Qinghai Lake

Koko Nor from Space


Qinghai Lake is the largest lake in China, covering an area of 4583 square kilometers. The lake sits at an altitude of 3266 meters (10,712') and is called "Koko Nor" in Mongolian and "Tso Ngonpo" in Tibetan. The Space Shuttle photograph is oriented with north to the upper right. The penninsula that now includes Bird Island is the the upper left part of the lake. Spits along the northern and southern shores reflect the dominant wind direction (which drives the lake water eastward). One of the labor camps of the extensive Chinese gulag is located at Gangca, marked by the irrigated river delta on the north side of Koko Nor.

The sandy areas at the eastern end mark the location of a 1170-square-kilometer Haiyan nuclear weapons facility, also called the "Ninth Academy" or "Factory 221." The Ninth Academy was China's main nuclear research facility and produced all of China's early nuclear weapons. Radioactive waste generated during weapon production, which continued into the 1980s, was dumped on the base. Although the Chinese government claims that there has been no environmental damage and, more ominously, that "no one at the base has ever died of radiation," it is not clear how well the toxic waste is contained.

Algal Bloom at Koko Nor - J.H. Wittke


Koko Nor means "blue lake"; its brackish waters are an extraordinary turquoise-blue. It is lined by a brilliant yellow algal bloom. Qinghai Lake was originally freshwater. It developed in the Early Pleistocene when tectonic movements blocked the course of the through-going ancestral Buh He, which now enters the northwest side of the lake. However, the water is now brackish. The lake has been shrinking for at least the last 8000 years, because the present rate of evaporation and, more significantly use, exceeds the rate at which water refills it.

Rock steps and strand lines, features carved into the landscape when the lake was higher, document a long gradual decline in water level during the past 8000 years. More recently, the Han settlers have used the water for irrigation and livestock. Between 1959 and 1982, Koko Nor's waters declined at an average of 10 centimeters per year. In 1983, the lake's water authority instituted emergency measures that led to a rise from 1983 to 1989, but for the last decade, the lake's water level has again been dropping. Much of the lake shore is under cultivation, contrasting sharply with the description of barren uninhabited country given by Alexandra David-Neel during her visit in 1919.


Gathering at Heimahe - J.H. Wittke


At Heimahe (also called "Hei-ma-ho") on the southwestern edge of Qinghai Lake, we are extremely fortunate to encounter a religious gathering, which is reminiscent of a Cecil B. de Mille production. Several hundred Tibetans, dressed in their finest clothing, are gathered to greet a high lama from Gonghe. Some of the women's long hair is plaited into 108 tight braids, this being a Buddhist holy number. The lama sits in a small white van, barely visible in the crush of enthusiastic supplicants.

Horsemen at Heimahe


Men on horseback wait further up the road, and as the van moves on, they raise their arms and a cheer goes up. The colored scarves in their hands are whipped by the strong wind; some release handfuls of small paper squares, about the size of a playing card, printed with prayers, which scatter like gigantic snowflakes.

Free Tibet!