Expedition to Eastern Tibet, 2009

A journey to peaks & glaciers in four least-known valleys

Tamotsu (Tom) Nakamura

2009 was a very uncertain year for foreign visitors to Eastern Tibet on account of a permit problem for entering unopened areas. In March the 40th Anniversary of Tibetan Autonomous Region was celebrated with a strict control over local Tibetans (Khambas) in Eastern Tibet and West Sichuan keeping close watch of their anti-government movements. During the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, ‘China Day’, conducted around 1 October, tight restrictions were imposed on not only foreigners but also Chinese nationals. Travel permits to foreigners were given only for passing through trunk roads (Sichuan- Tibet Highway, Qinghai-Tibet Highway and main roads connecting the highways). Places off the beaten tracks were off limits to foreigners.

Under such circumstances our expedition was quite lucky. A forbidden journey of five weeks (5000 km) in the far flung borderlands of Eastern Tibet would be exciting and full of interest. To our good fortune, our Tibetan guide was very capable and helpful in negotiating with officials.

We explored four unfrequented valleys. One of them is unknown to foreigners except for British explorers in the early 20th century and the other was a place which we had earlier visited.

Highlights of Expedition

A. Forbidden Yi’ong Tsangpo - Niwu Qu

The Yi’ong Tsangpo is a beautiful river in Eastern Tibet. Turquoise blue water rages through formidable deep gorges, often forms treacherous rapids and sometime streams calmly.

We arrived at Nagqu from Lhasa on 17 October and registered our travel (Lhari - Niwu) at the Nagqu Public Security Bureau (PSB), which controlled all counties of Nagqu Prefecture. But the PSB gave us permissions to go only up to Lhari town and not further down to Niwu. On 19 October however, as a result of secret and tenacious negotiation, the PSB officials at Lhari town tacitly permitted us to enter Niwu Qu, and on the same day we drove down to Niwu (Zhongyi Xiang) along the upper Yi’ong Tsangpo. What we did first was to gather information from local people on possible approaches by horses from Niwu to the following three directions:

(1) Marching down the lower Yi’ong Tsangpo to Bake - Lake Yi’ong Tso (2) Going north to Alando along of the Xia Qu, a tributary of the Yi’ong Tsangpo (3) Entering a valley with a large glacier reaching to 6842 m peak south of Niwu.

But these routes were not viable, and so we decided to enter the Niwu Qu for exploring the Aigagong glacier and surrounding snowy peaks.

We were surprised that even in such a remote village as Niwu (Chinese name: Zhongyi District), ‘West China Development Drive’ policy has been impacting and changing everything very fast. Motor bikes have taken the place of horses. We had to hire motor bikes for our caravan. Riding was very tough but more efficient than horses as a fivehour ride took us to a camp site close to the Aigagong glacier terminus 55 km away from Niwu village. A horse caravan would have needed at least 3 days for the same distance.

On 20 October we departed from Niwu in a caravan of 11 motor bikes. A path westward along the Niwu Qu was not bad for motor bikes though getting off the bikes was tough. The path went first on the left bank of Niwu Qu and crossed the stream twice. There were 15 villages from Niwu village to the camp site, though many of them were small with only a couple of houses. Riding through forest, up a rather rough track, we arrived at the last village Biyong to the Laqing la (5300 m) sharing the watershed of the Niwu Qu and a valley from Punkar to Keng la. Biyong was a cluster of villages close to each other, which would have been the same as ‘Nyoto Sama’, referred to in narratives of the early explorers and plant hunters.

