He was sitting inside the dark yak hair tent of a nomadic family in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. Outside, scruffy sheep searched for vegetation amid the cold, arid lunar landscape, and large raptors circled in the thermals. As we huddled around the fireplace, the old man handed me a small glass of salty yak butter tea.
"There were wolves here two nights ago," he told me through a translator. "This time I chased them away, but they will come back and try to catch my sheep. It's happening more and more. "
"Everything about being a pastor is getting more difficult," he added. "Perhaps my children do not want to continue with this life. My wife and I could be among the last nomads here. "
It was a story that he had heard over and over again across the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Whether due to climate changes, the call for a more comfortable life in cities, political repression or demands for education, life is changing rapidly for the people of Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan regions.
I have been traveling and hiking in the Himalayas and Tibet for about 25 years. During that time, I wrote several guides on the region, for Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Bradt. I always travel with a local guide who acts as a translator, and I like to spend as much time as possible walking, because doing so increases contact with the local people. There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting in a remote tea shop or nomad tent and talking to people about their lives.
Defining the borders of Tibet can be difficult. This is because, in some way, there are several Tibetans.
The area we commonly think of as Tibet today, and the area marked on most maps as Tibet, is the Tibet Autonomous Region. This is the second largest region or province in modern China, and its regional capital is Lhasa.
Before communist forces took control of Tibet in 1950, it was a functionally independent nation and its borders were larger than they are today. (China refers to its takeover of Tibet as a "peaceful liberation." At the time, China says, the new communist government was reasserting sovereignty over a territory that was lost after the fall of the Qing dynasty.)
Much of what is now the mountainous western part of the Chinese province of Sichuan was, before the 1950 takeover, politically and culturally a part of Tibet, known as Kham. Also, to the north of the Tibet Autonomous Region is the Chinese province of Qinghai; this was also historically a part of Tibet, known as Amdo, although it fell under Chinese control in the 18th century.
And then there are the parts of the Himalayas that are culturally Tibetan, even if they have never, or not for a long time, been politically part of Tibet anyway. These include the Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas, parts of Nepal (notably Upper Mustang and Dolpo, as well as some valleys north of the main mountain peaks), and parts of India, especially Ladakh, the scene of a long-standing border dispute. .
Tibetans are mostly supporters of their own tradition of Buddhism, and monasteries and convents have long been a central part of their culture and life.
Tibet's spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, who was based in Lhasa until 1959, when he and many of his followers fled after a failed uprising. He is now based in Dharamsala in northern India, where an entire Tibetan government has been established in exile.
There are also large communities of Tibetan exiles in Nepal, other parts of India, and a smaller community in Bhutan.
Without a doubt, the Chinese dominance of Tibet has brought much-needed development and a higher standard of living to the plateau. (In 1959, Tibet was one of the least developed places in Asia.) But it has also brought with it the massive suppression of Tibetan rights and the crushing of Tibetan culture and religious practices. Mining and dam building have also caused significant environmental damage.
Many Tibetans living under Chinese rule have few freedoms. Positions of power are dominated by Han officials, often from other parts of China. There are widespread reports of human rights abuses, violation of religious freedoms, complaints of arbitrary detentions and torture of political prisoners. Tibetans I know who live in Chinese-controlled parts of Tibet have privately told me that they feel they live in a giant prison and are under constant vigilance.
The Chinese government disputes these claims, saying it has done much to improve Tibet - efforts that have ended feudal servitude, profoundly reduced poverty and doubled life expectancy. Literacy rates have also risen under Chinese rule, to 85 percent today, up from 5 percent in the 1950s.
Due to the suppression of traditional Tibetan life and culture within the Chinese-led parts of Tibet, it is often easier to find a more traditional classical Tibetan culture in the culturally Tibetan parts of India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
But, even in areas where Tibetan culture is allowed to flourish, there have been significant changes in recent years.
In the past, many Tibetans led a semi-nomadic lifestyle as they moved their livestock, often yaks, to and from the summer and winter pastures. Today, however, the desire to ensure that children receive the best education possible is making their lifestyle increasingly challenging. The drive to earn a reliable wage in towns and cities has also meant that many formally nomadic families have left the mountains behind. Other changes come from growing road construction, widespread motorcycle ownership, and the ubiquity of telephones and the Internet.
All of these developments are bringing new ideas, new opportunities and, for better or worse, big changes in traditional Tibetan and Himalayan lifestyles.
Tourism has also influenced the changes that are taking place in the region. In certain areas, a massive adventure travel and trekking industry has developed. While the arrival of thousands of international tourists brings environmental and social changes, it has also allowed families to stay in the mountains and benefit from the surrounding nature and Tibetan culture.
An example of this would be the nomadic Tibetan family I met in the grasslands of the Kham region, who, working side by side with a local guest house, were offering tourists the opportunity to stay with them in their traditional wool tent. yak and learn something. Of traditional Tibetan nomadic life.
In addition to generating much-needed income for their family, they were also proud of their traditional lifestyle and found the means to carry on for another generation.
Stuart Butler is a writer and
photographer based in France.