TIME Research

Here’s Why Tibetans Can Live Comfortably At Crazy-High Altitudes

Tibetans Can Live at High Altitudes
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Dave Bartruff—Getty Images

Ancient mating patterns seem to have given these plateau dwellers an odd advantage

When you or I go up to high altitude, we gasp for a while, maybe faint, and then gradually adapt. The way we do it is by furiously generating more red blood cells, to increase the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen, which gets thinner the higher we go. But we pay a price: all of those extra blood cells can make the blood sticky, leading to a risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and, in pregnant women, the delivery of low-birth-weight babies.

We pay that price, that is, unless we’re natives of the Tibetan plateau, where people live more or less cheerfully at altitudes of 13,000 feet and more. The secret lies in their genes—mostly in a gene known as EPAS1, which allows them to absorb scarce oxygen without creating extra blood cells. But while genetic traits are often created by mutations within a given species, this one evidently came from outside. According to a paper just published in the current Nature, the Tibetans’ ancestors evidently mated with a now extinct human species known as the Denisovans, which went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago.

It’s no surprise that matings have happened between modern humans and other human species. We share a fair number of genes with the more familiar Neanderthals, for example, who were the Denisovan’s distant cousins. But it’s not clear (although it’s certainly possible) that Neanderthal genes gave our ancestors any specific evolutionary advantages.

For Tibetans, though, the high-altitude gene allowed them to colonize a region nobody else could survive (some Han Chinese, which make up more than 90% of the population of China, also have the gene, but it’s relatively rare). “We found part of the EPAS1 gene in Tibetans is almost identical to the gene in Denisovans,” said lead author Rasmus Nielsen, of the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement, ” and very different from all other humans.”

What’s perhaps even more surprising is that the scientists had Denisovan genes to work with in the first place. “The only reason we can say that this bit of DNA is Denisovan, said Nielsen, “is is because of this lucky accident of sequencing DNA from a little bone found in a cave in Siberia. We found the Denisovan species at the DNA level, but how many other species are out there that we haven’t sequenced?”

TIME Photos

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TIME Cartography

Maybe Heads of State Shouldn’t Give Maps as Presents

Chinese President Xi Jinping Visits Berlin
German Chancellor Angela Merkel presents Chinese President Xi Jinping with a a map of China from the 18th century at the Chancellor's Office on March 28, 2014, in Berlin BPA/Getty Images

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave Chinese President Xi Jinping an antique map of his country as a gift during his recent visit to Berlin, she couldn’t have known what a stir it would cause

Chancellor Angela Merkel probably meant well. In Berlin last week, she gave her guest, Chinese President Xi Jinping, a 1735 map of China made by esteemed French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville (1697–1782). The map, part of a series by d’Anville, was based in part on information gleaned by Jesuit missionaries. It was well regarded at the time and republished for decades to come.

A perfect gift for a visiting dignitary, right? You would think so. But ever since the exchange, China’s Internet has been buzzing about the gift. Why did Merkel choose this particular item? What was the message in the map?

For students of Chinese history, the date jumps out. This was the height of the great Qing dynasty, specifically the year when the Qianlong Emperor ascended to power. He presided over a military expansion west and north, but his death, in 1799, is associated with the period of decline that followed.

And then there are the boundaries. The 1735 d’Anville map shows “China proper” as a landmass separate from areas like Xinjiang, Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria. The island of Hainan is drawn in a different color, as is Taiwan. This depiction is utterly at odds with how history is taught here.

Chinese students learn that these areas are inalienable parts of China, and that they have been for a long, long time. One netizen described the map as a “slap” from Merkel. “We always say some regions are inalienable parts of China since ancient times, but Merkel told us that even in 18th century those regions still did not belong to China.”

Another reasoned that it was the mapmakers, not Chancellor Merkel, who messed things up. “Merkel has no special connotation,” they wrote. “At that time German priests [sic] were not allowed to travel in such areas.”

To complicate the matter, at least two different versions of the map have been circulating online. State news wire Xinhua seems to have published an entirely different version of the map, prompting an entirely different set of theories.

Tibetan activist and blogger Tsering Woeser spotted the difference and pointed it out on her Facebook page. To express her dismay at the deception, she used a Chinese idiom that might be translated as “they are so good at perpetrating fraud!” More literally, the phrase means “to steal the beams and pillars and replace them with rotten timber.”

The lesson: maps mean different things to different people. And history is made of shaky stuff.

TIME Asia

Report: Tibetans in Nepal Are Suffering Under Growing Chinese Pressure

Nepal Tibetan Protest
Nepali policemen detain exiled Tibetans participating in a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu on March 10, 2014 Niranjan Shrestha—Associated Press

Human Rights Watch says growing Chinese pressure on the Nepali government has led to restrictions and harassment of Tibetans seeking refuge in the country, traditionally a safe haven for those fleeing China's crackdown on religious freedom

Tibetans living in Nepal are facing increased restrictions and harassment because of growing pressure from China, according to a new report.