Panorama of ca 5500 m peaks south of Parlung Tsangpo. (T. Nakamura)

11. Panorama of ca 5500 m peaks south of Parlung Tsangpo. (T. Nakamura)

Potala Palace, Lhasa. (T. Nakamura)

12. Potala Palace, Lhasa. (T. Nakamura)

Prayer flags and horses, Niwu Qu, Upper Yi’ong Tsangpo. (T. Nakamura)

13. Prayer flags and horses, Niwu Qu, Upper Yi’ong Tsangpo. (T. Nakamura)

Truck to support pedestrian pilglims heading to Lhasa. (T. Nakamura)

14. Truck to support pedestrian pilglims heading to Lhasa. (T. Nakamura)

Skulls wall at Damu Monastery, Biru. (T. Nakamura)

15. Skulls wall at Damu Monastery, Biru. (T. Nakamura)

Lake Jambo Tso 4000 m and Maraipo glacier. (T. Nakamura)

16. Lake Jambo Tso 4000 m and Maraipo glacier. (T. Nakamura)

Tree burial in Drawalong valley south of Bomi. (T. Nakamura)

17. Tree burial in Drawalong valley south of Bomi. (T. Nakamura)

F. Kingdon-Ward described on his book of 1935 journey Assam Adventure:

Nyoto Sama is literally ringed round with ice, and must be bitterly cold in winter; for not so very high as places go in Tibet - the fact that barley ripens here would mean that it is not much over 12,000 feet - it lies in a bowl, in the very heart of the great snowy range, overhung by peaks which probably reach 25,000 feet. But what a base camp for a botanist! I can imagine nothing more ideal! When we reached the foot of the main glacier, I naturally supposed we had at last reached the source of the Po-Yigrong. Leaving the small lake below we started climbing steeply up an execrable track, through a belt of silver fir fringed with bushes of Rhododendron Wardii and R. vellreum. From time to time, we could look over the cliff on to the glacier which fell over two high steps, and was split into tall seracs. Kingdon-Ward’s observations are accurate except for the following two points: (1) The snowy peaks are not as high as 25,000 feet, but the highest one is Nenang 6870 m and many 6000 m peaks are clustered around. (2) Kingdon-Ward’s Po Tsangpo is the Yi’ong Tsangpo. Niwu Qu is a tributary of the Yi’ong Tsangpo, the source of which rises west of new Lhari township.

The main glacier described by Kingdon-Ward is the Aigagong glacier, the quest for which was our objective of exploration. As seen in photographs, the Aigagong glacier is the most unique among glaciers in Nyaiqentanglha East, since the glacier terminus directly reaches a main stream flowing through narrow valley in the same way as the Jalong glacier north of Zepu glacier in Botoi Tsangpo. According to Russian map, the Aigagong glacier has a length of about 12 km including the upper snow plateau.

Autumn 2009 Expedition Map

On 21 October from base camp, we climbed up a track through forest on the left bank of Niwu Qu that reached the Laqin la and had a wonderful view of the grandeur: the Aigagong glacier and snowy peaks beyond the ridge to the south from a small pass 4230 m, a nice lookout point. The Northwest faces (left to right) - Peak 6688 m, Nenang 6870 m, 6552 m and 6374 m - were magnificent and the east face of stunning 6252 m and 6030 m peaks were seen beyond the glacier terminus roughly waving with seracs and crevasses. What an impressive view! All these peaks have been identified by aerial photos which were taken on 14 October. On the other hand, the fascinating north face of 6260 m peak like a lump of snow and another large glacier reaching Nenang were also seen from Biyong village on the way back. On 22 October we safely returned to Niwu on motor bikes.

B. Dream come true - Lake Jambo Tso and Shiargung la

Our original plan was to go to Alando - Jingling - Shiargung la marching up the Xia Qu from Niwu, but a track along the river bank was impassable because bridges had been swept away in summer, and there was only a very steep and difficult trail to Alando crossing over a high ridge north of Niwu. As this trail was too dangerous for a horse caravan, we gave it up to go to Alando directly from Niwu and made up our mind to take a long detour to access to Jingling from the northern side via Bemba.

A five-day drive took us to new Bemba (Pelbar) town, an administration centre of Bemba County, after a long circuit from Niwu via Nagchu, Biru near the Salween river (Nu Jiang) and two 5000 m high passes. We could see a creepy skull-wall at a sky burial yard in Damu monastery located on the left bank of the Salween river close to Biru. It was a good chance because even Chinese did not easily enter the skulls wall place. To my best knowledge, such a skull wall exists only in the Biru County.

