Global Flip Book – Himalayan Surface Water

Credit: New York Times, 9 December 2016. This static image was captured from their animation, which I really recommend to view

On Wednesday, December 7 Nature published a report about how rivers and lakes change their size and location on Earth’s surface. The people at Springer were good enough to make the Nature report accessible to the public, so I can view it and link to it. The report is based on 32 years (and 1.8 petabytes) of Landsat satellite data (NASA and US Geological Survey), compiled by this beautiful thing called the Google Earth Engine that now has a time lapse feature.

On Friday, December 9, New York Times published an interactive feature article Mapping Three Decades of Global Water Change that shows beautiful, detailed animations of some of the patterns discussed in the Nature article.

On the Tibet Plateau surface water appears to have increased over the past three decades. In other places (like the Aral Sea and the western United States), surface water has declined*.

We get some nice examples from the pan-Himalaya: the Brahmaputra River oscillates across the plains of eastern India, distributes itself through the Sundarban Delta, and adds a generation’s worth of new land to the front end of the mangrove. There is an image from Amdo in northern Tibet that dramatizes Nature’s finding that Tibet has increased its surface water, unlike many places on Earth’s surface. I have to question NYT’s suggestion that melting glaciers are the cause, since this enclosed watershed and others nearby appear no more glaciated in 1984 than they are today.

Blue is surface water permanent since 1984. Dark green is permanent surface water added since 1984, light green is seasonal surface water since 1984. Credit doi:10.1038/nature20584.

For now, the exciting thing is that Google’s Earth Engine has given us a time lapse feature that smooths, removes cloud cover(!) and animates decades (and petabytes) of choppy Landsat imagery. Now anyone with decent Internet can scroll around Earth’s surface and zoom in for a three decade flip-book cartoon of the places they care about.

We live in interesting times! More to follow.

*Jean-François Pekel, Andrew Cottam, Noel Gorelick, Alan S. Belward. 2016. High-resolution mapping of global surface water and its long-term changes. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature20584.

Celestial Shadow Play

When the sun is about to rise over a ridge that’s pretty high and there are diffuse clouds a little higher and closer than the ridge, and if it all comes together just so, the sun will cast a silhouette of the ridge line against the clouds. Sometimes the silhouetted peaks lie behind the first ridge, in which case the sun is projecting an image of something that would be invisible otherwise.

It’s not a particularly rare phenomenon, but you need to pay attention or you might miss it. Here are a few Himalayan examples from my photo archive. I suppose mountain ranges in other parts of the world might show this phenomenon too. Does anyone have any examples?

Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, Eastern Nepal. Here you can see the spire that’s casting the shadow. May 2014.
Annapurna 2001
Thak Khola, Jomsom District, Nepal. Here, where the Kali Gandaki River passes between the mountain masses of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, morning sun casts a silhouette of the Annapurna range on low stratus clouds. July 2001.
Olangchung Gola, Taplejung District, Nepal. The sky was clear this fine spring morning, so I’m not sure what is going on. Maybe the silhouette of invisible peaks is being cast by light refraction. May 2014.
Upper Barun Valley, Sankuwasabha District, Nepal. Peaks silhouetted onto these clouds define Nepal’s border with China. May 2017.
This one is the sun coming up behind limestone pinnacles that tower over the right bank of Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) in northern Yunnan Province, China. May 2009.

Jehren’s Himalayan Mysticism


Hi Jehren!

Jehren Boehm was my student on the Wildlands Studies program in Kumaon, India, fall 2011. Then he grew his hair and became our teaching assistant in 2015. Jehren is a talented photographer, videographer and dendrochronologist whose lifestyle enables him to put his skills to good use. He also skis a little.

Jehren compiled this short movie after we finished our program in Kumaon.  I find the star field streaming through the Panchachuli moonset especially compelling.

Clean your sensor Jehren, and let ‘er rip.






Fire on the Mountain

This image pair comes from Sattal Basin in  the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, India. It shows a stand of chir pine at the end of the dry season in early May and again 4.5 months later at the end of the 2016 monsoon. Both images were taken by our Wildlands Studies team.



