If you’ve never sat down to sip a nice, warm cup of yak butter tea, you probably haven’t spent time in the Kham Tibetan region of southwest China. Yak butter tea is the predominant drink among Tibetans and conversation over a pot of butter tea is just one aspect of life in Kham today. But where exactly is "Kham"?
Kham is one of three regions that make up the traditionally Tibetan area of western China sometimes called "Greater Tibet," composed of eastern sections of the Tibet Autonomous Region, portions of Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, and the western majority of Sichuan Province. Throughout China, Kham is famed both for its beautiful natural scenery and also for its vibrant people.
Though many people think of Tibetans as peaceful people, the Tibetans of Kham have a much different reputation - for centuries, Kham Tibetans were contending tribes of fierce warriors, often clashing with each other and terrorizing surrounding areas on horseback raids, killing and plundering villages. Over time, the warring tribes of Tibetans gradually spread out and formed distinct ethnic groups, and while the area is now peaceful, Kham men still have a reputation as feared warriors and can be identified by a singular red braid in their black hair, their beautifully colorful clothing, and sporting a large knife in their waistband.
Today, the term "Kham Tibetan" encompasses more than 14 distinct people groups that dwell in the region. Other ethnic groups that dwell in the areas around geographic Kham, like the Sherpas of Nepal, can also trace their origins back to the Kham region of southwest China.
As tribes and ethnic groups have moved away from Kham, their cultures have been reshaped by the new cultures they have encountered and the new regions which they have moved to. The people who have remained in Kham to this day, however, have preserved many practices of the region's original inhabitants, including a unique Kham dialect, heavy reliance on horses and horsemanship, traditional housing and dress, and older forms of Buddhism.
In almost all Tibetan communities, Buddhism is the underpinning for every aspects of life, but unlike many other Tibetan areas, the older Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya forms of Buddhism are still practiced in Kham today. Despite this unique regional difference and the nuanced practical differences in these schools of Buddhist thought, prayer wheels, prayer flags, robe-clad monks, and other notable Buddhist practices are all found throughout Kham.
Tibetans in Kham are renowned for their horsemanship. For centuries, a special breed of horse able to withstand the high altitude of Kham has been bred in the area. Horses and horsemanship play an important role in Kham culture even today, and there are two very large horse festivals held annually in the towns of Jyekundo, in Qinghai, and Nagchu in eastern Tibet. These festivities are highly important to the Kham people and draw participants, spectators and tourists from all over the region and all over the world. The different exhibitions include long distance racing, trick riding, honor guards and more, and are a fantastic demonstration of the importance of horse culture and pride that Kham people have in their equestrian abilities.
The people of Kham have also preserved traditional aspects of home building. Tibetan housing structures in the Kham region vary - many in Kham still live a traditional nomadic lifestyle and reside in yak-hair tents, while others have settled in villages and built multi-story houses using time honored building materials and methods. These structures are easy to distinguish from other architecture in the region because of their ornate wooden frames and beautiful use of colorful paint to adorn the eaves and window frames.
The many in Kham that still reside outside city centers live amid beautiful and, for Tibetans, sacred, natural sites where Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the clean air and much of the pristine landscape remains untouched. Such sites include:
- Jiuzhaigou - A breathtakingly beautiful national park and UNESCO world heritage site.
- Mt. Siguniang - Known as the Alps of the East, these mountains are famed for unspoiled valleys, grasslands and streams.
- Yading Nature Reserve - Includes lakes and mountains that are sacred to Tibetans.
At all of these sites and many of Kham's other natural attractions, visitors are able to see both the natural beauty of the surroundings and the local Kham culture in nearby Tibetan villages. More and more though, Kham Tibetans are leaving these rural areas of Kham and moving to towns and cities, such as Chengdu in Sichuan province. In the Tibetan Quarter of Chengdu, it is not uncommon to see Kham families who have just come down from the mountains walking the streets of this urban metropolis in the heart of southwest China's Kham region.