At the outer edge of human habitation, life is all about survival and perpetual movement. Like their ancestors before them, nomadic tribes roam our planet's highest mountains in search of the best pastures for their livestock. There are no roads, no electricity, no fixed addresses. The extreme climate, freezing winters and scorching sun are simply a package deal. Spending their entire lives in tents, never taking up residence, these people live a pure existence, riding their horses and yaks, herding their animals, trading their goods and living off the land, grateful to the gods for what little they have.
Several times a year, these nomadic souls of the mountains embark on an epic journey across high plains and passes, crossing treacherous valleys never knowing whether they'll make it back. On the margins of the world, these slowly vanishing tribes perpetuate an ancestral way of life, relying strictly on their basic needs. In sheer isolation, their home is both heaven and hell at the same time.
The Dolpo-Pa – the last caravans of the Himalayas
In summer months, the high mountain passes of northwestern Nepal's Himalayas fill with herds of yaks and yurts. It's moving time for the Dolpo-Pa. Theirs is one of the last last remaining trading caravans in the world.
Dolpo-Pa caravans. Photo by Cat V. Courtesy of www.catvphotography.co.uk[/cap... the shadow of the mighty Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh highest mountain, the Dolpo region in western Nepal is one of the remotest and poorest in the country. It is here that a nomadic tribe lives at the highest elevation among all ethnic groups in the world, between 12,000 and 15,000 feet up in the Himalayas. Their Tibetan origins reflect on their way of life, worshiping the gods of the mountains, rivers, lakes and skies, resilient to religious change. It is in this isolation that the Dolpo-Pa remain the best preserved enclave of pure Tibetan culture on the planet and masters of the last caravans of the Himalayas.
Dolpo-Pa trading caravan. Photo by Nick Mayo. Courtesy of www.remoteasiaphoto.com[/capti... less than 5,000 remaining Dolpo-Pa souls raise yak, sheep and goats, and can recognize their animals without markings. Each year, the tribe embarks on a long, strenuous journey to trade crops for Tibetan salt, which they later trade in Nepal for other supplies. The roundtrip takes six months across snow-covered high-mountain passes averaging over 16,000 feet. Sadly, imported salt from India, border restrictions and tourism are threatening the Dolpo-Pa's ancient trade routes and traditions.
The Changpa – the Pashmina road
Stretching over the legendary region of Kashmir, the high-altitude plateau of Changtang is a much disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Once part of the former Kingdom of Ladakh, these arid lands are home to the Changpa people.
Nowadays, their life is centered around their livestock. They grow yak, sheep, horses and Changra goats, whose thin undercoat is used to make pashmina, the finest type of cashmere. The tribe relocates between eight to ten times a year to find arid plateaus for the goats to graze on at an average altitude of 14,000 feet, then trade the wool for supplies. The Changpa continue to live in yak-wool tents, do not marry into other communities, and believe their animals are a sacred gift from the gods.
The Tsaatan – Mongolia's reindeer people
The world's remotest subarctic taiga, where winter temperatures drop to minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit on a regular basis, is inhabited by a handful of people and their beloved reindeer. Could they be the ones towing Santa's sleigh? If they are, the future isn't looking too bright.
Tsaatan. Photo by Jimmy Nelson. Courtesy of www.beforethey.com[/caption]
The Tsaatan, “those who have reindeer” in Mongolian, believe their ancestors flew on reindeer from China to northern Mongolia. We don't know how much of it is true, but they might actually be the world's first domesticators. For centuries, they have depended solely on their reindeer. They use them for transportation, their milk for dairy products, their antlers for tools, their dung for their stoves and their hair for clothes. But they do not use them for meat, which makes them unique among indigenous groups of reindeer-herdsmen. Instead, they prefer to hunt moose, elk or boars. They love their animals deeply, are very affected when they lose them, and put a lot of effort into finding pastures 8,000 feet high in the mountains.
