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Home>Tibet Travel Guide>Tibetan Culture>Tibetan Nomads - The Unique Nomadic Tribe Living on the Highest Plateau of Our Planet

Tibetan Nomads - The Unique Nomadic Tribe Living on the Highest Plateau of Our Planet

It is believed that Tibetans are derived from the ancient Qiang People, the nomads of ancient China. It is the intermarriage between the Qiang People and local tribes on the edges of the plateau that led to the beginning of the modern Tibetan people. Due to the severe environment, the extreme altitude and the lack of convenient transportation, Tibetans have long relied on pastoralism for survival.

As a result, Tibetans are well-known for being sturdy nomads, an ethnic group that lives side by side with livestock and nature. It is fairly unknown exactly how many Tibetan nomads still exist on the plateau, but they can often be seen on the plains and around the major water sources, their herds and flocks grazing on the lush grasses of the plateau. If you really want to know more about these unique high-altitude nomads, the best way is to spend some time in a Tibetan nomad tent.

Why Tibetan Nomads are Unique from Other Tribes?

What truly sets Tibetan nomads apart from other nomads in the world is the extreme altitude and unpredictable weather. Living in central Tibet is rather cozy compared to life in the wild northern areas of Tibet. In Nagchu, with an average altitude of above 4500m, the climate is so severe that not only is the oxygen content less than half that of the sea level, the annual average temperature is below freezing and the lowest temperature ever recorded reached minus 42 degrees.

Tibetan nomadic seasonThe nomadic season is very short and they have to confront with the harsh environment in winter when food supply is limited.

To make matters even worse, the fragile ecosystem is plagued with sporadic natural disasters, such as hail, heavy snowfall, steppe degradation, etc. However, not only do the ingenious Tibetan nomads find ways to survive, they even prosper on this inhospitable snow-covered land. In fact, the false stereotypes that picture Tibetan nomads as barbarian and hostile are groundless. Born in this inhospitable highland, Tibetan nomads learn the extraordinary ability to foresee the otherwise unpredictable weather.

In addition to their unyielding spirits, Tibetan nomads are born with an optimistic outlook and friendly character. Tourists are often surprised to find out how generous and hospitable Tibetan nomads are when chatting with them and drinking yak butter tea in their yak-hair tents.

What is the Tibetan Nomads Life Like?

Tibetan Nomad Life and Livestock

One of the striking characteristics of Tibetan nomads is the harmonious relationship between them and their livestock, as well as between the nomads and nature. Yaks play an indispensable role in maintaining nomads’ daily necessities. Male nomads spin yak wool into ropes and slingshots while women weave the wool into fabric for tents, blankets, bags and clothing.

Tibetan nomad womanTibetan nomad woman on a horse herds yaks.

The role of the female nomad is important in a typical nomad family and they are exceedingly versatile and hard-working. Women milk the yaks and sheep, venturing out no matter how terrible the weather is. They use milk to make yogurt, yak butter tea, and yak cheese. They also grind the barley, fetch and boil the water, weave the wool, and dry yak dung for fuel.

Even children have responsibilities, herding and feeding the livestock, staying out in the wilderness all day without shelter from wind and rain. The male nomads may seem to be less busy most of the time, but shoulder the task of traveling outside and are in charge of buying salt and stock hay for livestock in winter, and in some cases herd livestock to town to trade it for grain and other necessities.

Tibetan Nomad Mastiff

Another indispensable companion in the Tibetan Nomad’s life is the Tibetan Mastiff. Brave, fierce, and exceedingly loyal to the owner, Tibetan mastiffs have a superb memory that allows them to identify hundreds of yaks, and thousands of sheep. Tibetan mastiffs assist nomads in herding livestock, defending property, and even protecting from wolves and other dangers.

Tibetan nomad mastiffA lovely Tibetan Nomad Mastiff is playing with an adorable Tibetan girl on the prairie.

Tibetan nomads bring the 2-month-old pups into the family home and live with them until they are grown. As time goes by, friendship takes root between mastiffs and nomads. For those who see the Tibetan mastiffs for the first time, especially unknown tourists, it is advisable to stay away from them unless introduced. A Tibetan mastiff may see an outsider as a threat or an enemy, and an attack could be dangerous and deadly.

