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November 26, 2016

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At threatened glaciers, tourists sent packing

RISING to an elevation of over 5,400 meters on the Geladaindong Mountain astride the border of Qinghai Province and Tibet Autonomous Region, the Gyangguteru glaciers are where Asia’s longest river begins.

The area had long been a mecca for backpackers, until global warming-induced glacier recessions rendered the local environment too fragile to welcome any more tourists.

Meaning literally “the highest peak” in Tibetan, Geladaindong has more than 600 glaciers, which serve as a de facto reservoir for the Yangtze River, which meanders for a total of 6,380 kilometers into the East China Sea, and drains one-fifth of China’s land area.

The headstreams of the Yangtze River source obtain 80 percent of their water supply from the glaciers of Geladaindong. From there, streams of water flow through the wilderness, and converge to form the Tuotuo River, which runs 358 kilometers to the confluence of the Dangqu River to form the Tongtian River. The Tongtian continues for 813 kilometers until it is joined by other tributaries to form the Jinsha River, which then flows 2,308 kilometers to the confluence of the Min River in Yibin, Hubei Province, where the Yangtze River officially begins.

For geologist Yang Yong, one of the adventurers who rafted the upper reaches of Yangtze in a 1986 Sino-US river expedition, the Geladaindong Mountain holds a special memory.

Flash back 30 years, Yang and his expedition embarked on a 12-day trek from Tanggula, where they purchased 13 yaks and two horses from local nomads to transport rafting gear. In early June, they arrived at the base of Gyangguteru, and launched their rafts 20 kilometers downstream the glaciers. Since then, Yang has made more than 20 field trips to Yangtze’s main headstreams — Chumar, Tuotuo and Dangqu — and entered the Geladaindong area a dozen times through the Tuotuo tributary.

“In August 2006, we traveled up the Tuotuo River toward the Gyangguteru glaciers. It was a particularly rainy summer, and none of local nomads were willing to be our guide on this perilous trip. Our cross-country car was stuck in the mud dozens of times before we finally made it to the source of the Yangtze,” he recalls.

Any tiny stream matters

According to Yang, who is now chief scientist of the Hengduan Mountain Research Institute, 85 to 90 percent of the glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau are melting. The Gyangguteru glaciers, located on the eastern slope of Geladaindong, have receded as much as 500 meters. Some glaciers on the western slope have retreated almost 2,000 meters in the past 30 years.

Gao Guolin, an official in Amdo County, which is now responsible for protecting the area, says that back in the days when regulations were looser, conflicts would often occur between tourists and local herders because of damage to pasture done by the visitors. To protect the Geladaindong Mountain from being further threatened by human activities, the Tibetan county now enforces strict control over access to the area.

Amdo County executive Tashi Phuntsok says that, according to the State Council of China, Geladaindong falls under their jurisdiction. The Geladaindong massif is where the county’s Sewu, Marrong, Töma, Gangnyi, Yanshiping and Marchu townships are situated,

Home to the Gyangguteru glaciers, Marchu is covered by alpine steppes, meadows and marshlands at lower levels, where sparse kobresia and needle grasses grow. Near the glaciers, cars are only allowed to use the lane marked with stones by local herders, and those who enter the area without permission will be stopped by rangers and asked to leave.

With a population of 2,700, Marchu has 120 rangers responsible for patrol duties, litter pickup and rescue in case of emergency. Amdo County’s Party secretary Jiang Cun says that the county allocates 200,000 yuan (US$28,869) annually to fund the protection of the river source. And according to Phuntsok, Geladaindong’s environmental protection projects are solely funded by Amdo.

Right now there are no roads leading to the Geladaindong Mountain, and Phuntsok intends to keep it that way in order to prevent tourists from flocking in.

“Some might criticize me for this decision, but I believe that in a few years people will understand,” says Phuntsok. “Any tiny stream you walk through here goes into the Yangtze River eventually. If these streams dry up or end up polluted, what will become of the water downstream?”

According to adventurer Yang’s study, the answer to this question might be a bleak one. Many smaller glaciers have completely disappeared from the landscape, and the snow line of the mountain has risen to more than 5,800 meters above the sea level.

As glaciers and frost soil keep thawing, a rise in water level has been observed in a number of rivers and lakes. In the long run, climatic and environmental changes will have worse ramifications if not curbed, such as water shortages and desertification in the headstream area, and even droughts in the downstream regions.

In such a context, the protection of Geladaindong Mountain is, without question, a crucial and urgent matter. Yet there is a layer of ambiguity to the problem: on official maps, Geladaindong is shown to be under the jurisdiction of Qinghai, which contradicts documents issued by the State Council regarding Amdo County’s jurisdiction over the area. This year, Amdo has denied three requests for entry made by Qinghai government officials.

In the Sanjiangyuan (Three-River Source) Nature Reserve and National Park project, approved by the State Council in 2005, Geladaindong is listed by Qinghai Province as a key part of the nature reserve. But according to Yang, no funding has been allocated to the Geladaindong area so far.

Li Xiaonan, director of the Sanjiangyuan administration, says that they are considering allocating funds to protect the Geladaindong Mountain through research and monitoring programs in the future. Li also adds that tourism development is the last thing that the river source needs at this stage.


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