China has destroyed large areas of one of Tibet's biggest Buddhist sites, satellite images reveal

Monday, 30 September 2019

Satellite images acquired by Free Tibet verify that large-scale demolitions have levelled almost half of Yarchen Gar in Palyul County, eastern Tibet (1), one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist sites in the world.

The demolitions took place in August and are part of a long-term effort by Chinese Communist Party authorities to cut the number of residents at the site.

Satellite images from before and after the most recent demolitions (2) show a clear  contrast on the west bank of the river running through Yarchen Gar, with a densely-populated area of the community now removed and bare ground where it once stood.

In addition to the demolitions, thousands of monks and nuns have also been forced out of their homes and places of worship in Yarchen Gar this year.

In July 2019, Free Tibet’s research partner Tibet Watch was able to confirm that 70 nuns were removed from Yarchen Gar (3), but local sources claimed there had been at least 3,500 removals this year (4). 

The 70 nuns confirmed as being removed were subsequently sent back to their native Jomda County, nearly 300 kilometres away. There, they were detained for two to three months and forced to undergo patriotic re-education, a process that typically involves detainees being compelled to praise the People’s Republic of China and denounce Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

It is difficult to get information out of Yarchen Gar because of its remote location and the security presence in and around the site. Foreign visitors are currently barred from the area and Chinese authorities have increased levels of surveillance inside Yarchen Gar, with around 600 military personnel now deployed there to monitor the inhabitants (5).

Photo evidence from the site suggests that a key reason for the demolitions and removals is to open Yarchen Gar up to tourists. A hotel and several car parks have been constructed to the north of the community and roads have been widened to facilitate access. 

Yarchen Gar was established in 1985 and in the ensuing decades has seen its population grow to an estimated 10,000 people. The community is sometimes known as “The City of Nuns” due to the large proportion of resident nuns.

Although the latest round of demolitions reportedly began in July 2019, forced removals and demolitions have been taking place at the site since at least 2001. This activity has escalated in recent years. In 2016 alone, 1,000 residents were reportedly forced to leave (6) and, in August 2017, 3,500 homes were slated for demolition so that roads could be widened. Residents were told to dismantle their own homes and offered minimal compensation for their losses (7).

In 2018, 3,500 homes were torn down. Residents were forbidden from renovating their homes or building new structures (8).  Among the areas affected by the demolitions was the west bank of the river. Satellite imagery taken in April 2018 showed that scores of homes had already been torn down in this area to make way for several new roads.  The homes in between these roads have now been demolished.

The demolitions, forced removals, paired with the development of tourist infrastructure, echoes events at Larung Gar in nearby Serthar County (9), where at least 4,800 people were forcibly evicted and 4,700 buildings, mostly residences, were torn down between June 2016 and May 2017. At the same time, hotels were constructed and roads widened (10).

The demolitions have continued despite the appeals of religious authorities at Yarchen Gar. After being forced to announce a previous round of demolitions in August 2017, the lama at the site called on residents to show calm and patience and not to express opposition to, or details about, the demolitions through social media. He said that the demolition order was: "like a rock falling from the high mountain - no one could reverse it". Another senior monk from Yarchen Gar travelled to the TAR to request that authorities permitted monks and nuns from the TAR who have not yet been evicted to stay in Yarchen Gar. The authorities did not agree to this request (11).

John Jones, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager for Free Tibet, said: 

“These latest images demonstrate once again the Chinese Communist Party’s contempt for the Tibetan people, who are forced to endure being evicted from their homes and torn away from their communities on the orders of a government that they do not even recognise as their own. The CCP knows full well what it is doing is cruel and deserving of the highest condemnation, and that is why they cover it up by closing off the site and detaining former residents. What they cannot do is stop us watching them from above. The satellite evidence is clear and undeniable. Now it is up to the international community to press the CCP to halt these destructive plans and to allow the residents of Yarchen Gar to live in peace”.

The full before and after satellite photos can be downloaded from Flickr here:





John Jones, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager, Free Tibet


T: +44 (0)207 324 4605 


Notes for editors:

  1. Location: Pelyul County (Ch: Baiyü County), Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province.

  2. Satellite images and images of Yarchen Gar are available for use here:







  9. Location: Larung Gar, Serthar County (Ch: Seda), Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province.

  10. For full details about the demolitions and forced removals at Larung Gar, 2016-2017, see: