The Last Nomads of the Tibetan Plateau

Sean Gallagher

2010 - 2012

Nestled deep in the Sanjiangyuan region of southern Qinghai in western China, lie the highland grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. This is the home of the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong Rivers. In recent decades, the grasslands on the "roof of the world" have become progressively degraded, many scientists believe as a result of rising temperatures and drying caused by climate change.

For 5,000 years the nomads of the region have roamed these lands, freely moving their flocks of sheep and cattle with the changing seasons. But over the past decade these people have been moved, often against their will, from the grasslands and into newly constructed towns and villages across the plateau. To date, it has been estimated that up to 100,000 "ecological migrants" have now been removed from nomadic communities on the grasslands. A traditional way of life is quietly but swiftly disappearing from the 'roof of the world'. This series aims to document the remaining people from this culture, contrasted with their ever changing landscape.

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  • (Left) A Tibetan man stands in the alleyways of a 'relocation town'. (Right) Tibetans inside a "relocation town," created to house nomadic herders moved from the highland grasslands. The nomads have been blamed for contributing to the deterioration of the grasslands, so have been moved, sometimes forcibly, into newly built towns that can be found across the plateau.

  • (Left) A young Tibetan boy in a relocation village in the Amdo region of the Tibetan Plateau. (Right) Tourists ride horses amongst sand dunes found on the Tibetan Plateau. Desertification is becoming an ever increasing problems as temperatures rise and overgrazing increases in intensity.

  • (Left) A Tibetan woman in a restaurant in the Amdo region of the Tibetan Plateau. (Right) Harsh afternoon sun causes shadows to fall through the town of Zaduo, in the far interior of the Tibetan Plateau. Temperatures here are rising faster than anywhere else in Asia, having far-reaching implications for people across the region.

  • (Left) A Tibetan woman stands in her family's traditional tent on the highland grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. (Right) A Tibetan prayer flag flies near a glacial lake that has formed at the base of the Dagu Glacier which lies at 5100 metres on the Dagu Snow Mountain, on the south-east edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The glacier has been reducing in size in recent years, as a resulting of rising temperatures in the region.

  • (Left) A Tibetan boy stands amongst piles of refuse in a run-down town on the Tibetan Plateau. (Right) Severe pollution in a waterway in a Tibetan town, in China's western Qinghai Province. Little education is given to the locals about how to dispose of waste. Failure by the authorities to collect refuse has led to the contamination of many urban water resources.

  • (Left) A young Tibetan woman in the Kham region of the Tibetan Plateau. (Right) The ribcage of a yak lies in the highland grasslands 5,000 meters above sea level in Sichuan Province on the Tibetan Plateau.

  • (Left) A Tibetan nomad in the Amdo region of the Tibetan Plateau. (Right) A Chinese construction team at the side of a road on the Tibetan Plateau. China's "western development strategy" is seeing a push to bring an improved infrastructure to the region. Many worry it will lead to a slow disappearance of local Tibetan culture.