Families move into the modern era

Updated: 2015-09-07 00:14

By Li Yang(China Watch)

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Families move into the modern era

A Tibetan woman stands in front of a two-story resettlement house in Banyou village, Ruo'ergal county, in the Aba Yibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture.


Zamzon used to spend his days herding yak on the grasslands of western China, and his nights sleeping in a tent made of yak hair.

Then, three years ago, the 62-year-old moved into a five-bedroom house, built as part of a government settlement project for nomads, and converted the property into a small guesthouse.

“Chairman Mao gave us the pastures that were once controlled by the nobility, and now his successors have given us houses,” said Zamzon, who charges 50 to 100 yuan ($7.8-$15.6) a night for a room in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.

“The settled life gives us more freedom and options. I hope my grandchildren will earn their living with pens, not whips. I don’t want my offspring to always be busy at the back end of a yak,” he added, holding up a piece of dried yak dung, which the locals use as fuel to heat their homes.

The settlement project has benefited 210,000 ethnic Tibetans. Before 2009, about 60,000 were nomads, while the other 150,000 lived in shacks made of mud, wood and stone.

Yuan Youxing, who was in charge of the project, said the move was far more successful than anticipated: “It started in 2009 and finished in 2012, two years earlier than planned, because many nomads changed their minds when they saw the benefits of settling down.”

Over the four years, the Aba government helped to found 608 villages in 11 counties, covering 20 to 30 percent of the cost of construction, depending on each family’s financial situation, and providing five-year, interest-free loans to cover the rest. Combined, the cost to the government was 2.9 billion yuan, while the local people paid 4.5 billion yuan.

Most families were able to pay off their loans within two or three years using their earnings from tourism or from selling yak as well as raw ingredients for herbal medicine. Last year, the average annual per capita income in Aba reached 7,866 yuan, up 15.8 percent on 2013.

Each nomadic family in the prefecture owns up to 0.7 square miles of pasture, and as people still graze yak in summer and autumn, the government has also provided 41,500 canvas tents (more comfortable than the yak-hair variety) and essential items such as solar power storage batteries, stoves, folding beds and water containers.

“Having a house gives them (herders) the option of a new life during winter,” said Samba, who is head of a town called Qiongxi. “They know the government will allow them to keep their pastures, so there’s no reason for them not to move into a house.”

He said the homes were built in 2008 according to the needs of local families. The decoration, color scheme and internal structures retain strong links with traditional Tibetan dwellings, while one room is reserved for prayer.

As Tibetan nomads have no experience of a settled life, the government asked respected members of each community to inspect completed resettlement projects and then relate their findings to friends and neighbors.

Last year, all the resettled families were issued title deeds. “The houses are their assets now, and they can be used as collateral for bank loans,” Samba said.

Since the resettlement, many residents in Aba have boosted their incomes by turning their new homes into guesthouses, like Zamzon has. In Songpan, which is on the only road to Jiuzhaigou Valley, a popular tourist resort, the average annual per capita income is comparable with that of a middle-class worker in Beijing or Shanghai.

“We cater to tourists from April to November, and then we go on vacation for the rest of the year to warmer places such as Chengdu or Kunming (in China), or Thailand, or the Maldives,” said Jamzo Najam, a 20-something hotel owner in Songpan.

Zamrenzo, a 19-year-old ethnic Tibetan, also runs a guesthouse in Songpan. He said: “I remember how my (nomad) parents always put my older brother and me into a basket carried by yaks when we moved from place to place on the grassland. If the adults decided to move that day, we children had no choice but to sit in that basket, no matter how bad the rain, snow or wind. Every adult had his or her job. No one took care of us.”

Although he now hires helpers to herd his family’s yaks in summer, he and other young people still pay special attention to learning the traditional skills from the seniors, such as making yak hides and fur into useful, everyday objects.

He said tourists are interested in traditional crafts and Buddhism. “Tourism opens new windows for interaction between cultures and peoples,” he said, yet added: “But why do some people think Tibetans should always live in a tent and herd yak? We have the freedom to pursue a happy and comfortable life.”