The report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch says Tibetans who have sought refuge in Nepal are suffering from “routine abuses” by Nepali security forces and a de facto ban on political protests and other activities promoting culture and religion from Tibet.

“Nepal is invoking vague and inconsistent justifications to silence peaceful protest, discriminate against Tibetans and intimidate Nepali civil society activists,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

For decades Nepal has played a crucial role for Tibetans fleeing China’s growing crackdown on religious freedom, but in recent years China has increased pressure on Nepal.

TIME Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Defends Free Internet in China Speech

First Lady Michelle Obama Travels to China - Day 3
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University on March 22, 2014 in Beijing, China. Feng Li—Getty Images

"It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet ... because that's how we discover the truth," the First Lady said. Her remarks are a veiled swipe at China's harshly restrictive media environment

First Lady Michelle Obama used a trip to China on Saturday to promote the liberating “power of technology” in a veiled swipe at the harshly restrictive Internet and media environment in the country.

At her first — and only — major speech scheduled during her goodwill tour to China, Obama said new technology can “open up the entire world and expose us to ideas and innovations we could never have imagined.”

“It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media,” she said. “Because that’s how we discover the truth, that’s how we learn what’s really happening in our communities, in our country and our world.”

The First Lady spoke on March 22 at the Stanford Center at Peking University, China’s oldest national university, set in a cherry-blossom and willow-tree enclave in northwestern Beijing. Speaking to a mix of Chinese and American students, Obama spent much of her speech to 200-odd people promoting the values of study-abroad programs that she, as a child of parents who had not attended college, never even considered.

For a lot of young people like me who are struggling to afford a regular semester of school, paying for plane tickets or living expenses halfway around the world just isn’t possible. And that’s not acceptable because study abroad shouldn’t just be for students from certain background.

But it was the section about Internet freedom that may raise eyebrows. Obama praised the technology’s power to spread freedom without mentioning the many ways in which the so-called Great Firewall limits Chinese access to the Internet, by blocking social-media sites like Twitter, Facebook and blogging software — plus various foreign news and human-rights websites considered too sensitive for domestic consumption.

The new U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus, the former Democratic Senator for Montana, also extolled the virtues of Twitter and Facebook in his introduction to Obama’s speech. Both of these sites, however, are blocked in China. Western businesses have complained that such restrictions are undercutting operational efficiency, even causing some to downsize their China operations for other Asian nations with better telecommunications.

But despite constantly shifting censorship directives, the hottest news in China now spreads on native social-media platforms like Weibo or Weixin. The nation’s official news agency is far behind both in terms of public trust and substantive stories. At the same time, the rise of yellow journalism in China, exacerbated by the tendency of poorly paid reporters to accept cash payments for showing up to a press conference, is compromising journalistic objectivity.

The First Lady praised a “new era of citizen diplomacy,” a phrase she attributed to a naturalized American citizen whose parents arrived from Eritrea when he was a child and is now studying in China. But she also cautioned against a government’s tendency to shield itself from criticism, even from scurrilous tabloids, for fear of denting media freedoms:

That’s how we decide which values and ideas we think are best — by questioning and debating them vigorously, by listening to all sides of the argument and by judging for ourselves. And believe me, I know how this can be a messy and frustrating process. My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens, and it’s not always easy, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Because time and again, we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices and opinions of all citizens can be heard.

Obama’s speech was pointed, although it stopped short of naming China. The rest of the First Lady’s trip — ranging from a tour of the Summer Palace and Great Wall in Beijing, to a stop to see the terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an and a cuddle with giant pandas at a reserve in Chengdu — is far less political than this Stanford Center at Peking University speech. Obama’s defense of Internet and media freedom is only a small portion of her March 22 trip.

Nevertheless, Obama’s first-ever trip to China, which she has embarked up with her mother Marian Robinson and daughters Malia and Sasha, had one further pointed stop. In Chengdu, which is not far from Tibetan regions where disaffected locals have self-immolated to protest repressive Chinese government rule, Obama will stop to eat at a Tibetan restaurant. Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, is blessed with vibrant, spicy food. Tibetan cuisine, however, isn’t considered one of the world’s tastiest cuisines.

Nevertheless, the Obama women and girls are scheduled to tuck into a meal that will likely involve variations on tsampa (roasted barley flour), racks of yak meat, heavy dumplings and tea laced with salt and yak butter. A senior Administration official cautioned against reading too much into Obama’s Tibetan dining choice: “Tibetans are an important minority in China.” And that was that. So much for imbuing further political meaning into the First Lady’s goodwill tour.

