rightTibet has traditionally been the home of a subsistence agriculture and herding economy. For the most part there was no currency, only barter until 1960s. The feudal system has only recently been displaced.

The Dalai Lama once said: “Tibet is economically backward although spiritually highly advanced. But spiritual [strength] alone cannot fill our stomach. So we need economic development.” Commenting on the impact of economic growth on spirituality one Tibetan monk told the Asahi Shimbun that as Tibet’s “economy develops, a growing number of people are praying for their own personal happiness. People’s spirits have become poorer.”

The Tibetan economy focuses on plateau animal husbandry and farming. Sheep, goat and yak are their main domestic animals and highland barley and wheat are their main crops. Zanba (roasted highland barley) and buttered tea are main food for herdsmen. According to the Chinese government: In some big towns and monasteries, there were a few carpenters, blacksmiths, stone carvers and weavers. They, too, had to perform services and pay taxes to manorial lords and were looked down upon by other people. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Up until the mid 1990s most consumer goods in Tibet were smuggled in from Nepal. Now Tibetan shops run by Muslim Huis sell a wide variety of goods, including eggs from Gansu, bananas from the coast, and American style shampoo from Shanghai.

Tibet is richly endowed with energy and mineral resources. There are enormous amounts of hydropower and terrestrial heat for generating electricity, and huge reserves of natural gas, copper, iron, coal, mica and sulfur. The landlocked lakes abound in borax, salt, mirabilite and natural soda. Oilfields have been found in recent years in the Qaidam basin in Qinghai and the northern Tibet Plateau.

Websites and Sources: CNN report on China Exploiting Tibetan Resources money.cnn.com ; China Daily report on Huge Mineral Resources in Tibet chinadaily.com

China-Tibet Tea Horse Road

For many centuries the Tea Horse Road was a thoroughfare of commerce, the main link between China and Tibet. Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic, “The ancient passageway once stretched almost 1,400 miles across the chest of Cathay, from Yaan, in the tea-growing region of Sichuan Province, to Lhasa, the almost 12,000-foot-high capital of Tibet. One of the highest, harshest trails in Asia, it marched up out of China's verdant valleys, traversed the wind-stripped, snow-scoured Tibetan Plateau, forded the freezing Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween Rivers, sliced into the mysterious Nyainqentanglha Mountains, ascended four deadly 17,000-foot passes, and finally dropped into the holy Tibetan city.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

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Sail assisted wheelbarrows
Today the trail lives on in the memories of men like Luo Yong Fu, a watery-eyed 92-year-old whom I met in the village of Changheba, a ten-day walk for a tea porter west of Yaan,” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic. “When I first arrived in Sichuan, I was told no tea porters were still alive. But as I walked the last remnants of the Chamagudao, the Chinese name for the ancient trade route, I met not only Luo, but also five others, all eager to share their stories. Stooped but still surprisingly strong, Luo Yong Fu wore a black beret and a blue Mao jacket with a pipe in the pocket. He had worked on the Tea Horse Road as a porter, carrying tea to Tibet from 1935 to 1949. Luo's load of tea always weighed 135 pounds or more. At the time, he weighed less than 113 pounds.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

"Difficulties were so great and the hardship so enormous," Luo said. "It was a terrible job." Luo had crossed back and forth over Maan Shan, the point I had hoped to reach. In winter the snow was three feet deep and six-foot icicles hung from the rocks. He said the last time someone had crossed the pass was in 1966, so he doubted whether I would be able to do it.” [Ibid]

“But I did get a glimmer of what it must have been like to travel the road. In Xinkaitian, the first stop on the tea porters' 20-day trek from Yaan to Kangding, clean-shaven Gan Shao Yu, 87, and bristle-faced Li Wen Liang, 78, insisted on acting out their lives as porters. Backs bent beneath immense, imaginary loads of brick tea, veiny hands on T-shaped crutches, heads down and eyes on their splayed feet, the two old men showed me how they wobbled single file along a wet stretch of cobblestone. After seven steps Gan stopped and stamped his crutch three times, following tradition. Both men circled their crutches around to their backs to rest their wood-frame packs atop the crutch. Wiping sweat from their brows with phantom bamboo whisks, they croaked out the tea porter song: ‘seven steps up, you have to rest. / Eight steps down, you have to rest./ Eleven steps flat, you have to rest. / You are stupid, if you don't rest.” [Ibid]

