Interview with Michael Farmer, author of An Atlas of the Tibetan Plateau

    10 August 2022

New Books in Asian Studies
Michael Farmer, "An Atlas of the Tibetan Plateau", (Brill 2022)

An Atlas of the Tibetan Plateau, published this summer by Brill, shows for the first time the contemporary geography of the highest landscape on earth, where three nuclear powers (China, India and Pakistan) meet. Originally inhabited by the ancient Buddhist civilization of Tibet, the area is now the scene of complex social and cultural interaction between traditional Tibetan society and modern Chinese development policy.

We sat down with author Michael Farmer to discuss his love of maps and map making, the difficulty of making maps of areas as politically disputed as Tibet, the rapid development of infrastructure and housing in the area, as well as the 'Disneyfication' of religious sites.

So, Michael,

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work? I believe you have been making maps for a considerable time now, yet you did not start your career as a cartographer. Can you tell us where your love of maps and map making comes from?

For as long as I can remember I was always fascinated by maps. I remember that my father had an ancient set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which included a volume of maps. The wide open spaces of the American West and Asia proved irresistible to a budding, junior cartographer. I was really not very popular with my family for my considerable cartographic additions...

My profession as an architect has involved my working on many very large projects, often at an early stage of design. So, for example, I worked on the design of Sepang International Airport in Malaysia, at the time the second largest architectural project in existence, which involved my designing and creating massive computer models representing many square kilometres of airport, using what would now be regarded as very primitive CAD tools. Until quite recently most of my mapping was done on modified CAD systems, which are primarily architectural in nature. Working in this way meant that many years ago (1980’s), with the very kind permission of my architectural employers, I was able to use what were then very expensive CAD systems to create several mapping projects, which were among the first attempts at the non-governmental mapping of Tibet.

The worlds of architecture, surveying and mapping are not really that far apart. I saw the Atlas project primarily as a multi-stage large design project, with discrete levels of problems to be solved. I have had to find solutions to problems such as the structure of the Geographical Information System, how to categorize gonpas, designing the right scales and individual map area coverage, integrating the GIS with reliable satellite imagery, how and what languages and scripts should be used to record toponymics - and many, many more. As these solutions have evolved, further problems – such as the distribution of gonpa wall morphologies - or the physical clustering of particular lineages - have arisen. More problems to be solved. This is one of the great joys of working with an open-ended GIS rather than a closed traditional cartographic paradigm.

You have worked on the study of Tibet for a large part of your career and even had the honour of meeting the Dalai Lama, to whom you dedicate the Atlas. What is it that most fascinates you the about the Himalayas and Tibet?

I think part of the fascination goes back to my Encyclopedia wrecking days. Several past generations of my family were born in the shadow of the Himalayas - my mother, aunt and uncle were born in Darjeeling. My aunt went on to have a distinguished career in the Foreign Office, based in China and Hong Kong. I was also very attracted to Buddhism while I was still at school… So when I could, in my twenties, I took a long trip to Northern India, including Darjeeling, Dehra Dun (traditional headquarters of the Survey of India) and Nepal. Of course I became hooked on those mountains and their peoples, and what was behind them. I’m still finding out what that is.

I met His Holiness several times over the years, and I was able to show him both the initial maps for “The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism” (Bdud-joms et al 2002) and the cartographic evidence that I had presented to the investigation conducted by the Conference of International Lawyers. They concluded that Tibet had indeed existed as a self-governing polity for many centuries (McCorquodale et al 1994). His Holiness seemed very pleased with my early efforts, and he bid me continue...

Working on maps of a region as politically disputed as Tibet cannot be easy. Could you tell us a bit about the challenges you faced when working on the Atlas?

I think the biggest challenge came from trying to find toponyms which accurately reflected what Tibetans actually called their locations on the ground. I used the admirable Amnye Machen maps put out by the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala as a guide to some sort of toponymic orthodoxy wherever possible (Amnye Machen Institute 1998), but the GIS database of toponyms now considerably exceeds the total of names indicated on the Amnye Machen maps.

Inevitably I have had to use Chinese maps and gazetteers to supply many of the remaining names. There would seem to be a real problem that Putonghua has with expressing phonemes which are not within its own limited phonemic gamut. Thus, place names can only be expressed in Hanzi characters and the phonemes and limited tonalities with which they are associated. This is causing a major drift away from Tibetan phonetics to Han phonetics, with the result that slowly Tibetan is losing a major part of its vital linguistic culture.

