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Tibetans fight tourism on holy lakes

Liu Jianqiang

Readinch

Public outrage has halted a damaging cruise boat project on one of Tibet’s sacred lakes, but unrestrained tourism remains a threat. Liu Jianqiang reports.

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Mining, dam construction, sand excavation, poaching and grassland degradation are seriously damaging the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, the world’s most fragile ecosystem. But without a second thought, the tourism industry has joined their ranks. The only difference is that tourism, rather than acting covertly, has swaggered in and brazenly harmed this beautiful and sacred place.

On June 15, local media announced that Tibet will launch boating tours on Yamdrok Lake, one of the largest sacred lakes in the Tibet Autonomous Region. This news sparked an immediate public outcry. Yamdrok Lake is less than 100 kilometres from Lhasa and, along with Namtso and Manasarovar, is one of Tibet’s three holy lakes. It is the largest inland lake in the northern Himalayas – a beautiful natural landscape of mountains and water, a rare sight in this world. 

Actually, the lake has always been a popular destination, but this announcement aimed to raise its profile. Dawa, chairman of the Tibet Qomolangma Tourism Development Company, said the firm had bought a sightseeing boat called “the Qomolangma I”, two ferries and several small-sized speedboats from inland China, according to media reports. “We will put all our effort into attracting tourists to come and experience for themselves what it’s like to tour the lake,” he said.

But Yamdrok Lake is more than just a beautiful landscape, it has a special cultural significance for Tibetans. When important “Living Buddhas” pass away, such as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, senior monks visit Yamdrok Lake to chant mantras and pray. They watch for a sign in the lake, to show them in which child the reincarnated spirit has been reborn. 

Most Tibetans could not even imagine motorised tourist boats shuttling about in a place like this, with tourists making a commotion on the peaceful lake. But now this sacred lake of theirs was to become the money-making playground for the local government and tourism companies.

At noon on the same day in June, two environmental activists, one Tibetan and one Han Chinese, held an emergency meeting at the Matchstick Man Café in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. They decided to launch a campaign to “Save Yamdrok Lake” on Weibo (“Chinese Twitter”). Very early the next morning, Sun Mian, the founder of New Weekly magazine, posted a message on Weibo to his 270,000 followers, demanding that the Yamdrok Lake development should stop. Shortly afterward, the filmstar Chen Kun rallied his 17 million-plus followers: “Let’s leave something for the later generations! Don’t be blinded by short-term interests!”

Public attention on Yamdrok Lake grew dramatically, as celebrities like actress Yao Chen and singer Han Hong joined the campaign. Overnight, the lake grew from a local news story into a national issue. But because of the remote location of the lake, and because the local government and the tourism company refused all interviews, information about the situation could only be spread on Weibo.

A young Tibetan writer called Ying Sa posted an official news piece from five years ago on Weibo which said that the local government had given the tourism company permission to develop Yamdrok Lake: “Nagarze County, Lhoka, Tibet and the Tibet Qomolangma Tourism Development Company will collaborate to transform Yamdrok Lake into a top quality tourism site and work hard to create a good investment environment for Yamdrok Lake.”

Online, environmentalists questioned the actions of the local government; had this project passed an Environmental Impact Assessment? Some internet users urged people to file a complaint on the local government’s official website

The public outcry soon caught the attention of the local government. On June 18, @SaveYamrokLake received a private message from @Tibet Daily: “We are reporting in our morning paper that this project has already been suspended.”

Tourism has been destroying Tibet’s sacred mountains and holy lakes for a long time. Qinghai Lake is a top-grade national scenic spot in Qinghai province and China’s biggest saltwater lake. But it is being over-exploited.

Back in May 2004, a local tourism company announced it would launch a luxury cruise boat called the “Qinghai Pearl” on Qinghai Lake. The boat would have food, sleeping berths and entertainment for tourists. It would be a floating “four-star hotel”. But several academics spoke out against the project. Qinghai Lake is an inland lake; water can flow in, but it cannot flow out. And so all the waste oil, waste water and litter produced by the cruise ship would permanently pollute the lake. The polluted water would be impossible to clean up, causing irreversible damage to the lake’s ecosystem.

