Hengduan Mountains in Southwest China


Where the Five Great Rivers Meet

THIS ARTICLE is in continuations of my article in the Himalayan Journal, Volume 53, 1997. It is about explorations of the mountain ranges in southwest China. The experiences and information obtained was through 14 journeys between 1990 and 97 to the remote places of Yunnan, Sichuan and Southeast Tibet that are known as the Hengduan Mountains region in China.

The said mountains and neighbouring areas are even less known as a whole and the country-side is topographically so complicated that full and accurate explanations are difficult. As far as I could gather, there is no literature on it outside of China. In China, descriptions on the region have been written from the mountaineering point of view in a comprehensive and systematic manner incorporating the outcome of a substantial survey done by the Chinese Academy of Science in the 1980s.

This article is to be considered as a renewed version of the relevant chapter of the writer's book East of Himalayas (YAMA-KEI Publishers Co., Ltd., Tokyo, 1996). It covers the east of the Tsangpo Great Bend as per his understanding of the commonly accepted definition by Kenneth Mason in Abode of Snow that the peaks of the eastern (Assam) Himalaya end in Namcha Barwa. Therefore the Hengduan Mountains and Kangri Garpo Range which extend from just east of the Great Bend could be recognized as East of Himalaya. It is noted, however, that the political history and background are not referred to and the explorers activities are described to the minimum extent here. These subjects would be taken up separately.

Where in all the world is to be found scenery comparable to that which awaits the explorer and photographer in northwestern Yunnum Province, China and in the vastnesses of Tsarung, in southeastern Tibet?

Few have been privileged to climb the towering ranges separating the mightiest streams of China. The whole region, so geologists tell us, was once one vast, high plateau, now intersected and eroded by some of the longest rivers in the world.

These rivers changed this high plateau not merely into a land of lofty mountains, but of deep valleys with gloomy shadows and forbidding gorges never trodden by human foot.

In these trenches the Salwin, Mekong and Yangtze, cutting through mountain ranges 20,000 feet in height, making their way to the Oceans. These three rivers flowing parallel, north to south, for some distance in western China and southeastern Tibet, at one place come within 48 miles of each other, as the crow flies, and yet their mouths are separated by thousands of miles. (National Geographic Magazine, August 1926). This is an introduction by Josef F. Rock of a narrative of his journey in 1923.

I traced the same route in 1996 as the one above, and was able to find hardly any changes which might have taken place in more than seventy years. All the snow peaks which J. F. Rock saw are untouched and remain virgin. This deep gorge country which is the heart of the Hengduan Mountains is isolated and very inaccessible even today.

Although J. F. Rock and also the present Chinese Academy of Sciences mention this area as three-rivers-gorge country, the writer calls the heartland of the Hengduan Mountains a five-rivers-gorge country. That's because he includes two rivers of Irrawaddy and Lohit, a tributary of Brahmaputra. The five rivers are squeezed at one place into a span of 150 km, from where they flow to the south for a considerable distance and then each takes its own way : Yangtze to enter the Pacific near Shanghai, Mekong to enter the South China Sea, Salween and Irrawaddy to Andaman Sea and Rohit joins Tsangpo-Brahmaputra to flow into the Bay of Bengal of the Indian Ocean. The drainage patterns are controlled by geological structure and create a feature which is far from the normal drainage system.

Survey by Chinese Academy of Sciences

The Chinese Academy of Sciences dispatched a series of comprehensive scientific expeditions to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau after 1970, and since 1981, the survey team has shifted its principal research area to the Hengduan Mountains Region, which is a constitutional part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The following are preliminary abstracts from the survey reports.

Geography of the Hengduan Mountains

The Hengduan Mountains are complicated in geological structure and active in new tectonic movements. They lie on the east flank of the juncture where south Asia and Eurasia are mounted. It is the transition region between the east zones encircling the Pacific and the west zones of ancient Mediterranean. The altitude of this area declines from northwest to southeast. Most parts of the area are characterised by a series of parallel mountain ranges and rivers from south to north, and with a sharp latitudinal differentiation.

Eastern Tibet, Western Sichuan and Western Yunnan, the area which lies approximately between longitudes 97°E and latitudes of 23°N and 33°N, can be treated as one unique geographic region characterised by formidable parallel high mountain ranges and deep gorges that are aligned stretching roughly north-south. It has a total area of about 4.2 x 105 km2' The Chinese name for this region is "Hengduan Shan" which means "traverse cutting mountains". Early Chinese geographers explained that most of the mountain chains of Asia exhibit a predominant west-east trend; the system of the Hengduan Mountains is an exception because of its north-south trend.

