I used to be sitting inside the darkish, yak-hair tent of a nomad household in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalaya. Outside, some scruffy sheep looked for greenery amongst the chilly and barren moonscape, and enormous raptors circled in the thermals. As we huddled round the fireside, the outdated man handed me a small glass of salty, yak-butter tea.
“There were wolves here two nights ago,” he advised me by way of a translator. “This time I chased them away, but they will come back again and try and get at my sheep. It’s happening more and more.”
“Everything about being a herder is getting more difficult,” he added. “Maybe my sons won’t want to continue this life. My wife and I might be among the last of the nomads here.”
It was a story I’d heard repeatedly throughout the Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau. Whether as a result of of climatic modifications, the name of a extra snug life in the cities, political repression or the calls for of training, life is altering quick for the individuals of Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan areas.
I’ve been touring to and strolling round the Himalaya and Tibet for some 25 years. During that point, I’ve written a quantity of guidebooks on the area — for Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Bradt. I at all times journey with a native information who acts as a translator, and I prefer to spend as a lot time as I can strolling, as a result of doing so will increase contact with native individuals. There’s nothing I take pleasure in greater than sitting down in a distant tea store or nomad tent and speaking to individuals about their lives.
Defining the borders of Tibet may be troublesome. This is as a result of, in some methods, there are a number of Tibets.
The space we generally assume of as Tibet immediately — and the space marked on most maps as Tibet — is the Tibet Autonomous Region. This is the second largest area or province of trendy China, and its regional capital is Lhasa.
Before Communist forces seized management of Tibet in 1950, it was a functionally unbiased nation, and its borders had been bigger than they’re immediately. (China refers to its takeover of Tibet as a “peaceful liberation.” At the time, China says, the new Communist authorities was reasserting sovereignty over a territory that was misplaced after the fall of the Qing dynasty.)
Much of what’s immediately the mountainous western half of China’s Sichuan Province was, earlier than the 1950 takeover, politically and culturally a half of Tibet, often called Kham. Likewise, to the north of the Tibet Autonomous Region is the Chinese province of Qinghai; this was additionally traditionally a half of Tibet, often called Amdo, although it fell underneath Chinese management in the 18th century.
And then there are the components of the Himalaya which are culturally Tibetan even when they’ve by no means — or not for a very long time, anyway — been politically a half of Tibet. These embody the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, components of Nepal (most notably Upper Mustang and Dolpo, in addition to some valleys to the north of the major mountain peaks) and components of India, particularly Ladakh, the setting of a longstanding border dispute.
Tibetans are mostly adherents of their own tradition of Buddhism, and monasteries and nunneries have long been a central part of their culture and life.
The spiritual leader of Tibet is the Dalai Lama, who was based in Lhasa until 1959, when he and many of his supporters fled in the wake of a failed uprising. He’s now based in Dharamsala, in northern India, where an entire Tibetan government in exile has been set up.
There are also large Tibetan exile communities in Nepal, other parts of India and a smaller community in Bhutan.
Chinese domination of Tibet has undoubtedly brought much-needed development and a higher standard of living to the plateau. (In 1959 Tibet was one of the least developed places in Asia.) But it has also brought with it massive suppression of Tibetan rights and the crushing of Tibetan culture and religious practices. Mining and damming have also resulted in significant environmental damage.
Many Tibetans living under Chinese rule have little in the way of freedoms. Positions of power are dominated by Han officials, often from other parts of China. There are widespread reports of human rights abuses, infringement on religious freedoms, allegations of arbitrary arrest and the torture of political prisoners. Tibetans that I know who live in Chinese-run parts of Tibet have told me in private that they feel like they are living in a giant prison and are under constant surveillance.
The Chinese government disputes these claims and says that it has done much to change Tibet for the better — efforts that have put an end to feudal serfdom, profoundly reduced poverty and doubled the life expectancy. Literacy rates have also risen under Chinese rule — to 85 percent today, up from 5 percent in the 1950s.
Because of the suppression of traditional Tibetan life and culture within the Chinese-run parts of Tibet, it’s often easier to find a more traditional classical Tibetan culture in the culturally Tibetan parts of India, Nepal and Bhutan.
But, even in areas where Tibetan culture is allowed to flourish, there have been significant changes in recent years.
In the past, many Tibetans lived a seminomadic lifestyle as they moved with their livestock — often yaks — to and from summer and winter pastures. Today, though, the desire to ensure that children receive the best education possible is making such a lifestyle increasingly challenging. The push to earn a reliable wage in the towns and cities has also meant that many formerly nomadic families have left the mountains behind. Other changes are coming from the increasing construction of roads, widespread ownership of motorbikes, and the ubiquity of telephones and internet.
All of these developments are bringing new ideas, new opportunities and — for better or worse — great changes to traditional Tibetan and Himalayan lifestyles.
Tourism has also played a part in the changes being wrought on the region. In certain areas, a massive trekking and adventure travel industry has developed. While the arrival of thousands of international tourists brings environmental and social changes, it has also allowed families to remain in the mountains and to profit off the nature around them and Tibetan culture.
A case in point would be the nomadic Tibetan family I met on the grasslands of the Kham region, who, working side by side with a local guesthouse, were offering tourists the chance to stay with them in their traditional yak-wool tent and learn something of traditional Tibetan nomadic life.
In addition to generating much-needed income for their family, they were also retaining pride in their traditional way of life — and finding the means to carry it on for another generation.