When a new disease appears and spreads fast, fear and confusion proliferate even faster.

What to do, when the new corona virus is able to manifest anywhere and everywhere?

The protector is protected

A first step is for those who may be able to help to keep level-headed, and not yield to the pervasive panic or, worse, cash in by peddling nonsensical and ineffective “cures.” Worst of all would be to propose as treatment the same ingestion of animal parts that caused this animal disease to become a human disease in the first place. That conflates and confuses cause and cure.

That worst of scenarios is happening now in China, while in Tibet, leading practitioners of traditional healing have gone the opposite way, saying  bluntly that Tibetan sowa rigpa does not have corona virus cures, and don’t be fooled by anyone who says they do.

The contrast is acute, in a moment when the temptation to monetise panic is at its height. Tibetan emchi healers are saying firmly there is no silver bullet; Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is making a fortune prescribing the gallstones of slaughtered cattle as an effective remedy for SARS and corona virus, plus respiratory symptomatic relief provide by other herbs.

 Top TCM formulation for corona virus is Angong Niuhuang, a concoction including bovine bezoars, aggregates of inedible or undigested material found in the gastrointestinal tract. For many centuries, bezoars have been found in the digestive tracts of both humans and animals. In Europe, as in China, they seemed not only mysterious but had magical properties attributed to them. Europe outgrew its fascination with bezoars in the 16th century, through a horrifying experiment. “In the 1500s, the famous surgeon Ambroise Paré tested the healing properties of a bezoar stone. A cook in the king’s court had been caught stealing fine silver and was sentenced to death by hanging. As an alternative, the cook was granted the opportunity to receive a poison followed by a bezoar as a potential antidote under the supervision of Paré. It was agreed that if the cook survived the poison, his life would be spared. The cook lived for only 7 hours.”[1] Bezoars lost their magic, but not in China.

China is the destination of almost all outlawed rhino horn trafficking

Second ingredient in angong niuhang is rhino horn. Yes, you read that right. After so many decades of efforts to protect rhinos from imminent extinction, advocates of TCM still insist rhino horn has specific medicinal properties: “Sedation, Anticonvulsion, Antipyretic, Anti-inflammatory, Antiviral, Cardiotonic, Antiplatelet, Aggregation.”[2]  This 2014 team of endocrinologists of the official, government funded China Academy of Chinese Medical Science in Beijing goes on to suggest angong niuhang is likely to be effective as a treatment for the most serious of central nervous system crises such as stroke, coma and brain trauma.

Desperate measures: African park rangers cut off a rhino’s horns to prevent it being killed by poachers

As well as bovine bezoars and rhino horn, angong niuhang also contains plant based ingredients including Radix scutellariae, Coptidis rhizome, Cape jasmine, Borneol and Cucurma. However, there is one further animal ingredient: musk. Its curative properties are listed as Double-acting role in regulating the Central Nervous System, anti-inflammatory, Antiplatelet aggregation and Cardiotonic.

Musk fragrance requires the slaughter of musk deer for their musk glands, though musk oil can be manufactured synthetically. Of the several musk oils, one is civetone, produced naturally by the Himalayan civet, a small mammal native to Bhutan.

All evidence of the cause of corona virus infections in humans points to palm civets, sold illegally in the Wuhan wet market for all conceivable kinds of meat, as the transmitter of the disease. Civets, kept alive in cages until being sold to consumers, next to bats, first caught the corona virus from the bats, and then became the vectors transmitting it to humans, where it now proliferates uncontrolled.

Himalayan civet, courtsey of Operation Noah

So we come full circle. The cure is also the cause of the corona virus disease. We live in degenerate times, when panicked people reach for something, anything that supposedly protects and cures them, even if it is actually the very vector infecting humans.

This lunacy is abetted by China’s championing of TCM as a deep and effective tradition, with Chinese characteristics, meriting official support. TCM researchers have shamelessly touted traditional recipes as effective in treating earlier corona viruses including SARS.[3]

“On Jan. 25, the State Administration of Traditional Chinese medicine dispatched 25 teams of Chinese healers to Wuhan”, in the hope of demonstrating TCM is effective. Demand for rhino horn, musk deer glands and civet musk glands, as well as bovine bezoars is rocketing. The logic is simple: “If traditional Chinese medicine was not effective, the Chinese people would already be destroyed.”  Today there are more Han Chinese than ever; proof that TCM works. The same logic presumes that minorities, such as Tibetans, must inevitably assimilate and become just like the successful and numerous Han.

This return to rhino horn and musk glands has official blessing: “In its treatment plan for the coronavirus released on February 5, the National Health Commission recommended traditional Chinese medicine remedies that could be used with antiretroviral H.I.V. drugs like Lopinavir and Ritonavir. The national health department suggested trying the Peaceful Palace Bovine Pill (angong niuhang) for severe symptoms such as wheezing and respiratory distress.”


Meanwhile, in Tibet leading sowa rigpa practitioners have been forthright in saying sorig does not have a cure for a disease newly arrived in humans. Dr. Thubten Phuntsok, physician of Tibetan medicine and professor emeritus of Tibetan Studies at the Southwest Minzu University in Chengdu, has warned Tibetan society to take practical precautions, not panic, and not fall for anyone claiming sowa rigpa has remedies.

In keeping with a long Tibetan traditions of impassioned remonstration, often poetically expressed, Thubten Phuntsok asserts that “the efficacy of traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine and religion has not been established,” and that, without taking standard preventive hygiene measures, “one’s own devotion, faith, mantra recitations, and medicinal amulets will have no effect at all.”

Thubten Phuntsok singles out one of the most famous and potent of Tibetan medicines, the Black-9 pill, which traditionally includes musk, as having no value in treating a virus new to the human species. In his cartoon and his caption, he could not be more direct:

thanks to High Peaks Pure Earth for posting this first

In places devoid of contagious disease, the Black-9 Pill is being sold.
The wallets of the Tibetan people empty, while physicians grow rich.
If the disease does arrive, go to the western hospital.
Tibetan medicine has no cure for this new virus.”

Classic Tibetan sowa rigpa treatment for breathing difficulties, heating an acupuncture needle by blowing onto its outer tip

As corona virus infections spread to Tibet, and panic grew even more infectious, Thubten Phuntsok took to verse as a modern mahasiddha, taking aim squarely at colleagues cashing in on the confusion and anxiety whipped up by social media. Like the gur and doha spontaneous songs of realisation, sung by the mahasiddhas revered by Tibetans, he urges us all to come to our senses, cease milling about, circling aimlessly in confusion, do what is needful, and stay mindful:

“If You Have Honour, Do Not Exploit This Opportunity to Sell Medicine
by Thubten Phuntsok

Tibetan medicine does not affect
Contagious diseases, neither new nor old. This is indisputable.
In these desperate times,
In order to protect the lives of our nation,
Well-meaning physicians
Have dispensed this Black-9 Pill, a medicine for nyen spirits,
To all Tibetan people.

To raise the price of the Black-9 Pill,
This cheap, convenient medicine,
By a factor of nine, however, is not so well-meaning.

If you have honour, dispense your medicines.
If you have compassion, donate your medicines.
To exploit this opportunity,
And sell your medicine, however, is an act of evil.

Both a beautiful face and money
Are of great value on this earth.
To distort cause and effect
In the pursuit of money, however, is an act of deception.

These days, does the Black-9 Pill
Even contain musk? You know the truth.
If there were even just a little musk
In a Black-9 Pill, wouldn’t the price tag
Be three hundred renminbi? You know the truth.

Thus, Tibetan physicians,
Take advantage of this opportunity for spiritual practice;
Donate medicines throughout the Tibetan lands;
And your good motivation will be praised by all.

Thubten Phuntsok, the vagabond physician from Pelpung in the east, appeals to the physicians of Tibet who sell their medicines while the dangerous and contagious disease, the coronavirus, is on the Central Plain of China. 28 January 2020.”

Translation by William A. McGrath. Inevitably, this translation loses much of the poetic nature of Thubten Phuntsok’s exemplary remonstration, and reminder that sowa rigpa is a spiritual practice embedded in Tibetan Buddhism, not a wealth accumulation transaction. McGrath’s deep insights into sowa rigpa are available online.

[1] Katharine Eng,  and Marsha Kay, Gastrointestinal Bezoars: History and Current Treatment Paradigms, Gastroenterology and Hepatology, v.8(11); 2012 Nov;

[2] Yu Guo, Shaohua Yan, Lipeng Xu, Gexin Zhu, Xiaotong Yu, and Xiaolin Tong, Use of Angong Niuhuang in Treating Central Nervous System Diseases and Related Research; Evidence-Based Complementary and , Alternative Medicine, Volume 2014, downloadable from

[3] Chih-ChunWen,Lie-FenShyur, Jia-TsrongJan, Po-HuangLiang, Chih-JungKuo, PalanisamyArulselvan, Jin-BinWu, Sheng-ChuKuo, Ning-SunYang; Traditional Chinese medicine herbal extracts of Cibotium barometz, Gentiana scabra, Dioscorea batatas, Cassia tora, and Taxillus chinensis inhibit SARS-CoV replication; Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, Volume 1, Issue 1, October–December 2011, Pages 41-50

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TIBET 2020

What will happen in Tibet in 2020?

The year 2020 is set to be big for China’s long campaign to inextricably integrate Tibet, and assimilate the Tibetan nation into a single Chinese zhonghua identity. After decades of massive investment in infrastructure/superstructure, the economic integration is at last making Tibet accessible to the Chinese industries of the future.

Several initiatives by official China are due to come to fruition in 2020, with likely big impacts.

Here is a rundown of what to expect in 2020.


That’s what the headlines will say, not only in China’s official media but in media worldwide reacting positively, unless they are reminded in advance what China means by this misleading claim. What China calls poverty alleviation has a sting: it means depopulating the Tibetan countryside.

Read the fine print. China’s noble promise to end all poverty by 2020, to leave no-one behind, rests in Tibet on the governing concept of Contiguous destitute areas 个集中连片特困区贫困. This is an official territorial zoning category, that solidifies the racist Han Chinese assumption that Tibetans are poor, because they live in Tibet. That in turn rests on the assumption that Tibet, because of its altitude, thin air and low temperatures is naturally unproductive, and that no-one would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice.


China is congratulated endlessly for having lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, with only a few remaining, who are intractably poor because their homelands are, in Chinese eyes, so lacking in natural endowments that poverty is the inevitable outcome.

Thus the only solution for people classified as living in areas of contiguous destitution is to move them, for their own sake. In practice, this means cancelling Tibetan land tenure rights, requiring drogpa nomads to sell their livestock, removing them to concrete settlements and high rise apartments on the fringes of the booming new Chinese towns and cities across Tibet, with nothing to do, dependent on government rations.

So when China triumphantly announces it has fully solved the problem of poverty, that its “precision poverty alleviation” methods enabled millions of Tibetans to start new lives elsewhere, the world will applaud. Are Tibetans ready to tell the real story of reducing nomads to dependence on state ration handouts, claiming it successful poverty alleviation?

Tibet helps 150,000 shake off poverty in 2019.

From: Xinhua Economic News 7 Jan 2020

LHASA, January 7, 2020 (Xinhua via COMTEX) — Around 150,000 people have cast off poverty in 2019, and around 19 counties have been removed from the poverty list in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, said Qizhala, chairman of the regional government.A total of 155,000 people have received employment training and 186,000 people benefited from job placement projects supported by the local government, said Qizhala in his government work report delivered at the ongoing third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region.In 2020, Tibet will continue to give priority to poverty relief, Qizhala added.China has set 2020 as the target year to eradicate absolute poverty.

China Focus: Tibet basically eliminates absolute poverty.

Date: Jan. 7, 2020

From: Xinhua Economic News

LHASA, January 7, 2020 (Xinhua via COMTEX) — China’s Tibet Autonomous Region has basically eradicated absolute poverty, chairman of the regional government announced Tuesday. The feat was accomplished after Tibet lifted the remaining 150,000 people out of poverty and took 19 counties off the poverty list in 2019, said Qizhala in his government work report delivered at the third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region. “Absolute poverty has been basically eradicated (in Tibet),” said Qizhala. “We are poised to achieve the overall victory in the fight against poverty. “Known as the “roof of the world,” Tibet is famous for its picturesque plateau landscapes and splendid ethnic cultures. It is also one of the main grounds in China’s nationwide campaign against poverty. Accumulatively, Tibet has lifted 628,000 people out of poverty, and delisted 74 county-level regions from the poverty list, according to data from the regional government. “It is of great significance in the development of the Tibetan people to basically eliminate absolute poverty, given the adverse natural conditions on the plateau and the region’s underdeveloped social conditions,” said Wang Zhuo, a public administration expert with Sichuan University. “It also attests to the success of the Chinese model of development on the high plateau and offers the world an exemplary case,” said Wang, who is also the director of an anti-poverty research center. In Tuesday’s work report, Qizhala said the gross domestic product (GDP) in Tibet was estimated at more than 160 billion yuan (around 23 billion U.S. dollars) last year, up about 9 percent year on year. Per capita disposable income for the region’s rural residents grew about 13 percent, while that for urban residents rose more than 10 percent, said Qizhala. In 2020, Qizhala said Tibet’s GDP is expected to maintain a stable growth of 9 percent. The total retail sales of consumer goods aim to grow 10 percent this year. Meanwhile, the per capita disposable income for the region’s urban and rural residents in 2020 is estimated to grow 10 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Qizhala added that the region aims to create 50,000 urban jobs and ensure that the registered unemployment rate does not rise above 3.6 percent.

Tibet’s tourism sector, a pillar of the regional economy, also saw robust growth in 2019, with tourism revenue rising to 56 billion yuan (around 7.9 billion U.S. dollars) and more than 40 million tourists from home and abroad visited the region, up 19 percent year on year. Tibet will continue to develop its tourism industry in 2020, with an aim to attract over 47 million tourists and increase the tourism revenue to over 60 billion yuan, Qizhala said. “We will build Tibet into an important destination for global tourism and promote our tourism brand as the world’s Third Pole,” he said.


The official delisting of a further 19 dzongs (counties) from the list of counties eligible for poverty alleviation funding, brings to a total all the 74 dzongs of TAR.  The removal of every county in central Tibet from the list of counties designated as poor removes a substantial source of transfer payment support which in recent years has significantly boosted household incomes.

Official poverty funding invariably came with strings attached, for example a requirement that the money was to be spent on fencing herds into allocated pastures, or that a permanent winter housing had to be built on allocated land. Often, the purchase of fencing wire was compulsory, or the rolls of fencing wire were delivered in lieu of cash, or the resettled nomad drogpa had to contribute additional funding of their own to complete these projects, even if it meant going into debt. In areas subsequently declared national parks, drogpa were later required to dismantle the fencing they had erected, to allow migrating biodiversity to resume seasonal migration unhindered by having to jump fences.

One opportunity to remind folks that poor people above all need their own land, and secure land rights, is the World Bank Land and Poverty conference: 16-20 March 2020 location: Washington D.C.   

All Chinese citizens now have an online portal to let the government know if they object to official policies:


Central planning is not dead, nor is China becoming a normal capitalist economy dominated by private enterprises selling consumer goods and services for consumption by the masses. The centralised command and control economy has been strengthened in recent years, and the role of state owned enterprises (SOEs) has intensified. Those SOEs in Tibet build the hydro dams, power grids, high speed railways, wind and solar power farms, mines and smelters, which have such impact, especially in the remote locations that happen, from an engineering point of view, to be best sites to locate dams.

The 14th Five-Year Plan runs from 2021 through 2025. It will be debated in elite circles, and finalised in 2020. Accessing the debates is not hard, as there are plenty of players pushing in various directions, including many nonChinese investors, advisers and NGOs with a stake, well entrenched in the official system, who routinely publish their analysis and advocacy for their preferred policy directions.  This makes 2020 a year in which we can follow how the 14th Plan is shaped.

Expect the 14th Plan to emphasise nation-building programs including west to east power grids transmitting ultra-high voltage electricity from Tibet to coastal China. Expect the start of big investments in wind energy generation in Tibet, especially in Kham where the winds are strong, in rugged landscapes, and close to the hydro dams and power grids. Expect the completion of the high speed railway from Chengdu to Lhasa, cutting travel time to 13 hours. Expect the completion of the high speed rail from Xining to Chengdu via Rebkong, Labrang, Machu, Jiuzhaigou Tourist Park and on to Chengdu, bringing millions more Han tourists to Tibet. Expect rail and tollway connections from Kunming via Dali and Lijiang to Dechen to be completed, again funnelling more and more mass domestic tourism into Tibetan areas.

bridging the upper Yangtze in Tibet

 Expect more museums to re-present Tibetan culture safely under glass. Expect old town centres, with their traditional architecture, torn down not long ago, to now be rebuilt with traditional facades and upmarket e-commerce boutiques inside, in many tourist destinations.

Expect a real estate boom around Nyingtri, as luxury villas take the best spots for the now-famous peach blossom season each year.

Expect  central Tibet to expand its menu of destinations, beyond Lhasa, creating a circuit of airports from Chamdo in eastern TAR to Ngari Kailash in the far west, encouraging more tourists, enabling  a spread of tourist arrivals.

Tibet receives over 40 mln tourists in 2019. Date: Jan. 7, 2020

From: Xinhua Economic News

Last year, tourism revenue rose to 56 billion yuan (7.9 billion U.S. dollars), Qizhala, chairman of the regional government, said in his government work report delivered Tuesday at the third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibet will continue to develop the tourism industry in 2020, with an aim to attract over 47 million tourists and increase the tourism revenue to over 60 billion yuan, Qizhala said. “We will build Tibet into an important destination for global tourism and promote our tourism brand of the world’s Third Pole,” he said.

RUKOR COMMENT:  This extraordinary number ranks central Tibet (TAR) as a bigger destination than Germany, UK or Thailand, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation barometer of tourist data. Overwhelmingly the tourists crowd into Lhasa, are overwhelmingly Han Chinese from lowland China, and comes in surges in seasonal holiday periods.

The 2019 Qinghai Statistical Yearbook  says in 2018 Amdo/Qinghai received  42,044,000 tourists, of whom 41,975,000 were domestic tourists, only a handful were foreigners. TAR Statistical Yearbook shows that year after year, non Chinese foreigners are no more than one per cent of total tourist arrivals.

Europe assesses China’s proposal to power the whole of Eurasia from Tibet, 2017

Expect serious planning to extend ultrahigh voltage power grids from Tibet not only to coastal China but also westward, across central Asia, perhaps as far as Europe. These plans, already under evaluation by the European Commission, would give Tibetan hydro dams, wind power and power grids an integral role on China’s Belt & Road Initiative.


National parks are a great idea, far better than destructive mining and dam building. Everyone loves national parks. But national parks with Chinese characteristics, to be opened in 2020 with maximum propaganda, are overwhelmingly in Tibet, for a reason. The area designated as national parks is huge, with plans for steady expansion beyond the 2020 launch, to cover around 30 per cent of the whole Tibetan Plateau, including the prime alpine meadow pastures of Yushu and Golok prefectures. This sets up a contradiction between grass and animals, between skilful pastoralism and pristine unpeopled wilderness.

China has for decades cleared Tibetan nomads off the lands they curated sustainably for thousands of years. In Chinese eyes, nomads are little better than the animals they herd, wandering the landscape randomly, they are primitive and prehistoric.

Along with poverty alleviation, the inception of massive new national parks in Tibet provides seemingly scientific justifications for removing the land owners. This is not just a tricky political manoeuvre to depopulate the Tibetan countryside; it is foundational to the whole idea of national parks. For decades China has insisted the rangelands are degrading and desertifying, not because of 1980s rapacious gold miner invasions, or 1990s ruthless hunters gunning down keystone animal species, or compulsory mass poisonings of burrowing keystone species, or  global climate change accelerating because Chinese emissions grow and grow. The sole cause of grassland degradation is, in the official narrative, greedy, uncaring nomads who maximise herd size and grazing pressure. Heedless of the consequences. Hence the need for national parks which are zoned to exclude  all human use from core areas, for the primary goal of protecting China’s water supply from Tibet.

Dola Riwo/Qilian Shan also has much extractable underground gas frozen in ice

From northernmost Tibet heading south, the three biggest new parks are:

DOLA RIWO (QILIAN SHAN in Chinese). The mountains of northernmost Tibet, separating Amdo (Qinghai) from arid Gansu province are to become a national park of at least 50,000 sq kms. The prime beneficiary of locking out many of the drogpa nomads from Qilian slopes, to protect glaciers and rivers, is China’s rocket launch base far away in Inner Mongolia, That’s where the rivers of Dola Riwo end, in the desert sands where China built its plutonium factory for manufacturing nuclear weapons, later converted to rocket launchers, totally dependent on water from Tibet.

Jiuquan plutonium factory 2004, now China’s primary rocket launch site, inner Mongolia

The World Bank’s Global Environment Fund (GEF) gave $5.4 million to the UN Development Programme between 2012 and 2017 to work closely with Qinghai provincial government to design this park, and the Sanjiangyuan park. A further $3 million of GEF money is being spent 2018-2023 on finalising design of the Qilian national park.

SANJIANGYUAN, meaning three river source, is a Chinese term that has no Tibetan equivalent, as it sweeps together two entire prefectures, Amdo Golok and Kham Yushu, plus several more counties, into a single entity facing lowland China, source of China’s great rivers, the Ma Chu (Yellow) and Dri Chu (Yangtze) plus the upper Za Chu (Mekong). Originally designated by China as 363,000 sq kms, bigger than Germany, it is at 2020 launch scaled back to 152,000 sq kms, to be scaled up later.

Sanjiangyuan three rivers source covers a huge area, well beyond the glacial sources

Although named for the glacial river sources, those rivers wind slowly across vast pastoral Tibetan landscapes before eventually dropping as wild mountain rivers to the lowlands. That’s why this park is so big. China, acutely short of water, is out to protect its “number one water tower”, which means excluding nomads and herds that poop on riverbanks, to grow more grass and create pristine wilderness tourists can marvel at.

panda habitat remains only in Tibet, except for a small part of Shaanxi SW of Xi’an

PANDA NATIONAL PARK Panda habitat used to cover the southern half of China, but no more. Now remaining panda habitat is on the eastern fringes of Tibet, in scattered reserves that are to be linked up in the hope of linking panda populations while excluding humans. China’s state news agency has reported that at least 170,000 people would have to relocate or adapt to new restrictions as part of the park’s overall plan. The panda is Tibetan.


The legitimacy of CCP rule has long depended on delivering a fast pace of growth and quick wealth accumulation opportunities. Now that growth has peaked and China is no longer the lowest of low wage economies, and  Chinese manufacturers are relocating factories to Cambodia, Bangladesh and elsewhere, many Chinese now feel frustrated that their turn to get rich never came, and may never come. Popular frustration is what the CCP most fears, especially in the densely populated east, where crowds can quickly mobilise, unlike Tibet.

So the CCP will spend big to stimulate growth, even if that means sidelining promises to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental initiatives. Spending big in Tibet could include accelerating the construction of several expressway tollroads and railways thrusting deep into Tibet. It may also mean accelerating hydro dam construction, which will be represented as green energy, despite the damage done by hydro dams, from fish kills to earthquakes.