It forms a considerable barrier to communication between the people of the Tibetan Plateau and those of the Sichuan Basin. The barrier effect was especially prominent before the 1950s when travel depended entirely on tortuous mountain trails and rope bridges or iron suspension bridges.

Geography and Glaciers of Kangri Garpo Range

Kangri Garpo is a sizeable mountain range that exists between the Tsangpo Great Bend and Baxioila Ling range. The question is to which mountain region this large snowy mountain massif with well-developed glaciers belongs.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences does not clearly define but describes the glaciers of Kangri Garpo in the chapter of Nyainqentanglha Shan range or it is categorised independently. However, in view of the watershed system it is unlikely that Kangri Garpo forms a part of Nyainqentanglha Shan. Kingdon Ward classified Kangri Garpo as the eastern end of Himalaya whilst the writer is of the opinion that the eastern part of this mountain range is an extension of the Hengduan Mountains, and therefore has included it in this article.

Some of the Mountain Ranges and Climbing History

The descriptions are given from west to east to cover Kangri Garpo range and the Hengduan Mountains ending in Min Shan range.

1. Between the Tsangpo Greater Bend and Lohit river - Kangri Garpo

The geographical feature of the Kangri Garpo range has been stated in the previous para. The range stretches over 280 km northwest to southeast. It is encircled by three tributaries of the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. The northern side is deeply eroded where Parlung Tsangpo, a tributary of the Tsangpo river forms a narrow and precipitous gorge in the valley. To the south and east of the range, the Lohit river (Chinese name: Zayul Qu) has an important role. The river is separated into two tributaries, the Kangrigarpo Qu (river), to the northwest and Sang Qu to the northeast. The confluence is in a small upper point at Samai in the Zayul valley.

The first foreigner who traversed this range and brought back information was a Pandit Nain singh, called A-K. When A-K left Zayul in July 1882 bound for Lhasa in the north, four years had already passed since he had left Darjeeling a secret mission on towards the heart of the Tibetan Plateau. The Bandit proceeded northwards up the valley of the Kangrigarpo river to the great range of Kangri Garpo which he crossed over at the Ata Kang La, 4,610 m. He then came once more on to the elevated plateau of Tibet, where he noticed an impassable barrier to the oft-asserted flow of the Tsangpo river into the Irrawaddy river. This provided a significant hint in solving the a problem of a missing link in the Tzangpo Great Bend. In 1911, F. M. Bailey got to Shugden Gompa near Rawu Lake passing around the eastern corner of the range from Zayul on his way from Sichuan/Deep gorge country to Assam.

In February 1933, Kingdon Ward departed from Sadiya in Assam with Ronald Kaulback, and an other friend. From Rima they followed A.K's route to Ata Kang La. Kingdon Ward continued his way northwards to Shugden Gompa and went further to the north for exploring the upper Salween, whilst the other two returned form the pass. In this journey Kingdon Ward made a preliminary survey of the two major glaciers, Aja and Lagu and the height peak Chombo 6,610 m (Chinese name: Luoni Peak) as well.

In 1935 Ronald Kaulback set out in quest of the undiscovered area in the upper Salween basin, accompanied by J. Hanbury-Tracy. They chose an approach through North Burma to Lohit river. After they entered the Lepa Chu valley and explored the eastern part of Kangri Garpo, Kaulback left Shugden Gompa for Bomi along the Kangrigarpo river and Tracy for Bomi along Parlung Tsangpo. The writer made a trip to Zayul in October 1996. The route taken was Kunmin - Zhongdian - Markam - Banda - Rawu - Dema La (4,700 m) - Zayul.

No official record of foreigners who have visited Kangri Garpo after 1936 would be available as the area has remained unopened until today. However, this range and Zayul district will hopefully be opened to foreigners in 1998 and the magnificent snow peaks will welcome mountaineers from abroad before long.

2. Between Rohit and Irrawaddy-Hkakabo Razi

The Irrawaddy and its tributaries have their sources in the mountain range (Chinese name: Dandalika Shan) that spreads over 200 km along the border of China/Myanmar/India. There are two peaks higher than 5,800 m including Hkakabo Razi, 5,881 m which is the highest mountain in Myanmar. There are many small glaciers and snow beds. Hkakabo Razi was first discovered and its height measured by an Indian surveyor in 1923. In 1931 Kingdon Ward tried an access to the mountain from the Burmese side and in 1937 he reached the upper Adung valley to find climbing routes. That was just before World War II broke out. After that, the northern Burma mountains were entirely closed to the outside world for more than half century.

