An Interesting Insight into the Tibetan Nomadic Traditions

Regardless of how much the world has developed, the nomads still take pleasure in migrating to their favorite Tibetan Plateau in every summer. Stephen McDonell reports from the beautiful area of the plateau.


The time when Tibetan nomads toured around empty landscapes in search of shelter is not unknown to any of us. One generation and the descending ones camped in random places that provided food and shelter. Sleeping there for months, these Tibetans tasted the flavors of nomadism. The livestock was kept on the run with the nomads in search of vast pastures that were season friendly. Their territorial limits were set by natural features such as rivers or mountains, also allowing them to display all facets of their culture, wherever they went.

The contemporary world of 2016 does not leave room for any such cultures or traditions. Or maybe that’s what your instincts would say if we told you about this nomadic culture. Let us break it to you that not much has changed. And people like Tibetans are faithful to their traditions. Here is how we derived this conclusion.

So, we decided to explore a Tibetan community based in the Aba region.

The route to the beautiful Tibetan Plateau
The route to the beautiful Tibetan Plateau

This country came under spotlight recently due to a notorious activity: the self-immolation suicide protests. With a massive amount of monks and nuns sacrificing their lives in opposition to the consequences of the Beijing rule, the Tibetan towns became the graveyard to 150 lives. Aba was most bloodied in this self-imposed battle.

This instability resulted in the need for higher security, thus hindering access to this area easily. However, the decrease in the intensity of the self-immolations allowed us to visit this community and interact with its people.

Sichuan, the central Chinese province constituting of Aba, is an essentially true depiction of China. An amalgamation of both cute pandas and peppery food. This map below depicts how Sichuan is basically the center of China.

A map of China displaying the locations of Sichuan and Tibetan Plateau
A map of China displaying the locations of Sichuan and Tibetan Plateau

However, driving out of Chengdu and proceeding west will take you into a distinct world: the Tibetan Plateau. In order to reach there, you need to follow the roads going up and further up.

Talking about Tibet makes it necessary to talk about the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). It is the area that prohibits foreigners from entering. News reporters require permission and authorization to access that piece of land, and if ever they are blessed with permission, it is mandatory that someone from the locals accompanies them at all times. (Talk about monitoring!)

In order to not dampen your spirits, allow us to unleash the fact that the real residency of the ethnic Tibetans is another area, which is double the size of TAR. That area stretches out from the plateau and dissolves into the region of Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu.

Yaks enjoying the freedom that this time of the year offers
Yaks enjoying the freedom that this time of the year offers

Naming this larger-than-life area as the Tibetan zone, this is where we are spotted by the police almost instantly upon entrance.

It is interesting that the authorities anticipate our arrival by this point. It is in their knowledge that we have been communicating with the locals for gathering a logistics team, through interviews and instant hiring. Messages, from the police,that we should go satisfy our curiosities somewhere else were conveyed to us by the locals. Yet our tenacity is what brings us here.

Even before we have unpacked or settled, the officials intrude and initiate a quick chat. We are bombarded with questions like what is the purpose of our visit? As a result, we explain that we are here to film the traditional nomadic movement of the people on their yaks into the hills for the next summer season.

To our surprise, they cooperate with us, listen to our goals and GUESS WHAT, they let us stay! A big thumbs up for their alertness though because the next day when we interact with the locals, we have spies hearing us!

Our day begins even before the sun is awake. Connected to this area are villages where people are settled. The brutality of the winters demands the nomads to stay put for a few months in the same places.

As a result of a governmental policy regarding relocation, Tibetans have migrated to towns. Some report that there are ulterior motives behind this policy, primarily the facility of tracking of people. However, the Communist Party refutes all these allegations and claims that this policy is to ensure the improved standard of living for the Tibetans.

Hence, the Tibetans are not deprived of televisions, washing machines, or fridges for most part of the year. But, when the sun comes with the intention of staying for long during summers, the people pack their bags and head to the hills – the hills they belong to.

According to Kelsang Gyatso, “Nomads here are nomads to the bottom of our hearts. We lived like this from ancient times. Actually, we don’t like being in houses.”

After interacting with him and his family members, we witness the yaks being pushed into their pens. Very soon, people along with their neighbors, head onto the same monotonous path they travel on each year, leading their livestock into the world of untainted natural beauty.

Tibetan Monk

“If we don’t go to the summer grasslands and just stay in the winter fields there will be no food left for the yaks. When they have new grass to eat, our animals will grow fat and they’ll produce enough milk.”

