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THE CHANGTANG AND NOMADIC PASTORALISM
Despite its name of "NORTHERN PLATEAU," the western section of the Changtang is not a vast level plain but a myriad of valleys and plains of varying sizes separated by twisting mountain ridges, which transect the land. Located in central and north Tibet, the Changtang contains about 69% of Tibet's landmass, spanning a thousand miles from the Indian state of Ladakh in the west to the Chinese province of Qinghai in the east. This majestic plateau is home to millions of head of domestic livestock, and about 25% of the TAICs total population of nearly two million people.
Nomadic pastoralism as a way of life developed relatively late in human history, arising only about 9,000-10,000 years ago in Southwest Asia at roughly the same time as agriculture. The earliest nomadic pastorahsts lived in Southwest Asia, herding mostly sheep and goats. Slightly later, there is evidence in South Asia of a sizable cattle-herding culture. Tibet's nomads represent one of the last great examples of the nomadic pastoral way of life once common in many regions of the world.
It is not known when nomadic pastoralism first emerged in Tibet, but it is doubtful that large-scale nomadic pastoralism was possible prior to the domestication of the wild yak (known as Bos mutus or drong in Tibetan). This magnificent beast, related to the ox and our own domestic cow, is enormous. Males are typically six feet high at the shoulders, and their homes are so large that they are hollowed and used as containers to hold home-brewed barley beer. Unfortunately, archaeological research in Tibet is in its infancy and little is known about the domestication of the yak or the origins of nomadic pastoralism there, but it is not unlikely that domestication of the wild yak took place on the Tibetan Changtang where it is still found in its greatest numbers.
The nomads of Pala are the descendents of these early yak-herding nomads who, perhaps several thousand years ago, began to move their herds around the Changtang where they captured the energy locked in the wild grasses and converted it into food, clothing and shelter.
Nomadic pastoralism continues to flourish in Tibet because the nomads have no competitors, unlike the other well-known traditional nomadic areas in Southwest Asia (Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan) and Africa. There, farmers have encroached on nomadic pasturelands and, with the help of governments hostile to the nomadic way of life, driven the nomadic pastoralists into progressively more marginal lands, often forcing them to emigrate and take work in the non-pastoral economy. Here, however, the extreme high altitude and bitter climate of the Tibetan Changtang have effectively precluded agriculture as an economic alternative, even with today's technology. Not only is the growing season too short for crops, but the weather is far too unpredictable. For example, every afternoon for two weeks in mid-August 1987, we experienced violent hailstorms, which would certainly have destroyed a ripening grain crop. If there were no nomads to utilize the high plateau in Tibet, it would revert to the wild fauna, not to other humans. Successive governments in Tibet have sought to control the Changtang's nomads and their products, not displace them.
Pala is located in the western Changtang, an area that is higher, drier and more severe climatically than the eastern portion. Sheep and goats, consequently, predominate in the west where grasses rarely get taller than a few inches, while yak are more abundant in the lusher eastern Changtang.
The western Changtang is one of the coldest and most inhospitable regions of the world, even though Pala, for example, is at the same latitude as New Orleans and Cairo. The reason for this is its altitude-the average altitude of the western Changtang being about 16,000 feet. Mean annual temperature drops roughly three degrees F for each 1,000 feet of altitude, so Pala's temperatures end up being like those of Alaska rather than New Orleans. The average temperature-the midpoint between the day's high and low-on the western Changtang is below 32 degrees F on more than 200 days in a year.
The Changtang, however, can be deceiving. Camped beside a glittering pristine lake with exotic waterfowl on a beautiful sunlit mid-summer day, the temperature in the sun can be 100 degrees F and the Changtang can seem an untouched paradise. But the reality of the Changtang is not the brief summer. Rather it is the bitter cold of fall which quickly dispels the warmth of August, dropping evening lows almost one degree Fahrenheit a night. By late September 1987, nighttime temperatures at the lowest (and warmest) of the Pala campsites (16,000 feet) were already in the low teens. And by late December, evening lows had dropped to minus 15-30 degrees F at this site, and were still decreasing. The effective temperature is even colder because of the wind chill factor-the western Changtang is exceptionally windy and sudden storm gusts can blow a rider off his horse or bury a traveler under drifts of freezing snow.
