Tibetan nomads, known as འབྲོག་པ། (ndrogba) in Tibetan, are one of the most interesting people on the planet. They live in the remote, high elevation grassland regions of the Tibetan Plateau. Nomads are found in all three traditional regions of Tibet: Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang. The regions that have the most nomads are Nagchu and Ngari in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Yushu and Golog in Qinghai and the northwestern counties of Garnze in western Sichuan. It is hard to say exactly how many nomads are remaining, but estimates have been put at about 2 million (includes nomads and semi-nomads).
Tibetan nomads live either in black yak wool tents or in white canvas tents.Their lives are simple and their possessions are few. Inside the tent, there will be a stove in the center. There are no trees in the nomadic regions of Tibet so the main fuel used is dried yak dung. Each morning, the women go and spread yak dung out to be dried. This is one of the most important chores since all the cooking and boiling of water as well as heating the tent depends on the use of dried yak dung. The nomadic regions of Tibet are extremely cold and can often times have snow even in the summer. Outside the tent there is usually a huge long wall of dried yak dung. Often times, Tibetan Buddhist symbols are made in the dried yak dung. Inside the tent there is also a small pile of dried yak dung.
Tibetan nomads sleep on thin sleeping mats and use quilts as well as sheep and yak skins to keep warm at night. Food is limited to dried yak meat, tsamba, butter, cheese and yogurt. Though yak butter tea is usually associated as being the main drink of nomads, in my research over the past 8 years, most nomads drink milk tea more often than butter tea. This is not to say they don't drink butter tea (because they certainly do), it is just that I have seen them drink milk tea far more often. In the back center of nomad tents, there is usually a small alter with Buddhist scripture, incense, a few pictures of well known rinpoche's and a few butter candles. Nomads can be heard chanting mantra's throughout the day.
Tibetan nomads herd yaks, sheep and horses. Herding the livestock is done mostly by men and older children. In the summer, the yaks are milked before they are taken to be grazed and again when they come in for the night. Each nomad family has specific areas designated by the government where they can graze their animals. The government also regulates when and where they move. They move 2 or 3 times per year. Most nomads now are only semi-nomadic. They live in their yak wool tents for 6 to 8 months each year and live in small mud-brick homes the rest of the year. Nomad children are now required to go to school for at least 9 years. These nomad students usually live in boarding schools which are often quite far from where their families live. Nomad numbers continue to decrease each year as more and more of them are being resettled into villages and towns.
Few foreign travelers to Tibet have the opportunity to see Tibetan nomads. Nomads are not found in or around Lhasa and few are found along the Friendship Highway leading to the Nepal border. The closest place to Lhasa where nomads are found is at Nam Tso, over 3 hours north of Lhasa. One of the best places to see authentic nomad culture is in Qinghai province (known as Amdo to the Tibetan people). The prefectures of Golog and Yushu are full of nomads living in tents and herding their yaks. These areas are open to foreign travelers (no permits required) and are the best places to see authentic Tibetan nomad culture.
Tibetan nomad culture is quickly disappearing as more Tibetans each year are being relocated off of the grasslands. If you are planning a trip to Tibet, include a trip to the nomadic regions found on the northern Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai and far northwestern Sichuan province. Get off the beaten path in Tibet and see areas that few others experience.
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