Brahmaputra River is one of the world's great rivers and as far as anyone knows no one has ever traveled its entire length. Extending for 3,080 kilometers (1,913 miles) through some of the world's most remote and inhospitable terrain, it begins in the Himalayas in western Tibet as a glacier-fed stream and changes its name and twists and turns through China and India before emptying into Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The basin size of the Brahmaputra is 712,035 square kilometers (274,918 square miles). [Source: Jere Van Dyk, National Geographic, November 1988]

By some reckoning the Brahmaputra is the highest river in the world. Brahmaputra means "son of Brahma." Brahma is one of the most prominent Hindu gods. In Hindu cosmology the Brahmaputra is the only male river. The river is regarded as sacred by Buddhists in Tibet but not among the Muslims in Bangladesh.

Route of the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsanpo) in Tibet

The source of the mighty Brahmaputra is in Tibet 100 kilometers south of sacred Mt. Kailas in the Chemayungdung range in the Himalayas and near the sacred Lake Mansarovar . The river here is known to Tibetans as the Tsangpo (Zangpo or Zangbo), which simply means "river." It is often called Yarlung Tsangpo. Yarlung is a region of Tibet. [Source: Jere Van Dyk, National Geographic, November 1988]

The Tsangpo is the largest river in southern Tibet. It flows at a height of more than two miles (3500 meters) for 1125 kilometers (700 miles) to the east almost the entire length of the Chinese-Tibetan border with Nepal and eastern India. It wasn't until early in the 20th century that geographers were certain that the Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were the same river. A British surveyor wrote in 1788, "This river must have a very long course before its enters the Bengal Provinces, since for 40 miles it is twice as big as the Thames...[There is] the strongest presumptive proof possible of the Sanpoo and Burrampooter being one and the same river."

The Tsangpo goes through several name changes. It starts out as the Maquan Tsangpo and becomes the Yarlung Tsangpo. The river that flows through Lhasa is a tributary of the Yarlung Zanpo. Most Tibetans live along the Yarlung Tsangpo and its tributaries, from Xigaze to Tsetang, where Tibetan Buddhism developed in the late 8th century and water form the river is used to irrigate crops in otherwise dry areas.

The Tsangpo narrows at Pei and drops into a rapid-filled, 3050-meter (10,000-foot) -deep gorge that seems like an escape route carved out of the Himalayas. Here the river makes a right hand turn towards India and drops a phenomenal 2133 meters (7,000 feet) in 240 kilometers (150 miles). This section of the river is known as the Siang to the Chinese, who want to someday harness the river into the world’s greatest generator of hydroelectric power. The area is also the site of massive logging operations. Travel here is restricted and even if it wasn't travel in the region is very difficult. There are few roads and the ones that exist are treacherous and often washed out or closed by landslides. The river is too wild to negotiate in boats and is crossed by cables rather bridges.

Yarlung Tsangpo: Highest River in the World

The Yarlung Tsangpo is the highest river in the world based on the fact that about one-third of the river flows at an altitude of over 4,000 meters (13,125 feet) and about three-quarters of the river flows over 2475 meters (9,000 feet) above the sea level. The rivers runs for 2,057 kilometers in Tibet.

The source of the Yarlung Tsangpo is Angsi Glacier at an elevation of 5,210 meters (17,090 feet) in western Tibet, southeast of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, Phuntsogling is a monastery in western Tibet near the source. The Yarling Tsangpo’s longest tributary is the Nyang River. Other major tributaries include the Nyangchu River, Lhasa River, and Parlung Tsangpo. As the river descends, the surrounding vegetation changes from cold desert to arid steppe to deciduous scrub vegetation and to conifer and rhododendron forest. The tree line is approximately 3,200 meters (10,500 feet). Sedimentary sandstone rocks found near Lhasa contain grains of magnetic minerals that record the Earth's alternating magnetic poles. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Yarlung Tsangpo River has only major waterfalls on its entire course. The largest waterfall of the river, the "Hidden Falls", was not publicized in the West until 1998, when its sighting by Westerners was briefly hailed as a "discovery" even though it had been described to early Westerners by Tibetan hunters and Buddhist monks. Chinese authorities said that Chinese geographers, who had explored the gorge since 1973, took pictures of the falls in 1987 from a helicopter. +

