A Nomad’s Life

Ben Hillman conducts research on political change in Asia, democratisation, ethnic conflict, post-conflict reconstruction and comparative local governance. He is based at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University, works as an advisor to the United Nations on issues of governance and institution-building and is Founding Chair of the Eastern Tibet Training Institute, a not-for-profit training center based in southwest China that provides free vocational training to unemployed Tibetan and other ethnic minority young people.—The Editors


During the spring and summer months Tashi is a hard man to find. He and his family travel far into the mountains of western Sichuan in search of pasture for their yaks. They follow a centuries-old route carved through the mountains by their ancestors.

Over the winter months they take shelter at a campsite 200 kilometres to the west of Garze, which is where I found them during a recent trip to Kham, the eastern part of the Tibet Plateau.

Mountain road in south-west China. Photography: Lois Conner

Mountain road in south-west China. Photography: Lois Conner

Their campsite was 4000 metres above sea level. When I arrived, the winter sun was already low in the sky and the temperature was plummeting. Tashi’s wife Lhamu ushered me into their cinderblock hut past two ferocious mastiffs and toward a carpeted stump of wood located next to the hearth. Her husband, she told me in the nomad dialect of Tibetan, would be home soon. I tried speaking in Chinese, but neither she nor her daughter seemed to understand. I sensed that their son, a thirteen-year old monk, could follow what I was saying, but he was too shy to engage in conversation. He sat in front of an old television set on the other side of the hut, stealing occasional glimpses of me.

A few minutes later Tashi entered with a big smile and a wave. He squatted next to me, shrinking into a bulky woollen coat from which he began to extract various odds and ends. Tashi pulled out some cash, a hand-woven slipper, a knife and a small picture frame. As he placed these items on the floor, he said with a grin: ’This is what people give me for telling their fortunes.’

Tashi is not just a pastoralist, he is also a fortuneteller whose services are highly sought after by other drokpa (Tibetan nomads) in the area. He advises people on auspicious dates for leading yaks to summer pasture and predicts whether somebody would survive a serious illness. His secret, he told me, was a string of prayer beads that had been blessed by an important lama. ‘These beads are very accurate’, Tashi told me in broken Chinese. ‘Nowadays everybody wants me to tell their fortune … sometimes I have to make two or three house calls in a day … it’s very tiring.’

Tashi took off his coat and laid it on the floor as a rug. As we spoke his daughter brought a truck battery in and connected it to a transformer that was wired to a single light bulb and the television set. The battery had been charged during the day by a solar panel – a welcome gift from the county government. ‘The government gives us more things these days, even some money to build this house,’ he told me in broken, but intelligible Sichuanese.

Tashi explained that he spoke better Chinese than most nomads because he had been to prison. I learned that he was given a three-year sentence for aggravated assault. He  had stabbed a man but claimed to have good cause. The man he stabbed was a fellow drokpa who lived in the next valley. ‘We used to be friends with his family,’ he said. One day the man accused Tashi of stealing one of his yaks — an accusation he vehemently denied. Unconvinced, the man went to the township police who detained Tashi and beat him up while attempting to extract a confession. Furious at this injustice, Tashi later tracked down his accuser and settled his grievance in the traditional way of Khampa (Eastern Tibetan) men, by cutting him with a blade. They eventually caught the thief who stole the yak, but Tashi still went to jail.

‘Is that the only time you’ve been in trouble with the law?’, I asked.

‘No, the police beat me up another time. It was about seven or eight years ago, before I went to jail. A friend gave me a really nice picture of the Dalai Lama. I took it into town to get it framed. Outside the shop, a guy asked if he could see it. I showed him. Then other people crowded around wanting to see it. This caused a commotion. A policeman came and took me to the station. They asked me where I got it. I told them I bought it from a Chinese traveling salesman – you know the guys who come from Hubei or wherever selling shoes and things. I said this so they wouldn’t be able to trace it.’

‘Anyway, the motherfuckers thought I was lying so they beat me up.’

‘What about the picture?’

‘They took it, of course. But I got another one.’

Tashi seemed to bear no grudge against the police or the authorities. He told me his life was good. When I asked him what was good about it he stood up and beckoned me to follow him outside. We exited the hut into the fading light, walking a narrow path between the two-ton yak hulks that were tethered to stakes in neat rows in front of the hut. ‘Don’t step on the yaks,’ he warned, ‘they don’t like it.’

Tiger Leap Gorge, Jingsha River, Yunnan 云南金沙江虎跳峡. Photograph: Lois Conner

Tiger Leap Gorge, Jingsha River, Yunnan 云南金沙江虎跳峡. Photograph: Lois Conner

Tashi led me down a path that stopped in front of a dilapidated timber shack with no floor and no windows. ‘My family lived here twenty years ago,’ he said. Then pointing along the path to a more solidly built yet basic rammed-earth hut, he said ‘we lived there ten years ago.’ Then he gestured at me to follow him to a building across the courtyard from the brick house where his wife Lhamu was preparing dinner.

Tashi opened the heavy timber door into what appeared to be a storeroom. Slabs of dried yak meat hung from the rafters. Two trail bikes were parked underneath. I followed Tashi across the dark room and through an internal door. Crossing the heavy wood-block threshold we entered into a large Tibetan Buddhist chapel that was elaborately decorated with wooden carvings, thangkas and photos of revered lamas, including a large poster of the Dalai Lama. There were thick-pile carpets for comfortable seating. Dozens of bottles of soft drinks as well as cakes and lollies covered a five metre-long row of tables. ‘Look,’ he said to me, ‘this is what we have now. Tonight you will sleep here.’

