The 10th March is a controversial day in the history of Tibet: It marks the anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and thus contributed considerably to todays political state. As the Tibet Autonomous Region it is now governed as a Chinese province, and political demands for an independent Tibet regularly find their way into the public debate. The latest in these developments is the announcement of the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, to retire from political life. While the Tibetan Parliament is a government-in-exile, ethnic Tibetans are estimated to make up 93% of the population within the Tibet Autonomous Region, with an increasing rise of Han Chinese in the last decades. The total population living in Tibet is estimated to be 2.91 million, and the region has China’s lowest population density, with only 2.2 people per square km. Hence it is no surprise that the gridded population cartogram of China in the world population atlas gives Tibet little space in the map there (situated below the larger bulge that is Urumqi, and by far degraded by China’s populous Eastern provinces). To get a better picture of the population distribution within the region, I created a gridded population cartogram for the area of Tibet which gives a more detailed impression of the Tibet’s population distribution (using the boundaries of the Tibet Autonomous Region). The population cartogram also includes a transformed topographic display that illustrates at which elevations most people live in this region that is the highest region on earth :
The map shows that many people in Tibet live widespread in the rural areas in the east. The most densely populated area is Lhasa (373,000 people living in the urban centre, 1.1 million in the district), which is also largest city and administrative capital of the region. Even here, as the cartogram shows, only a small area has very high population densities, while the surrounding areas of the river valleys are home to a more rural population. West of Lhasa lies Tibet’s second largest city, Shigatse, with only 80,000 population, but still appearing as a more populated rural area within Tibet’s human shape. In contrast, the (even more) mountainous west of the region is far less populated, with the Mount Kailash (situated at the outpost of Darchen, and believed to be a holy mountain to several Asian religions) being located in one of the most remote places on earth – this population cartogram of one of the least populated areas on the planet clearly demonstrates, why that is the case.
This map also demonstrates, why gridded cartograms are not only limited to reveal the dimension of cities, but are powerful way of showing and understanding the population distribution of an area: Not only populated and depopulated areas are shown in relation, but also the rural areas (and the rural population) which form most of this map. They appear as the smaller grid cells that can still be recognised, and they demonstrate the vast extent of rural areas and their geographic location in the geography of Tibet.
The human shape of Tibet is not that of towns and cities, but that of a large rural population living on the roof of the world.