Among kayakers the Yarlung Tsangpo is sometimes called the "Everest of Rivers" because of its extreme conditions and the difficulties kayaking it. Since the 1990s the Yarlung Tsangpo River has been the destination of a number of expeditions. The first attempt to run was made in 1993 by a Japanese group who lost one member on the river. In October 1998, a National-Geographic-sponsored expedition was hampered by unanticipated high water levels and expert kayaker Doug Gordon was killed. In January–February, 2002, an international group consisting of Scott Lindgren, Steve Fisher, Mike Abbott, Allan Ellard, Dustin Knapp, and Johnnie and Willie Kern, completed the first descent of the upper Tsangpo gorge section. +

Yarlung Tsangpo (Upper Brahmaputra) River Region

The Yarlung Tsangpo River region (South of Lake Yamdrok) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Covering the valley of the middle reach of Yarlung Tsangpo River, its branches and some lakes on the Tibetan Plateau, Yarlung Tsangpo River region (Yalong) is the cradle of Tibetan culture. The extant relics, artifacts and ancient sites demonstrate the early civilization of the Tibetans, including their early religion, culture, arts and society. Yarlung Tsangpo River region covers an area of 1350 square kilometers. It is an area of high cultural and natural value on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. This region belongs to plateau temperate semi-arid monsoon climate, with strong sunshine, strong radiation and thin air. Average annual temperature is 8. 3 degrees and annual rainfall is between 330 and 390 millimeters. Average annual total radiation in Zedang is 172kcal/square cm. The average atmospheric pressure is between 60,000Pa and 70,000Pa. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

“The middle reach of Yarlung Tsangpo River is the biggest valley region on the Tibetan Plateau. The discontinuous ultra basic rocks and exotic rocks demonstrate the action of crust and Earth mantle. The snow mountains, gorges and lakes create unique ecological types and demonstrate rich plateau landscapes. Because Yarlung Tsangpo River cuts through the Himalayas and opens a passageway for the warm and wet atmosphere from the Bangladesh Bay to flow into the valley of Yarlung Tsangpo River region, favorable water and heat conditions have been provided for the early development of the Tibetans.

“More than ten thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Tibetans chose here as their place for settlement and formed their unique way of living. In the 3rd century B. C. , Yarlung Tsangpo River region tribes were formed and in 217 B. C. the first Tibetan king created a slavery system kingdom. As the origin of the Tibetan culture, Yarlung Tsangpo River region have seen early agriculture and animal husbandry development and the development of unique Tibetan culture. Here one can find well-kept early gathering places, palaces, temples, burial grounds and manors. The early Tibetan characters, poems, operas, medicine, astronomy and calendars were also created here. As the origin of Tibetan Buddhism, the role of the ancient temples in the region is irreplaceable. It was from here that the Tibetan Buddhism gradually influenced Tibet and the vast area of west and northern China.

“Two out of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in Tibet — Habu Mountain and Gongburi Mountain — and sacred lake — Lamunamucuo (meaning “the lake of Mother Buddha “) are in this region. Every reincarnated boy of the previous Dalai is found with the revelation of the sacred lake. This region is also the place where the earliest Tibetan characters and operas were created.” [Coordinates: 28°40'-29°30' N / 90°50'-92°20' E]

Geology and Ecosystems of Yarlung Tsangpo River region

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The geological structure of this region is very complicated. The area to the north of Yarlung Tsangpo River belongs to Mesozoic depression belt and late Yanshan Era-Himalayas Era granite of northern Gangdisi Mountain Range;the area to the south of the River is metamorphic flysch rock belt of northern Himalayas. In this region, the Quaternary strata are thick and well developed and are dotted with a lot of gyittja, river facies sediment and glacial drifts of different glacial periods. The relative height between high peaks and low valleys is 1500 meters. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

“With the interaction of glaciers and rivers, magnificent scenes of high mountains, grand rivers and big valleys were created. Many hot springs, waterfalls and karst caves can also be found here. Yarlung Tsangpo River is the highest large river in the world. A section of about 302 kilometers of the Yarlung Tsangpo River is in this region, with an average elevation of more than 3,000 meters. The East-West straight valley is a typical tectonic valley developed on the margin zone of Indian Plate in the south and Eurasian Plate in the north.

“The maximum flow of the river is 3,250 cubic meters per second. The widest place in the valley of the middle reach of the river is 7 kilometers. The river develops into a network shape and the wide valley forms the Zedang plain area. Yarlung Tsangpo River region River, a branch of Yarlung Tsangpo River, originates in the northern part of Cuomeisangwula Mountain, takes in the melted snow water from Yadongtianxiangbu snow mountain (elevation 6, 635. 8m;with large area of modern glacier), and flows into Yarlung Tsangpo River at Zedang Plain.

