The dry Tibetan Plateau
Plant life of the Tibetan Plateau has adapted to a very dry climate. This picture is from Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Transhimalaya! – A word, which conjures up pictures of wind-blown mountain passes with stone cairns, adorned with hundreds of fluttering Buddhist prayer flags, of Tibetan wild asses, grazing on a meadow among countless red primroses and yellow louseworts, or perhaps of Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who was the first European to explore Western Tibet around the sacred mountain of Kailas – the physical manifestation of the mythical mountain Meru and an important pilgrimage destination for followers of three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Transhimalaya – which means ’on the other side of the Himalaya’ – comprises two mountain ranges, Gangdise and Nyenchen Tanglha, altogether stretching c. 1,600 kilometres across the southernmost part of the Tibetan Plateau, parallel to the Himalaya.
The high peaks of the Himalaya act as a wall, causing the major part of the monsoon precipitation to fall, before the wind reaches the high plateau. In Ladakh, for instance, the annual precipitation is less than 100 millimetres. Most of this dry, desert-like habitat lies within Tibet, but reaches into northern Pakistan, northern Bhutan, in Nepal into the regions of Humla, Dolpo, Mustang, and Manang, and in India into Ladakh, the northern half of Himachal Pradesh, and northernmost Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
Most plant genera of the Tibetan Plateau are also found in the Himalaya. However, some genera are unique to the area, adapted to the dry climate.
Culture dominated by Lamaism
Since 1982, I have made several journeys to the area between the Himalaya and the Transhimalaya, namely two trips to Tibet, four to Ladakh in north-western India, and four to the Upper Marsyangdi Valley (Manang) in central Nepal.
Within a fairly small area of Ladakh, you are able to experience numerous facets of the Tibetan landscape, displaying a characteristic selection of the plateau vegetation, combined with a fascinating and relatively intact Buddhist culture. In July, when blooming is at its peak, a number of interesting hikes can be made in this area, among these a two-week-trek, starting out from the village of Lamayuru, c. 125 kilometres west of Leh, the main city of Ladakh. Initially, on this route, you must climb two high passes, Konze La (4905 m) and Dundunchen La (4800 m), after which you cross the Zanskar River into the fairly fertile Markha Valley. The final obstacle is a very high pass, Kongmaru La (5274 m), from where you follow the Sumdo River down to Hemis Gompa (gompa is the Tibetan word for a Buddhist monastery), south-east of Leh.
Lamayuru has a spectacular location beneath eroded crags, above which a huge gompa has been constructed. The landscape is sprinkled with chortens, the Tibetan counterpart of the Indian stupa – a domed building, which often contains religious relics, such as bones of a monk or another holy person. Chortens are an integrated part of Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism). In connection with chortens are often long rows of stone slabs, carved with innumerable Buddhist mantras. These slabs are called mani stones, a name that stems from the most common inscription on them, Om Mani Padme Hum. Mani Padme loosely translates as ’jewel in the lotus flower’ – a picture of the Buddha – whereas Om and Hum are intensifying mantra words. (Read more about chortens and mani stones – and about Buddhism in general – on this website, see Religion: Buddhism.) At chortens and on mani walls, locals often place yak horns or horns from wild sheep or goats, painted red. These horns are a trace of the ancient, pre-Buddhist religion bon, in which the ox was worshipped. (Read more about animism on this website, see Religion: Animism.)
A Buddhist chorten stands out in the barren landscape around Tso Kar, an alpine lake in Ladakh. These domed buildings often contain religious relics, such as bones of a monk or another holy person. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Smoke spreads from ovens in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, emitting a wonderful fragrance from burning juniper branches (Juniperus). Foliage of these trees is widely used as incense in Tibet and the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This elderly Ladakhi man is carrying his grandchild on his back. Ladakhis are a Tibetan people, but politically their land is a part of India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Vegetation adapted to a dry climate
The Tibetan Plateau contains six principal habitats: dry plains; lower river valleys with natural vegetation; cultivated river valleys; meadows along rivers and lakesides; alpine valleys; and mountain slopes and passes.
Rivers criss-cross the plateau, but between the streams are huge areas without permanent water. On these plains, and on mountain slopes, the vegetation is adapted to the dry conditions. Prickly or spiny shrubs are ubiquitous, comprising e.g. a milk-vetch, Astragalus strictus, a yellow-flowered legume, Caragana versicolor, a locoweed, Oxytropis microphylla, a honeysuckle, Lonicera spinosa, and the beautiful Rosa webbiana. Common caper (Capparis spinosa) and various junipers (Juniperus) and joint-pines (Ephedra) are also very common. Juniper foliage is widely used as incense in Buddhist temples. Here and there, you encounter two dwarf rhododendrons, R. nivale and R. cephalanthus, and Tibetan shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa var. ochreata).