Another permit problem waited for us in Bemba, which is a gateway to the Shiargung la. Two days earlier, two Europeans, Bruce Normand and his colleague were forced to return from Bemba as the PSB did not allow them to cross a historical pass, Shiargung la (5260 m), on the old Peking-Lhasa trade route, called as Gya Lam. Their objective was to look for unknown peaks and glaciers surrounding Jingling district, the least-known heart of Nyaiqentanglha East. This area was one of the principal objectives of our autumn 2009 expedition too. Our Tibetan guide did not give up the effort to obtain a permit to Jingling. He negotiated intensively and carefully with the PSB officials until midnight, and finally they agreed to let us go to Jingling on the condition that one PSB official would accompany our team. A 70-km vehicle road had already opened from Bemba to Jingling district in 2006. The road is closed for four months in winter. On 28 October we left Bemba for the Shiargung la along with the PSB official.

My dream came true. In spring of 2002, we had attempted the crossing of this historical pass by horses, but heavy snow prevented us from reaching the pass. I recollected a narrative of Brigadier General George Pereira when he had looked at the panorama from atop the pass in 1922:

‘There was a regular jumble of high mountains in every direction. But towering over the rest was one shaped like the Matterhorn, which must have been well over 18,000 feet in height.’ (Peking to Lhasa, edited and compiled by Francis Younghusband)

I was deeply attracted by the prospect of breathtaking snowy peaks, range after range, to the east and south from the pass and was also excited about now entering the terra incognita. From the pass we descended to the upper valley of Pereira’s Chara chu and then along the right bank of a narrow gorge down to a wide valley of Jingling district in the headwaters of Xia Qu, a tributary of the Yi’ong Tsangpo. En route an outstanding pyramid of Richen, 5611 m came into sight before the gorge began. As we approached Jingling, a cluster of snowy peaks appeared in the southeast. Among others, Jonlamopo (6605 m) dominated the view. We arrived at Jingling (3740 m) late afternoon. The PSB official provided us with good accommodation in the government house premises and kindly made necessary arrangements for our trek to lake Jambo Tso on the following day. Our Tibetan guide, Awang, collected facts about Jingling from the police, as under.

(1) Tibetan name of Jingling (also the Chinese name) is pronounced as ‘Kyi Link’ which means ‘happy garden with abundant trees’. Jingling district has 4000 inhabitants in seven villages.

(2) In the days when Jingling played an important role as a relay station on the Gya Lam (Peking-Lhasa road), some muleteers would marry girls of Jingling. Therefore the dialect of Jingling is influenced by the Lhasa dialect.

(3) No tourists or any foreigners have ever come to Jingling. Only one survey team for climate research and mapping work came from Beijing in the past. However this is not correct as Dr. Charles Clarke of Britain had visited the Jambo Tso nine years ago. This teaches us that we should not easily rely on information from local people.

On 27 October the weather was perfect. We marched eastward to the lake Jamb Tso with two motor bikes and three horses. In five hours a police man from Jingling district guided us to an ideal lookout point on the right bank looking down the lake at about 4000 m. The lake Jambo Tso is 3 km long and 1 km wide has come in to existence in recent years on account of receding of the Maraipo glacier which is surrounded by many unclimbed stunning 6000 m peaks. According to our muleteers the Jambo Tso was created 40 years ago and has grown to the present size. The Russian topographical map 1/200,000 made 35 five years ago does not show the lake. This could be evidence that the Maraipo glacier has been retreating very fast. The other large glacier called as Yulagong glacier flows toward the Jambo Tso from south. The Maraipo glacier has a length of about 14 km from the present terminus to the headwaters, and the Yulagong glacier has a length of about 10 km. The Yulagong glacier also has a newly born 1.5 km long glacial lake in its terminus.

The magnificent fluted-ice summit of Jonlamopo (6606 m) soared to southwest. Sugarloaf off the west face of Kona I (6378 m) had fresh snow. Beyond the headwaters of the Maraipo glacier, two large glaciers of the Daoge and Jiangpu flow down to the lower Yi’gong Tsangpo in Bomi County. In 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India from Lhasa, soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army died on this glacier while crossing a high pass from south to north in a march from Bomi to Jingling.

On 30 October we returned to Bemba, and further continued our journey to the next objective, Kangri Garpo.

