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Exploring Markam: A Popular Cultural Crossroads in Eastern Tibet

Markam County, (སྨར་ཁམས་རྫོང་།) a gem nestled in the eastern borders of Tibet, stands as a beacon of cultural wealth and geographic wonder. Known in Tibetan as “smar-khams,” (芒康县) which translates to “a place of excellence,” Markam serves as a pivotal connection between Tibet and its neighboring provinces of Sichuan to the east and Yunnan to the south. Flanked by Zuogong County to the west and both Chaya and Gongjue counties to the north, its strategic location between latitudes 28.37°N and 30.20°N, and longitudes 98.00°E and 99.05°E, renders Markam an intriguing destination for adventurers and culture lovers alike.

A Rich Tapestry of History of Markham

The history of Markam is as diverse as its landscapes, with its significance blossoming during the Tubo Empire as a vital node on the Tea Horse Road, facilitating trade and cultural exchange. Over centuries, Markam was known by various names, reflecting its evolving identity through epochs. Its governance transitioned from the Tubo Empire to Kashag in 1726, before finally being integrated into Tibetan administration in 1932. Officially named Markam County in 1965, this region embarked on a new chapter, enriching its historical narrative.

Administrative divisions of Markham

Markam County is divided in 2 towns, 13 townships, and 1 ethnic township.

NameChineseHanyu PinyinTibetan
Towns
Gartok Town嘎托镇Gātuō zhènསྒར་ཐོག་གྲོང་རྡལ།
Rongmé Town如美镇Rúměi zhènརོང་སྨད་གྲོང་རྡལ།
Townships
Zurdeshö Township索多西乡Suǒduōxī xiāngཟུར་བདེ་ཤོད་ཤང་།
Bumpa Township莽岭乡Mǎnglǐng xiāngའབུམ་པ་ཤང་།
Tsangshö Township宗西乡Zōngxī xiāngགཙང་ཤོད་ཤང་།
Gardo Township昂多乡Ángduō xiāngམགར་མདོ་ཤང་།
Co’nga Township措瓦乡Cuòwǎ xiāngམཚོ་རྔ་ཤང་།
Norné Township洛尼乡Luòní xiāngནོར་གནས་ཤང་།
Göpo Township戈波乡Gēbō xiāngརྒོད་པོ་ཤང་།
Pangda Township帮达乡Bāngdá xiāngསྤང་མདའ་ཤང་།
Jidrong Township徐中乡Xúzhōng xiāngབྱིས་གྲོངས་ཤང་།
Chörten Township曲登乡Qǔdēng xiāngམཆོད་རྟེན་ཤང་།
Mokshö Township木许乡Mùxǔ xiāngརྨོག་ཤོད་ཤང་།
Chupalung Township朱巴龙乡Zhūbālóng xiāngགྲུ་པ་ལུང་ཤང་།
Chutsenkha Township曲孜卡乡Qǔzīkǎ xiāngཆུ་ཚན་ཁ་ཤང་།
Ethnic township
Naxi Ethnic Township纳西民族乡Nàxī mínzúxiāngའཇང་མི་རིགས་ཤང་།

Cultural Vibrance

Markam’s essence lies not only in its natural beauty but also in its profound cultural heritage. The county celebrates its traditional dances, notably the Markam String Dance and the Three-String Dance, both honored as National Intangible Cultural Heritages. The String Dance, featuring its characteristic instrument “Baiyang” or the historical “Huqin,” distinguishes itself with elegant animal-inspired movements. In parallel, the Three-String Dance, hailing from Daxu Village, mesmerizes with its harmonious blend of music and choreography, echoing the rich cultural fabric of Markam.

Geographic Splendor and Climatic Diversity

Markam’s landscape is a breathtaking showcase of nature’s majesty, located amidst the Three Rivers’ spectacular valleys. Its geography spans dramatic mountain ranges and deep canyons, with elevations ranging up to 6,434 meters. This varied topography gives rise to a distinct climate—characterized by a sub-humid monsoon pattern, with mild, moist summers and cold, dry winters. Despite facing natural adversities such as floods and earthquakes, Markam’s untouched natural beauty offers a tranquil haven for those seeking to immerse themselves in the tranquility of nature.

Markam’s narrative is one of resilience, cultural wealth, and natural beauty. Its historical paths, cultural expressions, and scenic vistas render it an undiscovered treasure within Tibet’s vast landscapes. As a confluence of history, culture, and nature, Markam beckons travelers and culture aficionados to explore its myriad wonders and partake in the legacy of this extraordinary region.

Signature Products of Markam: A Tapestry of Agricultural and Artisanal Riches

Markam County, a vibrant blend of agriculture and pastoralism, stands out as one of Tibet’s eleven primary grain production bases. This region celebrates its abundant yield of highland barley, wheat, barley, corn, millet, and other crops. The pastoral sector thrives on rearing yaks, cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. Meanwhile, traditional handicrafts dominate its industrial scene, including the production of unique Tibetan textiles such as Kadian (a type of woolen carpet) and Pulu (a woolen fabric).

