I was sitting inside the dark, yak-hair tent of a nomad family in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalaya. Outside, some scruffy sheep searched for greenery among the cold and barren moonscape, and large raptors circled in the thermals. As we huddled around the hearth, the old man handed me a small glass of salty, yak-butter tea.
“There were wolves here two nights ago,” he told me through a translator. “This time I chased them away, but they will come back again and try and get at my sheep. It’s happening more and more.”
“Everything about being a herder is getting more difficult,” he added. “Maybe my sons won’t want to continue this life. My wife and I might be among the last of the nomads here.”
It was a story I’d heard time and again across the Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau. Whether because of climatic changes, the call of a more comfortable life in the cities, political repression or the demands of education, life is changing fast for the people of Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan regions.
I have been traveling to and walking around the Himalaya and Tibet for some 25 years. During that time, I’ve written a number of guidebooks on the region — for Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Bradt. I always travel with a local guide who acts as a translator, and I like to spend as much time as I can walking, because doing so increases contact with local people. There’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting down in a remote tea shop or nomad tent and talking to people about their lives.
Defining the borders of Tibet can be difficult. This is because, in some ways, there are several Tibets.
The area we commonly think of as Tibet today — and the area marked on most maps as Tibet — is the Tibet Autonomous Region. This is the second largest region or province of modern China, and its regional capital is Lhasa.
Before Communist forces seized control of Tibet in 1950, it was a functionally independent nation, and its borders were larger than they are today. (China refers to its takeover of Tibet as a “peaceful liberation.” At the time, China says, the new Communist government was reasserting sovereignty over a territory that was lost after the fall of the Qing dynasty.)
Much of what is today the mountainous western part of China’s Sichuan Province was, before the 1950 takeover, politically and culturally a part of Tibet, known as Kham. Likewise, to the north of the Tibet Autonomous Region is the Chinese province of Qinghai; this was also historically a part of Tibet, known as Amdo, though it fell under Chinese control in the 18th century.
And then there are the parts of the Himalaya that are culturally Tibetan even if they have never — or not for a long time, anyway — been politically a part of Tibet. These include the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, parts of Nepal (most notably Upper Mustang and Dolpo, as well as some valleys to the north of the main mountain peaks) and parts of India, especially Ladakh, the setting of a longstanding border dispute.
Tibetans are mostly adherents of their own tradition of Buddhism, and monasteries and nunneries have long been a central part of their culture and life.
The spiritual leader of Tibet is the Dalai Lama, who was based in Lhasa until 1959, when he and many of his supporters fled in the wake of a failed uprising. He’s now based in Dharamsala, in northern India, where an entire Tibetan government in exile has been set up.
There are also large Tibetan exile communities in Nepal, other parts of India and a smaller community in Bhutan.
Chinese domination of Tibet has undoubtedly brought much-needed development and a higher standard of living to the plateau. (In 1959 Tibet was one of the least developed places in Asia.) But it has also brought with it massive suppression of Tibetan rights and the crushing of Tibetan culture and religious practices. Mining and damming have also resulted in significant environmental damage.
Many Tibetans living under Chinese rule have little in the way of freedoms. Positions of power are dominated by Han officials, often from other parts of China. There are widespread reports of human rights abuses, infringement on religious freedoms, allegations of arbitrary arrest and the torture of political prisoners. Tibetans that I know who live in Chinese-run parts of Tibet have told me in private that they feel like they are living in a giant prison and are under constant surveillance.
The Chinese government disputes these claims and says that it has done much to change Tibet for the better — efforts that have put an end to feudal serfdom, profoundly reduced poverty and doubled the life expectancy. Literacy rates have also risen under Chinese rule — to 85 percent today, up from 5 percent in the 1950s.
Because of the suppression of traditional Tibetan life and culture within the Chinese-run parts of Tibet, it’s often easier to find a more traditional classical Tibetan culture in the culturally Tibetan parts of India, Nepal and Bhutan.
But, even in areas where Tibetan culture is allowed to flourish, there have been significant changes in recent years.
In the past, many Tibetans lived a seminomadic lifestyle as they moved with their livestock — often yaks — to and from summer and winter pastures. Today, though, the desire to ensure that children receive the best education possible is making such a lifestyle increasingly challenging. The push to earn a reliable wage in the towns and cities has also meant that many formally nomadic families have left the mountains behind. Other changes are coming from the increasing construction of roads, widespread ownership of motorbikes, and the ubiquity of telephones and internet.
All of these developments are bringing new ideas, new opportunities and — for better or worse — great changes to traditional Tibetan and Himalayan lifestyles.
Tourism has also played a part in the changes being wrought on the region. In certain areas, a massive trekking and adventure travel industry has developed. While the arrival of thousands of international tourists brings environmental and social changes, it has also allowed families to remain in the mountains and to profit off the nature around them and Tibetan culture.
A case in point would be the nomadic Tibetan family I met on the grasslands of the Kham region, who, working side by side with a local guesthouse, were offering tourists the chance to stay with them in their traditional yak-wool tent and learn something of traditional Tibetan nomadic life.
In addition to generating much-needed income for their family, they were also retaining pride in their traditional way of life — and finding the means to carry it on for another generation.
Stuart Butler is a writer and photographer based in France. You can follow his work on Instagram.