The hydro engineers have spent decades measuring remote Tibetan valleys and the gorges of steep mountain rivers, and the projects are already on official lists of what is authorised to go ahead. If the  finance is allocated, construction will start, and the central government has now relaxed its rules on how much of the banks’ capital must be held back for emergencies, freeing up huge amounts for loans to favoured lenders, such as the state owned corporations that build dams and power grids.

The national parks story has a positive side, of skilful Tibetan social enterprises finding a niche.

Rnam sras, often called Namsei or, in Chinese, Angsai, is a remote township in Zatö county, close to the Tibetan source of the Mekong, in Yushu prefecture. Township is an administrative fiction, bundling the scattered Tibetan nomads of this sharp mountainscape into an administrative unit.  The upper Mekong winds its way through the valleys below the jagged peaks, landscapes too difficult for more than a few families, too remote for much official focus beyond counting the total population as fewer than 3400, in the 2000 census.

Zatö in Tibetan means source of the Za River, or Mekong. It remains a haven for wildlife, and is shortly to be incorporated into the Sanjiangyuan National park. The upper valleys and rocky slopes are home to agile deer, leopards and snow leopards, and many other rare species. Here in what is now becoming known as the Valley of the Cats a genuinely community run Tibetan enterprise hosts and guides a strictly limited number of ecotourists each year, with a chance to glimpse the rare and endangered snow leopard.

It’s a small miracle that intends to stay small, both for the sake of the animals, and to keep this social enterprise in local hands, not overtaken by China’s mass domestic tourism industry which is capable of funnelling tourists in the millions to precious Tibetan landscapes, as it does, for example, at Jiuzhaigou/Dzitsa Degu in Ngawa prefecture of Sichuan.

Valley of the Cats attracts animal lovers and film crews, people who know how to be patient, and happy to be accommodated in local houses by local people, yet pay well for this select privilege.

This is the upside of the Sanjiangyuan National park, which empowers the locals to keep out the masses, even to remove unauthorised campers and home stayers who try to bypass the Valley of the Cats wirth its’ package of translators, guides, wildlife conservationists, transport and home stays. None of this would be enforceable without Sanjiangyuan National Park zoning classification of the area as high conservation value, visitor numbers to be strictly controlled.

How is this small miracle possible in a centralised, authoritarian system based on mass tourism, mass consumption of iconic sites owned and managed by the state? It’s quite a backstory.

Quietly, Chinese NGOs such as Shan Shui and Plateau Perspectives have shown in practice that rangelands and pastoralists do go together, in the future as well as in the past, doing “eco-husbandry”, as active, skilful landscape managers. This has been a long, skilful and fruitful collaboration between remote Tibetan communities rich in wildlife and the elite Centre for Nature and Society, School of Life Sciences, Peking University. Working together carefully over decades built mutual respect, a recognition on all sides that local communities are better at conserving endangered species than distant governments.

Lu Zhi

During those decades elite Han Chinese learned to see landscapes and wildlife through Tibetan eyes, becoming over time sufficiently Tibetanised to reach for classic Tibetan locutions to express themselves. Du Fachun, for example, in his study of Tibetan exnomads displaced from their pastures but not successfully settled in peri-urban apartments, described their bardo as neither deer nor horse, neither cow nor donkey, classic Tibetan metaphors.

Such collaborations work in China, even in periods of authoritarian rigidity, finding niches that fulfil state agendas while ensuring programs are run by local communities rather than officials at the bottom of a top down chain of command. The Beijing elites have the right language, connections and impeccable academic credentials to protect the locals; the Tibetan communities do what they have always done, respecting wildlife, caring for the land, raising their herds.

Going back decades is Professor Lu Zhi, who has quietly supervised  the emergence of several Tibetans now qualified as postgraduate fieldworkers whose reports she helps get published.[1]

The vehicle for this work of bridging the gaps between distant provinces, distant classes and distant ethnicities is Shan Shui, a conservation NGO artfully named after the mountains and rivers of classic Chinese painting, depicted in bold watercolour brush strokes. Embedded in classical art, Shan Shui has learned from its Tibetan partners how to do effective biodiversity conservation work that also sustains local communities. Implicitly, this is an alternative to blaming Tibetans for degradation, then clearing them off their lands, in the name of national park wilderness restoration.

Shan Shui came to the mountains and rivers of Tibet with open minds, and deep friendships were formed. Out of this has come Valley of the Cats, with a bilingual English and Chinese website inviting select visitors from around the world, introducing doco film crews to remote locations, featuring community conservation and the opportunity to meet the locals, and sleep under their roofs.

The actual upcountry valley where pastoral herding ends and wild country begins has only “22 resident families, each with their own herd of yak, hold strict Buddhist beliefs about the sanctity of all life and, as a result, have a harmonious relationship with the wildlife and environment.  The densities of apex predators such as Snow Leopard, Leopard, Brown Bear and Lynx rival any place on Earth.”

This does not mean there are no pressures from above. Valley of the Cats tells us: “Given the pressure of overgrazing on the Tibetan Plateau, it is likely that the local people will be asked to reduce the number of yak in their herds.  This has consequences for their already relatively low incomes and threatens their way of life.  Many of the young people in the Valley of the Cats would like to stay but if incomes fall, they will be forced to leave for the city to earn a living.  Wildlife watching tourism has the potential to help offset the reduction in income associated with reduced numbers of yak and thus could enable these families to stay in the valley and maintain their traditional way of life. The arrangements for wildlife watching tourism have been put in place in full consultation with the local government and the local community and will continue only if the community is fully supportive.”

Having patiently negotiated with all relevant organs as well as all involved locals, this modest enterprise is succeeding, both in bringing income to a remote part of Tibet, and in fulfilling nation-building objectives of the national park system.

5 2020 is the year China’s social credit surveillance system becomes fully operational

Police forces and security state bureaucracies worldwide are buying the big data mining algorithms marketed by cyber surveillance companies, turning their vast accumulations of data on each and all of us into probability predictions as to what we will do next. These predictive algorithms claim to know, before we each do, before the idea pops into my head, what crimes I am about to commit.

In western countries, this makes for harassment of young black men by police backed by the supposedly scientific objectivity of the data we generate every day on all our electronic devices.

In China, the consequences for those singled out as “precriminals” are much greater. One only has to look at Xinjiang’s mass detentions of “precriminal” Uighurs suspected of terrorist sympathies for nothing more than saying prayers, wearing a beard or a scarf.

To be registered under the compulsory hukou household registration system as Tibetan is to automatically be classified in a high risk category, to be monitored more intensively. To be young and male adds to the risk profile, and to the selective attention of the security apparatus believing it has the ability to prevent crime well in advance.

In the West, there are limits on what police can do to someone who has not committed a crime. In China, there are no such limits. The security state’s paranoia is unchecked.


 CBD 5 October 2020 [tentative] location:  Kunming, Yunnan www:

This is an especially important meeting of the CBD biodiversity convention, as it will set targets to be fulfilled by decade end in 2030, after this last decade’s failure to achieve much in slowing the rate of species extinctions. By holding this event in Kunming, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, draws attention to China as world’s biggest consumer of rare and endangered species, and trafficker of wildlife for the insatiable Traditional Chinese Medicine market.


After the complete failure of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) gathering in Madrid, December 2019, the next chance for effective global action on the climate emergency is scheduled for late 2020, with Glasgow the host city, 9 to 20 November.

In Madrid, China, as usual, insisted on being both a developing country entitled to lesser emissions reduction obligations, and part of the club of richer bullies who insist on doing nothing effective on climate change. Since the US is pulling out altogether, and other rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Australia and Brazil are overtly bad actors, out to sabotage effective action, China’s obstructive role got less attention. Yet China did send the rich country a bill, of trillions of dollars, to be paid to China to reduce emissions, while also siding with other big emitters to thwart even something as basic as an agreed audit of actual emission levels, or a standard of measuring actual emissions.

Stand by in 2020, for talk of China announcing more “ambitious” emissions reduction goals, in UN jargon NDC, Nationally-Determined Contributions, which means that all Paris 2015 managed to agree on was that each country sets its own target, with no  external oversight or accountability. China has never committed to any specific tonnage of emissions reductions. China in 2015 announced only that it will begin reducing emissions starting 2030, even though that is the year, at the end of this decade, when, according to the authoritative IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all countries should have completed the closure of coal burning power stations, and completed their emission reductions trajectory. So if in 2020 China does announce it expects to begin emission reductions a bit earlier than 2030, it will get glowing media coverage.

Dissenting voices are needed, ideally from folks who never caused the climate emergency in the first place but suffer its consequences, such as Tibetans.

In 2019 the IPCC issued special reports which focussed attention on Tibet. In 2020 IPCC is gearing up for their once-every-five-years Assessment Report, to be issued in 2021. So 2020 for IPCC is packed with meetings of authors and writers, thus opportunities for ongoing lobbying:

The UNFCC COP26 in Glasgow is scheduled for 8 to 20 November 2020.

Timeline of OTHER EVENTS OF 2020

a) Taiwan general election 11 January, outcome heavily influenced by overt and covert pressure from China, including social media manipulation and disinformation.

b) World Economic Forum 21-24 January , Switzerland www:…

c) YANGTZE River Protection Law to protect the whole of the Yangtze/Dri Chu from its origins in Amdo Ngawa and Kham Kandze, all the way to Shanghai. China’s National People’s Congress is due to approve this law in March. in 2020, and “persons living in the Yangtze River basin” [长江流域所在地人员] are officially invited to comment on the draft law before it is passed. This law could empower Tibetans to object to the many hydro dams, biggest in the world, planned for the upper Yangtze.

d) Global Biodiversity Outlook. Every six years the UN Convention on Biodiversity sums up all that is known about all species on earth, and their path towards extinction. date: 18 May 2020 location: Montreal-Est, Quebec, Canada www:  Since China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of rare and threatened animals and plants worldwide, this is an opportunity to highlight China’s record.

e) IUCN World Conservation Congress:  A huge gathering of scientists and NGOs and governments to assess progress towards a protected planet and conservation of Nature, major lobbying opportunity, which China will use to promote its national parks as exemplary ecological civilisation construction. Marseille, France 11 to 19 June  

f) KAILASH and world heritage UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE Committee meets in Fuzhou, China to decide whether to accept nominations for World Heritage status, 29 June to 9 July. Sites in Tibet are on the waiting list, perhaps for a 2020 decision, including Kailash Sacred Landscape, which is mostly in India and Nepal, with just a small portion in Tibet, and only 9000 Tibetans classified as stakeholders with any say at all. On the Indian and Nepal sides there is a population of over one million, keen to see roads hotels and development, with Kailash the magnet drawing in the tourist/pilgrims. The six million Tibetans who make this sacred landscape sacred are disempowered, and have no say.

Tso Ngonpo/Koko Nor/Qinghai Hu is on the official “tentative list” for consideration, possibly in 2020, as World Heritage.

g) OZONE HOLE ABOVE TIBET There are three holes in the ozone layer that protects all living things from damaging ultraviolet radiation, over the Antarctic, Arctic and Tibet. Two UN Conventions have failed to curb illegal production in Chinese factories of chemicals that float high into the atmosphere and collect above Tibet, destroying the ozone layer. The Joint 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (COP 12) and 32nd Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (MOP 32) is scheduled to take place from 23-27 November 2020 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  

h) In August 2020 a new book will come out declaring nomads to be the wave of the future. The author, Felix Marquandt, says: “Young people from everywhere are moving everywhere. Or rather, they are moving to where they expect to improve their lives. Movement has become a key to their emancipation. After centuries of becoming sedentary, the future of humanity and the key to its enlightenment in the 21st century lies in re-embracing nomadism. Migration fosters the qualities that will allow our children to flourish and succeed. Our times require more migration, not less. The New Nomad is both the chronicle of this revolution and a call to embrace it.”

This is a global movement, pioneered by the young Tibetans of New York, Antwerp, London, Toronto and Paris. Free movement is the opposite of the involuntary displacement of Tibetans coerced into giving up their land rights to pasture.

i)TV doco on Valley of the Cats by Ray Mears to screen on ITV, Britain, autumn 2020 featuring footage of snow leopards

j) 2020 is a Census year. Once every 10 years China sends census data collectors everywhere, even quite remote places, gathering a huge trove of data on ethnicity, language, education, literacy, income and lots more, which then gets tabulated and months later in 2021 published.  Census data is usually more reliable than other official statistics that are reported up the line by local officials out to boost their declared performance and get promoted. The 2020 Census starts on 1 November. Back in 2000 Census published how many of each of the 56 ethnicities reside in each of the 2000 counties of China, including the 150 counties (dzongs) officially designated as Tibetan Autonomous. But the 2010 Census suppressed revealing any county by county ethnic spread data. The 2010 census did confirm total population of the Tibetan Plateau reached over 10 million, including 6 million Tibetans. Xining and the surrounding agribusiness/industrial belt encircling Xining have grown greatly since 2010, so expect a 2020 total population of the Tibetan Plateau of 12 million.

[1] Minghao Zhuang, Dr Gongbuzeren, Jian Zhang, Wenjun Li; Community-based seasonal movement grazing maintains lower greenhouse gas emission intensity on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau of China, Land Use Policy 85 · April 2019 

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Glaciers, nomads: blaming the victims

Blog two of two on climate change , glaciers, rivers and China’s ecological civilisation


the longer the red line, the greater the glacier melt, blue lines show glaciers growing
Source: ICIMOD Atlas of Himalayan Climate, 2015


In Tibet, to the benefit of downstream China, runoff increase is due not only to faster glacier melt but also to today’s higher rainfall and rising lake levels, reversing a drying trend that has lasted for thousands of years.[1] Climate change is here and now.

Rising temperatures also mean permafrost is anything but permanent, now hovering in Tibet just below freezing point. Permafrost melt is not well understood scientifically but its rapid disappearance across huge areas of Tibet is already problematic, both for local communities and globally. As water frozen in the soil melts away earlier these days in the seasonal cycle, water that growing plants could have accessed now drains down beyond the reach of growing roots, affecting both spring crop plantings and wetlands which now dry out.

This also affects the water meadows of the Yellow River in Machu Dzoge (Ru’ergai in Chinese) where official policies decades ago drained the swamp, in order to separate land and water, only to cause vegetation to die off, climate changing methane emissions to rise and peat fires to burn uncontrollably. Now China understands draining the swamp was a mistake and is trying to rectify past policy failures by filling in the drainage ditches, as local leaders now explain.


At the September 2019 UN global climate summit, Secretary-General Guterres challenged governments to be more ambitious in their emissions reduction targets, in keeping with the 2018 IPCC report on what is needed to prevent runaway climate change occurring once temperatures rise beyond 1. 5 degrees. China’s response to this challenge was silence:

“What we certainly did learn was how limited the UN has been in dragging large nations forward. Guterres invited leaders to make new commitments to cut their emissions, stop building coal plants and end fossil fuel subsidies. Three of the four countries with the biggest coal expansion plans – India, China and Turkey – were invited to speak. Each of them failed to address that consequential part of their economy. None of the large polluters met the UN secretary general’s call to raise their climate pledges. China’s statement was potentially the most consequential. It remains up to developed countries to lead, the country said. It’s also a poke in the eye for the UN, which had flagged its confidence that China would front up with new ambition.”

“The path to net zero emissions ‘is something we are just discovering,’ former French climate ambassador and CEO of the European Climate Foundation Laurence Tubiana told CHN. But the top levels of government are not yet engaged. China appears to be wary of setting goals that it does not know it can achieve. Its climate targets are barely better than “business-as-usual”, said Tubiana.”

ever wondered what all those Chinese scientists wanderingTibet are up to? Photographing dissipation and collapse in the skies of Tibet.
Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau,1986

China, almost alone among nations, has never committed to any specific emissions reduction target, only to greater energy efficiency while persisting in economic growth and construction of coal-fired power stations. Although China seeks a reputation as a world leader in environmental civilisation construction, in Paris 2015 and ever since it has refused to make any commitment to reduce emissions, other than a proposal to begin emission reductions starting in 2030. According to the IPCC 2030 is when emission reductions need to be fully completed, not beginning, if the planet is to avoid uncontrollable runaway temperature rises.

historic climate data of the entire Ganges Basin originating in Tibet Himalaya
forecasting future season climate of Ganges basin up to 2050, in winter and monsoonal summer. Rainfall (left) and temperature future (right). RCP 4.5 model assumes world acts to reduce emissions; RCP 8.5 model assumes world fails to do anything effective to reduce emissions.
Mapping the Tibetan glaciers that feed the Ganges river and its many Himalayan tributaries

UN Secretary-General Guterres is not alone in calling on China to implement policies needed if the planet is to heat by no more than the IPCC upper threshold of 1.5 degrees. China’s own high level thinktank, the China Council on international Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) in December 2018 called on the government for: “increasingly ambitious plans in the short term via the 14th Five Year Plan (2021 to 2025), in the medium term via a revised Nationally Determined Contribution for 2030 and Beautiful China 2035, and in the longer term via a 2050 Strategy. This will require well-defined targets and timelines as well as pathways for policy reform including the reform of State-Owned Enterprises including the State Grid, and building a well-functioning national emissions trading system.”[2] None of these have happened; it’ still business as usual.

Preparing for the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, China published an official response, over 3000 words, with very few numbers, none for actual emissions reductions. One of the few specifics was a number for how much energy is needed to make a ton of steel or a renminbi denominated unit of production: “By the end of 2018, its carbon emission intensity had decreased by 45.8% compared with the level in 2005.” This is commendable energy efficiency, but in no way is it an actual reduction in emissions. China remains overtly committed to ongoing economic growth. China also persists in demanding the richest countries do most of the emissions reduction work, while proclaiming itself as a developing country, thus entitled to do less.

China remains the world’s biggest emitter of climate heating gases, not only carbon dioxide but also methane and chlorofluorocarbons outlawed by globally binding treaty. China persists in burning more coal than the rest of the world combined. Of China’s 50 biggest cities, the one big city China has built in Tibet, Xining, now ranks as one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide, due almost entirely to the heavy industries surrounding Xining which process Tibetan minerals, oil and gas, with little effective regulation.[3]


For China and Tibet, most rain and snow comes with the summer monsoons, and winter is the dry time. Climate warming means spring now starts earlier, long before the rains arrive, parching the spring growth. Industry needs water year-round, and has always relied on glaciers to steadily release water, supplemented by dams impounding water to further extend seasonal flow. Now the balance is tilting. The IPCC reports that the monsoons are become more unpredictable and more extreme, more prone to inundate or to fail.

In the watershed of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, extreme weather is becoming more common, flooding eastern India and Bangladesh
Future Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra watershed rainfall (left maps) temperature (right maps) in the decades to 2050. Assuming the world limits emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).
Seasonally, where will it rain more (left maps) and get hotter (right maps) in Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra basin to year 2050. Assumes effective global emissions action (upper maps) or no effective action (lower maps).

China’s policy response is to close pastures and remove pastoralists to concrete block settlements on urban fringes, where their customary skills are useless, and urban employment is not available to those not fluent in Chinese. The theory is that careless over grazing by ignorant herders has caused grassland degradation and erosion, thus making the water run faster. Excluding the pastoralists and their grazing herds makes more grass grow, slows the water flow across the vast alpine meadows of Tibet, thus guaranteeing the provisioning of water to northern China, which has become Tibet’s primary service to China. That’s the foundational premise of Chinese policy.


This is an example of the many environmental services provided by the cryosphere, services many human lives rely on. China, in its refusal to name any emissions reduction target despite worldwide pressure, persists in failing to protect those cryosphere services. Within China, traditionally the first beneficiaries of cryosphere services have been those closest to the snow field slopes and the glaciers, the nomads of the Tibetan plateau. These upper riparians for thousands of years respected and protected these landscapes, often revering the mountains as gods.[4] There is no reason to suppose Tibetans in recent decades abandoned tradition and began overgrazing, causing land degradation of their own homelands, careless about the consequences of their actions.

rain and snow over Tibet are becoming less reliable. Source: R Krishnan in Hindu Kush Himalaya Asessment, ICIMOD, 2019

Official decrees from above curtailing nomadic mobility, forcing herders onto smaller land allocations were the cause of land degradation, and of intensifying poverty as pastoralists had to get by with less grass, smaller animals, rigidly assigned stocking rates, the expense of compulsory fencing, fodder crop ploughing, sowing and harvest, increasingly hemmed in.[5] intensifying poverty drove many to accept official urgings to relocate to urban fringes, surrendering land rights and selling remaining livestock. These official interventions, a cascade of official policy failures, have deeply disrupted pastoral livelihoods and now threaten the collective food security of Tibet for the first time, as so many food producers cease production.

intense bursts of snow/rain over Tibet are increasing, especially in winter.
Source: R Krishnan, Unravelling Climate Change in the Hindu 3 Kush Himalaya: Rapid Warming in the Mountains and Increasing Extremes, in The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, ICIMOD, 2019

ICIMOD’s 2019 Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment reminds us: “In China, ethnic minorities are overwhelmingly concentrated in mountainous areas and are significantly poorer than the Han majority—their consumption poverty level is more than twice as high and their income poverty rate is three times as high as that of Han communities. In rural areas, ethnic minorities have less access to wage employment and earn less when they engage in wage employment. Enrolment rates among school-aged children are lower among minority populations than among Han populations. Also, minority areas have less developed healthcare infrastructure and less access to safety nets such as unemployment and pension insurance.”[6]

Two great rivers in Tibet Kham: upper Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu: predictions of seasonal changes in rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps) for decades to 2050. Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps)
Predicting rainfall and temperature to year 2050, in the watersheds in Kham of Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu. Seasonal changes to rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps). Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).

Climate change, on top of all these drivers of immiserisation, may be the last straw for many rural Tibetans, including nomads accustomed to living off uncertainty. For China, however, climate change can be blamed for whatever goes wrong, as if it were an unstoppable force of nature. It is the ideal excuse. This is toxic. China persists in asserting its formula of “common but differentiated responsibilities” for doing little about climate change. China defines its differentiated responsibility as requiring no specific emissions reduction quantum at all.

The reality is that China’s top priority, for all its talk of “constructing ecological civilisation” is economic growth, under a government committed above all to stimulating growth for fear of social unrest if growth falters. Because growth remains the paramount priority, forecasts of China’s carbon emissions vary, but agree that the peak, yet to come, may be as high as 16 billion tons of CO2 belched skyward annually, and after that peak, around the year 2030, the decline in emissions will be modest and slow.[7] This is completely inconsistent with the IPCC message.

heating of Tibet and South Asia over the entire 21st century, right up to 2098
Source: Ashwini Kulkarni et al., Projected Climate Change in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Region, 2013,
Mountain Research & Development

China’s case for remaining exempt from emissions reduction targets for rich industrial nations is that it is only a recent industrialiser, with still a long way to go to catch up with the countries pouring carbon into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution’s first steam engines. This is factually incorrect, as Chinese scientists have recently reminded us. Carbon levels in the atmosphere remained low, below the level that forces climate to warm, until 1965.[8] Only after that did carbon levels start rising fast, at a time China was urgently industrialising.