“Tea porters, both men and women, regularly carried loads weighing 150 to 200 pounds; the strongest men could carry 300. The more you carried, the more you were paid: Every pound of tea was worth a pound of rice when you got back home. Wearing rags and straw sandals, porters used crude iron crampons for the snowy passes. Their only food was a satchel of corn bread and an occasional bowl of bean curd.” "Of course some of us died on the way," Gan said solemnly, his eyelids half shut. "If you got caught in a snowstorm, you died. If you fell off the trail, you died." [Ibid]

Tea portering ended soon after Mao took over the country in 1949 and a highway was built. Redistributing land from the wealthy to the poor, Mao released the tea porters from servitude. "It was the happiest day of my life," Luo said. After he received his parcel of land, he began to grow his own rice and "that sad period passed away." [Ibid]

History of the Tea and Horse Trade Between China and Tibet

“Tea was first brought to Tibet, legend has it, when Tang dynasty Princess Wen Cheng married Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in A.D. 641,” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic. “Tibetan royalty and nomads alike took to tea for good reasons. It was a hot beverage in a cold climate where the only other options were snowmelt, yak or goat milk, barley milk, or chang (barley beer). A cup of yak butter tea — with its distinctive salty, slightly oily, sharp taste — provided a mini-meal for herders warming themselves over yak dung fires in a windswept hinterland.” [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, May 2010]

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Tea carriers in 1908
“The tea that traveled to Tibet along the Tea Horse Road was the crudest form of the beverage. Tea is made from Camellia sinensis, a subtropical evergreen shrub. But while green tea is made from unoxidized buds and leaves, brick tea bound for Tibet, to this day, is made from the plant's large tough leaves, twigs, and stems. It is the most bitter and least smooth of all teas. After several cycles of steaming and drying, the tea is mixed with gluey rice water, pressed into molds, and dried. Bricks of black tea weigh from one to six pounds and are still sold throughout modern Tibet.” [Ibid]

By the 11th century, brick tea had become the coin of the realm. The Song dynasty used it to buy sturdy steeds from Tibet to take into battle against fierce nomadic tribes from the north, antecedents of Genghis Khan's hordes. It became the prime trading commodity between China and Tibet. For 130 pounds of brick tea, the Chinese would get a single horse. That was the rate set by the Sichuan Tea and Horse Agency, established in 1074. Porters carried tea from factories and plantations around Yaan up to Kangding, elevation 8,400 feet. There tea was sewn into waterproof yak-skin cases and loaded onto mule and yak trains for a three-month journey to Lhasa.” [Ibid]

“By the 13th century China was trading millions of pounds of tea for some 25,000 horses a year. But even all the king's horses couldn't save the Song dynasty, which fell to Genghis's grandson, Kublai Khan, in 1279. Nonetheless, bartering tea for horses continued through the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and into the middle of the Qing dynasty (1645-1912). When China's need for horses began to wane in the 18th century, tea was traded for other goods: hides from the high plains, wool, gold, and silver, and, most important, traditional Chinese medicinals that thrived only in Tibet. These are the commodities that the last of the tea porters, like Luo, Gan, and Li, carried back from Kangding after dropping off their loads of brick tea.” [Ibid]

“Just as China's imperial government used to regulate the tea trade in Sichuan, so monasteries influenced the trade in theocratic Tibet. The Tea Horse Road, known to Tibetans as the Gyalam, connected the important monasteries. Over the centuries, power struggles in Tibet and China changed the Gyalam's route. There were three main trunk lines: one from the south in Yunnan, home of Puer tea; one from the north; and one from the east cutting through the middle of Tibet. Because it was the shortest, this center route handled most of the tea.” [Ibid]

Economic Improvements in Tibet

Tibet gross domestic product is growing at a 12 percent annual rate, faster than the robust Chinese national average.

The Chinese government claims the growth rate in Tibet was around 9 percent in the late 1990s and early 2000s on par with that in China as a whole. Most of the growth has been concentrated in urban areas, particularly among Chinese immigrants. The urban income is about $650 a year, five times as high as the countryside. More recently, the economy in Tibet has grown in double digit numbers, higher than those of China as a whole. Between 2001 and 2005, Tibet experienced average annual growth of 12 percent. The opening of the railway to Tibet helped boost growth to 13.2 percent in 2006.

GDP reached 21.2 billion yuan (almost $3 billion) in 2004, a 19 fold increase from 1964. Much of the increase is attributed to government aid and the influx of Han Chinese who have created more economic opportunities, mostly for themselves but also some Tibetans too.

