Changpa // Nomads of the Tibetan Plateau
Pastoral nomadism has played an important role in shaping world history. The periodic interaction, cooperation, and conflict between Central Asian nomadic tribes and the sedentary peoples that shared their borders played critical roles in the development of trade routes, the transfer of ideas between East and West, and the spread of technology across the world. While much has been written about the impact, influence, and importance of historical nomadic empires such as those of the Mongols, the Huns, the Timurids, and the Scythians, I’m most interested in how these nomads are adapting to the 21st century and the challenges of globalization and climate change that are a part and parcel of the modern world.
The Changthang is a high altitude plateau that stretches 1,600 kilometers from southeastern Ladakh in India to northwestern Tibet in China with altitudes averaging 4,500 meters above sea level. The nomadic people that call this harsh land their home are called the Changpa, or northern people. Their name comes from the region, which itself means the northern plains, referring to the area’s location from the perspective of the former rulers sitting in Lhasa.
Nomadic life is often romanticized, usually with representations of freedom, wanderlust, and being beyond society’s obligations. #Nomad is frequently used on social networks indicating that the author of the tweet or instagram post is too cool to stay in one place.
In reality, the lives of these nomads are harsh, difficult, and dangerous. They follow migration routes that are centuries old, moving in between pastures and meadows that have been divided and assigned to different families. They walk the same path that their ancestors trod, moving their herds of Pashmina goats, sheep, yaks, and horses in cyclical journeys season after season. Losing animals to predators like snow leopards, Tibetan wolves, and lynxes are a sobering reality. They camp in stone-walled structures called rebos and spend cold winter nights in canvas tents. Hardly the type of free-ranging care free travel we imagine when using #nomad.
The snow-melt and spring fed meadows of the Changthang are delicate ecosystems that rely on winters with heavy snow to provide the moisture to grow grass in the spring. The Changpa I spoke with described winters that were getting lighter, jeopardizing the ability of the grass to grow at these high altitudes. The Changpa’s entire life is dependent on the availability of grass for their animals. There are over half a million people that still live this nomadic life across the Changthang in India and China.
How will these nomads cope with climate change and globalization? I hope to discover this as I continue to engage with them on my trips to Ladakh and the amazing landscapes they call home.