Nepali Times
Mapping the Tibetoid World


It is surprisingly rare for the content of a book to live up to its enticing title, but Mapping the Tibetan World, published in December 2000, does just that. This beautifully produced and quality guidebook to the "Tibetan Cultural Region" (their chosen term) brands itself as being suited for the "budget" traveller, but this claim is unduly modest-anyone interested in exploring the Tibetan world, budget backpacker to five-star organised tour group member, would do well to have this volume in their pocket.

There are various features of the guide which deserve both special attention and praise. First of all, the writers and editors have masterfully tackled a notoriously difficult geopolitical issue: who defines what Tibetan culture is and how far does it stretch? In the Message from the Publishers on page 4, the framework is clear: "We have included all of the areas that can be classed as being within the "Tibetan Cultural Region", a classification that cuts across 'national' or 'geopolitical' boundaries and encompasses the areas where the people share a common ancestry, culture and religion." As a result, along with carefully thought-out route descriptions of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), there are sections on Western China, Northern India, Bhutan and Nepal.

Second, in the process of addressing the "what counts as Tibet?" conundrum, they have offered judicious presentations of both the pro-Chinese and pro-Tibetan points of view. From page 30 to 34, two competing histories of Tibet are offered side by side, from the Chinese and Tibetan viewpoints respectively. This approach is to be applauded, not least because the editors make it clear that their attempt may have been a "reckless one for a guidebook" (page 30). In fact, despite a veneer of impartiality, the whole book is distinctly pro-Tibetan. This respect and appreciation for Tibetan culture that rings loud and clear in the writing may make it difficult for tourists to consult the book in the open when travelling in Tibet proper, even though there are no explicitly pro-Tibetan political statements.

The introductory cultural and historical sections of the guide are well written and beautifully illustrated. Although short, the editors have managed to pack a generous amount of valuable cultural information into very little space without making it seem overcrowded. The few pages charmingly entitled Unravelling the Thangka Message are truly insightful and offer an excellent schematic representation of the various elements of Tibetan Buddhist iconography with which one is so frequently confronted when travelling in the Tibetan Buddhist world.

Whilst Nepal does feature in the guide, it is only present in as much as some parts of the country are distinctly and ethnically Tibetan. The section on Nepal opens with the Tibetan word for Nepal, bal-yul, superimposed on a photo of the stupa at Boudha, and the short section entitled The People of Nepal explicitly lists only the groups of "Tibetan descent", under which the editors include "Gurungs & Magars" (page 319). Throughout this section there is the slight feeling that Nepal is worth visiting because it is an important element of the Tibetan periphery, not because of the antiquity of the Tibetoid way of life which falls within its borders. As a result of this Tibeto-phile and Tibeto-centric perspective, readers of the guide coming to Nepal or India for the first time would be forgiven for wondering where all the Hindus came from.

A welcome touch, and a sign of good sense and humility on the part of the editors, is a short section on Other Guidebooks. Rather than arguing (absurdly) that this guide is the only thing a traveller needs, the pros and cons of six other Tibet guides are listed.

The single most notable and unique feature of Mapping the Tibetan World is the abundance of beautifully-drawn line maps. Credit must go to Shozo Tominaga for the precision and artistic simplicity of the 280 maps in this guide, embodying the very best of Japanese graphic design. This guidebook is a perfect travel companion for anyone journeying in the Tibetosphere. It can be purchased from and Snow Lion Publications (

Mapping the Tibetan World. Kotan Publishing: Reno, NV and Tokyo, Japan. 424 pages, 21 colour photos, 286 black & white photos, 32 illustrations, over 280 maps. $27.95, ?17.95, Japan ?2,940.

(Mark Turin is a linguistic anthropologist writing a grammar of the Thangmi language spoken in Dolakha and Sindhupalchowk.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)