Economic reforms have raised the standard of living of many Tibetans. But large numbers have also been left out. Annual income quadrupled to $1,076 between 1986 and 2006. Yet unemployment remains at around 10.3 percent, higher than the rest of the nation. Many of the unemployed are Tibetans, some of whom hang out pool halls during the day and get drunk at night.

Beijing seems to be banking on the idea that economic prosperity will weaken the ties between Tibetans and their culture and religion and make it easier for the government to control them. But there are limits. One Tibetan truck driver told the Times of London, “Our lives are much better now — we can afford our own houses. It’s just that I don’t like the Chinese government.”

Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia University, told the New York Times the goal of maintaining double-digit growth in the region had worsened ethnic tensions. Of course, they achieved that, but it was disastrous, he said. They had no priority on local human resources, so of course they relied on outside labor, and sucked in large migration into the towns.

See Infrastructure, New Train, Transportation, Government and Public Services in Tibet

Labor in Tibet

Much of the menial labor on construction sites and road crew is done by teenage girls who earn about $2.50 a day. They shovel dirt, carry cement, paint walls and scrub floors 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Most don’t complain, saying that life is harder in their home villages.

In the countryside adults work about 49 hours a week (7 hours a day, 7 days a week). Women often throw their young children in slings and toss them on their back when they perform chores such as butter churning. In the morning men cut firewood and bring anything of value (such as berries or mushrooms) that can be found along the way.

Tibetans in the northern Yunnan and western Sichuan make their living by hunting wild goats, growing wheat and barely, panning for gold and drying salt in terraces along the rivers.

See Feudalism, Communism and Agriculture, Below

Chinese Get the Good Jobs in Tibet

Tibetans complain they do not have many job or career opportunities. Those that get government jobs never seem to be able to rise above the deputy level. One Tibetan student told the New York Times, “I’m not even sure I can get a job after graduation.” In October 2006, several hundred young educated Tibetans gathered in front of the local government administrative building to protest the fact that they were educated and qualified but jobs went to Han Chinese not them.

Chinese dominate the Lhasa economy. Most of the shop keepers, taxi drivers are Han Chinese. In Lhasa, nearly all the taxi drivers are Chinese. Few Tibetans can afford the $20,000 needed to buy a car.

Many Tibetans lack good Chinese language skills, a basic requirement for jobs in China. Tibetan guides lose their license if they can’t pass an annual exam in Mandarin.

See Lhasa

Business in Tibet

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Tibetan market

The number of businesses in Tibet rose from 500 in 1993 to 41,000 in 2003. The Chinese government has offered tax breaks and other incentive to foreign investors who are willing invest in Tibet. Joint ventures for making motorcycle engines and cashmere knitwear have been set up. Beijing has also ordered every Chinese province and several state companies to invest in Tibet. Lhasa has a stock exchange.

Many of the businesses in Tibet are owned by Chinese. Many have few Tibetan employees or or even Tibetan customers. Almost everything that is sold in Tibet comes from China. Tibetans say the Chinese have better guanxi (connections) and more developed business sense. One Tibetan told Atlantic Monthly, "Those people know how to do business. We Tibetans don’t know how do it. If something is supposed to be five yuan, we say it's five yuan. But Sichuanese will say ten."

Tibetans have traditionally not been very ambitious. In many ways Buddhism teaches one to accept their lot in life and look for happiness in future lives. One Tibetan yak trader told the Washington Post, “I don’t care about Tibet very much. We’ve been influenced by the Han people. Some Tibetan are poor because they are not brave enough. Some don’t have any business sense. Some spend their money too quickly.” See Cultural Differences

Tibetans have traditionally traded animals, animal products, honey, salt, borax, herbs, gemstones, and metal in exchange for slk, paper, ink, tea, and manufactured goods. Trade was sometimes carried out by pilgrims while on pilgrimages. Tibetan traders haul barley and meat in wheelbarrows.

To earn extra money people collect wild flowers, herbs and other plants that can be sold as traditional medicines.