In early 1995, two parties from Japan sent reconnaissance teams to the mountain when the Myanmar Government opened the door to foreigners. One was the Hitotsubashi University Mountaineering Club of which the writer is a member and the other was Mr. T. Ozaki and family. In August the same year Mr. T. Ozaki's group tried the ascent but was defeated on account of hazardous weather. In September 1996 Mr. T. Ozaki again challenged the peak and succeeded in placing the national flags of Myanmar and Japan on top of Hkakabo Razi. The route taken is on the northeastern side of the mountain which runs along the upper Adung valley. They were forced to negotiate with very difficult and dangerous climbing of rocks, hanging glaciers and snow ridges on the way to the summit. All the obstacles were in very unstable conditions.

Although the highest peak has been scaled, all the other peaks in this range are unexplored and untouched, and there are no photographs to show a panoramic view of the major mountains. In particular, the 5,834 the peak located to southwest of Hkakabo Razi seems enchanting.

3. Between Lohit/Irrawaddy and Salween-Baxioila range

The western divide of the Salween river is topographically complicated. The two rivers Irrawaddy and Lohit have their source in the divide of the Salween. The Chinese Academy of Sciences specifies the mountain ranges as follows :

(1) Baxioila Ling range-Lohit/Irrawaddy (north)-Salween divide

(2) Gaoligong Shan range-Irrawaddy (south)-Salween divide

In this section descriptions are given on the Baxioila Ling range and in the next section the Gaoligong Shan range is explained.

The Baxioila Ling range, a huge mountain range, has a number of 6,000 m peaks which are entirely untouched and no attempt has been made to climb them until today. The outstanding 6,000 m peaks are Pk 6,005 m, Pk 6,146 m and Yangbayisum 6,005 m from south to north. The writer was able to take photographs of Pk 6,005 m and Pk 6,146 m in 1996 when he completed a circumnavigation of the pilgrimage around Meili Xueshan (Kang Karpo). However, no profile of Yangbayisum is available yet.

The area from Baxioila Ling to the Salween-Mekong divide is called Tsawarong, the heart of a deep gorge country that has long isolated small group of people. It would be worthwhile to mention where the explorers went (except for the missionaries) in Tsawarong or the Baxioila Ling range.

1882 A-K 1923 Rock, J.F.
1907 Bacot ,, Neel, A.D.
1911 Ward, K 1950 Patterson, G
,, Edger 1993 Clinch, N.B.
,, Bailey F.M. 1995 French/Spanish
1913 Ward, K. 1996 Nakamura, T.
1922 ,,


Although A-K, Bailey and Patterson traversed the Baxioila Ling range from east to west, they left no information useful from the mountaineering point of view. The Baxioila Ling range is an entirely untrodden area awaiting climbers' visits.

4. Between Irrawaddy and the Salween-Gaoligong Shan range

A line of demarcation of the Baxioila Ling and Gaolingong Shan ranges is not clearly drawn. It is understood, however, that Gaoligong Sham range commences from the Yunnan-Tibet border and extends southwards along the Yunnan-Myanmar border. The range is as long as of 250 km, but the altitude of mountains is at a level of 4,000 m and has no value for mountaineering except one 5,000 m peak that stands to the north of Gongshan and only this peak has a small glacier.

The said peak, which the local people call Kawakabu (in Tibetan) is assumed to be the same Keni Chun Pu near the Yunnan - Tibet border which was described by Kingdon Ward and J.F. Rock. K. Ward who had a look at this mountain in their journey in 1911. They had plotted Ke-ni- chunpu (over 6666 m) in the map of "The Land of the Blue Poppy". The profile can be identified by a photograph taken by Rock in 1923, one taken by a Japanese photographer in 1996, and a third taken by the writer. According to the measurements made by Yunnan Provincial survey team recently, the actual altitude of this mountain is 5,128 m far lower than that of K. Ward's estimation. However, it is an alluring peak worthy of visits from explorers and climbers. Although there is a convenient approach to it now, the weather conditions are worse.

5. Between Salween and Mekong-Damyon and Meili Xueshan

The Salween - Mekong divide in the Hengduan Mountains region stretches over 700 km from the Tibetan Plateau to the south. North-south, the divide is given the names of two mountain ranges.

