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DECEMBER 11, 1987 WAS ANOTHER in an unbroken string of bitterly cold mornings on the Changtang, Tibet's vast 'Northern Plateau." The wind whistled through the 16,500 foot-high nomad camp that was our home as the mid-morning sun struggled to raise the temperature-degree by degree-to OoF  The temperature had reached minus 35'F the previous evening and, as was usual in winter, everything was frozen when we woke up-water, meat, toothbrushes. Our cook Sangbo continuously pumped a goat-skin hand bellows to aerate the dung fire glowing in the center of our small nomad-style tent. The sheep and goat pellets burned red hot, warming our front while our backs continued to feel the icy cold of winter through three layers of thermal underwear, a wool shirt, a bunting jacket and an expedition down coat. As the cook paused for a few minutes to chum a new pot of butter-tea, smoke from the waning fire began to fill the tent. We lumbered outside in our heavy gear to avoid the fumes and soak up the growing warmth of the sun in the crisp, fresh air.

In the distance a small caravan caught our eye-an old nomad, his two teenage sons and about 100 sheep laden with woolen saddlebags filled with salt and butter. As their ancestors had done for untold centuries, these nomads were heading south to trade for grain with farmers living 20-30 days' distant. Wearing traditional sheep-fleece robes, fox-far hats and two-foot-long swords stuck diagonally through their belts, the boys seemed absorbed in their thoughts, walking silently, occasionally using their slingshots to direct the course of the herd. Their father paid the boys no heed; he counted his rosary and chanted Buddhist prayers which the tumultuous wind carried across the plateau to the top of snowcapped Mt. Dargo where the local protective deities dwell. Farther cast along the plain, a herd of several dozen wild asses noted their passing and then calmly resumed grazing on the dried grass. Not hunted by the nomads, they fear humans little in this part of the Changtang.

As the small caravan slowly vanished over the horizon, we marveled not only that we were there conducting an in-depth anthropological study, but that the Changtang nomads' unique way of life was still intact and flourishing. The nomad caravan we watched on that cold and blustery morning could easily have been one described by Sven Hedin, the famous Swedish explorer who traversed Western Tibet in 1906-08 in an unsuccessful quest to reach Lhasa.

The Changtang, one of the least known, most remote and highest regions in the world, is home to 500,000 nomadic pastoralists.2 Living for untold centuries at altitudes as high or higher than any other humans in the world, and inhabiting one of the world's harshest environments, Tibet's nomads have been able to wrest from their inhospitable environment a reliable source of food and products for both their own needs and for those of Tibet's elites. Their wool and yak tails were the primary sources of foreign exchange for the Kingdom of the Dalai Lamas, and still are a major component of the economy of the Tibet Autonomous Region [TARI.3 However, although nomadic pastoralism is still flourishing, the Changtang did not escape the changes wrought upon Tibet following the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959 and Chinese assumption of direct administrative control. The nomads will not soon forget the ruthless, fanatic attempt to destroy their traditional culture and way of life during Mao Tse-tung's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, even though China's new (post-1980) policies have allowed revitalization of much of the traditional customs. The trials and tribulations experienced by the nomads, and their emergence intact from that nightmare, are as important to the story of the nomads of western Tibet as is the persistence of their ancient techniques of production and livestock management.

This book is a firsthand account of these remarkable people-their traditional way of life and their struggle for cultural survival. In a world where indigenous peoples and their environments are vanishing at alarming rates, the survival of this way of life represents an unexpected, but heartening, Victory for all of humanity. Based on our 16 months of field research in Tibet between June 1986 and June 1988, 10 months of which we lived with one " community" of some 265 nomads, this book describes the traditional way of life of nomadic pastoralists in Western Tibet, their experiences under direct Chinese rule, and their current situation.

We decided early on that the best way to convey the life of these nomads would be to combine images with text, so made a concerted effort to record all aspects of their annual cycle on 35mm film. Generous help from the National Geographic Society allowed us to shoot almost 10,000 slides during all seasons. We have selected 212 photographs that represent not just a group of striking images, but a unique photographic documentary of the nomads' entire annual life cycle--their complete way of life.

Because the story of these nomads has interest far wider than our usual audience of scholars and students, we have written this account without anthropological jargon or the highly detailed discussions that typify a "technical" article or monograph. Despite this style, all that follows is based on our scientific research and the data we collected on the society, culture, history, biology and ecology of this rare branch of the human family tree.

Melvyn C. Goldstein and Cynthia M. Beall

Case Western Reserve University

Cleveland, Ohio

1 June 1989

 

Nomads of Western Tibet...