The Parlung Tsangpo River Canyon
Bomi’s beauty is quiet and peaceful. Here it feels like being in a delightful paradise. But the appeal of the Parlung Tsangpo River Canyon lies in its majesty. The Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River, where the Yarlung Tsangpo and Parlung Tsangpo converge, is particularly majestic and is regarded as symbolizing the world’s biggest canyon.
The road from Pelung Village southward to Zachu Village is an important route to the Great Bend. It follows the course of the Parlung Tsangpo River Canyon.
To some people the Parlung Tsangpo River Canyon is a warm-up exercise for explorers prior to entering the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon itself. Here is a canyon several thousand meters deep, with a roaring river, endless vegetation and magnificent mountains and waterfalls. Once physically and psychologically accustomed to the exploration of the Parlung Tsangpo River Canyon, one can go on to show one’s skills in the Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon. But it’s worth noting that access is possible only on foot, because of the rugged nature of the roads and the need to cross the Parlung Tsangpo River. They’d better wear high mountaineering boots with thick, deep-grip soles, so as to keep a safe footing.
The route from Pelung to Zachu runs parallel to the Parlung Tsangpo River, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo. We walked along the path, which for the most part runs through the dangerous Parlung Tsangpo River Canyon. The track between the two places is only 36 kilometers long, but it is a narrow winding footpath, zigzagging down the valley and makes hard going. We crossed the roaring Parlung Tsangpo River on a steel suspension bridge. On the way there was nobody but our survey team and porters.
There are steep cliffs at each side of the Parlung Tsangpo River. We went along a path running through the high mountainside and at some spots the cliff edge was some 500-600 meters high over the river; just looking down brought on dizziness. The bottom of the canyon is narrow, there are big disparities in the flow and the currents are naturally violent. The river went roaring past us like a train. It was awe-inspiring. Sometimes, at places where the cliffs were wider apart, the roar was not so loud; even so, the noise, sometimes high sometimes low, was still scary.
That said, the views here are very beautiful indeed. The 1000-meter-deep canyon looks like something that has been split by a giant mountain-cleaving axe. It extends ever southwards, its awesome precipitous mountains covered by endless vegetation, the type of vegetation dependent upon on how high up the mountain it is growing. Shrubs and broad-leaved trees predominate at the bottom, and the mountainside are covered with conifer trees. The valley is full of great vitality and at the same time it has beautiful views of morning mist, like those often seen in mountainous areas of Jiangnan, south of the Yangtze River.
Mr. Chen Yuansheng told me in Beijing about his previous experience in exploring the Parlung Tsangpo River Canyon. The first thing he did in the morning was to vigorously exercise his knees and feet to check the flexibility of the joints. He always laced his boots up properly before setting out, this facilitating walking comfort and stepping precisely on the footmarks of the teammate ahead of him. His Japanese teammate Shin Nakamura, a well-known mountaineer who had climbed both Jomolangma and Namjag Barwa, fell and hurt himself. Nobody knew what caused his sudden fall at a place full of scattered pebbles and moss. Fortunately, he was stopped by a tree two or three meters down. His teammates ran down to him, and found that his left cheekbone sunk in and his nose bleeding. They were afraid he might have serious cerebral concussion. Cerebral concussion can adversely affect one’s balance, which is essential to prevent oneself from falling while climbing high mountains. Nakamura was physically stronger than most of us, and although he was still getting occasional nose bleeds a few days later he insisted on pressing ahead with the rest of the group. Then they discovered that he was having to force himself on, and, with no way of knowing the extent of any internal injuries, they persuaded him to turn back. So Nakamura had to return prematurely to Japan for medical treatment.
Crossing landslide areas is very dangerous. Between Pelung and Zachu there are several landslide spots and although each is only about 30 or 40 meters wide, crossing them makes one tremble. The danger lies in the fact that one side you have the roar and running billows of a torrential river, and on the other a sheer slope. Apart from a string of footprints, there is no path across at all.
