It’s much easier to be a do-gooder about Tibet if you’re totally ignorant of Central Asian history, like the days when Tibetan conquerors filled up whole carts with the ears of guys they’d killed. Even this idea that Tibet is the homeland of Buddhism, the most Buddhist place on the planet, is crap; Tibet got Buddhism very late, trying it on a couple of times before it took.
The glory days of Tibet were before Buddhism, which is probably not a coincidence. If I had to respect any religion it’d be the Buddhists because they’re quiet and they seem pretty well-behaved, but it’s not the kind of creed you’d want to conquer with. Before you got your army out the door, some annoying Zen type would be saying in that quiet serious voice they put on, “Is not the greatest conquest that of peace?” To which you’d have to say, “No, it’s a tossup between Alexander and the Mongols and would you please put your neck a little farther out the door? It’s at a bad angle for me from there.” And that wouldn’t set the tone for a happy war of conquest, the local monk getting his head blown off at the start.
The Tibetans in their conquering days—which means roughly in Charlemagne’s time—were followers of something called Bon, or Bun, which sounds either like the department store in Seattle or part of a hamburger, but apparently was some sort of mix of Taoist magic and Mongol shamanism. Sounds pretty fun. And it worked as a military religion, almost as good as Mithras or Anglicanism. The Tibetans had a fearsome reputation as warriors who were honored to die in battle, thought they were headed for their version of Valhalla, which would probably involve big vats of tea with yak-butter and maybe central heating if they were especially worthy.
The little I’ve been able to find out about medieval Tibetan armies came mostly from a great site I found where Chinese military buffs get together and talk about really cool stuff, like why the Tibetans had a reputation for particularly tough, impenetrable body armor.
According to these Chinese war nerds, who really seem to know their stuff, the Tibetans’ main weapon was something like the Persian/Byzantine cataphract or heavily armored cavalryman, and they used mail to cover the horse as well as the rider. According to their enemies, the Tang-dynasty Chinese warriors, the Tibetans were excellent with the sword and spear but weak on missile weapons, i.e. archery. One of the cool details I read on this China History Forum site and can’t help mentioning even though it’s kind of off-topic is how the Tang armies dealt with barbarian enemies who wore lacquered armor: they fired burning arrows into the breastplates! Whoa! “One clay-pot barbarian roasted in shellac, coming up! Rice or noodles with that?”
The Tibetan Empire these warriors protected stretched from the Silk Road to the Bay of Bengal. Tibetans ruling Bangladeshis—wish I could’ve seen that. Sitting there in the felt boots they never took off from one year to the next, pouring sweat like the Abominable Snowman in Bugs Bunny: “Gosh it’s hot!”
Seriously though, heat was a real danger to steppe armies. The Mongols actually abandoned part of what’s now Pakistan because they just said fuck it, it’s too hot. Not that they couldn’t handle heat, but they expected the occasional nice refreshing blizzard out of Siberia to cool themselves and their beloved ponies off. Uninterrupted heat, year-round, they considered disgusting and unnatural. And speaking as a fat man, I have to say I agree. (There were fat Mongols, by the way. Subotai was so fat no pony would carry him. You skinny people think you own everything.)
Climate seems crucial to the whole idea of a Tibetan empire. I mean, have you seen a map of Asia? Tibet is one big flat mountaintop. Only place in the world as high and dry as Tibet is the Andean highlands in South America. Now there they grew potatoes; what did the Tibetans grow to feed their armies? I haven’t been able to find out yet, but one thing that occurred to me is that the era when the Tibetan empire was going strong was the same time the Vikings pushed into the far north and even set up a colony in Greenland. It was one of those warm phases you get every few centuries, when some Dark-Ages Al Gore starts shrieking, “Global warming! ‘Tis Satan’s work! We’re doomed!” But more enterprising conquerors see opportunity, like the sales seminars say, where doomsayers see only crisis. Warm weather meant the Norsemen could pop out enough kids to send the long ships into every creek in Eurasia. And I’m thinking maybe it meant the Tibetans could have their day in the sun too—before those ears started to stink.