TIBET: HISTORY, GEOGRAPHY AND REGIONS

TIBET

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Tibet
TIBET is an unworldly place — more intense than it is beautiful — with deep blue skies with low wispy clouds and powerful sunshine; rolling grasslands, dotted with grazing yaks; flat snow-mottled deserts; and yellow, gray and rusty moonscapes with snowy peaks off in the distance. It is also a rough, religious place with fierce dogs, monk-filled monasteries, and nomads who rarely wash. In recent years it has modernized and developed quickly and now has trains that operate on refrigerated tracks, shopping malls and trekkers outfit in US$500 Gortex suits.

Known as the "Rooftop of the World," and the “Land of Snows,” Tibet has long been considered a place of great beauty and mystery. Some of the mystery is rooted in the fact it has traditionally been so darn hard to get and was deepened by the restrictions and prohibition that the Chinese government placed on travel to the area.

Through most of its history Tibet has been a religious state that coexisted with China under varying degrees of autonomy and control. Since the 1950s it has been under the direct control of Beijing.. Since 1965 it has been administered by the Chinese government as the Tibet Autonomous Region. Areas that traditionally been part of Tibet are now in Qinhai. Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. In part because it was so difficult to reach and was off limits to foreigners for so many years many Westerners see Tibet as a mysterious, fascinating place that offers a deeply spiritual way of living than is more meaningful than life in the West. The population of Tibet was 3,648,100 in 2020; 3,002,166 in 2010; 2,616,329 in 2000; 2,196,010 in 1990; 1,892,393 in 1982; 1,251,225 in 1964; 1,273,969 in 1954. [Source: Wikipedia, China Census] Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada

Tourist Office: Tibet Tourism Bureau, 18 Yuanlin Rd, 850001 Lhasa, Tibet China, tel. (0)-891-633-5472, fax: (0)- 891-633-4632 Maps of Tibet (Xizang): chinamaps.org

Tibet Autonomous Region

Tibet is officially called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and sometimes referred to Xizang or the Xizang Autonomous Region. Tibet is not a province but is province-level autonomous region of the People's Republic of China (PRC). It was created in 1965 on the basis of Tibet's absorption into the PRC in 1951. The current borders of Tibet were generally established in the 18th century and includes about half of ethno-cultural Tibet. Vast expanses of TAR are uninhabited by humans. mostly due to its harsh and rugged terrain,

Tibet Autonomous Region is the second largest province-level division after Xinjiang and the least densely populated one. It covers 1,228,400 square kilometers (474,300 square miles) and has a population density of three people per square kilometer. According to the 2020 Chinese census the population was around 3.6 million. About 31 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Lhasa is the capital and largest city, with about 900,000 people. Ethnic Tibetans make up 90 percent of the population of Tibet, followed by Han Chinese (8 percent); Monpa (0.3 percent); Hui (0.3 percent); others (0.2 percent).

Like Chinese provinces, an autonomous region has its own local government, but an autonomous region — theoretically at least — has more legislative rights. An autonomous region is the highest level of minority autonomous entity in China. They have a comparably higher population — but not necessarily a majority — of the minority ethnic group in their name. Some of them have more Han Chinese than the named ethnic group. There are five province-level autonomous regions in China: 1) Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region for the Zhuang people, who make up 32 percent of the population; 2) Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Nei Mongol Autonomous Region) for Mongols, who make up only about 17 percent of the population; 3) Tibet Autonomous Region Autonomous Region (Xizang Autonomous Region) for Tibetans, who make up 90 percent of the population; 4) Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for Uyghurs, who make up 45.6 percent of the population; and 5) Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, for the Hui, who make up 36 percent of the population. [Source: Wikipedia]

Administratively, Tibet Autonomous Region is divided into one municipality and six prefectures. The municipality is Lhasa, while the six prefectures are Shigatse, Ngari, Shannan, Chamdo, Nagchu and Nyingchi. These are further divided into counties. With nearly 4,000 kilometers of international bounders it marks much of China's southwest barrier. Within China, Tibet is divided from Xinjiang by the Kunlun mountains and from Qinghai Province by the Tanggula Mountains. Sichuan Province lies across the Jinsha River.

