The Central Tibetan Plateau


PLA Barracks at Amdo - Anne Barton Wittke

Amdo

The journey down Tanggula Pass is made in the dark. We reach Amdo in frigid darkness at about 10:30 p.m. Interestingly, the town is not in the ancient Tibetan province with which it shares a name, rather Amdo is in Ü-Tsang, which borders the province of Amdo along the Kunlun Mountains. The town, at 4608 meters (15,118') in elevation, is the highest place we’ll spend a night during the trip. To our surprise we pull into a People's Liberation Army barracks "hotel," which is part of an extensive complex of white buildings with peeling paint (left). Exhausted, we forcefully decline dinner. Water is provided in a stainless steel bucket. The narrow beds have thin mattresses that could be omitted without a noticeable difference in the quality of one's slumber. The accommodations are wonderful and people collapse thankfully onto the rock-hard beds, exhausted by the 17 hour drive. At around 2:00 am, people are awakened as a convoy of trucks leaves the compound.


Professor Lin & Dike in Amdo Ophiolite - J.H. Wittke

 

We stop near the bridge at Amdo to examine a fragment of ophiolite from the late Jurassic Banggong Suture, which separates the Qiangtang and Lhasa Terranes. The Banggong Suture marks the northern edge of microplates from Gondwanaland, the great southern continent of the Mesozoic. Fragments from here south have fossils that evolved together, but separately from those of Eurasia, as represented by the rocks to the north. Ophiolitic material has been thrust up to 200 kilometers south of the Banggong Suture. This is the greatest distance known worldwide for squeezing ophiolites from their host suture. The ophiolite outcrop is not terribly impressive. One of our group points out one of the lave pillows with thin alteration rind. The pillow lavas indicate that the rocks formed under water.


Tibetan Spinning Wool - Anne Barton Wittke

Nagqu

South of Nagqu (Nagchu), we are forced to leave the roadbed because of construction. The large trucks and traffic that have preceded us have carved deep ruts along the detour off the elevated roadway and our vehicles must maneuver carefully to avoid being stuck. Finally past the construction, Mr. Deng turns the minivan up the embankment toward the pavement. We promptly bottom out and unlatch the doors to climb out. The large sliding side door usually requires a good shove to get it moving, but with the incline, this time it trundles open easily. With a metallic roar it runs off its rollers and falls flat onto the muddy ground. This ludicrous tragedy produces gales of laughter from everyone. Mr. Deng wants to handle the repairs without interruption, so we walk along the highway to where the minibus is waiting. We sit and chat in the chilly air, enjoying the opportunity to stretch, while Professor Lin and Mr. Deng attempt to ease the door back onto its rollers. This proves to be more difficult than getting it off the rollers, but after backing the minivan up onto level ground, they are able to reposition the door. Mr. Deng uses a wrench to secure the door. Can any repair job survive given the abuse that the vehicles are experiencing?

As we watch their labors, a smiling Tibetan man joins us. He wears a floppy broad-rimmed felt hat with a strap beneath his chin, and is wrapped in a long dark green chuba with sleeves that extend beyond his fingertips. Sheep skin with its woolly side facing inward lines the coat. A strip of red cloth, in which he has stuck a long narrow scabbard, serves as a belt. He is clad in some very worn sneakers; their rubber-covered toes remind me of junior-high basketball. A strand of wool dangles from his upraised hand, a spindle twirling at its end. He cheerfully allows us to photograph him.


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