Aug. 09, 2022

Searching for China’s Water(19) The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Coal Mines

Searching for China’s Water(19) - the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Coal Mines  
Words and Pictures by Yongchen Wang

In 1993, while I was interviewing in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau area, I heard that the local coal  miners had liver and occupational lung diseases. In other words, working in high altitude conditions have very devastating effects on the human body.
 Plateau Biology sounded a little mysterious to me when I first heard of it. In 1993 in Qinghai, Jizeng Du, the director of the Northwest Plateau Department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, introduced me to the three main componenets of his studies. The first was ecological study. This study's main goal was to resolve the issue of pastures and to determine the number of cattle and sheep which a pasture could sustain. It was very significant in the development of animal husbandry, the restoration of pastures, and the formation of virtuous cycles for the pastures. The second was genetics and breeding.

Based on  modern molecular biology, combined with current biotechnology, including cell engineering breeding, this study's ultimate goal was to resolve the grain problem. The third study was the resolution of environmental adaptation. At the time, the main focus of this study was to solve the problem of hypoxia at high altitudes. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is located at a very high altitude, whose thin air makes a large impact on human bodies, organisms, and animals, and often causes diseases in human beings.

On both sides of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway 

Sand-fixation stones

The rocky hills of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau
 During our 2009 trip to the plateau, we began to pay more attention to the ecological changes of the plateau in addition to the affects it had on our bodies. The sand-fixation stones along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway may be as much of a world marvel as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was in the railway history of the world. Sand-fixation grids originated from China and were originally woven with grass. However, the grids beside the Qinghai-Tibet Railway were "woven" with stones.      The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is a magnificent example of human beings' ability to conquer nature. However, as a group of people who are concerned of China's river sources in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, we focused more on the rivers and the water systems beside the Qinghai-Tibet Railway rather than the railway itself. 
Rivers along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

This is also a river

The hills are still green, but there's only a trickle of water

we didn't deliberately select this picture, this is what we saw throughout our trip

Originally, we planned to visit the "Tumen Mine" on the sides of a road located about 10 kilometers down from the Tanggula Mts. Our next stop was the Gangni Township. There was a fork  there, extending from the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to the depths of grassland. The "Tumen Mine" is the largest coal mine in Tibet, which began to be exploited during the 60s of the last century. 
 According to records, there are only two coal mines in Tibet. One is the “Tumen Mine" located 75 kilometers northwest of Anduo Town. It is 4800 ~ 5200 meters above sea level, with a total reserve of 14.95 million tons of coal and  a total of 5.55 million tons of mine-able minerals. Due to bad weather, inconvenient traffic, poor coal quality, high prices, and unsatisfied customers, the mine was shut down in 1988.
 However, after traveling along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway for more than two hours, we realized that the directions we were following did not lead into the Gangni Township where we wanted to go, and that our current location was not far from Anduo. We had no choice but to head back. This was not good news for those who worried about our supply of diesel. 
 I remembered that we often saw gold diggers in rivers when I first went to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Now, in order to protect the ecological environment of Tibet, mining  for gold is totally prohibited in Tibet, and the rivers that we passed today had become quiet again.
Our four vehicles first drove towards Anduo, and then turned around and headed towards the opposite direction. This caused alot of commotion in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and caught the attention of  Railway Policemen who watched us in high vigilance. Although we were stopped by the policemen and careful interrogated and examined, they let us go. However, soon after we were released, we were stopped again and forced to drive to a designated area.        Around noon, we arrived at where we had started that morning. We got up early only to get sent back to where we had started.    
The policemen told us that we had to get a permit from Anduo in order to continue into the no man's land of the Yangtze River source area. Enforcement of these rules and inspections had become stricter due to the events that occured in Xinjiang. We had to introduce them to the purpose of our visit, and the challenges which we were going to face.     
Although they saw our recommendation letter from the Foundation of Desertification Control, they still couldn't completely trust our identities. I took out my book "green lens" in which there were photos of the source of the Yangtze River and the Jianggudiru glaciers taken ten years ago. I explained that I wanted to compare them to what they look like now.   
When I showed the "green lens" and my identity card to a prosecutor who looked like a leader, his face suddenly erupted with emotions, instead of his usual strict complexion. Then he told us that what we were doing was not a simple task and told us to record our identity card numbers and let us go.  
 I could not believe that a complex issue like this was resolved by a book. If i had more than one copy of my book with me, i would've given them one.