“Yamdrok Lake, a plateau lake and one of the three “sacred lakes” of Tibet, is formed by river sediment clogging the original tree-like river course. The lake, with an elevation of 4, 445 meters and maximum depth of 60 m, covers an area of 638 square kilometers. The clear lake and the swamps and meadows by the lake together create extremely beautiful scenery. In this region there is rich bio-diversity and one finds typical natural vertical belts:temperate grassland belt-alpine grassland belt-alpine tall grass meadow belt-alpine frigid sparse vegetation on alpine scree belt (snow peeks). The vegetation in the valley is shrubs dotted by trees. There are 683 species of common plants, 7 species of ferns, 7 species of gymnosperm and 669 species of angiosperm. Animals under state grade one protection are Equuskiang, Grusnigricollis, Teteraogallus tibetanus, Cervusalbirostris and argali. Yamdrok Lake, the “fish storage of Tibet”, is abundant in fish, mainly schizothorax and plateau carp. There are a dozen bird islands on the lake.”

Early History of Yarlung Tsangpo River region

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Yarlung Tsangpo River region is where the ancestors of the Tibetans lived and is the cradle of the Tibetan culture. A lot of early Tibetan cultural artifacts and sites demonstrate the religious, social, cultural and scientific and technological development at that time. Before 633 A. D. , when Songzanganbu unified Tibet and moved his cultural center to Lhasa, Yarlung Tsangpo River region had always been the political and cultural center of Tibet and had been playing an important role. Changguo Ruins, a complete relics site of a primitive village in Neolithic Age, demonstrate that this was the place where the Tibetans settled 10,000 years ago. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

“According to ancient Tibetan books, the legend that the Tibetans were the offspring of monkeys and fairy has its origin in this region. The agriculture and animal husbandry here have always been quite developed. The valleys in the middle reach of Yarlung Tsangpojiang River and the valleys of Yalog. River are the major agricultural region and are claimed as the “granary of Tibet”. Yangzuoyongcuo Lake is one of the important ranges in Tibet due to rich grass around the lake. The first palace in the history of Tibet-Yongbulakang Palace was built in the 2nd century B. C. on the top of the Zhaxiciri Mountain. The magnificent palace demonstrated typical Tibetan style. Later Dalai V expanded and rebuilt the palace into a temple, which is kept intact now.

“The first Buddhist palace in the history of Tibet-Changzhu Temple, built in the 7th century, was one of the first Buddhist temples built during the reign of Songzanganbu. After three expansions and improvement, the complex now covers an area of 4, 660 square meters. In the temple there is a priceless treasure — a “picture of Avalokitesvara” made of pearls. “

Temples, Monasteries and Dzongs of Yarlung Tsangpo River region

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: In 767, the first Tibetan temple with Buddha’s sculpture, Buddhist sutra and monks — Shangye Temple — was built. It was the grandest building during the Tubo Dynasty and was the political center of that time. The complex covers an area of 120,000 square meters and has a floor area of 25,000 square meters. The layout of the temple was an imitation of the ”Datura” pattern of the Indian school of Buddhism. The main hall is a combination of the building styles of Tibet, Chinese Han and India, which reflects the integration of the three cultures. “The ‘picture of Tibetan history’, claimed as the Tibetan “Records of the Historian”, is a 92 meters long mural. The 8th century classic Tibetan medical book Complete Works of Medicine was discovered nearby the temple in 1012. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

“Qingpu, 15 kilometers away from Sangye Temple, is another place of Buddhist activities, where one can find many carya caves (carya caves are natural caves used by famous Indian monks Lianhuasheng and Jihu when they were invited to Tibet to spread Buddhism. Now about 40 such caves are well preserved), sky burial platform, springs and a lot of basreliefs on precipices and pagodas. Buried underground are “fuzang”-buried sutras to be discovered.

“The Minzhulin Temple was acclaimed as the No. 1 Seat of Learning of Tibet. It was built at the end of the 10th century and later was expanded into an institution of higher learning in the 17th century. In the temple, not only sutras, but also Sanskrit language, medicine, calendar and astronomy were studied. It also provided biannual Tibetan calendar, which is still used today. The existing buildings in the temple cover a floor, space of 100,000 square meters. The earliest and biggest royal mausoleums, the Tibetan Mausoleums, were built in the 8th century when Tibet was unified. There were originally 21 mausoleums and now only 16 remain. The graveyard covers an area of 3,050,000 square meters. The owners of 9 mausoleums have been identified. Further textual research and excavation will be needed.

