Survival on the Plateau

The reason why nomads are nomad is that the land they rely on for their livelihoods is often climatically harsh and unpredictable. For some it is because of the latitude, for some the altitude. It has droughts. Sometimes it becomes extremely cold or extremely hot. It is difficult for plants to grow.

Therefore, for the nomads to survive, they have to rely heavily on their flocks and herds. There is a Tibetan proverb that says: "Horse, yak and sheep are the three most basic needs for all nomadic herders".

Yak plays an indispensable role in maintaining these nomad’s daily necessities. Yak wool, yak meat, yak milk, and even yak dung provides to the herders the chance to survive in the plateau as food, clothing, shelter and transportation.

The nomads twist and weave wool into fabric for tents. Because of the shape of the yak bones, they become key parts in stabilizing the wooden frames of the tent. Yak hide turned into boots, containers and bags. The hair, leather, and tendons are made into ropes of various purposes.

The nomads milk yaks and sheep and extract oil from the milk to fuel oil lamps, make religious supplies, and moisturize their skin in the cold and dry plateau. The leftover milk granules also became a main ingredient of their staple food, Tsampa, providing the energy and nutrition they need.

The flock of yaks are important transporters for relocation as the nomads continually migrates from one fertile grazing pasture to the next. Dried dung of the livestock is important fuel since wood is hard to find on the plateau.

Sheep also play an important role. Because of the softer, warmer, and almost waterproof characteristics of sheep wool, they are made into sheep-hide jackets, as well as linings fabrics, mats, hats and raincoats that is made out of wool felts. We might say that yaks provide structure and overall foundation, while sheeps provide warmth and comfort for the nomadic life.

We also heard people say that in freezing weathers, the strong gamey flavor of the Tibetan lamb stew can also warm up herder’s body faster than stews made of beef.

In the past during the cooperative periods when they established a lot of cooperatives to cultivate and drain the high land, multiple households will entrust their flocks to one shepherd to graze and safeguard their sheep. Overtime, these shepherds are harder and harder to find. Each household has to herd their own sheep. With the grazing land now restricted and limited, more and more nomads sold their sheep since the sheep bring more pressure on the pasture, leaving them with only yaks left.

Horses are also highly valued on the grassland. On the vast Tibetan plateau with undulating terrain, horses assist the nomads to move far and fast. Even at special festivals, the nomads will select and showcase their most beautiful horses. Horses also often appears in Tibetan proverbs, following the life and wisdom of traditional Tibetan nomads.

However, compared to the yaks and sheep, horses are said to do more damage to the soil when overgrazed. Even for the wealthier nomads who possess hundreds of yaks, they rarely own more than two dozens of horses.