THE NOMAD ECONOMY AND THE CYCLE OF ANNUAL MIGRATION
The nomads' economy is, on one level, simple. Households raise sheep, goats, and yak under a "natural" system of pastoral production. Their livestock are not fed any specially sown fodder plants or grains, and survive exclusively by grazing on range forage.
This complete reliance on the natural vegetation, however, creates difficulties because the Changtang's high altitude permits only a single, short, growing season. In mid-September, the Changtang's grasses and sedges stop growing and lie dormant. Foliage at this time dries and turns color, cloaking the plains and mountains with a beautiful yellow-rust hue. This beauty, however, heralds the
most dangerous phase of the annual cycle for the nomads' herds. New vegetation does not reappear until the following late April or early May, and even then is initially so meager that it does not play a large role in the animals' subsistence for another month.6
The consequence of this for their movement pattern is striking. Because there are no areas where the grass grows in winter, Pala nomads have no reason to migrate far in one year. Unlike nomads in Southwest Asia who typically move hundreds of miles in winter to lower regions where fresh grass is growing, Tibet's nomadic pastoralists cannot escape the harsh upland winter climate because all adjacent areas in Tibet have roughly the same single growing season. Their annual movement is only 10-40 miles. Indeed, they try to minimize travel, contending that it weakens livestock and increases mortality. As one nomad noted, why drive one's livestock on a long and tiring trek only to arrive at pastures no different from those available nearby?
Changtang livestock must forage for eight to nine months on dead plants left standing at the end of the growing season. The limiting factor is the amount of vegetation left at the end of summer, which must be sufficient to sustain livestock until the next year's growth begins. Dole, a thoughtful old nomad, explained their perspective on this: 'The animals can survive summer (and fall)," he said, "even if the rainfall is poor, but unless there is enough grazing then for them to build up stores of fat, many will not survive the harsh winter eating the poor fodder."
To accomplish this, the Pala nomads move between two encampments-a main home-base three-season encampment used in winter, spring and summer, and a fall encampment. In late August or early to mid-September they make their major migration, leaving their home base for pasture areas usually one- to two-days' walk away which have been left ungrazed all season. The nomads reside at these fall encampments (which are re-occupied year after year) until late December when the forage is just about exhausted. Then they return with their sheep and goats to the original home-base encampment and use the remaining vegetation until the next growing season.
This seasonal migration pattern accomplishes just what Dole said had to be done. It fosters the growth of the fat reserves the livestock need by providing abundant forage in the form of hay for the critical three months immediately preceding the onset of winter. In a sense, it extends the period of the good grazing season by three to four months. At the same time, the fall migration guarantees that a last cover of standing vegetation will be preserved at the home base for use during winter and spring.
This basic two-part migration system is only one aspect of the nomads' livestock management strategy They also split their herds to take advantage of the different capacities and accommodate the different needs of their livestock. For example, only the sheep and goats leave the fall site and return to home base in December. The dri move to a series of different winter locations situated higher up in the mountains. There they establish satellite, or secondary, encampments called kabrang, staffed by family members or hired hands. The yak finally return to the home base five months later in May
The reason for this became clear one April morning when we visited a young nomad friend camped with his yak at 17,500 feet, a full 1,500 feet higher than his main home-base Campsite,.
My camp is higher now because yak prefer bang (a type of sedge in the Kobresia family) which is most abundant along high slopes like these. Yak, unlike sheep and goats, are able to bite off grass and to licklpull it up with their tongues. Thus, in winter they have no trouble consuming the low-lying bang (which is normally only one to one and a half inches high). And although it is much colder up here, the yaks are impervious to cold. Thus my parents stay at the homebase campsite with the sheep and goats, while I spend the winter here with the yak in our kabrang (satellite camp).
The nomads also sometimes set aside a special pasture (or a section of the three-season location) for "birthing," and move pregnant sheep and goats there in spring when the lambs and kids are due.
Day-to-day assessment of local conditions also affects their movement. For example, in late spring 1988, vegetation became scarce around one home-base encampment and the three families moved their sheep and goats to -a satellite camp one-and-a-half hours away This saved the animals the energy expended on the daily three-hour roundtrip to the pasture, although it meant a daily two-hour roundtrip to the other side of the plain to fetch cooking and drinking water for the nomads themselves. This kind of micro-management based on local conditions works the other way as well. In the fall of 1987, one poor household headed by an elderly male skipped the arduous fall migration because the households at his home-base encampment agreed there was enough vegetation to sustain the additional grazing entailed by his remaining there. This practical empiricism characterizes the nomads' system of livestock management.