Some Tibetan areas in the Himalayas are in rain shadow, naturally dry as monsoon rains have already fallen at lower altitudes as clouds push up the slopes. With great ingenuity, local Tibetan communities have learned how to make skilful use of the annual freeze-thaw cycle to capture the autumn tailend of the monsoon by freezing it, to be available as ice melt in spring when young crops need watering well before the summer monsoon arrives.

storing water over winter for use in spring crop irrigation, by freezing water into an ice stupa Source: IPCC, 2019

Climate scientists admire these entrepreneurial ways of damming water with simple stone walls across creeks that freeze over winter and in spring gravity flow to the fields needing irrigation. The scientists adopt Ladakhi usage, calling the most dramatic adaptations ice stupas, as these mini glaciers made by human hand look like the Buddhist memorial chortens found all over Ladakh, the Indian portion of upper Tibet.

IPCC, while hailing these local innovations, worries that climate warming means they will soon no longer work, or will become less useful as climate becomes more unreliable and unpredictable. IPCC states Western Himalayas are drying further, and in some areas glaciers, rather than shrinking, may even be growing,[9] while in eastern Himalayas, already among the wettest places worldwide, rainfall is increasing. Extremes are getting more extreme, but, if given time, Tibetans have so far been able to adapt. Does accelerating climate change allow time to adapt?

Entire Indus River basin, from Tibetan source, through India and Pakistan. Protected areas in darker green.


Glacier and snow melt have long been factored into traditional farming strategies in monsoonal Asia, since rainfall is so strongly concentrated in summer, but crops need water much earlier in the seasonal cycle, in spring. This is especially so on the Indus River which, after leaving upper Tibet passes through northern India and then Pakistan. India’s growing reliance on impounded water, in response to increasing climate variability, has exacerbated tensions between upriver India and downriver Pakistan, which for decades were solved by an international water sharing treaty accepted by all. Pakistan now worries that as the lower riparian it is at the mercy of India and its increasing impoundment of water in dams. This adds to the many other tensions in India-Pakistan relations.

Further, agriculture on the Indus has been heavily reliant on the annual cycle of snow and ice accumulation and melt, in order to irrigate crops in need of more than what the monsoon delivers over a few months: “We show that dependence varies strongly in space and time and is highest in the Indus basin, where in the pre-monsoon season up to 60% of the total irrigation withdrawals originate from mountain snow and glacier melt, and that it contributes an additional 11% to total crop production. In total, 129 million farmers in the Indus and Ganges substantially depend on snow and glacier melt for their livelihoods. Snow and glacier melt provides enough water to grow food crops to sustain a balanced diet for 38 million people.”[10]

Future runoff from major rivers of southern Tibet, assuming world fails to curb carbon emissions.
Future runoff from major rivers of southern Tibet, assuming the world acts to curb carbon emissions. Source: Himalayan Climate & water Atlas, ICIMOD, 2015

The Indus is especially dependant on glacier melt, notably in the hot and dry months of spring and summer when monsoon rains push into the Himalayas but leave Balochistan and Sindh provinces in the south still parched. This reliance on glacier melt makes the rice and cotton growers on the flat flood plains of the lower Indus acutely vulnerable to accelerating glacier melt on the upper Indus.

Pakistan’s main crops all depend on glacier melt in Tibet at crucial points in the growing season Source: Hester Biemans, Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, 2019 Source: H. Biemans et al., Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Nature Sustainability, July 2019,  594-601.

The Indus Waters Treaty has successfully defused tensions over many decades, but was written in the 1950s, a time when no-one imagined climate change would tilt the entire playing field and drive India to impound more, to Pakistan’s detriment.[11]  Not only do many Pakistani farmers depend on seasonal glacier melt to sustain their crops very far downriver from the Tibetan glacial source, Pakistan relies on both cotton and basmati rice for export income. Tibetans, upriver of both India and Pakistan, look on with deep concern, but helpless to act, as public advocacy is treated by China as criminal.


The IPCC is serious about 2030 as the outer limit of the time remaining to reduce emissions drastically, and UN Secretary-General Guterres is doing all he can to ensure all nations, big and small, developed and developing, understand that 2030 is when emissions reductions have to be completed, not slowly begun.

China is now the global outlier, having made no commitment at Paris 2015 to anything beyond beginning emissions reductions starting 2030. Since then China has pledged nothing further, yet proclaims itself a champion of ecological civilisation construction.

China’s ecological civilisation credentials come largely from removing Tibetans en masse from their alpine meadow pastures, as if this is a return to pristine unspoiled prehuman nature, to be applauded.

Tibetans did almost nothing to contribute to the climate emergency, but now suffer not only the destabilising effects of climate change but the population exclusions and clearances imposed by China in the name of climate mitigation.

forecasting Tibet temperature increase: top two maps cover years 2036 to 2065, bottom two 2066 to 2095; two left maps assume world acts to reduce carbon emissions, right two maps assume little effective action to limit emissions

China urgently needs to offset its ongoing emissions by parading its green credentials, notably by proclaiming 30 per cent of the Tibetan Plateau as national park. Can the world, keen to see progress on climate change, get to grips with the complex reality that excluding nomads from productive and sustainable pastures is not the solution to climate change, especially when more and more coal mines and power stations are being built in China?


glaciers sweep donwslope, south of Gang Rinpoche/Mt Kailash.
Source: China Natural Geography magazine

[1]FANG Yue et al., Changes in inland lakes on the Tibetan Plateau over the past 40 years, Journal of Geographic Sciences, 2016, 26(4): 415-438

[2] China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, 2018 Policy Recommendations to China’s State Council, CCICED Annual General Meeting, Beijing, 1-3 November 2018

[3] Haikun Wang et al., China’s CO2 peak before 2030 implied from characteristics and growth of cities, Nature Sustainability, 2019,  August, 748-754 

[4] Anne-Marie Blondeau ed., TIBETAN MOUNTAIN DEITIES, THEIR CULTS AND REPRESENTATIONS, 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995

abrupt collapse & total dissipation in the unruly skies of Tibet
Source: Atlas of the Clouds of Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

[5] Julia A. Klein et al.,A Participatory Framework for Building Resilient Social-Ecological Pastoral Systems, in Maria E. Fernandez-Gimenez,  Restoring community connections to the land : building resilience through community-based rangeland management in China and Mongolia, CABI, 2012, 28

[6] HKH Assessment, ICIMOD, 2019, 436

[7] Guangyue Xu et al.,  Determining China’s CO2 emissions peak with a dynamic nonlinear artificial neural network approach and scenario analysis, Energy Policy, Volume 128, May 2019, Pages 752-762

[8] Jiawei Da , Yi Ge Zhang, Gen Li, Xianqiang Meng, Low CO2 levels of the entire Pleistocene epoch, Nature Comunications, 2019, freely downloadable:

[9]Biswajit Mukhopadhyay, Rising river flows and glacial mass balance in central Karakoram, Journal of Hydrology, 2014, 513, 192- 203

[10] H. Biemans et al., Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Nature Sustainability, July 2019,  594-601. IPCC cites this as an authoritative source.

[11] Durgeshree RAMAN,  Damming and Infrastructural Development of the Indus River Basin: Strengthening the Provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty, Asian Journal of International Law, 8 (2018), pp. 372–402

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Emergent climate crisis in Tibet


Blog one  of two on climate change , glaciers, rivers and China’s ecological civilisation


snow melt and glacier melt on five of the major rivers originating in Tibet. From left: Indus, Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween and Zachu/Mekong
Source: ICIMOD Himalayan Climate Atlas 2015

When 11,000 scientists world wide issue a warning that collectively we face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis”, yet the world’s governments response is totally inadequate, we pay attention, for  a moment.  We move on. Someone really oughta do something.

The global climate emergency, long coming and now peaking, faces crunch time when all world governments gather in Madrid early December 2019. Starting 2 December,  the Conference of the Parties (COP25) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change assembles. The popular swell of demands for urgent and effective action to reduce carbon emissions and hold climate warming to no more than a manageable 1.5 degrees, is set to climax.

The world will be watching , to see if governments are at last willing to do more than talk vaguely of “common but differentiated responsibilities” to act. Currently each country selects  its own targets. That is as far as the world got in Paris in 2015. Since then, climate extremes have only gotten worse. What seemed a distant danger is now happening to us all: more intense droughts, floods, fires, cyclones, blizzards.

never mind the Potala, just look at those cumulus humilis AND cumulus fractus
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

Will COP25 Madrid 2019 change anything? As always, all the hopes, fears and attention will be on the biggest emitters, none bigger than China. The smaller countries, other than photogenic Pacific islands disappearing under rising waves, tend to be also-rans. The world’s emerging economies, global south, developing countries, whatever you call them, did almost nothing to cause the climate crisis, and get little attention, except for one country that positions itself as the leader and exemplary role model for all developing countries: China.

In a world where the US denies the reality of climate change, and Europe is unable to agree on anything, it is understandable that the hopefuls pin their hopes on China. But that is hope against hope. All China ever agreed to in Paris in 2015 was to reduce the carbon intensity of its heavy industries. China did not agree to actually begin reducing its carbon emissions until 2030; yet 2030 is the date set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the world to complete its emissions reductions, if we are, as a planet, to have a real chance of stopping climate warming from running away uncontrollably.

ICIMOD’s 2015 Himalayan Climate & Water Atlas

What of Tibet? By area, the Tibetan Plateau is almost two percent of the planet’s land surface, the same size as Western Europe. Tibet matters, not only because of its extent but its height, half way up into the troposphere, so high it diverts the jet stream around Tibet, not over it. Nowhere else on earth does that. In winter the jet stream, racing west round the mid latitudes, diverts around the south side of the plateau; in summer it switches to divert round the northern edges of Tibet.

only the Tibetan Plateau can split the jetstream

China is acutely aware that the Tibet is upriver, with both of China’s great rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze, rising in the glaciers of Tibet. Tibet is also upwind of lowland China, and the climate in Tibet, capable of drawing monsoons deep inland, has a profound impact on the climate of Asia. It’s only in recent decades that climate scientists managed to connect the dots and discover how interdependent climates are, how teleconnections and forcings influence climates far away.

The intense cold of Tibet in winter is well known, less well known is how fast the entire Tibetan plateau heats in spring, especially on the bare rock of the mountain slopes, above the vegetation line. Intense sun, in the largely dry springtime climate, heats the thin air and bare rock of Tibet fast, which drives the monsoon dynamic, both the arrival in summer of the South Asian monsoon from the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal; then, a little later, the arrival of the East Asian monsoon from the tropical Pacific

So Tibet does matter, not only to Tibetans. It matters especially to China and Japan, most immediately downwind, but weather and climate in Tibet have measurable effects in North America too.

However, the world knows little about climate change in Tibet, although the Tibetan exile government has tried for a decade or more to raise the profile. So this Rukor blog lays out the evidence on what is likely to happen in Tibet, over the coming decades, if the world succeeds in Madrid 2019 in effectively curbing emissions, and if the world yet again fails to take effective action to reduce emissions.

This blog draws on the extensive mapping and modelling done by climate scientists on the future climate of Tibet, not only the melting of the glaciers, but the whole range of climate changes under way, and accelerating. This blog features maps of the future climate of Tibet, in the 2040s, 2060s, even in 2095, both on the assumption that carbon emissions are globally reduced, and on the alternative assumption the world fails to take effective action.

The great rivers of Tibet and their downstream populations. Source ICIMOD

China congratulates itself on being the global leader in ecological civilisation construction, but the data on Tibet suggest otherwise.


From Brooklyn to Bangladesh the headlines arising from the latest IPCC report, on Oceans and Cryosphere, have focussed on the prospects of a dangerous rise in the levels of the seas lapping our shores.

Far from the shores, and the headlines, the IPCC also reported on the high mountains and glaciers at the start of the water cycle. It is there that climate change is impacting lives right now, in myriad ways.

In the Himalayas, Tibetan communities have skilfully managed precipitous, precarious environments for thousands of years, but now face ruin caused by climate change. The IPCC report on the cryosphere –the world’s cold regions- and the oceans details the remarkable adaptability of Tibetans, in the mountains and across the high Tibetan Plateau, as climate change changes everything. Adaptable as they are, those changes are accelerating, cancelling customary livelihoods.

It’s not only the headline writers in lowland cities who seldom notice the multiple impacts of climate change right now in the highlands, it is also the politicians, who now benefit from increasing river runoff as glaciers melt.

This is especially so in China, where the great Yellow River, cradle of China’s civilisation, runs dry, exhausted by draining off its waters for heavy industry,  especially coal, coal chemicals and coal-fired power plant cooling towers, across northern China.


Rather than turn away from dependence on coal, or commit to specific emission reduction targets, China quietly enjoys a secret dividend, of increased flow, down the Yellow River from the glaciers of Tibet, as they melt at unprecedented rate.

runoff increasing, on Tibetan rivers, 2014

The glaciers at the head of the great rivers coming from Tibet –the Indus, Yangtze and Mekong as well as the Yellow- can dispense this special dividend only for a while, until they dwindle and disappear. Now the IPCC has put a timeline on this. Peak water will come as soon as mid-century; after that the shrinking glaciers will retreat upslope, unable to replenish, fading from view. By the end of this century they will largely be gone.

The IPCC, marshalling all available evidence, says: “Melt water from glaciers in the mountains can be an important source of water in hot and dry years or seasons when river runoff would otherwise be low, and thereby also reducing variability in total river runoff from year to year, even hundreds of kilometres away from the glaciers. As glaciers shrink, annual glacier runoff typically first increases, until a turning point, often called “peak water” is reached, upon which runoff declines.” IPCC  SROCC  2-25, 2-28

Glacier melt raises river flows Source: Immerzeel, 2013

“The average winter runoff is expected to increase (high confidence), and spring peak maxima will occur earlier (very high confidence). Although observed and projected trends in annual runoff vary substantially among regions and can even be opposite in sign, there is high confidence that average annual runoff from glaciers will have reached a peak, with declining runoff thereafter, at the latest by the end of the 21st century in most regions. The projected changes in runoff are expected to affect downstream water management, related hazards and ecosystems.” IPCC SROCC 2-26

This Rukor report delves not only into the implications of the IPCC Cryosphere and Oceans report, but also brings you the scientific research IPCC relies on.

when will peak water pay its best dividend to those downriver, before dwindling as glaciers shrink? Blue assumes world acts to effectively limit carbon emissions, red assumes world fails to cut emissions. Source: IPCC 2019

IPCC estimates of the glacier melt dividend downstream. In High Mountain Asia, which is mostly the Tibetan Plateau, the key question is when will increased runoff due to climate warming peak, and then dwindle as the glacial sources dwindle and disappear? The two graphs offer two differing answers, because they are based on two differing scenarios of future climate change emissions reductions. The graphs in blue assume the world will act quickly and effectively to reduce emissions; those in red assume governments fail to act and carbon emissions will continue rising. In both scenarios peak water will be mid-century, and then decline.

For the news cycle, and the attention span of political leaders, that’s way in the future. What matters now, and for decades to come, is increased runoff, a free public good delivered cost free for as long as it still snows in the Kunlun, Tian Shan, Tanglha, Amnye Machen , Hengduan and Himalayas: the mountains surrounding Tibet.

In the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra basin, who extracts its waters, and in which month?

Only some of those mountain ranges capture monsoonal moisture and hold it as snow and ice, gradually releasing their melt into streams and rivers flowing across China. The Indus River benefits more from snow and ice melt, more on that below. Of China’s great rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow, both originating in Tibetan glaciers, the Yangtze is by far the bigger, its runoff augmented not only by glaciers at the source but also in Kham, well down the Dri Chu/Yangtze/Chang Jiang. The snowpeaks of Kham, such as the pilgrimage mountain Khawa Karpo (Meili Snow Mountain in Chinese) capture, store and release a lot of water.

For lowland China, the only river in need of a climate induced dividend of extra runoff is the Yellow.  The dividend on the Yellow may be much less than on the Yangtze, where it only prolongs the flood season. On the Yellow River (Huang He in Chinese) the dividend may be quite modest, and not deliver extra water far below Tibet. The Yellow is one of the longest rivers in the world, much of it through desert.

genererating “green” energy in Inner Mongolia from coal and water from Tibet, delivered by the Yellow River

In recent decades, there have been serious proposals to greatly boost the Yellow River’s flow by diverting water away from Yangtze tributaries in Tibet, building dams to impound water, canals and tunnels to get that water across to the Yellow River which, in some Tibetan areas, is only 100 kms away, with mountains in between. This is the sort of challenge China’s engineers can overcome, at great cost to both budgets and nature.

Officially, this huge project is the third stage of the three-stage South-to-North Water Transfer Project, and the first two stages, in lowland eastern China, are complete and operational. The third stage, still on the books of successive Five-Year Plans, is officially the Western Route, and has been thoroughly mapped. Yet there are no indications that it will actually be built. There may be many reasons why it languishes. The other two canals have been somewhat disappointing in delivering sufficient water northwards to be worth the cost. Damming and diverting water across Kham Kandze prefecture, a troubled area, would be expensive and difficult. But the bottom line is that even if done, it would not deliver enough water to the Yellow River to lift its river flow as far as the lower reaches, closest to Beijing, where extra water is most badly needed.

Diverting the Yangtze to the Yellow River, if it works as planned, would deliver its’ dividend to the heavily polluting industries of Qinghai Xining and Gansu Lanzhou, traversing Ningxia and then looping lengthily through arid Inner Mongolia, the core of China’s coal mining belt. There would be no increased flow beyond that, in Henan or Shandong.

No doubt the oil refineries and salt lake metals producers of Xining and Lanzhou would appreciate the availability of more water, likewise the steel mills and mass array of coal-fired power stations in Inner Mongolia.  But they are not the centre of Chinese power, and may be on the brink of a similar de-industrialisation to China’s rust belt North-east. Older, more polluting heavy industries face new difficulties, not only from enforcement of pollution laws, but from China shifting the world’s factory abroad and further inland to coal-rich, oil-rich Xinjiang.

River runoff of five great Tibetan rivers now and in 2040s. Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong. In each box, left bar is actual runoff measured from 1998 to 2007, next bar is runoff predicted for 2040s. On each river runoff will increase.

If these water-intensive and resource-intensive industries cannot succeed in persuading Beijing to further dam Kham Kandze, it is because the dividend of extra water would fail to get far enough downstream. Likewise, the dividend of extra runoff into the Yellow River from shrinking glaciers may not suffice to impact far downstream. No-one has sufficient evidence to be sure. The 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021 to 2025 is currently being actively debated among China’s policy elites; we may soon see whether the Western Route of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project still exists.


IPCC tells us that even if carbon emissions are dramatically and rapidly cut and succeed in limiting global warming to 1.5C, 36% of the glaciers along the Hindu Kush and Himalayan range will have gone by 2100. If emissions are not cut, the loss increases to two-thirds.

The scientists watch as climate change sweeps aside all past calculations of risk and reward in the high mountains of Asia that ring Tibet. The IPCC report is recognised as authoritative because it draws together all that is known, all that has been measured and extrapolated to let us know what we, as a planet, are in for.

peak water, rise and fall as glacier melt accelerates Source: IPCC 2019

IPCC says: “At first, glacier runoff increases because the glacier melts faster and more water flows downhill from the glacier. However, there will be a turning point after several years or decades, often called ‘peak water’, after which glacier runoff and hence its contribution to river flow downstream will decline. Peak water runoff from glaciers can exceed the amount of initial yearly runoff by 50 percent or more. This excess water can be used in different ways, such as for hydropower or irrigation.” 2-28

IPCC reminds us we have all tended to regard water coming to us from upriver as a common pool resource, taken for granted, uncosted, a free public good to be exploited at will, without consequences. Economists call this an externality, which means provision of water doesn’t show up in the accounts. Now, in the era of climate change, nothing we took for granted can any longer be taken for granted. Common pool resources do have finite limits, which need to be respected, and governed for the welfare of all, for ecosystem health.

IPCC’s Summary, running to 1070 pages, is far from the only source we can turn to. The Kathmadu-based International Centre on Mountain Development (ICIMOD) also published, in 2019,  a massive summation of all that is known about the Tibetan mountains and their glaciers.

The 2019 ICIMOD Hindukush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People, only 627 pages, also identifies the payoff downstream of icemelt high in the mountains: “Recent work shows that within each basin there is significant variability; the closer one gets to the glaciers and snow reserves within a basin, the greater the relative importance of glacier and snowmelt runoff. Several large-scale benchmark studies have focused on quantifying the importance of glacier and snowmelt runoffs in the overall hydrology of large Asian river basins. Glaciers have the potential to provide seasonally delayed meltwater to the rivers. Meltwater can make the greatest contribution to river flow during warm and dry seasons, which is particularly important to the water budget in water-scarce lowlands that are densely populated. A global study estimating seasonally delayed glacier runoff relative to precipitation input showed that the Indus basin had the greatest human dependence on glacier water within the HinduKush Himalaya.” (p.262)

In 2015 ICIMOD published a detailed study of climate change and its likely effects, between 2021 and 2050 on the six major rivers originating in southern Tibet: the Indus, Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween and Zachu/Mekong. ICIMOD’s HIMALAYAN CLIMATE AND WATER ATLAS: IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON WATER RESOURCES IN FIVE OF ASIA’S MAJOR RIVER BASINS, after reviewing the historic record of rainfall and temperature for each river, and after running computer projections for the year 2050, on a scenario of the world acting to curb emissions (RCP 4.5), and another scenario in which the world fails to do anything effective about emissions (RCP 8.5), came to the conclusion:

 “Under both RCP scenarios, the amount of glacier and snow meltwater will decrease, while the amount of rainfall-runoff will increase, for the upper basins of the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Salween and Mekong. For the upper Indus basin, the contribution of glacial melt is projected to increase in both scenarios, and the contribution of snow melt and rainfall to runoff are projected to decrease for the extreme cases in the RCP 8.5 scenario. Overall, no significant decrease in runoff is projected until at least 2050 for all of the basins.

forecasting Tibet temperature increase: top two maps cover years 2036 to 2065, bottom two 2066 to 2095; two left maps assume world acts to reduce carbon emissions, right two maps assume little effective action to limit emissions

“An increase in runoff is projected for both RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5 scenarios for the upper Ganges (1–27%), Brahmaputra (0–13%) and Mekong (2–20%) basins. Increasing precipitation is the main driver of this change, which will compensate for decreasing contributions of glacial and snow melt. For the upper Indus and Salween basins, the picture is uncertain and varies depending on the scenario. Under the RCP 4.5 ensemble mean, the total upper Indus river flow increases (12%), while under the RCP 8.5 ensemble mean, it decreases (–5%) compared to the reference period. In the upper Salween basin, the projected change in total river flow ranges from –3 to +19%. The difference is mainly due to a reduction in snow melt and rainfall runoff under RCP 8.5, caused by a decrease in precipitation, although glacial melt increases in both scenarios.” (p 78)

Predicting Tibet winter temperature increases in coming decades (upper maps) and rainfall (lower maps). Assumes world acts to curb emissions (left maps) or fails to curb emissions (right maps).


The deep irony is that China persists in taking its great rivers rising in Tibet as common pool resources for exploitation; while accusing Tibetan pastoralists of abusing the common pool resource of Tibetan pasture lands for unsustainable exploitation

What China above all wants from Tibet is water, and is willing to depopulate Tibet to maximise water flow. Yet in reality the alpine meadows of Tibet are inseparable from the rivers flowing for a thousand kms or more through them, from their glacial sources across the pastoral landscapes before tilting to the lowlands.