See Rich

Shopping in Lhasa

There are many department stores in Lhasa, mostly on Yuthok Lu that supply everyday needs. For example, Lhasa Department Store, located on the west end of Yuthok Lu, is the largest and best known department store in Lhasa. There are also some supermarkets in Lhasa, such as Hongyan Supermarket Chains mainly distributed in Lhasa downtown. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Barkhor Street is a traditional Tibetan shopping center, where shopkeepers with small shops and stalls on the street supply more traditional and fascinating Tibetan artifacts and handicrafts. These items include prayer flags, Buddha figures, conch-shell trumpets, rosaries, amulets, fur hats, horse bells, bridles, copper teapots, wooden bowls, inlaid knives, and jewelry inlaid with turquoise and other gems. The Tibetan knife is a special item that is not allowed on airplane, but you can certainly mail it to your home by post office.

Do not forget to carefully examine jewelry for quality. Though lots of jewelry of excellent quality is available, some is coarse and poor in quality. It is very easy to find appealing items that are uniquely Tibetan. Exotic Tibetan opera masks and costumes are really attractive. Brightly colored, beautifully homespun Tibetan rugs and khaddar are also popular souvenirs. Tibetan carpet can be bought at the Tash Delek Tibetan Rug Factory.

As in other traditional markets throughout the world, you should try to bargain with the shopkeepers so as to buy nice things at lower prices. Cutting half of their asking prices is usually proper. Except shoppers, you may be accompanied by hundreds of prostrating pilgrims. It is a thrilling experience that will certainly remind you that you are in Lhasa. If you need maps, Xinhua bookstores are good choice. There are three Xinhua bookstores in Lhasa respectively located on Yuthok Lu, east Barkhor and Beijing Zhong Lu.

Shopping tips in Tibet: 1) At a big supermarket in Lhasa you can buy local specialties, such as the Tibetan tea, dried yak meat, the chang, and highland barley products for relatively cheap prices. 2) For buying Tibet medicine, try the Tibet hospital on Jokhang square, but the prices are kind of high. A famous Tibet medicine is seventy pearl pill. 3) You can shop while doing the kora around Jokhang temple. Follow the clockwise flow. 4) The turquoise and red coral on jewelry is often fake. Turquoise is often sold in grams, If its three to five yuan a gram its proobably fake. Around fifteen to eighteen yuan a gram is what you expect to pay for the real thing. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Resources in Tibet

Tibet is richly endowed with energy and mineral resources. There are enormous amounts of hydropower and terrestrial heat for generating electricity, and huge reserves of natural gas, copper, iron, coal, mica and sulfur. The landlocked lakes abound in borax, salt, mirabilite and natural soda. Oilfields have been found in recent years in the Qaidam basin in Qinghai and the northern Tibet Plateau.

Tibet has more than 3,000 proven mineral reserves, including China biggest chromium and copper deposits. China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, quoted a Tibetan official in March saying that mining could make up at least 30 percent of Tibet gross domestic product by 2020, up from 3 percent now.

By one count there are deposits of about 126 different minerals and significantly large deposits of gold, chromite, copper, borax and iron. The former Chinese Communist Party Chair, Yin Fatang, reported that the world's largest supply of uranium is located in the Himalayan region of Tibet. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Exiled supporters of the Dalai Lama claim the government in Beijing wants to drive Tibetans off the land so it can extract minerals and water resources from the mountain region. The communist government says it is investing heavily in measures to improve the environment of the region.

Tibet has large deposits of copper and iron. The new railway will make it easier to exploit them. Tibetans have traditionally frowned up mining because its disturbs the sacred essence of the soil. The Chinese however have no such qualms and have conducted extensive geological surveys across Tibet.

Chinese geologists have found new deposits of copper, iron, lead, and zinc, and possibly oil, accessible to the train route. Total possible reserves have been estimated 20 million tons of copper and 10 million tons of lead and zinc.

Tibet contains half the world's lithium reserves, almost all of it from a single mine in northeRn Tibet. China’s largest chromium deposits and it third largest copper mine are in Tibet. There is also gold, uranium, diamonds, silver, boron, antimony and borax.

Gold, turquoise and other gems comes from three specific areas in the southern and western Tibet. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was huge gold rush in western Qinghai. Thousands of illegal gold diggers flocked to region and disrupted the fragile environment there. In July 2010, China National Gold Group, the nation largest gold producer, began work at a polymetallic mine whose daily output is expected to reach 15,000 tons.