Witness if you will the effect of four months monsoon rainfall on fertile ash. The fires in May were way worse than average, they were really bad. Visibility was only a few hundred meters, and the particulates in the air stung our eyes and burned our throats. My students had to forego their solar panels — not enough photons were made it down. Come fall, visibility was unlimited, slopes were green, the season’s last leeches were still writhing in the wet grass.

Kumaoni wildfires usually start in the chir pine forests. Fire season runs from late winter (after the weather has been dry for several months) and intensifies through spring as temperatures rise and dry things even more. Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) is a semi-deciduous species. It drops a lot of needles, which decreases shade in the understory and makes the leaf litter even more combustable. Only when a pine-fire is well established can it move into the less combustable stands of oak, rhododendron and other broad-leaved evergreen tree species.

Photo courtesy of YUWEI JIANG. The baba of the forest temple, just five minutes uphill from the location of the fire-recovery panoramas. This temple has a strong conservation mission, and supports a diverse plantation forest. The baba and his helpers prevented the spring fires from burning too close to the temple.


Fires consume the understory vegetation: grasses, shrubs and tree seedlings, but they don’t heat more than a few centimeters below the surface, so grass seeds (or roots if it’s a perennial species), and all the fungi and small arthropods necessary for healthy soil tend to survive. And fires seldom kill mature trees. Pines are scorched, and may be be charred to the core, but usually pull through. Oaks and arboreal rhododendrons can be completely defoliated by a fire, then sprout fresh leaves at the end of the rainy season.

These wildfires are almost always started by humans. Some may be set with a view to opening the understory, to creating proper conditions for a mushroom harvest, or to mobilizing nutrients for a flush of nutritious grass after the rains start. All these explanations apply to one part or another of the monsoonal Himalayan foothills. Recently, Kumaoni media also reports that fires are set by a ‘timber mafia’ in order to produce standing dead trees that can be salvaged for a profit. Cutting a live tree is likely to violate the local forestry laws.

Whatever the cause, this spring fire cycle favors the savanna-like forests where thin-canopied pines allow plenty of sun to hit the ground, drying the grass for the hot season, assuring that the forest will be fire-prone again the following year. Forests with thicker canopies have a shadier understory, with wetter, better-developed soils and don’t sustain a wildfire unless conditions have been atypically dry.

In this way, wildfire dynamics in Kumaon are opposite the North American west. In Kumaon, a part of monsoon Asia, rainfall and warm temperature coincide during June-September, synchronizing the two environmental requirements for soil bacteria and fungi to efficiently decompose soil organic material. Fuel that might accumulate in less bacteria-friendly habitats converts to humus which increases the water-holding capacity of the soil. A sequence of fire-free years enables the forest canopy to fill-in, shading the ground, making it wetter and reducing understory vegetation. Fire suppression in Kumaon drives ecological succession to a less fire-prone habitat type.

Bacteria and fungi decompose leaf litter very rapidly during the warm, wet Himalayan monsoon season.

In mountains of the American West, say the Sierra Nevada or Rocky Mountains, warm dry summers alternate with cold, wet winters so that the two things bacteria and other small organisms need to attack combustable biomass are offset in time. Disadvantaged bacteria spells fuel loading. Each year with no fire increases the likelihood of a catastrophic fire the next year.

This top graphic illustrates the monsoon climate in Almora, a Kumaoni hill town. During June to September, average temperature (°C in red) and monthly precipitation (cm in blue) are both high. This is the time when fuel that might otherwise accumulate is consumed by warm, moist bacteria and fungi.

Warm summers and wet winters mean the two conditions fungi and bacteria need to decompose dead plant material are seasonally offset. Decomposition is not efficient, fuel loading occurs.

This next graphic, an example from Yosemite Valley, California, shows the offset between high temperature (May-September) and high rainfall (November to March). Fuel loading occurs because the two things that bacteria need together to consume biomass efficiently are seasonally offset.

Warm, moist summers are friendly to the organisms that decompose biomass in the forest understory. This means less fuel-loading.








To elaborate just a little more, Yang Wang et al. (2000) describe carbon cycling and decomposition of soil organic material (SOM) at different elevations in the montane mediterranean climate of the Sierra Nevada, California. They find that soil biomass decomposes at a rate that is controlled by temperature and moisture. If soil moisture is favorable, decomposition rates double with a 10° C increase in soil temperature up to temperatures of about 40° C. Favorable moisture means 60-80% of saturation, roughly 20% water by weight. Too much water floods soils, reducing oxygen decomposition.