Geography of Tibet

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map of Tibet
Tibet is about twice the size of Texas or twice the size of France and makes up one-eighth of the total area of China. Most of it is covered by a high, wind swept plateau — the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau (See Below) — that receives little rain and is bitterly cold in the winter. It is separated from Nepal, India and Burma by the Himalayas, which include Mt. Everest.

Tibet is bordered by Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, XUAR) to the north, Qinghai province to the northeast. Sichuan Province to th east. There is also a short border with Yunnan province to the southeast. To the south are countries of India, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. China has border disputes with India over the McMahon Line of Arunachal Pradesh, known to the Chinese as "South Tibet". The disputed territory of Aksai Chin is to the west, and its boundary with that region is not defined.

Geographically, Tibet can be divided into three major parts, the east, north and south. 1) The eastern part is forest region, occupying approximately one-fourth of the land. Forests, some of them virgin forests, occupy much of this region. 2) The northern part is open grassland, where nomads and yak and sheep dwell here. This part occupies approximately half of Tibet. 3) The southern and central part is an agricultural region, occupying about one-fourth of Tibet's land area. All of Tibet's largest cities and towns, including Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse and Tsetang, are located in this area. It is considered the cultural center of Tibet.

Southern Tibet is bounded by the Himalayas, and on the north by a broad mountain system. The system at no point narrows to a single range; generally there are three or four across its breadth. As a whole the system forms the watershed between rivers flowing to the Indian Ocean — the Indus, Brahmaputra and Salween and its tributaries — and the streams flowing into the undrained salt lakes to the north.

There is very little water in Tibet. Snow frequently falls but rarely accumulates. Even so 47 percent of the world's population gets water from rivers that originate in Tibet. The tjale is a 1.35 million square kilometer permafrost-like layer of ice lying under the surface of the Tibetan Plateau.Sunset occurs very late in Lhasa because it has the same time zone as Beijing. The Tibetan light especially in the morning and night is very impressive.

Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau is the most extensive high plateau in the world. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it has an average altitude of 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) and covers 2,500,000 square kilometers (970,000 square miles), including areas outside of Tibet. This is an area more than five times the size of France. Accounting for a forth of China's total land area, it also is the home of the world's highest lake, an unnamed 19,000-foot-high body of water---with a maximum length of 5 miles and a maximum width of 3 miles---and the highest named lake, 18,400-foot-high Burog Co, with a maximum length of 11 miles and a maximum width of 5 miles.

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Tibetan plateau
The Tibetan Plateau is known as Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in China. It is the largest plateau in China, covering nearly a quarter of the national total land area. With an elevation averaging between 4,000 and 5,000 meters, it is the highest plateau on earth, and is known as the "roof of the world." The Himalayas are located in southern Tibetan Plateau and its highest peak, 8,848.13-meter (29,029.3-foot) -high Mt. Everest (Qomolangma) is the highest mountains in the world.

The Tibetan Plateau covers most of the Tibet Autonomous Region, northwestern Yunnan, the western half of Sichuan, southern Gansu and Qinghai provinces in Western China, the Indian regions of Ladakh and Lahaul and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh) as well as Bhutan. It is surrounded and traversed by several mountain ranges: The Tibetan Plateau is surrounded by the massive mountain ranges: the inner Himalayan range to the south, the Kunlun Mountains to the north,the Qilian Mountains to the northeast, and the rugged Karakoram range of northern Kashmir to the west.

