A Journey to the Forbidden Yi'ong Tsangpo in East Tibet

Tamotsu Nakamura

'Hi Tom, I have just received some of your photos and news

about your Yi'ong Tsangpo trip. Wow it looks amazing in there.

Well done! In 2003 I led a team of international kayakers to attempt to paddle the river from its source to the Po Tsangpo. We managed to paddle about 125 km but were stopped by the gorge below Nye (Nyewo). We hiked down to the entrance of the gorge but decided it was far too dangerous to continue. This year (2005) we paddled the Parlung Tsangpo all the way

from Lake Rawu to the Po Tsangpo... what an amazing journey

(photos are at www.homepage.mac.com/rafttibet). We also tried to go up the Yi'ong valley but a landslide had blocked the road only 15 km up the valley. I am planning to try and complete the descent one day in the future and am looking for more information on the middle section of the river. The information and observations you gathered on your trip could really help me. How far away from Nye did you turn around? How many kilometres up from the highway bridge did you go? I've been working in Tibet with Wind Horse (Lhasa based travel agent) setting up their whitewater guiding operation. Best regards, Chris Jones November 24, 2005.'

This e-mail tells us how interested not only mountaineers but also kayakers are in the Yi'ong Tsangpo, north of the great bend of the Tsangpo Gorge. An elderly team consisting of Tsuyoshi Nagai (73) and Tom Nakamura (70) has tried to enter the middle and lower part of the Yi'ong Tsangpo since 2001, and the fourth attempt in the fall of 2005 enabled us to march up the valley to a little beyond Bake village from a confluence with the Parlung Tsangpo, where the river changes its name to Po Tsangpo as it flows into the Yarlung Tsangpo.

Many of 150 unclimbed magnificent 6000 m peaks and large glaciers surround the Yi'ong Tsangpo in Nyainqentanglha East range. A stream of turquoise blue water, which at times rages in rapids through the gorge and at times flows calmly forming a pool, is incredibly fascinating. The contrast with snow peaks and primeval forest is alluring. To my best knowledge, it would be the most beautiful river in East Tibet.

Brief Geography

'The Alps of Tibet' east of the Himalaya spread over from the Qinghai- Tibetan Plateau to the western rim of the Sichuan basin. The upper streams of the five great rivers in Asia flow down north to south forming deep valleys. 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. Then each of the five rivers separates and becomes a river of its own, each flowing into major bodies of water: The Yangtze enters the Pacific near Shanghai; the Mekong enters the South China Sea; the Salween and Irrawaddy flow into the Andaman Sea and Rohit; and its principal stream, the Tsangpo- Bhramaputra flows into the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.

Nyainqentanglha East is located on the southeastern rim of the Qinghai

- Tibetan Plateau. From the viewpoint of a water drainage system, the main range of Nyainqentanglha East forms the watershed between the Yarlung Tsangpo and Salween river (Nu Jiang). There are the upper Salween in the north and two tributaries of the Yarlung Tsangpo, Yi'ong Tsangpo and Parlung Tsangpo in the south. Countless peaks are still not unveiled and remain unvisited. These rivers erode the plateau into deeply carved valleys. The topography becomes complicated. The highest peak on the main range is Sepu Kangri (6956 m) which was climbed by an American party in 2002.

The Po Tsangpo, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo, north of the Tsangpo Gorge separates into the Yi'ong Tsangpo and Parlung Tsangpo at the confluence near Tongmai. The Yi'ong Tsangpo flows from west-north

- west almost due east, then turns gradually southwards at the middle of Lake Yi'ong. The distance from the source to the confluence is about 230 km as the crow flies. The total river length is 286 km as it flows in a zigzag stream forming deep gorges. We tentatively define a section (125 km as the crow flies) from the source to Niwu (Nye) as the upper part, which belongs to Lhari county, and a section (105 km) from Niwu to the confluence with the Po Tsangpo as the lower part, which belongs to Bomi County.