Finally, during the summer growing season, the nomads are careful to rotate livestock to different parts of the pasture area so that the vegetation regenerates (much like our lawns) for a number of days before another bout of grazing. Contrary to their unassuming comments that everything happens "naturally," the Pala nomads continuously observe and adjust to environmental conditions.
Another distinctive feature of the Pala nomads' way of life is the high value placed on remaining at their home-base encampment. This even has a special term: shi-ma. Although all the livestock move to the new pasture at the time of the fall migration, not all the nomads accompany the herds. Instead, a number prefer to remain at the home base.
The home-base encampment is located near one or more good sources of water and abundant vegetation for grazing, and is normally occupied for eight to nine months during winter-spring-summer. Households often shift their tents a few hundr-ed yards once or twice during their stay at the home base to accommodate to the prevailing winds, but never more than a few hundred yards. There is no special order to the two to nine tents in an encampment; sometimes we found them side by side in a line, the guylines of one literally overlapping the next; in other instances they were more dispersed. We always found it interesting that living in this great empty wilderness where one can travel for entire days without ever seeing another soul or tent, the nomads preferred to pitch their tents literally overlapping each other. Even in the more dispersed camps, just several hundred yards typically separated the tents. Generally, each tent houses an entire family, but sometimes an elderly parent or a married child who is still part of the family will live next to the parents in his or her own tent, either eating at the main tent or having food brought from the main tent. Sometimes such individuals will join the main tent only for the main evening meal, making tea and tsamba themselves earlier in the day.
Since each nomad family expects to live in the same site year after year, the home-base site invariably contains a number of "improvements." For example, each household has a three- to four-foot-deep rectangular pit over which it pitches its tent in winter, and substantial stone or sod walls (windbreaks) surround these tent sites. These offer some protection from the relentless winds and bitter cold. The home base is also where wealthy households traditionally constructed small sod or mud-brick storehouses in which they kept their "possessions": carcasses, skins, and equipment such as ropes, saddles, and saddle bags. Nowadays some wealthy households construct small one-room or one-room-plus-storeroom dwellings, these being considered more comfortable in winter than tents.
When a family's herds move to a pasture beyond the daily range of the home base, the family must also move with its tent (and belongings if they do not have a storeroom). However, the household head and his wife (or their elderly parents) often remain with the main yak-hair tent at the home base while their older children or hired shepherds take the livestock to the new pastures where a satellite camp is set up using either a smaller yak-hair tent or, more likely, a lightweight cloth "traveling" tent. Many households do not have enough members to simultaneously operate tents in two encampments, but the richer families generally maintain continual residence at the home base, hiring laborers to make up such deficits. They see it as the place with the most "conveniences." The short distances between home base and satellite campsites make this easily manageable since it is almost always possible to reach a satellite camp within one day on horseback. A single family, therefore, may have several separate camps and herds at one time-for example, in spring a yak satellite camp high in the mountains, a pregnant sheep-goat satellite camp on a specially setaside "birthing" area, and a home-base camp.
This desire to remain at the home base does not conflict with or contradict these people's identity as drokba. Although we call them nomads or nomadic pastoralists, their own self-image focuses primarily on being complete pastoralists (i.e., practicing no farming) rather than on moving their herds (nomadism) or even living in tents. If they had houses at each of their pasture sites, or if they never had to move between encampments, they would not consider that in any way incompatible with their identity as drokba. We suspect that if they knew English they would have no objection to being classified as "ranchers," as the following incident illustrates.
In the winter of 1987 we were camped in a nomad traveling-style tent in a camp with both houses and tents. One friend, like many others, expressed concern for our well-being in this harsh and, for us, alien environment, and actually offered to move into his tent and lend us his much-prized new house, explaining that houses were warmer and reduced the incessant noise of the wind. When we refused, saying that we wanted to experience winter in a tent in the traditional nomad fashion, his face showed bewilderment and for days afterwards when he stopped by to visit, he reiterated how difficult it must be for us, and how much warmer and quieter it would be in his house. The other nomads in the encampment agreed completely with him and also advised us to move into his tiny one room house. We finally realized that they did not share our image of drokba as 'pastoralists living in tents.' For them, pastoralism, not tent dwelling, was the key. Living in a house instead of a tent was a matter of comfort, not basic identity. The richest nomad during the traditional period had a house, and a number of the wealthy nomads had had storerooms, so having a house was actually perceived by them as a status symbol.
We should add that, like most of what the nomads told us about the environment, our friend\x92s advice on houses was accurate. On some evenings, the roar of the wind was so loud in our tent that we were unable to hear Voice of America short-wave broadcasts even with the radio held inches from our ears.
Notwithstanding their affinity for their home base and their view of a house at the home base as one of the ultimate luxury items, the nomads do move in order to subsist, always living in tents at the satellite camps and usually living in tents at the home base.