I rebel against those up there, I rebel against Tibet, I rebel!
Against the orders of the Dharma King of Tibet I rebel!
I rebel and the sky is with me.
The blue sky is with the rebellion!
I rebel against those down there, I rebel,
I rebel! We make our own laws!
The laws for the deer of the rocky highlands of Ma,
We make ourselves!
I rebel against those down there, I rebel, against the Hor I rebel!
Against the invincible horsemen of Hor I rebel!
I rebel, it is meat I like!
I, boy, am with the rebellion.
Journey Among the Tibetan Nomads by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche
Tibet is well known as "a land of snows," having the youngest and therefore some of the highest mountains on Earth. I found a landscape of awesome beauty, with an average altitude of 14,000 feet and an extreme, savage climate. It struck me that it takes a tough and resilient people to flourish in these conditions.
Perhaps the vastness and solitude of the landscape have been a source of inspiration for the Tibetans, helping to encourage their natural bent to visionary mysticism and to develop their unique brand of Buddhism.
I was fascinated by the wild earthiness of the Drokpa men of Amdo and Kham, whose proud stature, outdoor life of freedom, and open-range riding reminded me of cowboys or Native American Indians. The small local towns frequented for trading also had a flavor of the Wild West, with horses tied to hitching rails on the street and Drokpa men comparing guns in the tiny cafés.
Eastern Tibet was always greatly feared by travelers for the "wildness" of its fiercely independent people, who were considered to be formidable warriors and bandits owing allegiance to no one but their own tribe. The names of the legendary Khampa and Golok tribes would evoke fear among merchants, pilgrims, and explorers traveling through the area from China to Lhasa. French traveler Alexandra David-Néel referred to the area as "the land of the gentleman brigands," noting also their chivalry and devotion to Buddhism. Later the people were attributed with courage and heroism, particularly the Khampas who initiated and led Tibetan resistance to the Chinese Communist invasion.
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In Eastern Tibet, nomads live in high-altitude grasslands unsuitable for settled farming but ideal for the grazing yak, sheep, and goats. The daily round of activities is ceaseless: herding animals; milking them (often twice a day in the summer) and turning the milk into butter, cheese, and curd; collecting water; kindling; and in some areas, drying yak dung for fuel.
My impression was that the women did most of the work while the men seemed to hang out together chatting and smoking! In fact, one of the men's roles is to protect the tribes' land by riding around its boundaries, but imposed fencing or settling of nomad land in some areas (for which they are forced to pay) is changing the lifestyle of the men, who find they have more free time to spend playing pool in the local towns! Seasonal rotation with the herds to different grazing lands is a special feature of the nomad economy. Sadly, imposed fencing has thereby also caused overgrazing, leading to the degradation of the pastureland and lowering the quality of the livestock.
The tent is the warm heart of nomadic life—it is the place for eating, sleeping, making butter, cheese, and curd, socializing, saying prayers, making and having babies, dying. It seemed a particularly feminine place because nomadic women, busy with their daily chores, don't go far from home. I loved the heat from the clay or metal stoves, the light falling through the smoke hole illuminating people in unusual ways, and the mysterious effects of the smoke against the dark yak hair of the tent sides.
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Diane Barker is a photographer and artist based in Worcestershire, England. Born in what was historically a pub, Diane's "nomadic" roots trace back to the 70s as a hippie living in a camper van in America. It was also during that time her first encounter with the Tibetan lamas transpired in Wales. During the 1990s, a Buddhist boyfriend lured her into a voyage to India, which eventually led to her encounter with the Tibetan nomads in Changthang in Ladakh. Ever since, the nomads became her obsession and the subject of her heart.
EDITING: COPYRIGHT © MOOWON MAGAZINE / MONA KIM PROJECTS LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
PHOTOS & TEXT: COPYRIGHT © DIANE BARKER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.