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Tibet Outside the TAR: Nyarong Dzong

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Nyarong is a region of great natural beauty; heavily forested, with steep watersheds, grassy alpine pastures, and the deep turquoise ribbon of the Nyagchu River (Yalong River) bisecting the county from north to south through a magnificent sheer-cliffed gorge. For the Chinese State, it offers rich opportunities for natural resource exploitation, a course they have pursued with vigor since the 1950's. In response, Nyarong Tibetans in these relatively more open times are energetically reconstructing their cultural base in the countryside, rebuilding gonpas and surrounding impresssive traditional villages with rows of chortens and groves of prayer flags. Sino-Tibetan divisions here seem more marked, and strained, than in county towns further east. Nyarong has a strong history of independence-mindedness, even among the Khampa states.

With an area of 8,675 square kilometers, Nyarong is among the middle-sized counties of Kartse TAP, located approximately in the prefecture's center. Its seat is a small, neat county town, composed almost entirely of Chinese buildings, concentrated tightly below the gonpa on the flat ridge overlooking the Nyagchu. Known under the Chinese administration as, Rulongzhen, it is a town of units, not of organic development or the kind of civic planning found in Bathang. Unlike Kartse or Payul there is no Tibetan street life to speak of nor any space for their traditional activities; no Tibetan housing infiltrates the Chinese core nor do substantial Tibetan neighborhoods flank its perimeter. There are apparently no shops selling Tibetan goods. Chinese form an unusually high proportion of the town's resident population, although Tibetans are there numbers sufficient to be noticed. A reserved, subdued atmosphere pervades the town. A higher police profile, lack of either Tibetan or Chinese social facilities, and sharp architectural divisions lend it more the demeanor of a control post than a community.

A very Tibetan environment nevertheless exists outside the town, and indeed right up to its edges. The well restored gonpa remains the most striking feature in a view of the town. Beyond the limits of the Chinese tow, housing changes into newly-built but traditional style, Tibetans mostly wear dress, and except in settlements along the road all trades of Chinese populate or infrastructure disappear. The Chinese seem to have held even more tightly than elsewhere to their position in the county town, perhaps because they have been able to make so little impression outside of it. There is little integration between that which is Chinese and that which is Tibetan in the county or the town.

Natural Resources Exploitation

Lumber has been the chief natural resource exploited in Nyarong since the Chinese occupation. At the end of the 1950's the Chinese established Nyarong as one of the prefecture's four water transport districts and eight forest work enterprises, and began to exploit the area's virgin forests. The region has clearly been intensively logged for a long period. Along the Nyagchu River the area is well forested, but the smaller size of the trees in sonic sections shows them to be secondary growth forests, not virgin timber. Reforestation thus appears to have been more successful than in many other parts of Kham, supported by facilities such as a large seedling nursery on the road halfway between Kartse and Nyarong. This nursery amounted to a small settlement in itself, where all the workers seen were Chinese. Close to the county town the land has been virtually denuded of forest cover, with only an occasional pine clinging to a ridge as evidence of the area's original appearance

The Kartse-Nyarong road has facilitated lumber extraction since it was built for that purpose in the 1960's, but the largest volume of lumber is floated down the Nyag Chu River. As is the case everywhere in Tibetan areas where rivers are used to transport logs, a massive amount of wastage occurs. In places the Nyag Chu's banks and shoals are literally covered with stranded logs. the worst wastage seen compared to the stretch of the Xianshui River between Draggo and Dawu. More ramps for dumping logs into the river were also seen in Nyarong than anywhere else, confirmation that the thousands of stranded logs have been harvested from the. immediate vicinity. Some monks, dressed in robes, were seen repairing one of the largest ramps. Logs stranded along the river were almost all small in diameter compared to the much larger logs commonly seen in the Xianshui River or being trucked from the direction of Chamdo, showing that Nyarong's reforested areas are now sufficiently well grown to provide large volumes of harvestable lumber.

Infrastructural development in the county town makes clear the authorities plan for sustained, probably escalated, forest exploitation. Separate from the main town across the river, a supplementary sector is dedicated to the lumber industry. A whole new compound, echoing the age, design and prominence of the pink County Government complex, has been built since c.1992, containing multiple forest industry units: the County Forestry Office, Forest Fire Prevention Office, Afforestation Office, and Forest Products Company. Extensive older lumber stockpiling and processing compounds are nearby.

Khams gold-bearing rivers and soils have attracted Chinese gold miners since the late Qing period, and since the recent era of reform and opening up they have been coming back to Kham in increasing numbers. Along the Nyag Chu River in Nyarong, gold mining activities are in operation in many locations, particularly in the lower two-thirds of the stretch between the Kartse county boundary and Nyarong county town. The miners live in crude camps under the harsh conditions, using low-technology methods to extract gold from gravel sieved from the river bed. No mining machines were seen. Freezing waters prevents mining during winter, but once spring begins and the river thaws, sites again become active. The Chinese miners observed in Nyarong work in smaller groups than those in Dege, the largest being about 16 people. Tibetans also work the river for gold, usually in very small groups, and seem less well organized than the Chinese.

Gold provides an important source of revenue for Kartse TAP. Several large mines were developed during the 1980's and under the 8th Five-Year Plan (1990-1994). None of those mentioned in an official source was in Nyarong, where gold mining may be active on a more individual scale. Such mining attracts increased Chinese immigration to the area, and causes damage to the river bed and banks. Besides gold, Nyarong has a dozen other known mineral deposits. County authorities say they regard these as invaluable assets for Nyarong's "future".

[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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