Predicting rainfall and temperature to year 2050, in the watersheds in Kham of Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu. Seasonal changes to rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps). Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).

China, however, treats the rivers as sacred, and their pastoral meanderings among Tibetan livestock producers as a threat to the reliable provisioning of lowland China with upland water, glacially pure. When assessing grassland, China assumes common pool resources will inevitably be abused, because what belongs to everyone thus belongs to no-one. Yet when it comes to the waters of Tibet China treats this common pool resource as vitally valuable to lowland China, to be protected upstream by cancelling human land use.

China in early 2019 announced a massive expansion of hydro dams and power grids on the rivers of Tibet, especially on the Yangtze (Dri Chu in Tibetan) and its many Tibetan tributaries, as damming of the Yellow River in Tibet was completed decades ago. As the world’s most hydraulic economy, China has impounded, diverted and extracted more water from rivers than anywhere on our planet. In t[1]he name of renewable energy and carbon emissions mitigation, China is intensifying these programs. China’s anxiety over water means it also publishes more on water problems than any other country.

Two great rivers in Tibet Kham: upper Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu: predictions of seasonal changes in rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps) for decades to 2050. Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps)
two great Tibetan watersheds: Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween from Kham through Myanmar, and Zachu/Mekong from Kham to Vietnam

Yet China’s argument for depopulating vast rangelands of Tibet, especially in the river source area, which is bigger than Germany, is that the nomads irresponsibly degraded the land by overgrazing, paying no heed to the health of the commons.

Factually, this is baseless. Many Chinese scientists have shown in fieldwork studies of the skilful use of pasture by Tibetan nomads, who always move on well before grasses are overgrazed, mindful of the need to protect their long term livelihoods.[2] It is China’s restrictions on nomadic mobility that caused the overgrazing which China blames on careless nomads abusing the commons.

China has invested much effort in quantifying the runoff dividend, also in hydro damming the Yellow River in many places in Tibet (Qinghai in Chinese), plus excessive extraction of Yellow River waters in arid regions with abundant coal, to supply all of China with electricity and much else, even milk from Inner Mongolia from intensive factory farms made possible only by abundant water coming down the Yellow River, traversing the desert.

factory farming milk productionn by Mengniu corporation, Inner Mongolia, heavily reliant on water from distant Tibet

Water as a free public good has been foundational for all these lowland industries, so much so that China officially labels Tibet as China’s Number One Water Tower, gravity feeding endless water to the lowlands. Water shows up very little as a cost in the accounts of industrial enterprises, only as a last mile expense of installing pumps and pipes for extraction. Since the actual value of water to industry, intensive agribusiness and cities has never been internalised as an actual cost, the glacier melt runoff dividend is likewise off the account books, a silent dividend.

scientising the clouds of Tibet
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau,1986

That dividend shows up not in the corporate bottom line but politically, in China’s program to depopulate the Tibetan highlands, to clear out the pasture users between the glaciers and the lowlands. Guaranteeing water supply is officially the main driver of the policy of closing pastures to grow more grass and protect water supply, a policy over the past two decades that has made redundant hundreds of thousands of skilled Tibetan pastoralists in the river catchments below the glaciers but above the Chinese industrial consumers.

On the Yellow River, the dividend will peak seasonally when it is most needed downriver, in winter, the season when the Yellow River in some recent years has dried up altogether hundreds of kms before reaching the sea. Winter temperatures are rising fast in Tibet.

On the five great rivers of southern Tibet, in the 2040s decade, predicting how much snowmelt (top map) and glaciermelt (middle map) will contribute to flow.
Source: ICIMOD Atlas of Himalayan Climate, 2015
across the Himalayas and southern Tibet, the contributions of seasonal glaciermelt and snowmelt.
Consistent increase in High Asia’s runoff due to increasing glacier melt and precipitation. 1998 to 2007 Contribution to total flow by glacier melt (a), snow melt (b) and rainfall runoff (c) for major streams during the reference period (1998–2007)
Nature Climate Change, 4, 587-592, 2014

While agriculture has little need of water in winter, factories and cities need reliable water provisioning year-round. Climate change in Tibet is especially strong in winter, IPCC reports, with rapidly rising temperatures releasing glacier melt even in winter. Further, the IPCC reports evidence that in Tibet as climate change accelerates, summer flow will decrease by as much as 10 per cent. (Section Changes in River Runoff)  The summer monsoon, especially along the Yangtze, is flood danger time, so a summer flow reduction and a winter boost would be ideal. China needs its dividend, which makes it reluctant to act decisively to reduce emissions, curb climate warming and save the planet.

No-one can say how big the glacier melt dividend will be in coming decades. Attempting to quantify it would require far more river flow gauging stations, meteorological stations and remote sensing satellite data. Even the IPCC, ICIMOD and the scientists whose work they review and summarise, cannot say with certainty how big a dividend China will obtain by gravity flow from Tibetan glaciers and rivers.

But that dividend is just the added benefit of what China routinely harvests from Tibet, the daily flow of river runoff from the plateau, from a common pool resource taken for granted, until it is deemed under threat –by the very people in Tibet who have protected streams and rivers for thousands of years.[3]


gruesome, threatening clouds of Tibet
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

[1] Wen Li  (State Key Laboratory of Eco-hydraulics in Northwest Arid Region of China), Water Ecological Environment Protection under Changing Environment: A Systematic Review and Bibliometric Analysis, Journal of Coastal Research, Special Issue No. 93, 2019

[2] Y B Li, Gongbuzeren (Gonpo Tsering), W J Li (2014) A Review of China’s Rangeland Management Policies. IIED country report. IIED, London.

LI Bo et al., Review of CCA Studies in SW China, › 2015/08 › regional-review-south-west-china-en

when glaciers collapse in Tibet, they can race downslope ar astounding speed, in 2016

[3] Xiaoli Shen , Zhi Lu, Shengzhi Li, and Nyima Chen, Tibetan Sacred Sites: Understanding the Traditional Management System and Its Role in Modern Conservation, Ecology and Society 17(2): 13.

Freely downloadable from:

XÉNIA DE HEERING and Élisabeth Guill, Providing Access to Water: The pump, the spring and the klu: Brokerage and local development on the Tibetan Plateau,  China Perspectives, No. 1 (93) (2013), pp. 61-71

glaciers grind rocks; later the retreating and collapsing glaciers expose toxic mercury in ground up rock
Source: IPCC 2019 and Zhang 2014
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Blog one of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet #gabriellafitte

Gang Rinpoche is a story of a farming/herding family, their everyday piety, the routines of taking out the yaks to graze, of going to the woodlands to gather firewood, cut to length and split, loaded onto pack yaks, to be stacked near the house. Always in motion, always something that needs doing. Humdrum everyday life in Kham Markham, southeastern Tibet, where the trees are plentiful. This film is also known as Paths of the Soul.

The first suggestion of plot movement is the old guy who announces he really wants, before he dies, to do the pilgrimage to the distant holy city of Lhasa. Within minutes, many others agree to join him, no drama, no tension or argument, the woodheap is high, the autumn tasks of preparing for winter are done. We are about to go on the road.

leaving the village to begin a prostration journey of over 2000 kilometres

The road, the path broad or narrow, the journey within or without are all metaphors occurring repeatedly throughout Tibetan and Buddhist culture. The spiritual journey within is mirrored and enacted by the pilgrimage journey without.  Lena Herzog and her film maker husband Werner titled their book on Tibetan pilgrimage, Pilgrims: Becoming the Path Itself.[1]  Kham has plenty of pilgrimage sites of its own, such as the holy Khawa Karpo mountain.[2] But Lhasa is a once-in-a-lifetime special.

The path is the path of practice, of familiarisation with the methods of self transformation, so they become embodied, ingrained. The entirety of Buddhism and its many methods can be reduced to ground, path and fruition; meaning a preparatory intellectual understanding of the logical coherence of the teachings, the path that does the work of a change of mind, and the fruition of fully awakening to the nature of reality.

You cannot travel on the path before you have become the path itself”; a saying the Herzogs attribute to the historic Buddha: could this  be the ticket for the cast about to take to the road? Or does it demand far too much from movie-goers for whom pilgrimage is at best exotic, unfamiliar? Must we too become the path?

Fortunately, this is a romantic confection, attributable not to Buddha but Blavatsky. From a Buddhist viewpoint one takes to the path in order to gradually familiarise, to eventually become the path; it’s not a prerequisite. Meditation practice, whether seated or on foot, is above all a familiarisation.


On this Paths of the Soul path the camera keeps a certain distance. Unlike the conventions of Hollywood drama, we are not fed emotion in close-up, or by a swelling score on the soundtrack. We are so used to being manipulated; we expect it. This is a movie in which the audience has to work to fill in the gaps, and we aren’t used to that, even when Tibetan directors such as Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal ask just this of us. Pema Tseden tells us he holds his camera back to give the viewer space to fill in the rest. Yet doing that work is all the harder when daily drogpa routines are no longer familiar, as is the case for Tibetans in scattered exile worldwide.

Zhang Yang

This is a movie that takes for granted that the viewer can and will contribute, can read into landscapes and faces what’s happening, beyond the undramatic dialogue of people who take risks every day, and routinely deal with them by deadpan understatement. Our ability to access conversations is facilitated by both Chinese and English subtitles, just as well since the spoken Tibetan is in such varied dialects that it’s clear this is not a doco, it’s a doco drama, an electric shadow dramatization of sama-drog semi-nomadic family life, acted by a cast from various places, chosen for their ability to be themselves with cameras rolling. More on that later.

The plan is to go in time for Losar, the midwinter heralding of a new year, a time of festivity and communitas, a traditional time for pilgrimage, when there is little to do at home, no grass to take the yaks to, only a few hands need stay behind to feed straw to the animals downstairs. Quite quickly, in plot exposition, the plan is amplified: as well as distant Lhasa, they hope to make it to the much farther Gang Rinpoche, the holiest of holy mountains, a journey of thousands of kms, especially auspicious because in the 12-year cycle, this is the most beneficial year to go. All this is sorted in the first 10 minutes. It’s all doco realism: this isn’t a musical.

Will you be able to prostrate all day?


Back to the many tasks of autumn: grinding the harvested barley for tsampa, spinning the shorn wool, drilling an awl through wood to make a frame for yaks to carry loads. All so everyday, all so unfamiliar to Chinese and international audiences alike. It’s easy to see this as humdrum and boring, lacking in cues that alert us to conflict, or even just a little tension. Attention wandering, we may wonder if this is meant to be timeless, ahistoric Tibet, or maybe decades ago, or maybe today. Incidental details: an electric motor to grind the barley, the puffer jackets, baseball caps, motor bikes, solar panels, a mobile phone, quietly bring us into the present. The sacred journey is through the mundane.

More of the complexities of life emerge in conversation, dealt with matter of factly: if you plan to do lots of prostrations while on pilgrimage, can you do it while pregnant? No problem. “Yes, I can.” That’s all it takes to decide. We are all of 12 minutes in. Shots of ewes lambing take longer. Likewise the butchering and freeze drying of a slaughtered young yak, all part of the autumn harvest. Facts of life on the pasture.

The village butcher is also the village drunk, he knows full well the consequences in lives to come of taking life, and wants to join the pilgrimage to atone. Again, everyone agrees: he’s in.

Nine years old Gyatso will take to the road too


How can it all be so straightforward? Where’s the agonising, or a dramatic turn where the wrongdoer awakens? There’s none of that: we are among people for whom a deep trust in Buddha, dharma and sangha, and especially in the living Buddhas, is immanent, pervading all questions, all decisions. Even the tension between caring for livestock day in day out, and having to slaughter a few for winter survival, has a ready resolution. Is this for real? We are still only 14 mins in and already too much has happened, yet seemingly nothing much has happened.

This is where the viewer really has to work, to imagine life as an individual and in a community defined by deep faith, a life dedicated to the inward path unseen by the lens, with the dedication modernity devotes to education, career, accumulation, values and individuality. How to imagine that? How to believe it when we see it?

Winter has arrived, the ground is white, the chorten stupa is white, the khatag offering scarves are white as the men walk up to the white latse flags to replace the faded white lungta prayer flags.  The pilgrimage party is growing, it’s new year’s eve, which means an early start next morning. 16 mins in.

We now know who is going on this road movie and why, what motivates each one. two more are going because in a collective effort to build their house two men died, so two men in the owner’s family will do the pilgrimage to make amends.

 A child can’t be left behind, it’s beyond an elderly grannie to care for her, so she too will go. It’s all so matter of fact.


Is that why it is so hard to engage, and why the film flopped? How can we identify with so many people so quickly, enter their world and go on the road with them, when they all agree so immediately to an epic life-changing road trip?

We know our road movies: it’s a quest, usually for the unknown, for the rainbow, rather than for an awakening familiar to all. We know our noir: everyone has darkness within them. We know our kung-fu movie; the answer to everything is in who has the best moves. We know our historical romances, we know our genres and suspend disbelief accordingly. So why can’t we enter normal Tibetan rural life? Why does it seem abnormal, unbelievable, impossibly pious?

Men cut hand-sized wooden blocks to slide hands along freezing roads in full length prostrations, women cut and sew sheepskin aprons to keep  warm. Preparing for this road takes more than a tank of gas, and it’s all home-made, apart from the sneakers, bought by the dozen.

These are the practicalities of the inner journey through the outer world. A trailer is loaded with bedrolls and jerry cans; this is a major undertaking, but it’s all do-able. Hitched to a basic two-stroke tractor, we are off, victory banners strapped to the sides. We are 21 mins in, more than 90 to go. Crank the engine, cross the bridge and onto the sealed road, China’s gift. As the tractor putt putts ahead our pilgrims start their relay race, clacking the hand sandal wooden blocks strapped to their hands, taking refuge in guru, Buddha, dharma and sangha; head, throat, heart and down they go, one by one on the narrow, icy road, leaving plenty of room for traffic.

tea by the roadside, with China’s gifts: thermos and poverty-alleviation tractor, repurposed here to alleviate poverty stricken mental attitudes

 Only now do we start to see close-ups, of bodies sliding on the bitumen. Very soon, a pause for tea from the thermos, another Chinese gift, as the ten prostrators, young and old sit or lie on the road, shielded by the tractor as motorbikes and VW Santana race past.


When the sun is low they find a sheltered spot, between road and a small stream, unload the trailer: poles, steel spikes, hammers, a heavy woven yak hair tent rises, slung over the poles. Bedrolls are hauled in. By the stream, the women ladle water into the empty plastic jerrycans.

As dark falls, trucks sweep by on their long and lonely traverse, but inside the tent everyone is toasty, round the cast-iron stove, eating and comparing sore muscles. Day one is done? Not yet: first everyone chants in unison the praises of Tara, the fierce protector, who liberates all, the swift heroine, whose eyes are like an instant flash of lightning. Only then does each one wriggle into sheepskin bedding, lights out.

Morning is signalled by a Highway 318 milestone marking 3436 kms, all the way to Shanghai far, far to the east, proclaiming this two lane blacktop to be a national, nation-building road. In Tibet, Highway 318 runs westward, from Chaksam to Dartsedo, Nyagchu, Lithang, Bathang, Markham, Palsho, Pome, Nyingtri, Kongpo Gyamda, Meldro Gungkar, Taktse and then Lhasa. One of only  two east-west highways, soon to be upgraded to a four or even six lane expressway, this is a major artery of modernity. Many centuries ago the great yogi Thangtong Gyalpo built his iron chain link bridges across major Tibetan rivers, to facilitate pilgrimage; now China’s gift unrolls across Kandze, the big trucks roaring past.


China’s gifts are not edited out, as if Tibet is timeless. Nor are they made central, as if China’s investments are the core of the story, making this long distance pilgrimage possible. The tractor is clearly another gift, with slogans painted on it in Mandarin (and Tibetan) signalling it is fupin kaifa ,扶貧開發, meaning “poverty alleviation and development.”

Tractors, jerrycans, milestones, highways, mobile phones are simply part of life, to be taken as we find them because the whole approach of the pilgrims is to take life as they find it, with neither attraction nor aversion, praise or blame, a thoroughly Buddhist approach. How undramatic. China, however, does expect its gifts to be received with manifest gratitude. The anthropologists remind us gifts are conditional on reciprocity, even an entire economy of gifts and mutual obligation.[3] China’s gifts insist on gratitude in response. The quid pro quo is unspoken yet compulsory.

On we go, in single file in the morning sun. Already the sneakers are starting to look scruffy. Gyatso, the girl child in the rear walks on and on with the head/hand/heart clacking of the hand sandals, to keep up. Walking is faster than prostrating, or kowtowing as the subtitles misleadingly call it.

Lunch by the roadside, the iron stove smokes, butter tea is churned, frozen meat is sliced and chewed. In the evening we are camped by a frozen river, good for an improvised skate, pulled alongby mother. Wielding a wood splitter, one of the men breaks up enough ice for the pot to go on the stovetop. Inside the tent, it’s time for running repairs, restitching sheepskins, filing rough spots on the hand sandals, regluing loose sneaker soles. It’s all so damn practical, this business of inner transformation. Are we watching a movie or an extended Youtube manual on Prostration 101?


Are we unable to get more into this movie because it’s all unconvincing amateur acting, or an inept director? Is it because director Zhang Yang is working in a language he doesn’t understand? The Tibetan director Pema Tseden faced similar problems in casting and filming The Search back in 2009, with similar incomprehension among audiences in exile, who preferred to believe old Tibet had long disappeared.

Like Pema Tseden in The Search, Zhang Yang’s focus is on deeply religious Tibetans on the road. Pema Tseden went on the road in 2009 searching for a contemporary Drimé Kunden; seeking someone as selfless as Drimé Kunden, the operatic Buddhist model of unhesitating compassion, willing to take out his eye for a rapacious blind beggar who demands it.

To the modern mind, the figure of Drimé Kunden, for starters, has to be mythical, his exemplary offering of an eye utterly exaggerated over centuries of retelling.   Drimé Kunden is a figure from classic Tibetan Lhamo opera, thus not from real life? To go on a quest, through modern Amdo for anyone with similar generosity has to be a fool’s errand. To modern minds, Pema Tseden and Zhang Yang alike are asking us to believe the unbelievable; so our difficulty with entering into Gang Rinpoche isn’t so much that the director is Chinese. Zhang Yang is mindful that any movie audience is going to need more context, more background, and tries hard to provide it without being too obvious.

Both directors give us long shots rather than close ups, trusting us to do the emotional work for ourselves, rather than manipulating us to emote on cue. Pema Tseden’s movies are hard to relate to because he doesn’t set the scene enough; while Zhang Yang is hard to relate to because he tries too hard to contextualise? Can’t both be true, surely.

It took a while before Pema Tseden was appreciated beyond Tibet, but now he is widely respected for bringing a distinctively Tibetan eye to film making. Pema Tseden, rather than pushing us to believe a lost Tibet still exists, “deconstructs the myth of a pre-existing Tibetan people, and builds upon individual and fragmented narratives to create a new collective subjectivity, thus opening the way for a new understanding of Tibet. This case study demonstrates how Pema Tseden’s in-between position (between languages, cultures and geographical areas) permits him to develop a cinema that gives space for Tibetans to become, giving the viewer a rare insight into contemporary Tibet.”[4]


Back on the nékor pilgrimage, a high mountain is close, the sky is ominous: mountains make their own weather. In the morning it’s snowing, with a stiff wind, but the prostrators keep at it, while in the gloom heavy laden trucks roar west and empty trucks roar east.

Camping spot for the night is near an isolated farmhouse. Politely they ask for firewood. It is readily offered; everyone respects pilgrims, who do it to end suffering for all.

About to give birth in the nearest hospital: Chinas gift.

In the night our mother-to-be goes into labour, is helped into the trailer, the tractor cranked by torchlight, off into town and yet another Chinese gift: a small hospital, white coated staff, sterile set up, a baby safely delivered. All is well. It’s a boy, truly a child of the road. The rest catch up by taxi van, everyone crowds around, the baby is named. Can mother and newborn go right back out on the road, in midwinter? They can. Is this too little plot or too much? Can we believe that women used to nomadic mobility, used to being far from modern facilities, can just keep going?

To be born, or die, on pilgrimage is highly auspicious, we are reminded. The new family do get the warmer of the two tents. Next morning the newborn, swaddled in sheepskins, gets to ride in the trailer, everyone else is back on the blacktop.

a new grandson, born on the road


Reaching a house build, all local timbers, they are hailed over and invited to share tea. “We are from Markham”, our group explains. By the milestones they have done 141 kms, Shanghai is farther than before. The home builders say they wish they too could walk and prostrate all the way to Gang Rinpoche too. Next year.

The girl’s head hurts. Can Gyatso keep going till Pangda, the next town, where our Highway 318 meets up with Highway 214 from the north, all the way from Xining? Yes, she says. There will be a pharmacy in Pangda. During tea break a man worries: should she keep prostrating? Yes, her mother says, it’s good for you. He asks Gyatso directly: can you keep this up? I can, she says.

Really? Can we believe? Is this bravado, or group pressure? Or bad script writing? Maybe none of these: two months of prostrating all day every day actually does change the mind, making everything possible. Since liberation and enlightenment are possible, the Buddha tells us, this intensively embodied experience of body, speech and mind working together might just do it. Theory meets practice. We are still only 50 mins in, an hour to go.

At a stop overlooking a river far below, they stop to build stone cairns to local gods of place, Gyatso fetches the last rock to top it off, clearly she’s ok.

Next day, as the highway zigzags in switchbacks downslope, we see our party from far above, then in close up, as last night’s invocation of Tara the protector continues, one of the few moments where sound runs on beyond sight. On and on, chanting, praying and prostrating, through icy landscapes, tunnels blasted through cliffs, portions of highway roofed by avalanche shields, on and on. By now, watching this is either dead boring, or awesomely riveting.


There’s to be no shortcuts either. A grandpa appears, a self-appointed disciplinarian gegu: make sure your forehead touches the pavement; to the girl Gyatso: less walking, more prostrating; to the young Khampa warrior: take that red braid out of your hair. This is all said with the same absence of affect as everything else said, just do it, plain and simple, no drama.

ploughing the fields, early spring, with yak power and engine power

Turns out this grandpa isn’t just a stickler, he also invites them all in to his farmhouse for the night and, since the tractor is leaking oil having lost a screw, which could take a while to fix, they’ll stay a day or two and help with the new year ploughing. This interlude is a collective effort, as always. Some ploughs are pulled by walking tractors, some by yaks. Ploughing is festive, a coming together of the clan. Being sama-drog, farmer-herders, our pilgrims know how to plough. The grandpas wonder why the young are in such a hurry these days to get it all done, time is not short, spring is still ahead, there’s hay stored up on poles beyond the reach of the yaks. There’s snow on the ground, a portent of soil moisture sufficient to start the barley crop, come spring. These are the facts that matter, along with a pious heart, and an aspiration to fulfil the vow to the lama to merge the mind with his enlightened example.

In plain language grandpa reminds us of the right frame of mind for doing nékor pilgrimage; lamas have said it more poetically:

“Without desire, attachment, or any particular agenda or itinerary,
With no selfish concerns, simply roaming freely from place to place
For the sake of others, benefitting impartially those to be trained—
This is the way of the very best type of pilgrim.”


