The dry Tibetan Plateau



Plant life on the Tibetan Plateau has adapted to a very dry climate. This picture shows barren mountains around Tso Kar, a saline lake in Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Rich vegetation on the Kongmaru La Pass (5274 m), Ladakh, with green cushions of Thylacospermum caespitosum, the yellow-flowered Biebersteinia odora, a blue larkspur, Delphinium brunonianum, and an aster. In the background leaves of a rhubarb species (Rheum). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)





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 (Equus kiang), grazing on a meadow among countless red primroses and yellow louseworts; or perhaps of Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952), who was the first European to explore the area around the sacred Mount Kailas in western Tibet – the physical manifestation of the mythical mountain Meru and an important pilgrimage destination for followers of three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Transhimalaya, which literally means ’on the other side of the Himalaya’, consists of two mountain ranges, Gangdise and Nyenchen Tanglha, altogether stretching c. 1,600 km across the southernmost part of the Tibetan Plateau, parallel to the Himalaya. In daily speech, though, the word includes the entire plateau.

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 mm. 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. Most of the plant species mentioned on this page are dealt with in detail on the page Plants: Himalayan flora.


Culture dominated by Lamaism
Since 1982, I have made several journeys to the area between the Himalaya and the Transhimalaya: two to Tibet, four to Ladakh in north-western India, and four to the Upper Marsyangdi Valley 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 km 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, south-east of Leh.

Lamayuru has a spectacular location beneath eroded crags, above which a huge gompa (a Tibetan Buddhist monastery) has been erected. 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 Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism. Long rows of piled stone slabs often lead out from these chortens, 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. You may read more about chortens, mani stones, and other aspects of Lamaism on the page 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. This ancient belief is described on the page Religion: Animism.



A Buddhist chorten stands out in the barren landscape around Tso Kar, an alpine lake in Ladakh. (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 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, including a milk-vetch, Astragalus strictus, a yellow-flowered legume, Caragana versicolor, a honeysuckle, Lonicera spinosa, and the beautiful Rosa webbiana. Other shrubs include common caper (Capparis spinosa), various junipers (Juniperus) and joint-pines (Ephedra), two dwarf rhododendrons, R. nivale and R. cephalanthus, and Tibetan shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora dryadanthoides).

Herbs in dry areas include a locoweed, Oxytropis microphylla, 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. Stellera chamaejasme is a low plant of the daphne family, with pretty white inflorescences. It is very common, as grazing animals avoid it. This species is utilized in traditional medicine to treat asthma, skin problems, and internal parasites. Paper can be made from its roots.

As a means of protection against the strong winds, which often blow up here, the leaves of certain plant species are hugging the ground, including a blue-flowered member of the mint family, Phlomoides rotata, and the yellow-flowered Oreosolen wattii, of the figwort family. Other species protect themselves against wind and evaporation by forming compact cushions, including prickly thrift (Acantholimon lycopodioides), of the sea-lavender family, and Thylacospermum caespitosum, of the carnation 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 Corydalis moorcroftiana, two members of the trumpet-creeper family, Incarvillea mairei and I. younghusbandii, and others.



Several species of locoweed (Oxytropis) are found on the Tibetan Plateau. This picture shows O. microphylla, a common plant in Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



As a means of defence against grazing animals, this honeysuckle, Lonicera spinosa, is equipped with numerous long spines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The beautiful Rosa webbiana is widely distributed on the Tibetan Plateau, up to an altitude of c. 4,100 m. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Common caper 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 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 is very common on the plateau, here photographed near Xegar, southern Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Prickly thrift (Acantholimon lycopodioides) 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, including this blue-flowered member of the mint family, Phlomoides rotata. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This violet catmint, Nepeta floccosa, is quite common, especially where mountain slopes have been eroded to gravel. In Tibet and the Himalaya, at least 35 species of this genus are encountered. (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 even 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), which often presses 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 a black-lipped pika (Ochotona curzoniae), sitting outside its den near Nagarze Lake, southern Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Theobald’s toad-headed agama lives in stony areas, breeding in deserted dens of other animals, including those of pikas. This one was observed at the Tso Kar Lake in Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Red-spotted agamas are often observed on exposed rocks, basking in the sun, here near Leh, Ladakh. (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 encounter 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 a newly established family, Mazaceae. You may also notice a number of well-known European weeds, including creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) and dandelion (Taraxacum). Many butterflies flutter about over the fields, including 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, various species of edelweiss (Leontopodium) and knotweed (Bistorta, Persicaria, Koenigia), long-tubed lousewort (Pedicularis longiflora), and another yellow-flowered lousewort, P. bicornuta.

In non-cultivated valleys, the river banks are often hidden under dense shrubs of various bushes, including willows (Salix), a species of 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 river 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.

Tibetan lakes are breeding places for a number of birds, including Mongolian plover (Charadrius mongolicus), ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), and bar-headed goose (Anser indicus). Well-known European birds like redshank (Tringa totanus) and great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) are also encountered. Bird-rich lakes include Tso Moriri and Tso Kar in Ladakh.

High-altitude lakes and marshes are also breeding habitat of the beautiful black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis), which is restricted to the Tibetan Plateau. In the 1950s, this species began to decline drastically due to draining of wetlands and overgrazing by goats, sheep and cattle. Conservation efforts have since caused the population to slowly increase, and today it may count as many as 10.000 birds.

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 often grows on stone walls around fields. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Lancea tibetica is common in grassy areas. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Long-tubed lousewort (Pedicularis longiflora) is ubiquitous in wet meadows on the plateau. (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 along streams. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The attractive Codonopsis clematidea has pale-blue flowers with a pretty pattern in the throat. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The breeding area of the black-necked crane is restricted to high-altitude lakes and marshes on the Tibetan Plateau. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Alpine vegetation
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. Two wild rhubarbs, Rheum webbianum and R. spiciforme, often form large growths, and other common species include the yellow-flowered, fragrant Biebersteinia odora, a dragon’s head, Dracocephalum heterophyllum, a catmint, Nepeta longibracteata, Parrya nudicaulis of the mustard family, various species of aconite (Aconitum) and larkspur (Delphinium), and many composites, including Allardia stoliczkae, Cremanthodium ellisii, and several species of Aster.

Like prickly thrift, mentioned above, the leaves of several alpine species also form compact cushions, from which tiny flowers peep out, among others Thylacospermum caespitosum and a sandwort, Arenaria bryophylla, both of the carnation family, and a rock-jasmine, Androsace tapete, of the primrose family.

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 leopard (Uncia uncia) and Himalayan wolf (Canis himalayensis). 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.



In July, the rhubarb species Rheum webbianum is flowering profusely on the barren slopes around several mountain passes in Ladakh, here at Konze La (4905 m). The other plant is Thermopsis inflata (Fabaceae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This gorgeous composite, Allardia stoliczkae, is found between 3,000 and 4,500 m 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)




Himalayan marmots often live among scree at the foot of the mountains, here in the Markha Valley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This Tibetan snowfinch is quenching its thirst at a tiny spring, Puga Marshes, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




References (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 February 2016)


(Latest update October 2022)