In the Sierra Nevada, soil moisture explained 55% of variation in CO2 flux. The field observation of Wang’s team shows that hot dry summers limit the rate at which soil biomass can decompose.

“Our data show that higher temperatures enhance decomposition of SOM only when soil moisture is adequate and reduce decomposition under moisture-limited conditions. Similarly, higher soil moisture content enhances decomposition of SOM until an optimal soil moisture level is reached…”*

*Yang Wang, Ronald Amundson, Xu Feng-Niu. 2000. Seasonal and altitudinal variation in decomposition of soil organic matter inferred from radiocarbon measurements of soil C02 flux. GLOBAL BIOGEOCHEMICAL CYCLES, VOL. 14, NO. 1, PAGES 199-211, MARCH 2000




Wildlands Studies Kumaon 2016

Here are a few images from our fall program in Kumaon.  Wildlands + Wildrift: बस कमाल

Sattal, in the lakes region of Kumaon. We visited Sattal at the end of the monsoon season. Warm water and cool morning air make a a puddle of convection fog over Ram ad Sita Lake. Kumaon’s Lake basins — the largest and most famous being Nainital — are set just back from the front edge of the hills and drain directly down to the plains. Wish I knew more about the geology of these basins. But I suspect they are due to slumping near the edge of the hills. On the geological time scale, they won’t last long.


Here (and above) is our campsite in the Airadeo forest reserve, northeast of Ranikhet. The protected forest (visible on a hill in the background) is dominated by banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), buras (Rhododendron arboreum), kaphal (Myrica esculenta) and Lyonia, a rhododendron-cousin. In the foreground is a farm that belongs to villagers who have an inholding in the reserve. By late October, they have harvested just enough of their Cannabis crop so we can pitch tents on the rain fed terraces.
Sonia, one of our Wildrift guides, at Airadeo summit on a crisp fall evening. Sonia grew up near Dankuri village, a few hours walk downhill. Now she and her husband live in Ramnager, a town in the plains at the entrance to Corbett National Park.


Jagdish, another Wildrift guide, comes from a village near the ridge top town of Mukteshwor. He helped a lot with the logistics of our program.
Here we are at the train station in Kathgodam, waiting to take the train to Delhi. The two guys on the left are jeep drivers who have been with us for a couple of weeks, sometimes shuttling gear, sometimes driving us. In the middle, Kesar from Sama Town who worked with us for more than a month, and to the far right, Lali whom we hired to help cook. Second from right is Dylan, one of our students, who comes from Vancouver Island.
It’s a fly, not a bee. This beautiful insect came to my arm as we rested after climbing steeply through a nettle-infested gulch. Why not a bee? Note: one pair of wings, relatively large compound eyes, stubby antennae.
This chunk of gneiss from the valley above Tejam contains the minerals biotite mica (black) and epidote (pistachio-green). We were also looking for garnet and kyanite, and we found both higher up.
Kesar with our host in the village of Simpati, near Mukteshwor.







Manoj (above) and Amit (below) are two of the Wildrift founders. They have been exploring Kumaon for many years. Maybe better not to say exactly how many.

Walking the Hills of Kumaon


In the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, a broad reach of hills divides the plains of northern India from the arc of the High Himalaya. Here, for a hundred kilometers or more,  the landscape undulates at pleasant elevations of one to three thousand meters. Towns and villages claim  favorable spots on a tapestry of hill slopes and winding river valleys. The Kumaon Hills are not steep by Himalayan standards, but their contours are intricate. The road network is well-established and actively metastasizing, the roads narrow, sinuous, best negotiated by jeep.

One of our illustrious guides

Wildlands Studies, my employer, comes to Kumaon every fall, part of a program of academic field courses accredited by Western Washington University in the United States. This year Wildlands walked away from the slopes of the high mountains, traversing hills that extend southwards from Gwaldam to Ranikhet. Our guides, Kesar and Dinesh, working with our Indian partner, Wildrift Adventures, had scouted this route during the rainy season. And they did a masterful job, finding us interesting paths, well away from the jeep tracks, with sumptuous campsites in all the right places.