I discuss this at greater length in the Introduction to the Atlas – but there is no ultimate solution – except to try to preserve Tibetan toponymics wherever possible. However, I really must stress that the one thing I am not claiming is any prescriptive toponymic orthodoxy – I have just tried to record whatever Tibetan placenames (and their Chinese equivalents) I have been able to find and assign them to precise locational satellite imagery...

Figure 1: Map: 1 - Key


Figure 2: Map: 30


The Atlas features 120 full color maps and numerous satellite images depicting everything from recent settlement building to the effects of mass tourism and climate change. In your view, what are some of the most remarkable findings? Can you show these on some of the maps or images from the Atlas?

There are three major findings that stand out. Firstly, I have been able to track the remarkable effort and resources that Tibetans have brought to the re-construction of their religious environment over the past twenty years or so, often under very great political and economic counter-pressure (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Taklung Gonpa (Jingzhi Xian) Oct 2005 Map: 49


Figure 4: Taklung Gonpa (Jigzhi Xian) Oct 2019 Map: 49


This is even more extraordinary when we remember that forty years ago Tibet was still emerging from the terrible ravages of the Cultural Revolution, when hardly a gonpa remained standing. Now, I have seen not just the re-construction of old gonpas, but the creative invention of dynamic new forms of religious design (Figures 5 - 7).

Figure 5: Very Large Chörten: Mewa Gonpa (Hongyuan Xian) Map: 55


Figure 6: Large Chörten: Sertar Dungkar Gonpa (Sertar Xian) Map: 90


Figure 7: Large Mani Khorlo: Razhitang Mani Khorlo Chörten (Hongyuan Xian) Map: 55


The second finding is the real extent of the massive development, particularly of infrastructure, that the Chinese have invested in Tibet. Many old towns have been converted into regular Chinese gridded cities linked by massive multi-lane highways, as in the much lower areas of China to the east. Large numbers of the highest-altitude airports have been constructed – again following through urban development tropes from the east – and construction of a mighty rail-link from Lhasa to Chengdu, via the new city of Nyingtri has at least started. The development of Nyingtri can be clearly seen on satellite imagery (Figures 8 and 9).

Figure 8: Nyingtri (Nyingchi Xian) Map: 38 December 2006


Figure 9: Nyingtri (Nyingchi Xian) Map: 38 November 2019


Figure 10: Map: 38


However, looking closely at these projects reveals something important. Constructing a major highway at 4000m, capable of taking a massive traffic-flow that could travel at over 100 km per hour, is really a little optimistic. Running a truck at that speed at that height would be completely impossible – even suicidal – and these mighty highways are mostly very empty. Constructing Kangding Airport at a height of 4250m (the third highest airport in the world) with a runway 4.1 km long is a superb engineering feat, but it actually appears to be used very little. Projected largely for tourist use, tourists face a very serious, life-threatening change in pressure and height from Chengdu, only one hour away by air. This may account for the lack of occupancy in the car parks, and the lack of parked aircraft on the apron – easily visible to satellite imagery. The airport is probably just too high to be safely used. So, we might conclude that much of the very expensive infrastructure development on the Plateau is of little real use.

The third finding is the true extent of the “Comfortable Housing” and “Environmental Migration” policies which have been introduced to try to induce Tibetans to join the wage economy, and to push nomads into permanent settlements. Tibetans have been compulsorily evicted from traditional housing and were often forced to destroy their own housing. They were then re-housed in mass blocks, usually very poorly designed and not capable of remotely withstanding the rigours of high altitude weather. They have been charged excessive rents for this unasked-for privilege. In a very similar process, nomads have been dragooned into concrete blocks and left to starve. Apparently this was largely because central government believed that the massive climate and environmental change happening on the high plains was due to nomads and their herds. It wasn’t... (Scottish Parliament 2018). So, very few towns and villages appear to have escaped “Comfortable Housing” and the evidence is scattered all over the Plateau (Figures 11 - 13).

Figure 11: Tsogenrawa Housing (Madoi Xian) Map: 47


Figure 12: Chumarabdun (Qumarlêb Xian) Map: 35


Figure 13: Andu (Aba Xian) Map: 49


Not only the Tibetan landscape, but also its culture seems under pressure. You mention in the Atlas that genuine Tibetan religious experience is being turned into a tourist spectacle. Which clues and indications point in this direction?

