By golly, I have pitched tents in some wild and wooly places. Once, while sneaking into forbidden Tibet Autonomous Region, I camped in a forest beside the Dri Chu river. Later that same year (1991), while biking the Karakorum Highway, I camped beside the yurts of Kirgiz herders. I’ve camped in the Changthang in western Tibet, in the tent city of the Lithang Horse Festival, and in western Tuva beside a Scythian archeological site. What’s not to love about closeness with nature and the infinite silence of the nighttime mountains, especially when those mountains are in Tibet or Central Asia? Intoxicating.
Thirty years later, I’ve not fallen out of love with camping, not at all. As I write this, I’m freshly back from a two-week trip, sleeping in my tent in the Boise National Forest, Grand Teton National Park, and other scenic locales. My husband was with me. As a concession to our age—we’re both over sixty—we stayed every third night in a building with a roof, showers, and laundry. But on many nights, we had only a thin shell of ripstop nylon between us and the stars. Nothing beats it.
By the end, though, I was hammered. I had a crick in my neck; my brain was fogged from less-than-adequate sleep; and I ached all over from the unforgiving camping mattress. I couldn’t stomach any more freeze-dried backpacker swill or gritty French-pressed coffee. Far from being restful, the vacation had ground me down and taxed the limits of my endurance.
—Which brought me to ponder the permanent camping trip enjoyed by Tibet’s nomadic pastoralists. Their intimate knowledge of their animals and Tibet’s vast rangelands are part and parcel of the Shangri-La dream that fascinates outsiders. As president of Kham Aid Foundation, I researched the difficulties faced by nomads in areas such as health, education, and jobs, and I set up programs to address them in a few places. I also spent a few nights in their yak-hair tents myself. Here is a description of nomad living standards compared to my just-completed American camping trip .
Bathrooms. Sorry to start out with this, but it’s important. Tibetan nomads do not have bathrooms. They urinate and defecate in the open, which means they need to trek a bit to get away from the tent and other people. Not so bad when you’re young, but when you’re sixty-plus, those middle-of-the-night calls of nature are an extreme nuisance. What’s worse, nomads don’t have toilet paper (usually), and they have nowhere to wash their hands. Most of my campsites, by contrast, were in established campgrounds with some sort of enclosed toilet that either flushed or had a deep holding tank. Most had hand washing facilities. I don’t need to tell you what proper toilets and hand washing mean for health and sanitation.
Shelter. Tibetan herders traditionally live in tents made of woven yak hair. They might look waterproof; but they’re not. The fabric keeps out snow well enough, but I have personally experienced rain passing through the loose weave and coming inside. Also, the tents have a hole at the top to let out smoke, which lets in more rain, yet the tents still get smoky inside, giving people lung disease. The floors are made of trampled dirt, which gets muddy in wet weather. It’s impossible to keep things clean. If I were able to choose, I would choose to stay in a yurt like those used in central Asia. Yurts are much more weather-proof.
My camping tent is small, but its rainfly keeps out weather well enough. My backpacking mat is softer than any herder bed I ever slept on.
Personal hygiene. Besides the toilet-related challenges already noted, it is not easy to bathe in a Tibetan tent. The steps are as follows: First, haul a bucket of water from the nearest stream, often a hundred yards or more away. Next, get some yak dung that has been previously kneaded to uniform consistency and dried into pucks. Light the dung and stoke the fire with hand-pumped bellows until your water is warm. Pour the heated water into a basin and mix it with cold to the desired temperature. Then use a hand towel or other cloth to clean your body. Most of the time, this means just hands, face, and feet. In summer, men and children will bathe in lakes and streams; adult women almost never do. In winter, hygiene is much harder, and laundry is practically impossible. Tent-dwellers wear the same clothes for days, weeks, or months.
Contrast this to my camping trip, where campgrounds provided water and I had a convenient propane stove. Even so, I would have been very stinky without shower and laundry stops every three days.
Food. Herders in Tibet eat the following: tea, tsampa, butter, dried cheese, yogurt (when in season), meat (not always available for a number of reasons), and noodles. In certain seasons there are drolma root, which tastes a bit like sweet potatoes, and wild herbs. The momos (dumplings) so beloved by Tibetans and their admirers are too complicated to be a staple of full-time tent-dwellers. I’ve never seen nomads eat them.
During my camping trip, besides pouches of instant backpacker meals, we also had fresh vegetables carried in our cooler, and we sometimes ate in restaurants. ‘Nuff said.
Health care. If you’re a herder in Tibet and you’re very sick, or if you’re a woman in labor, you have a problem. The nearest clinic is hours–or maybe days—away. Getting there is a bumpy ride on the back of a motorcycle. The doctors, if you can afford them, won’t be first-rate because good doctors don’t like to live in remote areas. Whatever is wrong with you, they will probably treat with intravenous antibiotics, and they will sell you some pills. If you go to a monastery for care, you will get no antibiotics and different pills. If you have a gynecological problem or a dangerous pregnancy, good luck.
Meanwhile, in the US, almost everywhere I camped, emergency medical care was just a 9-1-1 call away.
I could go on, but you get the picture. It’s rough being a Tibetan nomad, and it’s life-shortening, which is why some herders had transitioned to a sedentary lifestyle well before the Chinese government came up with its settlement programs. A couple of KhamAid staff came from nomad backgrounds, but they had gotten educations and jobs, and they had no intention of going back to herding. Lots more nomads have shifted to a seasonal lifestyle in which they camp with their herds on the high pastures in summer, then return to permanent home bases at a lower elevation in winter. The advantage of this arrangement is that oldsters like me do not need to camp in winter, or at all.
Why does the herder lifestyle appear so great from the outside? First of all, Tibetan herders are rightfully proud of who they are: strong, tough survivors enjoying a kind of freedom most of us can only dream about; none of them would want to give the impression otherwise. I also think it’s because people who write about Tibetan nomads for the media get their information from men. Adon’t stay overnight.
In my book Compassion Mandala, I describe the lives of herder women. I would not want to be one, certainly not at my current age. Their workday is far longer than men’s, and their chores entail nonstop stooping and lifting. Childbearing as a Tibetan nomad is downright dangerous; as I have written in my book, herding areas have extremely high rates of infant and maternal mortality.
As difficult as a nomad’s life can be, change is hard, especially for adults who know only herding and have no other skills. It’s cruel to coerce people into giving up their accustomed way of life, as the Chinese government has done to many, yet it’s also wrong to deprive the younger generation of the freedom to embrace other paths.
There are no easy answers; but I believe that change in Tibet would be inevitable even without the government’s interference. I’m proud of Kham Aid Foundation’s work to expand educational opportunities and improve health care for rural Tibetans, both nomadic and sedentary. And I am grateful for the comfortable bed I return to after my adventures are over.