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Diverse Delicacies and Handicrafts of Markam

Markam’s specialty products encompass an array of foods and crafts, including highland barley wine, Tibetan white liquor, grape wine, yak butter, leather, wool, musk, caterpillar fungus, fritillaria, matsutake mushrooms, black fungus, walnuts, snow pears, spring onions, along with bamboo weaving and ceramic processing.

Popular Local Prooduct in Maarkham

Matsutake Mushrooms:

These mushrooms, also known as “pine mushrooms,” belong to the Armillariella family and hold the esteemed title of the “king of wild mushrooms.” They boast rich nutritional content, including 17% crude protein, 5.8% crude fat, 8.6% crude fiber, and 61.5% soluble non-nitrogen compounds, along with trace elements such as potassium, iron, and abundant vitamins. Medically, they contain matsutake alcohol and its isomers, renowned for their health-boosting properties, gastrointestinal benefits, and pain relief capabilities. They are effective in treating numbness in hands and feet, as well as pain in the waist and legs.

Tibetan White Liquor:

In Tibetan, they call this liquor “Borang,” and it differs from barley wine with its higher alcohol content, achieved through a double-distillation process. While barley wine usually contains around 10% alcohol, Tibetan white liquor boasts a content of about 30%. Historically, people brewed this liquor mainly for personal use or as gifts for friends and relatives, with the most famous varieties originating from the Markam area

Black Fungus:

Also known as “black wood ear” or “smooth wood ear,” this delicacy boasts a tender texture and unique flavor. It is a fungus rich in nutrition, containing ample amounts of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. It offers health benefits such as energy boosting, hunger satiating, hemostasis, pain relief, blood nourishment, and circulation. Moreover, it has potential anti-cancer properties and benefits for cardiovascular health. Markam, with its rich fungal resources, is one of Tibet’s main production areas for high-quality, high-yield black fungus.

Markam County, with its blend of agricultural bounty and artisanal craftsmanship, offers a unique glimpse into the rich cultural and natural heritage of Eastern Tibet. The county’s signature products not only reflect the traditional lifestyle of its inhabitants but also contribute to the local economy and the well-being of its people, making Markam a notable destination for those seeking to explore the flavors and crafts of Tibet.

Markam’s Ancient Salt Wells: A Millennium of Tradition

At the heart of Markam County lies a treasure trove of culinary heritage: the ancient salt wells, boasting a history of salt production dating back over a thousand years. The village of Xiayanjing preserves the traditional methods of salt-making. Along the banks of the Lancang River, rich brine resources abound, including three large salt wells and several smaller brine pits. Villagers collect brine from these wells using special wooden barrels, which is then poured into salt fields to dry under the sun. As the brine evaporates, it leaves behind sparkling white salt crystals. These salt wells represent the largest scale of salt production in Tibet, retaining the most intact original craftsmanship.

Moreover, Markam is renowned for its wide range of specialty products, offering a diverse and rich selection including caterpillar fungus, fritillaria, Damai Yong grape wine, Red wine, Nashi Township highland barley caterpillar fungus wine, pipa meat, Gagamian, Shutong garlic, Muxu honey, Chuzika Sichuan pepper, Sodosi chili, Lancang River dried fruits, yak meat, sheep meat, dairy products, and more.

Salt Well Jiajiamian: A Culinary Heritage

In 2010, authorities honored Jiajiamian as a regional intangible cultural heritage. This dish is crafted using premium flour, eggs, locally sourced lye water, pipa pork, Salt Well salt, green onions, garlic, and various seasonings, resulting in a delightful flavor profile.

Legend has it that Jiajiamian was originally presented as a tribute to Phags-pa Lama. In 1260, when Kublai Khan ascended the throne, he appointed Phags-pa as the national teacher. In 1265, to welcome Phags-pa Lama back to Tibet, the monks in the Duogan region offered Salt Well noodles as a tribute. To cater to the Lama’s appetite, the chefs served the noodles in small bowls, leading Phags-pa to enjoy several bowls and praise their delicious taste. Since then, the tradition of serving Salt Well noodles in small bowls, or “Gaga,” has continued.

Travel and Transportation in Markam

Markam serves as a critical juncture on the National Highway 318, marking the first county in Tibet along this route and acting as a nexus between the Yunnan-Tibet and Sichuan-Tibet highways (stretching 350 kilometers within the county). It offers access to Lhasa (1,225 kilometers to the west) and Chengdu to the east, with the Yunnan-Tibet Highway leading south to Kunming. The county is over 300 kilometers from Qamdo Bamda Airport.

Travel Tips:

  1. Markam is 436 kilometers from Qamdo Town. Travelers can take a bus from Qamdo to Markam, or opt for car rental or self-driving.
  2. The local cuisine is predominantly Sichuan-style, with Gagamian being a famous snack.
  3. Accommodations range from hotels and hostels to guest houses, with the option of staying at the Markam Hot Springs Resort for those seeking relaxation.

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About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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