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Part 3
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Beautiful Plateau Lakes


Tibet has long enjoyed the accolade of “origin of ten thousand mountains and the source of ten thousand waters.”  Tibet’s many high mountains and snow-capped peaks have given birth to many rivers. It is rich in water resources, with many lakes and criss-crossed by rivers. The lakes in the canyon come in various sizes; the lower altitude lakes in the tropical and subtropical forests, thanks to the abundant rainfall, are larger than those at higher elevation. The scenery around the Basum Tso is delightful and the Yi’ong Tso to its north is known both for its beautiful landscape and for Yi’ong green tea. The sacred plateau lakes of Yardrok Yutso and Namtso are famous in Tibet; little grows around their shores, lending them an austere spiritual appeal. Basum Tso, on the other hand, is surrounded by vigorous greenery.


Basum Tso


Generally speaking, bamboo is a plant indicator of the southern China. For a traveler coming from the Nyingchi County seat to the foot of Serkhyim La Pass, the sight of the green bamboo growing there will give the impression of being in southern China. Having driven half way up the mountain and looking down at the trees below, they would appear tall and pale brown.  The color is due to Songluo (literally, pine-vine), a rootless brown plant that attaches itself to the trees and is a favorite food of golden monkeys. Songluo is said to be an effective herbal medicine for treating tracheitis.


We drove eastwards along the Nyang River for over an hour and then turned left. There was an abrupt change in the terrain – from smooth to precipitous. The Ba River, clear but violent, flows out of the canyon running towards a distant land way behind us.  We came to a place called “the Tiger’s mouth” (Laohukou) named, according to an experienced team-member, from a towering giant rock on the right side of the canyon.  One part of the rock faces the river, and over time this has been weathered to become a sheer cliff with overhanging crags.  Local Tibetans have made use of this marvelous creation of nature by hanging a steel cable some 100 meters in length between the cliffs on each side of the river. The cable itself is strung with many colorful prayer streamers fluttering in the wind. 


Faced with such a special sight, we all rushed for our cameras.  As tall trees were obscuring our view of the Ba River, we had to make our way through them to the cliff overlooking the river. Looking down, we trembled with fear; the river was some 60 meters below.  The branches of the trees were still stopping us getting good shots of the river; to get a full view, one had to go down out of the trees for a little way. One daring team member, holding on to branches as he went, carefully edged down a few steps to a slope, where, lying on his side, he took some shots of the river.


With its wide rushing streams and luxuriant vegetation, the Ba River valley was a most beautiful place. But there was another aspect. At the densely wooded mountain foot were several square stone blockhouses, each about 30 m high, from which one concluded that the Ba River valley had once been an important military base that had witnessed fighting.


Basum Tso is also called Tsogo Lake. The Tibetans revere mountains and lakes and deify many of them. Basum Tso is one of the well-known sacred lakes.


The Basum Tso lies 90 kilometers west of Kongpo Gyamda County, 3,538 meters above sea level and covering an area of 25.9 square kilometers. It is 15 kilometers long, 3 kilometers wide and 60 m deep, its elongated form resembling a river. Clearly reflected on the lake’s surface are the shapely figures of its surroundings - blue sky, white clouds, snow peaks and green trees. Blue waves ripple in the breeze, lake and sky forming a harmonious whole. 


There is an island in the lake, like a piece of green jade on the water. On the island amongst some trees stands the Tsozong (meaning ‘castle in a lake’) Monastery. The monastery at once seized our interest and we rushed to the lakeside. We found that the island did have a ferry and a boatman and we called to the boatman, asking him to take us across. 


The boatman came to us.  He was about 60, his old age and difficult life clear from the wrinkles on his forehead. He was called Sampo and had originally lived some 30 kilometers from here but had come to the monastery for help after his wife died. He had lived here ever since and rowed the ferry on the lake.  In fact he did not row but moved the ferry by holding with both hands a steel cable between the island and the lake shore. The ferry was tied to the cable with a rope, one end tied to the ferry the other to a wooden loop that hung on the cable. Thus, with both hands grabbing the cable, Sampo moved the ferryboat to the island.


The waters were so clear that you could see the pebbles some two meters below. What a pleasure it would have been to take a boat, looking at the fish in the water and the trees on the mountains around the lake. But we had to give up the idea because we could not find a boatman to row us.