Tibetan Nomad Resettlement

Seasonal mobility is the biggest feature of Tibetan nomads. Each year during February and March nomads scattered in the north of Tibet will migrate down to southern pastures and spend the summer there. The nomadic caravan moves slowly and stays in place for a couple of days before moving on. The entire journey takes about three months and nomads will spend the whole summer in summer pastures and move north again in August.

Nowadays most of the nomads are semi-nomadic, and they have a permanent settlement for winter, restarting their pastoral life elsewhere as winter ends. For most nomads, relocation takes normally 4-5 days, and can last as long as 3-4 months. The nomads can relocate their herds to follow the grazing up to ten times a year.

For the first move, they will invite a lama or an elder to tell the fortune and choose an auspicious date to begin the journey. Some even offer a sacrifice to the gods to pray for safety. Nomads use horses and yaks to carry tents and other large furniture. Babies are held by riders or put in a basket carried by yaks. After they arrive at the new site, the tent can be up within 3 hours and the stove and other furniture will all be in place.

Horse Racing Festivals among Tibetan Nomads

Horse racing enjoys great popularity among Tibetan nomads. Each year, horse racing competitions of all sizes are held in prairies in Tibet, and where there is a festival, there must also be horse racing. For Tibetans, horse racing is a chance for young men to display bravery and tenacity.

Horse Racing FestivalA typical horse racing festival lasts for 2-3 days and involves a diversity of events

The festival also serves as a trade fair where they sell their own products, such as dried beef, yak butter, and natural lake salt, while buyers stock the necessities that can last for a year. As the horse racing ends, they will happily return to the prairies with their yaks loaded with ample supplies.

The most celebrated horse racing festivals are Yushu Horse Racing Festival of Qinghai province, Litang Horse Racing Festival in Sichuan province, and Nagqu Horse Racing Festival in northern Tibet.

Visiting A Tibetan Nomad Tent

Tibetan nomadic life and tourism business

Tibetan nomads are a major draw for tourists. As summer comes, the vast steppe turns into a massive blanket dotted with numerous flowers. Summer is the high season of travel on the prairie and tourists are also drawn to the nomadic tents.

Some business-minded nomads offer tourists accommodation and local delicacies, while others offer horseback riding on the prairie. In this way, people benefit from prairie tourism. In summer, the nomadic camps are often packed with strings of tourists who will be invited into a nomadic tent and served sweet tea, yogurt, and dried yak meat.

How to visit a Tibetan nomad tent?

A typical nomad tent is often furnished with a stove placed in the center of the tent. In the back, there is usually a small altar with Buddhist scripture and a few butter candles. There is also a small pile of dried yak dung for fuel piled up in one corner.

Visit a Tibetan nomad tentHaving a rest in Tibetan nomadic tent.

When visiting a Tibetan Nomadic Tent, tourists should not place their feet towards the stove, which is believed to be sacred by nomads and you should never touch the Buddhist altar and its ornaments. Nomads are very hospitable, and they will keep refilling your cup if you finish the barley wine or yak butter tea. It is acceptable to gently advise the host that one cannot drink anymore.

Joining in Tibetan Nomads Tour

Tourists can meet nomads during trekking in Tibet

The grazing season usually starts in April when Tibetan Nomads herd hundreds of cattle up to the hills for grazing. Though nomads travel from place to place, they are used to staying at a place rich in the grass for days to feed their cattle before they move to another place near to streams or better pasture. Most of them stay in a single place for a month.

From April to early October, according to the grassland location and weather, tourist can meet lots of nomads while travelling but if you trek in Tibet, you will have a chance for face-to-face communication with them, and be able to understand better their simple and relaxing lifestyle. The nomadic season is also the main trekking season in Tibet, and tourists can often meet Tibetan nomads while Trekking.

