Related News

Home » Feature

Tianshan's Crown Exploring the land of glaciers and snow leopards

THE first Chinese expedition to Mount Tomur was politically driven: a move to declare the mountain part of China. It also confirmed Tomur as the highest peak in the Tianshan Mountains, opening the way to scientific expeditions.

The breathtaking region in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region contains some of the world's most extensive glaciers as well as rich wildlife, including the snow leopard. It is now a nature preserve.

Located in the county of Wensu (Onsu), Mt Tomur - meaning "iron" in Uygur - lies on the border with the former Soviet Union, an area that is now China's agreed border with Kyrgyzstan. Given its proximity to the border, Mt Tomur has been of considerable political significance over the years.

In 1943, the then Soviet Union sent a team to conduct surveys from the northern slope of Mt Tomur, and in 1946 marked its position on the Sino-Soviet border with a new name: Victory Peak. Ten years later, in 1956, a Soviet team successfully scaled the peak from its northeastern slope.

Some Chinese leaders recognized this as a pressing territorial issue, but the turmoil of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) put everything on hold. It was only in 1977 that China set out to climb and survey Mt Tomur, an expedition considered to have "substantial political and military significance."

The Tomur region is also historically important. Prior to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the Tianshan Mountains were called the Northern Mountains, while the Kunlun Mountains were known as the Southern Mountains. Between 139 and 126 BC, the Han Dynasty envoy Zhang Qian (widely credited for opening the Silk Road) crossed the Tianshan Mountains to reach the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia.

During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the Tomur region was a vital conduit for trade and cultural exchange between Europe and China. Merchants, envoys, monks and missionaries passed through. One of the most prominent travelers was the monk Xuanzang, who documented the glaciers of Tomur on his way to India in AD 629.

Grim reminder

On June 1, 1977, a Chinese team set off to climb - and claim for China - the 7,439-meter Mt Tomur. This was the first large-scale scientific expedition in China after the "cultural revolution." The team was comprised of national athletes, mountaineers, surveyors from the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, and scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Getting to the highest peak of the Tianshan Mountains was arduous.

Starting from Beijing, the team took a four-day train ride to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, spent another four days on the road to get to Aksu, and then drove for a day to reach base camp near Wensu County. It took another two days on horseback before they arrived at the foot of the mountain.

The terrain is difficult: 60 percent of the 3,000-square-kilometer Tomur region lies above 4,000 meters, so they are permanently covered in ice and snow.

In late June, the contingent set off on horseback. Soon after leaving the camp a horse lost its footing and was swept away by the river below, along with tents, climbing equipment and food. The team decided to walk and lead their frightened horses.

When they reached 3,600 meters on the Qiongtailan Glacier, the landscape opened up and the main peak of Tomur sprang into view. Breathtaking ice formations resembled towers and mushrooms.

Solid reservoir

Moving on, the team saw a dead horse floating in an icy lake; it was fitted with a military-grade saddle, and its limbs were stiff. Yet another horse had perished - a grim reminder of what could happen.

During this journey, the team found themselves walking on what appeared to be a layer of gravel. However, when they scraped it away, they found they were actually walking on ice that was tens or even hundreds of meters thick. This glacier was still on the move, leaving gravel behind. But it was moving too slowly for its speed to be noticed. Glaciers at that elevation of 3,900 meters move at around 72 meters a year, or around 20 centimeters a day.

The Tomur region contains 829 glaciers covering 3,850 square kilometers. The area has a water storage capacity of 500 billion cubic meters, of which two-thirds lie within Chinese territory. The region of Mt Tomur and the neighboring peak of Khan Tengri (6,995 meters) accounts for more than half the ice cover in the Tianshan range. Thus, the glaciers here act as a "solid reservoir" that feeds the oases in the Tianshan Mountains.

Why are there so many glaciers in the region? The peak is part of a cluster of giants with a height of 6,000 meters or more. This natural barrier blocks moisture-laden air from the west, releasing as much as 1,500 to 2,000 millimeters of precipitation that feeds the glaciers.

In July 1977, the Chinese team successfully scaled Mt Tomur, and planted the Chinese flag and a survey marker on its summit.

Snow leopard

As the first Chinese expedition to Tomur in 1977 focused mainly on survey and reconnaissance, the Chinese Academy of Sciences conducted a comprehensive scientific investigation of the region in 1978. This time the team included experts in meteorology, soil, botany, geomorphology, energy and ecology.

The 1978 expedition, which covered more than 9,000 square kilometers, proved fruitful. A hydrological station was set up on the Qiongtailan Glacier at 3,200 meters. Fossils of ancient ferns and animals were discovered in a stratum of sedimentary rock at 4,300 meters.

This marked the first time that fossils were discovered on the southern slopes of Mt Tomur. The scientists also found a rich variety of wildlife: 670 species of alpine plants in 80 families, 76 species of birds in 24 families, more than 40 species of vertebrates in 13 families, and more than 250 insect species in 23 orders. In 1980 the Mt Tomur Reserve was established to protect this trove of highland flora and fauna.

In recent years, scientists have discovered that Mt Tomur is also home to a significant concentration of snow leopards (Uncia uncia). In February 2006, an international team of 12 scientists (from six countries including China, Britain and the United States) conducted a joint survey to spot snow leopards in the Tomur region. It was the first time that the elusive cat was observed and photographed by expert witnesses.

According to a conservative estimate by researcher Ma Ming, from the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, there were five snow leopards within 200 square kilometers in the Tomur region. This compared favorably with an estimate by renowned biologist George Schaller, who in 1989 counted around 750 snow leopards in a 170,000-square kilometer habitat in Xinjiang.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend