Tibet Transects: The Salween River Gorge

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Sunday, June 4, 2006

Tibet is an immense and diverse land of gorges, vast plains, lush forests, grasslands, and the tallest mountains on earth. Over the next several months, I will visit places throughout Tibet from the southeastern Kham to the northwestern Jangtang Plateau.



First Stop: The Salween River Gorge

The Salween River Gorge passes through a contorted landscape of sedimentary rock and active faults called the Hengduan Mountains. Together with its sister rivers--the Yangtze and the Mekong--it forms a tightly-knit gorge system called the Three Parallel Rivers, one of the largest protected natural areas in China and a World Heritage Site.

The Salween is one of the last remaining large free-flowing rivers in South Asia, beginning in Tibet and flowing through Burma into the Andaman Sea 1,500 miles later. Proposed hydropower projects, however, threaten the area and may displace over 500,000 villagers.

The Salween, which flows south along a major fault, one of several marking the forces of the Indian plate subducting the Eurasian plate, cuts through an immense gorge. From the river to the top of Meili Xueshan, the tallest mountain in the Kawa Karpo range, is over three vertical miles of twisted terrain.

The three vertical miles support many different ecosystems depending on precipitation, rock type, human disturbances such as grazing and forestry, altitude, and the aspect of the slope. Rainfall, for example, ranges from 400mm to 4600mm in this relatively small area. Together this creates one of the most diverse temperate areas on earth.

The region supports 6,000 flowering plants, 500 of which are medicinal and ten percent of which occur nowhere else on earth: rhododendrons, azaleas, geraniums, trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit. Another name for the tallest of the mountains is Medicine Mountain.



Within moist upper slopes are cold temperate forests of fir, spruce, and larch.



On drier south facing slopes, oak and pine forests predominate, often with burn scars as testimony to the fires that periodically revitalize the area like a phoenix.



In riverine canyons, mixed deciduous and coniferous forests host abundant herbaceous species.

Lower in these canyons are subtropical evergreen forests.

Above these forests is a land of alpine meadows and shrublands, snow, ice, and rock, where wolves howl, and glaciers calve in a thunderous roar. In the spring, rhododendrons cover the landscape with flowers.

Below these forests are dry, warm valley shrublands and savannas, which remain brown for most of the year. Only during the brief rainy season does the landscape become green and flowers bloom. This is the land of prickly pear cactus. It is also where most Tibetan live as many higher elevation mountain slopes are too foggy during the growing season to successfully harvest barley. They rely on clean water from the abundant streams for much of the year. Combined with this water source, the warm weather of the canyons creates favorable conditions for living and growing crops.



Parrots fly above the forest at 12,000 feet; leopards and vipers live in the forests below. In all, 417 birds, 173 mammals, 59 reptiles, and 36 amphibians live in the Three Parallel Rivers Natural Heritage Site, with almost 200 of them endemic including the Gaoligong Pika, Gongshan Muntjac, Takin, and Red Goral.

The Salween River Gorge is therefore one of the most important areas for biodiversity conservation in the world. Consequently, international conservation NGOs are working in the area.
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