In the affections of all except Beijing communists Tibet occupies a privileged position. We cherish its mystic intensity, we marvel at its awesome landscapes and we agonise over the tragedies of its recent past. It seems the very antithesis of the verdure, affluence, modernity and security which we value. So distinctive, indeed, is this ""Roof of the World"" that it appears not to belong on our planet.The air is almost too thin to breathe; most of the ground is too stony to till; the climate is as cold and dry as the moon's. Yet, ricocheting from cliff and rock are colours as vivid as paradise. A chant of worship hovers in the sharp air. And from behind its mountain ramparts, the Tibetan plateau seems straining upward as in prayer, thrust aloft by the clash of continents to be nearer the heavens than any other land on earth, an Olympus fit for God-kings, the first step on a staircase to the stars. Its allure is unique and universal. But it is also deeply unsettling. To a people so diligent and devout must life necessarily be so harsh and unrewarding?
In a land whose geography is the stuff of dreams, must history be the scream of nighmares? We cherish Tibet because it challenges our assumptions. The survival of this endearing society and its uncompromising environment is seen as a crucial contemporary issue, a subject for international conservation. Here is the real barometer of our new world order.If we can save the tiger, why can't we save Tibet? Traditionally ""the Land of Snows"" was too mysterious to trouble the world's peace of mind. Its exploration was always a ""quest"". The challenge was that of surmounting its Himalayan barrier and outwitting hostile border guards and a xenophobic government.. Lhasa, the capital, was ""the forbidden city"" par excellence.
At 1.2 million square kilometres, ""Greater Tibet"" is more than three times the size of Germany. Unsurprisingly it exhibit great contrasts. The average altitude is around 5000 m and the average annual precipitation just a few centimetres. But it is variations in these, especially the precipitation, which determine the characteristics of the country. The highest uplands, the lowest rainfall, and the starkest scenery are found in the west. Here lies the windswept watershed between, on the one hand, the west-flowing Indus and, on the other, the east-flowing Tsangpo/Brahmaputra.