Tibetans are deeply religious people. Buddhism permeates every facet of their lives. Traditionally the people were in three different segments of society. The nomads, the farmers and the monks and nuns. All of them leading very different lives, but all sharing the same deep faith in Buddhism. This was a land where little change occurred for centuries. Now more change has happened in the last 50 years than in the 500 years previous. Communities consisted of clusters of homes on large areas of agricultural land once owned by the largest monastery. Until recently such communities were effectively self sufficient. Although it was a hard life, they could manage. Village families pulled together in times of need. Land was distributed so each family had both good and poorer quality land. Things are changing now as regions become more economically developed and immersed in a cash economy. Animal husbandry is still extremely important in Tibet, there are over 21 million head of livestock in the country.
The Tibetan people have a burial ritual which was banned by the Chinese until recently. After someone passed, their body is put into a sitting position for 24 hours. A lama recites prayers during this time. Three days after death the body is folded up and carried on a close friends back up to a burial site. These sites are usually high in the mountains.The hair is cut off, they chop up the body and pound the bones together with tsampa (roasted barley flour) this is for the vultures to eat. There is no sadness at the burial, as the soul is already considered to be gone, the body is merely a vessel. The burial itself is more seen as a disposal. Tibetans are encouraged to witness the disposal of the body and to confront death openly without fear. It is a powerful agent of transformation and spiritual progress.
Tibetan people still wear traditional clothing, although there is an increase in more western or Chinese style clothing. The Tibetan national dress is the chuba, a long sleeved sheepskin cloak. It is tied around the waist with a sash and often worn off of the shoulder. Nomads from eastern Tibet have cloaks with very long sleeves that are tied around the waist. Most women wear a long dress topped with a colourful striped apron. Traditional boots area made of leather strips and have turned up toes, apparently to kill less bugs while walking. Woman wear a lot of jewelery and their personal wealth and dowry are often invested in it. Coral is very valued as Tibet is so far from the sea. Earrings are common in both men and women. Woman from the northeastern and Qinghai areas wear their hair in 108 braids, an auspicious number in Buddhism. Khampa men wear a red or black tassel in a braid they wind around the head. Cowboy hats are commonly seen in summer and fur hats in winter.
The Tibetans are classified as belonging to the Mongoloid family of peoples. They probably descended from nomadic tribes that migrated from the north to settle around Tibet’s river valleys. It is estimated that one quarter of Tibetans are still nomadic. There are considerable variations between regional groups of people in Tibet. The most recognizable is the Khampas of eastern Tibet. The men are very large and rugged looking. Tibetans are also closely related to Sherpas of Nepal and Ladakhis of India.
Older folks stick their tongue out at you. It is a traditional form of respect that greeted the first travelers to Tibet centuries ago. Some say it was to prove the person was not a devil because devils have green tongues. We were not sure if we were supposed to do it back or not, but we had the greeting done to us a few times. Tibetans can be known to give gestures with their lips to indicate a particular direction. This is really strange. They will purse them to the right or left or pout to show a forward direction.
The Tibetan plateau is home to some of the last true nomadic culture in the world. It also has one of the most complete natural ecosystems on the Eurasian continent. It is not only known as the “roof of the world”, but as the 3rd pole of the earth. It’s home to many endangered and endemic wildlife. It is the source for many of Asia’s rivers including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Indus and Brah Maputra. This makes it the primary source of water for over 45% of the worlds population as well as having a direct influence on China and the entire Eastern Hemispheres climate.
You can see why it is so important to protect this area and make sure it is well taken care of. In 1980 there were only 1,059 visitors to the Tibetan plateau, 95% of which came from abroad. Two decades later in 2002 140,000 visitors came, and in 2004 1.22 million tourists came which 92% were domestic tourists. If this area is not protected properly there will be grave consequences in the future. The Chinese government plans to increase the population of Lhasa to over 2.5 million people. The fear is Lhasa will no longer have beautiful blue skies. It will become like any other large city in China, full of pollution. The growth rate of Tibet is over 16%, the highest in all of China. Huge tax incentives are given to Han Chinese that want to come and operate a business in Lhasa, they want to inundate Lhasa with more Chinese to keep a control on things.
No one is able to get the exact numbers of Chinese in Tibet. Official statistics claim that 95% of the Tibet Autonomous Region is Tibetan, everyone seems to greatly dispute this except the government. The Chinese figures for Lhasa say it is 87% Tibetan and just under 12% Han, it is more likely a 50/50 mix. The recent flood of Chinese immigrants into Lhasa has been termed as China’s “second invasion”. Despite all that the Chinese have brought with them, the karaoke joints, Chinese TV, cell phones and internet cafes, tradition and religion is still at the core of Tibetan life. The essence of Tibet remarkably still remains intact for now. Chinese are attracted to Tibet through preferential loans, and tax rates, and the less strict one child policy. As well as the easy business opportunities. All of this will contribute to the set up of urban centers all over Tibet. An education system that uses only the Mandarin language at higher levels reinforces the fact that only Sinicized Tibetans will be able to participate in Tibet’s economic advances.
A watchful eye is kept on all that goes on in Tibet. It is estimated that over 200,000 PLA, Peoples Liberation Army troops are positioned throughout the area. People do have a lot more freedom to practice their religion than they used to. Apparently they were not even allowed to carry prayer wheels around the Barkor a number of years ago. There are still no images, or writings allowed from the current Dalai Lama. Any political disobedience is quickly crushed. Monks and Nuns who are often the focus of protests and Tibetan aspirations for independence are subject to arrest and beatings. This is why the monasteries have very strict limits on how many monks they can have. The government wants everything kept under control. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. They are all over the monasteries inside and out. The Barkor area and around the Potala is riddled with them as well. Big brother is watching at all times. They look like street lamps in the Barkor area, you would probably never know what they were unless you had them pointed out to you. There are still occasional protests occurring, so the government wants to be able to get a quick jump if anything starts up.