Mountains in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau  

Close to the source of the Yangtze River

We once again continued towards the source of the Yangtze River and we finally saw the "Tumen Mine". After the Qinghai-Tibet Railway went into service, some experts were concerned that it would bring the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Some reports even said that sleeping mines were going to wake up. Can the fragile ecology of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau stand up to such an awakening?

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau after exploitation

Mining under the snow-capped mountains

After mining

Rong Yang told us that coal mining in the highlands damaged vegetation, as well as underground water sources. The water quality of the Gangni township wasn't very great to begin with. The coal mining in the area caused even more pollution and destruction to the underground water systems which poses a big threat to the township's health. Moreover, with the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, this problem is getting worse and worse.         In this regard, the media should try to attract more people’s attentions, which was what Yong Yang especially said to the several present media.

Abandoned construction

The past ruins
On the way to the source of the Yangtze River, Yong Yang received some calls from several television stations from coastal cities. They hoped that we could bring back some water from the Yellow River source and the Yangtze River. In the Mid-Autumn Festival this year, they wanted to hold an activity in which water from the Yellow River and the Yangtze River will be poured into the Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan. This increased the amount of our activities.       The Gangni Township has the closest primary school to the source of the Yangtze River. Do the students there know about Taiwan? We went into Gangni Township, into the primary school, and into the children's classrooms. We asked the children there to talk about what they know of Taiwan.
Taiwan is so far away from the source of the Yangtze River. Could the children know about Taiwan?

A primary school in the Yangtze River source area 

Hello, little friends of Taiwan 


The children of the source of the Yangtze River have learned about taiwan, and almost everyone knew about the Sun Moon Lake. We asked them "Who knows who the current leader of Taiwan is?" A girl said softly, "Ma…Jiu." "What else do you know?" "Taiwan's election system is democratic." This answer was beyond our expectations. We asked her how she knew this. She said, "from watching TV."         The Yangtze River source area was the same as inland China. The media was affecting children. On televisions, the children happily waved to the children on the other side of  the Taiwan Strait. I did not know what the children of Taiwan thought of the children living in the Yangtze River source area when this video was presented in Taiwan.

Greetings from the Yangtze River source area

After leaving the Gangni Township, we would truely enter the no-man's land of the Yangtze River source area. In 1998, when I first entered the Yangtze River source area with China's first women scientific exploration team, I knew that there were only three tents there when the television documentary “Discovering the Yangtze River” was shot in the 80s of the last century. They were the temporary, summer houses of the residents of the Yangtze River source area. When we arrived there in 1998, we could see several tents every day in the no-man's land of the Yangtze River source area. The closest permanent house was built only 3 kilometers away from the Jianggudiru glaciers, the source of the Yangtze River. I did not know what more and more people meant to the source of the Yangtze River.

Himalayan blue sheep, the permanent residents  of the Yangtze River source area 

Urban people in the Yangtze River source area

Ice in July

Enjoying the summer of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau
 This was what we saw on our way to the source of the Yangtze River. There were animals, beautiful scenes, and our longing for an icy world during the summer.

Just entering the Yangtze River source area

 It was quite normal for us to push our cars during our trip. In the Yangtze River source area, how many more times will this happen? We could not imagine. We have already set up our camped even though its still daylight. We asked some herdsmen, how many rivers would we have to cross the next day and can our cars cross them? If our cars can not pass the rivers, we would have to walk. In 1998, we estimated that we had a three-day car journey, but we ended up driving for less than half a day, and walked for 11 days. We reached the Jianggudiru glaciers at the foot of the Geladandong, and then we floated 13 days from the Jianggudiru, the source of the Yangtze River, left no man's land, and returned to the Tuotuo River Bridge.

Moon of the Yangtze River source area 

Night of the Yangtze River source area
 Watching the water-like moon in the Yangtze River source area, looking forward to seeing glaciers soon.

 Proofreader:Ryan Yu

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