Campsite near the headwaters of the Gomti River

Mostly, the Kumaon Hills are forested. Some north-facing slopes and protected areas support banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) and arboreal rhododendron, and there are magnificent, calming stands of deodar cedar like the one at Juphal Chora (below).

This deodar cedar forest near Juphal Chora is sacred and has been preserved for many generations

Most prevalent by far, however, are forests of chir pine (Pinus roxburghii), a native conifer that was promoted in British times as a source of turpentine. Locals don’t like the pines as much as the oak forests they have replaced because oak leaves feed livestock and oak timber is better for fuel and construction. At the ecosystem scale, soils under an oak canopy hold more water, ameliorating both flood  and drought. To add insult to injury, cattle slip and fall easily when intermediate slopes are blanketed in dry pine needles, and no one likes to see tumbling cattle.

None of these complaints dull the beauty and sentimental allure we North Americans see in the pine-savannas of the Kumaon Hills in October, mile on mile of straight, resinous trunks rising through a clean carpet of seasonal grass. This country is no wilderness: nearly every pine has been scored for resin extraction, and their ubiquitous burn scars were inflicted by wildfires of the anthropogenic kind. Yet the ground is mostly litter free, and the seasonal grasses are neither grazed nor have they been cut for winter feed, signaling a paucity of livestock and a low human population density. One night we camped on military land — our guides talked us in — and marveled that a landscape so deserted, yet agreeable, could persist in the world’s second most populous country.

The tall peak on the left is Trisul
Forests of chir pine are common throughout the Kumaon Hills.

Valley bottoms in this part of Kumaon are cultivated with paddy rice in summer, wheat through the winter and spring. Walking through in late October, we see villagers ploughing terraced fields with oxen and piling dung on the fields. I’m pleased (and a little surprised) at all the paddy rice terraces in this area because this crop has vanished through much of Kumaon where it serves the interests of the local people to buy rice from the plains and to invest their time in more rewarding pursuits.

Preparing for winter wheat. Symmetrical peak in distant right is Panchachuli, near the Nepal Border.

As in other parts of Kumaon, Cannabis is an important crop. Terraced fields of dank herb were under harvest at the time of our visit. In the morning, villagers strip the stalk and carry bud-laden stems in a woven basket to a flat place in the sun. Here they settle in for an afternoon of rubbing. Resin and pollen transfers from plant to skin, then is rolled into a tarry ball of charas. Bright sun is needed to bring the resin to the right consistency. Here in their native habitat, the Cannabis plants grow straight and tall, their stalks stout enough to serve as a walking stick, should the need arise.

Campsite on terraced slopes near Airadeo Temple

Shrines and temples to Lord Shiva and other Hindu deities stand near the villages and hilltops. The temple complex at Pinath overlooks a spring that marks the source of the Kosi River; the hilltop temple at Airadeo gives a wide angle view of the Himalayan Arc, from Api in Nepal to Himachal Pradesh.

Choti Pinath Temple in the Kumaon Hills

Our walk lasted nine days, with layovers at Pinath and Airadeo. Two of walking days  were lengthy by my modest standards, but fit into the daylight hours. We finished in Dankuri village in time to celebrate the festival of Deepawali, complementing our reverence for all the good things with reckless fireworks and ‘extra-strong’ Kingfisher beer. Our Dankuri residence, leased by Wildrift Adventures, had been freshly painted and scrupulously cleaned for the festival. Come evening, it was brightly lit with colorful bulbs, small oil lamps and a couple of disco balls for the attention of Laxmi, Hindu Goddess of Wealth, who makes her round on this night, the post-harvest New Moon.

Dankuri Residence
Laxmi, Goddess of Wealth (right), and her husband Vishnu, honored for Deepawali Festival

Exploring with my students, I sometimes call into question the alpine chauvinism so common among recreational visitors to the Himalaya. Granted, the lofty bits are distinctive and have good views, and there are fewer pathogens, parasites and allergens in the high alpine. The adversity of hypoxia and cold is a less-complicated sort of adversity than we typically encounter among the masses. And, of course, walking upslope to a well-defined summit can be profoundly  gratifying. Even so, to grasp the cultural and biological diversity that make the Himalaya the most interesting mountain system in the world, it’s important to walk in the hills sometimes.