(1) Taniantawent Shan range

(2) Nu Shan range (the Biluo Xueshan range is covered in its southern extension).

The Sichuan - Tibet Trunk that passes through the southern rim of the Tibetan Plateau crosses the southern part of the Taniantaweng range at Tungda La 5,008 m which is the highest pass of the road from Chengdu to Lhasa. To the north of the high pass there are no prominent peaks exceeding 6000 m, whilst to the south Damyon, a mountain massif of considerable size having two 6000 m peaks, soars.

Kingdon Ward first called this mountain "Ta-miu" during his journey in 1911. He witnessed the sharp and attractive twin crystal peaks of the Damyon massif from Wi-chu in 1913. The writer also had a glimpse of them from the same direction in 1996 and 1997. K. Ward tried to ascend one of the southernmost peaks from Yanjing (Yakalo) and reached a point of 5170 m in 1922, where he found a number of dead glaciers.

Meili Xueshan is located at 98.6°E and 28.4°N and is engulfed by over 20 peaks covered by snow all year around, 6 of which exceed 6000 m. The topography of Meili Xueshan being higher in the north and lower in the south, its river valley is so widely open in the south that an air current can go up along the valley. As a result, the Meili Xueshan area is under the strong effect of the monsoon and there is a marked difference between the dry and humid seasons. In addition, the high and steep mountains help to produce perpendicular climatic belts with utterly different features. Above the snowline of 4000 m the tall snow peaks are shining white; in the valley, the glaciers extend upto dozens of kilometres. The glaciers around the highest peak were first explored by Kingdon Ward in 1913. Below the snowline, the mountain slopes on both sides of the glaciers are blanketed by dense alpine shrubs and coniferous forests.

Meili Xueshan has had the most attention from mountaineers, thanks to Japanese and American attempts. The first to scale the highest peak here was a Japanese party, the Joetsu Alpine Club in 1987, and The Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto University (AACK) followed. AACK, made a reconnaissance on both sides of the watershed and attempted an assault on the eastern side in a joint party with China in 1990-91. In January 1991, the allied mountaineering team met with such an unexpectedly violent snow avalanche at night that the campsite vanished without trace. All 17 mountaineers were killed in the accident. AACK challenged the peak repeatedly from November to December 1996, but in spite of the good weather conditions they could not be successful. Meanwhile an American party led by Nicholas B. Clinch visited the mountains four times in 1988, 89, 92 and 93. They attempted Peak 6379 m but gave up due to dangerous snow conditions, and then put focussed on Pk 6509, the second highest peak in the massif. In 1992 and 93 as well, the Americans made attempts on Pk 6,509 from the northwestern side but failed also due to snow conditions, heavy precipitation in 1992 and dangers of avalanches and overhanging cornices in 1993. In 1992, they climbed the 5,292 m rock peak that is on the main ridge northwards to Damyon. All the principal snow mountains in Meili Xueshan still remain unclimbed.

(6) Between Yalong river and Dadu River-Daxue Shan range

The mountain range in the Yalong-Dadu divide is large and well-known as it is situated near Kangding (Tatsienlu) which was a gateway to Tibet from China. It is located on the eastern fringe of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, adjacent to the Sichuan Basin. From the mountaineering view point, the Daxue Shan (Large snowy mountains) range is categorised in the following sections: The north of Kangding and Cheto Shan Pass including Haizi Shan, Lamo-she massif, Minya Konka (Gongga Shan) and the mountains in further south.

Minya Konka (Gongga Shan)

Minya Konka or Gangga Sham in Chinese, is the highlight of the Hengduan Mountains. Minya Konka which means "the Highest Snowy Mountain" in Tibetan, is located in at the middle section of Daxue Shan to the north of Lamo-she. Some 60 km from south to north and 30 km from east to west, it has the main peak 7,556 m at 101.8°E and 29.6°N.

The frequent geological movement in the Minya Konka area has brought about a lot of folds and fractures. As the mountain rises, valleys are formed with a height difference of 5,000 m on the east and west slopes. Teamed with more then 20 neighbouring high peaks over 6,000 m, it has a total area of 290 km2 with 45 glaciers, mainly valley glaciers though there are hanging glaciers in some places. Five glaciers have lengths of about 10 km each, the longest being Hailuogou (Conck Ditch) Glacier that has the great wide ice fall more than 1,000 m long whose glacial tongue goes down to 2,600 m because of the climate conditions and violent glacial movement.

