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Tibet Outside the TAR: Bathang Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Bathang and Lithang are often spoken of together, as they lie only 190 kilometers apart along the main south route through Kham and into the TAR. Yet no two towns could be less alike. Lithang clings to a barren windswept plateau at an elevation of 4,700 meters ( 15,400 feet), isolated in a boundless expanse of territory so high and cold that nomadic pastoralism is the only possible form of economy. Once across the Haizishan Pass, however, about twenty kilometers inside the Bathang County boundary, the road drops gradually down until Bathang is reached, lying at a mere 2,700 meters (8,800 feet), in a mild and cultivated valley. It is like another world from Lithang

With an area of 7,844 square kilometers, Bathang is comparable in size to Dawu or Kartse Counties in Kham. Like Kartse and Lithang, it has a heavily Tibetan population, 94% according to official statistics'. Bathang's county seat, designated .... stands on a tributary of the Yangtze River.... only ten kilometers east of the TAR border. Route 318 from Dartsedo passes through Bathang then follows the river south for thirty kilometers before crossing into the TAR at Zhubalong.

In terms of modem Chinese administrative divisions, Bathang lies at the western extreme of Sichuan Province. Since General Zhao Erfeng implanted a Chinese military agricultural colony there in 1905, Bathang has represented the edge of Chinese-dominated Kham in the Chinese conceptual view. Beyond the Yangzi River (Dri Chu), territory was still considered as part of the Chinese jurisdiction of Xikang, but more intimidatingly Tibetan. For the Tibetans, this division is quite artificial. While the river forms a natural divide, Bathang belongs culturally to the whole Kham region stretching from Dartsedo to Chamdo, within which strong monastic and trade connections have existed for centuries. The political perspective has been regional or turned broadly towards Lhasa. Except for the few soldiers and officials stationed at Bathang to keep the road between Chengdu and Lhasa open, there was no Chinese presence in Bathang until Chinese colonization began in 1905.

Bathang's setting presents a striking contrast to Lithang's, but a similarity exists in the arrangement of the county town. It lies on an approximately northeast-southwest axis, with the river curling through the valley on the west side of the highway. The administrative core, composed of almost uniformly new modem buildings, is surrounded by extensive Tibetan villages, satellites of traditional architecture scattered at the green edges of the valley. Several compounds dispersed along the highway leading into the town from the northeast, including and a few others within the town, belong to a earlier period of Chinese development.

The new town's uniformity is the result of rebuilding after a devastating earthquake which destroyed the original Chinese town in 1989. County authorities, aided by national funding, took the opportunity to build a new county seat on the basis of real civic planning. With its grid of new streets centered around a town plaza, and buildings combining modem construction with "nationalities characteristics" decoration, the result is more pleasing than the early socialist functionalism and recent incoherent commercial development seen in most other Chinese towns in Tibetan areas. Despite the artificial "Tibetaness" of the new town, a relaxed atmosphere, the amiability of both Chinese and Tibetans, plus the considerable beauty of the location make the town appealing. The place is reminiscent of the 1990's Sino-Tibetan blend seen in the atmosphere and townscape of Dartsedo, but on a much smaller scale. It embodies a presentation and atmosphere the Chinese would be anxious to show as evidence of their civilizing, modernizing influence in Tibetan areas.

Beginning at the fringe of Chinese development, however, lie several Tibetan settlements. These villages, composed of hundreds of traditional houses, mostly recently-built since the earthquake, reflect the Tibetans' enthusiastic preference for a traditional environment when they have the choice As in Dawu and Kartse, traditional building methods have been revived with fervor, transforming the sections of town over which Tibetans have principal control into authentic, organic Tibetan neighborhoods.Constructed from natural materials with careful attention to quality and craftsmanship, these houses make reference to local conditions, unlike the modem cement residential boxes in Dartsedo or Barkham built after the Chinese model.


