The Red Rocks of the Ti­betan Plateau

China Scenic - - Front Page - By Yang Yong Pho­to­graphs by Yang Yong et.al Trans­la­tion by Pavel Toropov (GBR)

An ex­plorer called Yang Yong dis­cov­ered what be­came known as “Red Rock Belt”, at the head­wa­ters of the Lan­cang River (Sal­ween River). Red Rock Belt, with the area of around 300 square kilo­me­ters, is none other than a pe­cu­liar and beau­ti­ful danxia land­form, a red-col­ored, mainly sand­stone rock for­ma­tion, typ­i­cal to China. Red Rock Belt is lo­cated in Ang­sai Town­ship in Yushu Ti­betan Au­ton­o­mous Pre­fec­ture, Qing­hai Province, and such a re­mote lo­ca­tion has kept this stun­ning nat­u­ral land­scape pris­tine, un­touched by hu­man in­volve­ment.

One can hardly imag­ine that these con­tin­u­ous moun­tains with red rocks, clear streams and dense veg­e­ta­tion ap­pear on the Qing­hai-ti­betan Plateau, a cold alpine re­gion with an el­e­va­tion rang­ing from 3800 to 4200 me­ters. Hid­den in a val­ley near the up­per reaches of the Lan­cang River, such land­forms of red rocks is called Danxia, which is rarely found on plateaus.

“Danxia” is one of the very few Chi­nese loan­words that have en­tered the in­ter­na­tional ge­o­log­i­cal ter­mi­nol­ogy. The in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion was be­stowed upon Danxia as re­cently as 2009 when the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Geo­mor­phol­o­gists (IAG) ap­proved the es­tab­lish­ment of a work­ing group ded­i­cated to danxia re­search. In 2010

six danxia land­scapes in China – Lang­shan in Hu­nan, Danx­i­ashan in Guang­dong, Tain­ing­shan in Fu­jian, Chishui in Guizhou, Longhushan in Jiangxi and Jianglang­shan in Zhe­jiang were suc­cess­ful in their bid to be rec­og­nized as UNESCO World Her­itage Site, China’s 40th.

In re­cent years the pub­lic at­ten­tion and knowl­edge of danxia have grown, as more and more danxia land­scapes have achieved promi­nence. Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Huang Jin, the former head of Ge­ol­ogy Depart­ment at Sun Yat-sen Univer­sity, as of July 2015 there are 1003 known danxia sites in China, spread across 28 prov­inces, re­gions and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, and a va­ri­ety of cli­mates – trop­i­cal, sub­trop­i­cal hu­mid and tem­per­ate hu­mid-- semi-hu­mid, arid and semi-arid, even reach­ing the frozen re­gions high on the Ti­betan Plateau. When I en­tered the Red Rocks of Ang­sai, how­ever, I set my foot in a pre­vi­ously undis­cov­ered danxia land­scape.

Fill­ing in the blank spa­ces on the map

Ang­sai Town­ship is un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Zaduo County of Yushu Ti­betan Au­ton­o­mous Pre­fec­ture in Qing­hai. For a long time, its sheer re­mote­ness and in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity made it some­what of a “blank space” on the maps, but, my re­search field work in Qing­hai and Ti­bet of­ten took me very close to Ang­sai.

The Ang­sai Danxia is sit­u­ated in the town­ship of Ang­sai, Yushu Ti­betan Au­ton­o­mous Pre­fec­ture, Qing­hai Province. It has wan­der­ing river val­leys, ver­dant forests of old cy­presses, and numer­ous Danxia rocks with bizarre ap­pear­ances that pro­voke the imag­i­na­tion. Iso­lated and se­cluded as it is, the Ang­sai is nearly free of out­siders, and only a few herds­men can be seen in the val­leys.

In Au­gust 2014, when I was tak­ing part in field­work in the head­wa­ters of the Lan­cang River, Caidan Zhou, the county head of Zaduo, showed me some pho­tos of Ang­sai on

his mo­bile phone. There was a fan­tas­tic red rock land­scape there, he added, in hope that I would be able to go and have a look.

We drove in a 4x4 down the head­wa­ters of the Sal­ween – the River Zhaqu. The ter­rain was ver­tig­i­nously steep and the road was cut out of sheer moun­tain­side in places, which made it a real test of driver’s skill. As we de­scended from 4200m to 3800m and the veg­e­ta­tion was grad­u­ally be­com­ing lusher and denser, and we could see flocks of Hi­malayan blue sheep and white-eared pheas­ants. Sud­denly a great body of red rock filled my field of vi­sion – it was an overkill, an over­whelm­ing show of red – red cliffs, red col­umns, red but­tresses.