The Tsozong monastery belongs to the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism and was built in the 17th century. In front of the monastery is a vacant yard as large as two basketball courts, empty apart from a river deer with an injured leg wandering about it. On the left was an old tree. The strange thing about it was that a young tree was growing out of the trunk of the old one and the phenomenon of two trees growing from a single body caused people to worship it as divine and festoon it with colorful flags. Beside the tree was a building, in which was a giant prayer-wheel, a meter in diameter and six meters high; it was made with ox-hide and painted with scriptures.  Wooden sticks stuck out from the prayer-wheel, allowing worshippers to turn it. 


After returning from the island, I walked by the lake and found several big stones, each as big as a desk, carved with Buddhist scriptures.


When it was time for our noon rest, I walked away with my camera along a road heading west, wanting to find more scenic spots in the Basum Tso area.


Cliffs and green trees lined both sides of the road. The scent of rotting leaves from the primal forest met my nostrils. The calls of nameless wild birds and beasts met my ears. When I had walked about 300 meters I shivered, afraid of meeting a black bear or wild boar. Fortunately, just then, I saw a mantra and Buddha images carved on a cliff by the roadside, and immediately stopped feeling so edgy. 


Looking into the distance I could see a burnt forest where the undergrowth and bushes were all burned out and the earth visible. Only a few trunks, blackened by the fire, remained standing, like surviving heroes looking down upon a disaster. Near to the lake I saw pine-vines hanging densely on pine branches, their light-brown color masking the green of the trees. A one-hour walk brought home to me how the vapor passing through the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon was transformed into these mirror-like lakes and how it nourished the forests and bushes on the mountains.


Jomolangma Sacred Tea and Yi'ong Lake


Yi’ong, a township in Bomi County, is densely forested but sparsely populated. It is located in the hinterland of China’s second largest forest region. I was surprised to learn, on the flight to Tibet, that there are many beautiful tea plantations in Yi’ong.


After crossing the Tongmey Bridge, our jeep left the Sichuan-Tibet highway and drove northwestward along a mountain road. The road standard was very poor and there were potholes, rocks, mud and fallen trees everywhere and our jeep driver had to slow down. The Yi’ong River ran roaring along by the side of the road. Unlike the clear, clean waters of the Tongjug and Parlung Tsangpo rivers, the Yi’ong River is muddy. This is due to poor water-and-soil conservation in its upper reaches, the fast current carrying away much mud and sand downstream.


At Yi’ong we saw orderly rows of brick houses with tiled roofs; with their high rising ridges, they looked quite a considerable size. What is the reason for such large houses here in Yi’ong, far off the Sichuan-Tibet highway? We were told that the Communist Party School of Tibet Autonomous Region had once been in Yi’ong. It was said that the government of Tibet Autonomous Region had also intended moving its office to Yi’ong, because its lower altitude, warmer climate, and plentiful vegetation provided a good place to live and work, not only for Tibetan cadres but also for cadres from other parts of China, who would not suffer from high altitude reaction here.


After the Communist Party School was moved away, the site was turned into a tea plantation.


Far to the east stand snow-capped mountains. The hillsides are clad with deep green trees. Crops of golden rapeseed cloak the fields at the foot of the mountains.


By the side of the fields is a tea plantation, criss-crossed with field ridges. The tea bushes were green with luxuriant foliage and girls were busy collecting tea-leaves there. Standing by the plantation, we could hear their ringing voices wafted over by the wind from the mountains. I could find no difference between this plantation in Yi’ong and those south of the Yangtze River.  Yi’ong tea is of high quality, with tea phenols accounting for up 30.90% of its content, and contains no chemical residues.  In 1994 the Yi’ong plantation earned profits of over 900,000 yuan; its annual output was more than 100,000 kilograms of green tea. I wanted to learn more about the present situation, but failed because of the language barrier. In response to my inquiry the manager gave me an advertisement for the plantation, which reads as follows:


“Yi’ong tea is called ‘Jomolangma Sacred Tea’. Yi’ong is located at 30o.N, the same latitude as the famous tea-growing areas further east in China - Hangzhou, Dongting, Lushan, Taiping, Tunxi, Qionglai and also Qimen, where the best black tea comes from.  This latitude is a magic one so far as tea is concerned.


