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TIBET: Enduring Spirit, Exploited Land

The Nomadic Way of Life

(Excerpts) In the past while nearly 85 percent of Tibet's rural population relied on the country's limited supply of arable land, the remaining 15 percent exploited the high, seemingly infinite wilderness that typified the majority of Tibet's surface area. These nomads, or drokpa, migrated through the inhospitable plains of the northern and central plateaus, clinging to a lifestyle that was born before the first Tibetan ruler was enthroned in 247 B.C. Herding huge flocks of yak and sheep, these self-sufficient people thrived at an average altitude of 14,000 feet. Existing in this rarefied air, they possessed an almost supernatural sensitivity to the slightest nuances of their environment. The flavor of the wind and the color of the sparse tundra grasses provided critical clues to the puzzle of how to survive on the roof of the world (see photos, pp. 45, 47).

Nomad life was perfectly attuned to the rhythms of the seasons. During the spring, the nomads rose for their daily chores at dawn and began by milking their goats and sheep. The goats' milk was for drinking and the sheep's milk for making cheese and butter. When the milking was finished, the animals, including yaks, were free to graze until herded back by the children in the late afternoon. In the summer, animals were milked twice, in early morning and again in late afternoon. As the days grew longer and warmer, the herders drove their flocks higher, letting them graze on new growth in broad meadows, sometimes as high as 17,500 feet. By early evening the yaks were back in their encampment. After supper the family prepared for the next day.


When asked what was most important for the prosperity of the nomads, Nimgma, a nomad from the Nepal border region, told us: ŇOur prime concern is to increase the livestock. All the nomads will be working towards improving and increasing the livestock. In this matter, the father and the mother have a special role in guiding the other members of the family and servants to take maximum care of the animals. They should be taken to the best pastures and should be well looked after. ...In such a case [the female yak] will give not only good milk, but also high quality wool which is whiter and longer." Speaking of common problems that afflict the animals, he said, "Some sheep would get infested with lice that would stop the proper growth of wool. Similarly, there are diseases common with the yaks; they should be prevented...."

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