In the north and northeast of the lower Yi'ong Tsangpo one finds the largest glaciers in East Tibet, such as Qiaqing glacier (35 km) and Jiangpu glacier (21 km), and stunning unclimbed 6000 m peaks soar around the glacier heads. In the south, although no large glaciers are developing, challenging peaks of 5600 m - 6300 m tower up to the sky.

A vehicle road has been constructed from Lhari to Niwu in the upper Yi'ong Tsangpo but it is dangerous as it is always vulnerable to landslides, which sometimes block traffic. The lower part flowing through gorges has no vehicle road yet. Only a mule track runs along the right bank. However, access is not possible along the entire track. Horses are unable to pass through trails on precipitous slopes to detour a terrifically deep gorge near Niwu. The humid climate brings much snowfall, which fosters glaciers, makes stark snow peaks and grows beautiful conifer forests. Both sides of the Yi'ong Tsangpo valley are humid and densely forested. They resemble sub - tropical rainforest.

The formation of Lake Yi'ong Tso has a unique origin as explained later on. It has a one hundred year old history. The plain surrounding the lake is about 13 km long and 2 km wide, clearly a silted - up basin. The plain belongs to Yi'ong Xiang District (District : Administrative unit between county and village) in Bomi County. The current population is 1070. Villages are more densely located on the northern bank of the lake than the southern bank. The inhabitants depend upon agriculture for their livelihood. On the southern bank there are tea plantations and a processing factory. The people are mainly Bomi (Pobas). Khamba people live here too.

Early Explorers to the Lower Yi'ong Tsangpo

F. M. Bailey, who with Major H. T. Morshead, R.E., had discovered the Yi'ong Tsangpo, recorded that a lake was formed here in 1901 owing to a landslide blocking the lower end of the valley. In 1913, they reached Lake Yi'ong, marching from Parlung Tsangpo along the route of a journey to seek to unveil the great bend of Tsangpo Gorge. They crossed the lake by a ferry at the eastern end from the north bank to the south at the eastern end on 3 July, then returned to Tangmai. At that time from villagers they heard about the existence of landslides in Tralung valley on the left bank and the formation of the lake in detail, which had taken place in 1901. Bailey's No Passport to Tibet (London, 1957) mentions as follows:

Twelve year before, Tralung formed a dam higher up the valley and for three days ceased to flow. Those living in the valley below were frightened, because they knew that the water was building up behind the dam and the time would come when it would break through, and they went into hills to wait for it.

On the third day in the afternoon the dam broke and rushed down the Tralung valley in a great avalanche of water, earth and rocks, which continued for one hour. Earth and stones were carried right across the Yigrong valley in a fan some two miles wide on the right bank of the river and 350 feet thick. (On the left bank of Yigrong three villages and on the right bank two villages were buried.)

Trouble did not end there. The mass of the avalanche lay across the Yigrong river and dammed it; and now the Yigrong river was stopped and began to form a lake which rose and covered many houses of Dre village and drowned many cattle and horses.

For a month and three days the lake rose and then the top of the dam broke and the level of the lake fell. But even when we came there, the lake was still large, running up the valley for five or six miles, and at the point that we crossed it in the ferry it was 600 yards in width.

This disaster must have been the one which Bentinck noted when in 1901 there were big floods in Abor Country and the bodies of strange people were found. Some of the people from the lake village had gone down to the Mishimi hills trying to make a new life there, but they had been forced to leave by the Mishimis.

In the rainy season of 2000, a large flood happened. The water rushed down the river from Lake Yi'ong to the Po Tsangpo - Yarlung Tsangpo. The flood swept away both banks and destroyed bridges. The water level of the Tsangpo gorge suddenly rose about sixty metres and the disaster reached as far as Arunachal Pradesh (Assam) in India. The Sichuan - Tibet Highway was closed for a couple of months. The river still bears the scars of erosion on both banks caused by the flash flood.

