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Yarlung Tsangpo River: The Longest Plateau River in the World

​​​​The Yarlung Tsangpo, located in southern Tibet, is the longest plateau river in World. The ancient Tibetan name “Yangchab Tsangpo” means “water flowing down from the highest peak.” Also known as “Tsangpo,” 

The Yarlung Tsangpo River originates from the Jeema Yangzom Glacier in the northern foothills of the Himalayas and flows to the Drongba section, where it is called Dangqu Zangbu. It is also known as Tachok Tsangpo. From there, it is referred to as the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Flowing west to east, it receives tributaries like the Nagqu Zangbu, Nianchu, Lhasa, and Niangyang Rivers. Eventually, it enters India and is called the Brahmaputra River.

From a geographical perspective, the Yarlung Tsangpo River has the following divisions:

The upper reach of the Yarlung Tsangpo River

The Origin Jiema Yangzong Chu to Lizi, Drongba is located in the upper reaches of the river, with an elevation ranging from 4530 to 5590 meters. The climate is extremely cold and seldom visited, with an average annual temperature below 0℃. However, during the months of June to September, the mountains are adorned with lush green grass and blooming flowers. The river water is clear, and the sky and water blend harmoniously, creating an indescribable natural charm with the presence of various birds and animals.

The upper reach of the Yarlung Tsangpo River spans 268 kilometres, which constitutes 13% of its total length. It descends 1190 meters and maintains an average slope of 4.4 Additionally, it governs a watershed area of 26,570 square kilometres. The river valley is expansive, measuring between 1000 and 2000 meters in width, and features a tranquil current, multiple branches, sandbars, marshes, and lakes, creating a “braided” water system. At times, the river glistens, while other times it flows gently, resembling a string of vibrant pearls. The river water possesses remarkable clarity and brilliance, with ripples extending across vast expanses. In the presence of a high sky and radiant sun, it presents an extraordinary spectacle.

The middle reach of the Yarlung Tsangpo River

From Lizi to Mainling Town, there is a middle section spanning 1293 kilometres. The drop is 1520 meters, with an average slope of 1.2, and a controlled drainage area of 163951 square kilometers. As the water volume increases, the river’s erosive impact intensifies. The valley alternates between wide and narrow sections. The wider parts give rise to river valley plains, while the narrower sections are a mere few hundred meters or even less than 100 meters, resembling a “V” shape. In the wider valley, the water flows gently, creating a serene and undulating scene. In contrast, the water rushes and rages in the narrow valley, with the river surging.

Above the Lhatse River, the banks are mainly covered in alpine grassland. From Lhatse to Gyatsa, the vegetation consists of temperate grassland, deciduous shrubs, and sporadic cypress forests along the banks. Moving further from Gyatsa to Mainling, there is a river valley forest area with a semi-humid climate, and below Mainling lies a subalpine dark coniferous forest. The towering peaks on either side contribute to the breathtaking landscape of majestic cliffs.

The Downstream section of the Yarlung Tsangpo River

The downstream section from Mainling Pai Village to Baxika spans 496 kilometres in the high mountain gorge area. It descends 2725 meters with an average slope of 5.5‰ and governs a drainage area of approximately 49960 square kilometres. Once it reaches Mainling Pai village, the river flows northeast, causing the valley to rapidly narrow and create the renowned “Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon,” also referred to as the “world’s largest canyon.”

The water flows through a meandering river, rushing through valleys with powerful waves, displaying a force that stretches for miles. The cliffs on both sides of the river are exceptionally steep, with towering cliffs and jumbled rocks. The landscape changes from subtropical forests near the riverbank to subalpine dark coniferous forests, then to alpine shrubs, and finally to the snow line and glaciers. Below Methok, the river section presents a typical mountainous tropical rainforest landscape, which is magnificent.

The Yarlung Tsangpo River flows through 23 counties and the Lhoka region, including Zhongba, Saga, Naidong, and Milin, covering a length of 2,057 kilometres within Tibet (with a total length of 2,900 kilometres). The basin area measures 240,480 square kilometres, with an annual runoff of 139.5 billion cubic meters. It is the highest river in the world and a vital passage for warm and humid airflow from the Indian Ocean into Tibet. Along the river basin, there are numerous cultural and natural landscapes.

Fun Facts:

The Yarlung Zangbo River has three sources: the Mayumu Tsangpo at the southern foot of the Gangdese Mountains, the Jemayangzong qu of the Jemayangzong Glacier at the northern foot of the Himalayas, and the Kubi qu of the Asejiaguo Glacier also in the northern foot of the Himalayas. The Jemayang Zongqu is the origin of the Brahmaputra River, while the Kubiqu and Mayoumuzangbu are its tributaries. The river spans 2,057 kilometres, with a watershed area of 1,011 square kilometres and a flow rate of 21.7 cubic meters per second.

In the Brahmaputra River valley, Mapangbumo Castle and Seri Bamboo Castle are significant castles that represent the political, economic, cultural, and military prosperity of the Xiangxiong civilization. These sites still exhibit remnants of the prosperous Xiangxiong civilization, contributing significantly to the formation and development of Tibet’s civilizations in various periods and regions.

Located over 30 kilometres away from Shigatse city, the “Black neck Crane Nature Reserve in the middle and upper reaches of Yajiang River” is characterized by river beaches and abundant vegetation including alpine poplar, willow trees, and seabuckthorn. During winter, approximately 2000 to 4000 black-necked cranes inhabit the Yarlung Tsangpo River area, feeding on the roots, buds, molluscs, insects, frogs, and fish.

In the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River in Shannan lies the “Ya River Shelter Forest Scenic Area,” also known as the “Yarlung Tsangpo Green Corridor.” This is the largest desertification shelter forest in Tibet, spanning approximately 80 kilometres in length. It extends eastward along the river and is situated on the river bed dunes in the southern part of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. It is the only artificial forest scenic spot in Tibet, often referred to as a “natural oxygen bar” due to its stunning natural scenery.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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