“Welcome to Tibet,” Tashi said as we walked out of the Xining airport after a 30-hour series of flights through mainland China. A former Buddhist monk turned Tibetan travel expert, Tashi would be our companion for the final leg of A River’s Tail as we made our final approach towards the source of the Mekong at the Lasagongma Springs.
Because of the difficulty of obtaining unrestricted travel permits for the Tibetan Autonomous Region, we’d had to abandon a portion of the Mekong and instead had decided on a more circuitous route to the river’s source. Beginning in the city of Xining, we would make a 4000km overland round trip through Qinghai province. And while the province fell under a Chinese name on the map, we quickly realized that this land was Tibet in all but official title.
After spending a year and a half tracing the Mekong from its terminus at the South China Sea, Tibet was a special place to be ending our travels. Beyond being the literal geographical source of the Mekong, Tibet was also on the front lines of the biggest water-related threats facing the planet.
Tibet possess the largest supply of the world’s freshwater outside of the Arctic and Antarctica, earning it the nickname of The Third Pole. The waters that flow out of its plateau are the basis of all of Asia’s major rivers – the Mekong included – and sustain upwards of a billion lives.
Over the course of our time in Tibet we would learn about more than just the source of the Mekong. The powerful bonds between culture and the environment, the grave threats to regional water security, and the extreme selflessness exhibited by many Tibetans people in their mission to keep the plateau healthy for the benefit of those who lived downstream were all distinctly Tibetan characteristics.
The Black Tent
“A black tent, a black tent!” Tashi called excitedly as he pointed out the window of our car to a small settlement on the side of the highway. The solitary tent sat at the base of rolling foothills that stretched across the horizon, and apart from lines of prayer flags blowing in the cold wind, was the only feature on the barren winter landscape.
“This is really rare,” Tashi explained, “tent culture is dying out very fast in Tibet. Most of the nomadic families these days have Chinese-style buildings at their winter camps. Soon you won’t see this at all.”
As we approached the tent we were too distracted by the monstrous Tibetan mastiff guard dogs (that seemed as though they would gladly eat us for breakfast if not staked to the ground with heavy chains) to notice what was unique about the black tent. While we were impressed by the toughness of any family who could live under a piece of cloth in the freezing temperatures of the Tibetan plateau in winter, from a distance the tent itself did not look like anything special. It was only when we got close enough to touch it that we realized that rather than a single piece of canvas, the walls were woven from thousands of individual strings of yak fur.
Hearing the frenzied barking of their dogs, two women emerged from the tent and surveyed us uninterestedly, exhibiting neither hostility or curiosity. Somewhat surprisingly, they made no effort to engage us in conversation or ask us what we wanted. Instead they mostly ignored us, and set to work weaving coarse tufts of yak hair into yet more threads, presumably to expand or repair the existing tent walls.
To be in such close proximity to other people, in their personal space nonetheless, and not interact with them in any meaningful was a strange experience and somewhat awkward for us after having speaking to so many people along the Mekong. Yet these nomadic women didn’t appear bothered in the least and simply continued with their task until we left, seeming neither annoyed or happy.
We were on our way to the monastery town of Payul (Baiyuxiang in Mandarin), but first we had hundreds more kilometres of grassland to cross through landscapes that were both utterly hostile looking and stunningly beautiful in their vastness. Apart from the periodic groups of pilgrims trudging along the side of the road and an occasional pickup truck loaded with wild-looking racing horses, it was easy to feel like we were alone in the sheer hugeness of the place.
Occasionally we passed more winter camps of Nomad families, most of whom had built permanent structures rather than the black yak hair tents, shielded from the bitter winter winds by head-height walls made exclusively from yak dung. Small children, their cheeks almost artificially red from wind burn as if they had been interrupted while experimenting with their mother’s makeup, stood in the subzero temperatures wearing little more than thin wool sweaters.
It was hard country, and the people who lived on it had to work hard to make it work for them.
Culture on the Move
“Once these people start moving into [permanent] houses the group culture starts to fall apart,” Tashi said as we stood on a bluff overlooking a sprawling complex of uniform single story homes. “Traditionally they live together in tents that are bigger than a house and take years to build from yak pelts. But most of these ‘real’ nomads are already gone.”
For nomads, who typically move with their yak herds three times per year between summer, winter, and autumn locations, the residential compound spread across the valley below was essentially an internment camp, a place where culture would suffocate and eventually die.
“In the old days there was no concept of land ownership,” Tashi explained. “Nomad families and tribes used to move together and share land. This started to change in the 1980’s when the government started assigning land to families, and surrounding this land with fences.”
It was strange to think of the impact something so simple as a fence could have on an ancient way of life, but as nomadic families started to think of land as their personal property, disputes and violent conflicts began to increase. People who had defined their culture through the sharing of land and resources for thousands of years were becoming divided. And while it seemed, from a distance, that the vast majority of the government-built housing compound was empty, it nevertheless represented a grave threat to (and possibly even the slowly approaching end of) nomadic culture.
But as ominous as the camp was, for the time being most nomads were not yet abandoning their traditional lifestyle. They faced threats from many angles, including the growth of massive industrial mining operations in the region and the degradation of grasslands so essential to the survival of their herds. But for people living in such relative isolation there was little to be done apart from tend to their yaks and hope to be left alone.
In Tibet, as in countless other places along the Mekong, 21st century issues of climate change, environmental degradation, land development, and the over exploitation of resources were most affecting those people who had done the least to precipitate the problems.
As we would see over the coming weeks, however, Tibetans were not resigned to inaction. Perhaps more so than any other group of people we had encountered along the Mekong, Tibetans were fighting to preserve what they had.
A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.