I was sitting in the dark yak-haired tent of a nomadic family in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. Outside, scruffy sheep searched for greenery among the cold barren lunar landscape, and great raptors circled in the thermals. As we gathered around the hearth, the old man handed me a small glass of salted yak butter tea.
âThere were wolves here two nights ago,â he told me through a translator. “This time I have chased them away, but they will come back and try to prey on my sheep.” It’s happening more and more.
âEverything related to the profession of shepherd is becoming more and more difficult,â he added. âMaybe my sons won’t want to continue this life. My wife and I could be among the last of the nomads here.
It was a story I had heard over and over again across the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Whether it is due to climate change, the call for a more comfortable life in cities, political repression or the demands of education, life is changing rapidly for the people of Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan regions.
I have been traveling and walking around the Himalayas and Tibet for about 25 years. During this time I have written a number of guides to the area – for Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Bradt. I always travel with a local guide who acts as a translator, and I like to spend as much time as possible walking, as it increases contact with the locals. There is nothing I appreciate more than sitting in a secluded tea room or nomad tent and talking to people about their lives.
Defining the borders of Tibet can be difficult. This is because in some ways there are several Tibets.
The area that we commonly think of as Tibet today – and the area shown on most maps as Tibet – 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, it was a functionally independent nation and its borders were wider than they are today. (China calls its takeover of Tibet a âpeaceful liberation.â At the time, according to China, the new Communist government was reaffirming its sovereignty over territory lost after the fall of the Qing Dynasty.)
Much of what is today the western mountainous part of China’s Sichuan Province was, before the 1950 takeover, politically and culturally a part of Tibet, known as Kham. Likewise, to the north of the Tibet Autonomous Region is the Chinese province of Qinghai; it was also historically a part of Tibet, known as Amdo, although it fell under Chinese control in the 18th century.
And then there are the parts of the Himalayas that are culturally Tibetan even though they have never – or not for a long time, anyway – politically been part of Tibet. These include the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, parts of Nepal (notably Upper Mustang and Dolpo, as well as some valleys north of major mountain peaks), and parts of India, particularly Ladakh. , the scene of a long-standing border conflict.
Tibetans are mostly followers of their own Buddhist tradition, and monasteries and convents have long been central to their culture and life.
Tibet’s spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, who was based in Lhasa until 1959, when he and many of his supporters fled following a failed uprising. He is now based in Dharamsala, in northern India, where an entire Tibetan government in exile has been established.
There are also large communities of Tibetan exiles in Nepal, other parts of India and a smaller community in Bhutan.
The Chinese rule of Tibet has 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 resulted in the massive suppression of Tibetan rights and the crushing of Tibetan culture and religious practices. Mining and dam construction have also caused significant environmental damage.
Many Tibetans living under Chinese rule have few freedoms. Positions of power are dominated by Han officials, often from other parts of China. There are numerous reports of human rights violations, attacks on religious freedoms, allegations of arbitrary arrests and torture of political prisoners. Tibetans I know who live in areas of Tibet ruled by Chinese have told me privately that they felt like they were living in a giant prison and under constant surveillance.
The Chinese government disputes these claims and says it has done a lot to improve Tibet – efforts that ended feudal serfdom, dramatically reduced poverty and doubled life expectancy. Literacy rates have also increased under Chinese rule – to 85% today, up from 5% in the 1950s.
Due to the suppression of traditional Tibetan life and culture in the Chinese ruled areas of Tibet, it is often easier to find a more traditional classical Tibetan culture in the culturally Tibetan areas of India, Nepal and from 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 led a semi-nomadic way of life when they moved with their livestock – often yaks – to and from summer and winter pastures. Today, however, the desire to ensure that children receive the best possible education makes such a way of life more and more difficult. The pressure to earn a reliable salary in the cities has also meant that many officially nomadic families have left the mountains behind. Other changes come from the increasing construction of roads, the widespread possession of motorcycles and the ubiquity of the telephone and the Internet.
All of these developments bring new ideas, new opportunities and, for better or for worse, great changes in traditional Tibetan and Himalayan lifestyles.
Tourism has also played a role in the changes taking place in the region. In some areas, a massive trekking and adventure travel industry has developed. While the arrival of thousands of international tourists brings environmental and social changes, it has also enabled families to stay in the mountains and enjoy the surrounding nature and Tibetan culture.
An example would be the nomadic Tibetan family I met in the grasslands of the Kham region, who, working side by side with a local guesthouse, offered tourists the option of staying with them in their traditional wool tent. yak and learn about traditional Tibetan nomadic life.
As well as generating much-needed income for their families, they also took pride in their traditional way of life and found ways to carry it on for another generation.
Stuart butler is a writer and photographer based in France. You can follow his work on Instagram.