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Garden of Eden in the East

2019-11-29 16:17:00 Source:China Today Author:
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CHINA’S mountain ranges are mostly east-west oriented, but the Hengduan Mountains in southwest China run in a north-south orientation. This region is covered with mountains. In an area of 360,000 square kilometers, 98 percent is mountainous. The extremely high mountains top more than 5,000 meters and the high mountains between 3,500 to 5,000 meters account for 73 percent of the total area. The Gongga Snow Mountains, Meili Snow Mountains, Siguniang Mountains, and Yulong Snow Mountains comprise a network of tightly connected mountain ranges. The Hengduan Mountains are also the dividing line between the first and second stages of China’s topography.

Three major rivers originating in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau create one of the grandest natural spectacles on earth – three parallel rivers, as they run approximately parallel, north to south, through steep gorges of the Hengduan Mountains. Named the Nujiang River, the Lancang River, and the Jinsha River, they are the upper reaches of three major rivers in Asia – the Salween River, the Mekong River, and the Yangtze River.

Because it is not covered by the Quaternary continental glaciers, the area of three parallel rivers has become a passage and shelter for biological species on Eurasia. It also contains the highest concentration of diverse species on the continent. At the same time, the Hengduan Mountains are a large region for the residence and flourishing of various ethnic groups. Their life, customs, culture, and beliefs are integrated with nature, which is a blessing that promotes peaceful and happy lives.

                 

                                A stunning view of Meili Snow Mountain, Deqin County, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. 

Covering an area of 17,000 square kilometers, the protected area of the three parallel rivers in Yunnan Province is a fascinating place due to its rich biodiversity and colorful ethnic customs. In July 2003, UNESCO listed the area as a World Natural Heritage.

The Wonders of Geography

As a unique natural landscape comprised of mountains and canyons, the three parallel rivers can be viewed as a history textbook of the earth’s evolution, reflecting the geological relics, geomorphic landscapes, and geological phenomena during the main stages of the earth’s evolution. This area has been formed by crustal movement. It contains an outstanding diversity of landscapes, such as deep-incised river gorges, luxuriant forests, towering snow-clad mountains, glaciers, alpine karst – reddish sandstone landforms, lakes, and meadows over vast vistas.

The Nushan Mountains are the watershed of the Nujiang River and the Lancang River. The Yunling Ridge separates the Lancang River and the Jinsha River. The shortest straight-line distance between the Lancang River and the Jinsha River is 66 kilometers, and shy of 19 kilometers between the Lancang River and the Nujiang River. They form a rare natural geographical landscape of “rivers running parallel without confluence.” Each river cuts the earth’s surface creating a geography of mountains alternating with valleys. The relative height difference between mountains and valleys exceeds 1,000 meters, which makes for some magnificent looking terrain.

The Nujiang Gorge is one of the world’s famous grand gorges. With an average depth of about 2,000 meters, it enjoys the reputation as the “Oriental Grand Canyon.” The gorge is characterized by high mountains, deep valleys, and swift currents. Fragrant white flowers, lush virgin forest around the hillside, and snow-clad mountains render picturesque scenery.

The Hutiao Gorge is formed by the Jinsha River flowing between the Yulong Snow Mountains and the Haba Snow Mountains. With towering mountains on both sides of the river, the gorge measures 3,500 meters in depth, 16 kilometers in length, and only 30 meters at the narrowest part.

The Meili Gorge of the Lancang River is one of the most beautiful gorges in China. The altitude of Kawakarpo Peak of the Meili Snow Mountains on the west bank is 6,740 meters, the altitude of the Zhalaqueni Peak of the Baima Snow Mountains on the east bank is 5,460 meters, and the maximum height variation of the gorge is 4,734 meters. The valley floor of the three gorges features scorching heat typical of the subtropical dry climate. It becomes cool and pleasant half way up the mountains, while the top of the mountains is covered with ice and snow all year round. Therefore, one can experience different climates within a relatively short span of distance.

In addition to a variety of natural landscapes associated with the gorges, there is also an eye-widening means of transport – cable bridges. The cable bridge connects the two sides of a gorge by ropeway. The cable car is actually a big bamboo tube. People who cross the river tie their bodies with the cable car by rope, and then slide along the ropeway from a high point to the opposite lower bank. In foreign countries, cable bridge sliding is generally regarded as an exciting outdoor sport, but for people living in the mountains of Yunnan Province, it used to be their daily way of travel. There used to be many cable bridges in Yunnan Province along the broad river with billowing waves and the cliffs on both sides. Restricted by geographical and technical conditions, the cable bridge was the only way to cross the river. Horses and goods also had to be transported across the river in this way. Before the widespread use of steel wire cables, most of the ropes were made of rattan strips or bamboo, which were easily damaged by wear and tear and needed to be replaced regularly.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the cable bridge has been improved over several generations. For example, the iron pulley car has replaced the bamboo cable car. Now crossing the bridge is not done manually, but driven by an electric motor. However, it is still dangerous and inconvenient. Since the beginning of this century, 181 sliding cable bridges in Yunnan Province have been reconstructed. Now, modern bridges have replaced them, and deep chasms have turned into a thoroughfare, which has greatly facilitated people’s travel. The cable bridges are vanishing from the stage of history and have become touristic experiences instead.