Academic Sun Honglie pointed out that there would be no way to deal with pollution using existing technology, unless pollution was “ladled out, spoonful by spoonful, and clean water poured in.”

Opposition from academics and questions raised by the media forced the Qinghai provincial government to suspend the cruise boat project on Qinghai Lake in the end. By then, about 70% of the so-called luxury cruiser had been built at a construction site on the shores of the lake.

Founder of the “Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Ecological Protection website” Tashi Nyima also joined the campaign to oppose the development of Yamdrok Lake. He said that the environment of Qinghai Lake was being damaged by a heavy load of tourists and boats. Of course, this is not only an environmental issue; it is also about respecting local culture. In an article by Tashi Nyima, he wrote that, even if the activities on Qinghai Lake are environmentally friendly, they do not respect local people’s religious beliefs concerning sacred lakes. Local beliefs in “holy mountains and sacred lakes” play an important role in conserving the Tibetan plateau’s natural resources; their “environmental ethnics” have provided a kind of invisible protection.

But time after time, foreign tourists and explorers fail to respect local culture and break religious taboos. In 2004, when a sports teacher from Beijing called Zhang Jian announced that he would swim across the holy Namtso Lake, it sparked great outrage. Namtso, which means “heavenly lake” in Tibetan, is the world’s highest saltwater lake and a sacred site for Tibetans. Many Buddhists meditate in the caves in the cliffs along the edge of the lake.

The year before, Zhang Jian swam across Qinghai Lake, upsetting local Tibetans there. In his quest to conquer Namtso Lake, he again aroused strong opposition. The very popular Tibetcul website published an open letter: “Don’t rush recklessly to every blade of grass and every tree, every hill and every stream. Over the course of history, local people and nature have created a special ecosystem. It should be treasured, and more importantly, it should be respected.

Zhang Jian cancelled his plans to swim across the lake.

The open letter said: “The reason why people call the Qinghai-Tibet plateau the “world’s last pure land” is not just because of its geographical features, but also because of its profound cultural significance. These “sacred sites” are scattered across the plateau: sacred lakes such as Namtso Lake and Qinghai Lake, holy mountains such as Mount Kailash and Khawakarpo Mountain; and revered buildings like the Potala Palace.”

Unfortunately, not a single one of these sacred sites has escaped desecration. Khawakarpo Mountain, which stands over 6,000 metres high, is the world’s highest unclimbed peak. In 1991, a team of Chinese and Japanese climbers attempted to scale the summit. The local people strongly opposed their mission. They prostrated and burnt incense for the mountain, entreating the mountain spirits to stop these outsiders from disrespecting the holy mountain. The climbers were caught in a sudden blizzard and 17 of them died.

In 1996, the Japanese climbing team tried again, but local people blocked their way on a bridge over the Lancang River. Again, the climbing expedition ended in failure. Later, the local government honoured the local people’s wishes and prohibited mountaineering in the Meili Snow Mountains, after gaining the central government’s approval.

But while mountain climbing is now prohibited, the tourist industry has developed in leaps and bounds. Last year, when I was at Khawakarpo Mountain, I saw that the excessive number of visitors had already damaged this holy mountain. The village road that heads deep into the mountains was covered in rubbish. Forests had been cut down to make way for places for tourists to stay. People butchered livestock at the foot of the sacred mountain to cater to travellers needs. This would have been unimaginable in the past.

On top of this, official tourism companies and local people now scramble for profit. Revenue from ticket sales is not shared with local people. One local person said: “The infrastructure has grown old, no one looks after it. No one is repairing the wooden roadways on the cliffs; no one is looking after the power; no one is looking after the water; no one is looking out for mudslides! These problems have been created by the government because they handed the Meili Snow Mountains over to companies to manage. Companies put their profits first. They take the money and leave all the bad things behind, such as rubbish.”

In my book called Heavenly Beads, I interviewed Zha Duo, the executive director of the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association. He said: “The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is like a famous painting. This painting is serene, peaceful, like the ideal Shangri-La. But people defile her at will: tourism, mining, blasting holy mountains, cutting down forests and damming rivers. The Qinghai-Tibet plateau is deteriorating at such a rate that it’s as if she doesn’t even have the strength to take a breath. People in the east make money so that they come to the west. But all they think about is money. Who will come and value this famous painting? Who has both the ability and the compassion to protect her?”