We are halfway through this movie, time for a plot recap, explaining to host grandpa that the village butcher is off alcohol altogether as part of making up for slaughtering livestock. Grandpa is delighted, he’s not such a grinch after all. He even gives Tsering Chodon a new sheepskin, the old one’s worn out.

Back on the road yet again next morning, Tsering Chodon takes a break to breastfeed her baby. Passing a loose cliff face, there’s a rockfall, the young man doing his nékor pilgrimage because men died while building his house, is injured, hit in the leg. In the tent he laments his misfortune, first the accident when a truck overturned and the two men died, then the compensation payment, now this: is this divine displeasure? “I just don’t understand why this has happened.”

We moderns know shit happens. It’s random. The group’s father figure reminds us of the Buddha’s timeless advice: this is the human condition, to suffer is normal, what matters is motivation, and our disheartened young man has not wavered in his motivation, to benefit others. So it’s all good, we’ll just rest a couple days, and recuperate. No itinerary.

Nyingtri: peach blossom time in early spring


The poverty alleviation tractor, China’s gift, chugs on, put to Tibetan use to assist in the transformation of poverty stricken mind, a novel and profound use never imagined by the developmentalist donors. As the lamas say: “One of the problems we have is feeling poverty-stricken. To overcome that, we have to be direct, and we have to trust ourselves. We are not poverty-stricken. If we are capable of smiling, we have goodness in us, always. Whether young or old, very old or very young, still, there are always possibilities of a smile. So keep smiling. Enjoy your goodness.”

By now we are nearing Nyingtri, we can tell by the peach blossoms, it must be March, the rapeseed crop is turning the fields yellow, spring comes early here. Time to lessen the heavy clothing, wash hair by the river. They hail another pilgrim, a naljorpa yogi from even further, from the foothills of Tibet in Sichuan, accompanied by his wife pulling a handcart, and their donkey. So why is she in the shaft, not the donkey? It’s precious to her, we are told, not to be overworked, it’s only for pulling uphill. “We see the donkey as family, we go through thick and thin together.” He is to be taken round the Barkor circuit of blessings  too when they reach Lhasa, we all need liberation. They have been on this pilgrim path nearly eight months by now. Pitstop over, a top-up of tsampa flour, and it’s back on the road. This was filmed before the Nyingtri expressway sliced across lakes, now nowhere to go when trucks roar towards you.

Why does so much go wrong? Hit by falling rocks, illnesses, an unexpected birth, blizzards, trucks hurtling at everyone, and eventually a death. Are these simply plot devices to hold our interest? Narrative hooks? Overly programmatic directing? Actually, pilgrimage is meant to be hard, purifying work, an experience of the bardo, the limbo between worlds, between moments, between one life and the next. Pilgrimage is meant to be challenging, as the great 19th century pilgrim Shabkar reminds us:

“When I made the pilgrimage of the Tsa ri ravines/ When traversing with difficulty the treacherous paths/ The rivers and bridges of the land of Lho/ It occurred to me that it must indeed be like this/  When travelling the perilous paths of the bar do.”[5]

The hardships of pilgrimage were vividly expressed a century ago by an English plant hunter, Frank Kingdon-Ward, whose greedy motivation for entering the beyul hidden land of Kham Pemako was to collect flowering specimens that might adorn English gardens:

Past the peach blossoms that these days make Nyingtri/Bayi a favourite of Han tourists, and briefly into Bayi town, buying more sneakers in bulk, 30 at a time: they don’t last but are cheap. Nyingtri (Linzhi in Chinese) these days has its own Hilton hotel.

keep on prostrating, through China’s new city of Bayi/Linzhi/Nyingtri

 A moment later, we are out in the fields again mountains and clouds towering above. This is the road to Lhasa, soon to become the high speed electrified rail line from Chengdu  to Lhasa as well. What takes the pilgrims months will be trip of 13 hours, the railway constructers tells us. Pressurised, heated, insulated the whole way. Progress.


Next challenge: the highway fords an ice cold stream. What to do? It’s not dangerous: SUVs heading the other way cross readily, the tractor and its trailer would too. But they decide together to not only go through on foot, but to continue prostrating. Only the baby and the tractor driver get it easy. No wonder their sneakers wear out quick.

However, this isn’t a via dolorosa penance: the wet clothes are taken off, dry ones put on. Practical.

keep mindful and carry on prostrating

 Camping for the night by a big river means another drenching, from the rain. Summer is close. Time for a reminder from our grandpa that we all by now have bumps on our foreheads, but what counts is not action but motivation, a pure heart, no need to be a Drime Kunden,  “what matters most is your heart; if your forehead hurts, it reflects piety in your heart, and kindness.”


A hundred kms from Lhasa, the inevitable crash. An SUV rams the tractor, no-one too badly hurt but the front axle is broken, the wheel is off, spare parts a long way ahead or behind. What to do? Is this a modern Trials of Job? What more could befall them?

With much the same resourcefulness nomads need on the grassland when disaster strikes, the men pull and push the trailer a ways ahead, then walk back to the tractor to complete their unbroken prostrations. No shortcuts. Repeat, uphill.

Camping yet again, approaching the pass, from there it’s downhill to Lhasa. Phone reception is good up here, time for the girl to phone grandma back in the village near Markham, they miss each other.

Up, up to the pass, no motorists stop to help. Hauling the trailer by hand is hard, even with all hands pushing. Breaking into a ragged song of ascent, where the chorus line is that we may have the same mother, but our paths in life differ, some are more fortunate than others. We accept the results of past karma; as for future karma, we make our own, here and now.

Finally the pass is reached, festooned with prayer flags proclaiming victory to the gods, a moment to tie on a few more, and refresh the battered old trailer with new victory banners, as the prostrators catch up. Everyone tosses their sheaf of tiny paper windhorses to the winds.

at the pass down to Lhasa


Downhill is so easy, joyful all the way, camping on green grass, dancing barefoot in a circle dance, the trials of Job it is not. But one quarter of movie time is still ahead, and we are at Highway marker 4504 kms to Shanghai. It’s the urban fringe, the Potala in the distance. The holy city has been attained.

Inside the great temples our ragged pilgrims join the throng, touching foreheads to altars and to an empty throne: whose throne could that be?

With the right motivation, you can ignore the lenses of the Han tourists and the official posters of China’s Tibet, and keep the mind on what matters: receiving the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, making them tangible, a lived experience. Tibetans do still know how to do that, and be changed by it.

Khatag silk scarves at the ready, it’s time to meet Lama Thubten, a distant uncle, who has been busy giving teachings. He knots their scarves, the knot of communitas. A special blessing for the baby.

In their cramped urban lodging, time to wash clothes, and think about pressing on all the way to Gang Rinpoche, Mount Kailash. But money is short, and the tractor still needs repairs.

As always Buddhist economics intervenes. A woman at the window is unwell, and lama Thubten has instructed her to purify by doing 100,000 prostrations. Can she pay them to do it for her, she just can’t manage it herself? Why of course. And, as their patron, the benefits accrue to her, she has fulfilled the lama’s instructions.

how do broke pilgrims make a bit of cash in Lhasa? Join the global precariat, washing cars

Something will always turn up. There’s also the itinerant work gigs available in a city where Tibetans do all the low paid unskilled work, cleaning cars to look like they belong in town, stacking scaffolding on construction sites. Our men, in hard hats, go to work. Hardly Chinese gifts, just the precariat work of the global gig economy.

in overcrowded Lhasa, you can still do the Barkor prostration circuit by night, unmolested by tourist cameras

But by night, when the tourist crowds are gone, they can do their nékor round the Barkor circuit, undistracted. 

Time has passed, the baby is almost walking. Money in hand, time to move on, even if it means leaving a budding romance.


In a flash we are out of the city, but where? Out of the fog our prostrators emerge, on the road again, where it can snow even in summer. We are at the holy Mapam Tso, Lake Manasarovar, camped by the shore.

Then at last Gang Rinpoche, the holiest of mountains and fount of Tibetan civilisation. On the 53 kms kora circuit around the mountain, our young mother has baby strapped to her back, taking the prostrations well, but grandpa is struggling. Prostrating through the talus in snow and scree is not easy.

Waking up in the yak hair tent, grandpa Yangpei has died. Quick, get a lama to make sure his consciousness has left, and is free to deal with the bardo. Father delivers an impromptu eulogy: he was a good man, raised kids when the wife died young, he loved invoking the Buddhas to be tangibly present, he never picked quarrels, was always kind, now he has died at Gang Rinpoche, this is a blessing. Passing away here connects him to the holy mountain.

Grandpa died on he circuit, his body is now an offering to all sentient beings

Monks arrive, chanting the mantra of compassion. Seated on the ground, the unmistakable holy mountain in the background, with damaru hand drum and drilbu bells they offer the body to the circling vultures, as the family brings out their progenitor in a winding sheet, laid at the feet of the monks. It is complete, it is finished, life goes on. China today prefers to eradicate all evidence of the departed, and many Han Chinese now mourn the death of graves.


A little below, the adult sons make small cairns of granite stones, adorned with the dead man’s boots  knives, and silk scarves. A little tsampa is sprinkled on another rock where a small fire gives of fragrant smoke, another offering to unseen spirits, a signal to the vultures.

That’s decisively the last goodbye, time for everyone to move on, in this world or the next. On with the leather aprons, on with the prostrations through the scree of the great peak. The best of tributes to grandpa is to keep right on. Slowly, the entire group passes from right to left and off-screen, Gang Rinpoche majestically unmoving, overlooking all.

The final scene is a long shot, all white snow and looming slopes, the pilgrims small in a vast landscape, the clacking of woodclad hand against hand the only sound. We are done.

This is a neglected movie that prompts many questions, explored in the next blog. #gabriellafitte

prostrating round Gang Rinpoche/Mt Kailash in winter

[1] Lena & Werner Herzog, Arcperiplus, London, 2002

[2] Alexander Patten Gardner, The Twenty-five Great Sites of Khams: Religious Geography, Revelation, and Nonsectarianism in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Tibet, PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2006

[3] Emily Yeh, Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, Cornell, 2015

[4] Vanessa Frangville (2016): Pema Tseden’s The Search: the making of a minor cinema, Journal of Chinese Cinemas:

Dan Smyer Yu (2014) Pema Tseden’s Transnational Cinema: Screening a Buddhist Landscape of Tibet, Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 15:1, 125-144, DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2014.890355

[5] Mathieu Ricard, The Life of Shabkar, SUNY, 1994, 254

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blog two of four on movies filmed in Tibet #gabriellafitte

For a while, Gang Rinpoche/Paths of the Soul was a surprise hit with Chinese audiences, doing better than Hollywood megamovie Transformers, released at the same time. Media speculated why.


Throughout Gang Ripoche  the director refrains from deploying basic story telling film techniques that are embedded in media-saturated audiences, as film analyst Chris Berry reminds us: “In the interior scenes, the camera often pans or tracks laterally across the people in the room as they talk. Point-of-view and shot-and-reverse shot structures are avoided. Not only does this discourage identification with any individual character on the part of the audience, but also it gives a sense of almost ethnographic observation and distance of the pilgrims as a mass, because they all share the same values and culture.”[1]

This seems to be the problem. We are primed to select which individual we identify with, and who we dislike. While each pilgrim has specific personal reasons for going on nékor, once they are on the road they become a collective noun, the nation incarnate. Zhang Yang seldom pushed his cast to do take after take, necessary to the shot-and-reverse grammar of film that enables the viewer to see in close up the range of emotions as characters wrestle with what to do next.

Is this a failing? If we just don’t care, don’t engage with individuals we can identify with, we aren’t going to care much about the group; they are just too agreeable. This makes it, Berry suggests, more like an ethnographic  film of types, rather like the minority ethnicity albums of past centuries, in which Han painters focussed on typically different behaviours, as seen through Han norms.[2] Typology is for museum dioramas, not the box office.

Director Zhang Yang insists the lack of drama is simply because, to Tibetans, taking months or even a year or two to do a pilgrimage is not heroic, or even exceptional, it’s ordinary, even natural. The cast we meet is not exceptional. Not only are they not heroic, they are not especially sinful either, and thus on a path of redemption. For a butcher to awaken to the harm he has done by animal slaughter is the same natural awakening we all experience, and which, in Tibetan opera, is a pivot in the drama, yet always happens offstage, because awakening is ordinary and inevitable.

Zhang Yang says: “For the Tibetan Buddhist, to make this pilgrimage at least once in your lifetime is a must, so it’s natural that they do it. What’s difficult was not to motivate the cast to do the pilgrimage but to explain to them what shooting a movie was and persuade them to participate. So I took a lot of time explaining how shooting the film would be. After the process, shooting the movie was not that difficult. What was difficult, in the beginning, was to find the right village, where all the actors I wanted in the movie were together. I was very lucky to find the village. For real Tibetan Buddhists it’s very natural that during the one or even two-year duration of the pilgrimages that a pregnant woman would give birth to a baby while she was on the road,” he says. “That’s what I had encountered before and why when I shot the film, I tried to find a village with such an actor – a pregnant woman – so I could include this scene in the movie. Very luckily, I found one. In the beginning, as I told her that on the road we would wait for the moment she gave birth and would capture it on camera.”

Maybe we recoil from Paths of the Soul/Gang Rinpoche because this ordinary readiness to undertake a year of full-on 24/7 practice for the welfare of all sentient beings, is too confronting. We all, Tibetans and nonTibetans alike, live busy modern lives, trying to stay in control and solve problems, beset by anxieties and risks. That others can so readily handle all risks, all challenges so calmly, and keep on prostrating, is just too much.

Gyatso phones the folks back home

So the easiest response is to distance ourselves, to accuse these Tibetans filmed in 2015 of living in the past, or in a timeless ethnographic present, outside of history. That makes them artefacts, relics of a lost past, when Tibet was timeless, before modernity irrupted and accelerated everything.

Yet what if Gyalwa Karmapa is right, that we have become so busy, we are unable to understand emptiness, and thus unable to relate to others, perhaps only to one or two people whom we are able to love, keeping others distant? “We can’t understand other sentient beings because we are trapped in the same wrong views they are trapped in. It’s as if we are in a prison of our own making. You actually made the prison all by yourself. You made the prison; you are the prisoner, and you are the one who keeps the prison under lock.”


So let’s try a different angle, with a different film, also set in Tibet, which makes all the right camera moves. A very different movie single filing through the snow, released to coincide with the 2019  70th birthday of the People’s Republic, makes clear why some movies work and some, like Gang Rinpoche, fail. The Climbers is a 2019 hit, an epic set in 1960, of the first Chinese ascent of Chomolangma, Mount Everest. The Climbers, at a breathless pace,recapitulates China’s 1960 conquest of a Tibetan mountain, only seven years after Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and a New Zealander were first to the top. Two Tibetan actors have minor roles, Choenyi Tsering, and Tobgyal.   The poster for the film proclaims: “For the country to climb the top, not to let the soil go.”

Reviewers beyond China found it a bit too full on: “a mode of storytelling that is 80% score-driven. Thunderous trumpets announce every step Fang makes in the right direction; keening strings signal lovey-dovey business. You should be able to cling to the traces of a sports-movie arc discernible beneath the layers of bombast.”   It’s not only Chinese audiences who respond emotionally to trumpets and strings, swooping drone shots and CGI generated thrills. After all, Chinese movie makers learned this from Hollywood. Ticket sales on the first day of release were RMB 164 million, and film studio share prices rose. Then it faded fast. By trying too hard, too obviously to be both a romance and a wolf warrior badge of patriotism, The Climbers failed to revive interest in a forgotten triumph of 60 years ago.

Pema Tseden says he seldom swoops into close-up for the money shot because he respects his audience, gives them space to decide for themselves what to make of a scene; but we have become used to having our emotions manipulated by experts, our adrenaline surges on cue.

We have also sped up. Tibetanist scholar Roberto Vitali, responding to Pema Tseden’s films notes: “I have heard complaints that the movie is slow. Those, who say so, have probably not experienced the way time flows on the Tibetan plateau, away from the towns transformed into Chinese steel and mirror monsters. Time seems to be immemorial on the sandy plains and the hills lit by the sun. Life flows with a rhythm that has its own pace and everyone ― men, animals, even fierce winds ― seem to be aware of that.”

1960 is remembered in Tibet and throughout China as the worst of three years of famine, not for this mountaineering triumph, because all the film shot then fell off the mountain and was forever lost.  A great leap to top a Tibetan mountain,  was all part of the 1960 Great Leap to beat the West in steel production, at a cost of 30 million or more starving to death.

The Climbers does not ignore the famine , instead brazenly  making it a further reason for patriotism. Even in the official trailer, one doubter asks: “Can climbing a mountain feed a few hundred million hungry people?” The decisive answer: “If a few hundred million people can only worry about what’s for dinner, what hope do we have for our nation?” This gratuitous insult to the grandparents of today’s ticket queue, those who did survive Mao’s great famine, is for today’s generation: patriotism is more important than eating.


A more obvious comparison with Gang Rinpoche/Paths of the Soul  is a 2008 doco that is not only focussed on Tibetan nékor pilgrims prostrating all the way to Lhasa, it also starts in Kham. Even more obscure than Gang Rinpoche, this one hour Korean doco joins a group of Khampa men prostrating through all weathers and all landscapes, even up and down steep, stony slopes, way off-road, slip-sliding on the ice. More remarkably still, it too starts in winter and ends seven months and 2100 kilometres  later in Lhasa, covering the same route and same seasonal cycle as Zhang Yang’s lens nearly a decade later.

Asian Corridor in Heavenis a six-part series made by Korean Broadcasting System, in collaboration with  Japan’s NHK, Taiwan’s GTV, TRT and BBTV

Episode two, Road to Pilgrimage, and all six eps follow conventions of the doco genre, including a voice over narrator, overlaid music, hand held camera, lots of close ups and mid shots, occasional long shots. Only at the very end do key characters speak direct to camera, about why they do it.

The viewer is with this party of five, Busa, Lulu, Dawa, Choeji (Chogyal?) and Lappa (Lhagpa?), who have not even a tractor to pull a trailer of gear. They have only two light handcarts, each pulled by one of the five men, sometimes up slopes so steep they have to constantly weave across both traffic lanes, to lessen the gradient. In some places the road, designed by China in the 1950s for underpowered truck engines unable to manage steep gradients, so the road to or from a pass is endless switchbacks. There the men head off road, straight down or up hill, boulders, snow, ice and rubble notwithstanding, prostrating as best they can, without a break.

making the hand plank sandal to literally hit the road with

It’s riveting viewing. For starters, there’s no doubt as to whether it is staged for the camera, or scripted, it is palpably real. There’s nothing programmatic about it. The nuts and bolts of how to survive months on the road, in gales, blizzards, ice and snow gradually reveal themselves, the same basic technologies of survival as in Gang Rinpoche, including inventive roadside bricoleur  stitching of leather aprons about to fall apart.

The viewer has time to see it all, the voice over is minimal, the music never too insistent. Lots of close-ups, you can choose who to identify with. Although it is an ethnographic doco, one of six filmed in Tibet, it is emotionally engaging. It all works, in ways Gang Rinpoche doesn’t.

By the time we are almost done, we  are really keen to find out why would anyone do this, and we are ready for the matter of fact answers, from Lhagpa,  a young Khampa who has awakened after alcoholic years, and now, having purified mind and body, intends a full time religious vocation. His body/mind prostrating prayers, he tells us, have been to become a different person, and there is little reason to doubt he has done it. His voice is not one of yearning, nor of 12-step AA self-recrimination. He is matter of fact: you can decide to become a different person, you can then actually become a different person, and my culture has specific methods to achieve this, and they do work.

The older man, Busa, is calmly facing mortality and the next life, saying that, at 66, “I want to someone with a big heart in my next life, so that I can lessen the sufferings of others.” This is the classic bodhisattva path. After seven months on the road, you can believe it.

Yet Asian Corridor in Heaven never got any traction outside of Korea, and disappeared completely, but with an afterlife online, subtitled in English. Why this depiction of one of the core strengths of Tibetan civilisation remains so unknown is a mystery.

Tibet tech


What hope have quiet movies, amid such hype? Whether directed by Tibetan Pema Tseden or Han Chinese Zhang Yang, the problem is the same: conflict and conquest are more cinematic than a quest for inner goodness. This is so from Gang Rinpoche’s first frames, in the cusp of the annual completion of the labour-intensive summer and autumn production cycle. The camera turns us to the undramatic but equally labour-intensive group winter work of pilgrimage.

before enlightenment: chopping wood…………

Everyone does autumn harvest, but meanings differ sharply. When the Kham harvest is in, the barley threshed and ground, it’s time to change the agenda, a home truth embodied in the Chinese phrase 秋后算账 qiu hou suan zhang, “to balance the books after the autumn harvest”. However these days, in China, this has come to mean “to take revenge when the time is ripe”. The downfall of Tibetans is their optimism; the downfall of the Han is their fearfulness, as another old saying has it.

To go on nékor pilgrimage once the harvest is in is to do embodied spiritual practice. This is now unfamiliar to the modern world, whether Han, Western or Tibetans in exile, pursing the promise of modernity, of becoming a true self. Who these days has a whole winter to spare? We see the prostrators in action, but still struggle to see why they do it.

The lamas say “dharma practice is not just about working with the mind, but involves all aspects of us. In Buddhism, when we talk about self-transformation, it is not seen as purely mental. Self-transformation is seen as transformation of the totality of one’s being. One’s physical body, one’s vocal capacity, and one’s mind all become transformed simultaneously. In the West when we use the word ‘spirituality’, it has the connotation of contrasting with the corporeal. However, in Buddhism there is no tradition of seeing body and mind, corporeality and spirituality, in dualistic terms. Our body stores its own version of memory.  Freeing the body of this is a way of transforming one’s body. Doing different practices that deal with the body frees it up.”[3]

Gang Rinpoche/Kailash as axis mundi, the centre of the world

Could it be that uneducated Khampa nomads know something urban sophisticates don’t? is their year-long pilgrimage just remarkable piety, or something more?

The film does take us through a full year, from winter to winter, and the filming actually took a year. This was a full-scale production in every way, with budget, crew, post-production all on industrial scale.

Yet it rose without a trace, failed commercially. Chinese audiences complained that nothing happens. In every scene an obstacle or challenge arises and everyo0ne readily agrees to just keep on prostrating. No drama.  Why then did Gang Rinpoche fail with Tibetan audiences too?  Pilgrimage is culturally familiar, even if today’s generation has other things on their mind.

Could it be the overtly Buddhist theme? Other movies steeped in Buddhism from beginning to end, such as Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Kundun, and Dzongsar Khyentse’s 2003 Travellers and Magicians come to mind as exemplary tales of  Buddhist practice, and they have both become beloved classics.

Are Scorsese and Dzongsar Khyentse simply better story tellers?   They deftly create believable characters more so than Zhang Yang or Pema Tseden.

Yet there is more to consider. For decades now, very few Tibetans growing up in exile have felt drawn to the inner path, be it monastic or as a yogic adept in the community. For decades, the rebuilt monasteries in India relied on Tibetans fleeing the father land, in order to pursue a religious vocation. When that stream ran dry over a decade ago, those labour-intensive monastic establishments were at a loss, only partially met by recruiting from the Himalayan belt.

