The highest mountains of the Himalaya stand in the central part of the range. The peaks shrink in size to the east and to the west until they rise suddenly at the two extreme ends. The western “end-peak” is the famous Nanga Parbat (8126m) in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Less well-known and 2400km to the east stands Namcha Barwa, 7756m (25,446ft),
Also known as Namjangbarwa Feng, this easternmost mountain lies in Tibet, only a few kilometers north of the MacMahon Line, which was drawn in 1914 to separate Tibet from India. The border claimed by China runs further south of the mountain and encompasses the Indian state of Arunachal. Indian and Chinese troops are still stationed here. Few outsiders have ventured into Namcha Barwa’s vicinity, or the gorge through which the Yarlung Zangbo (Tsangpo) river exits the Qinghai- Tibet plateau to enter the plains of Assam.
MOUNTAIN AND RIVER
Namcha Barwa’s description is not complete without that of the Yarlung Zangbo, whose most “volatile” stage begins and ends in the vicinity of this peak. Rising in the Jiemayongzong (Chemayungdung) range north of Nepal’s Karnali Zone, the river traverses a thousand kilometres across southern Tibet until, in the gorge, it abruptly turns north-east, then south-east, then south-west, completing a tight horseshoe bend around Namcha Barwa. Across the river to the north is the smaller mountain of Iialabaili, 7151m.
The Yarlung Zangbo, like the Sutlej, Kali Gandaki and Arun, predates the Himalaya. These rivers ‘continued to flow and cut deep gorges as geological forces over the last 20 million years raised massifs such as Namcha Barwa. When it reaches this area, the Yarlung Zangbo loses altitude fast: 2,200 meters over 240km. At one point, the distance between the two arms of the horseshoe is only 38km. If tapped through a tunnel, 40,000 megawatts of electricity can be produced here. (Compare this to the 10,800mw for the proposed Karnali scheme and 2400MW for Tehri.)
Glaciers radiate out in all directions from the higher reaches of Namcha Barwa and Jialabaili. Namcha Barwa’s flanks drop from its peak of 7756m to the valley floor at 600m within 43km. The mountain’s lower regions host a richness in flora and fauna that few regions can match. At only 29N latitude, this area is the northern-most tropical ecosystem in the world. There is great ecological diversity in the region because of the steep vertical zonation. About a quarter of the 170 species protected by the Chinese Government is found here, including rare birds, the red panda, monkeys, deer and snow leopard. Recently, the Chinese authorities established a natural sanctuary around Namcha Barwa, known as the Medog Nature Reserve (Medog = “flower” in Tibetan).
Monbas, the inhabitants of the steep valleys, are so removed from the lofty environs of Namcha Barwa that they have no word for “ice”, although they get enough rain, up to 2000mm a year. The Monbas cultivate terraced fields and grow bananas, oranges and lemons. Further to the south live the ethnic group of Daflas, numbering about 25,000, who engage in slash-and-burn jhum cultivation.
The easternmost section of the Himalaya was not visited by western explorers until recently because of the difficulty of the terrain, and rumours of hostile tribes. For centuries, it was not even known that the Yarlung Zangbo was the Brahmaputra because of the forbidding terrain around Namcha Barwa.
Namcha Barwa was spotted several times by Westerners after 1879, but only from a distance. It was as late as 1912 that British explorers fixed its location. A 1913 expedition came closer to Namcha Barwa and its members saw, for the first time, the nearby Jialabaili.
Until recently, the area had not been further explored. The Chinese government has reserved the peak’s first ascent for its nationals. Between August 1982 and April 1984, various Chinese groups studied the area. Seven Chinese climbers reached the top of the nearby mountain Nai Peng (7043m). The climbers did not attempt Namcha Barwa but did reconnoiter the peak and identify six possible ascent routes. A forbidding mixture of rock, snow and ice has apparently rendered all attempts to scale the mountain unsuccessful.