Letter from Lhasa: Traveling to China’s highest city while chasing altitudes

In Xizang, referred to as the “roof of the world,” there exists a place called Nagqu, intriguingly dubbed the “roof of the world’s roof.” Situated at an average altitude of over 4,500 meters, Nagqu earns this nickname as the highest city in China.

Observing the downtown area of Nagqu from a distance, numerous tin roofs glisten with silver light in the sun. A colleague told me that the city was once called a “tin city.” With an annual average temperature below zero and frequent heavy snowfall, the traditional Tibetan-style flat roofs often succumb to the weight of accumulated snow, resulting in collapses or leaks, so these flat roofs are gradually being replaced by pointed tin roofs.

A local joke humorously remarks, “There are two seasons in a year — winter and the seasons that closely resemble winter.”

Before departing Lhasa, the regional capital of Xizang, for Nagqu, our driver stuffed a large oxygen tank in the trunk. The oxygen content in the air in Nagqu is only about half of that in the plains, giving visitors an unsettling experience, the Tibetan driver told me.

As the elevation increased along the way, we noticed a rising accumulation of snow on the roadside mountains, prompting me and my colleagues to put on thick down jackets. Clear indicators of reduced oxygen became apparent, such as the failure of the cigarette lighter and the bulging packaging of biscuits. The outside wind was brisk, and in the distance, the large blades of white wind turbines on the ridge continued to spin.

The closer we got to Nagqu, the sparser the greenery outside the window became. It is said that Nagqu is the only city in China without trees. Occasionally, I saw a few short trees planted in large flowerpots, with trunks no thicker than a man’s arm. The people of Nagqu face the formidable challenges of high altitude, severe cold and strong winds as they try to ensure the survival of the trees they have painstakingly planted.

Some local officials I met told me they seldom exercise after work. Instead, due to the high altitude, they preferred taking leisurely walks. Half-jokingly, they advised me, “Don’t stand when you can sit, as even being one meter lower is beneficial for newcomers.” Many hotel rooms are equipped with oxygen tanks, but the high altitude causes headaches and insomnia, making my nights in Nagqu particularly long.

Nagqu is famous for its Tibetan square dance originating from pastoral areas. In the city square, people can be seen dancing, but rarely among them are senior citizens. Some said that this is related to the high incidence of osteoarthrosis among the elderly here due to the plateau geographical climate.

Here, an inconspicuous place can hold the title of being the highest in China or even on a global scale. For instance, a local dairy located at an altitude of 4,466 meters has been recognized as the highest yak dairy in the world by the Shanghai China Records Headquarters.

Kelsang Gyatso, the chairman of the dairy, is a 29-year-old man who used to herd yaks. After graduating from college, he returned to Nagqu to explore standardized and industrialized milk production together with other returning college students.

Due to a lack of oxygen at high altitudes, boiling and sterilizing yak milk at high temperatures is not possible. So, Kelsang Gyatso and his colleagues introduced equipment for low-temperature pasteurization.

Since dairy farmers are scattered on the plateau and it is not easy for them to collect milk, Kelsang Gyatso took the initiative to establish 10 milk source bases and 100 village cooperatives. This strategic move has brought together thousands of herders along with their over 80,000 yaks, all within a 200 km radius of the daily milk source of the dairies.

Kelsang Gyatso said that their products are sold as far as Lhasa, over 300 kilometers away. In Nagqu, a place where yaks outnumber people, herders who usually depend on the weather conditions for their livelihoods now have a regular income thanks to the dairy industry.

Ascending further from Nagqu, we arrived at Bangoin. Located at an average altitude of over 4,700 meters, it is the second-highest county in China. Bangoin, which has a long winter but no summer, covers an area of more than 30,000 square km. Despite its vast expanse, only 40,000 people live here, resulting in a population density of less than one percent of the entire country’s.

According to 40-year-old Tenzin Sangpo, deputy head of the county, first-time visitors are always impressed by the winter here as the largest glacier in the world outside the South Pole and the North Pole is in Nagqu.

“I remember when I was a child, a burning pile of sheep dung could only keep my arms warm, leaving my back still chilled, let alone walking on the road on snowy days,” he told me.

Tenzin Sangpo used to walk an hour to reach his primary school, with an additional walk home for lunch, spending four hours a day on the road. While some of his classmates had the luxury of riding horses, others were fortunate enough to have their families transport them on bicycles. Unfortunately, those who lived too far away had to drop out of school.

At that time, his school had limited facilities and only three students from his class who lived very far away could live on campus. However, that is now a thing of the past. By the end of last year, out of the more than 140,000 students in Nagqu, over 62,000 were living on campus.

At a local primary school, Sonam Sangmo awaited her parents to pick her up. The 12-year-old girl resides in a pastoral area, where her family owns 309 sheep and about 100 yaks. The journey to school typically takes 30 minutes by car, but it becomes particularly challenging on snowy days.

Like most of her classmates, Sonam Sangmo lives on campus and returns home once every week or two, which she says allows her to fully dedicate herself to her studies while enjoying her mother’s homemade dishes during the breaks.

News Desk

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