We also learn that the summer pastures are necessary for the wellbeing of the yaks. The consumption of the medicinal flowers embedded on the pastures ensures the health of the yaks.

The government official spying on us decides that our story is too boring and plain for his taste and ultimately disappears. Or maybe he realizes that we weren’t bluffing about the purpose of our visit, and the people talking about it does no harm. Truly, truth prevails and falsehood is eradicated (too deep).

A recently made tar road, located near Kelsang Gyatso’s place, is used for the migration. With that, the migration season is officially kick starts!

The horde of animals needs to be parted in order to facilitate the movement of the cars and trucks. But many drivers choose to wait, allowing the beasts to make their way first.

Implanted on horsebacks, the Tibetans are fully ready to roll. Whistling and calling out repeatedly, these people lead their animals into the hills. Some yaks carry camping necessities, such as bedding for convenience while sleeping.

We communicate with a young man riding on his horse. He tells us that they need to move at this time of the year to benefit most from the fresh grass and vast pastures. They also have governmental restrictions on the amount of time they can camp, which is why it’s important that they hurry up.

Upon asking him how it feels to follow this tradition and practice his ancestral culture for a few months, I am taken by disappointment as to how he responds. “I’m a little bit tired,” he says. (Definitely slaying my expectations)

Emulating the groups of people and animals, we also reach a grassland adventure park. (sounds very adventurous, not so much in real)

Residential area near the grassland adventure park
Residential area near the grassland adventure park

This park is being constructed halfway on the migration route and has already been inaugurated. Other adventure parks are located nearby as well. Its vastness would eventually permit a huge crowd to be accommodated on a daily basis. Rumors tell us that a pool might be constructed in this adventure park too, though that would undermine the very idea of nature-centredness. Hundreds of yaks are led through the car park and ultimately the main gate. We watch interestedly as the yaks pass the turnstiles into an area crowded with tourist buses. All there to witness this magnificent tradition of migration in today’s time!

These Chinese Tibetan areas have housed rebellions and uprisings in their not-so-old past. Beijing has also been held responsible for the restrictions on practicing Tibetan culture, language, and Buddhism.

We stop our buses there and walk out for talking to those witnessing the migration. They are recording the scenes in their cameras as well.

“Up here it’s exactly the eating a mouthful of meat, drinking a mouthful of wine plateau feeling that I wanted,” says one woman.

“It feels like another world. I feel stronger about Tibetan culture because Tibetans are purer and lead a more simple life,” says another and her friend nods in approval.

These tourists seem to be in awe of the natural beauty surrounding them. Moreover, it appears that they have a genuine admiration for these nomads. After entering the grassland park, they’d be able to better engage with the locals working here.

The local herding communities have varying opinions on the amplified number of tourists visiting the Tibetan areas each year. Quite surprisingly, even the people who operate their guest lodges in the area are concerned about the large number of tourists tainting the natural beauty of this area and the sanctity of their traditions.

Tshe Bdag Skyabs says, “I have been traveling on my animals for two days straight.”

“On the one hand, people’s incomes have increased and transportation is more convenient,” he says. “But the environmental harm from development has been huge.”

Ultimately, he moves out of the park along with his family and the horde of four-hundred yaks. By now, all connections to the outer world are severed. Modernity is a notion unknown.

Upon arrival at the awe-inducing highlands, the people feel elated. This place is pure from any signs of modernity or development; no shops, houses, buildings. Nothing of that sort. Just vast empty lands reminiscent of their ancestors.

“When I make it here my mood is very good, exceptionally good,” he tells us. “When city people come here they will also feel happy because of the fresh air and the smell of wildflowers. It’s like a fairyland.”

These nomads will camp in these highlands till September. The preservation of the area’s natural beauty remains important to them, and so these people will walk barefoot to protect the flowers. Animals will be given milk; butter and cheese produced by them will be enjoyed.

As soon as the cold weather will prevail, the nomads will pack up and return to their hometowns. In hope of returning again the next year. In hope of relishing their cultural heritage again next year.

It comes as no surprise that a conflict between traditions and tourism can have both perks and pitfalls. What can be hoped is that the benefits defeat the shortcomings. Talking again about the Tibetan nomads, we have to give it to them for being distinctively determined. They are true to their rituals and traditions regardless of what the world thinks.

That is exactly what all the communities in the world need to worry about – abandoning their cultures and becoming rootless. Maybe it’s time we learn a thing or two from Tibetans.

What do you think about the prevalence of the nomadic culture in Tibetan? Have you ever participated as a tourist or a native? Let us know in the comments how your experiences have been!

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