Local History and Culture


When in the Tibetan region, we face a different culture. We get to know a different land and a group of people with different beliefs through the lens of our own culture. At the same time, we start to reflect on ourselves. 

In the process of nature watch, we hope participants can keep the attitude as an observer and avoid judging other cultures and customs based on their own culture. If you participate with a tolerant and inquiring heart, you would find the origins of living habits of these people with a long history, and receive in return sincere welcomes from people who would treat you and respect your culture just as much.

Livelihoods on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

The high altitude, lack of oxygen and abundance of sunshine on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau constitute the unique geographical and climatic characteristics of the area, and also affect the production and lifestyle of the local Tibetan people.

Nomadic pastoralism

Yak herding is the traditional main industry in the west of Yushu Prefecture, where Angsai is located. Known as “the boats of the highlands,” yaks are the most important livestock in the area: their hides can be used to make tents, clothes, carpets; yak milk is the raw material for many kinds of food; yak meat can be boiled, fried or make buns; offal is used to make sausages; yak dung is a daily source of fuel, and horns can be used as utensils or decorative objects. In addition to yaks, local people also keep a small number of horses, Tibetan sheep and donkeys.

In livestock industry, the Tibetan people value the balanced relationship between nature and human, and have formed various customs and regulations of highland livestock culture. Tibetan herders will have move twice a year to prevent the grassland degradation brought about by overgrazing. Every May, people move from winter pasture to summer pasture. The terrain chosen for the summer is relatively high and people can look for caterpillar fungus in the mountains. In September, people will move back to winter pasture with lower terrain, which is sunny, sheltered from wind and near the river. Since the end of the last century, most herding families have built houses in winter pastures in replace of tents to better protect themselves from the cold and wild predators. When moving from one pasture to another, people often ask the living Buddha for guidance and pray to the gods of the mountains in return for good weather and enough rain.


A Day in the Life of a Nomadic Family

The day of a nomadic family begins with herding yaks early in the morning. Tibetan women usually get up at 5 am to collect yak dung, milk the yaks, prepare breakfast for the family, and bring the yaks and sheep to the mountains. At noon, the whole family will gather around the Tibetan stove in the middle of the room to enjoy lunch. The stoves are fueled by dried yak dung and coal, and can be used for heating, boiling water and cooking. In the afternoon, men often go to other families for tea. In the evening, women will bring the yaks back and prepare for dinner. Sometimes the whole family will gather and recite the scriptures together. The grazing time varies slightly according to the seasons. Early grazing is practiced in the summer and in the winter, due to the lack of grass, the grazing time is often extended.


Transformation of Livestock Economy to Caterpillar Fungus Economy

On the Plateau with an altitude of about 4,000 meters, there exists a kind of rare herb - the “caterpillar fungus,” known as “Yartsa Gunbu” in Tibetan. It is produced when a fungus penetrates the larva of a ghost moth, growing inside and finally killing the host that burrows beneath the ground. As the snows retreat, a small shoot grows out of the shell of the dead larva, poking just above the soil. This shoot, difficult to spot by all but the most experienced foragers, can be picked like a mushroom in the summer. The caterpillar fungus is widely sought after both domestically and abroad, and the price was once as expensive as gold. Zaduo County, where Angsai is located, has the reputation of "No. 1 county of caterpillar fungus in China", where the caterpillar fungi found are both big and have good quality and are the most important source of income for local people. In the middle of May every year, schools will take two months of "caterpillar fungus vacation", and people will go out with their families into the mountains to look for this "soft gold" buried in the alpine meadows.

Although the price changes dramatically every year due to weather and market demand, this economy of caterpillar fungus has indeed brought considerable income to local herders, boosted local economic development, and changed local people’s consumption concepts and living habits. It is also driving the transformation of traditional nomadic livelihoods.

Experiencing Tibetan Life

Unique Diet

The daily diet of Tibetans is closely related to their livestock production. Milk, meat, and tsamba are the three main staples. In recent years, more and more families have also started to eat rice and vegetables.

Milk can be used to make yak butter, yogurt, milk tea, etc. Summer is the season with most yak milk production, and people will eat more dairy products during this period of the year.

The diet in autumn and winter is based mainly on meat. To cook "hand-grasping beef", people will cut the yak meat along the bone, put it in an pot filled with cold water, and add some salt before boiling over fire. When eating it, people usually hold the meat with one hand, while holding a knife with the other hand to cut and chop the meat. Every family will prepare for "seasoned meat" in the winter, when temperatures reach levels below zero degrees: slices of meat are hung in cold places for two months and will not be eaten until February or March. This will suffice the family’s demand of meat for the next half a year or even longer. “Seasoned meat” has a unique crisp texture to it.

People can never live without tsamba (roasted barley flour). The barley is first roasted, and then milled into a powder without being peeled. Tsamba can be eaten in a variety of ways, usually mixed with yak butter and milk tea and made into a dough before eating it with hands. Tea and liquor are the most important drink in addition to milk. Cooked genkwa roots and silverweed roots are also common dishes on the table.