The four main ridges (NW, NE, SW and SE ridge) stand on the magnificent pyramid, the main summit of Minya Konka. As the rocks are chiefly composed of granites and due to the long-time effect of ice corrosion and cutting, there appear narrow knife ridges and precipitous ice and rock buttresses.

The mountain area has of three climatic zones of the highlands, and temperate and subtropical. The climate undergoes great changes, the rainy season is from June to October and the dry season from November to May.

A brief chronicle of the explorations and mountaineering activities is given hereunder :-

1877 W.Gill Described Riuchi-Konka (Satellite peak)
1879 B.Szechenyi Computed height 7,600 m (24,963 ft.)
1890 A.E. Pratt Entered eastern valley and Lamo-she
1911 F.M. Bailey Entered to eastern valley for Takin
1923 T. Roosevelt Measured height 10,000 m?
1929 H. Stevens Made valuable sketches
1929 J. Rock Surveyed and photographed western side widely
1930 Imhof Researched Minya Konka and Lamo-she
1930/31 A. Heim Researched glaciers and geography
1932 R. Burdsall, First ascent of main peak via NW ridge
1957 Chinese 2nd ascent of main peak via NW ridge
1980 American Attempted south and north side, defeated
1981 Japanese Attempted NE ridges, defeated, 7 killed
,, Swiss First ascent of Zhong Shan 6,886 m, 6,652 m, Taishan 6,410 m, and other three 6,000 m peaks
,, British First ascent of Riuchi Konka 5,928 m
1982 American First ascent of Jaizi peak 6,540 m
,, Japanese Attempted NE ridge, defeated, 1 killed
,, Swiss 3rd ascent of main peak via NW ridge
,, American 4th ascent of main peak via NW ridge
1984 German 5th ascent of main peak via NW ridge
1985 Hong Kong Attempted NW ridge, defeated
1989 French Attempted NW ridge, defeated
1990 Japanese Attempted NW ridge, defeated
1991 ,, Attempted NE ridge, defeated
,, American Attempted NW face of Tuparu, 5464 m, defeated
1994 Japanese Attempted NE ridge, defeated, 4 killed
1997 Japanese 6th ascent of main peak via NW ridge


The first ascent of the main peak by four young Americans in 1932 was a glorious record of mountaineering in those days of which they could be proud.

To the south of Minya Konka Chinese maps show an unknown 6,079 m peak, the profile of which nobody can explain.

7. Eastern End of Hengduan Mountains-Min Shan range

To the east of the upper Min river lies the Min Shan range which is the eastern end of Hengduan Mountains running south to north in Songpan County. At 103.8° and 32.7°N, Xuebao Ding 5,588 m is listed as the highest peak of Min Shan, is located in the middle section of the range.

The main summit has many surrounding peaks such as Yuzhan Feng 5,119 m (the peak of jade hairpin) to the southwest, Sigenxiang Feng 5,359 m (the peak of four incenses) and the lesser Xuebao Ding of 5,440 m towering to the southeast. The major part of the peaks is composed of lime-stone rocks in the Carboniferous period. At around 4,500 m is the area of high mountains and grassy marshland while at less than 4,000 m are the dense and primeval forests and shrubs. This mountain area has giant pandas and golden monkeys. Besides, many alpine lakes are seen, and on the northern side sits the world famous Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) Scenic Spot that is worshipped as a "pond of precious jade" on account of its characteristic natural landscape.

The main peak was first climbed by HAJ party in August, 1986, and the 2nd and 3rd ascents were made by the Japanese in 1991 and 1992 successively.

8. Beyond the Hengduan Mountains-Sichaun Basin

No snow mountains with glaciers exist in China to the east of the eastern fringe of the Hengduan Mountains where the fertile Sichuan Basin is situated.

In southwest China, the Sichuan Province has a large expanse of Sichuan Basin and the West Sichuan Plateau. Sichuan Basin is made up of three parts — the west basin plain, the middle basin hills and the parallel mountain ranges and valleys of the east basin. As the mountain area around the Basin belongs to the constantly rising fold belt, the surface of the Basin is ringed by series of mountains of middle and lower reaches, for example, Michangshan and Daba Shan at the north fringe of the basin, Long Men Shan and Qionglai Shan at the west fringe, Dalo Shan and Daliang Shan at the south and many others. However, the latter are not areas of the mountaineers' interest and concern.


A brief survey of the Hengduan Mountains in southwest China based on author's 14 journeys between 1990 and 1997. (Full details are available in an exhaustive report published by the author).


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