A View from the Changing Tibet Scattered Across the Himalayas


I was sitting in a nomadic family’s black, yak-feather tent in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. Outside, some filthy sheep searched the greenery amidst the cold and barren moonscape, and large birds of prey circled in the thermals. As we gathered around the hearth, the old man handed me a small glass of salty, yak-butter tea.

“There were wolves here two nights ago,” he told me through an interpreter. “I chased them this time, but they will come again and try to reach my sheep. More and more.”

“Everything about being a shepherd gets harder,” he added. “Maybe my sons won’t want to continue this life. My wife and I may be the last of the nomads here.”

It was a story I heard many times throughout the Himalayan and Tibetan plateau. Life is rapidly changing for Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan regions due to climate changes, the call for a more comfortable life in cities, political pressures or educational demands.

I have been traveling and traveling to the Himalaya and Tibet for nearly 25 years. During this time, I’ve written several guidebooks about the area for Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Bradt. I always travel with a local guide who translates and I like to spend as much time as possible because doing so increases contact with the locals. There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting in a remote tea shop or nomad tent and talking to people about their lives.

Tibetan borders can be difficult to define. This is because in some ways there are several Tibetans.

The region we usually think of as Tibet today and marked as Tibet on most maps is the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is the second largest region or province in modern China and its regional capital is Lhasa.

Before communist forces took control of Tibet in 1950, Tibet was a functionally independent nation and its borders were wider than they are today. (China calls its takeover of Tibet a “peaceful liberation”.

Much of the mountainous western part of China’s Sichuan Province today was part of Tibet, politically and culturally known as Kham, before the 1950 takeover. Likewise, China’s Qinghai province in the north of Tibet Autonomous Region; This was also part of Tibet, historically known as Amdo, but came under Chinese control in the 18th century.

And then there are parts of the Himalaya that are culturally Tibetan, even though they have never – or for a long time – been politically part of Tibet. These include the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, parts of Nepal (especially Upper Mustang and Dolpo, as well as some valleys north of the main mountain peaks) and parts of India, particularly Ladakh. longstanding border dispute.

Tibetans are mostly adherents of their own traditions of Buddhism, and monasteries and nunneries have long been a central part of their culture and life.

Tibet’s spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, who resided in Lhasa until 1959. It is currently located in Dharamsala in northern India, where an entire Tibetan government-in-exile has been established.

There are also large Tibetan exile communities in Nepal, other parts of India, and a smaller community in Bhutan.

Chinese domination of Tibet 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 also brought with it the mass suppression of Tibetan rights and the oppression of Tibetan culture and religious practices. Mining and dam works have also caused significant environmental damage.

Many Tibetans living under Chinese rule have little freedom. Positions of power are dominated by Han officials, often from other parts of China. There are widespread reports about it. human rights violations, violations of religious freedoms, allegations of arbitrary detention and torture of political prisoners. Tibetans I know who live in the Chinese-administered areas of Tibet have privately told me that they feel like they are living in a giant prison and that they are in prison. constant surveillance.

The Chinese government opposes these claims and says it has done much to make Tibet better – efforts to end feudal serfdom, profoundly reduce poverty and double life expectancy. Literacy rates also increased under Chinese rule – from 5 percent in the 1950s to 85 percent today.

Because of the suppression of traditional Tibetan life and culture in the Chinese-administered areas of Tibet, it is often easier to find a more traditional classical Tibetan culture in the culturally Tibetan regions 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 semi-nomadic lifestyle as they moved with their animals (mainly yaks) to and from their summer and winter pastures. Today, however, the desire to ensure that children receive the best possible education makes such a lifestyle increasingly challenging. The drive to earn a reliable wage in towns and cities also meant that many formerly nomadic families left the mountains behind. Other changes come from increased road construction, the proliferation of motorcycles, and the ubiquity of phones and the Internet.

All these developments bring new ideas, new opportunities, and big changes for good or bad to traditional Tibetan and Himalayan lifestyles.

Tourism also played a role in the changes that took place in the region. A huge trekking and adventure travel industry has developed in some areas. The arrival of thousands of international tourists has brought environmental and social changes, allowing families to stay in the mountains and enjoy the nature and Tibetan culture around them.

An example would be the nomadic Tibetan family I met in the pastures of the Kham region, who work side-by-side with a local guesthouse and offer tourists the chance to stay and learn with them in their traditional yak-wool tent. traditional Tibetan nomadic life

Besides providing much-needed income for their families, they took pride in their traditional lifestyle and found ways to sustain it for another generation.

Stuart Butler A writer and photographer based in France. You can follow their work Instagram.


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