Drokpa: The Nomadic Mountain People of Tibet

"The top of the mountain,
Wears snow like a lambskin hat.
Come my light, brilliant sun
And I will take off that lambskin hat.

The mountain wears a belt of mist.
Come gentle wind
And I will loosen the belt.

The foot of the mountain
Wears a shoe of frozen river.
Come spring, with your warmth
And I will take off my shoes."

A Khampa nomad song, translated by Dru gu Choegyal Rinpoche

Known as "a land of snows," Tibet has the youngest and therefore some of the highest mountains on earth. Journeying there, I have found a landscape of awesome beauty with the average altitude being 14,000 feet, an extreme and savage climate. It strikes me that it takes a tough and resilient people to flourish in these conditions, and also that perhaps the vastness and solitude of the landscape has encouraged Tibetans' natural bent for visionary mysticism and unique brand of Buddhism.

I have been photographing Tibetans for a number of years—deeply inspired by a culture that places spirituality at the heart of life. I have been most moved by Tibet's Drokpa, or nomads, who until recently comprised an estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of the Tibetan population. Drokpa means, "people of the solitudes," and they are truly a mountain people, herding livestock on vast high-altitude pastures for millennia. Their way of life has remained unchanged for centuries, making them natural stewards of Tibet's grasslands and living examples of original Tibetan culture.

On trips to Tibet from 2000 to the present, I have been privileged to stay with nomad families in Amdo and Kham in eastern Tibet, and have found myself totally smitten by their wild earthiness and independent spirit as well as their friendliness, hospitality, and sense of fun. The nomad women, particularly, have impressed me, holding life together and doing most of the work. I have enjoyed spending time with them in the black, yak-hair tents, the warm heart of nomad life—the place for eating, sleeping, making butter, cheese, and curd, socialising, saying prayers, having babies, and dying.

Traditionally, the Tibetan nomads were very free, forming tribal communities to protect and support each other in their harsh environment where the major threats included weather, disease, bandits, wolves, or snow leopards. But this beautiful earth-based way of life is dying due to the Chinese policy of "resettling" nomad families. In many areas of Tibet, up to 80 percent of the Drokpa have been coaxed or forced into selling off their herds and moving to concrete houses in bleak villages, or in towns where they are often marginalized, with no education, and no skills aside from yak husbandry.

When I first travelled to Kham and Amdo in 2000, Tibet was still a horse culture and I travelled with my Tibetan friends to nomad camps, villages, picnics, horse races, monasteries, and festivals on horseback. By the time I returned in 2006, there was barely a horse rider to be seen, and Tibet seemed to have become a motorbike culture, as people discovered that a motorbike is much cheaper than a good horse. The horse culture now lives on in summer festivals and in some nomad camps, but I wonder how long this will last.

From 2006 on, I have seen fewer nomadic encampments and the land in many areas has an empty, abandoned feeling. Meanwhile, new roads, fencing, and pylons snake across the vast grasslands. The beautiful hand-woven black tents of the Drokpa are becoming obsolete, and more of the Tibetan people are adopting a modern Chinese lifestyle.

I sense that the loss of the Drokpa way of life will have impacts beyond what we can imagine. As rangeland ecologist, Daniel Miller, writes:

"Settling nomads will erode their unique body of ecological knowledge of the grazing lands and how best to utilise them. Much of this in-depth understanding of the land can never be learned from a textbook or in the classroom. It can only be attained from years of being out in the grasslands in all kinds of weather throughout all the seasons. Who will pass this indigenous knowledge of the landscape on to the next generation if nomads are settled in towns?"