Stellera chamaejasme is a low plant of the daphne family, with pretty white inflorescences. It is very common, as grazing animals avoid it. Paper can be made from its roots. A hedge-nettle, Stachys tibetica, a stonecrop, Rosularia alpestris, the yellow-flowered Arisaema flavum, of the arum family, and Lindelofia stylosa, of the forget-me-not family, are also widely distributed. (Read more about the peculiar Arisaema species on this website, see Plant hunting in the Himalaya – Around sacred lakes of Shiva.)
As a means of protection against the strong winds, which often blow up here, the leaves of certain plant species are hugging the ground, e.g. a blue-flowered member of the mint family, Lamiophlomis rotata, and the yellow-flowered Oreosolen wattii, of the figwort family. Other species protect themselves against wind and evaporation by forming compact cushions, e.g. Acantholimon lycopodioides, which belongs to the sea-lavender family.
Where rocky slopes have been eroded to gravel, a catmint, Nepeta floccosa, and a globe thistle, Echinops cornigerus, are very common, and in cracks among rocks you may observe e.g. Corydalis moorcroftiana, and two members of the trumpet-creeper family, Incarvillea mairei and I. younghusbandii.
In the Himalaya, locoweeds (genus Oxytropis) comprise c. 18 species, the majority of which grow in rather dry upper valleys, and on the Tibetan Plateau. This picture shows Oxytropis microphylla, which is common in Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As a means of defence against grazing animals, this honeysuckle, Lonicera spinosa, has numerous long spines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Only four species of wild roses grow in the Himalaya, whereas several others are cultivated. The beautiful Rosa webbiana is very common in dry areas, bordering the Tibetan Plateau, up to an altitude of c. 4,100 metres. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common caper (Capparis spinosa) is very common in Ladakh. In the background a Buddhist monastery, Tsemo Gompa, in Leh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Numerous species of joint-pine, Ephedra – a genus of gymnosperms – grow on the plateau, often grazed to prostrate form by goats. This picture shows fleshy cones of Ephedra intermedia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Stellera chamaejasme, of the daphne family, is very common on the plateau. Paper is made from its roots, and it is also used in traditional medicine to treat asthma, skin problems, and internal parasites. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acantholimon lycopodioides, of the sea-lavender family, is one among many species on the Tibetan Plateau, which protect themselves against wind, cold, and evaporation by forming compact cushions. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As a means of protection against the strong winds, which often blow on the plateau, the leaves of certain plant species are hugging the ground, e.g. this blue-flowered member of the mint family, Lamiophlomis rotata. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This violet catmint, Nepeta floccosa, is quite common, especially where mountain slopes have been eroded to gravel. This genus comprises at least 35 species in the Himalaya and Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Animal life of the high plateau
In former times, herds of Tibetan wild asses, or kiang (Equus kiang), and Tibetan gazelles (Procapra picticaudata), counting hundreds of individuals, roamed the plateau, but these herds have been reduced significantly due to uncontrolled hunting and competition from huge flocks of goats and sheep, which degrade the vegetation by overgrazing. It is still possible to observe smaller herds of kiang around Tso Kar, an alpine lake in Ladakh, and both species are fairly common in the Shishapangma Nature Reserve in Tibet.
Several species of pika (Ochotona) live on the plateau. These small animals resemble large voles, but are in fact relatives of hares and rabbits. In their deserted dens, the small, sand-coloured Hume’s ground-tit (Pseudopodoces humilis) often breeds. Formerly, this bird was placed in the crow family, but recent DNA research has shown that it is a close relative of the European great tit (Parus major), and some authorities name it Parus humilis.
As their name implies, toad-headed agamas have toad-like heads. With a bit of luck, you may observe Theobald’s toad-headed agama (Phrynocephalus theobaldi), often pressing its body firmly to the ground to escape notice. On the other hand, red-spotted agamas (Laudakia himalayana) and a skink, Scincella ladacensis, are easily observed on exposed rocks, basking in the sun.
Pikas resemble large voles, but are in fact relatives of hares and rabbits. This picture shows black-lipped pika (Ochotona curzoniae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Theobald’s toad-headed agama (Phrynocephalus theobaldi) lives in stony areas, breeding in deserted dens of other animals, e.g. pikas (Ochotona). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Red-spotted agamas (Laudakia himalayana) are often observed on exposed rocks, basking in the sun. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
River valleys and lakesides
The major part of the river valleys is either cultivated or heavily grazed by yaks, sheep, or goats. Along fields, you often see a number of well-known European weeds, such as creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) and dandelion (Taraxacum vulgare), besides Clematis tibetana, two large umbellifers, Ferula jaeschkeana and Prangos pabularia, a hogweed, Heracleum pinnatum, and Lancea tibetica, which formerly was placed in the figwort family, but has now been moved to the lopseed family (Phrymaceae). Many butterflies flutter about over the fields, e.g. European swallowtail (Papilio machaon) and various species of clouded yellows (Colias).