TIME Tibet

No Self-Immolations by Locals in Tibet, Says Senior Chinese Government Official

Padma Choling, head of China's Tibet Autonomous Region Congress gestures during their open session in the Great Hall of the people at the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 8, 2013 Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

Claim stretches truth as described by human rights groups, independent journalists and pretty much everyone else

Don’t be fooled by all those foreign news reports and incendiary images leaked at the risk of imprisonment. At the National People’s Congress (NPC) annual confab currently underway in Beijing, Padma Choling, one of the highest-ranking Tibetan officials in China, said that no self-immolations by locals have taken place under his watch. Exile groups and human-rights watchdogs say at least 125 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Chinese state repression.

Most self-immolators have using their final moments of life to call for the return of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has lived in exile for more than five decades after a failed uprising back home. The Chinese government blames the Dalai Lama for orchestrating the fiery protests, a charge the 78-year-old monk denies.

“None of the 46,000 monks and nuns in Tibet’s 1,700-plus monasteries, nor any local residents, have self-immolated,” said Padma Choling, a former soldier who is the chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). This is not the highest-ranking political position in Tibet; that top post has never gone to a Tibetan, one of the many power gaps felt keenly by some locals.

Technically, Padma Choling is close to right on the self-immolations. Nearly all of the incendiary acts have taken place not in the TAR that he helps command but in ethnically Tibetan areas of three other Chinese provinces: Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu. And the Tibetan official was careful to stress that no TAR locals were involved, leaving open the possibility of other Tibetans coming to the TAR to self-immolate. At another high-level meeting in Beijing in 2012, Che Dalha, the Communist Party Secretary of the TAR’s capital Lhasa, noted that “only a few cases have happened in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.” Overall, Padma Choling seemed determined to gloss over the situation across the Tibetan high plateau. Locals complain of state-imposed religious restrictions and an influx of migrants from China’s Han ethnic majority, who tend to secure the best jobs.

Padma Choling’s cheery estimation of his homeland isn’t unusual among party officials. At the 2012 Chinese Communist Party Congress, another senior Tibetan official claimed that a nationwide poll had deemed Lhasa the happiest city in China for four years. Since 2008 race riots claimed at least 100 Tibetan and Han lives, Lhasa has turned into perhaps the most militarized city in all of the People’s Republic, with constant checkpoints and security personnel patrolling the streets. Riot gear, armored vehicles, paramilitary forces—is this really what such a happy metropolis should feel like? In its latest human-rights report, the U.S. government said that nearly 90 people had been jailed in connection with the self-immolations. Some were locked up simply for having been related to the protesters.

In recent weeks, the Chinese government’s pr campaign has intensified against the Dalai Lama and other people it occasionally calls “splittists.” The Dalai Lama has for decades advocated a “middle way” that forswears outright Tibetan independence in exchange for meaningful autonomy. On March 10 at the NPC, China’s top political advisor Yu Zhengsheng said that “efforts should be made to help local officials and people get a clear understanding of the nature and danger of the Dalai Lama’s preaching of the ‘middle way’ and ‘high-degree autonomy,’” according to state news agency Xinhua.

Yu’s criticism felt rather feeble compared to other broadsides unleashed by Chinese government representatives. Commenting on the Tibetan spiritual leader’s U.S. tour — during which he met last month with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House — Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said the encounter “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.” Qin went on to assail the Dalai Lama. “Facts have fully proved that the Dalai Lama is by no means a pure religions figure,” he said, “but a political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion.” At least that was a tad more polite than when Chinese officials referred to the Tibetan cleric as a “wolf in monk’s robes.”

On March 4, the Dalai Lama led a prayer session at the U.S. Senate. China, again, expressed displeasure. Yet there’s no question that the Dalai Lama’s long decades of exile have not dulled Tibetan reverence for him. His image, technically illegal, often resides in the photos kept on Tibetan cellphones. This month, a memoir by the former guerilla commando who founded Tibet’s Communist Party was published in Hong Kong. The book is entitled A Long Way to Equality and Unity and in it, Bapa Phuntso Wangye (also known as Phunwang), 92, makes an extraordinary plea: He wants the Chinese government to allow the Dalai Lama to return home.

TIME

WATCH: Dalai Lama Says ‘O.K.’ to Same-Sex Marriages

The exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists called gay marriage an "individual business"

The Dalai Lama took his first public stance on gay marriage Thursday, calling it “O.K.” during an online interview with Larry King.

“If two people — a couple — really feel that way is more practical, more sort of satisfaction, both sides fully agree, then O.K.,” he said, adding that he unreservedly opposed attacks on homosexuals. “Bully, abuse — that’s totally wrong.”

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