Tibet Trip: Housing

Small town in Amdo we stopped in to join our tour guide’s friend’s family reunion party.

Before I went on my trip I knew that there was a difference between the types of houses that nomads lived in and the types of houses everyone else lived in. During the past couple decades the Chinese government has made it a mission to slowly move nomads out of their traditional homes and into Chinese style apartment buildings, which the nomads are not used to and it erodes their way of life. So one thing when I was traveling was trying to notice the difference between the buildings and what might be Chinese built and what might be a Tibetan built home.

Since I’m no expert on anything I can only talk about what I learned from my guide and what I saw along the way. I went during August so it was when many nomads still move with their herds from pasture to pasture in the grasslands. One thing I noticed was that there were many white commercialized tents that dotted the landscape, one reason is they are cheaper, lighter, and easier to set up than the traditional yak hair tents.

Traditional tents.

The tents above I have seen once before being used at my friend’s wedding back in Connecticut. The embroidery on the tents is beautiful and throughout my trip I saw quite a few of these tents here and there. This picture was taken near a horse race festival in Machu that we didn’t stop at, but it was nice to see them.

Nomad tents on the grasslands.

The picture above was taken while we were driving through the grasslands and I believe the black tent is a traditional yak hair tent. ( I could be wrong so don’t quote me.) One thing I learned from my tour guide was that many nomads do not know much about houses, especially building them. So normally many nomadic families end up in Chinese-style buildings that are mass produced and not beautiful, because they view a house as a place to stay for winter so the houses tend to be simpler. Many nomads are only in their houses during the winter and then once spring returns they head back to the grasslands with their herds, though I have heard this is getting harder and harder to do.

Stone Tower in Rongtrak.

The stone watchtowers in Rongtrak were built a very long time ago and depending on how many points were at the top of the watchtower you could tell how wealthy the family was. The more points at the top the wealthier they were. The watchtowers could be lived in and were used to protect their families from outsiders a long time ago. Staring up at the watchtowers I tried to imagine how even 500 years ago building something like this out of stone is possible without today’s technology. How did they do it? Where did they find all the rocks? How do you know which rock goes where? It looks like a giant jigsaw puzzle to me and it is probably why I find architecture so fascinating when traveling.

Our hotel for the night in Rongtrak.

My pictures are a little out of order, but this is from our last few days of our trip. We spent 2 nights at this beautiful hostel/hotel in Rongtrak. The accommodation was comfortable and relaxing. It even served breakfast and dinner for all guests at a set time which was really nice and it was a ton of food! I really found the windows to be beautiful on these stone buildings. I like buildings with character so it is probably  why I’m not so impressed with modern buildings when I see them, like the downtown from below.

Chinese style buildings downtown.

These are Chinese style buildings down in the center of a town. Most towns that we went to had a similar feel in the center of town thanks to development of cheap concrete buildings, which I’m not a fan of as they lack anything that makes you say wow its so beautiful or charming. Its just another building that looks the same as one in the last town I saw. One thing that I noticed the most especially in the centers of the towns we traveled to was all of the Chinese flags everywhere.  When I arrived in Chengdu, which is a large Chinese city outside of the traditional area of Tibet, there weren’t as many Chinese flags waving in the breeze. But being in traditionally Tibetan areas there were an increase in Chinese flags that seemed to want their presence to be known, some areas had more than others. One of the other problems with my lack of house type pictures was that there was construction everywhere, roads were being repaved and electric lines being installed in several towns that we traveled through. I didn’t want to document that kind of construction in the sense that it seemed to take away from what was really beautiful about traditional architecture.

Traditional house in Zamtang.

This house was in an old corridor of a town we stayed in for the night. The rest of the city looked really different, but this one section was very scenic and without many people except for the locals. We ran into a few kids who thought we were interesting enough to stare at and eventually play with running around down the road while trying to dodge a water gun. I loved the intricate paint work on the doors and windows and wondered how long it took to individually paint them. Who has such a steady hand? And what skills they must have to be able to make things in almost the same proportions on every window.

Traditional house.

The interesting thing about Tibetan houses is that there are various styles. I never knew this before coming here and I found it fascinating how the housing styles changed depending on the region that we were in. Most of the beautiful Tibetan homes belonged to farmers who are used to permanent settlement so they have the know how to build these houses. Frequently while we were driving  down the roads you could see neighbors coming together to help build a house. Most of the time I kept thinking how intricate the outside is and I wondered how long it took to build a house like that. Other times I would see developments of cookie cutter Chinese style apartments being built for Tibetans to live in.

Traditional style house.

Another thing I learned is that the housing styles changed based on what the local areas were naturally rich in. Therefore, the areas rich with trees had more wood style houses, whereas, those with less trees were made from stone.

Houses on the side of the road.

Looking at the various types of housing made me realize there isn’t necessarily a better way to live but there is definitely many ways to define what home looks like. Sometimes whether it be due to money or government interference we may not be able to live how and where we like.  But the most important thing I got out of this is it is important to pass on knowledge of how to build traditional homes and buildings, otherwise traditional architecture can only be studied as a relic of the past instead of something that can be cherished from the past with a present and future possibility as well. I sincerely hope that over the coming years more and more buildings will be built in the Tibetan style.

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