Trying to Understand Ethnicity in Western Sichuan

It’s a rainy day in Chiangmai, very rare for January in the Monsoon Latitudes. The weather is encouraging me to stay inside and try to put together some material about three of the culture groups who live in Garzê (甘孜, དཀར་མཛེས།) Prefecture of Western Sichuan, where the Tibet Plateau falls away into the network of river valleys that water the Sichuan Basin.  Two of the culture groups I want to write about, the Gyalrong (嘉戎, རྒྱལ་རོང་) and Khampa (康巴, ཁམས་པ), are both classified in the Chinese nationalities system as Tibetan. The third one, the Qiang (羌族), are a distinct nationality, although they certainly share some cultural characteristics with the Tibetans.  The Qiang ascription is especially problematical because it refers as well to people who appear in historical accounts of northern China 3000 years ago.  The relationship between the northern tribes of antiquity and the Qiang in the river valleys of western Sichuan is tenuous at best.

I’m not an anthropologist, but this stuff fascinates me.  I will do my best and hope to have something posted before I meet my students later this month.  If there are any people reading this of Khampa, Jiarong/Gyalrong, or Qiang ethnicity, I would be very pleased to get your input.    


Yading Subalpine Forest

When I was a graduate student in 1986, planning to visit China, I got hold of Joseph Rock’s Ancient Nakhi Kingdom, two volumes published by Harvard Yenching Institute in 1948. Mixing ethnography, botany and adventure in the corrugated mountain landscape of southwest China, Rock’s prose was impenetrable to me, a tangle of unfamiliar place names, botanical references, and Chinese characters. But the photographs were superb. Natives in ceremonial dress outfits, peasants or maybe slaves whose clothing and faces revealed subhuman poverty. There were images as well of mountain landscapes, and the ones that enraptured me the most showed a group of peaks called Konkaling, three summits, each about 6000 m tall, each named for a Tibetan deity who embodies a quality worth having: Jampelyang (Wisdom), Chana Dorje (Power), and Chenresig (Compassion).

JFCR - Konkaling Group

Jambeyang, Chenrezig, and Chanadorje  (Joseph Rock, 1928)   (c) Nat Geog Soc.

The Konkaling peaks are not particularly massive by Himalayan standards, but they are well-formed of striated limestone with perennial snow at the top.  Jampelyang’s arcing symmetry could have been sketched by a child from some place where there are no mountains at all.

JFCR - Luorong Camp

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*Luorong Pasture in 1928 and 2014

When Joseph Rock visited the mountains of Konkaling in 1928, he found them to be anarchic and full of bandits, much like the other Chinese hinterlands in the years leading up to Liberation.  Konkaling is the upper watershed for an area that Rock called the Kingdom of Muli, and it was the Muli king who got Rock and his men the bandit-protection they needed to visit  Konkaling and come back alive.  Rock’s makes a colorful account of this journey in a 1931 National Geographic article ‘Risumgongba, Holy Mountain of the Outlaws’.

Rock spent much of his time in southwest China exploiting the possibilities available to a willful and narcissistic,  linguistically-talented wannabe aristocrat operating in the grassroots of a nested hierarchy of failed government.  At the national level, the Qing Dynasty had collapsed and strongmen were fighting over fiefdoms.  In Kham, a Chinese warlord from the north had deposed local Tibetan chiefs and, in the power vacuum that ensued, a lama came up from northern Yunnan to control bands of rogue monks who respected the lives of animals, but wantonly robbed and killed members of their own species.  When the Chinese military came in, Tibetan outlaws attacked their garrison and stole weapons.  By removing local Tibetan authority, the Chinese lost access to much of the river gorge area, especially the places that are now the counties of Daochang and Xiangcheng in the very southwestern corner of Sichuan.  This meant two important kinds of travel, trade and pilgrimage, couldn’t happen:  the country Rock visited in 1928 had seen no commerce at all for more than 20 years.  Rock made it to Muli only once.  He wanted to go back, but a crop-destroying hailstorm that occurred soon after his visit was interpreted by the lama as a sign of displeasure, and he was told that he’d be killed if he tried.  Or maybe the storm was just an excuse, maybe the bandit-pilgrims just didn’t like having him around.