The Tibetan plateau is 2,500 kilometers (1,600 miles) from east to west and 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from north to south. It is bounded by the Himalayas, to the south, by the Karakoram range to the west, by the Tangkula Mountains to the east, and the Kunlun and Nan Shan mountains and the Taklamakan Desert to the north. Movement into the area has traditionally been made along mountain corridors. The most difficult obstacles were often at the lower elevations were mighty rivers created valleys with step slopes and cliffs. The upper elevations were often marked by plains and plateaus and relatively gentle slopes.

The Tibetan Plateau if the source of several of the world's great rivers, including the he Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow River. Before it was pushed upwards by mountain building activity, the plateau was a well watered plain but as it and the Himalayas were pushed up it was deprived of rain and became the dry plateau that its is today. The Tibetan Plateau also has more than 1,000 lakes, including Qinghai Lake, China's largest saltwater lake, and Namtso Lake, the second largest saltwater lake in China and the highest major saltwater lake in the world.

World's Highest Places in Tibet

leftAccording to the Guinness Book of Records, Tibet boasts 1) The highest trail in the world is an eight-mile section between Khaleb and Xinji-fu, Tibet. There are two parts that exceed 20,000 feet. 2) A settlement on the T'e-li-mo trail (southern Tibet) is the world's highest settlement. It is 19,800 feet high.

3) Wenzhuan (Tibet) is the world's highest town. Founded in 1955 on the Quinghai-Tibet road north of the Tangla road, it is 16,730 feet high. 4) Jiachan is 15,870-foot-high and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records are the world's highest inhabited town. 5) Yarlung Tsangpo Valley is the world's deepest valley. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is 16,650 feet deep and is between the peaks Namche Barwa (25,536 feet) and Jala Peri (23,891 feet), which are 13 miles apart with the Yarling Tsangpo River in between.

The world’s five highest airports are in Tibet or the Tibetan part of Sichuan:
1) Daocheng Yading Airport in Daocheng, Sichuan at an elevation of 4,411 meters (14,472 feet);
2) Qamdo Bamda Airport in Qamdo, Tibet at an elevation of 4,334 meters (14,219 feet);
3) Kangding Airport in Kangding, Sichuan at an elevation of 4,280 meters (14,042 feet);
4) Ngari Gunsa Airport in Shiquanhe, Tibet at an elevation of 4,274 meters (14,022 feet);
5) Garze Gesar Airport in Garzê, Sichuan at an elevation of 4,068 meters (13,346 feet)

Lake Region and River Region of Tibet

Tibet can be divided into two parts, the "lakes region" in the west and northwest, and the "river region", which lies to the east, south, and west of the “lakes region.”. Both regions receive limited precipitation because they are situated in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. The lake region has traditionally been inhabited by nomads and animal herders. The river region has traditionally been more agricultural with farmers growing crops in the river valleys.

The lake region extends from the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh, Lake Rakshastal, Yamdrok Lake and Lake Manasarovar near the source of the Indus River, to the sources of the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze. Other lakes include Dagze Co, Namtso, and Pagsum Co. This wind-swept 1,000-kilometer-wide desert is called Chang Tang. Chang Tang Reserve in northern Tibet is a 247,120-square-kilometer (115,000-square-mile) conservation area in one of the remotest areas in the world.. Larger than Arizona, it is the second largest nature reserve in the world after Greenland National Park Chang Tang is covered mainly with high pastures and is uninhabited except for a few nomadic yak headers. The average elevation in the reserve is between 15,000 and 17,000 feet. There are no trees or shrubs and the temperatures in the winter can drop below minus 40̊F. There are no river outlets. The mountain ranges are spread out, rounded, disconnected and separated by flat, shallow valleys. The reserve is designed to protect three species of animals: the Tibetan wild ass, the wild yak and the argali sheep. Chang Tang means “northern plains." Largely unexplored, it is home to snow leopard, ibex, Tibetan antelope (chiru), Tibetan wild ass, bharal or blue sheep (nawa na), black necked crane, wild yak, lynx, wolves and very rare Tibetan brown bear.

