In our globalized and infinitely connected world, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine any corner of the globe that has not been thoroughly explored, documented, and homogenized by mankind. Sitting in a busy café on a city street, or driving through never-ending suburbs, I have sometimes found myself lamenting the lost sense of adventure that the world used to hold. In the golden age of exploration, how must khaki safari jacket-clad explorers have felt, cutting their way through dense jungle with machetes, to come upon an ancient lost city? I sometimes imagine the otherworldly thrill that must have scuttled down Howard Carter’s spine when he cracked open Tutankhamun’s tomb, to be met by the smell of ancient Egyptian incense, still as pungent as the day it was sealed in. Sometimes the world of adventure, exploration and travel can seem a little contrived these days – Have we really come this far, only for the value of travel to be reduced down to a slew of Instagram photos accompanied by a cheesy quote?
For me, it is refreshing when I stumble upon a write up or essay detailed a previously undocumented corner of this rock we call home. From a comfortable seat in a warm house, it somehow comforts me to know that, yes, there are still great wildernesses out there, still to explore…
In April 2009, researchers at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre set out on creating a model to compute the world’s statistically most remote place. The researchers combined a range of statistical maps to create a new “super map” showing the most remote places on earth. The model was based on stats such as how long it would take to travel to the nearest city of 50,000 or more people by land or water. The researchers decided the world’s most remote place – the Tibetan plateau.
To understand quite how remote the Tibetan plateau is, consider this: From the inner plateau it is a three-week trip to the nearest cities of Lhasa and Korla. The journey would consist of one day by car, and the remaining 20 days on foot. These statistics officially make the Tibetan plateau the most isolated place in the world.
The Tibetan Plateau’s is characterized by its extreme and inhospitable climate. Its altitude and infrequent precipitation results in an alpine tundra environment. The plateau is a high-altitude arid steppe, punctuated by towering mountain ranges and huge, inhospitable brackish lakes. The little precipitation that occurs here falls mainly as hail. Permafrost occurs over extensive parts of the Tibetan plateau. The southern and eastern edges of the plateau have rolling barren grasslands that can support populations of nomadic herdsmen, although frost is present on these grasslands for half of the year. Life in this place is truly difficult. In Winter, temperatures regularly drop to −40 °C Due to the extremely inhospitable environment, the Tibetan Plateau is the least populous region in Asia, and the third least populous area in the entire world after Antarctica and northern Greenland.
The Tibetan Plateau is the highest plateau in the world, with an average elevation of over 16,000 feet (4876.8 Metres) the plateau is surrounded by the highest peaks in the Himalayas, Karakoram and Pamir mountain ranges. It is for this reason that this reason that the Tibetan Plateau is known as “The roof of the world”. Altitude is not the Plateau’s only defining geographical feature – It is also the earth’s largest plateau by landmass. The plateau stretches approximately 1,000 Kilometres (620 miles) north to south and 2,500 Kilometres (1,600 miles) east to west and has an area of a staggering 2,500,000 square Kilometres (970,000 square miles) which is approximately five times the size of Metropolitan France.
This colossal Steppe is sometimes called “the Third Pole”. This of course does not relate to a third geographical or magnetic pole, but because the Tibetan Plateau ice fields and glaciers contain the largest reserves of freshwater outside the Polar Regions. The Tibetan Plateau contains the headwaters and drainage basins of most of the water sources in its surrounding regions. The Plateau’s tens of thousands of glaciers act as a continental-sized ‘water tower, storing and providing water for more than half of Asia. This occurs through regular snowmelt, which creates the headwaters for 10 of Asia’s biggest rivers including the Ganges, the Mekong and the Yangtze. These rivers are the lifeblood of the continent, channelling vital drinking water, power and irrigation directly to 210 million people. It is estimated that they indirectly support more than 1.3 billion people.
The Tibetan Plateau has already been affected quite dramatically by climate change. National Geographic states that the area has been measured as “heating up twice as fast as the global average of 1.3 degree F over the past century” This accelerated and worrying trend is causing many of the Tibetan Plateau’s glaciers to lose mass, shedding the great sheet ice that has characterized and sculpted this unique landscape. The Tibetan glaciers are retreating at a higher speed than in any other part of the world, including the poles. As this occurs, it will cause lakes to expand, rivers to rage, and bring floods and mudflows to the continent below this lofty place.
Whilst being the third-least populous landmass on earth, various hardy nomadic peoples manage to eke out an existence on the world’s largest Steppe. The sheer brutality of their daily existence make these nomads extremely resilient, and despite the harshness of the terrain they have made their home, their culture is rich and colourful. These peoples make their living by raising livestock, rather than crops, so they must be on the move near-constantly with their herds.
Tibetan nomads typically live in yak wool tents. Their lives are simple and they have few possessions for their nomadic lifestyle. There is typically a stove in the center of the tent, around which the whole family congregates for warmth. There are no trees on the plateau, so the main fuel used to keep the stove going is dried yak dung. The drying of yak dung is one of the most important and time-consuming processes of Steppe life. This chore makes the difference between keeping warm and freezing on the exposed plateau. These peoples truly do depend entirely on their herds to survive. From the wool of clothes and tents that protects them from exposure, the dung that keeps them warm and heats their food, to the meat butter and cheese they eat to survive.
Although Tibetans living at high altitudes have no more oxygen in their blood than anyone else, they have adapted to life at elevation in another fascinating way. These nomads have ten times more nitric oxide and double the forearm blood flow of people who dwell in less elevated climes. This causes dilation of blood vessels, which allows blood to flow more freely to their extremities and aids the release of oxygen to tissues. This is a unique gene mutation seen in people of the steppe.
As with many of the world’s inaccessible places, it is its inhabitants that add colour and culture to this austere world of glaciers, plains and jagged peaks. The nomadic tribes live a lonely life in one of the world’s least inhabited areas, but these people’s fantastic culture, customs, beliefs, and brightly coloured prayer flags and clothing inject a sense of belonging and life into an otherwise rather bleak landscape, on the very top of the world.
Peoples of the Tibetan Plateau: