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Tibetan Highlands, 1971

Title: Tibetan Highlands
Projection: Unknown,
Source Bounding Coordinates:
W: 78 E: 102 N: 41 S: 24

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Description: " The Tibetan Highlands, containing more than one-fourth the area of China but less than one percent of the population, is the highest and most extensive plateau on earth. It is the mother of many rivers: its eastern slopes are the sources of the Huang Ho, Yangtze, Mekong and Salween; along its southern edge are the sources for the Indus, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra (Tsangpo). Rimmed by even higher mountain ranges, this regionÕs physical seclusion has produced a unique civilization relatively unchanged by outside forces until the Chinese occupation of 1951. The region is the homland of the Tibetan peoples, who ethnically predominate almost everywhere in the Highlands, parts of which are now incorporated into the provinces of Tsinghai, Szechwan, and Yunnan. The southern half of the region, designated as the Tibetan Autonomous Region by the Chinese, coincides territorially with the former extent of the political entity of Tibet. This vast region traditionally was held together by three unifying influences: a form of Buddhism administered from Lhasa through numerous powerful monasteries; a common written form of the various dialects of the Tibetan language; and the propensity of Tibetan traders. The Highlands comprise three natural divisions: the ChÕiang tÕang (north plain); the populous cultivated valleys of the south and southeast; and a large peripheral area in the east and northeast. The arid, wind-swept ChÕiang tÕang — bounded by the Kunlun, Karakoram, and Kailas mountain ranges and by the high grasslands of Tsinghai — is a gigantic basin of internal drainage; its surface, almost everywhere 3 miles high, is a complex of mountain ranges, broad valleys, and plains that are liberally strewn with lakes varying in degree of salinity. Life is sustained by meager short grasses and by fresh water supplied from springs or from melting snow and ice. In the southern part of the ChÕaing tÕang, the Tibetan nomads tend herds of yaks, sheep, and goats; numbers of wild yaks, antelope, and assorted predators. Elsewhere the scanty population — both Tibetan and Chinese — is concentrated in the far west, principally in a few ancient settlements in the Indus and Sutlej valleys. Although the Chinese mission in western Tibet is primary military, they have taken over much of the areaÕs agricultural and sheep breeding activities. The populous cultivated valleys in the south and southeast are located at elevations generally below 12,000 feet. At the lower elevations pockets of rich loam and somewhat greater precipitation permit a limited amount of agriculture. The Tsangpo Valley, together with its tributary valleys, is the heartland of Tibet. Over the centuries it was the focus of ancient trade routes from India, China, and Central Asia. Lhasa, the capital, formerly was also the residence of the Dalai Lama, who headed the religious-civil government in Tibet. Until recently, farmers, traders, and monks inhabited the cultivated valleys, while nomads roamed the surrounding grasslands at higher elevations. Under the Chinese, trade has been sharply curtailed and the monks have fled or been eliminated. The major centers of population other than Lhasa are Jih-kÕa-tse and Chiang-tsu, southwest of Lhasa, ChÕang-tu in the Mekong Valley of eastern Tibet, and the new Chinese-built town of Lin-chih, located in southeastern Tibet. Chinese military and administrative personnel are stationed in these key areas, where small-scale industrialization and the expansion of cultivated areas are being undertaken on a very limited basis. The third natural division of the Tibetan Highlands consists of the old Tibetan districts of Amdo, now the province of Tsinghai, and Khan, now western Szechwan and northwestern Yunnan — traditionally a region of petty kingdoms and grasslands controlled by unruly nomadic peoples. Most of Tsinghai is grassland, and it has a large nomadic population — mainly in the southeast. But in western Szechwan and northern Yunnan, an area of rugged mountain ranges, separated by deep valleys that are suitable for agriculture. The people here (Khambas) are fierce, brigandish warriors, who stoutly resisted the Chinese invasion and were instrumental in preventing Chinese control of the area until 1959. Except for industrial development around His-ning in northeastern Tsinghai and oil exploitation in the Tsaidam Basin, the Chinese have expended their greatest effort on the construction and maintenance of access roads to Lhasa and the other key areas of southern Tibet. This was particularly difficult though Szechwan were roads had to be built " against the grain " of the mountain ranges. The Tibetan Highlands, because of their remoteness and difficult access, have yielded limited economic returns to China for the amount of resources invested. Although the Tibetan Highlands are politically more firmly integrated with China than at any other time in history, control and administration of this region have been difficult to achieve and occasional acts of Tibetan resistance still are recorded. " — CIA, 1971
Source: Central Intelligence Agency, People's Republic of China Atlas (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971) 30
Map Credit: Courtesy the private collection of Roy Winkelman
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