Chinese-Run Water Company in Tibet

“A prominent mineral water company called 5100 that is registered in Hong Kong but managed from Beijing has set up a factory in Damxung, on a grassy plateau three hours north of Lhasa, to collect glacial runoff and bottle it as high-end mineral water. Last year, the company, named after the altitude of the glacier, produced almost two million gallons of water. The water is shipped out on the Qinghai-Tibet railway.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]

“The water that is collected would otherwise flow through wetlands where yak graze. It is unclear how the factory work has affected the ecosystem. Jiang Xiaohong, the factory manager, who moved to Tibet three years ago, said the company did an environmental assessment before starting operations in 2006. There no impact on the wetlands,” she said. [Ibid]

“Because the company employs Tibetans, it receives government subsidies, Jiang said. About 95 percent of the 150 or so workers are Tibetan, and the average salary, including housing subsidies, is about $740 a month, a small fortune on the Tibetan plateau, she said. But ethnic Han are the company managers and owners, and the ones who ultimately profit from it. Hao, the regional vice chairman, said the key to making Tibetans more competitive in business is to enhance Tibetan people skills through education and training.” [Ibid]

There are more than 120 mining sites in Tibet. Mining accounts for about a third of Tibet’s industrial output. The Hong Kong-based South China Post reported in 1996 that a half million Chinese laborers had been brought the Tibetan plateau to work in copper mines.

Energy in Tibet

BP Amaco, and the Italian firm Agip are engaged in oil and gas projects in Tibetan areas. In 2001, Chinese scientists announced the discovery of 5 billion tons of oil and gas in the Changtan region in northwest Tibet.

A gas pipeline is being built across Qinghai province by the Chinese company PetroChina, with help from BP Amaco.

Tibetans use solar collectors to heat their yak-butter tea.

Yak Dung and Energy in Tibet

Yak dung is indispensable for cooking and heating. Generally about the size of a man’s hand, yak dung paddies are laid on a mud wall for drying before they are used as fuel. About 7,000 paddies are needed by a household to get through the winter,

Some Tibetans get electricity from the grid and from solar collectors but still to burn yak dung for heat.

“Biogas converters” are used by Tibetan villagers to produce fuel for heating and cooking from yak and cattle dung. When asked about their smell one NGO workers said the villages that use them smell better than they did when the burned dried dung directly and the piles of dung patties polluted their drinking water.

Electricity in Tibet

Tibet has great geothermal potential. Lhasa already gets much its electricity from the Yangpachen Geothermal Plant. Tibet has some strongest and most consistent sunlight in the world. Portable solar panels are widely used for heating water and cooking on the plateau. Experimental wind power stations have been set up.

Homes have traditionally been lit with light made from butter oil. People were usually in bed in by 9:00pm. These days more or more places are getting electricity. Tibetans with electricity watch Tibetan concerts and American movies on television and have machines that make butter tea.

Many people in remote areas have small solar generators. Even nomads have portable ones that can set up outside their tents to generate power to run lights, televisions and VCRs. In the remote village of Zem people have been getting electricity from a solar plant since 2002. The plant cost about $350,000 and supplies electricity for 45 households. The government has built 400 such plants supplying power to 400,000 people.

Industries in Tibet

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yak hair rug

Most manufactured goods come from China.

Traditional Tibetan trades include flour milling, canvas painting, paper making, rope braiding, wool and fiber processing, weaving and textile production, tanning, metalwork, carpentry, and wood carving.

Small scale and household production has traditionally been the norm. Large monasteries produce books, religious manuscripts and religious objects on an industrial scale. See Dege, Places.

Weaving in Tibet

Weaving is arguably the most developed traditional industry that takes place outside the monasteries. Many homes have a looms and many of the garments that people wear are made at home. Young women spin raw wool into yarn. Many Tibetan women still twist yarn by hand with a distaff, the same method employed by the ancient Greeks. Wide bands are woven into carpets by men. Narrow bands are used for belts.

Clothing is generally made from “nambu” — wool spun from yak or sheep hair and very tightly woven in narrow strips. Nambu is usually sold in lengths called "dhomaos." One dhompa is equal to the distance between a man’s two hands when he opens his arms as wide as he can.

Pashmina wool — the soft, warm fiber from Himalayan goats — has become world famous over the past couple of decades, It is sold in boutiques from Manhattan to Paris. In 2000, Nepal exported $103 million worth of pashmina wool. By last year, exports had slumped to $18 million. Traders say the main reason for the plunge was competition from inexpensive mass-produced imitations made from synthetic fabrics and cheaper wool. [Source: Binaj Gurubacharya, Associated Press, May 6, 2011]

Image Sources: Purdue University, Antique Tibet

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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