Diurnal variation (the difference between low and high temperatures in a single day), moreover, is huge. Noon temperatures of 35-40 degrees F frequently follow nighttime lows of -30 degrees F in the winter, and afternoon highs of 100 degrees F follow nighttime lows of 32 degrees F in the summer. From all points of view, the Changtang is one of the world's most extreme environments.
SUNLIGHT ON THE CHANGTANG
One of the delights of life on the Changtang is the abundance of sunshine, particularly during winter when precipitation is rare. Tibet is one of the sunniest spots on the planet, receiving about 3,400 hours of sunlight per year, according to Chinese scientists. The 1 western Changtang epitomizes this feature. In the dead of winter when temperatures regularly dip to -40'F at night, the sun moderates the daytime cold, warming the tent and all within it, and making the shepherdsdaily trek less onerous. For us, too, the sun was a precious gift we eagerly anticipated.
No matter how cold the evening low, and no matter how difficult it was to summon the willpower to exchange the warmth of our sleeping bags for a seat near the fire in our frigid tent, the prospect of blue skies and shining sun in a few hours always made the cold less burdensome.
The Changtang's sunshine also allowed us to use solar energy to generate electricity for our equipment. We used an advanced "cardboard" solar panel. This turned out to be indestructible, despite repeated trampling by the nomad's livestock, which frequently showed up while the panels were staked out around our tent (see photo, p. 190).
The uplifting and warming sunshine of the high Tibetan plateau, however, also may have a down side. Tibet has one of the the highest prevalences of cataracts in the world, and many think this is caused by the intense ultraviolet radiation found at high altitudes.
To Westerners, the life of the nomads seems exceptionally difficult.
No matter how cold the weather, no matter if it is snowing, hailing or raining, the nomads must milk and herd their animals. Our image of the arduousness of life in Pala is epitomized by the vivid memory of several nomad women bent over at the waist milking their animals as a blowing snow squall deposited a cold white layer on their backs. But to the nomads, the unpredictability and ferocity of nature is a given. They accept hardship and discomfort as a matter of fact, a part of the natural way of things. Thus, on that day, as on every other day, the women simply kept on milking. While readily acknowledging the harsh climate and the bone-chilling cold, they do not share our perception of their way of life, and both men and women feel their way of life is far easier than that of farmers. A nomad neighbor named Phuntsog who was a father of four and owner of a large herd explained it this way:
Look, it is obvious that we have a very easy lifestyle. The grass grows by itself, the animals reproduce by themselves, they give milk and meat without our doing anything, so how can you say our way of life is hard? We don't have to dig up the earth to sow seeds nor do any of the other difficult and unpleasant ttasks that the farmers do. And we have much leisure time. You can see for yourself that in the summer scores of farmers come here to work for us, but do we go to work for them? As I have told you several times, the farmers' lifestyle is difficult, not ours.
Phuntsog's views reflect the deep conviction with which the nomads adhere to their customs and cherish their way of life. Although looked down upon by farmers and townsfolk in Tibet as simple, uncouth, and backward, and although they have little in the way of material possessions, the nomads are proud of their ability to live on the Changtang and wrest from it a way of life that they view as leisurely. These tough, quiet people have an air of dignity and contentment that is difficult for outsiders (even other Tibetans) to reconcile with their arduous life and relative poverty of possessions. The nomads see themselves as masters of the environment; but this is a mastery fundamentally different from that which we know in the West, or even that understood by farmers in Tibet. One middle-aged friend eloquently expressed the strange combination of awe, respect and confidence that the nomads hold for the Changtang:
We build no canals to irrigate pastures here, nor do we fence and sow our pastures with grass seeds to enhance yields. They tried to make us do this during the Cultural Revolution, but that is not our way of doing things. The Changtang is a ferocious place-wait, you will see for yourself. One minute the air is calm and the sun is shining, the next it is hailing. It is not possible to try to control and alter the Changtang. We do not try-instead we use our knowledge to adjust to it.