The unique Danxia land­form was formed by forces from in­side by crustal move­ments and out­side by rain­fall, wind, low tem­per­a­tures and so on. Un­like other Danxia land­forms in China, Ang­sai ex­pe­ri­ences dras­tic tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions, so the wa­ter con­tained in the small holes and cracks of the rocks un­der­went re­peat­ing cy­cles of freez­ing and melt­ing, thus lead­ing to the col­lapse of en­tire rock bod­ies. Photo/ Cai Zheng

In China these danxia land­forms vary a great deal in size, many cover an area less that one square kilo­me­ter and a lot are be­tween one and 50 square kilo­me­ters in size. Danxia land­scapes be­tween 50 and 100 square kilo­me­ters in area are rare, and those cov­er­ing more than 100 even more so. My ini­tial es­ti­mate was that Ang­sai’s danxia was around 100 square kilo­me­ters, and it was only af­ter for­mal mea­sure­ments were made, did we re­al­ize that it was, in fact, around 300 square kilo­me­ters.

In re­cent years I have spent a lot of time on the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau in the re­gion of the head­wa­ters of the Chu­mar River in Hoh Xil (iso­lated, al­most un­pop­u­lated re­gion of the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau, a ma­jor pro­tected area) and the great bend of the Tuo­tuo River (head­wa­ters of the Yangtze), and I came across many danxia for­ma­tions. I have not seen any­thing, how­ever, that could ri­val Ang­sai’s danxia in size and rich­ness of the land­scape.

Ang­sai has pre­served large amounts of ge­o­log­i­cal struc­tures record­ing the orogeny move­ments, vol­cano erup­tions, and so on, be­gin­ning dur­ing the Cre­ta­ceous Pe­riod. The belt of white rocks in the photo be­longs to a kind of fold­ing struc­ture.

The char­ac­ter­is­tic fea­ture of danxia land­scapes are what is known in Chi­nese as “chi bi dan ya”, loosely trans­lated as “red walls and cinnabar cliffs”, and these are very prom­i­nent in Ang­sai. The danxia on the eroded banks of the river and on the belt of cracked and bro­ken up for­ma­tions have been turned by the process of weath­er­ing and ero­sion into ver­ti­cal, 90 de­gree cliffs. The con­se­quent rock col­lapses have then turned these cliffs into the steep at the top and gen­tly slop­ing be­low shapes. The tec­tonic move­ments also caused the orig­i­nally flat rock lay­ers to tilt and fold, and then, as the Earth crust un­der­went up­lift­ing, cracks formed in the rock strata, form­ing ver­ti­cal joints, which then were eroded fur­ther by the ac­tion of the wa­ter run­ning into them,

even­tu­ally form­ing deep gul­lies with ver­ti­cal sides which, un­der the con­tin­u­ous ac­tion of weath­er­ing and rock­slides, turned into a va­ri­ety of shapes – free­stand­ing peaks, pil­lars, rock fortresses, spires…

The most rep­re­sen­ta­tive plant here in Ang­sai is Ti­bet savin (Sabina ti­bet­ica), an en­demic tree species of China whose dis­tri­bu­tion area cov­ers south­ern Gansu, Sichuan, south­ern Qing­hai, and east­ern and south­ern Ti­bet. Lo­cal peo­ple also call it the “Tang Dy­nasty cy­press.” In Ang­sai, you find these tena­cious trees at an el­e­va­tion of 3800 me­ters, which is also the up­per limit of its dis­tri­bu­tion. Photo/ Shui Xiao­jie

The red con­glom­er­ate rock layer is rich in sec­tions of lime­stone peb­bles held to­gether in a cal­cium car­bon­ate ma­trix, which, af­ter hav­ing been dis­solved away by wa­ter, leaves be­hind gul­lies, tooth-like for­ma­tions and grot­toes, mak­ing the land­scape even more var­ied and strik­ing.

Life amongst the red rocks

Peo­ple of­ten call the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau a life­less desert, but here in Ang­sai it was not the case, life is thriv­ing here, and is out for ev­ery­one to see.

The first thing that in­di­cates the rich life force that Ang­sai con­tains, is the veg­e­ta­tion – the ver­dant cy­press forests al­ter­nate with mead­ows on the flat­ter ground, the red of the rocks set off in per­fect, dazzling con­trast by the green. This cy­press is a liv­ing fos­sil, with the name of “Tang Dy­nasty cy­press”. Such lush veg­e­ta­tion cover is rare at such high el­e­va­tion, and I had cer­tainly not ex­pected that it was at all pos­si­ble to find cy­press forests as ver­dant as these at over 3800m above sea level.

