The Mysterious Qiadam Depression

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Friday, July 22, 2005

Here you will find notes of our travels from Lhasa across the Tibetan Plateau to Golmud in the Qinghai province of China.

We leave Lhasa, not initially for the Tibetan Plateau, but for Ganden monastery about 50km East of Lhasa. The road out of Lhasa is very good, but soon turns to a dirt track as we turn off for the series of switchbacks that wind up the mountain to the monastery.

The monastery straddles a grassy ridge and comands great views out over the wide valley below. We decide to walk the 'kora' which is a path round the outer perimeter of the monsatery that takes us about 1hr to walk round. At the start of the walk we encounter a group of monks practising their Tibetan horns. There are two types of horn, the larger of which are a massive 4m long and are laid out like gigantic digeridoos facing the open plains. They are played from a sitting position and emit a powerful low frequency sound that echoes around the valley. The smaller horns are played standing up and scream a high wailing sound like the bagpipes. The monks playing these practise circular breathing so there is no interuption in the sound. One of the the guys travelling with us, Paul, has a shot on the large horn and does rather well for a beginner according to the monks.

On the kora we stop for some lunch (donated by a couple we met at the entrance of the monastery). All the time pilgrims keep passing us, many of them older women, who are completing the circuit for religious reasons. We pass a sky burial site where there are Griffin vultures swooping overhead in patient anticipation. Sky burial is the favoured way of leaving this world for Tibetans. We hear that it requires a monk, skilled in the art, to cut up the body into tiny chunks which the vultures swoop down and devour. To a Tibetan buddhist this is part of their religion to return to the sky before being re-incarnated; they can think of nothing worse than burial. Apparently when the British killed and buried Tibetans at Gyantse Fort 100 years ago their friends dug them back up and gave them a sky burial.

We wander into the monastery and meet a couple of bored monks in one of the temples. They share their snacks with us and show us their mobile phones. I take a photo of them with Rachel.

We set up our tents in the shadow of the monastery and enjoy a campfire and the views out over the valley below. Just as we're about to eat the sky darkens suddenly and we see the prayer flags at the entrance to the monastery blowing about in tatters: a massive squal is coming through. In a few seconds it engulfs us and blows over everything not fastened down, then the thunder and lightning start. Fortunately we have a cook tent and truck to eat in, but the evening is a bit of a wash out.

Next morning we pack up the wet tents and head out North on to the plateau. The scenery soon becomes really wild and remote as we pile on the miles. Black yaks graze on a lawn of infinite green. Dark clouds race across the grey sky. Sky meets the earth in a line of jagged white mountains. I go into a bit of a trance and think about the man who makes his living from this remote and harsh land; he uses his skill to harness the earth, the sky, and his beasts. These are important people because there are so few of them left in the world.

Through the land marches a bold new railway connecting Golmud and Lhasa, and engineering feat the the world marvels at. I consider that this is the product of my generation, and whilst it brings so-called economic benefits it is another significant blow to this fragile and dissapearing environment. These changes are like a inexorable degredation that the earth is subject to and I dont see how it can be stopped.

Its a long day and eventually we pull off the road and drive into the countryside to camp amongst the rolling green hills. One of the locals arrives on a shiny new Chinese motorbike and I cant persuade him to let me have a go. I walk around for 10 minutes and collect a bucketload of yak dung for the fire. Straight off the field, its a good complement for the fastburning wood we have in the truck. Some of the local kids arrive and we play football with them. We enjoy one of the first dry nights of camping.

A short drive and we reach Amdo in the north of Tibet. We get out here to stock up on campfood, but the place is a bit of a dump. We don't stay long and soon we see mountains in the distance and reaching them we go over the Tanggulla pass and stop for lunch. This is the border between Tibet and Qinghai. I wander out and find two Tibetan girls with toddlers gathering dung in the fields. Further down the valley I can see the tents they live in with smoke puffing out of the roof. Beyond their tents I see one of the massive white glaciers of the Tangulla Shan. Its July and its probably about 15 degC up here at midday with the sun shining. I can't Imagine how tough it must be for people here in the winter.

The land is becoming semi-arid and we see fewer animals in the fields as it starts to dry out. Its starting to get dark and we cant see a decent place to camp so we eventually pull off the road and set up camp just before heavy rain starts. The rain stops and the wind gets up. Its a bitterly cold night and I wear all my clothes in the sleeping bag.

The next day we pass more mountain ranges - this time the Kunlun mountains - equally forbidding and bold as they dominate the skyline for miles. By late afternoon we start to descend into the town of Golmud.

Golmud is on the edge of the Quidam depression, a mysterious low basin amongst the high areas of mountainous uplift.
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