The nomads' mastery, therefore, consists of developing strategies to accommodate to the vagaries of the environment-not to alter or transform it. Though they feel they are completely vulnerable to the climate and environment, they are also confident that their traditional way of life allows them to survive the worst of nature's catastrophes.
Another facet of their self-image emerged on a quiet mid-August afternoon when we joined a group of six men and youths who were seated in front of a corral shearing their sheep. As we weighed the wool, we inquired about wool prices and, by extrapolation, the nomads' subsistence economy. Pemba, an old and wizened nomad, suddenly offered an interesting answer to our queries about how he and his fellow drokba see their way of life. "You see," he said, pointing to the pile of wool at his side, "we live off the products of our animals. Every year our sheep provide wool, skins, meat, milk and butter which we use for food and clothes as well as for bartering with villagers to obtain barley, tea and so forth. And then every year virtually every adult female sheep gives us a new lamb. The same is true of our goats. So long as we can guide our animals to where there is grass, they take care of all our needs. They are our true provider and our measure of wealth-if they flourish, so do we."
This self-effacing understatement of their own role is one of thesalient features of the nomads' world view. They typically describe their role passively, as simply letting the livestock follow their instincts, but we found that their subsistence economy is actually sophisticated, and that they are continuously monitoring conditions and responding to whatever impediments nature places in their way. These nomadic pastoralists, in fact, had a remarkable animal management system that balanced livestock and pastures, allowing them to inhabit the Changtang for centuries without destroying their resource base.
At the heart of that traditional system was their political position during the period before the Dalai Lama's 1959 flight into exile in India and China's assumption of direct administrative control over Tibet.
The history of Chinese-Tibetan relations is complex, each country's position differing depending on what period over the past 1,200 years is under discussion. Matters are further complicated because these relations were never governed by formal treaties or agreements that spelled out the rights and obligations of each side. Not surprisingly, when the status of Tibet became a major international issue after the fall of the Manchu (Ch'ing) Dynasty in China in 1911, both sides expressed diametrically opposite views of the past. Whereas the new leaders of Republican and Nationalist China insisted that Tibet was an integral part of China, the Tibetans argued that their relationship with China had been that of "priest" and "patron," the Manchu Emperors of China being lay patrons of the Dalai Lamas and Tibet, and that Tibet had always operated under its own rulers, officials, language and laws. This is not the forum to explore the merits of these claims and counterclaims, and it will suffice to say that while Tibet was loosely subordinate to China for several hundred years prior to 1911, between then and 1951, it functioned as a de facto independent political entity, although it never received de jure international recognition of an independent legal status separate from China.
The Nationalist Government of Chiang Kaishek never agreed to this de facto independent status for Tibet, and throughout the 1911-51 period sought to assert various forms of Chinese control over it. But China was weak and did not succeed until the Chinese communists of Mao Zedung came to power in October 1949. A brief invasion of Eastern Tibet in October 1950 encircled and captured a large Tibetan defending force of about 10,000, together with one of Tibet's four Cabinet Ministers who was serving there as Governor-General. With Tibet's best force destroyed and the road to Lhasa virtually open, the new People's Republic of China quickly succeeded in compelling a reluctant Tibetan government to accept a "17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet." This Agreement left the old politico-economic system (including the Dalai Lama) intact in exchange for Tibet\x92s formal acknowledgement of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The terms of this arrangement continued more or less in effect until 1959 when the Dalai Lama feared that the autonomy guaranteed in the 17 Point Agreement could not be maintained and fled into exile in India together with about 100,000 of his followers, From then on, China assumed complete and direct control. The traditional society had come to an end in Tibet.