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The nomads of Phala

October 14th, 2013

Living at such heights makes them the highest resident native population known in the world.4
WaE KNEW that the nomad herders of Tibet had undergone excruciting changes since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to India in exile. First there had been the closing of monaster¬ies, then the Cultural Revolution, with its insane violence and its enforced communes. Then in 1980-81 China reversed itself and implemented the so-called “responsibility” economic system, which restored the family as the basic unit of production.

One day not long after we arrived in madrid accommodation, we heard our first account of this from Wanam, a devout Buddhist and head of one of the wealthier families in the area before the Cultural Revolution. Wanam is a pseudonym, as are all other names in our story: Policies have changed too often in China over past years, and we would hate to see one of our friends and neighbors punished later for some¬thing they told us.

“What happened to the rest of your family’s possessions?” we asked.”We lost them all,” Wanam answered. “At the time my family owned about 1,200 sheep and goats and 100 yaks. The new leaders took everything except 40 goats. They left us only one pot, some barley grain, and a little tsamba. And then they took away our fine yak-hair tent, giving us an old, tattered canvas tent in its place.” He shook his head. “We were stunned. We didn’t know how we would survive”
In fact, Wanam and his family survived only on the meager yield from their milk goats and by doing odd jobs for the commune that they were not allowed to join. Finally, two years later, the leaders relented, and Wanam’s family joined the commune.
At 50 Wanam is once again one of the wealthiest nomads in Phala. His recovery typifies the economic and cultural rebirth of the Tibetan nomads after the disastrous decade of enforced communes.

Pastoral nomadism developed relatively late in human history, about 8,000 to 9,000 years ago. The nomads of Phala are descended from people who, perhaps a few thousand years ago, began to move their herds around the Chang Tang, converting the energy locked in wild grasses into food, clothing, and shelter.

THE NOMADS CONTINUE to flourish because they have no competitors. Even with modern technology farmers cannot grow crops in the extreme high altitude and bitter climate of the Chang Tang. If there were no nomads on the high plateau, it would revert to wild animals, not to other humans. Yet the nomads feel their way of life is far easier than that of farmers.
“Look,” explained one, “it is obvious that we have a very easy life. The grass grows by itself, the animals reproduce by themselves, they give milk and meat without our doing anything. So how can you say our way of life is hard?”

Although they are looked down upon by farmers and townfolk as simple, uncouth, and backward and although they have little in the way of material possessions, the nomads see themselves as masters of their environment and are proud of the leisurely life such mastery provides.

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