Tibet is a country that has touched people's imaginations and hearts for centuries. The Tibetan cultural area extends over more than 10 million square kilometers, bordered by the Himalayas in the south, the Karakorum in the west, in the north by the Kunlun and to the east by several high, snowcapped mountain chains. The first Tibetan kingdom with a highly developed culture arose during the 7th century C.E. under the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. About 90% of the Tibetans are devouted Buddhists, others are followers of the Bön religion or nature religions.
Tibet can be roughly divided into six regions, each with its own unique features: Central Tibet with Lhasa and other large cities, western Tibet with the sacred Mount Kailash as its main landmark, southern Tibet, which lies comparatively lower and is still thickly forested, Changthang (northern Tibet), on average 5000 m. above sea-level and practically bare of vegetation, Amdo (northeastern Tibet), nomad-country, but also an area in which many other ethnic groups such as Mongols and Moslem minorities live, and finally Kham in the east, wild, green, home to farmers and nomads. Here, too, is Dagyab, our project area.
Tibet was more or less cut off from the rest of the world for a long time. This ended abruptly in 1950 with the invasion of the People's Liberation Army of China. At present Tibet is a part of the People's Republic of China, in political terms. After the devastating Cultural Revolution, during which thousands of monasteries and cultural monuments were destroyed, many monuments were rebuilt in the 1980's in the wake of an overall liberalization. Nonetheless, religious freedom is still subject to great fluctuations in policy.
The central government in Beijing is investing extensively in Tibet, but at the same time large numbers of Chinese business entrepreneurs - with whom Tibetans are in no position to compete - are in the process of establishing themselves in the cities. An additional problem is that Tibetans have to pay high fees in many schools and for treatment in hospitals, all of which is prohibitive for poorer people. The lifestyle of "globalization", with its faceless concrete slab buildings, cheap industrial products and primitive mass media, is flooding Tibet and threatening to destroy its cultural identity.
For this reason, a basic school education with Tibetan teachers and that recognizes the value of Tibet's own culture (in handicrafts, literature and medicine, for example), is of vital importance for all children in Tibet.
Only in this way can they participate as responsible citizens in bringing about necessary reforms and in improving their standard of living, and therefore be able to hold their own as a numerically small people between two other peoples, the Han Chinese and the Indians, each over one billion strong.
Dagyab, our project area, is located on the upper course of the Mekong River, at the far eastern end of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It is about half the size of the German Bundesland of Hessen (see map). Dagyab's landscapes are enchantingly beautiful; fertile river oases with farming settlements resembling ancient fortified villages, bare, rocky landscapes in striking shades of red with vertical canyons revealing different geological strata, and wide, green alpine pastures alternate with each other.
About 50,000 people live there, primarily as farmers or as nomads.
Roads or telephones are practically nonexistent in Dagyab, which is still very underdeveloped, even by Tibetan standards. Horses are indispensable for travel in this pathless land, whose plains and valleys lie at elevations between 3100 and 4200 meters above sea level. The administration center is Yendüm, with a population of about 1000.