The Tibetan Plateau is not confined to the borders of the province of Tibet, but also covers a large area of the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, northern Yunnan and the western part of Sichuan. The geographical range of this unique land obviously coincides with its cultural character, it is especially visible in areas such as Western Sichuan, where I also recently took a month-long motorcycle trip. Therefore, I will focus more on that part of historic Tibet that was once called Kham.
It is estimated that there are approximately two million Tibetan-speaking seasonal nomads in the vast expanses of the Tibetan Plateau. We will not meet them immediately after driving into the highlands from Yunnan. The southern areas of Sichuan, although often located at an altitude of nearly 4,000 meters seem slightly more hospitable in terms of climate than a few hundred kilometers to the north. Therefore, in the vicinity of Daocheng, in addition to the typical high-mountain, grassy steppes, we encounter valleys with extremely picturesque scenes of the Tibetan countryside. Golden fields of barley with huge, fortress-like houses dotted around. We will also encounter herds of yaks, but breeding is an addition to agricultural activity and not the only source of income. The situation and the landscape change as we move just a hundred kilometers north. After crossing the mountain pass on the way to one of the largest cities in western Sichuan, Litang, we will start to see the characteristic white tents. The farther north we go, the more white dots glittering somewhere in the pastures we will see from a distance.
The vicinity of a city like Shiqu, in the far northwest of Sichuan, near the border with Qinghai province, is home to nomad camps almost every step. It was there that I decided to visit some of them for the first time. One area is usually occupied by people coming from the place they live at during winter. Usually there a few to around a dozen tents. Each one is at least several dozen meters away from another, but people usually form a friendly community. During the day, the Tibetans are busy with everyday work, such as the making of basic products or, as I have often observed, nothing special. Therefore, usually when I showed up at the nomad camp, they always had time for me, and the neighbors often came to meet the visitor. The pattern of these interactions was usually similar. The camp that I remember the most was just a stone’s throw from the aforementioned Shiqu city. There was a rocky path that led to a dozen white tents glistening in the afternoon sun. I parked my motorcycle in the back and, keeping the distance from the local dogs, headed between the tents and stopped in a visible spot. As always, the dogs warned the residents with a few short barks. The mastiffs here have a strong defender instinct as they have always protected yak herds and homes from intruders and predators. Now chained, but once packs of them ran around freely, reproducing out of control. Finally, someone approached me and asked who I was and what I was doing here, with a dose of initial distrust. This time it was two teenage boys. Noticing that we can communicate on at least a basic level, their suspicion has immediately given way to curiosity, questions about basketball and anything else that may interest kids who spend a large part of the year away from civilization. Before I could answer all their questions, I was already sitting on the stool in their tent, holding milk tea and a bowl of the best yogurt I had ever eaten. The inside of the tent is very warm and cozy. A centrally located stove is the most important part of the furniture and constantly fired with dried yak and cow dung (very efficient fuel) maintains a pleasant temperature. Somewhere in the corner there are sacks with extra fuel, then an altar with a Buddha figure, pictures of lamas and an offering of food products. The furnishings are complemented by bedding on the sides, a comfortable seat and a table. The excited kids ask me a lot of questions, and I patiently answer, dipping the spoon into the yogurt bowl over and over again. When I mention that I want to take a picture, the kids shout “Yes, okay” and gather chaotically, huddled on the couch. As soon as I lower the camera, the biggest boy suddenly shouts “nainai”! Which means grandma in Chinese. Indeed, in the corner of the tent, as soon as I entered, I noticed a woman resting on a chair, almost completely motionless. I estimate her to be over eighty-year-old, still not changing her position, she was clutching prayer beads in her hand, looking at me with misty eyes when I took a picture of her. Suddenly the topic of basketball came back and the guys figured they really wanted me to play with them. “I can’t and don’t like to play basketball, but let’s go outside, I’ll take some pictures of you playing” I offered.
A bit behind the tent, there was a basketball board installed on a flat area, where children bored with their daily routine would certainly spend most of their free time. So the kids played, and at the same time I moved around with the camera and talked with more and more neighbors coming. We communicate on a very basic level, Tibetan nomads often do not speak Chinese, or it is very limited. I was distracted while chatting with someone by a sudden exclamation: “Gordo Gordo!” I look over to where the unfamiliar word came from and saw several women standing in a row as if they were posing for something … for a photo, of course. After the first group, another and another line up, until every neighbor and every kid wanted a photo. Before I finished with one of them, I heard “gordo gordo” from somewhere else. And so I spent my time taking pictures of groups of people lining up, until I and them were bored of it.
Unfortunately, the time of the year in which I arrived was not conducive to observing other types of activities, such as preparing animals, herding them and performing other intense activities related to life in the grassy pastures of the Tibetan Plateau. Late fall is the time when nomads spend their days resting, waiting to be transferred to their winter base. Today many of the nomads, if not all, do not spend the whole year on pastures, but as the government ordered, they spend their winters in monasteries, villages of origin, far from the grazing area, or even in specially built quarters. The change in their lifestyle, carried out for hundreds of years, was introduced as part of the policy of civilizing the primitive way of life of Tibetan nomads. Very characteristic level of sensitivity and understanding of government dignitaries. This policy goes hand in hand with efforts to improve the economic situation of poorer regions. And I must admit that all the places I visited after eight years in Western Sichuan have grown, become more orderly and colorful. The problem is that the life of the nomads has always been apart from the towns and the use of some methods will change the nature of this community forever. At the same time, plans are being drawn to partition the vast grasslands of the Tibetan highlands, which in turn will cease the free and natural movement of people and animals, and may consequently cause conflicts over access to better patches of land. According to some sources, it’s already happening in some areas. In the name of what ideals and under what standards it does not matter, it is not the first time that authorities try to regulate and organize something that has been going on in harmony and self-sufficiency for many years.
At the same time, with the administrative burden disrupting the life cycle of grassy pastures that give life to many species of animals and people, another factor that will affect the current shape of nomadic life is technology. Everyone already has phones with access to the latest trends and social media. Next in line there are various digital classifications, qr codes and everything that the digital world forces us to do. No matter how futuristic the changes taking place in societies and the impact of technology on our lives, these changes will not bypass even the Tibetan nomads. They will at most be delayed in time. More and more surveillance, citizen evaluation systems will, over time, change what nomads are today and even the most resistant to the effects of social engineering will become a desirable social product. Part of a homogeneous society, where a unique culture becomes merely the outer layer. A show that you can see, and when every tourist will be able to take a photo with a colorful “nomad” relocated from pastures to a nearby town.