The Tiger’s Mouth (Laohuzhui) is a danger spot. The local Monpa people have dug out a meter-wide path here. This path also makes a sharp bend on the edge of the cliff. And it would be all too easy to fall over the cliff while walking on the path that perches on top of it. But precisely because the way is so risky to walk, the outside world has had little influence here and it has remained a magical place.
Exploration should be undertaken with great care and safety ropes should be used when passing through these dangerous areas. Explorers, particularly those with heart conditions or fear of heights, should hold on to the safety rope tightly to avoid accidents.
We crossed four chain bridges suspended on steel cables, the bridge decks formed of planks. The bridges had no protection railings apart from some wires on both side, tied to the cables. But the wires were so widely spaced they were useless in terms of providing protection. The plank decks of the new bridges were well made, while those of the old bridges has voids here and there. Walking across these bridges, travelers are often frightened by the roaring river below. Even so, one must take his time about it for fear of stepping into a gap and falling. As soon as one steps onto the bridge, it starts swinging left and right, and in this case one must immediately sit down or lie on one’s stomach so as to reduce the vacillation and stop oneself being thrown into the river. Three of the four suspension bridges are between 60 and 70 meters long, and the fourth is a massive 180 meters. Sometimes local people replace broken planks with new ones, often with the bark still on. The new planks are slippery and when walking on them, one must take care not to slip and fall.
In fact, we were fortunate. In the past there were no suspension bridges across the Parlung Tsangpo River, and expeditions had to cross the river by means of a steel cable. They had to suspend themselves onto the cable, facing skyward, and feel their way across, hand over hand.
For us, the most testing section between Pelung and Zachu was the tortuous path near to Zachu. Its elevation is between 600 and 700 meters. It was near noon when we climbed the path and was so hot we were soon sweating and gasping for air. Luckily the elevation was not very high and the plentiful vegetation there provided sufficient oxygen, otherwise some of us would have been worn out.
Then we came to a hill covered with green wild plantains, which looked very charming under the snow-capped mountains. We were jubilant because we could see Zachu from there.
At noon we saw a village with fields of rapeseed, fences and flocks of sheep. We finally reached Zachu, our destination point at the end of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. I asked a teammate to take a picture of me, exhausted, pale-faced, baggy-eyed and bent, with one hand on the knee, hardly able to stand. What it cannot show is the pride I felt. This is a place that many people have long dreamed of, a place of many unexpected nice surprises!
The journey from Pelung to Zachu had taken us two days. On the first day, while choosing a campsite we found several hot springs. It was an unforgettable experience.
In fact, there are many hot springs in the canyon area, owing to its large and deep fissures. The springs differ both in size and the temperature of their water. The sulfur content is so low that the water at most of the springs can be drunk. At some, the water flows softly from the pebble-covered bottom; at others it spurts right up. Green grass and azaleas surround the springs and in the distance are the sacred ice peaks under white clouds.
We left Pelung in the morning. After climbing over a mountain we continued walking until five in the afternoon. We were very tired and hoped to find somewhere to pitch camp. My teammates ahead saw a stretch of sandy beach left of the riverbed and we erected our tents there. Some teammates discovered a hot spring nearby, a discovery that delighted everyone; it meant we could relax in the spring after a hard day. I dashed off to check it out; there was a rock face three or four meters high with a large red stone in the same color as that of the stones on the beach; the water was emerging from a small cave below the cliff. There was a pool four or five square meters in area and half a meter deep and two of the team were already having a soak in it. The water running through the pool formed a stream, which flowed about five to six meters and rushed off south, finally, emptying into the Parlung Tsangpo River 200 or so meters away. I asked my teammates about the water temperature. They told me it was fine for bathing and urged me to join them.
Though I had seen commercially-exploited hot springs, I had never come across one in the wild. First I put my feet in; the water was so clear and warm I could not help throwing myself in. At once I felt relaxed.