There is no pilgrimage in exile, nor in a crowded world is it imaginable. There is the India circuit of the key holy places of the life of the historic Buddha, and many exile Tibetans immerse themselves in the Mon Lam intensive prayer season in Bodhgaya.

The gifted writer Tsering Wangyal Dhompa calls the lost father land, in the lives of today’s generation, as the miscellany under grandma’s bed, to be brought out occasionally, but increasingly remote, strictly for the old folks. Exile has gone too long, the new generation re-invented themselves, adapted to the speed of modernity, and moved on. Who has time these days for pilgrimage?

These may be why Gang Rinpoche, sometimes known as Paths of the Soul, disappeared before wider audiences could know it exists.  Actually, it didn’t quite fail commercially, taking box office receipts of RMB 100 million, probably enough for the seven production companies investing in it to get their money back. It was also enough for director Zhang Yang, determined to continue his offbeat path, to get to make the 2019 Dali’s Voice, to some acclaim, even though it is shot entirely in a remote indigenous town, not far below Tibet, and privileges soundtrack over visuals, again confounding audience norms. Zhang Yang says this latest film grew out of Gang Rinpoche.


According to China’s business media: “The low-budget docudrama, “Paths to the Soul,” has been more profitable per screening than Hollywood juggernauts such as the latest “Transformers” movie, which opened in late June. “Paths to the Soul” raked in over 40 million yuan ($5.88 million), or nearly three times its production cost, during its first 11-day run despite being shown in less than 2% of theaters in the country.”

What is remarkable is that this movie resonated with an unexpected audience: urban China’s new generation of start-up entrepreneurs, those brave enough to plunge into the ocean of business, endure all difficulties, eat bitterness and eventually reap the rewards. They saw in the Tibetan pilgrims the same willingness to handle all challenges, and keep going. The pilgrims would be most unlikely to see themselves as eating bitterness, as they evidently take the world as it is, as it manifests. Yet the concept of eating or speaking bitterness has a long revolutionary history, and a contemporary usage.  “During the Mao era, campaigns were organised in which people would  ‘speak bitterly’ (suku) about the past, and ‘recall past bitterness in order to savour the sweetness of the present.’”[4]  For Tibetans speaking bitterness was compulsory, meaning denunciation of revered lamas and disliked landlords alike, accusing them of profiting from the seat of the workers. Failure to speak bitterness could readily result in oneself being denounced and punished as a green brained lackey of the serf owners.

Today, it has shifted meaning. Now it means a willingness to undergo hardships in order to fulfil a great goal. For entrepreneurs out to disrupt business as usual, with visions ahead of their time, Gang Rinpoche was an inspiration, both for the new capitalists and to inspire their staff. That’s how Gang Rinpoche made some money. And then it quickly vanished.

No way would these pilgrims consider themselves to be eating bitterness; again Han and Tibetan understandings diverge. Same scene, different meanings.

two lane blacktops through Tibet are being replaced by four lane tollroad expressways

There is, however, a tinge of bitterness in some Chinese responses to Gang Rinpoche. Qiang Ge, of the CCP Central Committee Party School in Beijing, a specialist in modernity in Tibet, has angrily asked why this movie takes China’s gifts to Tibet for granted, and fails to feature their key role in making pilgrimage possible.  He has also accused Tibetan “peasants” of stubbornly resisting Chinas 1970s introduction of winter wheat as a new farmcrop, only to later benefit from it.[5]

Qiang Ge pointedly asks: “When you feel sympathy for the devout prostrating Buddhists, have you ever thought about those who paved the road upon which they kneel? Whether in artworks or when we travel through Tibet, we always see them prostrating with their heads on the road. But who actually built this road? It was built by generations of construction workers under the guidance of the Party’s leaders.  I respect even more the construction workers who defied all setbacks and struggles; ‘Bitter sacrifice strengthens bold resolve/ Which dares to make sun and moon shine in new skies’ (a quote from one of Mao’s poems), that was their great spirit.  In the Old Tibet, a pilgrimage by prostrating all the way to Lhasa did not exist. Because there was no road. Tibet’s topography was complex and arduous, it was even difficult for monkeys to cross many places on four legs, so it would have been even more difficult for people kneeling down. Secondly, pilgrimages did exist, but they were only made by a very small group of aristocrats.”

Qiang Ge, still advocating class warfare, seems as angry at the film maker as at the ungrateful Tibetans. It seems he has never seen Tibetans prostrating where there is no road, in the rubble of the lower slopes of holy mountains.

A young Tibetan intellectual in Tibet who calls himself Riga was also angry at Gang Rinpoche on its 2017 release, for the all-too-familiar reason that it reproduces a coloniser fantasy: “these seemingly benign images leave us bewildered as we begin to believe the myths that we are being sold. With Tibetan Buddhism more popular than ever, in China and the West, Tibet and Tibetans have become objects of the bourgeois Han imagination. Objects upon which their own longing can be inscribed.  In the contemporary context, and especially in regard to independent filmmaking, depictions of Tibet are rooted in fantasies of a dissatisfied bourgeois class. Tibet becomes somewhere timeless and ahistorical, existing as an anachronism in which we may find an antidote to the disorientation of our modern secular condition. And by assuming the role of the passive observer we become participant in the commodification of our own culture. The dominant representation of Tibet sees filmmakers regurgitating tired stereotypes about Tibet. Celebrating Tibetan filmmaking might be best done by underscoring what is not unique to it.”

Fortunately, the entire Gang Rinpoche movie is freely available online, so judge for yourself.

There is one further reason why this movie rose without a trace, never engaging a Tibetan audience. It brings us back to genre. This is a drama in doco style. It’s this elision that seems to be the problem, a transgression of the boundaries of truth, and reality, and what counts as authentic.

This directorial decision is Zhang Yang’s original sin, dooming the entire movie. For many Chinese viewers, the doco format robs it of drama, and of emotional engagement with this character or that. It is merely an ethnic curiosity, an album of gestures and postures of difference.

Tibetan audiences, hearing the greatly differing dialects of the key characters, realised quickly that this is no doco, but a drama staged to look like a doco, making it inauthentic. Authenticity is bigger than ever in these times of essentialised identity. Zhang Yang’s genre bending is illegitimate, it seems.

Zhang Yang is not a director on the talk show circuit pumping his work; he prefers that his movies speak for themselves. Although he doesn’t say much, he has been very clear that this melding of drama and doco was a conscious choice, unlike his other movies before and since. When Gang Rinpoche was released, in 2017, Global Times noted: “Shot in the style of a documentary, Zhang used non-professional actors that he handpicked for the film, leading to a blend of scripted fiction and spontaneous reality. It is this method of depicting the group’s journey that has received the most criticism from moviegoers as some feel that a documentary format is not appropriate for a fictional story.  Zhang Yang said  ‘I think, on the contrary, this film presents another type of reality, which is what I wanted,’  Zhang said responding to the criticisms that a fictional pilgrimage should not have been filmed in a documentary style. He defended his decision by pointing out that even documentaries end up being edited to make a coherent story and that, in his opinion, those who are filmed are more or less performing in front of the camera. ‘My method is to rely on a documentary format to restore the truth. From my point of view, you can say that a director’s purpose is to present an artistic reality.’”

This is a direct challenge to our genre silos, our conditioned expectations. Zhang insists that the doco genre, for all its slice-of-reality hand-held authenticity is nonetheless sliced, into an edited representation. If fiction, as the saying has, is truth without facts, this film is a search for truth, a sun-beaten path Zhang Yang has trodden along with his cast. It was in every sense a long journey for all, starting in winter and ending in winter, reflecting the reality that filming did actually take a year.

in the yak hair woven tent at night, running repairs to scuffed clothing

Zhang Yang boldly asserts that reality and artfulness, far from being opposites, actually go together. This is a reminder of the Buddhist teaching that there is no pure, unmediated sensory perception; all we perceive is instantly mediated by our accumulated mental categories and concepts, so inseparably and immediately that what we hold dear as being authentic experience is actually conceptually framed. Zhang Yang’s framings unapologetically blur doco and drama, because that’s life.

Maybe the movie he did next, Up the Mountain, in a remote Yunnan village succeeded better in  fusing art and reality, the authentic and the representation, direct perception and skilful editing. Inspired by Gang Rinpoche, Up the Mountain, 2018, got rave reviews, for good reasons, notably Zhang Yang’s painterly touch and skilful editing. But that’s another story, for another time.

a prostrating yogin stops for a cup of tea

The point surely is that Gang Rinpoche, the first full-length film to take prostration pilgrimage seriously, on its own terms, tries to show us not only the practicalities of prostration in all weathers, but to give us an inkling of the frame of mind required to persist, despite all challenges. Zhang Yang  holds his mirror up for us to see not only the body and speech of prostration but also mind.

This matters, because prostration is the most photographed and least understood of all Tibetan behaviours. No tourist to Lhasa leaves without shots of prostrators in action, signifying only an inexplicably exotic behaviour that defies rationality. The snorting of a bull or scampering of a monkey are more explicable.

This is why Zhang Yang chose his cast, and, despite not wanting to say much, is quite upfront about how and why he did his casting, in much the way Chaucer cast his Canterbury Tales pilgrims. “In a press release for the film, Zhang explained that he already had a picture in mind of what he wanted to present on screen: First an old man in his 70s or 80s, who possible could die during the journey; a pregnant woman who would end up delivering her baby on the way; a butcher looking to atone for taking so many lives; and a child of about 7 or 8 who could add some interesting elements and uncertainty to the journey. He also wanted a mature and sober middle-aged man in his 50s who could act as the group’s leader. Having these characters in mind, Zhang and his film crew traveled through South China’s Yunnan Province and Southwest China’s Sichuan Province and Tibet until he met Tsring Chodron, a young pregnant woman whose father-in-law’s uncle had longed to go on a bowing pilgrimage his entire life. Soon after he found other local people who fit the bill for the characters he wanted to portray in his film.”

Once he found the pregnant woman, willing to give birth on the road, he knew he had a movie, the whole project could go ahead. She did indeed give birth on the road, in pain but unafraid. And the journey continued.

This is the mind of devotion as the path that clears all obstacles, inner, outer and secret. As Patrul Rinpoche says:  “Devotion unlocks the door to all Dharma/ It clears the obstacles to all practice/ It brings out the benefits of all oral instructions/ It is offering a request to the guru’s completely compassionate mind/ and it becomes a vessel for all blessings/  It gathers the quintessence of all meditative accomplishments/ It is devotion –the singular, sufficient, pure remedy/  It can’t be conquered by any demons/ It can’t be stopped by obstacles/  It cleanses itself of all defiling stains/ It is devotion, and should be known as such/ It prevents the birth of false desires/  At the time of death there’s no pain of life suddenly cut short/ It pacifies the false appearances of the bardo/ It is devotion, and should be known as such.”[6]

This devotion is what Han domestic tourists are seldom able to comprehend, as they train their lenses on pilgrims at the Lhasa Jokhang flat on the ground in devotion, trust and faith, enacting the deepest sources of Tibetan strength.

So Zhang Yang may be one of the few Han Chinese to enter into Tibetan life, not as voyeur or ethnographer, but as a mirror, fully aware that he is an artist making artistic decisions throughout a movie of almost two hours, a self-knowing mirror.

 Gang Rinpoche has its flaws, but it deserves better than a quick dismissal.

How is it possible a Chinese director can enter so fully into Tibetan life? Did he script it, or was the plot collaborative, in effect coming from the cast?

There’s precedent for that, for example Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, a successful plunge into the lives of the Yolngu of far northern Australia. All de Heer had as a starting point was a collection of  black and white carefully staged ethnographic photos taken almost a century ago by anthropologist and biologist Donald Thompson, who had posed Yolngu hunters in their bark canoes on the monsoonal wetlands, spears in hand. When de Heer showed up, Yolngu couldn’t at first relate to naked warriors in flimsy bark canoes out on the mosquito infested swamps; and, as Christians, they had no willingness to disrobe for the camera. Patiently, with a lot of workshopping, Yolngu warmed to the idea, coming up with lots of jokes, and an entire plot, which de Heer bought into. The result was an instant classic. It worked so well, there was a follow-up doco with the director telling the story of how it all came about.

Is this how Gang Rinpoche was made?  Can we consider it a Tibetan film?


[1] Chris Berry,  Pristine Tibet? The Anthropocene and Brand Tibet in Chinese Cinema, 249-274 in K.-C. Lo, J. Yeung (eds.), 2019, Chinese Shock of the Anthropocene,

[2] The art of ethnography : a Chinese “Miao album” / translation by David M. Deal and Laura Hostetler ; introduction by Laura Hostetler., University of Washington Press, [2006

[3] Traleg Kyabgon, Integral Buddhism, Shogam, 2018, 39-40

[4] Jeffrey JAVED, 诉苦 Speaking Bitterness, in Christian Sorace, ed, Afterlives Of Chinese Communism Political Concepts From Mao To Xi, 2019, Verso & ANU Press, free download:

[5] 国家的策略性:农业技术变迁中的政治因素基于一个少数民族案例的研究,  社会 (Society), 2017, 37 (05): 78-104

[6] Dza Patrul Rinpoche, Plaeful Primers on the Path tr Joshua Schapiro, in Holly Gayley ed., A Gathering of Brilliant moons: Practice Advice from the Rimé Masters of Tibet, Wisdom Publications, 2017, 67

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Once Upon a Time in the West of Tibet

Blog three of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet #gabriellafitte


Chinese movie directors increasingly make Tibet the set. It helps a lot if you film in Tibet, and if the landscapes and people of Tibet do much of the work of carrying the actual meaning.

For Tibetans, this raises interesting questions. What does Tibet have to say? What does the cinematographer deliver,  as the emotional message conveyed by Tibetan settings and Tibetan actors in bit parts? Is Tibet merely exotic, or is its presence onscreen freighted with meaning?

Sometimes, the answers are straightforward. In Zhang Yang’s Soul on a String the upper Tibet setting instantly stands in for the badlands of America. The arid canyons and windswept uplands of the Changtang take us to the mythical American West, we know in a flash a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if the plot device is a silly mishmash of Chinese fantasies about the mysteries of Tibet.

Soul on a String tells the story of Taibei, a Tibetan wanderer from a distant time who discovers a sacred stone in the mouth of a deer and begins a quest to return the stone to its rightful home on the holy mountain of the Buddha’s handprint. Ok, that’s a pretty ropey premise, but as a basis for lots of lone treks through dunes, ravines, mountains and endless plains, and lots of fights, it’s standard issue. It’s the action, and the tension leading to explosive action that counts. It’s a Western after all.


Then there’s Wang Chao’s Looking for Rohmer, the most recent of the Chinese movies shot in Tibet, around Kham Lithang. This gay romance has had a troubled passage through the censors, which delayed its release for years, slashed it to 83 minutes, with a complete name change from the 2015 Seeking McCartney to the 2018 Looking for Rohmer. The delay and the cuts were fatal. As a result, this is a movie that has disappeared without a trace, surviving only on pirate platforms:

For Tibetans, however, this Sino-French coproduction is worth a closer look, because Tibetan landscapes and Khampas play a big role, not just as scene setters or exotic backdrops.

From the opening moment we are in a bleak, frigid Tibet, sweeping along a road flanked by the snow peaks that killed this love, the grieving survivor in close up. 34 minutes later, after much exposition, set in Paris as well as Beijing, we are back on that road into the Tibetan mountains near Lithang, where this romance so discreetly blossoms. Cut to dark interior shots, as our grieving lover sighs and suffers.

 How do we know we are still in Tibet? On the soundtrack a woman’s voice melodiously chants dharani in Tibetanised Sanskrit, then a sudden cut to a parked police car, lights flashing. A Tibetan man shuffles into shot, and prostrates. And prostrates. We never discover anything about him, he remains as faceless and enigmatic as the empty police car, as the two protagonists meet on either side. This is Tibet as mood music, with archetypal Tibetan scenes standing in for the yearnings of the men for each other, and the danger in the flashing lights. Tibet does the emotional work we see only fleetingly on the faces of the two men drawn to each other.

A moment later we are on the road to Dartsedo (Kangding in Chinese) in eastern Tibet. Suddenly we are wandering into a monastic courtyard, where the monks energetically debate Madhyamaka logic on the nature of reality, externalising the interior musing of the grieving Han protagonist on what is reality or illusion. Again it’s Tibet that provides meaning,   momentum, exposition, and a foretaste of the existential issues.

Later, after a return to Paris, a Lhamo dancer awaits his turn, and meets our two leads. The dancer, in wig and elaborate costume, is as near to a crossdresser as we are going to get: again Tibet tells us the subtext.


Zhao Jie, our protagonist joins a band of jongleur Tibetan minstrels for a few joyous minutes, as they  truck their act from pasture to pasture, enacting a Tibetan mystery play on the meaning of everything. Rapturously our hero transcends his urban reserve, merrily joining in, at last one with himself, the land, the dance, the great love of his life. The elegant mudras of Lhamo gesturing take on a feminine cast. Tibet is the land of the possible, an alternative universe where Tibetan men dress as women, always singing, always dancing.

This is the homoerotic climax, a rapturous liminality among a Khampa brotherhood. Never has kneading tsampa in a bowl looked so sensuous, nor pouring hot milk heated on a campfire.

A princely Tibetan dancer and our urban Chinese seeker face off, each holding erect a shiny new prayer wheel in hand, with mountains faux and actual the dramatic set. Cut to an aspiration prayer soundtrack from a Lhamo performance, circle round the prop mountain, twirling the prayer wheel: everything Tibetan is a source of joy and fulfilment. Tibet has revealed its true face. We are almost 60 mins into this foreshortened, censored movie.


The truckload of jongleurs toils uphill, the brotherhood still singing. We are back to grief and yearning for the lost lover from across the sea. The soundtrack mingles the merry Khampas and the campest aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly:

One good day, we will see
Arising a strand of smoke
Over the far horizon on the sea
And then the ship appears
And then the ship is white
It enters into the port, it rumbles its salute.

Do you see it? He is coming!
I don’t go down to meet him, not I.
I stay upon the edge of the hill
And I wait a long time
but I do not grow weary of the long wait.

And leaving from the crowded city,
A man, a little speck
Climbing the hill.
Who is it? Who is it?
And as he arrives
What will he say? What will he say?
He will call Butterfly from the distance
I without answering
Stay hidden
A little to tease him,
A little as to not die.
At the first meeting,
And then a little troubled
He will call, he will call
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.

Back in France, a Catholic Mass commemorates the life of the young Frenchman killed in the avalanche, consoling his mother; while in a Tibetan monastery, the monks, with his body, release him into another life.  Rohmer will live forever, in the skies and mountains of Tibet. Finally we see him, the French object of desire, alive, in the monastery, reverently doing his kyab su chi, taking refuge.  Like the old Tibetan man prostrating past the flashing police car, whose face we never see, our Frenchman does his chag tsälo prostration. He has found fulfilment. “Death is not nothingness. The soul lives on”, he tells us. ”If I die, I want to be like the Tibetans.”

It is winter above Lithang, snow everywhere. Rohmer, who was ready to die in the unseen avalanche, is finally cremated, as the vultures circle above, as the monks chant. “Only death can set you free.”


Finally, again in France, we are at the vineyard, fondly remembering the dead Rohmer through his family photo album. As Zhao Jie is falling asleep, he is immediately back in Tibet, amid the flailing Lhamo dancers, revealing their true faces: Zhao Jie and his beloved Rohmer. Thus the movie ends.

Looking for Rohmer begins in desolate grief, expressed by bleak snowy Tibetan hills. It ends with grief healed by the transcendant power of love, expressed by exuberant Khampa dancers who welcome the French man and the Chinese man into their Lhamo dancing. The repeated intertwining of Madama Butterfly’s inconsolable grief and hopeless hope, with the plunging, swooping, swirling healing power of the Tibetan dancers, are a call and response, antiphonally positing grief and loss as the human condition, answered decisively by the Tibetan embrace of life, including a willingness to let go of it.


 Looking for Rohmer was released to screens early in 2018 and died immediately. “’I thought I’d come to the cinema to show support. But to my disappointment, I didn’t see much gay love. I only saw natural sceneries,’ commented one Weibo user. ‘The movie is still inside the closet,’ another user added.”

“’Finally! A movie that tells a gay story can be publicly screened — I’m definitely going to watch,’ one fan wrote in 2016, after the trailer was released. But Sixth Tone found that some opinions had changed after fans watched the movie. ‘I thought I was watching a documentary film about the scenery in Tibet’, wrote another user. ‘The product after censorship is a perfunctory, sucky movie.’

This movie was butchered by China’s homo-averse censors and completely failed commercially as a result. That’s   sad for Chinese gay audiences expecting more, but it should now be seen through Tibetan eyes.  Despite publicity in gay media, on the BBC and in The Economist, Looking for Rohmer flopped everywhere. Not gay enough for the audience waiting expectantly for years, too gay for the censors.  Call Me by Your Name it’s not.

Because this movie did little to serve socialism with Chinese characteristics, it was mutilated and failed. But that is no reason for Tibetans to ignore it. Nor is today’s obsession with identity, appropriation and imperialism a reason to dismiss it as just another Chinese colonial power grab.  There is more to film art than identity politics.

Of course, it does take it for granted that China’s Tibet is indeed China’s Tibet. In official narratives, including the many “patriotic” movies set in Tibet, the China’s Tibet story is the standard narrative of liberation from serfdom, into the light of progress, development, modernity and civilisation,  all guided by China. All so predictable. Patriotic movies have become a genre of their own, zhuxuanlu 主旋律.

Maybe that is why there is plenty of room in the vastness of Tibet for narratives, told through Chinese eyes, as well as by Tibetan directors.


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Censorship and Genre Moviews

Is Tibet a genre in its own right?

Blog four of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet: this is a coda. #gabriellafitte

Movie directors in China have a hard time. Directors anywhere must juggle finance, script, casting, shifts in public taste, and the years it usually takes between acquiring rights and hitting the screen. Any director out to recover costs, or even make a profit, must somehow reconcile the sharply differing tastes of Chinese and global audiences. Movie makers in China have the added danger of a ferocious censorship system staffed by suspicious minds alert to the slightest suggestion of critiquing how China is governed.

Not surprisingly, many movies never make it, or are held up for years by the censors, or emerge from the bureaucratic maze so mutilated the movie is an audience flop. It takes patience, skill and artistic flair to weave through the maze.

One shortcut path is to make a genre movie. Each genre has its own assumptions and conventions, that’s what defines a genre. In a noir you expect everyone to be crooked. In a Western, a lone hero has to shoot it out with the baddies. Audiences and censors can then relax, we know we are looking at a Western, a gangster noir, a chop-socky martial arts, a doco dressed as fiction, a drama that looks like a doco.

Genre conventions provide cover for directors when script and then footage reach the censors. The central character is a thug and clearly the police are in his pocket? Hey, this is a noir after all. The couple falling in love are gay? Yes, but their passion is conveyed not by bodies touching but by landscape and crowds of extras dancing. The knife fights are too violent? It’s just a Western set in the badlands, with a bit of martial arts, after all, a fantasy no-one will take seriously

Looking for Rohmer climaxes


Does it help a Chinese movie get past the censor if it is shot in Tibet? It seems so, as Tibet has become, in Chinese imaginaries, the land where anything is possible, where the normal no longer applies. Expect more movies made in Tibet by Chinese directors, even if few of them allow Tibetans to speak for themselves.

