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Tibet Outside the TAR: Gyalthang

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Gyalthang, now widely known by the Chinese name of Zhongdian, meaning 'Middle District' lies 200 kilometers north of Lodging, the seat of another autonomous minority area (Lodging Naxi Autonomous County, within Lijiang Prefecture). Modern Gyalthang sprawls across a high plain at 3,300 meters, with hills rising above the east and the west flanks of the town. The road from Lijiang enters from the southwest, the Dechen bound road, frequently impassable beyond Benzilar, exist from the town's northwest. Much of the land around the town is farmland, tilled mostly by hand by Tibetan, Naxi, and Chinese farmers. Before the earthquake of late January 1996, the journey took little m ore than five hours over mostly paved road. Easy transport links to a large population of non-Tibetans appear to have hastened the transformation of 'Gyalthang' into 'Zhongdian'.

Nearly all production seen in the area was grain, mostly wheat. Grain prices are strictly controlled by the government, the benefits of market pricing not extending to those producing many basic foodstuffs. Tibetan farmers are affected more strongly by such controls than their Chinese counterparts who live in friendlier climates and find it easier to grow higher value crops. Tibetans, severely restricted by climate and growing season as well as pinched between low-priced compulsory grain sales and purchase quotas of high-priced fertilizers, are trapped barely above subsistence level.


A mixed agricultural-pastoral economy was traditionally practiced in the Gyalthang region, and still is by most of the Tibetans outside the town. Cattle rather than yaks are raised, and on the town outskirts also pigs and chickens. Meat for sale in the town market was mainly pork, catering to Chinese tastes more than Tibetan. Butter, sold in quite large quantities in the market, is sold in pure form by local Tibetan farmers or imported in a processed form from southern Yunan. No nomadic herding was observed.

Natural Resources Exploitation

Substantial logging is occurring in the county judging by truck traffic from Gyalthang to Lijiang. ...While total traffic levels cannot compare to Kartse and Ngawa T&QAP, such comparison is made invalid by the relatively small area under exploitation in Dechen TAP. The upper reaches of the prefecture are often rendered off limits to logging trucks, and possibly to the tree cutters themselves, by roads that are closed for long periods throughout the year. But virtually all the logs seen leaving Gyalthang County by roadway were large, averaging nearly two feet in diameter. Very little virgin forest, possibly none was visible from main thoroughfares. Many areas had been replanted with varying degrees of success.

There shouldn't be much doubt that Chinese officials have been made to realize the seriousness of deforestation and are interested in seeing reforestation become successful. Reforestation appears more successful in Yunnan than in Sichuan. Pressure to supply adequate lumber to a nation with and insatiable appetite for wood and wood products apparently overpowers any other influence in forestry management. The imposing Diquing Paper Mill, sited on the Yangzi River near the southern tip of Decent TAP, started production in 1993. Logs from mature trees instead of easily replaceable new trees are pulped, a highly wasteful usage. Gyalthang presides over the regional process and storage facilities, transport and truck repair and Forestry Police. ...Countless roadside lumber camps and deposit may be seen between Zhonngdian and Lijiang. The run-down settlement of Little Gyalthang, consisting mostly of timber shacks, contains little besides lumber yards, and a few other Chinese compounds.

While the sheer volume of timber moving out of the areas and the poverty that remains in the area moots any suggestion that Tibetans are prime beneficiaries of forestry exploitation, there may be some local benefit in terms of employment created. The situation in Gyalthang and the rest of Dechen TAP is unclear in this respect. Tibetans make up a significantly smaller fraction of official population in the area compared to other heavy forestry zones in Tibetan ethnic areas (e.g. Kartse and Ngawa TAP's). and hence may receive an even smaller slice of the pie here than elsewhere.

At least twenty-eight types of mineral resources, including asbestos, are known to exist in Dechen TAP. Since the 18th Century, Chinese miners have been working rich gold and silver mines in the Gyalthang area, sometimes till deposits were exhausted.

With the mighty Mekong and Yangzi Rivers and their numerous tributaries flowing through the length of Dechen, the State is well aware of Dechen's hydro-electric potential, and has provided provincial-level funding for hydro-electric projects in the prefecture. Many hydro-electric power stations and dams have already been constructed, most notably the massive Chongjianghe Hydro-Electric Plant on the Little Zhongdian River seventy kilometers south of Gyalthang, completed in 1991. A reliable and abundant electricity supply will obviously assist future development in Dechen.

Dechen TAP is home to a rich variety of wildlife. Its exploitation is not immediately visible but one shop in the market was selling skins including common leopard and clouded leopard. Several rare bird skins and another clouded leopard pelt were seen hanging in the upper window of a hotel.


At present the town of Gyalthang in not heavily industrialized. A textile factory is located on the southern outskirts, and the County Chang (barley beer) Factory along the northern road towards Dechen. A large prefectural wood processing plant occupies an area on the northern outskirts, and its county equivalent further inside the town precincts. The Diqing Paper Mill is in the south of the County, as mentioned above. Workers in those factories within the town are probably local, including Tibetans, but the Diquing Paper Mill almost certainly employs a majority of Chinese, engaged from areas outside the prefecture. Small handicraft industries, such as making of wooden bowls, also operate in the town. At present forestry seems to be providing the most opportunities for industrial employment.

[Reproduced by permission from TIBET: Outside the TAR, by Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke. 1997, S. Marshall and S. Cooke.]

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