You don’t actually have to go to Tibet to experience Tibetan nomads and their culture. In fact areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces are ethnically and culturally Tibetan. The Tibetan grasslands of Gansu are traditionally known as Amdo by the Tibetan people, and was traditionally the eastern most province of Tibet. Due to the ever-changing and overly-complicated travel restrictions in Tibet, visiting this area is a viable alternative, and in some ways a more authentic experience. If you are visiting this area, I really recommend reading A Stranger in Tibet: The Adventures of a Wandering Zen Monk. This book describes many of the places I visited, but in the 1920s, at a time when almost no foreigners could enter Tibet.
When you first arrive in Xiahe, its like you have just arrived in another world. The small town is home to Labrang Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet and an important centre of learning of the Yellow Hat sect. Dodging potholes as you walk down the dilapidated road of the main street, you are greeted by rugged nomad men with weathered faces leading horses along, braided-haired women and smiling monks in crimson robes. The air has a familiar smokey smell, which reminds me of the fire places in old English homes. The muddy puddles on both sides of the road only add to my feeling of being back in England, however, the huge monastery ahead, surrounded by hundreds of prayer wheels being spun by some of the most colourful looking people you could imagine, brought me back to the realisation that I was about as far away from home as I could get.
Inside the monastery you immediately feel the spiritual atmosphere of the place. The dim light is provided by the flickering flames of hundreds of yak butter candles, which also give the place an odd, rancid kind of smell. The walls are covered in paintings of Buddhist mythology; magical gods and demons, and tales from the Buddha’s life. I tried to talk to some monks, unfortunately, not only did they not speak Chinese, but I later learnt that in this area, the dialect of Tibetan is totally unintelligable from the Tibetan spoken inside Tibet itself!
Living with Tibetan Nomads in the Grasslands
Leaving Gansu I spent hours upon hours driving through absolutely nothing. When people say “the middle of nowhere”, now I can proudly tell them I’ve actually been there! The journey to Sichuan takes you through grasslands, where besides grass, the only thing you see is the occasional yak eating the grass, or drunk nomad asleep in the grass! I finally arrived at my destination, an ugly and bare concrete lodge, which was the winter home of a nomadic family who reared yaks out here. The family of Tibetan nomads consisted of two people: an old grandmother and a 16 year old girl. I guess the men were out working. Our translator and guide didn’t say. Dinner consisted of some Naan bread, which the grandmother kindly took a handful of butter and, using her blackened fingers, smothered it all over the Naan for me while smiling and gesturing to eat. Well, I couldn’t refuse this “hospitality” could I? The home-churned yak butter was pretty delicious though, it was very salty and slightly sour tasting. Next came yak yogurt. This was quite possibly the best tasting yogurt I’ve ever had in my life. It was thick and lumpy, and had a strong flavour. Beat any Tesco’s Finest Greek Yogurt anyday! Finally was a kind of stew, bits of yak meat, mostly bones and gristle, nothing to write home about. As we sat around the fire, the young girl started to sing some Tibetan folk songs. Her voice was powerful and made the hairs on your neck stand up. As you listened, you could just imagine the vastness of the grasslands and the purity of the people who lived here.
This was a very special experience, and gave me an insight into a much simpler way of life. The Tibetan nomads are totally cut off from modern society, and really live off the land. But I can’t help wondering for how much longer their way of life can prevail.