Tsaatan nomads. Photo by Jimmy Nelsen. Courtesy of www.beforethey.com[/caption] Tsaatan move their camp five to ten times a year searching for a special type of lichen their reindeer simply find delicious. Adepts of shamanism, based on nature worship, they live in tepees and never establish a permanent home. Unfortunately, they are a vanishing tribe, with only a few families left and less than 400 souls to help Santa. In the early 1990s, changes in Mongolia's governance restrained the tribe's mobility and slaughtered their reindeer. Their forests are now endangered due to non-subsistence hunting and mineral exploration.
The Kazakhs – Mongolia's eagle tamers
Mongolia's arid plains are as enchanting as they are unforgiving. Riding their horses with their trained golden eagles at their side, the Kazakhs are an incredible sight to behold, one that reminds of brave warriors from a time long gone.
Kazakh eagle hunters. Photo by Jimmy Nelsen. Courtesy of www.beforethey.com[/caption] of Hun, Mongol, Indo-Iranian and Turkic tribes, the Kazakhs believe in the cults of the sky and fire, in supernatural forces, giants, wood goblins and spirits, and wear beads and talismans to protect themselves from evil.
Kazakh actually means “free warrior” or “steppe roamer.” Couldn't have put it better myself. They are a tribe of herdsmen, raising sheep, camels and horses. Mongolia's extreme weather forces them to move several times a year together with their herds and family to the high plateaus of the Altai Mountains, crossing passes and peaks between 10,000 to 13,000 feet.
Once a common practice among their kind, only a few Kazakh eagle hunters are left in the mountains and valleys of western Mongolia. Their golden eagles hunt rabbits and foxes, even wolves. The Kazakhs use their furs for clothing. When they spot a prey in the distance, they remove the eagle's cap, set it free and let it finish the job. The skills for training these eagles is passed from one generation to another.
The Kyrgyz – the last nomads of the Afghan Pamirs
Few outsiders ever reach these remote settlements at the foothills of the Pamir Mountains in northeastern Afghanistan. Those who have speak of the tribe's generosity and friendly attitude, inviting them in their family yurts to drink tea by the stove, with yak milk and salt, the staple of the Kyrgyz community.
Kyrgyz nomads at the foothills of the Pamirs. Courtesy of www.bbc.co.uk[/caption]
The Kyrgyz call their homeland Bam-e Dunya, “roof of the world.” They have been roaming Central Asia for centuries, but have fallen victims to politics and governments and are now trapped in the Wakhan corridor, a narrow strip of land bordered by China, Tajikistan and Pakistan. The Kyrgyz are not allowed to cross over, even though these developed countries lie only a few miles away. The 200-mile corridor separates them from the rest of Afghanistan, making it seem like a foreign country. It takes three days to reach the nearest road using four-legged transportation on ancient trade trails, which is precisely why they suffer from an alarming death rate. There are no doctors and few medicinal options. Death rate among Kyrgyz children might be the highest in the world. Many women die at childbirth, and are thus very valuable, a hundred sheep to be exact. The salary of a shepherd is one sheep per month. You do the math. Parents sell their daughters to buy wives for their sons.
In the heart of the Tien Shan mountain range, in these alpine valleys and 14,000-foot mountain passes, temperatures drop below freezing an average 340 days a year. Crops are impossible to grow. Most Kyrgyz have never seen a tree, they burn yak dung to keep warm. Some 1,200 souls continue to stand up to these extreme conditions. The Kyrgyz are one of the most isolated high-altitude communities on the planet, depending entirely on their livestock for survival and moving two to four times a year, rejecting governments and any form of vassality.
The Himalayas are a valuable source of medicinal plants and mushrooms. Who knows their secrets better than the nomads that have been roaming these lands for centuries? The ancient artistry of taming and training wild animals and birds, listening to the wind and sky for guidance, will forever be lost along with these people. Just another primitive tribe? We are seriously underestimating their role in the world.