Tibetans have traditionally lived in towns and rural communities near monasteries. Most rural Tibetans live in small agricultural villages scattered around the mountain valleys. Villages are often made up of only a dozen houses, surrounded by fields, that are several hours walk from the nearest road. Some of the people in these villages have never seen a television, an airplane or a foreigner.
Typical features of Tibetan buildings include: inward sloping walls, made of mud bricks or stones; a layer of smashed twigs below the roof that produce a distinctive brown band; a flat roof made of pounded earth (since there is little precipitation there is a only a small chance the roof will collapse); whitewashed exterior walls. The interior of large buildings is supported by wooden pillars.
Most Tibetans live in houses made of adobe-brick or stone walls and slate roofs or tents made of yak hair or black and white felt. Many homes have no electricity, plumbing, running water or even a radio. Yaks, sheep and cattle are sometimes kept in a stables below the house to provide warmth. Wood is a valuable commodity. It is used mainly as construction material and for making barrels for churning butter or making chang. Because animals live on the ground floor of the house, flies are a nuisance and disease-causing germs are plentiful.
A typical family of 14 in Bhutan lives in a three-story house with a 726-square-foot living room, 1,134 square foot basement-barn-stables and 726-square-foot storage attic. A two-story house in Dolpo has inward-sloping, mortared-stone walls and stone and air-dried earth bricks. Attached is a shed for tools, food and yak dung fuel.
Inside a Tibetan House
Most Tibetan homes don't have gas or oil heating and kerosene and wood are in short supply. Yak dung is often burned for cooking and heating. Most houses are sealed except for small hole in the ceiling that lets out some smoke but also allows some rain or snow to enter. Many Tibetans develop eye and respiratory diseases from breathing in yak-dung smoke.
Kitchen In Dolpo many homes don't even have chairs or tables. People sit barefoot on quilts placed on the floor. Oil lamps are used for lighting. Wooden bins are used for storing grain and salt. Yak butter statutes made from dirt and flour paste protect the house from lightning and evil spirits.
Many Tibetans earn less than $100 a year. Some are nomads who spend their summers herding yaks and their winters begging in Lhasa. Others are children with mated hair that scavenge at the trash dumps outside of Lhasa. In many places people subsist almost entirely on barley dumplings. They are so poor they can’t even afford the most basic fruits and vegetables.
Rich and Middle Class in Tibet
Rich Tibetans with tiger skin clothes There are a handful of rich Tibetans. Denba Daji, a former horse trader and antiques smuggler, earned a fortune in Gungdon and now owns a company that markets traditional Tibetan medicines, two hotels, 20 percent of a winery in Shandong, and a seaside house in Fujian province. Some of the money he has earned has been put into things like a vocational training school for Tibetan teenagers.
Animals have traditionally been a sign of wealth in Tibet. Yaks are the most valuable animals. Seven goats or six sheep usually equal one yak. Nomads used to be required to sell certain numbers of animals to government agencies at a certain price. In the 1980s they began selling their yaks and sheep at market prices. Some rich Tibetans display their wealth in the form of clothing made with tiger and snow leopard skins.