Even though it is now the 21st century, there are still well over 1 million nomads on the Tibetan Plateau. Nomads, known as "drokpa" in Tibetan, live a difficult life. Most Tibetan nomads live in Amdo, northwest Kham and Changtang. Nomads are easily identifiable by their wind-burned cheeks and thick fur coats. Winters in these areas are brutal with temperatures often getting below -30C (-22F). Most areas where nomads live are above 4000m (13,120ft) so winters are long and summers are short.
Tibetan nomads live in black yak wool tents called "ba" in Tibetan. These tents will house an entire family and their belongings. The tent is heated with a yak dung stove. Since many regions of Tibet are above the tree line, dried yak dung is used as fuel. Women and children go out every morning and collect yak dung to be dried. Nomad tents are easy to put up and take down. When a family is ready to move to a new pasture, the tents are rolled up and packed onto yaks. Prayer flags can usually be found strung up outside of nomad tents. It is also common for nomad tents to have idols and images of Buddha inside. In the summer months it is common for Tibetans to live in white, canvas tents. These tents often have one or more of the eight auspicious symbols on it. These canvas tents are also used during horse festivals. Nomads will often live with members of their extended family. Usually nomad tents are in groups of two or three, though sometimes they are alone. Nomads live far from towns and villages and have little in modern technology. In some areas, nomad life has changed little over the past 500 years.
Nomads herd yaks and sheep. A small herd of yaks will be 20 while a large herd could have over 100. Nomads keep their yak in line using a sling shot made of woven yak hair. Boys as young as 7 can be seen herding yaks on their own. Older men will bring a thermos of milk tea or butter tea with them when they head out to graze their yaks. Watching the yaks graze can be quite boring so often nomad men can be seen laying in the bright sun taking short naps. While the men are out grazing the yaks, the women stay at the tent and take care of the chores there. Gathering water is important as is cooking food and watching the children.
Nomads don't sleep on beds, but on sleeping mats. The sleeping mats are more like rugs. They keep warm using blankets and sheep furs. Nomads wear big sheep fur lined coats with extra long sleeves called "chuba". These coats are very warm and help to keep them warm on cold winter days. Hats made from fox fur are worn by most nomads along with boots made from yak hide and lined with fur. These boots come up high on the leg to just below the knee. A long, sharp knife can be found on the side of every nomad. Tibetans cut towards themselves, not away from themselves as most people in the West are taught. Amulets or pictures of the Dalai Lama are worn around their necks along with many strings of prayer beads.
Tibetan nomads are some of the most interesting people on earth. They life in some of the most remote areas and endure many hardships. Nomads are happy to have you come and look around their tent and share a cup of butter tea with them. Most travelers to Tibet don't see nomads. They live far from the bright lights of Lhasa. If you have the chance, I would highly recommend spending a few days with this unique group of people. A lot of my free time is spent hanging out with them.