Paradise for Living Creatures

The complex and diverse geological and environmental features affect the biological evolution process of the area of three parallel rivers, forming a diverse biological and ecological landscape. It has therefore been dubbed the “world’s biological gene pool.” Because the mountains in the region are north-south oriented, it is the main passage for the biological species of Eurasia to move through. In the last ice age 10,000 years ago, the primeval forest did not freeze, becoming a sanctuary for living creatures and preserving a remnant of biological communities and endangered species. It is a collection of climatic types and plant communities in the South Asian subtropical zone, Central Asian subtropical zone, North Asian subtropical zone, warm temperate zone, temperate zone, cold temperate zone, and cold zone. As a miniature of the biological landscape in the northern hemisphere, it is a world-class species gene pool, and one of the three ecological species centers in China.

On the plateau where the three parallel rivers are located, eight nature reserves are scattered from west to east – the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve, Nujiang River Nature Reserve, Baiba Snow Mountains Nature Reserve, Napahai Nature Reserve, Bitahai Nature Reserve, Haba Snow Mountains Nature Reserve, Yulong Snow Mountains Nature Reserve, and Lugu Lake Nature Reserve. There are obvious features of vertical biology and climate in the mountains which harbor a variety of flora and fauna.

In these nature reserves, there are relatively complete mountain ecosystems and primitive natural geographical landscapes, such as large areas covered by primitive forests, alpine swamps, and alpine lakes. In addition to being the home of the golden monkey, antelope, snow leopard, Bengal tiger, black necked crane, and other nationally protected animals, they are also the places where alpine flora is most densely concentrated. There are national protected plants, such as taiwania flousiana, alsophilus, taxus chinensis, as well as rare Chinese medicinal materials including rhizoma gastrodiae and fritillaria thun-bergli. When the flowers bloom every spring, the sea of flowers envelopes the green marshy grassland, the quiet forest, and regions beside the blue lake. Hundreds of rhododendron species, dozens of green wormwood species and other wild flowers can be spotted. As a result, this area is referred to as a “natural alpine garden” in botanical cirlces.

Searching for Shangri La

Shangri La in Tibetan means “sun and moon in the heart.”

In the novel Lost Horizon published in 1933, British writer James Hilton depicts the adventure of four Westerners being hijacked by a mysterious figure, and accidentally ending up in Shangri La, a mysterious valley in the East. The book portrays a secret place in this way. In a fragrant valley, people are leading a life without contest with the rest of the world, savoring tranquility, peace, freedom, happiness, and harmony with nature. Snow-capped mountains cut the region off from the outside world. People adhere to the principle of moderation and live elegantly in a rich Oriental cultural atmosphere. The wonderland is called “Shangri La.” After the novel was published, it immediately became a spiritual placebo for people living in the economic crisis and the shadow of war, and a cultural wave of returning to nature and looking for Shangri La surged in the West.

Where is Shangri La? It is believed to be in some valley adjacent to the Himalayas. For more than half a century, many Shangri La believers, explorers, and anthropologists have set foot in Tibetan areas of China, southwest China, Nepal, India, and other places, eager to find their “Shangri La.” It is virtually located in Diqing, Yunnan Province. Since January 2002, Zhongdian County of the former Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture has been officially renamed Shangri La County.

Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is located in the southeast of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the northwest of Yunnan Province. The Jinsha River and Lancang River run through the area. The snow-capped mountains have watched over the land for millions of years. There are clear lakes, lush meadows with blooming flowers, flocks of cattle and sheep, and locals unfettered by the complexities of modern life on the quiet plateau. This is the heart of the Tibetan and Yi ethnic cultures. For thousands of years, people have lived here by water. Due to the natural blockage of the snow-capped mountains and rivers, the traditional culture of the local Tibetan, Lisu, Naxi, Bai, Yi, and other ethnic groups has been preserved to this day. Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism have combined here to compose a brilliant civilization, which has formed a social scene of multi-ethnic harmony and culture.  

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