The Grasslands

Valley of the Somang Qu - J.H. Wittke

In the morning, we head up the churning course of the Somang Qu (River) into the mountains. The foaming cascade rushes between steep valley walls that attest to the youth of this landscape. The drive is beautiful and peaceful, through patches of fir and willow in the valley bottom. However, a ravenous Chinese lumber industry has stripped bare extensive swaths of old growth timber from the hillsides. We encounter trucks loaded with huge pine logs, but logging operations have moved westward. Rough logging trails scar the ravaged valley walls of the Somang Qu. Debris litters the desolate slopes; abandoned dirt runs, down which the logs had been slid, have gouged the ground. Tibet's forests covered about 222,000 square kilometers in 1949, but by 1985 deforestation by logging had reduced this by 40 percent-to about 134,000 square kilometers. Except for the seemingly endless cavalcade of logging trucks, the road is empty.

We start up a long switchback. The precipitous drop to the side makes the road seem even narrower. Whenever we must squeeze past oncoming traffic, I am glad we are on the inside edge of the road (Chinese drive on the right). Truckers squat beside their vehicles near some small buildings halfway up the pass, spraying water onto overheated brakes with rubber hoses. One would not wish to lose the brakes on this narrow road. The descent on the far side is equally steep. The road winds precariously down the treeless slopes. We continue to encounter long lines of loaded lumber trucks. The procession bearing Tibetan timber seems endless.

Yak along the Gar Qu - J.H. Wittke


After another, more gradual, ascent, the landscape opens into broad yalleys surrounded by rolling grasslands. Grazing herds of yaks are scattered along the river. We are now high enough that these creatures can survive; at elevations below about 3000 meters (about 10,000'), they sicken and die. It's unclear to me why the surfeit of oxygen at lower elevations should hurt a yak. However, I've heard this fact repeated some many times and take it on faith. Tibetans call all domesticated animals nor, a term denoting wealth. A yak is the male of the species; the female is a dri. A male offspring cross between these animals and cattle is a dzo, the female a dzomo. In theory, the crossbreeds look more cow-like, but they seem impossible to distinguish at a distance; even up close it is very hard for the untrained eye to identify them.

The Grasslands - J.H. Wittke


The Tibetan nomads attending the herds live in tents scattered over the open plains. A series of faceted slopes in the distance mark a fault (left). The tents - ba in Tibetan - are made of heavy flet and woven yak hair, and are either black or white. They are firmly staked out against the assault of the winds, which can blow savagely across the treeless expanses. Clouds of smoke rise from many of the tents.

Tibetan Nomad Woman - Anne Barton Wittke


These herders were curious and friendly. Whenever we make a stop, we are soon joined by smiling individuals (right). The roads across the grasslands are often muddy and rutted, requiring frequent stops to avoid getting stuck. People climb out of the vans to raise their clearance and walk along the roads as the drivers carefully negotiate between deep puddles. Eventually we enter the mountains surrounding the grasslands.

Free Tibet!