Pilgrims heading to Lhasa

18. Pilgrims heading to Lhasa

Nakamura crossing tree bridge

19. Nakamura crossing tree bridge

C. Unknown valley of Kangri Garpo - Dongchu Tsangpo

During the five-day drive from Bemba to Dongchu Tsangpo, we drove from Bemba to Qamdo along the Gya Lam. We stopped over at Qamdo for taking a day’s rest. Qamdo used to be capital of Eastern Tibet for early explorers but now is fast changing to a modern city with a refurbished glorious monastery. Important pictures of 6042 m and 6005 m peaks in the easternmost of Nyainqentanglha East were taken between Baxoi and Rawu.

Kangri Garpo stretching 280 km in length from west to east is the second largest mountain range in Eastern Tibet. Only one peak ‘KG2 6805 m’ out of 30 unclimbed summits exceeding 6000 m was first scaled by a Japan-China joint party of Kobe University and Wuhan Geology University on 5 November 2009. The highest, Ruoni (6882 m), remains unclimbed. Several valleys from the Parlung Tsangpo have been explored till today, but the Dongchu Tsangpo southwest of Songzong town was quite unknown and no foreigners have entered the valley. So we targeted this valley as the third objective of our expedition, mainly aiming at unveiling Kone Kangri (6347 m) which has two large glaciers, Gone glacier to southeast and Yum Tso glacier to southwest.

On 6 November we departed from Bomi town, the administration centre of Bomi County and crossed a suspension bridge over the Parlung Tsangpo to Dongchu village west of Songzong. We organised a horse caravan of 10 horses and 7 muleteers in the village and started marching up the Dongchu Tsangpo. From this village an overwhelming rock peak, a holy mountain Pandenlhamo (4930 m) towered just above us, a sharp pyramid of c. 5800 m Kangri Karpo, with hanging glacier was seen to the south and Delupola I (6343 m), II (6065 m) and III (6014 m) were seen closely to the southeast. Dongchu village with vivid green fields, red roof houses and friendly inhabitants of the Po minority had an atmosphere leading us to imagine another Shangrila in Eastern Tibet. We went up a beautiful valley with conifer trees and set up the first camp on a wide river bed just beneath the west face of Delupola I (6343 m).

On 7 November we continued our caravan up the valley to reach the lake Yum Tso near the Yum Tso glacier in one of the headwaters of the Dongchu Tsangpo in the southeast. But an accident suddenly took place. Our Chinese member, Zhang Jiyue fell off a horse and was seriously injured, one of ribs on the back being broken. As he was in acute pain and could not walk we pitched a second camp. On account of this incident we resigned to the fact that we could not reach the terminus of the Yum Tso glacier, but leaving Jiyue at camp, we went up to a lookout point to view the lower part of the Yum Tso glacier from the opposite (west) side of the valley not far from the end moraine of the hanging glacier of Kangri Karpo. We expected to see Kone Kangri from there, but it was hidden by a ridge in front. We could only see the lower stream and terminus of the Yum Tso glacier. Thus Kone Kangri has again remained an unknown peak.

On the following day, we went down to the Dongchu village carefully supporting Jiyue who managed to walk slowly despite the pain. We hurried on to Bomi town on the same day so that Jiyue could get help in a hospital.

D. Tree burial, Botoi Tsangpo and return journey

We enjoyed a day excursion to the Gawalong valley and the Drawalong valley south of Bomi town on 9 November. In the morning we went to the Gawalong which is en route to a very isolated region, Medog County, in the Yarlung Tsangpo basin. A tunnel of 1800 m in length at 3800 m height leading to Medog was under construction, and the road was being aligned accordingly. The headwaters of the Gawalong valley were fed by terminus of two glaciers flowing down from east peak 5684 m and west peak 5631 m. Here also the glaciers have been receding.

In the afternoon we visited a sacred place of tree burial at 3320 m in the Drawalong valley. It seemed to be a place with a solemn atmosphere and remembrance. To my mind it shows a peaceful side of death - a contrast to the bloody work of vultures.

