Amdo & Its History
Amdo, one of the three main provinces in China where Tibetan living, is located on the northeast corner of the Tibetan Plateau, with the other two regions being U-Tsang and Kham. Amdo is home to approximately 25% of the total Tibetan population, and around 1.7 million Tibetan live in the region. Parts of Amdo also lie in three other Chinese provinces: northern and eastern Qinghai, southwest Gansu and northern Sichuan, and It was the birthplace of the 14th Dalia Lama.
History of Amdo
Amdo encompasses a large area from the Machu (Yellow River) to the Drichu (Yangtze River). Historically, culturally, and ethnically a Tibetan area, Amdo was administered by a series of local rulers from around the mid-18th century. From the mid 18th century until the mid 20th century, much of Amdo was ruled by local kings and chiefs or by warlords. Much of Amdo was incorporated into the newly formed Qinghai Province, and today Amdo has 8 prefectures: Golog, Malho, Tsolho, Tsobyang, and Tsoshar in Qinghai Province, Ganlho in Gansu Province, and Ngawa in Sichuan Province.
The Tibetan inhabitants of Amdo are referred to as Amdowa, a regional distinction from the Tibetans of Kham and U-Tsang, although they are all considered ethnically Tibetan. Today, ethnic Tibetans predominate in the western and southern parts of Amdo. The northern part of Qinghai has a Mongol majority. Power struggles among various Mongol factions in Tibet and Amdo led to a period alternating between the supremacy of the Dalai Lama and the Mongol overlords. Mongols have also been long-term settlers in Amdo.
Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty of Kublai Khan, Amdo and Kham were two “commanderies”, military command areas, which along with u-Tsang, were collectively referred to as the Three Commanderies of Tibet. When the Manchu Qing dynasty rose to power in the early 18th century it established Xining, a town to the north of Amdo, as the administrative base for the area and Amdo was placed within Qinghai Province. During this period, they were ruled by the Amban or “ high official”, who allowed near-total autonomy by the monasteries and the other local leaders.
The Yongzheng Emperor seized full control of Qinghai (Amdo) in the 1720s. The boundaries of Xining prefecture, which contains most of Amdo, with Sichuan and Tibet proper was established following this. The boundary of Xining Prefecture and central Tibet was the Dangla Mountains, while the boundary of Xining Prefecture with Sichuan was also set at this time, dividing the Ngapa area of the former Amdo region into Sichuan. The monasteries, such as Labrang, Repkong, and Taktsang Lhamo, supervised the choosing of the local leaders or headmen in the areas under their control. This tribe consisted of several thousand nomads. Meanwhile, Sokwo, Ngawa, and Choni had secular leaders appointed, with some becoming kings and even familial dynasties. This secular form of government stretched as far as Machu.
Amdo was traditionally a place of great learning and scholarship and contained great monasteries, including Kumbum Monastery near Xining, Labrang Monastery south of Lanzhou, the Kirti Gompas of Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefectures and Taktsang Lhamo in Dzoge County. Amdo has always been the home of many Tibetan Buddhist monks or Lamas, scholars who had a major influence on both the political and religious development of Tibet, such as the Choekyi Gyaltsen, the 10th Panchen Lama, and the great Gelug reformer Je Tsongkhapa.
Traditions and Lifestyle
There are many dialects of the Tibetan language spoken in Amdo due to the geographical isolation of the various groups. Written Tibetan is the same throughout all the Tibetan-speaking regions and is based on classic Tibetan.
Amdo Tibetan’s traditional lifestyle and economy is centered around agriculture. Depending on the region and environment they live in, they are either nomads or farmers. This lifestyle has evolved throughout history and has changed little up to modern times. In the summer, they move up the mountains with their animals for better grazing and in the harsh winters, come down to the valleys, where they have small agricultural fields where they grow fodder for their livestock. Some villages have less of a journey, as their pasture may be nearby and they can come home every night.
A large area of the Amdo is covered in the best grasslands that Tibet has to offer. The grasslands lie between 3,000 and 3,500 meters above sea level and is perfect for grazing yaks, sheep, goats, and horses. Though many nomads have been relocated to small resettlement villages, there are still plenty of nomads living in traditional yak wool tents in eastern Qinghai, southwest Gansu, and northern Sichuan. This area is easily the best place on the Tibetan Plateau to see the authentic, traditional nomadic culture. While most of Amdo consists of rolling grasslands, there are many high snow-capped mountains as well. Golok Prefecture in southeast Qinghai has the highest peaks in Amdo, with many of the peaks rising above 5,000 meters. Mt. Nyenbo Yurtse rises 5,300 meters in the remote Jigdril County in Golok, while the highest mountain in Amdo is Amnye Machen in Machen county, which rises to 6,282 meters above sea level.
There are no large cities in Amdo. The cultural heart of Amdo is the region between Rebkong and Labrang Monastery, which lies along the Qinghai-Gansu border. This region has many large Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and according to Tibetans, the people of this area speak the standard Amdo Tibetan dialect.
Winter in Amdo can be extreme in parts, and the regions of Amdo around Qinghai Lake and the nomadic grasslands of southeast Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan have bitterly cold winters with temperatures regularly reaching as low as minus twenty degrees. The coldest region in all of Amdo is in the west of Golok Prefecture, in the county of Mado. Both men and women of the Amdo people wear a thick chupa.
Amdo is home to the largest lakes on the Tibetan Plateau. Qinghai Lake is not only the largest lake on the Tibetan plateau but also the largest in all of China. Ngoring and Kyaring are located very near the headwaters of the Yellow River, at nearly 4,300 meters above sea level in western Golok Prefecture.
Amdo is a great place to visit and spend some time exploring the beauty of its nature and the rich culture and tradition. People there are friendly in nature and welcoming. Foreign travelers are free to explore most of Amdo on their own, using public transportation.
Tour Including Amdo
Must Read Tibet Travel Tips
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