Tibet as seen from Google Earth

I met last week with a college student who grew up as a nomad in Tibet. The student used Google Earth to tour me around the places where he grew up. I let him “drive” my computer as he created more than 20 place marks on my computer. It was a powerful way to learn about Tibet.

One of the tenets of TLC Middle School is that Google Earth is a powerful tool for empathy. When I met with this student, I could better empathize with his life in Tibet because I could actually see the places he was talking about. Because I could better empathize with his life, I was able to ask more insightful questions and learn more about Tibet.

One of the more poignant moments in our conversation came when we were zooming out of where he attended primary school from 1-6 grade, which you can see labeled on the top of the screen clip below.


Because of Google Earth, I was able to ask about the buildings laid out in a grid to the south of the township where he grew up.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” he said.

He then proceeded to explain that former nomads had been resettled in those small houses about five years ago by the Chinese government, which claimed that the nomadic lifestyle was “degrading the land.” As a result, people could not be allowed to live as nomads any longer.

Here’s an account I found from the BBC from 2007 that provides more context for this story:

bbc tibet

I wanted to see what this forced relocation looked like, so I searched on YouTube and found this short video.

Keep in mind that the video I found has only three views; I don’t know who “MrPopechannel” is; and the video’s label incorrectly says that 25 million people are being relocated (2.5 million might be more reasonable) — so I’d definitely want to corroborate this source…

But the following image, taken from the video, fits with what I saw on Google Earth. It further helps bring to life a poignant moment in Tibet’s recent history — the relocation of Tibetan nomads.

youtube tibet

There’s no way — without Google Earth — that our conversation would have led me to ask about resettlement of nomads back in 2007. That event simply was not on my radar, even though I prepared for our meeting by reading about the basics of Tibet’s history.

That’s the power of Google Earth!

Another neat tool on Google Earth is the “go back in time” feature that lets you see historical maps of the same places. Using it, I was able to see that in 2007, there were no camps built yet — but by 2009, they had been constructed:


Imagine what it would be like to be told that you can no longer live the way you and your ancestors had lived for hundreds of years, and that you now have to live in these box-like housing structures.

Another example of the time-travel feature of Google Earth came when I had a recent conversation with a teacher from the Odyssey Community School in Asheville, NC. While we were talking, she described for me how a large patch of trees south of her school were clear-cut by a developer over December break in 2008:


When students and teachers came back in 2009, it was as though they had lived through The Lorax. With the tree cover gone, the nearby creek heated up, and that meant that creatures who had lived in the creek, such as salamanders, who are sensitive to changes in temperature, started to die.


As a final note about maps and how maps can be biased, I discovered that what constitutes  “Tibet” on a map depends on who’s drawing the map.

In the map below, the Chinese government recognizes the former “Tibet” only as the lightly shaded area in the map below, labeled as the “Tibet Autonomous Region.”

tibet map

By contrast, Tibetans consider Tibet to be about twice as big. Tibetans would likely say that Tibet includes all of the areas outlined in green above — it’s not just the “Tibet Autonomous Region” — it’s also all of Qinghai province, as well as parts of the surrounding provinces of  Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Tibet as seen from Google Earth

  1. That’s very sad about the forced settlements in Tibet, and the clear-cutting too. I had not realized that we had access to a “time-travel” feature of Google Earth. I’ll have to check it out.

    Speaking of interesting map work, have you heard of GeoGuessr yet? (No e.) It’s a Google-Earth-based activity I recently discovered. It gives you pictures of some place on Earth, and you have to poke around and get enough clues to make a guess at where on earth you are (no pun intended). Then the program tells you within km how close your guess was to the actual location. It gives you the effect of traveling around and finding new places you’d never expect to find. I have gotten within a few blocks on occasion, but other times I’ve mistaken the continent completely. I’m still thinking how I could use this in an actual curriculum somehow. I’m always looking at types of plants, road signage, and signs of the climate and culture, so perhaps a unit on geography or environments would find it useful.

    Nice blog! I’ve got you on my feeder.

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