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Tibetan Nomads: The Life of the Tibetan Nomads

On the vast Tibetan Plateau, Tibetan nomads led an extraordinary way of life, nomads roamed the lands with their herds of yaks, drifting across the vast landscape with no specific place to call their home. Traveling from one grazing land to the next, these ancient herders lived as nomads on the plateau, setting up camp wherever there was lush grazing for their animals, and sleeping in tents made of yak hair. Join us on a journey through the rugged Tibetan Plateau to learn about their customs, sustainable practices, and changing ways of life.


Nomadic history and culture

Tibetans are believed to be descended from a mixture of the ancient peoples that populated the plateau around 15,000 years ago and the Qiang nomads of ancient northern China, that migrated south to the plateau around 11,000 years ago. These migrant Chinese integrated with the earlier residents of the plateau, and the typical nomadic life of the ancient Tibetan people began in earnest.

In later years, the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, built his empire on the backs of the Nomads. The strength of that empire was based on the fact that Gampo could utilize the huge number of Tibetan nomads as a mobile army and expand the frontiers of his lands further. This was also the way that the Mongolian Empire, under the rule of Genghis Khan, expanded to the edges of the Tibetan plateau, and interacted with the Tibetan nomads in around the 13th century.


Who are the Tibetan Nomads?

For generations, these nomads kept their herds moving, following the fresh green pastures and moving ahead of the changing weather. As the seasons changed, so did their grazing lands, using the higher pastures during the summer and following the traditional herding route to their winter pastures at lower altitudes. The only limits to their roaming were the high Himalayan mountains, the deep river gorges, and the weather.

This nomadic existence was the natural way of life for the Tibetan people for thousands of years. Despite modern developments on the Tibetan plateau. They follow this way of life in the summer months. These modern-day nomads spend their winters living in stone-built houses. When summer comes they head out onto the plateau’s best grazing lands with their herds.


Why Tibetan Nomads are Unique from Other Tribes?

What truly distinguishes Tibetan nomads from nomads worldwide is the extreme altitude and unpredictable weather. Living in central Tibet is relatively comfortable compared to life in the wild northern regions.

In Nagchu, where most Tibetan nomads live, the climate is so severe that not only is the oxygen content less than half that at sea level, but the annual average temperature remains below freezing, with the lowest recorded temperature reaching minus 42 degrees. To make matters worse, this fragile ecosystem is plagued by sporadic natural disasters such as hail, heavy snowfall, and steppe degradation.


Modern Tibetan Nomads

With the introduction of more modern ways of life to the plateau, many of the nomads now live in stone houses during the winter, near their winter pastures. But come the summer months, they head off with their herds for the traditional grazing lands of their ancestors. Driving their herds of yaks across the Tibetan plateau to higher altitude pastures, these modern nomads quickly return to their traditional way of life, moving the herds from one lush grazing to the next as their yaks consume the lush green grass of the pasture lands.

One of the most interesting characteristics of the Tibetan nomadic life is their relationship with the land. Strong believers in eco-friendly agriculture. These nomads know when the grazing has reached its limit and move on to the next lush pasture. And in the pasture lands are the small flowers that the nomads look for to feed their herds. Ask any nomad, and they will tell you that these small prairie flowers are good for the yaks, helping to keep them healthy and strong. But none could tell you the reason why. This knowledge has been passed down through the nomadic people for thousands of years.

Nomad tents are one of the most easily recognized aspects of this lifestyle. These huge yak-hair tents are the family’s home for the summer months. The stove is placed in the center of the tent, with the bedding and a living area around the walls of the tent. While there is often a small altar for these Buddhist nomads to pray at while out in the prairies. The stove is also believed to be sacred, as it is the center of their lifestyle within their yak-hair homes.


How to Visit a Tibetan Nomad Tent?

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.

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.

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.


How to Encounter Tibetan Nomads during a Tibet Tour?

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 grass for days to feed their cattle before they move to another place near streams or better pastures. Most of them stay in a single place for a month.

From April to early October, according to the grassland location and weather, you can meet lots of nomads while traveling 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 you can often meet Tibetan nomads while trekking.


Well-known Tibetan Prairies to Meet Tibetan Nomads

When visiting the Tibetan Plateau and aiming to explore its vast grasslands, consider heading to one of the six recommended prairies as follows. These locations offer greater opportunities to encounter Tibetan nomads and their herds of animals.

Changtang Prairie

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.

Ngari Prairie

The Ngari prairie lies in the northeast of Ngari Prefecture. The boundless prairie and the wilderness coexist with glaciers, alpine lakes, and mountainous ranges. Ngari prairie is a 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.

Gannan Prairie

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

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

Sankoh prairie lies in the 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 living in this area and tourists can experience the grand Xianglang festival in June. Other recreational events involve horse racing, campfire dancing, shooting competitions, and so on.

Jinying Prairie

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 resources 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.