when hot air emerges on the horizon.
This prairie serves as a sanctuary for various wild animals, and you can expect to see rare species of birds and mammals such as wild bear, Himalayan blue sheep, wild donkey, wild yak, lynx, black-necked crane, and many more. You can visit Ngari prairie in November and December if you want to see the amazing migration of the Tibetan antelope.
The best time to visit Ngari Prairie land is in the months of June to September.
Popular Nomadic Festivals
The Tibetan nomadic people are some of the best horsemen in the world. Each year, as they move from one place to another, they hold horse racing competitions involving horses of various heights and sizes. They usually hold these festivals in the prairies, and the most popular among these horse racing festivals include those of the Litang Horse Racing Festival of the Sichuan Province, the Yushu Horse Racing Festival of the Qinghai province, and the Horse Racing Festival held in northern Tibet.
The Horse Racing Festival is an important event for Tibetan nomads.
Horseracing, in fact, is a staple attraction of these prairie festivals, and the Tibetan nomads use these festivals to showcase their bravery and tenacity, as well as their great horseback riding skills. These festivals usually last for three days and include games on horseback riding, archery, tug-of-war, stone-carrying competition, and many more. The day would usually end with a campfire and the roasting of a lamb, while people dance and sing around the bonfire. Lastly, these festivals provide opportunities for setting up trade fairs, wherein tribesmen can sell their products like yak butter, dried beef, salt, medicines, cordyceps, etc.
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