After Bailey and Morshead, F. Kingdon - Ward marched up along the Yi'ong Tsangpo in 1935. He was the first foreigner to have completed the entire track from Lake Yi'ong to Niwu. We were the second team offoreigners to have gone up the river from Lake Yigong. On a journey to Tsangpo gorge, Kingdon-Ward entered Lake Yi'ong not following the route via Tangmai that Bailey and Morshead had taken, but crossing a high pass, Sobhe la at 4980 m, from Dongjug and walking all the way along the river to Niwu. In those days there were only footpaths in that section. No horses could go up the trail. It took two weeks from Lake Yi'ong to Niwu. Kingdon - Ward wrote in his book, AssamAdventure (London, 1942) that 'The gorge of Yigrong impressed me more even than that of the Tsangpo had done, perhaps because I had not expected such violent scenery.'

Kingdon-Ward did not go up the main stream of the upper Yi'ong Tsangpo but chose a way up along the Niwu Qu to Laqing la (5300 m). This high pass is en route to Punkar and also to Nyangpu where the path joins Gya Lam (Old China road from Peking - Xian - Lhasa, Kingdon-Ward reached Gyamda following the Gya Lam. At that time Kingdon-Ward thought that the Niwu Qu was the main stream of the Yi'ong Tsangpo

because of lack of geographical information. A map attached to Assam Adventure shows no true main stream of the Yi'ong Tsangpo, which actually goes up to Lhari. In this map the northern side of the Yi'ong Tsangpo remains blank and glaciers are not drawn. In the summer of1947, Henry Elliot, who accompanied a plant hunter, Frank Ludlow, as a medical doctor, crossed Laqing la and entered a village called Nyeto Sama in the middle stream of the Niwu Qu.

Our Journey to the Forbidden Land: October - November 2005 Mountains surrounding Lake Yi'ong and Daoge glacier

We set off from Lhasa heading eastwards on 26 October. The Sichuan- Tibet Highway is now paved up to near Tongjug. A one and a half day's drive took us to Tongjug from Lhasa. We stayed overnight at Bayizhen (3070 m), a modern city and also the centre of Nyinchi Prefecture, which administrates Kongbo, Bomi and Zayul regions. On the following day, we arrived at Tangmai in the early afternoon, where we gathered information about the road to Lake Yi'ong. East Tibet is developing very fast. The township of Tangmai is a hive of new construction. When I came in 1999, it was a deserted village with a couple of shabby houses. But now it is changing to a modern town thanks to economic assistance from Guangdong Province.

Very fine weather continued for three days in Lhasa, but it had rained continuously for more than one week at Tangmai and the vicinity. The climate of the humid gorge country in East Tibet is more unstable and worse than the Tibetan high plateau. In particular, 2005 was a year of extraordinarily changing climate. The rainy season ceased three weeks later than during normal years. It caused frequent landslides in the road from Tangmai to Lake Yi'ong. We started from Tangmai at 2:30 p.m. and drove over a bad road along the right bank of the Yi'ong Tsangpo. A landslide stopped our land-cruiser at 4:00 p.m. Villagers were repairing the road, which was partly buried with mud, stones and rocks. It was a really dreadful and dangerous point, but fortunately we managed to get past in one and a half hours and arrived at Gongtsa village (2260 m), the centre of Yi'ong Xiang on the north bank of Lake Yi'ong, at about 7:00 p.m. It took more than four hours to drive 50 km. We stationed ourselves at a hospital. Gongtsa village became our base for activities. We invited a village chief to supper to collect information and also ask about the possibility of arranging for a horse caravan.

The main objectives of our explorations were to reach the largest glacier, Qiaqing glacier, in the northeast and then to go up the lower Yi'ong Tsangpo as far as possible to Niwu.