Luckily, more and more people are realising the true value of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. And more and more people are willing to protect her, like those members of the public who expressed their opposition to the exploitation of Yamdrok Lake on Weibo.

The public are still sceptical about whether or not the local government has really put a stop to the boat project. chinadialogue gave Nagarze’s local government a phone call. An official who asked to remain anonymous said: “This project really has been suspended. The cruise ship has already been towed away under the direct supervision of the head of the county.” Some internet users say they have heard that that boat has been sent to Lhasa. But you can imagine how the company that owns the boat must be looking forward to the time when they can take it back to Yamdrok Lake or use it on another lake, jam packed with tourists.


Liu Jianqiang is
chinadialogue’s Beijing-based deputy editor.

Homepage image by 李俊

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标题是否合适?

作者对该地旅游的发展现状是比较中肯的,也指出了一些问题。
但是,请问标题“旅游威胁青藏高原”是否可修改为“过度旅游威胁青藏高原”?
毕竟,适度的旅游开发,是有利于改善当地税收和居民生活的,而目前的题目,有误导之嫌。

Is the title proper?

The author objectively assessed the tourism in Tibet.

Would it be possible to change the title from "Tibetans fight tourism on holy lakes" to "Overwhelmed tourism threaten Tibet"?

Proper development in tourism is beneficial for the local tax revenue and residential income increase. The current title is sort of misleading.


西藏的水上旅游能持久吗?

我住在加利福尼亚的太浩湖旁边。优美的太浩湖曾经也遭受过旅游业的冲击。在大规模的草根运动 “保护太浩湖” 之后,现在的情况好多了。其实有很多方法都可以在旅游业的发展中保护湖区环境的,比如设定严格的污染排放标准,限制资源的使用,教育大众等。

我在1998年的时候去过西藏的纳木错。我们那时住在当地牧人的营寨里,仅有的一点点旅游业发展的吉祥是在湖区边上的一个小公园。作为一个旅游者,那是一次非常美好的经历。我在想,西藏圣湖旅游业的发展是不是应该被建立在一个许可证制度之下,或者是其他调控方式之下,比如禁止电机工艺(在美国的一些湖区就是这样做的)。一个更重要的问题是,在中国,当地的居民和外来者是不是愿意不顾旅游业的繁荣发展,保护当地脆弱宝贵的生态环境。

Can lake tourism be sustainable in Tibet?

I live in California near Lake Tahoe, a famously beautiful lake that once suffered from the impact of tourism. Things are better there now, thanks to a huge grassroots campaign to "Keep Tahoe Blue." There are ways to protect lake environments from tourism, by instituting strict discharge standards, limiting uses, and educating the public.

When I visited Lake Namtso in Tibet in 1998, we stayed in a herder's camp, and the only sign of tourism development was a small park near the lake edge. As a tourist, it was a fantastic experience. I wonder if on Tibet's holy lakes tourism should be limited through a permit system and other regulatory measures such as banning motor craft (as is the case on some US rivers and lakes). The larger question is, are there places in China that are so fragile, or so revered, that locals and outsiders could agree to set them aside from mass tourism development?


好标题

不好意思,我得说这标题起得太好了,不过,我建议标题还可以改成《什么都没经济重要》。诚然,中国的确没几个地方还能算得上是历史及宗教圣地了。别忘了,三峡大坝建设的时候毁掉了许多堪称无价之宝的建筑,这些建筑恐怕百年以后才能重见天日了(假如大坝能用这么久的话)。中国若要成为超级大国,还应该多关注自己的文化名胜。

Perfect title

Sorry to mention that the title is perfect, in fact I would propose the title to be "Everything comes next after Economy!". It is true that, there are few places left in China to be worth a historical and religious sites, remember, the 3 GD submerged or took with it priceless architectural sites and monuments only to be rediscovered after few centuries (if at all the Dam stands). PRC should also focus on keeping its cultural sites intact so as to boast as a true super power.


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