Bathang has one of the more lackluster economies in Kartse TAP despite the construction of a modem new county town. GDP in 1994 was 54 million Yuan. Remoteness and a three or four day journey from Chengdu could constrain most industries other than agriculture and pastoralisn. Yet remoteness itself may be responsible for the only surprise in Bathangšs economy: Tertiary production, not primary, made up the largest share of GDP in 1994 (23.6 million Yuan). The county town's large sprawl of transport facilities may be one of the area's most important economic sites. Primary production followed with 20.9 million Yuan and secondary industry contributed a minuscule 9.5 million Yuan


Unlike most of Lithang, Bathang has sizeable areas along its river valleys low and fertile enough to practise agriculture. Bathang is a climatic anomaly in this part of Kham, so mild that two crops a year of some grains may be harvested. Agriculturally it is adaptable to Chinese-style methods and crops, a feature not lost on the Chinese, who established a military-agricultural colony here in 1905. The valley of the county town is planted in a mosaic of wheat fields, vegetables and fruit trees, all easy to grow here. The prefecture advanced funding for forest and orchard products development in Bathang in 1980-1988, which must also have contributed to the flourishing state of orchards in the valley. Extra vegetable supplies are also raised in greenhouses. For a town isolated from any Chinese population and agricultural centers, this productiveness compels Bathang's Chinese population to be self-supporting to a far greater degree than usual in Tibetan county towns. The vegetables Chinese favor in their traditional diet must usually be trucked in from distant markets. Some Tibetan farmers sell surplus produce at the town's main street comer.

Most of the valley's farmers are the Tibetans of the surrounding villages, but the prevalence of winter wheat suggests Chinese crop preferences dominate. Farming in Bathang must be more profitable than in most Tibetan agricultural areas, judging by the hundreds of fine new houses in the valley, although some State assistance in building these was apparently also provided after the 1989 earthquake. Farmers who cultivate the higher very steep slopes outside the valley endure a harsher subsistence-level of life. No signs were observed that Chinese farmers have moved into Bathang in large numbers in the post-1950 occupation era. Some were forced to come to Bathang as colonist in 1905, but had largely intermarried with local Tibetans after less than a decade.


Pastoralism is practised in high mountain and grassland areas of the county unsuited to agriculture, with mixed grazing and cultivation where this is possible. Tibetans in the more temperate areas of Bathang and regions of Khan further south in Chatreng, Derong and Dabpa commnly keep some pigs as well as yaks, cattle, sheep and horses. Pastoral products were not seen for sale in Bathang county town.

Natural Resources Exploitation

Like most of Kham, Bathang has forest resources that are tapped to serve Chinese development elsewhere. Once across the Haizishan Pass inside the Bathang County boundary on the highway from Lithang, growth of quite tall pines begins. Some logging of the Haizishan Pass area took place some years ago, as evidenced by stumps among the standing trees, and further cutting is currently in progress. Lumber stockpiling and processing facilities appear to be in Bathang county town, however. Logs carried from Chamdo only pass through the town en route to Chengdu, and lumber originating in the county heads straight out through Lithang and thence to the Chinese markets further east. Chinese sources mention valuable medicinal herbs and musk among Bathangšs forest products.

Mineral deposits found in Bathang County include gold, coal iron, black and white mica, copper, lead, zinc, salt, crystal magnetite and bauxite. Mining in Bathang may be at a relatively elementary stage of technical development. A small mining operation was observed at the minor township of Yawa about twenty kilometers north of Bathang. Low-technology mining nevertheless attracts Chinese immigrants to many Tibetan areas, as may easily be seen in Dawu, Dege and Kartse Counties, where Chinese prospectors have been enthusiastically mining the rivers for gold. The mine at Yawa may be a prototype of the kinds of facilities found in many parts of Bathang.


Industrialization apparently forms no significant part of Bathangšs economy. Chinese sources make no mention of Bathang during Kartse TAPšs early industrialization era (1951-1957, then 1959-1961), when a batch of industrial enterprises and various small light-industrial plants were built, primarily to support the prefecturešs forestry industry. During the agricultural mechanization drive of the early 1970šs, agricultural machine tool factories were set up in all counties, and presumably in Bathang as well. A few simple processing or manufacturing compounds may exist in the county town, but the pristine cleanliness of the environment testifies to the lack of industrial facilities. Bathang has the space, but perhaps not the supply of suitable local raw materials to encourage industrial development. Its isolation from Chinese population centers and markets also mitigates against it.

[Reproduced by permission from TIBET: Outside the TAR, by Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke. Š1997, S. Marshall and S. Cooke.]

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