Tibetan Farmers and Nomads

In general speaking, Tibet main livelihood patterns can be divided into farming areas and pastoral areas. Therefore, for centuries, subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry have been the main livelihood in Tibet. They provide food, clothing, raw materials for handicraft, and goods for trade.

Tibetan Farmers

The main crops grown by farmers in Tibet are highland barley, the secondary ones include wheat, pea, broad bean, buckwheat, rye, potatoes, and assorted fruits and vegetables. In the recent years, large quantities of new varieties of crops and vegetables have been introduced into Tibet, particularly almost all of them that can be found in China can also be found in Tibet.

Barley is the main high elevation crop cultivated on the Tibetan Plateau for at least 4000 years ago, but its origin and domestication remain unclear. Barley is especially tolerant of cold and frost, it grows very well on the high elevation regions, therefore making it ideal for farming in Tibet, and barley agriculture providing Tibetans with sustained food supplies throughout the seasons, therefore, it remains important in the diet of Tibetans.

The basic food called Tsampa is made from roasted and crushed barley mixed with yak cheese, butter and tea. Traditionally barley is used only to make Tsampa and alcoholic spirits, but nowadays variety of new products made from barley, like beer, biscuits, cakes and noodles. Barley is a true organic food, experts say. The highland barley is nutritious, rich in mineral elements and a unique health food believed capable of reducing blood fats, improving digestion, and preventing diabetes and altitude sickness.

Apart from agricultural production, Tibetan farmers raise relatively small number of livestock species such as cattle, sheep, goats, and horses, they help to improve income and wellbeing of the farm family by providing food supply, family nutrition, family income, asset savings, soil productivity, livelihoods, transport, agricultural traction, agricultural diversification and sustainable agricultural production.

Tibetan Nomads

Nomads are still found on the Tibetan Plateau. Known in the Tibetan language as Drokpa, translating as ‘High-pasture People’. Tibetan Drokpa, they have created a unique nomadic culture and contributed to, and were a part of, a remarkable civilization that was the most powerful empire in Asia over 1,300 years ago. Hence, Tibetans, all works of life considered nomads as an important element in the local economy and society wherever they are found.

For centuries these nomads have ranged across the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau with their grazing herds of sheep, cattle, goats and yaks. Like many people living close to nature, the nomads in Tibet have developed a close connection to the land and the livestock that nurture them. They have traditionally worn thick clothes, lived in traditional nomadic tents and moved from place to place to better feed the animals. Money is earned by trading animals for grain or selling them or their meat for money.

The yak, an exceptional animal superbly adapted to the high altitude, cold environment of the Tibetan Plateau, characterizes Tibetan nomadic pastoralism. Tibetans place so much value on it that the Tibetan term for yaks “Nor”, can be translated as “Wealth”. Yaks provide nomads with milk, meat, hair, wool and hides. They are also used as pack animals and for riding. Dried yak dung is an important source of fuel in an environment where firewood is not available. Without the yak it is doubtful if man could live as well as he does in the high altitude pastoral areas. The yak makes life possible for the Tibetan nomads.

Yaks also play an important role in many pastoral rituals and religious festivals. Events such as yak dances and yak races signify the vital role that yaks have in Tibetan nomadic society, not only as a means of daily sustenance, but also for their cultural and spiritual value.

Yak Hair Tent are a prime example of nomads’ skill in adapting to a nomadic life on the windswept Tibetan steppe. Made from the long, coarse hair of the yak, tents can be easily taken down and packed on yaks when moving camp. They keep out the rain yet let in light. Sections of the tent that become old and frayed can be easily replaced with new strips of woven yak hair. Staked out with yak hair ropes, tents have been perfected to stand up in the fierce winds that blow across the Tibetan plains.

In addition to yaks and yak-cattle hybrids, Tibetan nomads raise goats, sheep and horses. Tibetan goats are famous for the fine cashmere they produce; this is used for making expensive shawls that are woven in Kashmir. Goats are also milked by the nomads and produce milk for a longer period of time than sheep.

Sheep are also an important animal for the nomads. They provide wool, meat and hides and, in some areas, are also milked. Among Tibetan nomads, sheep meat is the most preferred. The wool from Tibetan sheep ranks among the best carpet wools of the world; it is highly prized for its great elasticity, deep luster, and outstanding tensile strength. The fibers of Tibetan sheep wool have an exceptionally smooth surface that reflects extra light, making them more lustrous than wool from other breeds. These factors help give Tibetan carpets their unique characteristics — the subtle shaded a brash, supple resiliency and potentially radiant patina.

Nomads also raise horses for riding and transporting supplies, but do not milk nor eat them. The grazing lands of Amdo in northeast Tibet have long been renowned for producing good horses. This area is also the home of the legendary Golok tribes,

Although horses play only a minor economic role in Tibetan nomads’ lives, and their numbers are never anywhere near as large as those found among nomads in Mongolia, horses do help to create special attitudes and values among Tibetan nomads. Horsemanship is a highly regarded skill and throughout the Tibetan pastoral area, horse races and various contests have held that test both the horsemen’s skills and the horses’ performance.

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