Respecting Tibetan Nomads: it’s about more than the Dalai lama

By Michelle Tolson

“Mongolians and Tibetans are like this.” Actually, there was a pantomime of hands held parallel as the Tibetan man said: “Mongolia people…Tibet people…” Looking at me to make sure I understood, he moved his hands together.
I heard these words from my Tibetan guide during my trip through Western China in April. We had camped overnight in April near Songpan in Aba County in a Tibetan Prefecture during a horse trek. I didn’t know Tibetan or Chinese and his English was very limited but we bonded when I mentioned my destination of Mongolia. I’d come to this region from Chengdu China, taking an overland route. I had learned that a sizable Tibetan nomad population–quite comparable with Mongolian nomads–existed in the Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai Provinces, beyond the more well-known Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) which most associate Tibet with. The area had just opened up to travelers after a two-month closure.

The Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAP) exist outside the TAR, but do not require the permits and guides which push travel in the TAR to $150 per day. The downside of the TAP is that they can close down without notice when trouble—i.e.: protests—are brewing. Permits aren’t issued at all to the TAR during the sensitive annual period of Tibetan New Year roughly spanning from February until the beginning of April and foreigners are also completely restricted from TAP areas as well. This time period corresponds with an increase in protests and self-immolations (setting oneself on fire, a form of suicidal protest) from Tibetans. However, most of the protests, and particularly the self-immolations, happen in the TAP. The TAP also contains the last of the Tibetan nomads, estimated to be as high two million and as low as one million or less.
I was fortunate to be able to converse with an expert on Tibetan nomads, “Losang,” who has lived and worked among nomads for the past ten years, including working with a Tibetan NGO. He agreed to share his knowledge with readers on the condition of anonymity. He still lives in the Tibetan region and is at risk if seen as political.

The Tibetan Nomad

Losang explains, “Though the Chinese government tries to paint a picture to the rest of the world that Tibetans love China and the Communist government, in reality many hate it. In March 2008, tension boiled over and there was widespread violence and protests all across Tibet (including the Amdo and Kham regions found outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region). While the violence in Lhasa lasted just four or five days, in other remote nomadic communities, the violence lasted for over three months.”
Tibet has three regions: U-Tsang makes up the TAR, Amdo is found in the Qinghai and western Gansu provinces, while Kham is in northwestern Sichuan. Nomadic populations are found in Kham and Amdo, and also have the most politically-minded Tibetans according to Losang.
“It is actually uncommon for fighting and protests to originate in Lhasa. The Tibetans who live Amdo … and Kham are far more patriotic and loyal to the Dalai Lama and cause exponentially more problems than Lhasa people do. About 60% of the Tibetan people live outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region and these 60% are very patriotic.”
I had started my first horse trek in Songpan, located in the Kham region, but next made my way to Langmusi in the Amdo. Further up the highway by six hours, the region is far more rustic, having simple Tibetan towns decorated with prayer flags and temples throughout the vast plateau. White canvas nomad tents (illustrating a transition from the traditional black yak wool tents formerly used) and yak herds also dot the grasslands by the highway.
Accessible by bus, Langmusi is a relatively easy way to view traditional Tibetan nomadic culture. Going deeper in the Tibetan Plateau–where most traditional nomads live requires, according to Losang, another four to seven days to drive to and another two to five day horse trek.
Langmusi has two large monasteries, the Kirti Gompa and Serti Gompa—and a significant military presence. Monks tend to gather in tea houses to peer out the window in the afternoons, while nomads walk around town in a relaxed swagger that brings to mind Mongolian herders. The men sported long hair, wrap-around overcoats and scarves that covered their faces ninja-style. The women wore colorful long dresses and braided hair. I booked another horse trek through Langmusi Tibetan Horse Trekking to get a home stay experience in nomad culture. The travel literature warned that during winter, which lasts well into April, the women would be in towns and villages while the men would be out with the yaks. The literature also stated that nowadays many men don’t go in the fields anymore but instead drink tea all day. Losang says that alcoholism, fights and gambling are common in male nomads giving up herding–similar to the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. Violence is also common (though not toward foreigners), despite the common world-view of Tibetans as peaceful.
The night I camped out, the herders just drank tea and watched music videos on their mobile phones in the tent. What looked like a car battery charged via a solar panel during the day was used at night to light a bulb hanging in the tent. Five of us, a few nomad men and me, looked at my Lonely Planet China book and the pictures on my camera. They were fascinated with pictures of other Tibetan areas.