Rock has much to say about natural beauty, human treachery, personal hardship.  His lifetime devotion to the dongba tradition of the Naxi priests — a pictographic language for religious ritual — shows much sensitivity to vernacular culture, but Rock remained dismissive and incurious about the cultural heritage of the Konkaling Tibetans.  Outside, tied to posts, were all kinds of offerings, left there by perambulating pilgrims — bracelets, rings, beads, feathers, bells — even hairs.    There was nothing beautiful whatever, only filth and evil smells.” 

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The Western conception Tibetans  as gentle, spiritual and politically correct sort of people would start coming out a couple of decades later.  In the meantime, Rock could remark drolly of “Mani piles [of prayer stones] … testifying to the great leisure of the lama monks who are responsible for their presence… They lead a monotonous existence, ever praying, and turning wheels and mills of prayers and chiseling prayers into every available flat rock surface.”  Faced with thousands of mani carvings on riverside boulders, one of my Chinese traveling companions said the same thing.

Rock had to leave southwest China after the Communist Revolution in 1949, and the whole river gorge area was closed to foreigners for more than 30 years.  In 1984 a delegation of mountain experts visited the the Naxi minority prefecture of Lijiang, which had been Rock’s base. The backpackers arrived at almost the same time, setting up in  ‘open’ places like Lijiang, then probing around to find out which of the ‘non-open’ places really were closed (i.e. you’d get expelled on arrival with a small fine) and which of them would tolerate foreigners for a few days at least.  Through my backpacking days, Konkaling stayed closed, and fortunate as I was to visit lots of exciting places in southwest China in the decades of Deng Xiaoping and his successors, I would not get to Konkaling until this year.

The post-1949 history of Konkaling is obscure.  Perhaps some of the local Tibetan people appreciated the law and order, and the release from serfdom that the People’s Liberation Army brought in the early 1950s. This seems to have been the case in some parts of northwestern Yunnan, if not in the Khampa regions further west.  And certainly much of ecological and cultural value was lost when Chairman Mao’s policies started going awry in the late 1950s.  I had no problem staying in Yongning, near Lugu Lake in 1988, but was not allowed to enter Muli from the Liangshan Mountains in 1989.  Access via Zhongdian in northern Yunnan was also restricted until the late 1990s. Westerners started to appear in Konkaling (now Yading), around 2000. Among the first groups were film makers from National Geographic and some mountaineers; the latter were controversial because many who care consider the Konkaling peaks too sacred to step upon. At any rate, it seems, no climbing permits where granted and no serious attempt was made. Howman Wong’s Hong Kong based China Research and Exploration Society also made visits to Konkaling in the 1990s.

The three Konkaling Peaks and the valleys around them are now called Yading Nature Reserve.  Soon after the Reserve was gazetted, the government established bus access into scenic Luorong Valley, obsoleting the local muleteers, generating violent protests.  Since then, green buses, boardwalks, and admission fees have been cloned-in, replicating a model common to southwest China’s other scenic locales: Jiuzhaigou, Yulong Shan, Pudacuo, Siguniang Shan. Yading is a nationally-ranked scenic site and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Entry costs 150 yuan, the compulsory green bus adds 120, and the optional electric tram from Chonggu Monastery up to Luorong Meadow costs 50 yuan, so the experience of spending a day at Yading comes to about USD $50 per person per day.  Getting from Riwa into the nature reserve, queuing for tickets, green-busing it up to Chonggu Monastery, walking one way on the plank way to Luorong Meadow, then taking the electric tram back to Chonggu, goofing around for awhile and green-busing it back to Riwa takes exactly one full day.  The tourist plank way looks freshly built, a walking corridor  of elevated metal grid with stout wooden railings to keep the tourists from stepping into the wild.  Trees have been spared ostentatiously, growing up through gaps cut in the metal.

