It’s easy to feel the world is a shrinking place. Journeys that used to take months now happen in the time it takes us to watch Godzilla and eat a microwaved meal, and we have more information in our pocket at any time than the sum total of human knowledge for the last three thousand years. In such a world it’s easy to think there’s very little mystery left, very little tradition or magic or authenticity.
But the old world does survive, in the deep jungles and the high mountains, kept alive in the ancient knowledge of tribes. Most of these tribes are hard to reach. Their culture is tied to the land, and as the land changes they’re forced further and further afield. But they still exist, if you know where to look.
When you see the lives of these tribes firsthand, you begin to look at your iPhone in a different way. Suddenly that Facebook feed doesn’t seem so important. You get to meet people that have never even heard of Instagram.
We’ve delved into the wilds of Asia and the Pacific to find these five tribes that will change the way you see the world.
Roaming the wind-swept valleys and endless plains of Mongolia are the Kazakh people, a tribe descended from Turkic ancestors who lived between Serbia and the Black Sea. Life is simple on the Mongolian steppes and, apart from Soviet collectivism in the 1950s, it hasn’t changed much for these semi-nomadic people in hundreds of years. Families herd their sheep and goats across the tundra, moving with the seasons to where the grazing is freshest. There are only about 100,000 Kazakhs left in Mongolia.
Huli, Papua New Guinea
The Huli have lived in Papua New Guinea’s remote Tari Basin for almost 1000 years, but weren’t even discovered by Europeans until 1935. Impenetrable coastal swamps and rugged jungle-covered mountains kept the tribe out of reach until explorers Jack Hides and James O’Malley stumbled upon Tari Basin. To their surprise, they didn’t find an untamed wilderness but a vast valley filled with well-ordered gardens and irrigations ditches. The Huli are the perfect example of a people who learned to live in harmony with their surrounds, taking and giving in equal measure. Today there are about 150,000 Huli in Papua New Guinea.
Ladakh means ‘Land of high passes’. It’s a small region in northern India, home to winding rocky canyons, jagged snow-capped peaks, stark alpine beauty and the Ladakhi people. Since the Himalayan farming season is short, the Ladakhi only work for four months of the year, saving their harvest to get through the wild winter months. There’s a Ladakhi saying that, because the land is so harsh and the passes so numerous ‘only the best of friends or the worst of enemies would visit you’ here.
Goroka, Papua New Guinea
You could fill a book with the lost tribes Papua New Guinea alone (and they probably have). Its high valleys, low-lying swamps and impenetrable jungle have lead to the isolation and preservation of dozens and dozens of distinct tribes, including the Goroka. The indigenous inhabitants of Papua’s highland plateaus, Goroka warriors traditionally painted their face and torso with fearsome war paint: a useful weapon in the numerous tribal wars that were common in ancient Papua New Guinea.
Bunlap, Vanuatu Islands
Historians think settlement of Vanuatu’s 85 islands occurred some time around 500BC, probably my migrants navigating the Pacific waters from Indonesia. Since then, the island chain has developed its own distinct variety of cultures and tribes, including the Bunlap. The Bunlap people live in the southeast of Pentecost Island and tourism to the area has opened up in recent years. You may know them from their practice of gol – an ancient form of bungee jumping off a bamboo scaffold, secured only by a vine tied around their ankles.
Excited to explore the history of Asian tribes first-hand? Get out there with one of Intrepid Travel’s incredible itineraries in Asia.
Feature image courtesy of Rita Willaert, Flickr