In general the tree burial is a style of burial that applies only to babies and children less than eight years old, who are not allowed a sky burial or water burial. It is a custom in the thickly forested regions including the Nyinchi Prefecture, southeast of the Tibetan high plateau. When a child or baby dies, the dead body is placed in a bamboo basket, wooden or plastic box, blanket, or bed sheet and carried to the tree burial place in forest. Local people believe that the tree burial makes a child or baby live longer.

We ascended for a while and saw eight chortens and white prayer flags. There was a small monastery and nearby hundreds colourful prayer flags. There were several types of containers containing dead bodies hanging on trees. Three skulls were scattered on a mossgrown stone.

Sheep blocking road in Botoi Tsangpo

20. Sheep blocking road in Botoi Tsangpo

Mane stones in Pola

21. Mane stones in Pola

On 9 November we entered Botoi Tsangpo flowing in the Parlung Tsangpo from north. This was the last leg of the four objectives. The field of exploration was the northern side of Yuri massif with Yuri I (6100 m) and II (6108 m). The difference between the south face and north face was sharp. The south face was less snow-clad with no glacier, while the north face was covered with much snow and had a large glacier. We stayed in Pola village north of Yuri, which had a stage house en route from Bomi to Zhingyi on the Gya Lam between Bemba and Lhorong. On the following day, fortunately, we could capture a view of the north face of Yuri massif. On the way back to Bomi we photographed a clear view of the west faces of challenging peaks, Dinpernalason (6135 m) and Gutonchalagebo (5511 m) soaring north of Bomi. In the morning on the following day, a 6001 m peak just behind Qingdou village appeared before my cameras for the first time.

A return trip of three days from Bomi to the west driving on a paved road of the Sichuan-Tibet highway was not monotonous. We came across many pilgrims on foot and supporting groups who were heading to Lhasa from remote provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan. We had a magnificent view of Namcha Barwa and Gyala Peri massif from the Seti la (4500 m). On 14 November we arrived at Lhasa and completed a 5000 km odyssey of discovery of unknown peaks and glaciers.

Brief History of Exploration

Area : Niwu Qu valley and Laqin la

1. 1935: A plant hunter, Frank Kingdon-Ward, reached Niwu (Zhongyi) from Yi’ong Tso marching up the Yi’ong Tsangpo through formidable gorges. Then he entered Niwu Qu valley and crossed the Laqin la (5300 m) on 20 August. He passed Nyoto Sama (present Biyong village).

2. 1947: Henry Elliot, a partner of Frank Ludlow, left Shoga Dzong (present Jula) on 25 July and crossed the Laqing la down to Nyoto Sama to search for flowers in Niwu Qu valley.

3. 2000: In March - April, John Town and Nicola Mart entered Niwu Qu from Niwu. They drove from Lhari to Niwu. They made a reconnaissance of the northwestern side of Nenang (6870 m) and other peaks.

4. 2002: In late October Tamotsu Nakamura reached atop the Laqin la from Punkar. On account of deep snow on the pass, muleteers refused to cross the pass down to Niwu Qu.

5. 2003: In September - October, a British party of four member led by Adam Thomas entered Niwu Qu from Lhari and attempted on Chukporisum (6359 m). After climbing, they crossed the Laqin la and then Keng la (Jie la) (5238 m) to return to Lhari.

6. 2006: Bruce Normand entered Niwu Qu from Lhari and crossed the Laqin la to Punkar.

Area : Jingling District - Shiargung la

1. 1846: French priests, Fathers Yuc and Gabet crossed the Shiargung la in the spring en route from Alando to Bemba during their great journey Peking-Lhasa-Macao in three years (Yuc and Gabet: Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China, 1844-1846, 2 vols, London).

2. 1882: Pandit, A-K Kishen Singh, of the Survey of India crossed the Shiargung la on 14 September from Bemba to Namgialgon Giachug (Jingling), where there were four houses and a stage-house.

3. 1922: On 22 September Brigadier General George Pereira crossed the Shiargung la and arrived at Nam-je-garm (Jingling) descending Chara chu. He was the first English man who reached Lhasa from the east.

4. 1998: Some members of a British expedition to Sepu Kangri led by Sir Chris Bonington crossed the Shiargung la from west to east.

