CHINA – In June, Doan Trang had the opportunity to visit Hoh Xil, a rugged and uninhabited region on the Tibetan Plateau.
Situated at an average altitude of 4,500 meters above sea level, the Qinghai – Tibetan Plateau is the highest plateau on Earth, often referred to as the “roof of the world”. Covering an area of 1.2 million square kilometers, it represents 1/8 of China’s total land area and is surrounded by the Himalayas, Kunlun Mountains, Qilian Mountains, and features some of the world’s tallest peaks, including Mount Everest and K2 (the second-highest peak after Everest).
The Hoh Xil region, also known as Kekexili, is part of the northwestern Qinghai – Tibetan Plateau, spanning 450,000 square kilometers and reaching an elevation of 4,600 meters above sea level. It is the least populated area in Asia, ranking third in the world after North Greenland and Antarctica.
The Qinghai – Tibetan Plateau serves as the source of three major rivers: the Mekong, Yangtze, and Huang He. It is also known as the “third pole of the Earth” due to its substantial freshwater reserves, ranking third after the North and South Poles.
During her stay in Qinghai from June 4th to June 16th, 28-year-old Doan Trang had the opportunity to visit Kekexili. This region is a national nature reserve, and tourists are not allowed to explore it freely. Trang, a Vietnamese freelancer living in Tokyo, Japan, mentioned that she had to register at the local police station to gain access to this “forbidden land.”
From Xining, the nearest city in Qinghai province, to Kekexili is a journey of over 300 kilometers. Since overnight stays are not possible in the area, Trang’s round-trip journey covered more than 600 kilometers.
The plateau experiences extreme temperature variations, with differences of over 15 degrees Celsius. The road freezes at night due to the cold and contracts, while during the day, it expands in the higher temperatures. Consequently, the road’s surface constantly undulates and feels like driving on waves. Travelling long distances on terrain exceeding 4,500 meters in elevation, Trang described this as the most challenging day of her entire journey.
“I read about Kekexili in the The Tibet Code, where it is described as a place of icy rivers, snow-covered mountains, harsh climate, and a place where people cannot survive. Therefore, I decided to visit and experience it firsthand,” Trang said.
The “Forbidden Zone of Life” in Kekexili has extremely harsh weather conditions. On the highest plateau on Earth, there is intense solar radiation, and oxygen levels are 35% to 40% lower than in lowland areas. The average annual temperature ranges from -2.4 to -12.1 degrees Celsius. It has a lengthy dry season with strong winds. During the winter and spring, Tibet experiences the most hailstorms in China, along with extreme weather phenomena such as droughts, floods, snowfall, sandstorms, and frequent lightning.
“In the initial kilometers close to inhabited areas, the grass on the grasslands is still lush, and you can see herds of yaks grazing,” Trang shared. Yaks are a distinctive animal of the Himalayan region, capable of surviving at altitudes of nearly 5,000 meters. To adapt to the harsh climate, Tibetan yaks have thick, long fur that nearly covers their legs.
According to Trang’s local driver, the yaks in this region roam freely and can cost around 10,000 Chinese yuan (over 1367,33 USD) per animal.
In Trang’s perception, the image of the plateau is one of vast, lush green grasslands. However, as one delves deeper into the plateau, its harshness becomes increasingly apparent.
Across the vast grasslands, patches of greenery are sparse, and the majority of the terrain consists of barren land or withered yellow grass. Even in the summer, temperatures here remain below freezing, with perpetual ice covering the mountaintops.
The annual rainfall in the Tibetan Plateau is only around 10 to 30 centimeters, primarily in the form of hail. Due to the high elevation and low precipitation, the biodiversity of animals and plants on the plateau is significantly reduced.
The most famous animal species in Kekexili is the Tibetan antelope, a red-listed animal in China. Tibetan antelopes are commemorated alongside the monument of the hero Suonan Dajie in the region.
During her journey, Trang encountered a few Tibetan antelopes. With the guidance of her experienced driver, she was able to observe them. During the summer, the fur of Tibetan antelopes blends with the color of the grassland, making them difficult to distinguish. “The male Tibetan antelope is easier to spot because they have long, pointed horns on their heads,” Trang noted.
According to the driver, venturing further into the plateau would yield sightings of more wildlife. However, conservation regulations restrict tourist vehicles from departing the paved roads.
“It’s regrettable because I came all this way and couldn’t drive off-road through the plateau to observe the wildlife as described in the books,” Trang lamented.
During her trip, Trang also encountered other animal species such as Tibetan foxes, wild donkeys, yaks, black-necked cranes, Daurian partridges, and Tibetan mastiffs. The Tibetan Plateau currently holds 80% of the world’s Tibetan antelope population, 80% of black-necked cranes, and 78% of wild Tibetan yaks.
The Tibetan Plateau is an ideal habitat for the Cordyceps fungus, a natural medicinal ingredient formed by the parasitic relationship between a butterfly larva and a specific fungus. Cordyceps has various health benefits, including immune system enhancement and resistance to illness.
The best time to harvest Tibetan Cordyceps is in the summer, around May, when the fungus sprouts from the ground. On her way back, Trang made acquaintances with a Tibetan family searching for Tibetan Cordyceps.
Cordyceps is available for sale in the Zadoi square in Qinghai.
Summer (around June and July) is the peak tourist season and the warmest time for exploring the Tibetan Plateau. The rainy season typically lasts from May to September, and travelers are advised to plan accordingly.
Due to the lack of cellphone reception and human inhabitants in the Kekexili region, Trang recommends hiring a local driver who can navigate the entire journey. In recent times, many tourist destinations in China have restricted access for foreign visitors or require advance permits, so it’s essential to coordinate with the local driver beforehand.
During her trip, Trang had unique experiences such as conversations with pilgrims, interactions with Cordyceps hunters, visits to Tibetan temples, and witnessing ceremonial rituals performed by monks. With a budget of over 1,663 USD, Trang expressed satisfaction and said that this is the only place in China she would be willing to return to for further exploration.