“Jomolangma Sacred Tea grows by Yi’ong Lake in the eastern Himalayas, which provides a perfect growing environment. Compared with other teas, Jomolangma Sacred Tea grows in a place exceptionally rich in natural resources, in a place generally acknowledged as ‘the last pure land’ on earth. Sufficient sunshine, fresh air, the right soil, and snow-water from high mountains nourish the tea plants.


“As to when, where and from what kind of tea tree Jomolangma Sacred Tea originated, according to Tibetan oral tradition, the tea began to be cultivated here when Chinese princess Wencheng came here to be married to the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 10th year of Zhenguan reign period of the Tang Dynasty (641), bringing with her tea seeds and talented workers.”


Tea bushes have always been one of southern China’s cash crops. The tea plantations in Yi’ong support the claim of the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon to the title ‘the Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River) of Tibet’. And this place has something better than Jiangnan, something Jiangnan could never have, namely the snow–capped mountains forming a beautiful backdrop to the plantations at the mountain foot.  


Although the Yi’ong tea plantation made me happy, the present state of Yi’ong Lake caused me great concern. 


Standing on an upland section of the plantation, I saw a stretch of open space before me.  This was Yi’ong lake, but it has dried out and become a white sandy wasteland with a small number of waterlogged depressions.  According to relevant historical documents, Yi’ong was an outlet lake. It was then 17 kilometers long and 1.3 kilometers wide, covering an area of 22 square kilometers, lying at an elevation of 2,200-2,220 meters and looking like a river course. But the present Yi’ong Lake in front of me looked very different.


About ten years before scientists Gao Dengyi and Wang Wei had made meteorological observations at Tongmey and Yi’ong as part of their study of vapor flow through the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon. Mr. Wang Wei said: “The Yi’ong Lake I saw ten years ago was a beautiful lake, full of pure water and clear reflections of the snow mountains. The lake I see now is a white, sandy wasteland, and its water area is sharply reduced. I certainly hadn’t reckoned on this.” 


Historical data show that Yi’ong Lake was formed some 100 years ago by a mud-stone flow, which blocked downstream rivers. One evening in 1897 there was a great mud-slide disaster, the flow blocking rivers, destroying villages and killing many people. Only three child cowherds escaped. They were on the hillside, intending to spend the night there, and thus witnessed the catastrophe. The mud-stone flow formed Yi’ong Lake. With natural conditions deteriorating, the lake is now dying out. Yi’ong Lake came into being a mere one hundred years ago; compared with the slowly rolling river of history, its lifespan is all too short.


Why could the beautiful Yi’ong Lake not last forever? The reason is that the lake bed is located in the wide river valley, one formed by glaciations. This results in a slow water flow and rapidly increased silt in the lake. In the upper reaches, the mud and sand brought down to the lake have formed chains of islets. In the dry season, the present Yi’ong Lake is no longer a lake at all. Only in the rainy season does the lake have a certain amount of water. Furthermore, the well-known Lop Nor Lake in Xinjiang has already disappeared from the earth and the Qinghai Lake (Kokonor), the pearl of the plateau, has become much smaller and is divided into small lakes around its edges.  All these changes illustrate the increasing deterioration of the eco-environment. For the sake of our homeland and of later generations, we should take the problem seriously.


The Yi’ong tea plantations are irrigated by water from Yi’ong Lake. If the lake disappears some day, the tea plantations cannot survive. We hope that day will never come.


Yi’ong is deep in the Himalayas, but its name is known to many Americans. During the Chinese people’s War of Resistance Against Japan, an American aircraft crashed at the Rolgo Glacier near Yi’ong. The wreckage of the aircraft and the bodies of American pilots were found by a Tibetan hunter named Tsering Samdrup on September 17, 1993. An investigation by both American and Chinese sides proved that the American aircraft crashed in 1943 when it was making a test flight over the “Hump” of the Himalayas. Two of the three dead pilots were identified; they were Captain James Ham and Lieutenant Pierre. The discovery was a sensation in the USA. Mr. Warren Christopher, the then American Secretary of State, consulted with the Chinese government about the return of the bodies to the United States.


A ceremony was held at Beijing Airport on December 11, 1993 for the transfer by the Chinese government to the US of the three bodies that had lain at Rolgo Glacier for about half a century.  The Chinese people will never forget the three Americans’ sacrifice for the just cause nor their love for the Chinese people.

The author exploring in the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon

The magnificent Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon

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