The Red Rocks of the Tibetan Plateau
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