Does it help a Chinese movie get Chinese audience eyeballs if it is shot in Tibet? That’s not clear. Even a doco drama like Gang Rinpoche, in which Tibetans do get to speak for themselves, as themselves, got limited traction at the box office. And the “patriotic” spectaculars of the PLA liberating Tibet from itself, with plenty of Tibetan speaking parts, often struggle commercially, simply because there are now so many violent action hero movies, including those set in a science fiction future, to watch. Who needs to revisit the 1950 battle for Chamdo when Chinese action heroes so satisfyingly beat Americans to pulp in contemporary Africa, or defeat alien space invasions?

Does it help Chinese movies win international audiences if shot in Tibet? On the arthouse and film fest circuit, yes, but that’s as far as it goes. Western audiences who buy into Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop version of mystical Tibet seem unable to relate to the unhyped daily routines of a Tibetan nomad family doing their everyday livestock management tasks, around the hearth talking of the prospect of a pilgrimage to distant Lhasa, or even to the farther distant Gang Rinpoche/Kailash. It’s all too slow, the camera –as in Pema Tsedan’s Tibetan movies- is too distant, there’s not enough emotion or drama.


There are other Chinese movies, not associated with Tibet, that also sneak past the censors, because they are genre films, and, in keeping with genre, you can get away with a lot. Jia Zhangke’s recent Ash is the Purest White is an example. Jia, a top director at the top of his game, made a movie Tibetans who grew up in Tibet will recognise as true to life, recognisably familiar. The lead is a small time local standover man who makes his money bullying and threatening locals who fail to pay debts, or make landlords unhappy. He is a very close friend of the police, so it’s clear the state is onside, part of the action. He enforces the will of the powerful, whether they are businessmen or officials.

Ultimately, as China changes fast, as cities swallow villages, he sees everywhere new opportunities to scale up his intimidation and thuggery, and make much more money; again an accurate reading of where China is heading. But he fails. Small fish get eaten by bigger fish. China is a kleptocracy.

How this got past the censors is a mystery. Jia Zhangke is a top director, but that doesn’t always help. What does help is the crime noir thriller genre, in which it’s a given that crooks are everywhere, and what they all do is crooked. It is Jia Zhangke’s genius that there is not one single scene or even frame a censor could call subversive, yet it all adds up to a subversive depiction of life in new era China, where authority routinely relies on thugs to enforce local government schemes, and thugs rely on local government for protection. Tibetans in Tibet know this well.

Censors are fixated on rooting out suspicious moments, and are unable to stand back and see how the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Jia Zhangke is a visual poet, and his framing of landscape does a lot of work ensuring we, the audience, see what the censors never saw.

Another miracle of sliding past the censor was the now classic Farewell My Concubine.  The BBC recently reminded us: “Back in 1993, Farewell My Concubine – regarded as one of the great works of Chinese cinema – made it to the big screen. It reveals the turbulence and brutality of China’s modern history through the lives of two Peking Opera artists, and also explores the love and hate that burns between those two men. The film also criticises the Cultural Revolution. The award-winning film by renowned director Chen Kaige managed to clear the censorship tests more than two decades ago, and is still screened proudly today. Mr Chen has described it as a ‘miracle’”.


Of course, one way of ensuring there is not the slightest danger of censorship is to make your movie so innocuous, your characters all cute and endearing, and animate the lot in a Dreamworks Hollywood studio. That tells you what you need to know about Abominable. Interestingly, the villains, out to capture our lovable yeti are scientists and American millionaires, none bearing any resemblance whatsoever to Jeffrey Katzenberg, boss of Dreamworks. This feel good flick is so American it had to be extensively  reverse -engineered in China to play to Han tastes.

No-one asked Tibetans about yetis surfing the rapeseed fields, but one Tenzing Norgay Trainor, an 18years old Florida Sherpa, grandson of the first man atop Everest,  does get to voice a main character. And in this identity-obsessed, authenticity fixated era, the  voiceover actor and the way his character, Jin, are drawn, there’s  a likeness, PLUS they both like the same shoes.  It doesn’t get more real than that.

The punchline of the movie: “When you set your mind on something, nothing is impossible”, a credo of the self-made capitalist success myth. Dale Carnegie goes anime.


It’s the shoes…………
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Among the many reasons China has failed to colonise the Tibetan Plateau, none is more foundational than Han shortness of breath when lowlanders ascend to Tibetan heights.

Over many centuries of Han expansion, China has developed many methods for peopling conquered lands with Han peasants, backed by Chinese garrisons who not only guard the new territories but also consume the food the immigrant peasants grow. That didn’t work in Tibet, the climate is too cold, the air too thin, hypoxic in scientific terminology, and far too many incoming Han Chinese, military and civilian alike, succumbed to such severe altitude sickness that returning to lower altitudes was the only treatment possible.

classic tantric Tibetan trulkhor exercises to breathe deeply

This has been so for decades, and remains so today, greatly restricting mass Han settlement, and the active fighting fitness required of soldiers able to do battle, even in heavy snow that requires great exertion. This thoroughly unsatisfactory constraint has shaped China’s ability to make Tibet China’s. In recent years, China has looked to science and hitech to govern Tibet from afar, from the skies by satellite data, and by remote control from distant cities, as a way of governing without having on the ground a large, politically reliable cohort of Han immigrants.

China’s military scientists say of CMS, chronic mountain sickness: “In Tibet, an overall prevalence of 5.6% in immigrant civilians was reported; in Lhasa immigrant civilians, the CMS rate was 2.2-8.7%. In a similar young soldier population in Tibet, the CMS prevalence was reported to range from 9.3% (in Lhasa at 3,650 m) to 30.4% (in an area at 5,000 m), which is similar to our findings.” This is serious. As well as headaches, chronic mountain sickness causes difficulty sleeping, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), cyanosis –feet and hands turning blue- dilatation of the veins and paresthesia, loss of sensation in hands and feet.

China has also turned to science to crack the mystery of how Tibetans can be so at home in Tibet, able not only to survive the thin air, but do extremely hard work, churning cream into butter, chasing wandering yaks, rounding up herds, hunting wolves, driving animals over the high passes, threshing barley etc. The fitness of the Tibetans and the palpable unfitness of so many Han sent or drawn to Tibet remains an embarrassment.

Now, in what is being presented as a scientific breakthrough, computational geneticists seem to be on the verge of nailing the secret. This has been a long story, of decades of research, based on making thousands of Tibetans give blood and other biological samples, for intensive laboratory analysis.

Sino-German computational genetics in Shanghai

The recent breakthrough comes from a team based at the Chinese-German Institute for Computational Genetics in Shanghai, a joint venture of the Max Planck Institute and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Their access to big data crunching computer power was essential. They analysed blood taken from 240 Tibetans and 240 Han in Tibet, enabling them to map both the Tibetan phenotype and genotype, so now the big task ahead is to figure out how they connect, what genetic variant causes what phenotypical characteristic of Tibetans. Other blood based research projects have taken the blood of thousands of Tibetans.

 Until now, most of the research on this annoying constraint on the Han has been done in the city of Xianyang, in Shaanxi province, just outside the provincial capital, Xi’an.

Why would the Tibet Minority Nationalities University in Lhasa, Xizang Minzu Daxue, be in charge of a laboratory in distant Xianyang? Lhasa runs its Key Laboratory of High Altitude Environment and Genes Related to Disease of Tibet, but it is in Xianyang. The city is not just comfortably close yet comfortably far from grimy Xi’an and its seven million inhabitants, Xianyang has its own medical university and good research facilities. Xianyang also has a deep lineage, all the way back to emperor Qinshihuangdi, who conquered all the warring kingdoms of ancient China, creating the first empire. The ruthless Qinshihuangdi, famous worldwide for his terracotta warrior army nearby, was the progenitor of China, of one-man rule, of a powerful state that could force all around to pay tribute. It seems fitting. then, that conquering the secrets of Tibetan mitochondria is based there. Key Laboratory for Molecular Genetic Mechanisms and Intervention Research on High Altitude Disease of Tibet Autonomous Region, School of Medicine, Xizang Minzu University, Xianyang Shaanxi 712082,is the full official name.

Tibetans and Han are different, in fundamental ways

As the name suggests, “high altitude disease” is not a Tibetan problem, it’s a Han Chinese problem, and a serious one, as roughly one in ten Han who go to Tibet suffer altitude sickness so severe they have to leave, no matter what. A further 10% to 30% manage to soldier on, despite chronic altitude sickness. Yet to solve this Han problem vast computational power was needed, to crunch vast accumulations of genetic data, from vast numbers of Tibetan blood providers. Tibetans, as usual, provide answers to  China’s problems.

Whether those blood extractions were voluntary, coerced, or obtained by falsely pretending the blood collection was to check the health status of donors, and then give useful feedback, is not at all clear. In both Xinjiang and Tibet “convenience police stations” have been set up in urban areas, which invite the locals to give blood and other biological samples, incentivised as a health check. Worldwide big corporations similarly vacuum up data on individual lives and habits, drawing in each of us data providers with the promise of convenience, comfort, and individuality.

60,000 years of Tibetan genetics mapped

But mass sampling of the genetics of an entire people, a whole nation, so fundamentally distinct from the Han supermajority, is extraordinarily invasive. It is meant to be extraordinarily revealing, but it turns out, surprise, surprise, that this is far more complex than anyone had supposed; and despite the excitement at the August 2019 announcement, this top-level Sino-German team is no closer to identifying the specific gene that gives Tibetans their strength, to live well on a vast island four to five kilometres into the sky, with the surrounding mountains much higher still. All this crack research team found for sure is that the likeliest candidate for the innermost secret of the Tibetans turns out to have little or nothing to do with how profoundly Tibetans are adapted to altitude. For the past decade Chinese scientists locked in on genetic variant peculiar to Tibetans, in the expectation of proving this is what results in Tibetan adaptation to altitude. “EPAS1 is so far the most well-recognized candidate gene for high-altitude adaptation of Tibetans, as well as other human and non-human species on the highlands. However, no adaptive functional variant has been identified in EPAS1, leaving an unsolved problem in this field.” Back to square one.

classic Tibetan treatment for breathing difficulties: golden needle heated by moxa

It is one thing to map the full genetic code of the Tibetans, another to figure which typically Tibetan genetic variant results in inborn climatic capability. It’s just too complex, so it may yet be many more years before China’s best labs, whether in Shaanxi Xianyang or Shanghai, can pinpoint the secret source of Tibetan strength.

Tibetan characteristics, quantified


Actually, as is usual with computational genetics, the latest team, from Shanghai, are better at projecting far into the past rather than unlocking a key to a future in which Han can breathe Tibetan air and not fall ill. It is at this point that the story gets really interesting for Tibetans.

The genetic variants found in the cells of Tibetans, and not in Han Chinese, are ancient, going back to the earliest human settlements in Tibet, which means going back 60,000 years. That means today’s Tibetans are descended from ancestors, of various human and near-human species, who interbred and shared their genes around. It means today’s Tibetans, who are deeply interested in lineage, history and prehistory can go back  much, much further than the three or four thousand years of Zhang Zhung and Yundrung Bon, the preBuddhist culture of the Tibetans.

Until very recently, while there was evidence that humans had inhabited Tibet as far as 60,000 years ago, it was not clear whether they shared the same genetics as modern Tibetans. They may have been another species, with no direct connection to contemporary Tibetans. That uncertainty has now been resolved. Those Denisovans from Siberia, and other early inhabitants of Tibet 60,000 years ago ARE the ancestors of modern Tibetans. That is the clear outcome of the latest research.

The findings of this Chinese team of geneticists could be summarised:

1) adaption to highland living involves more, and more widespread genetic variations than previously identified

2) Tibetan Highland population is more different from lowland populations and different in more ways than previously thought

3) Tibetan plateau populations are ancient, older than previously thought, and the most ancient of Eurasian populations

4) the only way newcomer populations have adapted is by joining the existing Tibetan population ie by becoming Tibetan. Mandatory mingling, genetic fusion of Tibetans and Han works only in that direction.

more Tibetan characteristics, ennumerated


This all suggests an impressive adaptability common to Tibetans. Other scientists, the palynologists, have charted the climatic ups and downs, the advancing and retreating glaciers of Tibet, also over many thousands of years, which also changes our picture. If the palynologists are right (and they too extrapolate backwards from the present into the deep past, like the geneticists) the Tibetans have managed to live in climates both considerably warmer than today, and much colder than today, and still thrived.[1]

Palynology is the science of ancient seeds, dormant in the soil, occasionally -if you know where to look- for thousands of years, a reliable guide to what used to grow in a specific landscape which today may no longer support those plant species. Palynologists, many from Germany, roam the pastures of Tibet looking for seed fragment clues to past climate change. The more they find, the more we can respect the Tibetan ancestors for handling extremes.

do Tibetans have anything to say about embryology: human development in the womb? Yes.


However, Tibetans as well as Han will be more interested in the future, and what the latest findings mean. What has been clear for years is that the genetic change that makes Tibetans distinctive is genetic at the most profound level, within the mitochondria at the heart of each cell. Mitochondria are transmitted across generations only on the female line, from mother to daughter and son, but only the daughter can then transmit further, to the next generation.

So if China were to decide the only way  to make Han Chinese better suited to life in Tibet is to crossbreed mixed Tibetan/Han marriages, those marriages would have to be restricted to Han men marrying Tibetan women. It just doesn’t work the other way around.

Does China have any such plan? It would take a long time, and would require social engineering of mixed marriages on a big scale. China does promote inter-ethnic mingling, with slogans and campaigns in both Xinjiang and Tibet promoting intermarriage. The purpose of these mass campaigns is assimilation, dissolving the Tibetan and Uighur sense of distinctive difference into a singly nationality, the one Chinese race.  This assimilationist agenda, although not publicly announced, is well documented in many Chinese sources as the driver of ethnic policy over the past two decades, supplanting the earlier policy of minority nationality territorialised autonomy.

Assimilation, like genetic mixing, is also a slow process, but these days China is forcing the pace, most evidently in Xinjiang, where Han are ordered to live in the homes of Uighur families, to instruct Uighurs how to become civilised, how to respect the central state, how to live in apartment tower blocks, how to refrain from spitting, how to become modern urban consumers, how to memorise and repeat official slogans. The coercive mass campaigns are chauvinist, racist, arrogant and deeply resented, yet no-one calls this Great Han Chauvinism (as Mao once labelled it) for what it is.

Will China succeed in making the Uighurs Chinese by mass detention, mass recitation of party-state slogans, mass relocations, followed by release from detention under ongoing surveillance to detect any behaviour that does not comply with the Han norm? As well as the cruelty of the mass detentions and mindless mandatory parroting of official slogans, many observers wonder if this racist mass campaign can possibly achieve its goal, or only breed resentment and a deeper sense of difference.

Part of the assimilation campaign throughout China’s far west –in both Xinjiang and Tibet- is intermarriage between ethnicities. Theoretically, this mobilises minorities to greater mobility throughout China, moving to bigger cities, better jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities anywhere in  China, wherever the factors of production are most favourably congregated. But the reality is that both Tibetans and Uighurs face intense discrimination in central and eastern China, suspicion, mistrust, fear and refusal of service the moment an ID card declaring Tibetan or Uighur nationality is produced, on demand. In almost any society around the world, the most mobile are the young men, and it is exactly the young men who are most feared by Han as possible terrorists.

So if there is to be inter-racial mingling, as promoted by official slogans and campaigns, whether for assimilation or genetic mixing, it will in practice mean Han Chinese men coming in to Tibetan and Uighur communities and families, and breeding. This is deeply repugnant to both Uighurs and Tibetans, especially to the men, who resent the loss of “their” women.

If China gets serious about such social engineering within families, such resentments could boil over into serious danger to stability. So far, even in Xinjiang, the exhortations to intermingle, intermarry and interbreed have seldom been enforced coercively. The slogans remain aspirational, unenforceable in practice. But what if interbreeding proves to be the only way a large Han population could colonise Tibet?

At present, this is all speculative, and Tibetans have many more immediate concerns. China too has the immediate and ongoing concern that so many Han Chinese emigrating to Tibet are struck down by chronic mountain sickness, CMS, to use medical jargon which medicalises living in Tibet –on the plateau, not up a mountain- as a disease.


A Chinese medical team trying to quantify precisely the extent of the “disease burden” experienced by otherwise healthy young Han males coming to Tibet put this clearly: “CMS imposes a considerable burden on Chinese immigrants to Tibet. Immigrants with characteristics such as a higher residential altitude, more advanced age, longer highland service years, being a smoker, and working in engineering or construction were more likely to develop CMS and to increase the disease burden. Higher blood pressure and heart rate as a result of CMS were also positively associated with the disease burden.”[2]

The authors identify construction and engineering, occupations requiring actual physical exertion, as particularly problematic. This 2012 report is by a team from another lowland institute focussed exclusively on Tibet as a medical condition, the College of High Altitude Military Medicine, Third Military Medical University, 30 Gaotanyan Street, Shapingba District, Chongqing. If Han construction workers are hit by crippling headaches induced by hypoxia (low oxygen) in Tibet, so too are soldiers laden with backpacks and weapons. No doubt these researchers also tested Han soldiers, and reported their findings to the relevant organs. Presumably, that is a state secret.

Tibetans ARE genetically very different to Han

If Tibet is a disease, it is chronic, and only gets worse as time passes. If you suffer CMS but continue to stay in Tibet, those blinding headaches don’t go away, it worsens: “CMS is a hypobaric, hypoxia-related illness that presents with polycythemia leading to cardiac failure or neurological disorders. CMS seriously affects the health of highland immigrants and often results in significant declines in productivity and quality of life. Patients usually experience decreased exercise tolerance, loss of memory, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. Compared with their Tibetan counterparts, Han suffer from significantly higher rates of CMS when they reside in highland areas.”

Polycythemia means having way too many red blood cells, caused by a body accustomed to the heavier, thicker air of Xianyang or Chongqing travelling up to the Tibetan Plateau. The red blood cells transport oxygen all over the body, essential to all bodily functioning.

The human body quickly produces more red blood cells if it finds itself suddenly short of oxygen, it’s a natural adaptive response. That’s fine if you are a lowlander just visiting. If you are an athlete seeking competitive advantage, you might even choose to train at high altitude so as to produce those extra red blood cells, available to deliver oxygen to muscles when you are pumping hard on the race track.  So short term polycythemia is not a problem, but in the long term, if that is the only way for the body to get more oxygen, you are in trouble. Cardiac failure looms.[3]

This is precisely where Tibetans have an unfair advantage, from a Han perspective. How do they do it? This has been researched for decades, which is why there are two institutes in Xianyang and Chongqing dedicated solely to cracking the secrets of Tibetan inner strength.


The military scientists tell us the typical response of military commanders in Tibet is to order their soldiers to suck it up, to overcome their headaches, breathlessness and fatigue by willpower, but now this will no longer do: “The decline in health status induced by CMS in the immigrant population has been underestimated in the past. The authorities focus on acute mountain sickness because it can cause obvious loss of manpower in some emergency situations. By contrast, CMS, of which the symptoms are generally not severe, tends to be ignored by the authorities. They believe that CMS does not affect day-time work very much, and it can be overcome by will power and courage derived from military discipline and patriotism. However, the disease not only gradually reduces the state of health and quality of life of individuals, but it also decreases the working capacity of the whole population. In the health service system for Chinese highland troops, CMS has not been considered to be an occupational disease or to warrant compensation. Currently, the highland troops only calculate the prevalence of CMS. Quality of life is not considered to be important by the authorities, and the reduction in health cannot be quantitated.”

Patriotism does not cure chronic mountain sickness. Shouting patriotic slogans, in unison with your platoon, does not generate a pathway to get oxygen to cells that need it, without clogging the arteries with too many red blood cells.

 Patriotism is no longer enough; it is time for big science, armed with big data, to step in and conquer Tibet. The language of conquest features prominently in the ways the Han Chinese researchers, whether in  Shanghai, Xianyang or Chongqing, tackle the problem. The Shanghai team says: “The adaptive genetic variants map provided by this study help to narrow down the targets for further investigations on the genetic basis and molecular mechanism of high-altitude adaptation of Tibetans, and provides new perspective for unrevealing the mystery of human conquest of the extreme environment at high altitude. Notably, this study proposed that multiple variants may jointly deliver the fitness of the Tibetans on the Plateau, where a complex model is needed to elucidate the adaptive evolution mechanism.”

The language of conquest is also used for the earliest human settlement of Tibet: “In fact, it was a long journey for human to conquer the Tibet Plateau. A previous study by Xu’s team estimated that the genetic origin of the Tibetan highlanders could be traced back to around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, in the middle-late Paleolithic. The early migrants to the plateau had extensive genetic admixture with each other, and had further gene flows with the latecomers, leading to the admixed descendants with very complex genetic makeup — inherited from ancestry lineages of modern human and archaic hominins (e.g. Altai Neanderthal, Denisovan and other unknown archaic species). During this process, some archaic genomic segments that were advantageous to the high-altitude adaptation were retained, and were accumulated to high frequencies through natural selection.”

How can China catch up, when it took 60,000 years of natural selection to produce Tibetans who manage to get enough oxygen to their muscles without overloading the blood circulation with too many red blood cells? The 2019 breakthrough actually complexifies the task further. There are now many more genetic variants to look at, and no-one knows which variant in the Tibetan genotype results in the greater ability Tibetans have to get enough oxygen from thinner air. So a lot more research will be needed, and a lot more Tibetan blood.

Shanghai, and its Sino-German computational  genetics lab, has emerged as a competitor with Xianyang and Chongqing in the race to reconquer Tibet. Blood will flow.

China’s military scientists have taken the placentas of Tibetan women immediately after they gave birth, to test whether Tibetan genetic capability to thrive at altitude starts in the womb: “The mitochondria of placents were isolated as soon as possible or their placents were put into the liquid nitrogen after their baby birthes for RNA isolation. All the subjects were healthy, age-matched, no different in the baric index and unrelated with each other. Written consent was obtained from all subjects in agreement with guideline from the ethical committee of the Third Military Medical University.”[4]

Does Chinese research help Tibetan women birthing?

To have gotten this far has taken scientists, both Chinese and international, enormous effort.[5] That’s only a beginning. What next?

The deeper China delves into the lineage of the Tibetans, the more surprising the results. Far from conquering, China’s big data wrangling has revealed enormous complexity within the Tibetan genome, and a heritage of adaptation to climate and altitude at the most profound level. The lineage of Tibetans, according to both the geneticists and palynologists, stretches way back, way beyond history, into deep time. Conquering and colonising Tibet just got harder.

However, China is exploring other pathways for cracking the secrets of altitude adaptation. Chinese scientists are busily analysing the molecular biology of Tibetan pikas, and Tibetan mastiffs, which seem to have crossbred long ago with Tibetan wolves, thus acquiring the hemoglobin capacities of wolves to sprint at high altitude in pursuit of prey. Since contemporary China is fascinated with being themselves wolf warriors, this research is generating much interest.