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In summer, the scenic beauty here is almost too much to process: subalpine oak/conifer forests hung with lichen, plunging streams, limestone peaks with glaciers at the top. In my own opinion, high mountains of limestone are the most striking, not only because of their uniform, chalky pallor, but something about how the soil settles firm into the ground without the tinselly dust of decomposed granite.  And the streams that issue from limestone can be ethereally clear. Whether Konkaling is biologically diverse by local standards, it is certainly diverse compared to alpine regions outside the Eastern Himalayan region, and the summer wildflowers are delightful. Luorong Valley supports some of the highest forests in the world with closed-canopy stands of spruce and larch at elevations up to 4350 m.

Today the project of constructing Yading continues apace.  Dozens of hotels have been built in the county seat of Daocheng and the township of Riwa, the latter being preferable as you will be closer to the peaks and 800 m lower in elevation.  The Riwa hotels all look more or less the same, built of stone in a generic Tibetan style. Hospitality services are run mostly by Han Chinese from Sichuan and other provinces, although they certainly pay rent to the local Tibetans.  A couple of years ago, Daocheng got a regional airport, one of the highest in the world.  During summer 2014, a large reception center was under construction near the entrance to the reserve, and bunker-like accommodations are going in at Luorong meadow where locals sell souvenirs and run the pony concession up to Five Color Lake.


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*Facilities under construction at Luorong Meadow, Summer 2014

Konkaling’s new generation looks to tourists for money now, at least during the warm months.  The nature reserve issues a pea green fleece jackets to its workers who come in every day from the surrounding villages to drive the trams and take out the trash.  Freelancers, selling prayer beads, wear their own clothes.  They dress urban, contemporary, in jeans and gangsta chic, fashion accessories acknowledge Buddhism and, in solitary with kids worldwide, signal a general disdain for the larger enterprise around them. The girls don’t seem to mind a sunburn.

Yadng Vendors

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It’s startling to realize that these kids are only three generations away from the murderous ‘bandit-pilgrims’ that Joseph Rock met when he visited Konkaling in 1928.  China’s contemporary youth are famously disconnected from the experiences of their parents, to say nothing of their great grandparents.  But what a journey these lineages have had through recent generations!   Packing up after a day’s work in the park, gossiping and helping each other out, they struck me as cohesive and sincere, neither jaded nor downtrodden.  If anything, they were a trifle insolent, lacking that ingrained respect for visitors typical of the more Confucianized realms farther east.  Rock got some of this.  He compared the Konkaling people to proud, virile Apache Indians, in contrast to the “sniveling serfs” of Muli.  If the new generation of Konkaling has yet to gain inspiration from the Chinese dream, they seem sufficient for the time being without it.

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The Himalaya is a Mountain Range

Panchachuli Stars - cropped

From the plains of northern India or Nepal, the Himalaya sometimes appear as a white veil to the north. But only during the clearest  weather, perhaps after a heavy rain, is it possible to see how the flanks of the range connect snowy peaks to the rest of the earth. More often, the crest seems to hang suspended above the atmospheric haze, so far from the horizon that it hardly looks like mountains at all.

In map view, the arc of topography that divides Tibet from India is very nearly circular.  Center your compass on a spot near Turpan, in the Tarim Basin of western China, lay the pencil on Arunchal Pradesh, turn it clockwise to Gilgit-Baltistan and, over a distance of 1800 km, the arc you describe will seldom lie more than a few kilometers from the Himalayan crest*.  Defined in this strict sense, the Himalaya extends between the great bends of two rivers that issue from the Tibet Plateau, the Indus to the west and the Yarlung Tsangpo to the east. It includes the highest mountain in the world (but not the second highest), and a majority of all the peaks that exceed 8 km (~26,200 feet) elevation.

The two rivers that enclose the Himalaya share a watershed divide that lies to the north of the crest, near the four-sided, conglomerate pyramid of Mt. Kailas. The Indus and the Yarlung Tsangpo flow in opposite directions, descending gradually at first, then very steeply as they course off the edge of the plateau, each at its own nick-point. The gorges of the Indus cut through drier country, further from the Tropics, and they have been traveled by trans-Eurasian traders since antiquity. In contrast, the gorge where the Yarlung Tsangpo leaves Tibet is an exceptionally wild place, steep and pummeled by a powerful monsoon.  No one has ever traded in the gorges of the Tsangpo, and indeed it was quite late in the British Raj before anyone proved that the river that leaves Tibet is the same one that emerges onto the Indian Plains as the mighty Brahmaputra.