“Many of the well-kept remains in the region are evidence of the important “dzong xi” administration system in the social development of Tibet. Dansati Temple was built in 1158 and is the first temple of Gaju School. In 1354 Qiangqujianzan established Pazhu Dynasty and practiced “dzong xi” system to turn Tibetan society from a slavery system into a feudal serf system. Now there are many complete “dzong” and “xi ka” remains. The “dzong” (county) includes Qiongjie Dzong (on the top of Qiangwadazi mountain;elevation 3, 800 meters;area 1, 600square meters;the current remains were built during the time of Dalai I), Qiaga Dzong, Woka Dzong, Baima Dzong. The “xi ka” (manor)includes Langsailin Manor (built in the late Tubo Dynasty and expanded to current scale in Pazhu Dynasty;the main building has 7 floors and is 22 meters high;the main building and main walls are kept intact;the buildings were built by using special construction methods using stone and earth), the 12th century Dalai Manor and Ludingpozhong. The influence of Yarlung Tsangpo River region valley on the Tibetans remains today.”

Yarlung Tsangpo Valley: World’s Deepest Valley

Yarlung Tsangpo Valley is the world's deepest valley. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is 5075 meters (16,650 feet) deep and between the peaks Namche Barwa (1,783 meters, 25,536 feet) and Jala Peri (7,281 meters, 23,891 feet), which are 13 miles apart with the Yarling Tsangpo River in between.The Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon is the world's largest canyon, covering 17,000 square kilometers. It has 17 snow-clad peaks above 6,000 meters.

The river region features fertile mountain valleys such as those found on Yarlung Tsangpo River (the upper courses of the Brahmaputra) and its major tributary, the Nyang River, the Salween, the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Yellow River. The Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon, formed by a horseshoe bend in the river, is the deepest, and maybe longest canyon in the world. Among the mountains there are many narrow valleys. Some of the most populated parts of Tibet — the valleys of Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse and the Brahmaputra — are found here. There is no permafrost here. The land has rich soil and is well irrigated, and richly cultivated.

The South Tibet Valley is formed by the Yarlung Tsangpo River during its middle reaches, where it travels from west to east. The valley is approximately 1200 kilometers long and 300 kilometers wide. The valley descends from 4500 meters above sea level to 2800 meters. The mountains on either side of the valley are usually around 5000 meters high. Lakes here include Lake Paiku and Lake Puma Yumco.

It The Yarlung Tsangpo River makes a very sharp turn when it meets the snowcapped Mt. Namcha Barwa, which soars 7,782 meters. The turn is so sharp that a great canyon larger and more spectacular than the Grand Canyon of Colorado River forms. The Great Canyon of Yarlung Tsangpo's depth reaches 5,382 meters and it has a total length of 496.3 kilometers, about 56 kilometers longer than the Grand Canyon in Colorado.

Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon

The Yarlung Tsangpo Great Canyon is the world's largest and deepest canyon, covering 17,000 square kilometers. It has 17 snow-clad peaks above 6,000 meters. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is 5075 meters (16,650 feet) deep and between the peaks Namche Barwa (7,783 meters, 25,536 feet) and Jala Peri (7,281 meters, 23,891 feet), which are 13 miles apart with the Yarling Tsangpo River in between.

The Tsangpo narrows at Pei and drops into a rapid-filled, 3050-meter (10,000-foot) -deep gorge that seems like an escape route carved out of the Himalayas. Here the river makes a right hand turn towards India and drops a phenomenal 2133 meters (7,000 feet) in 240 kilometers (150 miles). Travel here is restricted and even if it wasn't travel in the region is very difficult. There are few roads and the ones that exist are treacherous and often washed out or closed by landslides. The river is too wild to negotiate in boats and is crossed by cables rather bridges.

The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is lies in Mainling and Medog counties, where the river swerves around towering Namche Barwa, the highest peak in the eastern section of the Himalayas and carved a U-shaped gorge. The canyon is home to many animals and plants barely explored and affected by human influence. The climate ranges from subtropical to Arctic.

The Great Canyon of Yarlung Tsangpo's reaches 5,382 meters in depth and is 496.3 kilometers long, about 56 kilometers longer than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There are precipitous cliffs, hot springs, waterfalls and primeval forests. Wet winds from the Indian plains blow into the area. The complex and unique geographic and climate conditions make it haven for rare and unique plants and animals, some existing nowhere else on earth. Some Menba and Luoba people live here. It takes a month to walk through the Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon . From July to October is the season for entering the canyon. Admission: 150 yuan (April 21-Oct.19); 75 yuan (Oct 20-April 20)

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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