More than 800,000 Tibetans live in western Sichuan province which includes a good fraction of the Tibetan plateau, and one-eighth of them live in northwestern Yunnan. Sichuan's Tibetans are nothing like the rice-growing Chinese who till the province's sweltering eastern half; but they have everything in common with their neighbors in Tibet Autonomous Region. Their high, sweeping homeland is known as Kham, and its people are called Khampas.
Khampas have a reputation for mayhem spreading all over the Himalaya. They made a fearsome impression on outsiders, like Michel Peissel, an anthropologist who met them in 1964: "[The] Khampas stood a good six feet in height,... wore great heavy boots and flowing khaki robes that flapped like whips as they walked, advancing with their feet slightly apart as if to trample the grass to extinction....Unlike Tibetans of Lhasa, their features were not Mongoloid, but straight, with large fierce eyes set beside beak- like noses, and long hair braided and wound around their heads, giving them a primitive allure."
When Khampas strayed outside their homeland they were held in awe and fear; but Aten, a native of Kham, relates another side of his people: "My mother was a very religious woman. When she worked, she constantly murmured prayers, and she gave generously to every beggar and pilgrim who came to our door. I remember those cold, dark winter nights when wolves howled mournfully in the snow. I would wake up in great fear and, crying, would rush to my mother's bed. It was considered to be very unlucky to hear a wolf's howl and my mother would solemnly say, 'throw dust in the wolf's mouth and strike a peg in his eye.' This incantation was supposed to ward off bad luck."
In these two contrasting images--one a fierce warrior, the other a generous, devout parent--lies Kham's essential paradox. To be sure, nowadays banditry has been all but eliminated. Yet the proud Khampa spirit remains and their rugged land still defies outsiders. Those who surmount Kham's barriers are rewarded by a mountain paradise virtually untouched by the outside world.
Your journey to Kham begins in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. Proceeding west across fertile farmland, you soon reach Ya'an, a tea-growing center. Tea is Tibet's favorite beverage, and Ya'an was the start of an ancient trade route that carried it to the high plateau. Nowadays that caravan trail is a ribbon of smooth concrete, but sixty years ago was quite another story.
They speak various dialects that can be roughly divided into two main groups: valley and nomad. Their speech is vastly different from that used in Lhasa, the so-called Tibetan language. Khampas speak quickly, loudly, and bluntly while Lhasans speak softly and politely, using an honorific for each word.
Most Khampa men, especially nomads, have long hair braided with red yarn and tied up around their heads. They wear rings with big stones, and often decorate their hair with ornaments. They love riding horses, and almost always carry silver-sheathed daggers dangling from their waists.
Like Buddhists from other parts of Tibet, Khampas are highly devout. Some bid farewell to their families and prostrate themselves all the way to the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa or even to Mount Kailash in western Tibet, a journey that may take years or even a lifetime. They believe this act will generate the necessary merit for a better rebirth. A number of famous reincarnated lamas who live in the West, such as Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, are Khampas, and this makes Khampas even prouder of their homeland.
Kham comprises the lustrous highlands of eastern Tibet with alpine forests, grassland, lakes and meadows. Cut by deep gorges of the Yangtse, Yalung, Mekong, and Salween, all flowing in parallel from North to South, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it is known as the land of four rivers and six ranges.
The important towns include Chamdo, Shiqu, Dege, Ganze, Kangding, Batang, Litang, and Markham, as well as Deqing and Zhongdian in Yunnan. Khampa farmers-roughly 70% of the population-grow barley, wheat, potatoes and, at low altitudes, corn, and tend yaks, sheep, and goats. In summer they live with their animals on the alps. They also dig mushrooms and herbal roots and transport them by yak to sell in town. Pastoral nomads, particularly in Litang, at an altitude of 4,014 meters, live in black tents made of yak hair.
Khampas (men of Kham) consider themselves handsome, and take great care with their appearance. They are generally taller than other Tibetans (and Chinese), and tend to have straighter noses, although there are many exceptions. Khampas are infallibly identified by their trademark red tassels. This man wears a single earring made of turquoise, which is especially popular as personal adornment in the Dege region.
Kham is colorful in summer, when slopes are often covered with rhododendron and other wildflowers. Summer is when Khampas, dressed in their best clothes, hold picnics, sing and dance, and watch horse-racing.