There was a larger mountain range close to the northeast bank of Lake Yi'ong. The most dominant peak was a holy mountain, Ayagemo (6388 m), the challenging south face of which had a sheer drop of rock and snow. The height from the lake to the summit was more than 4000 m. To the southeast from Ayagemo, three peaks of 5864 m, 6322 and 6198 m were in sight. The pyramid of a nameless 6322 m peak was outstanding. These peaks continue to the mountains around Zepu glacier of the Botoi Tsangpo north of Bomi town. On the northeast side of this range there is the 15 km long Qiabiegong glacier.

On 29 October we departed from Gongtsa heading to Daoge glacier. In the direction of the glacier, two spiky but conical granite rock and snow peaks of about 5800 m were in view, peak after peak. We felt as if we were in a sub-tropical rain forest, where no sunlight reached the ground. Marshy trails were covered with moss on rocks and stones. Who could imagine that we were in Tibet? After camping in a narrow damp grassy place, we continued to march up the valley on the following day, but realised that the information of the village chief was incorrect. A muleteer told us that a three-day trek was needed to reach the lake of Daoge glacier, and horses were unable to go further.

I fell off my horse twice when prickly ivies entwined and then stung me. It rained in the valley and snowed in the mountains. Because of time constraints, we were forced to return, with no outcome, from mid way to the glacier so as to be prepared for the second stage of our journey. We did not have even a glimpse of Daoge glacier. We came back to Gongtsa village on 31 October. At the hospital, a doctor measured our blood pressure and certified that we had no health problems.

Marching up the lower Yi'ong Tsangpo to Bake

1 November, we started our eight - day caravan with seven horses and six muleteers. Soon after the west end of the plain, ahead of us was a high buttress. The trail along the left bank was not bad in general, but there were dangerous sections for horses so we had to be careful. Regarding plants in the valley, it would be most appropriate to quote Kingdon - Ward's observations from Assam Adventure.

Veteran trees were of great girth, but I could not distinguish what they were except a species of oak, and another beautiful tree with large compound leaves which may have been either Cedrela or Alianthus. The canopy was close, and the tangle of big vines, the wealth of moss and epiphytes, and the luxuriant undergrowth made identification, and even collecting, difficult. I think, however, that this semi-evergreen moist temperate forest was confined to a narrow belt lining the bottom of the gorge and that a few hundreds of feet up the cliff, one would come to more stereotyped forest with some dominant conifer, either hemlock or pine.

In eveing we arrived at Talu village (2575 m) and stayed overnight in one room of a meeting house. It continued to rain till midnight. A guide with a horse joined our caravan from Talu. The trail became extremely muddy. We went up along the left bank of the river all the way about 70 km from Lake Yi'ong to a little beyond Bake. All the villages were on the left bank and no bridges to cross the river were seen. The muleteers were lazy and wanted to take as much rest as possible and to march a minimum distance in a day. On 3 November, the muddy trail continued, but the weather showed signs of a change. Suddenly the west face of lofty peaks appeared on the right bank. They were nameless but challenging. The deep gorge ceased here and changed to a gentle stream flowing through the pine and conifer forest of an open valley. On 4 November, we departed from camp at 9.00 a.m. Soon the north face of a shining peak of5891m, like a sugarloaf, came into sight on the right bank. We had lunch at Boyu village. Here also many villagers gathered to see us. We were the first foreigners they had seen. At 4.00 p.m. we arrived at Bake village (2840 m), which was the destination of our journey. I fell down from my horse on the muddy trail and was injured.

On 6 November we set off from Bake and in three days we came back to Gongtsa in Yi'ong Xiang, the starting point of our caravan. The fine weather continued. On the way back we enjoyed a perfect view of Namcha Barwa (7782 m) and Gyala Peri massif from Seti la (4500 m) and visited Lake Basong, where the temperature recorded minus 6 degrees which was a sign that winter would come. On 11 November we returned safely to Lhasa.


A visit to the Yi'ong Tsangpo valley, East Tibet in October - November 2005