[1] Frank Schlutz and  Frank Lehmkuhl,  Holocene climatic change and the nomadic Anthropocene in Eastern Tibet: palynological and geomorphological results from the Nianbaoyeze Mountains, Quaternary Science Reviews, 28 (2009) 1449–1471

[2] Gao et al.  Burden of disease resulting from chronic mountain sickness among young Chinese male immigrants in Tibet    BMC BioMed Central Public Health 2012, 12:401, freely downloadable from

[3] Fan-Yi Kong, Qiang Li, and Shi-Xiang Liu,  Poor Sleep Quality Predicts Decreased Cognitive Function Independently of Chronic Mountain Sickness Score in Young Soldiers with Polycythemia Stationed in Tibet, HIGH ALTITUDE MEDICINE & BIOLOGY, Volume 12, Number 3, 2011

[4] Luo Yongjun, Gao Wenxiang et al, Altered expression of mitochondrial related genes in the native Tibetan placents by mitochondrial cDNA array analysis, Journal of Medical Colleges of PLA 24 (2009) 10–17

[5] 1.          Moore, LG, Niermeyer, S, Zamudio, S. Human adaptation to high altitude: Regional and life-cycle perspectives. Yearb Phys Anthropol. 1998; 41: 25-64.

2.             Holden, JE, Stone, CK, Clark, CM, et al. Enhanced Cardiac Metabolism of Plasma-Glucose in High-Altitude Natives – Adaptation against Chronic Hypoxia. J Appl Physiol. 1995; 79(1): 222-8.

3.             Hochachka, PW, Clark, CM, Holden, JE, et al. P-31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy of the Sherpa heart: A phosphocreatine adenosine triphosphate signature of metabolic defense against hypobaric hypoxia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 1996; 93(3): 1215-20.

4.             Garrido, E, Segura, R, Capdevila, A, et al. Are Himalayan Sherpas better protected against brain damage associated with extreme altitude climbs? Clin Sci. 1996; 90(1): 81-5.

5.             Jansen, GFA, Krins, A, Basnyat, B, et al. Cerebral autoregulation in subjects adapted and not adapted to high altitude. Stroke. 2000; 31(10): 2314-8.

6.             Huang, SY, Sun, SF, Droma, T, et al. Internal Carotid Arterial Flow Velocity during Exercise in Tibetan and Han Residents of Lhasa (3,658-M). J Appl Physiol. 1992; 73(6): 2638-42.

7.             Zamudio, S, Droma, T, Norkyel, KY, et al. Protection from Intrauterine Growth-Retardation in Tibetans at High-Altitude. Am J Phys Anthropol. 1993; 91(2): 215-24.

8.             Kayser, B, Hoppeler, H, Claassen, H, et al. Muscle Structure and Performance Capacity of Himalayan Sherpas. J Appl Physiol. 1991; 70(5): 1938-42.

9.             Marconi, C, Marzorati, M, Cerretelli, P. Work capacity of permanent residents of high altitude. High Alt Med Biol. 2006; 7(2): 105-15.

10.          Hochachka, PW, Stanley, C, Mckenzie, DC, et al. Enzyme Mechanisms for Pyruvate-to-Lactate Flux Attenuation – a Study of Sherpas, Quechuas, and Hummingbirds. Int J Sports Med. 1992; 13: S119-S22.

11.          Gelfi, C, De Palma, S, Ripamonti, M, et al. New aspects of altitude adaptation in Tibetans: a proteomic approach. Faseb J. 2004; 18(1): 612-+.

12.          West, JB. Lactate during Exercise at Extreme Altitude. Federation Proceedings. 1986; 45(13): 2953-7.

13.          Weitz, CA, Garruto, RM, Chin, CT, et al. Growth of Qinghai Tibetans living at three different high altitudes. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2000; 111(1): 69-88.

14.          Gill, MB, Pugh, LGC. Basal Metabolism + Respiration in Men Living at 5,800 M (19,000 Ft). J Appl Physiol. 1964; 19(5): 949-&.

15.          Ward, M. High Altitude Deterioration. Proc R Soc Ser B-Bio. 1954; 143(910): 40-2.

16.          Schneider, A, Greene, RE, Keyl, C, et al. Peripheral arterial vascular function at altitude: sea-level natives versus Himalayan high-altitude natives. J Hypertens. 2001; 19(2): 213-22.

17.          Erzurum, SC, Ghosh, S, Janocha, AJ, et al. Higher blood flow and circulating NO products offset high-altitude hypoxia among Tibetans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2007; 104(45): 17593-8.

18.          Patitucci, M, Lugrin, D, Pages, G. Angiogenic/lymphangiogenic factors and adaptation to extreme altitudes during an expedition to Mount Everest. Acta Physiol. 2009; 196(2): 259-65.

19.          Beall, CM, Laskowski, D, Strohl, KP, et al. Pulmonary nitric oxide in mountain dwellers. Nature. 2001; 414(6862): 411-2.

20           Beall, CM, Cavalleri, GL, Deng, L, et al. Natural selection on EPAS1 (HIF2alpha) associated with low hemoglobin concentration in Tibetan highlanders. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010; 107(25): 11459-64.

21.          Jeong, C, Witonsky, DB, Basnyat, B, et al. Detecting past and ongoing natural selection among ethnically Tibetan women at high altitude in Nepal. Plos Genet. 2018; 14(9): e1007650.

22.          Peng, Y, Cui, CY, He, YX, et al. Down-Regulation of EPAS1 Transcription and Genetic Adaptation of Tibetans to High-Altitude Hypoxia. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 2017; 34(4): 818-30.

23.          Chen, QH, Ge, RL, Wang, XZ, et al. Exercise performance of Tibetan and Han adolescents at altitudes of 3,417 and 4,300 m. J Appl Physiol. 1997; 83(2): 661-7.

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Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



You may have heard rumours that the climate of Tibet is warming remarkably fast, and this is dangerous.

photo Jan Reurink

China’s official media, however, assure us that climate change in Tibet is all good, even that it contributes to the construction of ecological civilisation. There is nothing to worry about if Tibet warms, and eventually becomes suitable for Chinese crops and Chinese settlement.

The alarmists point to the melting of the glaciers, the shrinking of permafrost, the loss of wetlands, the widespread flooding in Tibet in 2018, as danger signs.

Tibetan lakes which for centuries gradually shrank, now grow quickly. Source: see footnote 1

But the upside is more rain, lakes brimming full, and that means more water for the uppermost catchments of China’s great rivers, so it’s all good.[1] Further, China is making progress with  geoengineering even more rainfall over the river sources, rather than letting monsoon clouds drift further inland into the remotest pastures, such a waste. What matters most is that lowland China is provided with more water from Tibet. Climate change plus geoengineering plus remote monitoring by big data satellites all add up, in official eyes, to a dividend, not at all a reason for alarm.

rising lake levels across Tibet. Source:

These days the alarmists include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which in early August 2019 reported that climate change is accelerating in Tibet, and that official policies aren’t helping. Further, the removal of livestock production from the traditional Tibetan pastoral landscapes, on a very broad scale, is the wrong move in a world where food security for billions of people is precarious.

The IPCC’s alarm was amplified by reports by International Campaign for Tibet and Minority Rights Group, which identified China’s policy failures on the rangelands and their consequences, which drive rural Tibetans deeper into poverty and insecurity, as herd size limits are enforced, or nomads are removed altogether to urban settlements.


No need, we are now told by China’s official media, to be gloomy; in fact it’s all good: “The wild animals in the Sanjiangyuan area are frequent, the lake area in the Qaidam Basin continues to expand, the water body area of ​​Qinghai Lake has increased for 17 consecutive years, and the grassland ecosystem in the Qinghai area of ​​Qilian Mountain National Park has been improved. All this marks the ecological indicators of Qinghai Province; it is good.”

solar power potential of Tibetan Plateau

Climate change, especially in Tibet, actually has its upside, transforming a cryosphere into landscapes that are becoming recognisable from a Chinese lowland perspective: capable of supporting more forest and eventually more cropping land; capable of delivering water reliably, over a lengthening wet season, to the lowlands; capable of  generating massive amounts of hydropower, wind power and solar power, all of which can be transmitted great distances to the coastal factories on ultra-high voltage power grids. It’s all good.

glaciologist Tao Yandong

Climate change in Tibet, viewed Sinocentrically, is actually a dividend, especially in the provisioning of water, both from glacier melt and from climate change induced rainfall increase, to be further enhanced by blasting Tibetan skies with rockets laden with silver iodide in the hope of enhancing rainfall even further, in the Yellow River catchment, for downstream benefit. It’s all good.

glacier melt explained

In the long term, the glaciers will be gone altogether, and the dividend will become a deficit. But that seems to be several decades away. Around the world, many would like to believe China’s planners think in decades, but the loss of the glaciers is for them far over the horizon, too far; while the dividend is now. In recent years there was considerable uncertainty as to whether melting glaciers were generating increasing runoff, with several scientific studies a decade ago suggesting that, counterintuitively, runoff was decreasing. More recently the Chinese Academy of Sciences has put a big effort into quantifying glacier melt and hydrological data on streamflows; it looks good.


This dividend is seldom spoken of openly; it doesn’t look good. Nor does China acknowledge that rapid warming, permafrost melt, glacier shrinkage, unseasonal snowstorms  and heavy flooding across Tibet in 2018 are actually bad for Tibetan livelihoods, wildlife and ecosystems. The official Qinghai Scitech Weekly quoted above goes on, in the same article, to say: “In the winter of last year, there was snow in the pastoral area of ​​southern Qinghai.” That is the only mention of the climate disasters in Tibet, where extreme weather events are becoming more extreme, as elsewhere worldwide.

The pastoral areas of southern Qinghai are bigger than the whole of Germany, and are prime pastoral landscapes, highly productive, but vulnerable to sudden and unpredictable extremes. A blizzard in early winter can block the high passes, as herds are being brought down to lower overwintering pasture. A blizzard in late winter can blanket the ground in snow so deep even yaks cannot paw through it, and delay the crucial grass growth timing of the beginning of spring, the time herd animals are weak after the long winter.

advancing desertification, vegetation blasted by gales, 2016

Extremes also mean prolonged dry spells, triggering desertification, for which drogpa nomads are usually blamed. It’s a complex picture: to what extent is desiccation/desertification a long-term process spanning centuries and millennia; to what extent is it now accelerating?

The winds that erode the grasslands are winds that could be used to generate wind power, saving the rivers from hydrodamming. Source: Global Wind Atlas

Further complexities arise when Chinese scientists try to track the seasonal thaw and refreezing of permafrost in huge portions of upper Tibet. When permafrost melts in the warmer months, or in the longer term, does this allow more water to seep deep rather than run off to the rivers and to downstream China? When permafrost freezes again, does this prevent water from trickling deeper, forcing it into the rivers? China, fixated by numbers, wants to know the answer, but generating enough data is not so easy.

In nearby Mongolia, a free country with deep experience of mobile pastoralism, and of climate change, such extreme winters, known as dzud, can be mitigated by resolute collective action, co-ordinated by government, NGOs, local authorities and the herders themselves, activating the customary otor,  a longhaul transfer of stranded stock to areas unaffected by disaster.[2]

NOMADIC PEOPLES (2008) VOLUME 12, ISSUE 2, 2008: 35–52

No such program exists in Tibet.  Mongolia also pioneered indexed disaster insurance for pastoralists, carefully designed to pay out to nomads when they lose a lot of animals in an extreme weather disaster. No such indexed herd insurance exists in Tibet, even though Mongolia has shown it can be done without great expense.

When disaster strikes, some Tibetan prefectures do now have reserve stockpiles of fodder as emergency relief, if it can be delivered to drogpa nomads on site.  But the only way to rebuild a herd is to have as many animals as possible at all times, a customary logic Han Chinese consider irrational. From their perspective the purpose of having livestock, in any modern market economy, is to sell as many animals as possible for slaughter as soon as they attain maximum weight gain as they become adult.

Official China argues, plausibly, that excessive herd size puts too much pressure on available grass, yet it fails to provide the pastoralists with effective insurance that eases the anxiety that a small herd, and a blizzard, add up to immiserisation, and destitution. That means a one-way ticket to a distant concrete apartment block, on an urban fringe, for permanent resettlement, with land rights cancelled.


But China does invest heavily in high-tech monitoring of climate, to keep track of all those overbrimming lakes and extra lakes, and in order to calculate the exact auspicious moment for firing up the rockets to blast silver iodide into the upper atmosphere of Tibet, to induce rainfall over the Yellow River catchment. Most of the Qinghai Scitech Weekly article is about the high tech:

“The Qinghai Ecological Weather Centre, established in 2018, consists of a centre, three platforms, and six major systems (ie Qinghai Ecological Meteorological Centre, ecological meteorological big data management platform, ecological meteorological service analysis platform, and ecological meteorological product release platform; business system, service system, technical system, science and technology support system, phantom security system, system standardisation system.) Through pre-construction, the role of ecological meteorological monitoring, early warning and assessment is more significant, and the comprehensive monitoring system for ecological meteorology is further optimized. Further enhanced, the ecological meteorological support standard system was basically established, laying a foundation for promoting the construction of Qinghai ecological civilization pioneer zone.”

This impressive investment includes “weather radar, ground-based microwave radiometer, lightning location, GPS/MET water vapor remote sensing, airborne cloud particle measurement system, raindrop spectrometer, the comprehensive regional observation system consisting of automatic weather stations provides basic support for scientific monitoring and evaluation of high-altitude air resources in the province, effective identification of weather-activated data gathering and quantitative assessment of operational efficiency.”

All this equipment, not only on the ground but on satellites equipped with many ways of monitoring the vastness of the Tibetan Plateau, is for the primary purpose of making more rain, where China wants it, rather than letting clouds drift by even further inland to Hoh Xil/Achen Gangyab UNESCO World Heritage area. Cloud seeding is the result of all this monitoring. The same article says: “Although it is in the ‘Chinese Water Tower’, the shortage of water resources has always been a ‘short board’ ‘短板’ that plagues the province’s economic and social development and ecological environment protection. The artificial rainfall enhancement operation is currently relatively mature and most effective. In recent years, the meteorological department of our province has continuously enhanced the capacity of ecological civilization to build meteorological support services through long-term ecological monitoring, strengthening scientific research, artificial rainfall enhancement, etc., and provided powerful meteorological support for the construction of ecological civilization in our province.” It’s all good.

Lenin defined communism as socialism plus electricity; China defines state capitalism as Marx plus rockets.

Climate change enhances the construction of ecological civilisation, a dividend that calls for rejoicing. Only worry-warts and snowflakes would see this march towards ecological civilisation as bad. Typically, International Campaign for Tibet, amplifying a major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, identified the many downsides of accelerating climate change in Tibet.  So negative. Likewise, Minority Rights Group recently identified the negative impacts on Tibetan livelihoods of climate change. Some folks would complain, even at the gates of paradise.

Since climate change, is all good, at least in Tibet –one quarter of China’s total territory- why not build more coal-fired power stations, to accelerate climate change further? China is doing just that: “Internationally, China has pledged to peak carbon emissions by 2030 at the latest, but it has been reluctant to promise an absolute cap on emissions. China’s carbon emissions are still increasing. China’s electricity demand has started to tick upwards again in the past few years. In response, the China Electric Power Planning & Engineering Institute, a research body, recently called for a short-term expansion of capacity over the next three years. Similarly, in March the China Electricity Council suggested that coal-power capacity should expand to 1,300 GW by 2030.” That’s a 30 per cent increase on current capacity.


After the IPCC warned in 2018 that anything beyond a 1.5 degree climate warming worldwide will be disastrous, the UN Secretary-General called for all countries to act to achieve that upper limit. Guterres specifically called for no more coal-fired power station construction after 2020. He was quickly repudiated by China, which persists in insisting that all the heavy lifting has to be done by the richest countries, leaving China free to burn ever more coal, for many years to come.

China burns more coal than the rest of the world put together, and will still do so in 20135

China’s rhetoric of constructing ecological civilisation looks all good, until you look more closely at what it means in practice. Many of China’s international partners know that if they are to have any chance of persuading China to pull its weight, they must slather China’s ecological civilisation construction with praise: China can exert  various  kinds  of international influence:  leadership  by example; leadership via resources such  as  knowledge  and financial  support; and  leadership  in coalitions and partnerships. Time is of the essence. Ecological civilization is  an  inspiring  vision  that  will govern policies  of  many  types  in  China’s  New Era. However, it is a concept that is at an early stage of understanding in other countries and globally. Now is the time to  introduce  this  important  approach  to  the  world with the aim of seeking synergies with  global,  regional  and  other  national  concepts  and strategies  of  other  countries  in  the  interest  of sustainable  development. By  securing  full  public  participation regarding  ecological  civilization, the pathway to a Beautiful China can speak to our hearts as well as our minds.”

That’s the language of CCICED, the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, where leaders of Asian Development Bank, World Bank’s Global Environment Facility, UN Convention on Biodiversity, World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy NGOs line up to praise China, in the hope of gently persuading it to ease up on the coal, even set some actual emissions limits. Little wonder the rest of the world gets the idea that China’s “ecological civilisation construction” means something good.

where DNA damaging, cancer inducing ultraviolet rays are most intense


In the actual world we live in, China persists in objecting to findings that pinpoint the most climate-toxic of emissions to China. The ozone hole over Tibet, which lets harmful ultraviolet radiation damage all living things in Tibet, is not shrinking, and much scientific research has identified the reason. Chinese factories manufacturing refrigerant chemicals and industrial foam sprays continue to pump into the atmosphere the deadliest of emissions, far more dangerous than carbon dioxide, which eventually gathers over Tibet, to the detriment of all life. Despite the evidence, China continues to deny this, or to take effective action.

While the UN calls for taking seriously the climate crisis, limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, Chinese scientists say Tibet will warm by four degrees by century’s end. It is all good.

spraying chlorofluorocarbon: China’s secret ozone layer killer

The Montreal Protocol, a UN treaty banning ozone depleting manufacture and emissions, is flouted, breaking international law. However, China’s experts quibble, saying the research pinning the blame on China is of dubious reliability, makes too many assumptions, has too little observational data to be certain. We recognise a familiar voice. For decades, the reality of climate change was denied by similarly attacking the scientific evidence as insufficient. The inherent assumption is that dangers that also make profits are not to be dealt with until totally proven.

But the ultraviolet hitting the surface of Tibet, unshielded by a protective ozone layer in the uppermost atmosphere, damages the DNA of all living beings, plants and animals. China’s failure to do anything much to find and close the polluters, in the words of scientists from the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration “could seriously undermine the protocol and set ozone repair back by nearly a decade.”

That’s a further decade of ultraviolet rays blasting Tibet, a prime cause of skin cancers; an extra decade of careless, pointless damage to life in Tibet, and no-one talks about it. Isn’t “ecological civilisation construction” meant to protect life, in tangible ways? Not all good.


Is China’s passion for ruling distant Tibet by satellite just tech enthusiasm? Just a boyish belief in the latest gadgets that promise to govern Tibet, fire the cloud seeding rockets at just the right moment, all from a remote control room? Is that why China brushes aside concerns that climate change, ozone hole and geoengineering in Tibet might have downsides?

As usual, in today’s China, there’s all that, and more. It just so happens that in mid 2019 China launched a new stock exchange for the hi-tech corporations that make satellites and imaging equipment.

The July launch of the STAR Market, within the Shanghai Stock Exchange but with very different rules, made three new billionaires overnight on the day of launch. This is crony capitalism with CCP characteristics.

Timing is everything. Talking up China’s hi-tech unicorns to an IPO valuation astronomically in excess of their actual performance is a delicate art, if the sons of CCP bosses are to make their instant billions. The new Nasdaq-on-Yangtze had to achieve several carefully calibrated goals at once. There had to be excitement that hi-tech, especially satellites and their builders, is the wave of the future, a sure-fire investment guaranteed to be profitable. There had to be an unprecedented relaxation of stock trading rules allowing those spectacular valuations and speedy profit-taking; while shutting out mom and pop investors who stand to lose all when hyped stock prices deflate. If there are too many ordinary folk, who have little idea of the risks they are taking with their own money, who later get burned, that becomes a political problem for regime stability, so the STAR market ruled them out, while ruling the high roller insiders in.

It all worked, at least initially, so well there is now talk of the Shanghai STAR Market reducing China’s dependence on Hong Kong as a source of investment capital. Another plus. Made in China is suddenly producing star performers, whose corporate valuation vastly exceeds actual earnings.

launching the STAR Market, July 2019: who wants to be a billionaire?

China’s state capitalism has pulled off a brilliant illusion. The 140 corporations listing their shares on the new Shanghai STAR market are state-owned, with all the backing of the party-state to guarantee they can never go broke, whatever happens, without a state bailout. Not only are the initial share sellers state-owned, so too are the initial share buyers, according to analysis by the Financial Times. It’s all a magical illusion.

Xi Jinping decreed the invention of STAR Market, November 2018

What has any of this got to do with Tibet? One of the state-owned corporations listing its shares for trading on the STAR Market is China Satcom, a profitable satellite builder and operator, a subsidiary of the state-owned giant CASC, China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation. CASC is the core of China’s military-industrial complex, maker and launcher of missiles and commercial rockets, usually from the Jiuquan base in the desert of NW China, totally dependent on water from the Dola Ri mountains (Qilian Shan in Chinese) of northern Amdo.

CASC and China Satcom tell investors they don’t really need the money, since the state provides all, they are only in the market for capital because they were instructed to do so, to show blue chip stocks are now buyable. China Satcom, according to its voluminous regulatory filing with the Shanghai Stock Exchange, seeks only a modest RMB one billion capital raising. That’s reassuring.

Judging by the first batch of 25 corporations to complete their listings on the STAR Market, the remaining 115 applicants, including China Satcom, will fly. This is hardly surprising, since there is every indication that the party-state is behind it all, and even if all else fails, remains the guarantor. In fact, just to make sure the launch went well, the buyers as well as the sellers were frequently state-owned, a carefully orchestrated display of party-state confidence in itself.

If the STAR Market succeeds, China reduces its dependence on both the US and Hong Kong, advances its hi-tech Made in China 2025 plans for mastery of the industries of the future. The high throughput satellites China Satcom makes will turn Tibet into big data uploads and downloads, faster than ever. Xi Jinping, who announced the STAR Market in November 2018, has achieved the sort of win/win he often proposes.

And who will be the biggest winner? Who holds lots of shares already, likely to rocket in price when China Satcom IPO is completed?  “Wen Yunsong, son of former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, served as China Satcom’s chairman between 2012 and 2015 and then stayed on as a director until 2017.”

CASC launches another remote sensing satellite

The younger Wen, sometimes known as Winston Wen, may soon join the instant billionaires from the first STAR listings: “’I woke up at 10am, and the share price had doubled,’ she said. ‘It definitely surpassed my expectations. It was money that came from the heavens without me doing anything.’ For Ms Xu, it is a moment for celebration. A handful of company presidents who have become instant billionaires are also in luck.”

Tibet is becoming an integral part of how to take money from the heavens, without doing anything. It’s all good

CASC military missiles: the same corporation pomoting geoengineering/cloud seeding over Tibet is the manufacturer of China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles

[1] FANG Yue, Changes in inland lakes on the Tibetan Plateau over the past 40 years, Journal of Geographic Science, J. Geogr. Sci. 2016, 26(4): 415-438

[2] Daniel Murphy,  Disaster, Mobility, And The Moral Economy Of Exchange In Mongolian Pastoralism, Nomadic Peoples, 22 (2018): 304–329.

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