Tibet is located in the heart of Asia, held aloft on a vast mountainous plateau. Besides sharing borders with India to the west and south and China to the east, Tibet is also neighbor to Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Burma (Myanmar) to the south, and Eastern Turkestan to the north. The south eastern corner of
Tibet is near the northern borders of Laos and Vietnam. The current borders of the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) were drawn after the Chinese invasion in 1959, and incorporate only the western quarter of Tibet. However, Tibet’s historic homeland, from ancient times until 1959, is more than twice this size (see maps on next page). The TAR covers an area of about 500,000 square miles, about one quarter the size of the United States. Before 1959, Tibet covered some 900,000 square miles, stretching from the Hindu Kush (Kashmir) in the west to the present day cities of Lanzhou (Kansu Province), Chengdu (Sichuan) and Kunming (Yunnan), north into Amdo and east into Lithang (modernday Qinghai and Sichuan). These areas remain culturally and linguistically Tibetan. However, the Peoples
Republic of China continues a massive program of population transfer of Han Chinese (the ethnic majority of the People’s Republic of China) into Tibet that has caused Tibetans to become a minority in many parts of their own country. Tibet is renowned as one of the most inaccessible countries on earth, the “Land of Snows” on the “Roof of the World.” Tibet is geographically a natural fortress with the Kunlun and Altun ranges to the north, and the Karakorum Hindu Kush mountains to the west. Along the southern border is the 1,500 mile stretch of the Himalayas, home of Jomolungma (Mount Everest), the tallest mountain on earth, and Gang Titsi Rinpoche (Mount Kailash), the most sacred mountain to both Buddhists and Hindus. To the east are the triple river gorges cut by the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween Rivers, followed by rings of lesser mountains and high plains forming a daunting barrier of their own. Generally, access to Tibet can be gained only by means of steep, high-altitude mountain passes. Tibet was, therefore, not in the path of trade, migration, or expanding empires until the twentieth century. Commerce with India from the fifth through the fifteenth centuries brought with it a steady flow of spiritual masters from the West. Tibet’s inaccessibility served to preserve its seclusion, spiritual nature, and national and cultural homogeneity. In the late 1950s China was able to successfully invade Tibet for the first time in history. This was accomplished only with the help of modern technologies such as airplanes and tanks.
Tibet is a diverse land of stark beauty and sudden dramatic changes in landscape. The northern and north-central regions of Tibet, about one third of the country, are mainly comprised of a series of mountain ranges and rocky deserts interspersed with grassy pasture. Rainfall is scarce, although sudden tempests can sweep across the land bringing sand, snow, and hailstorms with winds strong enough to blow a rider off a horse. After such fierce storms it is not unusual for spectacular rainbows to appear, seemingly joining heaven and earth. The average elevation in the north is 16,000 feet, with a wide variation in temperatures caused by strong solar radiation. On a summer’s day the temperature could reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit at noon and plunge to 32 degrees Fahrenheit at night. These conditions make for a distinctive environment. This gives Tibetans a respectful reverence for the power and beauty of nature. The bright colors that are characteristic of Tibetan art bring warmth into this austere setting. Little more than grasses and scrub grow in this region, which is sparsely populated by hardy nomads following herds of sheep, goats, and yaks.
Tibet’s glacial waters are the source of most of the major rivers in Asia: the Sutlej, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze and Yellow rivers. In Tibet itself, the headwaters of these rivers nourish the land to the south and east, creating fertile valleys, gentle pasture, and milder environmental conditions. This is where most of the arable land lies and where most of Tibet’s population is concentrated. The elevation is approximately 12,000 feet and the daily temperatures fluctuate only about 40 degrees. Here grow peach, apricot, pear, and walnut trees, along with the crops raised by farmers. To the south are vast forests of pine, juniper, aspen, and willow, sheltering rare wild flowers. In the far south east of Tibet are vast rain forests where semi-tropical vegetation flourishes and banana trees are abundant. This far south eastern part of Tibet, near Laos and Vietnam, is near the tropic of Cancer, as
far south as Miami and the Bahamas.
The wildlife of Tibet is a fascinating mix of the exotic and the everyday. Blue sheep, wild-yak (both unique to Tibet), gazelles, antelopes, white-lipped deer, wild asses, foxes, owls, brown bears, snow leopards, black-necked cranes, and the occasional tiger all roam "the roof of the world." Most of these are now endangered or extinct due to over hunting and habitat destruction by the Chinese since 1959. Even the panda finds its home in the smaller mountain ranges of eastern Tibet. Tibetans view the wild animals of their country as symbols of freedom. Until recently they wandered the land in large herds, coming right up to settled areas with little fear of humans. Because of strong Buddhist influence, hunting wild animals has been seldom practiced by Tibetans, with the exception of the nomads in the north where it was sometimes necessary for survival. Now much of Tibet has been devastated by Chinese policies and depredations. Tibet is used as a nuclear dumping ground. Mining for uranium and other minerals has laid waste to many of the most beautiful and productive lands in Tibet. The vast forests of Eastern Tibet have been largely cut down to supply the needs of the Chinese. The panda and many other rare Tibetan species face imminent extinction due to the destruction of their habitat.