Religious Freedom

Five hours from Langmusi is the Tibetan town of Labrang (Xiahe in Chinese). Labrang is famous for its Yellow Hat sect Tibetan monastery of about 3000 monks. It is the largest Monastery outside of Lhasa and had a noticeably fresh and free feeling about it. Many Tibetan pilgrims made their way around the perimeter of the large monastery, walking a few steps then prostrating themselves in prayer, obliviously blocking the taxis driving the road to the entrance. While taking a tour of the monastery, a monk proudly explained the Yellow Hat sect lineage of lamas which holds the Dalai Lama at the most revered position. A picture of him was displayed within a couple of the temples. Outside the monastery and throughout the day, monks socialized over tea, looking out windows of cafes at people in the streets. The town seemed surprisingly relaxed.
A young Tibetan man sighs when I mention this. “That is because we haven’t had trouble here in a few years so people aren’t worried. The government uses this town to manipulate us sometimes though.” He contrasts Labrang with Aba, another monastery town famous for self-immolations and says foreigners haven’t been allowed there for three years and monks are restricted. I wondered aloud how well Tibetans got along with the Han Chinese considering the restrictions placed on foreigner access. Restaurants, guesthouses and horse-riding treks still serve Chinese tourists but without foreigners allowed, business can slow. Langmusi had only one hotel open in April but the rest were closed.
He relayed “The educated Chinese are ok. They understand us. The ones who live overseas are good too. But the others….” He makes a face and looks away.
The international news suggests that most Tibetan protests are related to religious freedom, however, in Labrang and Langmusi, both of which have significant monastery presences, felt pretty open in terms of religion.
The media reports on the most troubled regions and because they are restricted from those areas by the Chinese government, they must rely on exile groups or NGO’s for information. Losang, currently living in the Tibetan region, says that religion is not as restricted as Tibetan exile groups claim though limitations exist. “Tibetans in exile claim that Tibetans are heavily persecuted for their beliefs and that they can’t be true Buddhists. I find this amusing! I feel of all the recognized religions in Tibet (Islam, Buddhism, Christianity), more money is spent on Buddhism that any other. There are always new monasteries being built or huge new additions being added to already large monasteries. The government does put limits on the amount of monks that can be in monasteries and pictures of certain exiled lamas are prohibited in some areas of Tibet, but overall Tibetans have quite a bit of religious freedom. They definitely do not have complete freedom of religion, but the situation is much better than most exile groups claim.”

Cultural Identity and

However, cultural freedom is an issue. Tibetans tend to stand up for themselves. According to human rights groups, this is seen as “splittist” by the Chinese government. “Tibetans are extremely proud of their culture and the fact that they have been able to preserve their culture, language and religion much better than other minorities groups in China,” Losang verifies. “Most Tibetans find some minorities in China, such as the Manchu who live in Northeast China, as embarrassing… China officially has 55 minority groups and many (though definitely not all) of them now have cultures similar to Han Chinese. Tibetans are proud of the fact that despite large efforts by the Chinese government to assimilate the Tibetan people for 60 years, it hasn’t happened like it has to other minority groups.”
Another big issue is the resettling of Tibetan nomads. “For the past 10 years, there has been a huge push by the Chinese government to resettle most of the remaining Tibetan nomads. In the late 80′s/early 90′s the government made a statement that they wanted to resettle most of the nomads by the year 2000, but they were about 10 years off schedule,” notes Losang.
The official reason for resettlement is environmental degradation from over-grazing and erosion but Tibetan human rights groups blame the Cultural Revolution which tried to make Tibetan yak herds into high-yield meat producing communes as the cause. During the Cultural Revolution herds over-populated the Tibetan Plateau; only reducing in number after the revolution failed and communes disbanded according to nomad resettlement reports from the Tibetan Women’s Association and Free Tibet. The reports—Purging the Treasure House and The Right to Food and Access to Land on the Tibetan Plateau–criticize the Chinese government for forcing resettlement, contrasting the more culturally sensitive measures taken within Mongolia. The government of Mongolia invests in herders, subsidizing in the event of loss. Thus herders are less likely to over-produce livestock which keeps overgrazing in check from having a safety net.
However, when Mongolian herders resettle, they tend to move to cities, while Tibetan nomads are isolated within resettlement communities far from towns and cities.
Losang was able to visit Mongolia a few years ago. “One unique thing about UB that I remember was the ger districts throughout the city. I found it quite interesting that I could get a cup of coffee at a modern Korean owned shop and 1000 meters away were people living in gers.”
Despite the similarities between Tibetan and Mongolian herders, Losang clarifies that “…Tibet is quite a bit different than what is going on in Mongolia. The resettlement villages are almost always in very remote villages that are many hours (12 to 24 hours) or even days away from cities. Very few resettled herders will be found living in urban settings. When nomads are told to resettle, they sell off most or even all of their yaks and sheep. In most cases, the herders are not given the full market value of their yaks because buyers know they have to get rid of all of their livestock. So they are given anywhere between 40% and 70% of the real value of the yaks. In most cases, they move to a small resettlement village along with other herders from the area. These resettlement villages have anywhere between 30 and 100 small concrete homes. The government builds them and sells them to the herders at a subsidized rate. Usually, the government will pick up between 40% and 60% of the bill on these resettlement homes and the resettled herders are responsible for the remaining percentage.” Yet, according to reports by Free Tibet and the Tibetan Women’s Association, few see any resettlement money from the government after being promised it.
Tibetan human rights organizations report that resettled Tibetan nomads face high unemployment because of their limited options owing to the isolation of resettlement villages and the lack of education. Losang explains, “Similar to Mongols, Tibetans have been herders for thousands of years. When they are resettled, they have no other job skills so finding a job is nearly impossible.” They use their money from selling yak herds to buy technology items they have never had, going through the money within months.
Perhaps most striking, Tibetan nomads are kept separate from the mining wealth driving Chinese investment in the Tibetan Plateau. Purging the Treasure House claims that nomads are being removed to take advantage of the significant mineral wealth in the region in the form of mining operations. In contrast, former Mongolian herders living in Mongolia have access to a cash handout scheme from mining and investments (about $15 monthly), though it is widely acknowledged as insufficient to get by on. Mongolian herders also have problems with job skills transfer but those living in Ulaanbaatar have options, albeit limited options. The mining boom in Mongolia has a need for skilled workers, seen as lacking locally, but options exist in other sectors not requiring high skills.
Culturally, Tibetan and Mongolian nomads are similar yet are treated very differently in their respective countries. To learn more about Tibetan nomad regions, download reports the Tibetan Women’s Association and Free Tibet’s website. Visit the Tibetan areas of Amdo and Kham found outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces of China. Those familiar with the herder culture of Mongolia will quickly come to realize that Tibetan protests go deeper than the Dalai Lama.

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Posted by on Aug 28 2012. Filed under Community. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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