Two more teammates followed me in and so as to make space for them I moved a little to the left. Suddenly I felt the water was a little cooler and the more I moved the lower the water temperature dropped. I realized there were two different springs, one warm and the other cold, with less than a meter between them. Their water mixed into a stream. I was afraid of catching cold from bathing in cold water, which at plateau level might well turn into pneumonia, so I shifted toward the entrance of the hot spring cave. A noxious smell from the cave assailed my nostrils, so, fearing it might be harmful to health, I hurriedly drew away from the cave.
When my teammates enjoyed bathing in the hot spring, I noticed the color of cliffs on both sides of the hot spring cave was pink and that of the cobblestones at the bottom of the flowing stream yellow. When the water was stirred it became muddy. After a while the water was clear again. I thought of the red cobblestones on the beach in the lower reaches of the stream. The different colors aroused my interest. I wanted to know why the cobblestones were red. I put on my underwear and walked in the warm stream to its lower reaches. I noticed the stone on the bottom of the stream and on the banks was seriously eroded. There was a stone in the midst of the stream. It was about 10 cm. above the waterline and looked like the surface of a turtle’s back. There were yellow, pink, light-blue and light-green lines on it as a result of water erosion. This was a creation by Nature. I took some pictures of it with my camera.
As to why there were red stone in and around the spring, I think this was caused by microelements. At the same time I saw lines made by erosion on the middle and upper parts of the stones half-meter above water. I realized at last that the patterns of turtleback and the lines in various colors were made by erosion and that the lines on the stone high above waterline were made by overflowing water from the stream thousands of years ago.
Soon afterwards, we found a larger hot spring not far from there. This spring was a little different from the one in which we bathed. The flow of the first one was gentle, while the second one spurted water into the air and thus had a water drop of less than one meter. Because of the drop, water flew down our hands when we bent over to get it. Besides, this spring’s temperature was about 50 degrees centigrade, a little higher than that one.
The sandy beach campsite was beautiful. There were mountains, springs, white sandy beach, and lush and green forests. Besides, on the other side of the river was a waterfall dozens of meters high falling from the cliff. It was unexpected that all beautiful scenes gathered together before our eyes. The site was between Pelung and Zachu. When more people are attracted toward the Big Bend of the Grand Canyon of the Yarlung Tsangpo River, the sandy beach can be made into a tourist-transfer station. If scientists prove the hot spring is good for health, tourists can bathe in it while appreciating the splashing waterfall opposite the river and floating clouds in the sky.
There are four hot springs in a distance of 36 km. between Pelung and Zachu. One is at Tongmey with temperature of 80 degrees centigrade, another is near to Zachu and the other two are at the sandy beach campsite.
According to experts, when subterranean water infiltrates the depth of earth crust, it goes upwards because of rising temperature and becomes a fluid in which hot water and steam as main contents mixed with magma. The fluid goes through the chinks in crust to earth-ground. The heat goes out by two ways: geysers and hot-water explosion. The geysers are hot springs that spout water at more or less regular intervals, and the hot-water explosion means hot ponds and lakes emerging as a result of ground collapse owing to underground holes made by hot water extrusion.
The hot springs and ponds of the Himalayas are mainly in the river valleys north to the Himalayas and south to the Gangdise (Kailas) mountain range. The Shiquanhe River and the Yarlung Tsangpo River’s deep and big faults and the two vertical faults on its both sides concentrate the heat of the earth’s interior. So the place is called the Himalayas’ terrestrial heat zone. In density and kinds this place’s terrestrial heat is second to none in China and even in the world. There are about 70 kinds of ways to give the heat out, including geysers and other hot fountains, springs and lakes. Tibet has 600-odd hot springs. The reason why the heat is concentrated at the place from Tongmey to Zachu is that this place is located at where the Indian plate and the European-Asian plate collided, pressed and stroke each other, and magma activities are frequent. Many hot springs in Tibet have not been exploited yet but the day will come when the valuable resources bring benefit to mankind.
Crossing a steel rope suspension bridge
Crossing the river on a ropeway
Fording a stream
Surveying the cliff