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Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon - A view from our expert author


Yarlung Tsangpo Tibet China by NASA
Yarlung Tsangpo was not recognised as the world’s deepest canyon until the 1990s © NASA

Only now is Yarlung Tsangpo – the world’s deepest canyon – starting to be launched as a world-class attraction. It is surely the eighth wonder of the natural world.

In 1924, two British expeditions crossed paths in Lhasa. One was the ill-fated Everest expedition, heading west with the objective of summitting the mighty peak. The second expedition was heading in the opposite direction, east to the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge, as it was then known. The expedition was led by botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward, with the eccentric Lord Cawdor in tow to provide financial backing. The object was to collect new plant species, and to hunt for a colossal waterfall, rumoured to be 30m tall.

Kingdon-Ward’s expedition found waterfalls, but not a colossal one. He collected a staggering amount of flora – some 250 species, including the fabled blue poppy. And he overlooked a terrific discovery right under his nose. He was exploring in a canyon more than double the depth of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, deeper than the Rio Colca in the Peruvian Andes, deeper than the Kali Gandaki in Nepal. The definitive discovery that the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is the deepest in the world was not announced until the mid-1990s. The colossal 30m waterfall that Kingdon-Ward was hunting was not definitively identified until 1998.

Only now is the canyon starting to be launched as a world-class attraction – surely the eighth wonder of the natural world. The problem, as in Kingdon-Ward’s day, is remote and inaccessible terrain. The canyon contains many rare species of flora and fauna, but trails through its wooded slopes are few and overgrown. The weather can be wet (very wet), foggy and unpredictable – the canyon hosts its own unique microclimates. And for foreigners, there’s another great obstacle: Chinese officialdom. The main access point is close to Linzhi, which lies near to a heavy military traffic zone.

Hopefully, this situation will change and this remarkable canyon will be easier to access for foreign hikers and even foreign rafters (closed to non-Chinese travellers). Chinese tourists are able to reach the area. They start out on a day’s drive from Nyingtri Airport, followed by an arduous two-day hike to Zhacu village. Close to this spot, there’s a vantage point with stunning views over a bend in the river, where the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo wraps around the base of Mount Namche Barwa.

Yarlung Tsangpo River Tibet China by NASA
The extraordinary aerial view of Yarlung Tsangpo River © NASA

An addition at this site is the Namche Barwa Visitor Centre, designed by avantgarde Beijing architect Zhang Ke. The centre houses an exhibition on the history of the canyon, a contemplation space and hiker facilities (including a medical clinic for those struggling with altitude). Down by the river is another facility, a small boat terminal where trips can be taken in direction of Namche Barwa.

You would think that a major attraction like the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon should be preserved in pristine shape, with revenue derived from tourism. Sadly, that is not the case. Chinese officials have chosen a path of exploitation of resources, in a way that will be highly destructive. The Yarlung Tsangpo is slated to be extensively dammed in the coming years. It is not only the world’s highest river with the world’s deepest gorge; it has far and away the world’s greatest hydro potential, at the Great Bend of the Tsangpo. A proposal made by Chinese engineering consortiums calls for construction of Motuo Dam at the Great Bend, with a staggering output of 38,000MW. That would be far greater than the output of the Three Gorges Dam – currently the world’s largest. In 2013, a 3km tunnel was blasted through to the remote village of Motuo, with a sealed road. Motuo, also known as Metok and Medog, is a site sacred to Tibetans as one of the ‘hidden valleys’. But now hidden no more. The road boring through mountains to reach Motuo can only mean one thing: a mega-dam is on the drawing board.

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