This is a complex area, as there has been considerable monastic development to house Chinese Buddhists and tourists, and I think this is to be welcomed. This can be seen in the development of Katok Gonpa to provide additional accommodation (Figures 14 - 16). As far as I am aware, this development has been initiated by the gonpa administration. Katok is the oldest extant Nyingmapa gonpa and I have personally seen that it maintains its rich traditions vigorously while welcoming tourists and Buddhists from everywhere.

Figure 14: Katok Dorje Den Gonpa (Baiyü Xian) 2006 Map: 43


Figure 15: Katok Dorje Den Gonpa (Baiyü Xian) 2015 Map: 43


Figure 16: Katok Dorje Den Gonpa (Baiyü Xian) 2020 Map: 43


However this history can be contrasted with the partial destruction of Larung Gar monastic community (Figures 14 and 15). The full story of its destruction can be found in Tibet Watch and Free Tibet, 2017. Figure 14 shows Larung Gar in 2002 after it had already suffered the first wave of destruction by the authorities in 2001.

Figure 18 (image from 2020) shows that although some of the destroyed areas have been rebuilt, “corridors” have been bulldozed through most areas, taking out hundreds of monastic retreat huts and thereby reducing the population substantially. Roads have been constructed to create arbitrary boundaries, and in the far southeast and west extents of the image, large new construction has been created to provide tourist accommodation. The transformation from a live religious community to a reduced tourist spectacle is approaching completion.

Figure 17: Larung Gar (Sertar Xian) March 2002 Map: 49


Figure 18: Larung Gar (Sertar Xian) 2020 Map: 49


Figure 19: Map: 49


A further dimension can be seen in the construction of “Disneyfied” religious locations (Sydenstricker 2014), such as the “Nyima Dawa La” (Riyue Shankou Si – 36.442°N, 101.093°S) in Huangyuan County, Qinghai, which was originally a modest Gelugpa gonpa. This has now been converted into a Tibetan Buddhist theme park, where a very curious amalgam of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist themes has been used to create a large tourist attraction. How much this is controlled by the local Tibetan population, or benefits them at all, is open for investigation.

Figure 20: Nyima Dawa Gonpa (Hongyuan Xian) October 2015 Map: 47


A crucial element in this debate is the degree of freedom and initiative granted to Tibetans. Katok was permitted its development, but Larung Gar has been suppressed. Quite what happened at “Nyima Dawa La” remains to be determined. There are complex issues of negotiation, regionality and authority which are awaiting much fuller study.

Given the sociopolitical, geopolitical and ecological pressure that Tibetan society is facing, is there a main message that you would like the Atlas to convey?

My hope is that the Atlas can assist the further study of Tibetan society in the present time. As can be seen, there are many rich areas of geographical and social research which could be undertaken, further examining the complex relationships that exist within Tibetan society and its Chinese context.

Creating the Atlas has been a great privilege for me and I hope the result is a tribute to the fortitude, creativity and bravery of the Tibetan people. I believe that the Atlas mirrors the complexity of Tibetan culture, and by supporting further research, can assist in its ultimate survival and preservation.



Bdud-joms Jigs-bral-ye-ses-rdo-rje, Gyurme Dorje, Matthew Kapstein, and Bdud-’joms ’Jigs-bral-ye-ses-rdo-rje. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Boston, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 2002.

Bod dang sa ’brel khag gi sa khra [Map of Tibet and Adjacent Areas]. 1998. Dharamsāla, India: Amnye Machen Institute, Tibetan Centre for Advanced Studies.

McCorquodale, Robert and Conference of International Lawyers on Issues Relating to Self-Determination and Independence for Tibet, eds. 1994. Tibet the position in international law ; report of the Conference of International Lawyers on Issues Relating to Self-Determination and Independence for Tibet, London 6 - 10 January 1993, Serindia, 1994.

Scottish Parliament. 2018. Mass Relocations and Nomad Settlement on the Tibetan Plateau. Cross-Party Group on Tibet, Scottish Parliament, 2018, 8 - 10.

Sydenstricker, Pearl. 2014. “The Disneyfication of Tibet”. Washington Monthly, January 2014.

Tibet Watch and Free Tibet. 2017. “Destroying Heaven: China’s Campaign of Destruction at Larung Gar.” October 2017.