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An inside look at the hidden land of Tibet

Anne Meltzer starts the descent from the Duoxiong La, which connects Pai on the upper Tsangpo from Medoc on the lower Tsangpo.

During research trips to Tibet over the past decade, Anne Meltzer, the Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and her fellow researchers have seen some surprising things in the highly nomadic culture.

Even in the most remote areas, most Tibetans have electricity. “One family used a solar panel chargeable battery to power a blender,” she told a packed Sinclair Auditorium on Tuesday.

So the famous traditional yak butter tea, which used to be made by hand in a large churn, is now made by a solar-powered blender.

Meltzer and Peter Zeitler, director of South Mountain College, shared their experiences in Tibet during a special presentation that kicked off a series of academic events that will lead up to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Lehigh in July 2008. The spiritual leader of Tibet, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, will teach for five-and-a-half days at Stabler Arena on Tsong-kha-pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: The Lamrim Chenmo. On Sunday afternoon, July 13, the Dalai Lama will give a public talk at Stabler on “Generating a Good Heart.”

The historic series of teachings are sponsored by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, N.J., in collaboration with Lehigh University.

“Tibet is a land of many contrasts and it is in a state of transition,” Meltzer said. “Their issues—how to raise their children and give each generation a better life—are similar to ours. Overall, it is a unique and special place.”

Meltzer and Zeitler, both professors of earth and environmental science, have led an international team of 16 researchers from seven institutions in studying a region in southeastern Tibet that includes Namche Barwa, the highest peak in the eastern Himalayas. The project, which also involved Lehigh students, was funded by the National Science Foundation.

They are studying whether and how much the forces of surface erosion—wind, rain, rivers—influence the tectonic forces below that give rise to earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain-building and more. They are studying how both surface processes and tectonic forces are combining at the far eastern end of the Himalaya to give rise to earthquakes and the growth of mountains.

”Signs of religion everywhere”

A mother and her child in Tibet.

Meltzer’s portion of the presentation, which included captivating photographs taken there, focused on what it is like to work in Tibet and live among the people. Meltzer and her fellow researchers have traveled to Tibet repeatedly to put seismometers in the ground to measure earthquake activity. That has led to some interesting interactions when they’ve asked Tibetans for permission to put the instruments on their land.

“They have to host the site for 15 months, and we return every three to four months to download the data,” Meltzer said.

Sometimes the researchers have had to negotiate, but in most cases, the Tibetan people have been more than willing to allow the equipment on their properties. As part of the deal, they have to construct a fence around the equipment to ensure that no footsteps disturb the data.

“We have come back to see some very interesting fences made from everything from rocks to wood to 3-foot-thick brush,” she said.

Meltzer and Zeitler highlighted the strong sense of spirituality in Tibet. Meltzer noted that in a valley in the middle of nowhere, they have come across a bunch of prayer flags and a boulder freshly painted with images of Buddha.

During his many travels, Zeitler and his group have gotten permission to travel the Tibetan countryside, which few travelers are granted.

“There are signs of religion everywhere, from large monasteries to small stupas,” he said.

Deserts and grasslands

Deep incision and plentiful and rugged high elevations mark the southeastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau.

Zeitler discussed a controversial dam project that has been proposed for the Tsang Po River to push the river northward, where there is less water.

“This is a really bad place for a dam,” he said. “The Tsang Po is a sediment machine. It is grinding up the rocks and that sediment is vital to ecosystems and building up the delta in Bangladesh. If you build a dam there, you will lose that.

“The other problem is that Anne’s work has shown that it is an incredibly seismically active area,” he added. “There is a big cluster of earthquakes, so this dam is likely to fail, forcing all that water downstream, which is not going to be a good thing. After all this, our work goes back to an important issue.”

Zeitler also shared some fascinating data on the geology of Tibet. For example, India is moving north at 4 centimeters per year, which is pushing Tibet vertically.

He also pointed out that the image of majestic mountains that many people have of Tibet is mistaken. Most of Tibet is high and flat, he said.

“People tend to think more of a monk in a cave at the peak of a mountain when they think of Tibet, but a lot of the country is open deserts and grasslands,” he said. “Then, as you move toward the southeast, things change—they become more rugged.”

The height of the country is also noteworthy. While most mountains start at sea level, Tibetan mountains start at an elevation of 4,000 to 5,000 meters and go up to almost 8,000 meters from there.

One area that Zeitler has spent extensive time in is a sacred region that the Buddhists named Pemako. “It is a complicated area,” Zeitler said. It is home to the San Po River, which falls 5,000 feet near the southeast corner—“the largest fall of a river in the world,” he said.

The Dalai Lama called Pemako “the hidden land shaped like a lotus.”

For upcoming events related to the Dalai Lama’s visit and the latest news, please visit Lehigh's special Dalai Lama Web site.

--Elizabeth Shimer Bowers

Photos courtesy of Peter Zeitler

Posted on Thursday, September 20, 2007

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