Classic trekking route to meet Tibetan nomads

One of the best treks for meeting nomads is the Tsurphu Monastery to Yangpachen Trek near Lhasa. As you trek across the vast prairie from Tsurphu Monastery to Yangpachen, you can see the Tibetan nomads on the plains and can chat with them.

The Ganden Monastery to Samye Monastery trek is widely known as a pilgrimage route and crosses the valleys and highland wetlands, where tourists can meet nomads and their cattle.

The sacred Lake Manasarovar pilgrimage trek measures 90 kilometers and it normally takes about 4 days to complete the trek. Two-thirds of the trek is close to the banks of the lake and you can enjoy the superb lake scenery on the banks of the lake and meet local nomads.

Well-known Tibetan prairies to meet Tibetan nomads

Changtang Prairie means ‘northern highland’ in Tibetan. The prairie, one of the top five pastures in northern Tibet, lies in Nagchu Prefecture. With an average altitude of over 5000m, the Changtang prairie is dotted with highland lakes of different sizes and is known for its unrivaled grazing environment. The boundless grassland is scattered with yaks and other livestock and generations of Tibetan nomads depended on this prairie for existence. The best season to visit Changtang prairie would be in August when a series of grand traditional festivals are held in northern Tibet. It is a good time to experience the Nagqu Horse Racing Festival.

The Ngari prairie lies in the northeast of Ngari Prefecture. The boundless prairie and the wilderness coexists with glaciers, alpine lakes, and mountainous ranges. Ngari prairie is a safe haven for wildlife and many rare species can be seen on this plain, including wild yaks, wild donkeys, Himalayan blue sheep, and wild bears. The best season to visit Ngari is from June to September when the grasslands are lush and green from the monsoon rains.

Ngari prairieThe miraculous scenery of Ngari prairie makes it difficult for one to tell where the sky and prairie are.

Gannan prairie is situated in the northeast of the plateau, with an altitude of 3,000-4,000 meters. Extremely cold and humid, the weather on the prairie is a typical alpine climate. Known for its primitiveness and mystery, Gannan Prairie is a “virgin land” with stunning alpine wetland scenery, mysterious Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and unique local customs. The best time to visit Gannan prairie is between late August and early September.

Zoige Prairie lies in the overlapping areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces and mainly consists of meadow steppe and swamp. The flat and immense prairie is home to many Tibetan pastoral nomads. The best time to travel in Zoige is in summer, when the hilly prairie temperature is around 10-12 degrees during the day.

Sankoh prairie lies in Xiahe region of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Gansu province. A vast meadow steppe with an average altitude of above 3,000 meters, Sankoh prairie works is one of the major suppliers of livestock products in Gannan. There are around 4000 semi-nomads live in this area and tourists can experience the grand Xianglang festival in June. Other recreational events involve horse racing, campfire dancing, and shooting competition, and so on.

Jinying Prairie is one of the major tourist attractions in Haiyai county of Qinghai province. Jinying means “gold and silver” in English, and the Jinying prairie is believed to be a land of abundant resource and treasure. For generations, Tibetan nomads have lived in this place and there are over 300 thousand livestock grazing on the rich grass. The best travel season is from July to September when the pastoral scenery is adorned with numerous little known flowers and grazing livestock.

Conclusion

With so much of the Tibetan plateau being used by the nomads for their grazing, there are plenty of places to go where you can see the nomads living in harmony with their livestock and with nature. One of the most spectacular sights on the Tibetan plateau, seeing the nomadic camps with their yak hair tents and roaming mastiffs is the delight of any tour of Tibet.

Master Catherine Jigme

About the Author - Master Catherine Jigme

With exceptional passion and outstanding leadership, Mrs. Catherine has dedicated herself to Tibet inbound tourism and China tour for 15 years. As one of the handful females who see great potential of Chinese inbound tourism, Catherine has made great contribution to promoting Tibet tourism and enhancing the employment of Tibetans and prosperity of local Tibetan community.

Over the years, she travelled overseas with Tibet Tourism Bureau many times to promote Tibet tourism. Currently, Catherine works as the marketing director of Tibet Vista, an opinion leader behind the whole team of Tibet Vista.

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