Lhamo always knew when autumn had arrived. As the days began to shorten, she would climb to the roof of the house and look expectantly northwards, towards the mountains. Sure enough, on the third day of her watch, she saw a cloud of dust moving slowly down from the mountain pass. Soon a great herd of yaks could be seen descending into the valley. Here and there Lhamo could make out the tiny figure of a horseman circling around the great herd. Distant cries rang out across the valley as the animals were coaxed down the right path. Lhamo smiled to herself. The nomads had come home for the winter.
In the past, nearly half the population of Tibet lived as wandering mountain nomads. Most lived in the wild Amdo and Kham regions of northeast Tibet, though there were others on the great plains in the north, and in the remoter mountains of the west as well. It was hard but vigorous life. As soon as the snows on the high plateaus melted, the nomadic tribe, usually of three or four families, would climb into the mountains with their yaks and sheep. Each family lived in a black, yak-skin tent, often guarded by a fierce dog that would attack and kill anyone who approached. Before dawn, the women would rise and milk the female yaks, called dris. Then, they would serve hot buttered tea to their families, and as in the villages, a small offering of food and juniper was made on a simple stone alter outside the tent. To end the morning prayers, an old woman might sprinkle a few drops of tea in the air and the nomads would give a great shout which echoed around the camp.
All day, the men tended the herds on the great open pastures. They had to be watchful, because brigands, as well as some wild animals might attack their animals. Some of the men also went hunting. Although devout Buddhists, they would kill wild antelope and gazelles, as well as their own yaks, for the nomads needed meat to survive. Most simply accepted that they must have done many bad deeds in past lives, and this had condemned them to kill other living things. The women and small children stayed behind in the camps with the dogs to guard them. They passed the day making butter and cheese and weaving wool for clothes and blankets.
As the summer months wore on, the nomads might change their camp five or six times in their search for fresh pastures for their animals. But when the first bitter winds of autumn brought snow to the grazing grounds, the wandering people moved down from the heights and established their winter camp in the foothills. Lhamo waited for this event with great excitement every year.