Natural History & Its Unsolved Mysteries​

Yarlung Tsangpo – the Everest of rivers

Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, in Southeastern Tibet (Source: Internet)
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- Novanita Sharma

The Yarlung Tsangpo is the upper stream of the Brahmaputra River, located in Tibet (now occupied by communist China). It is the highest river in the world, which passes through one of the most extreme terrains for any river in the world. Originating in the Angsi glacier in western Tibet, southeast of Mount Kailash, the river flows through the southern Tibet valley also known as the Yarlung valley. The river descends from elevation of 4500 m above the sea level to flow eastward through open valleys in Tibet, across changing vegetation from cold desert to arid steppes to deciduous scrubs vegetation, finally to conifers and rhododendrons. At the eastern end of the Himalayas in south-eastern Tibet, the river bends sharply, rushes through the most dramatic gorges of the world called the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, the Brahmaputra Canyon or the Tsangpo Gorge, formed by a horse shoe bend in the river where it leaves the Tibetan plateau, flowing around two major peaks – the 7,782 m Namcha Barwa and the 7,294 m Gyala Peri. These two Himalayan mountains have remained isolated, far from outside influence due to its inaccessibility. Namcha Barwa constitute the eastern anchor of the entire Himalayan chain, it is the highest peak in this section of Himalayas.  The Yarlung Tsangpo canyon is carved into granite bedrock, it reaches a height of 5,300 m from top to bottom in some places and stretching for more than 500 km, it is the deepest and longest gorge in the world, much larger than the Grand Canyon of USA. The canyon has a length of about 240km. 

Yarlung Tsangpo River flowing across Namcha Barwa & Gyala Peri Himalayan mountains

The river continues through the lower gorge to the Indian border at an elevation of 660m before entering Arunachal Pradesh and eventually becomes the Brahmaputra as it enters Assam. This river finally plunges into the Bay of Bengal after completing its journey in Bangladesh. The gorge has a unique ecosystem with species of animals and plants barely explored and affected by human influence. Its climate ranges from Arctic to subtropical. Aptly called the ‘Everest of rivers’, by adventurers; the Yarlung Tsangpo remains one of the least explored places in the world, abound with alluring adventure and tales of failed expeditions. Early expeditions of this river dates back to 1880, a time when British citizens were not allowed to enter Tibet. British explorers and geographers speculated where Tibet’s east flowing river ended up, they suspected it to be Brahmaputra. Kinthup, an explorer from Sikkim was assigned the task to release 500 specially marked logs into the river to test the Brahmaputra theory, men been posted on the Dihang – Brahmaputra to watch for arrival of the logs. Due to unavoidable situations, Kinthup failed to execute the plan and the expedition was abandoned. In 1913,  Frederick Marshman Bailey and Henry Morshead launched an expedition into the gorge that finally confirmed that the Tsangpo was indeed the upper stream of Brahmaputra. The gorge remained closed for outsiders after China invaded Tibet in 1959, it opened to later in 1990. The first attempt to explore the extreme conditions of the gorge was made by a Japanese group in 1993, who lost one member in the river. The National Geographic Society attempted to kayak the entire gorge in 1998, but caught in unanticipated high water levels it ended in tragedy when Doug Gordon, the famous explorer was lost in the expedition. Finally, in 2002 an international team with Scott Lindgren, Steve Fisher, Mike Abbott, Allan Ellard, Dustin Knapp, and Johnnie and Willie Kern successfully made a full descent of the upper gorge for the first time in history. The gorge is known for its breath-taking waterfalls, the largest waterfall of the gorge was visited in 1998. The estimated height of the falls to be 33 m. The falls and rest of the Pemako area (the part of southern Tibet, where Yarlung Tsangpo enters India) are sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, the area is concealed to outsiders including the Chinese authorities. There are two falls in this section, the Rainbow falls about 70ft heigh and the Hidden falls in downstream about 100 ft high. The Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet with its incredible course enthrals naturalists and all kind of explorers even today, to embark this adventure and unravel its hidden secrets. This trans Himalayan River which has been the cradle of the colourful Yarlung – Siang – Brahmaputra civilization has an unbelievably rapturous beginning in the arduous terrain on top of the world. The course of this river in the downstream is decided by this tumultuous head waters; and this fact is a matter of concern for countries like India and Bangladesh, in light of the anticipated multiple damming of Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet by People’s Republic of China. This projects of multiple damming and future diversion of river water of Yarlung Tsangpo to other parts of China is underway. It is feared that it will result in massive displacements, large scale loss of biodiversity and an unprecedented impact on the downstream people in India and Bangladesh. While the communist regime of China in Tibet gives a deaf ear to protests and criticism of downstream Nations regarding this issue, India and Bangladesh must stage the biggest people’s movement to save the Brahmaputra River from such ecological catastrophe in future. This is a global ecological and economic emergency, the lives of millions of people in the downstream are threatened with worst possible water and food security. The fate of Yarlung Tsangpo will be shared by all of us in the downstream, talk about Yarlung Tsangpo, talk about our riverine civilization, talk about saving this beautiful river to save our future.