When visiting a herdsman’s home, you will definitely see the table full of dried meat, drinks, candies and homemade Tibetan pastry and doughnuts. It will be an unique experience to taste the silverweed roots with yak butter and sugar, take a sip of the sweet butter milk tea, and make tsamba with your own hands.


Traditional Housing

In the past, tents were the best dwellings to adapt to long-distance and extensive nomadic herding. Although most herders have settled in houses in recent decades, their lives are still inseparable from tents. In summer, you can see black tents in irregular square shape everywhere, which is a kind of local dwelling with long history. Made of yaks’ hides, simple in construction, strong and convenient, it is a typical dwelling representing the traditional nomadic life of Tibetans. Today, newlywed Tibetan couples also choose to hold their weddings in the huge black tents. The white cloth tent, on the other hand, is smaller, lighter and more aesthetically pleasing, and is generally used when attending horse races, going out for fun or nomadic herding in summer.

In a traditional folk tent, the door opens leeward, with the stove in the center and the Buddhist platform behind. Each family will have a common living room. Tibetans value the concept of family very much. Even when there are no guests visiting, the whole family will spend a lot of time in the living room to drink tea, chat or rest quietly.

Colorful Clothes

Traditional Tibetan costume is windproof and warm, featuring expanded waist lapels and long wide sleeves. It uses ribbons as ties, with collar, lapels, sleeves and hem edged with brocade, animal skin or serge. Men’s robes are usually shorter, reaching to the knees for the convenience of horse riding, while women’s robes almost reach the ground. When the weather is hot or working is required, people will take one or both sleeves and tie the long sleeves around the waist, and put the sleeves back on when the weather turns cold.

Tibetan people love to wear jewelry, such as earrings, necklaces, waist ornaments and bracelets. Many jewelries are made of precious metals and stones. The most gorgeous jewelry is the women's head-wear, which consists mainly of braid cover and jewels, decorated with a few colorful tassels. The ornaments on the braid cover are usually amber, coral, turquoise, agate, silver, etc.


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Religious Beliefs

Religion portrays an ordered set of cosmic patterns to the Tibetans, satisfying their psychological needs arising from their particular natural and social environment, and providing the basis for the common purpose and values on which the balance of the Tibetan community rests. The religious landscape of the Tibetan region is basically composed of two folds: theological religion, mainly referring to Tibetan Buddhism, and common beliefs that are deeply embedded in the hearts of the herders and influence their spiritual lives.

Theological Religion

As the native religion of the Tibetan region, Bonism originated early on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and has experienced several ups and downs. It still exists in the spritual beliefs of Tibetan people until this day. Since its introduction to the Tibetan region in the 7th century, Buddhism has evolved into a unique Tibetan Buddhism through the process of mutual integration and joint development with Bon religion.

Tibetan Buddhism is divided into Kagyu, Nyingma, Gelugpa, Sakya, Kadam and other sects, but all sects are inseparable like the five fingers of a hand.


Common Beliefs

Common beliefs are also an important part of the spiritual beliefs of Tibetans. Tibetan people worship high mountains and large lakes, and in the Yushu area, the most prominent object of common belief is the sacred mountains, which is equivalent to the "land god" in Han ethnic culture. The Niandu Village of Angsai Township is famous for its 13 sacred mountains. There are also countless myths and legends as well as local landscapes that originated from these mountains.

The sacred mountains in the Tibetan region are generally high and independent, and certain features of nature evoke associations with supernatural objects and religious connections. In the past tribal period, the sequence of sacred mountains was intrinsically consistent with the structure of the tribe: the stronger the tribe, the greater the fame of the sacred mountain it believed in. The location of the sacred mountain was also closely related to the location where the herders engaged in economic, social and military activities.

In Tibetan areas, there are both sacred mountains that bless people and sacred mountains that punish people. Praying around the mountains (circumambulation or kora) is the most important way people practice their faith. The daily worship of the mountain gods canbe done at anytime of a day, and there are various reasons for making sacrifices or offerings: disasters and illnesses, celebrations, building houses, and traveling, etc. Men will burn pine and cypress branches on the mountain top, spread Lungta (paperprints with sutraon the mountain, or place mani stone, silver and other objects.

Plurality and multiplicity are important characteristics of Tibetan culture, and the common beliefs and theological religion in theTibetan region are mutually complementary and interpenetrating, which has led to the diverse and composite nature of the religious life of herdsmen.


The idea of ecological conservation embedded in religious beliefs

Tibetan Buddhism follows the idea of animism and believes that treating all livings well can bring blessings. This belief contributes to a harmonious relationship between people and nature and to some extent fits in with the modern idea of ecological conservation.

For example, people are absolutely forbidden to graze, hunt or throw garbage on sacred mountains, and they are not free to exploit various resources. People believe that river itself has a divine nature and fish is the incarnation of the water god, so one cannot catch or eat fish. Tibetans also believe that it is better to eat large animals than small ones, because this way only fewer lives are sacrificed while feeding more people. Even for domesticated yaks, people will choose some of them to be released. This reverence for nature and respect for life maintains the harmonious and balanced relationship between people and nature in Tibetan areas, allowing people to adapt their productive lives to the fragile environmental carrying capacity of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.