This part of Tibet AR is freckled with large and small lakes. Some are freshwater but most are salty or alkaline, intersected by streams. The spotty permafrost over the Chang Tang creates bogs with tussocks of grass that resembles the landscape of Siberian tundra. In dried lakes there are deposits of soda, potash, borax and salt. The lake region has numerous, widely-scatted hot springs that are known for producing columns of ice, where boiling water froze while rising out of the ground.

The river region features fertile mountain valleys such as those found on Yarlung Tsangpo River (the upper courses of the Brahmaputra) and its major tributary, the Nyang River, the Salween, the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Yellow River. The Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon, formed by a horseshoe bend in the river, is the deepest, and maybe longest canyon in the world. Among the mountains there are many narrow valleys. Some of the most populated parts of Tibet — the valleys of Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse and the Brahmaputra — are found here. There is no permafrost here. The land has rich soil and is well irrigated, and richly cultivated.

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Yaks and yak-cow hybrids

Tibetan Climate

Tibet is sometimes called the "Land of the Snows" even though it snows relatively infrequently. Tibet receives 46 centimeters of precipitation or less a year. Wind is constant and the air is very dry. Tibetans often wrap a bandanna or shawl around their mouths for protection against windblown sand and dust. The best time to travel to Tibet is June through October. Other times of the year it is too cold. June and July are often rainy in eastern Tibet.

The temperatures frequently drop below minus 30̊F in the winter and sometimes rise above 100̊F in the summer. The temperature can drop 80̊F in a single day, and the extremes of hot and cold are enough to break up the granite mountains into dust and sand, and release fierce winds, stinging hailstorms, and blinding dust storms. It is no surprise many Tibetans believe that hell is a bitterly cold place not an inferno.

I couldn’t believe how warm it was when I visited Tibet in December and January. It was a little unreasonably warm when I was there but not much. In Lhasa, which has the same latitude as Florida, it was generally in the 50s F during the day, dropping into the 20s at night. I brought a huge backpack with polypropylene underwear, a thick, fishermen’s knit sweater and various kinds of gloves and glove covers I didn’t need in Lhasa. However, it was quite cold in the Everest area. There was not heat in my hotel room and I slept with my down jacket on and hot water bottles. At my hotel in Lhasa, there was plenty of heat from a radiator.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker blog, “The Tibetan-Qinghaian Plateau does not go in much for air-conditioning. This is yak country, after all, the high-altitude stretch of western China where Tibetans proudly describe their winters as so punishing and bleak that citizens are celebrated for the ability to drink away the season. Even in summer, the nighttime temperatures usually sink into the low fifties, attracting tourists from China's broiling south and east." [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker blog, August 3, 2010]

For every 500 meters climbed the temperature drops 3̊C. At the summits of high mountains winds can kick up to 90 mph and temperatures can drop many degrees below zero. Tibet is so dry that grain can be stored for 50 years. The extremes of hot and cold, coupled with the thin air and high altitude sunshine, are enough to break granite mountains into sand, and generate fierce winds, stinging hailstorms, and blinding dust storms.

History and People of Tibet

Before the 18th century no one outside bothered with Tibet. In the 18th and 19th century it was taken over by China. In 1911, Tibet gained independence again but China reclaimed it 1951 and sealed it off from the rest of the world for more than two decades after a Tibetan uprising in 1959 and the escape of the Dalai Lama and 100,000 Tibetans to India.

About two million Tibetans live in Tibet. Another four million live in the provinces adjacent to Tibet. Tibetan society was largely feudal until the Chinese abolished serfdom in 1953. The non-Tibetan population include permanent Chinese residents, a "floating population" of Chinese entrepreneurs, many of them of Sichuanese and Muslim Huis, and Chinese soldiers and paramilitary troops.

