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Yamdrok Tso, Tibet

Also known as: Yamdrok Yumtso, Yamdrok Lake

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Yamdrok Tso Lake, one of four holy lakes in Tibet, lies at an elevation of 14,570 feet on the Tibetan Plateau. Long hidden from the world by the remote location of this undeveloped country and the secretive nature of both Tibetan and Chinese rule, Yamdrok Tso is finally open for tourism. Also called Yamdrok Yumtso, the name roughly translates to 'the jade lake in the upper pastureland'. Other translations call it 'Swan Lake', but the former name is far more descriptive of the location and color. Reputed to be the home of a Tibetan Buddhist goddess, the famed Samding Monastery overlooks the lake from a narrow peninsula. Devout Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, traditionally make pilgrimages here.

With 167,538 acres, the lake is nearly 45 miles long. Local fishermen catch native varieties of fish in the lake for sale in local villages and markets. Set against the backdrop of perpetually snow-covered peaks, the lake lies among rolling hills with nearly the climate of a desert. For nine months of the year, Tibet gets almost no rainfall due to the 'rain-shadow' cast by the nearby mountains. The bare slopes grow only sparse grass for grazing animals, the mainstay of agriculture in Tibet. The deep blue-green of the lake adds a mass of welcome color to the often brown slopes. Colorful prayer flags placed by the religious on pilgrimage add spots of riotous color to overlooks along the shore.

With the addition of Yamdrok Tso to a few tour itineraries, local villagers have begun to develop cottage industries to create crafts to sell to the new tourist trade. In keeping with Tibetan tradition, these trade goods are often brightly colored, as are the saddles and harnesses of the yaks they bring to the lake to offer yak rides to arriving tourists. The stark contrast between the brown (green in its short season) hills, the jade-green lake and the spots of traditional color all add to the exotic nature of a rare trip to Yamdrok Tso. The lake is a busy flyway stop-over for waterfowl which can often be seen feeding on the waters. In winter, the lake often freezes and snow covers the hills. Always there is a sense of awe surrounding what is clearly a very holy place to the people of Tibet.

So far, there are no real lodgings available at Yamdrok Tso, and no boating, fishing or swimming beaches. Small establishments in local village sell some prepared food. Most visitors arrive as a part of a tour, usually one that is focused on the capital of Lhasa, 75 miles to the north. About a 30-minute drive to the east, Nangartse is the nearest town to the lake of any real size. A number of small guest houses, restaurants and shops there serve both tourists and pilgrims who have come to walk around the lake in honor of Dorje Pakmo, the resident goddess. A railway, completed in 2006, travels to Lhasa from Xining over very high elevations. Such altitude requires special attention to health concerns; the railway demands a medical certificate of health to travel and also carries oxygen for all passengers in case it should be necessary. From Lhasa, travelers will need to hire a car and driver or take a tour bus on to Yamdrok Tso. and will likely return to Lhasa before nightfall.

Until very recently, Tibet has been a very closed society; tourism is just beginning here. Most tourism focuses on the rich heritage of religious facilities in the nation, a heritage that is in danger of being diluted by increasing Chinese influence. Tibet and China have had a contentious history over the centuries, with Tibet claiming its autonomy and China claiming it as a province. In 1950, the new Chinese Communist regime 'liberated' Tibet from its feudal and monastic form of government. Many in Tibet still consider it a hostile occupation. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government remain in exile in Nepal on the other side of the Himalayas. It is hoped that the Chinese leaders here recognize the historical value of the ornate textiles, painted panels and voluminous religious texts dating back over a thousand years. These are stored within the many monasteries tucked away atop mountains, cliffs and other nearly inaccessible places. There has been some effort to make some of them available to tourists and researchers. Only through serious study will the complete history of Tibet come to light.

Tibet is officially Tibet Autonomous Region, China, known within China as Xizang. Yamdrok Tso is the largest freshwater lake in southern Tibet. The huge lake is almost a closed basin: short streams bring in snow melt water from the surrounding mountains. A small stream at the west end of the lake is the only natural outlet. The vast lake lies in what is called the Trans-Himalayas, a poorly defined mountainous region often called the Roof of the World, with an average elevation of over 16,000 feet. To the north is the Kailas Range. Between the two mountain ranges lies the river valley region, home to Yamdrok Tso. The plateau is also home to the Yarlang River (known in India as the Brahmaputra River), the Indus River, and the Satluj River.

Because of this source of water, China is very interested in Tibet as a hydroelectric center. In 1996, the Chinese government installed a tunnel from Yamdrok Tso to remove water for hydroelectric purposes - a highly controversial project. The hydroelectric plan calls for Yamdrok Tso to be used as a pumped storage lake, but environmentalists are concerned that pumping water back into the oligotrophic lake from the eutrophic Yarlung River will change water conditions, harming the environment. Tibetan traditionalists are more worried that the project will possibly drain the lake, invoking the old myth that if the lake ever runs dry, Tibet itself will disappear. More practical considerations reflect the concern that since China took control of Tibet in 1950, many more Chinese immigrants have been moved to Tibet, and that the generated power is meant to benefit those immigrants.

A visit to Yamdrok Tso is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tibet is still a traditional devout Buddhist society with a rich cultural heritage. The Tibetan experience is like no other place on earth. So come try your hand at drinking hot buttered tea astride a colorfully bedecked yak while overlooking Yamdrok Tso. Visit a few monasteries and gaze in awe at uniquely cantilevered architecture atop dizzying precipices. It certainly won't be the same dull resort vacation your friends will be bragging about next year. And, imagine the pictures!


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