Many non-nomadic people imagine nomadic life as a free-ranging move to wherever the grass is greener. However, the reality is considerably different. Nomadic living follows strict patterns of movement between designated locations, based on the seasons and in accordance with community customs and rules. Moving usually involves three main parts: winter/spring camps, summer camps, and fall camps.
First, there are limits to the available land, generally determined by the type of community—such as a faith-based villages or a lineage-based clan or tribe—to which the land belongs. Communities have clear understandings of the limits of their land and will move camps only within those limits. Transgressing into a neighboring community’s land often results in serious collateral damage, such as the loss of yak or sheep or inter-communal warfare. Although nomadic land may appear boundless and sparsely populated to the inexperienced eye, it is in fact highly territorial.
Community leaders usually determine the times and patterns for moving camps based on altitude, grass growth, and customary practices. Nomadic herders typically stay at lower altitudes during winter and spring because those areas are slightly warmer. With closer proximity to transportation and neighbors, the lower areas also provide better access to water and other necessities. The long winters and short springs may consume more than half the year, which can be excruciating for livestock and herders alike.
When spring finally arrives—often marked by thawing ground and calf births—intensive labor begins on nomadic pastures. Once the lands turn green and the calves grow stable, herders move to higher altitudes deep in the valleys, where the grass is fresher. Families spread out across a larger expanse of the community’s land. This provides not only flexibility for the yaks to roam, but also an abundance of grass on which the animals graze. Families may move among various pastures during summer and fall in order to suppress the hunger of their yaks and sheep for fresher grass.
Every move of a camp is a significant undertaking. It takes enormous effort and planning to fold a tent after separating the two large pieces of covering, then packing and arranging all the belongings, including food, utensils, tools, and other necessities for loading onto yaks. Depending on the distance to the next camp and the availability of horses and trained yaks, the move may require multiple trips and additional assistance in the form of labor and transportation from relatives.
After reaching a new camp—which may be the same spot or general location to which a family moved in a previous year—the tent must be set up as quickly as possible. This task demands coordination, strength, and experience. The usual first steps are to join together the two main tent pieces, spread the entire tent canvas on the ground, draw the three beams through their respective holes, and then use the tent poles from under the tent cloth to lift the entire tent, one beam at a time. Because the middle beam holds the most weight, it goes up first. While the middle beam is held steady with supporting poles, the two other beams are raised. Once the three beams are up and corner ropes are straightened and tied down, pegging the tent ends to the ground is the next step. Finally, the family unpacks and arranges its belongings in its new—albeit temporary—home.