Tashi’s family lived a very simple life by the standards of China’s growing middle classes and even those of less well-off Chinese farmers.  By traditional Tibetan nomad standards, however, they were rich. Tashi had built his own prayer room – an item of religious significance and a symbol of wealth and status. His ancestors could not have dreamed of such luxury. He could also afford to send his only son to the monastery to become a monk. This was considered highly prestigious among rural and nomadic Tibetans. It was a commitment that demanded significant resources. Not only did Tashi have to forgo his son’s labor in the household economy, he also had to pay his son’s living costs at the monastery. Unlike in previous times, when the monastery was funded by a fixed share of the peasants’ harvest, monks now have to pay their own way. Eventually, when the young monks are suitably educated and qualified, they can earn an independent income by charging fees for officiating at religious services such as funerals.

Zhongdian (Shangrila), Yunnan province. Photograph: Lois Conner

Zhongdian (Shangrila), Yunnan province. Photograph: Lois Conner

The secret to Tashi’s and many other nomad families’ new-found wealth is a strange creature known as the ‘caterpillar fungus’. Highly prized in China and Tibet for its medicinal qualities (it is used in the treatment of ailments from low libido to cancer), the caterpillar fungus can be found in the plateau’s grasslands at an altitude of 3000 to 5000 metres. When the grasses sprout, the larvae of the ghost moth awake from a subterranean sleep. As the larvae emerge, many fall victim to a colonizing fungus. The fungus devours the larva as it germinates, leaving behind a fruity mummified body. Tibetans call it yartsa gunbu, which means ‘summer grass winter bug’. In Chinese it is popularly known as dong chong xia cao 冬虫夏草, or chongcao虫草 ‘plant insect’ for short.

Yartsa gunbu has brought hitherto unattainable wealth to Tibetan nomads like Tashi who can capitalise on their expert knowledge of the grasslands to know when and where to look for the mummified bugs. ‘My daughter has the best eye for them,’ he tells me. ‘Each year she can make more than 20,000 yuan.’ It’s equivalent to the annual salary of a government-employed teacher or a nurse. Tashi’s wife also harvests yartsa gunbu, bringing in a further 20,000 yuan.

As we talked, Tashi proudly showed me various features of his prayer room. He has plans for a future extension. ‘Following next year’s [yartsa gunbu] harvest, I am going to add an atrium to the eastern end,’ he said. ‘I’m going to make a wall of glass to capture the morning sun.’ We talked about the angle of the sun during the winter and the best place to erect a glass wall.

Tashi led me back to the hut, treading deftly between the sleeping yaks. Inside the hut a broth of noodles, yak meat and dried chilies was simmering on the stove. Harnessing power from the sun-charged truck battery, Tashi’s son and daughter were watching a Chinese kungfu period drama on TV.

Tashi asked me if I had any medicine. ‘Medicine for what?’, I asked. ‘Medicine for my wife’s leg – it really hurts her.’ Lhamu nodded in agreement from the working end of the stove. It occurred to me that the family’s new-found wealth did not afford them access to decent healthcare. Hospitals in many of China’s remote rural areas are scary places that demand high fees in return for poor service. It is little wonder that many rural Tibetans seek advice from fortunetellers and shamans before considering treatment at a public hospital.

From the way Tashi described his wife’s pain, it sounded like she might be suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Much as I wanted to help, I didn’t want to give Tashi the impression that I knew something about medicine. I made a vague promise to bring medicine on my next visit, although I confessed I did not know when that might be. ‘Come back in the summer,’ he said, ‘the summers here are a lot of fun.’

Lhamu began serving the noodles, which tasted good even though my non-Tibetan teeth and jaws were insufficiently evolved to masticate the chunks of rehydrated yak meat. Helpfully, Tashi poured me some barley wine from a jerry can.

My visit to Tashi’s house coincided with the fifth anniversary of the 2008 Tibetan unrest, the most widespread and violent unrest in decades. The region where Tashi and his family live had experienced particularly high levels of unrest, including riots which led to the burning of government buildings and several deaths. Earlier that day I had passed through the nearby county town where armed police stood at every corner. An armed personnel carrier sat in a central parking lot.

‘I saw a lot of police in the county town today,’ I told Tashi, ‘I guess it’s because of the anniversary of 3.14 [the standard reference to the 2008 demonstrations, which erupted on 14 March].’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘Why do you think people joined the protests?’

‘Because people are sad’, he said. ’We are sad because our lama is not among us. It’s been a long time since he left. Most people, including me, have never seen him. We want the Dalai Lama to come back.’

‘Is that why some people are burning themselves?’

‘I don’t know. A nun from over that mountain burned herself. She was very brave.’

Lhamu ladled more noodles into her husband’s bowl as he continued talking. Some of the hot broth splashed on his hand, but he didn’t flinch or bother wiping it off.

‘You know, life is good here. I can do what I want. We take our yaks into the mountains and come and go as we please. We collect yartsa gunbu and sell them for a good price. My son is in the monastery learning to become a monk. I have a good house for the winter and a chapel. The only thing we miss is the Dalai Lama. If he came back life would be excellent.’

Tashi grinned as he said ‘excellent’. I asked him, ‘Do many other people you know feel the same way?’

‘Yes – all of them.’

We continued talking into the evening. When it was time to retire, I was taken, as promised, to sleep in the chapel. The family was accustomed to sleeping on mats near the kitchen stove where it was warmer. The temperature was already below freezing. Inside the chapel I crawled into my sleeping bag and shone a flashlight on the walls around me. A gold-framed Dalai Lama looked down benevolently. I studied the picture and marveled at how even a photograph of the holy man could bring Tibetans so much joy.

'Mani stones' in Qinghai province (Amdo). Photograph: Lois Conner

‘Mani stones’ in Qinghai province (Amdo). Photograph: Lois Conner