Tibet has traditionally been one of the poorest and least educated regions in China. Chinese leaders have recently made an effort to improve the living standards of Tibetans, and boost tourism to help local people make money, but many Tibetans are suspicious of Chinese intentions and wish they would go away and leave Tibet to Tibetans. They are especially critical of efforts to destroy and suppress Tibetan culture, the horrible treatment of the Dalai Lama, and the mass migration of Han Chinese to Tibet.

Regions of Tibet

There are four traditional provinces of Tibet: 1) Amdo in the north-east, now largely occupied by Qinghai Province; 2) the Kham in the east, now occupied by western Sichuan and eastern Tibet Autonomous Region; 3) Ngari (including former Guge kingdom) in the north-west; and 4) Ü-Tsang (or Tsang-Ü) in southern and central .

Amdo encompasses a large area stretching from the Yellow River to the Yangtze, embracing much of modern-day Qinghai Province. The region was historically, culturally, and ethnically a Tibetan area and has been ruled by local rulers since the mid-18th century and presided over but not ruled directed by the Dalai Lamas. There are many dialects of the Tibetan language spoken in Amdo due to the geographical isolation of many groups. Amdo is featured in a famous epic story known to both Tibetans and Chinese and traditionally been regarded as place where magnificent horses were raised and allowed to run wild.

Kham is the wild Tibetan area in Sichuan, Yunnan and eastern Tibet that is very different from the dry and brown Tibetan plateau. A lush and green and well-watered place, Kham features old growth forests, rhododendron trees and spectacular mountains and Alpine scenery. Antelopes, golden eagles, packs of green parakeets, snow leopards, bears, monkeys and wolves and bandits still roam here. The roads here have only recently been opened to tourists and many places are still off limits. Kham is different from Tibet in other ways. The Khampa Tibetans live wood or stone houses with brilliantly carved windows not concrete or mud brick houses or yak-hair tents as is the case on the Tibetan plateau. There is not a large Han Chinese presence here other than police and soldiers. Some Han Chinese here have even married Tibetans. There region has long had a reputation unruliness and

Ngari Prefecture is located in the western part of Southwest China's Tibet autonomous region, at the center of the Changtang Plateau on the northern part of the Tibetan Plateau. It begins at Zhamai Mountain, west of the Tanggula Mountains, in the east, bordering the Nagqu Prefecture, and stretches to the western section of the Himalayas in the west and southwest, bordering India and Nepal. It joins the middle section of the Kangdese Mountains, neighboring the Shigatse Prefecture's Zongba and Sagar counties, and ends on the southern side of the Kunlun Mountains in the north, neighboring Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The border totals 1,116 kilometers with 57 passageways linking the area to other places. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Ü-Tsang

Ü-Tsang (or Tsang-Ü) is the cultural heartland of the Tibetan people. It covers south-central Tibet and includes the Brahmaputra River watershed and the Lhasa and Shigatse areas. The Himalayas defined Ü-Tsang's southern border. The present Tibet Autonomous Region corresponds approximately to what was ancient Ü-Tsang and western Kham. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ü-Tsang was formed by the merging of two earlier power centers: Ü (dbus) in central Tibet, controlled by the Gelug lineage of Tibetan Buddhism under the early Dalai Lamas, and Tsang (gtsang) which extended from Gyantse to points west, controlled by the rival Sakya lineage. Military victories by the powerful Khoshut Mongol Güshi Khan that backed 5th Dalai Lama and founded Ganden Phodrang government in 1642, consolidated power over the combined region, followed by the rule of the Qing Dynasty started in 1720 by the Qianlong Emperor that continued until the British expedition to Tibet (1903–1904).

Tsang, whose largest cities are Gyantse and Shigatse, near where the Panchen Lama has his traditional seat at Tashilhunpo Monastery, was designated on maps of the Qing dynasty as "Back Tibet", while Ü, where the Dalai Lama has his seat at Lhasa, was designated "Front Tibet". This division was an artificial construct of the Chinese and had no currency within Tibet where the Dalai Lama exercised effective rule over both Tsang and Ü.

Image Sources: Seat 61, Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021


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