5. 2000: A British mountaineer, Dr. Charles Clarke entered Jingling District and first reached the Lake Jambo Tso and Maraipo glacier.

Area : Dongchu Tsangpo, Kangri Garpo

No foreigners had ever explored Dongchu Tsangpo, a tributary of the Parlung Tsangpo, before Nakamura’s party entered the valley in the autumn of 2009.

Area : Botoi Tsangpo

1. 1935: British explorers, Ronald Kaulback and John Hanbury- Tracy travelled through the Botoi Tsangpo. They marched on a trade path from Bomi/Yuri and crossed a high pass over 5000 m to the Gya Lam on their journey to explore the upper Salween River.

2. 2002: In November Tom Nakamura’s party explored unknown peaks surrounding the Zepu and Jalong glaciers northwest of Yuri, Botoi Tsangpo, a tributary of the Parlung Tsangpo.

3. 2006: Tom Nakamura’s party entered and explored a valley, Linzhou Longba east of Yuri for the first time.

4. 2007/2008: T. Shiro’s party explored the newly created five glacial lakes at the headwaters of Linzhou Longba east of Yuri using kayaks for navigation on the lakes. This was quite a unique project.


(A) The new rich in the borderland

When we arrived at Niwu (Zhongyi Xiang) of Lhari County and started arranging for our caravan, our guide Awang told me, ‘Tibetan local villagers have suddenly become rich, so they will not work for us unless we pay a substantial amount of money for either a horse or motor bike caravan’.

In recent years a steep rise in the price of caterpillar-fungus (for Chinese traditional medicine) has greatly profitted villagers living in the counties of Lhari, Nagqu and Bemba where good quality caterpillarfungus is available. A villager can gather 2 kg in the months of June - July. The best quality caterpillar-fungus is sold in Chinese currency RMB 70,000 (US$10,000) per kg. The second quality is RMB 30,000 - 50,000 and even the lower quality imported from Nepal costs RMB 10,000. The villagers also earn revenue from Matsutake mushrooms, but the revenue from caterpillar-fungus is much higher. The construction of a medium-sized house in Niwu costs some RMB 200,000 which is more expensive than in Lhasa, but villagers build their houses with their own money and also have bank savings. For their houses they use large quantities of granite blocks which costs RMB 3-5 per piece. In Jingling and Jiagong districts of Bemba County, some of families not only build a house in the village but also have a second house in Lhasa for winters. One piece of caterpillar-fungus was sold for only one RMB in a nomad’s tent 15 years ago, but now the best one costs RMB 60 per piece.

(B) Trader vs Tibetan

There are sly traders in any country. When Chinese Matsutake mushroom was a booming export from Yunnan to Japan 15 years ago, Tibetan farmers buried nails in the mushroom so as to increase its weight! This incident was widely reported in Japanese newspapers. The same thing happened with caterpillar-fungus in Eastern Tibet three years ago. In 2006, Khamba merchants from Bemba went to Jingling and Jiagong districts for purchasing caterpillar-fungus to be sold in Lhasa. Tibetan villagers buried a fine steel wire in caterpillar-fungus also to increase weight. This trick was found at Lhasa and the Khamba traders suffered considerable losses.

In 2007, Muslim merchants injected a paste made of wheat flour into the core of caterpillar-fungus. As both the core and paste were in white color, it took a time to discover this trick and then the market price of caterpillar-fungus went down to nearly half for a while.

Currently the Muslim minority’s migration to Tibet is increasing. They open shops in a town, leading to frequent conflicts with Tibetans - recently Muslim shops were burnt by Tibetans. As far as business is concerned, Tibetans feel that they are being encroached upon by both Han and Muslim people.

Tibetan nomads too are sometimes not honest. They do good business with buyers who visit them for purchasing yak butter. The yak butter is of very good quality in general and sold at high prices. So nomads often buy cheep margarine in Lhasa and mix it with their homemade genuine yak butter. Some nomads place potatos at the bottom of a butter lamp being used in a monastery.

Summary: Exploring valleys in Eastern Tibet in autumn 2009 by a Japanese party.