The Himalaya is a region

PanHimalaya - Google Earth

In a broader sense, the Pan-Himalaya is a physiographic package that includes all of the high, rugged terrain that has been shaped by the tectonic collision of India with the rest of Asia, an event that has been ongoing now for 55 million years. Prior to the initial collision, Proto-India approached Asia from the south at about the speed your hair grows. Since the collision, it has slowed to the speed of a growing fingernail, but in in geological time even fingernails grow fast: on average, several hectares  a year of India disappears into the collision zone.

The Pan-Himalayan orogenesis, or mountain building, results from 1200 km of tectonic convergence, the faulting and stacking, metamorphism and exhumation of tens of vertical km of rock, shaped secondarily by millions of years of aggressive, monsoon-driven erosion.  Some parts of the Himalaya are simultaneously growing and eroding very rapidly, so the topography cycles fast, even as the height of the range may remain more or less the same.  We know this because some mineral crystals deposited in a river bed or an offshore marine sediment fan at the bottom of the Himalayan watershed were — in the geological sense — deposited very soon after they cooled within the crust, meaning that the process of uplift and erosion occurred during a geologically brief interval. This aspect of Himalayan geology is well worth revisiting, but for now I just want to make the point that the Himalaya is a dynamic, structure that is cycling rapidly and that many of the massifs visible today are much younger than the structure of which they are a part.    

The Tibet Plateau (about the size of the western US) exceeds four, and in some places five kilometers elevation. Its rain-shadowed western interior is a confined drainage, Earth’s highest basin, where streams of melting snow feed vast, shallow lakes. Watercourses confined to the plateau do not export their sediments to the ocean and plains, they carry their burden only as far as the interstices between the ranges.  These, they fill with alluvium, producing a topography of broad, nearly flat inter-montane basins across which distant mountains shimmer in clear air. Eastern Tibet looks different.  Here the plateau has been incised  by great rivers that cut headward as they plunge from the rim of the plateau, carrying their sediments to the ocean, leaving relic patches of flat land amongst the gorge network.

High as it is, the Tibet Plateau is encircled by mountains that are higher still. The Himalaya (strictly defined) rises to the south. Moving clockwise, we meet the jagged, crumbling Karakoram range, which holds the other  8 km peaks, and merges with the knot of the Pamir.  Axillary ranges like the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan extend from the Pamir region.  The dry Kunlun and Qilian ranges run along the northern margin of the Tibet Plateau, separating it from the great Tarim desert basin to the north, and the broad, north-south cut of the Hengduan Shan marks the eastern edge of Tibet.  The ranges that collectively make up the Hengduan are dissected by the channels of many rivers that drain into the agricultural basins and plains of eastern China.         

Panchachuli stars       

Pan-Himalaya, not Just Mountains

Sundabans (Steve Young)

Mouths of the Ganges. Imgage courtesy Stephen Young

Rapid uplift and rapid, monsoon-driven erosion means that Himalayan rivers carry more sediment relative to their volume than any other rivers on earth.  For example, the Brahmaputra, where it emerges onto the plains of Assam, carries a greater bed load of sediment than any other river in the world except the Amazon, which is much larger.  Thus, Pan-Himalayan rock exists in the sediments that form the Gangetic Plain of northern India and Nepal and the plain of the Indus River further west.  In similar fashion, the Sichuan Basin is filled with material washed down from eastern Tibet, and the Yellow River carries Tibet in powdered form across northern China.      

Where Pan-Himalayan sediments make it to the coast, sorted now to a fine silt, they contribute to Earth’s  largest and fastest-growing river deltas. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra flow together at the coast and form the Sundarban, the largest delta of all. Bengal tigers that roam the mangrove forests of the Sundarban are the most man-eaters, and it has been suggested that they get their taste for human flesh from corpses that drift down the river to snag in mangrove. The Mekong Delta, and those of the Indus and the Yangzi, are very large as well. The Mekong Delta is growing so fast at the southern tip of Vietnam that local people claim land by building stilted houses offshore, knowing that in a few years the land will come to them. The Pan-Himalaya has bathymetric as well as topographic features – a thick fan of sediment fills the Bay of Bengal between India and Southeast Asia and extends seaward 3000 km into the southern hemisphere.