The stone peaks and pil­lars in Ang­sai of­ten form bizarre shapes. Here you find “eggs,” “palms,” “Bud­dha’s heads”, “gi­ant tur­tles” and many other in­cred­i­ble for­ma­tions.

Here, in Ang­sai, en­coun­ters with wild an­i­mals are plen­ti­ful. In the end of Jan­uary, 2016, when I was back in Zaduo County for field­work, I im­me­di­ately got a call from Caidan Zhou, the county head, who told me that about three weeks be­fore two no­mads had res­cued an in­jured snow leop­ard cub. It has al­ready re­cov­ered un­der their care, and peo­ple were get­ting ready to re­lease it back into the wild. The town­ship au­thor­i­ties then showed me the spe­cially con­structed pen where the cub was kept and they also in­vited a vet to have a look at the an­i­mal. It was not easy to get the young snow leop­ard into a cage so that we could trans­port him back into to the wild, but once we opened the cage door he was out like an ar­row and van­ished in an in­stant. Since the three rivers head­wa­ter re­gion (the area of the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau where

the Yangtze, the Yel­low River, and the Lan­cang head­wa­ters are lo­cated) has been put un­der pro­tec­tion in re­cent years the wildlife has started to grad­u­ally re­cover and peo­ple’s en­coun­ters with wild an­i­mals have be­come fre­quent. I per­son­ally have seen, in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions around Ang­sai, herds of moun­tain sheep and white-lipped deer, as well as white-eared pheas­ant; and have come across tracks of snow leop­ard and brown bear. Wildlife is truly flour­ish­ing here.

Ang­sai is not just a wildlife heaven, but there is also his­tory and myths hid­den amongst the red rock.

Se­cluded as it may be, Ang­sai is a place never far away from hu­man civ­i­liza­tion. There are numer­ous sto­ries about Ti­betan Bud­dhism and the legendary King Ge­sar. At the en­trance of Ang­sai, you find an­cient build­ings, such as tem­ples and tow­ers, and along the Danxia cliffs, there are also typ­i­cal carv­ings of “Om Mani Padme Hum,”which can be seen on moun­tain rocks in Ti­bet.

In the mid­dle of Zhaqu Gorge you can see, far in the dis­tance, a rock pil­lar known as “The Sit­ting Bud­dha”, it is enor­mous, solemn and im­pos­ing. Next to this square mono­lith there is a “Bat­tle Ship”, and all around those two stands a vast army of smaller red rock pil­lars, like a body of troops in bat­tle for­ma­tion. This land­scape looks like a re­hearsal of a play based on a myth or a leg­end from the far away past and such con­nec­tion with leg­end ac­tu­ally ex­ists. Ti­betan myths tell a story of King Ge­sar, the great­est Ti­betan mar­tial hero, who once led a puni­tive ex­pe­di­tion here against a lo­cal ruler, King San­gar­sai. Wounded in his leg by an ar­row fired by Daima, Ge­sar’s gen­eral, San­gar­sai fled across the moun­tains, and the blood gush­ing from his would turned the rock red, be­com­ing the danxia that we see now.

To­day, ad­ven­tur­ers and out­door en­thu­si­asts are step­ping into the se­cluded val­leys of Ang­sai. This place is ideal for drift­ing, rock climb­ing, trekking and other out­door sports. Photo/ Shui Xiao­jie

An­other canyon, on the right side of Zhaqu Gorge has a for­ma­tion known as “Ti­betan Mas­tiff” , and if go fur­ther in, you can see, on the left bank of Zhaqu Gorge, even more fas­ci­nat­ing danxia rock for­ma­tions – peo­ple have likened them to roost­ers, tur­tles, mush­rooms and even god­desses…

In my view it is an in­jus­tice that Ang­sai Na­tional Park is ac­ces­si­ble only to in­trepid trav­el­ers and ex­plor­ers, its beauty is such that any­body who wishes so should be able to visit and en­joy it, and I per­son­ally look for­ward to that day.

Ang­sai be­longs to the San­jiangyuan Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve, and the lat­ter is now included in China’s “Na­tional Park Project,” which means that Ang­sai it­self will re­ceive more at­ten­tion and per­haps new di­rec­tions for de­vel­op­ment. Some peo­ple who have vis­ited hail Ang­sai as “China’s Grand Canyon” or “China’s Yellowstone.”such praise might be ex­ag­ger­ated but it is a hope that one day China has a na­tional park that reaches recog­ni­tion at an in­ter­na­tional level. Photo/ Cai Zheng

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