In meadows along rivers and lakesides grasses dominate the vegetation, together with sedge (Carex) and other members of the sedge family, such as Kobresia. Common species also include a pink primrose, Primula tibetica, an edelweiss, Leontopodium pusillum, two yellow-flowered louseworts, Pedicularis tubiformis and P. bicornuta, and various species of knotweed (Polygonum).
In non-cultivated valleys, the river banks are often hidden under dense shrubs of various bushes, e.g. willows (Salix), a false tamarisk, Myricaria elegans, and Tibetan sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë tibetana). Large areas are also covered in huge growths of Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), which, incidentally, is an invasive weed in many parts of Europe, expelling native plants. Other common species include a white windflower, Anemone rivularis, a pale-blue columbine, Aquilegia moorcroftiana, a yellow corydalis, Corydalis flabellata, and the pretty Codonopsis clematidea, of the bellflower family.
Well-known European birds like redshank (Tringa totanus) and great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) are breeding around many Tibetan lakes, such as Tso Moriri and Tso Kar in Ladakh, besides e.g. Mongolian plover (Charadrius mongolicus), ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), bar-headed goose (Anser indicus), and the beautiful black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis).
In 1950, members of the Third Danish Central Asian Expedition carried out a great deal of research around Tso Moriri. From his results of mapping folding structures of the mountains in this area, Danish geologist Asger Berthelsen made the conclusion that Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, from 1912, in all probability was correct – a fact, which later research has confirmed.
Clematis tibetana has golden-yellow, hairy flowers. It is common at the edge of fields. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, Lancea tibetica was placed in the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), but has now been moved to the lopseed family (Phrymaceae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This yellow lousewort, Pedicularis tubiformis, is very common in wet meadows across the Tibetan Plateau. In the Himalaya, no less than c. 80 species of this genus are found. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The flower of this columbine, Aquilegia moorcroftiana, has four long spurs, slightly bent at the tip. Its preferred habitat is near streams. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The genus Codonopsis, of the bellflower family, comprises at least 14 species in the Himalaya. The attractive Codonopsis clematidea (seen here) has pale-blue flowers with a pretty pattern in the throat. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis) breeds only at high-altitude lakes and marshes on the Tibetan Plateau. Its total population is perhaps less than 5,000 pairs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Vegetation in high-altitude valleys and on mountain passes is surprisingly rich, due to the fact that snow often covers the ground far into the spring. Common plants include the yellow-flowered, very fragrant Biebersteinia odora, and Parrya nudicaulis of the mustard family, besides various species of Aster, aconite (Aconitum) and larkspur (Delphinium). Two wild rhubarbs, Rheum moorcroftianum and R. spiciforme, often form large growths, and other common species include two composites, Allardia stoliczkae and Cremanthodium ellisii, a dragon’s head, Dracocephalum heterophyllum, and a catmint, Nepeta longibracteata. Like Acantholimon lycopodioides, the leaves of several alpine species form compact cushions, from which tiny flowers peep out, among others Thylacospermum caespitosum of the carnation family, a sandwort, Arenaria bryophylla, and a rock-jasmine, Androsace tapete.
Among scree at the foot of the mountains, you may encounter Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana), often sitting on its haunches outside its den. If you approach too close, it will emit a sharp warning call. Flocks of blue sheep, or bharal (Pseudois nayaur), and Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) live on the mountain slopes. Their only enemies – besides Man – are snow leopards (Uncia uncia) and Tibetan wolves (Canis lupus ssp. chanco). Passerines like rufous-breasted accentor (Prunella rubeculoides) and Tibetan snowfinch (Montifringilla adamsi) are often very tame. Several species of Apollo butterflies (Parnassius) may also be observed at this altitude.
Seven species of wild rhubarb are found in the Himalaya. In July, this species, Rheum spiciforme, is flowering profusely on the barren slopes around numerous mountain passes in Ladakh, here at Konze La (4905 m). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This gorgeous composite, Allardia stoliczkae, is found between 3,000 and 4,500 metres altitude. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The leaves of several alpine species form compact cushions, from which tiny flowers stick out. This picture shows a sandwort, Arenaria bryophylla. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rich vegetation on the Kongmaru La Pass (5274 m), Ladakh, with green cushions of Thylacospermum caespitosum, of the carnation family, the yellow-flowered Biebersteinia odora, a blue larkspur, Delphinium, and an Aster. In the background leaves of a rhubarb, Rheum spiciforme. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana) often lives among scree at the foot of the mountains, here in the Markha Valley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A Tibetan snowfinch (Montifringilla adamsi), quenching its thirst at a tiny spring, Puga Marshes, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial_pa.html (nr. 1020)
Berthelsen, A., 1998: Rejsen til den blå sø. Gads Forlag. (In Danish)
Polunin, O. & A. Stainton, 1984: Flowers of the Himalaya. Oxford University Press
Stainton, A., 1988: Flowers of the Himalaya. A Supplement. Oxford University Press
(Uploaded April 2016)
(Revised June 2017)