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Introduction to the Himalayas

Map of the Himalayas. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum.
The Himalayas are the highest mountain ranges in the world, and from them flow the major rivers of Asia. The kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan are located along the Himalayan ranges, and the Tibetan plateau lies to their north. Although the Himalayas are nearly impassible, many peoples have managed the crossing and left traces of their cultures.
Surrounded by high peaks with only a few passes, the plateau of Tibet was home to people who developed their own, distinct culture, which was highly influenced by Buddhism. That religion came into Tibet in two waves: from India, Nepal, and China in the seventh century, and again from India in the eleventh century.


Tibet is located in the heart of Asia, held aloft on a vast mountainous plateau. Besides sharing borders with India to the west and south and China to the east, Tibet is also neighbor to Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Burma (Myanmar) to the south, and Eastern Turkestan to the north. The south eastern corner of Tibet is a diverse land of stark beauty and sudden dramatic changes in landscape. The northern and north-central regions of Tibet, about one third of the country, are mainly comprised of a series of mountain ranges and rocky deserts interspersed with grassy pasture. Rainfall is scarce, although sudden tempests can sweep across the land bringing sand, snow, and hailstorms with winds strong enough to blow a rider off a horse. The average elevation in the north is 16,000 feet, with a wide variation in temperatures caused by strong solar radiation. On a summer’s day the temperature could reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit at noon and plunge to 32 degrees Fahrenheit at night. These conditions make for a distinctive environment. This gives Tibetans a respectful reverence for the power and beauty of nature. The bright colors that are characteristic of Tibetan art bring warmth into this austere setting. Little more than grasses and scrub grow in this region, which is sparsely populated by hardy nomads following herds of sheep, goats, and yaks.
Tibet’s glacial waters are the source of most of the major rivers in Asia: the Sutlej, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze and Yellow rivers. In Tibet itself, the headwaters of these rivers nourish the land to the south and east, creating fertile valleys, gentle pasture, and milder environmental conditions. This is where most of the arable land lies and where most of Tibet’s population is concentrated. The elevation is approximately 12,000 feet and the daily temperatures fluctuate only about 40 degrees. Here grow peach, apricot, pear, and walnut trees, along with the crops raised by farmers. To the south are vast forests of pine, juniper, aspen, and willow, sheltering rare wild flowers. In the far south east of Tibet are vast rain forests where semi-tropical vegetation flourishes and banana trees are abundant. This far south eastern part of Tibet, near Laos and Vietnam, is near the tropic of Cancer, as far south as Miami and the Bahamas.
The wildlife of Tibet is a fascinating mix of the exotic and the everyday. Blue sheep, wild-yak (both unique to Tibet), gazelles, antelopes, white-lipped deer, wild asses, foxes, owls, brown bears, snow leopards, black-necked cranes, and the occasional tiger all roam "the roof of the world."
Learn more on the Asian Art Museum's education website.

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