How to explore the Greater Ranges- a journey on the “Roof of the World”

How to explore the Greater Ranges- a journey on the “Roof of the World”

Thе Greater Ranges area is the highest mountain land on the Earth, in the heart of the largest continent- Asia. Here you can find not only the highest peaks in the world, but also the largest lands with the highest average altitude. Its area is larger than Europe and almost 1/4 from Asia. The sources of some of the longest rivers on the Earth are located here. These lands present many geographical horizontal and vertical zones. They also present a rich variety of history and culture. Let’s dive into the geography of this gorgeous land. 

Dreaming the high mountain beauty

Since long time ago, I watched this amazing area on the map and had dreams to go there, to explore it and to enjoy its vastness and harsh beauty. Giant peaks, deep gorges, endless grasslands, with a feeling of remoteness and wild adventures- all of this became a strong temptation and longing for a journey to this land. It was a dream not just for a journey, but for exploring it in detail, and enjoying the unique experience of it. 

So, I watched the map of Asia, researched these mountainous part of the Earth and traveled in my imagination. I identified its division into mountain ranges and their boundaries, and planned our first trip there, until finally it became real and we ascent deep into this amazing highland world. It was in Eastern Tibet…But first, let’s see more about the Greater Ranges, where is it, how large is it, let’s see more details about it.

Himalaya and Everest, The Greater Ranges
Himalaya, Everest region

Basic facts about the Greater Ranges

Open the physical, or the satellite map of Asia. You will see a giant spot in the middle of the continent, in contrast of the surrounding lands. This spot is the highest land on our planet- a cluster of the highest mountains on the Earth, with its “king of the mountains”- the Himalayas. 

This land was called “Greater Ranges” in the 19th century by the Victorian era geographers, for the same purpose- to mark the highest mountains and lands on our planet and distinguish them from the lower European Alps. Later, the term “Greater Ranges” was broadened, including some of the highest mountains in America and Africa. But in this way, this is already not a place, but just a geographical term that means “highest mountains”.

At the same time, the classical “Greater Ranges” doesn’t have other name, so this term remained as the name of the highest land of Asia and the Earth. It includes Himalaya, Transhimalaya, Hengduan, Karakoram, Kunlunshan, Hindukush, Pamir, Tianshan and the Great Tibetan Plateau. There is also a large lower area deep into this territory- Taklamakan Desert, which is not one of the highest mountains, but remains “locked” and somehow integrated into the Greater Ranges. 

Rivers of the Greater Ranges

This area is a home of some of the largest and longest rivers on the Earth. Indus and Sutlej rivers separate the Himalayas from Karakoram, join together and reach the Arab Sea. Ganges and Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) form the northern, southern, and eastern boundaries of the Himalayas and reach the Bay of Bengal. The ranges of Hengduan on the east are cut by Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and the Yellow River (Huanghe). Syrdarya, Amudarya (with Panj), and Chu bring waters from Pamir and Tianshan into the deserts of Central Asia. And finally, Ghez, Karakash and Yarkand rivers flow from Karakoram, Pamir and the western ends of Kunlunshan into the Tarim Basin.

Civilizations of the Greater Ranges

This is not only a gorgeous mountainous land, but also a home of many civilizations. Hindukush, the other mountains in Afghanistan, and Pamir are a Persian area, today islamized. Tianshan is a home of people with nomadic origin- Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Mongols. The Uyghur’s territory also includes parts of Tianshan, Pamir and Kunlunshan. 

Then, the Indian civilization, with its branches is present in the Himalaya and a part of Karakoram. East of it is Southeast Asia- numerous ethnic minorities who live in the Northeast India, Myanmar and Yunnan province of China. The Muslim minority of Hui is present in the northeast- in Altyn Tagh, Qilian Mountains and parts of Hengduan. 

But the largest present civilization of the Greater Ranges is the Tibetans. They spread over the big part of the Great Tibetan Plateau. And east of them is the Chinese civilization, mainly in Sichuan and Gansu. Finally, parts of the Greater Ranges are so harsh, remote and desolate that no civilization live. But about that- later. 

Mt. Chola, Tibet, The Greater Ranges
Mt. Chola in Eastern Tibet

Borders of the Greater Ranges

The whole area has long borders, surrounding a vast territory. Let’s identify its borders. 

On the west:

From the southwest parts of Pakistan, the border goes north through the west Afghanistan, then arrives to Amudarya river. Then it passes near the border of Tajikistan, then the southeast extreme of Uzbekistan, then it proceeds north into southeast part of Kazakhstan.

On the north:

From there the border passes Dzhungar area and enters China, Xinjiang province, north of Tianshan mountains. It proceeds east almost to the borders of Mongolia, but still south of it, then goes through Gansu province of China- to the borders of Shaanxi province.

On the east:

From Shaanxi province the border goes to Sichuan, passes through the middle of this province and Chengdu. Then goes on to the south- to the border between Yunnan and Guizhou, passing through west Guizhou province. It proceeds south on the borders of Yunnan and Guangxi to north Vietnam.

On the south:

From north Vietnam the border goes west through north Laos, then through north Myanmar and arrives to Assam state of India. Then it goes through North India, south of Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Himachal pradesh, reaching Pakistan. From there it goes southwest to the Baloochistan part of Pakistan.

The Greater Ranges on the satellite map
The Greater Ranges on the satellite map

Mountains and lands of the Greater Ranges

As you can see, the Greater Ranges are large, very large. They are a part of the Alpine-Himalayan  Orogeny Belt. If you wander what’s that, just look at the physical map of Europe and Asia. You will see the Belt, stretching from Western Europe to Eastern Asia. Its western end is dominated by the Alps, and its eastern end- the Greater Ranges, and they are connected by a long chain of other mountains in the middle- the Balkans, the mountains in the Minor Asia, and the mountains of Iran. Let this Belt be our “entrance” from west into the Greater Ranges. Its first high mountain range is Hindukush (Hindu Kush), but before we reach it, we have to pass a network of lower ranges, so, let’s start from them.

Baba Mountains (Koh-i-Baba) and their branches

If we approach the Greater Ranges from west, this mountain range is the first highland that we will see. It starts after we cross the border with Afghanistan with the lower mountains such as Band-e Torkestan, Siah Koh and Chatap Dalan, and gradually increases in altitude. Althouth these mountains are lower than the Himalayas, their peaks still reach serious heights, almost reaching 5000 m. The highest peak here is Foladi Peak (4951 m).

In Baba Mountains, Afghanistan
In Baba Mountains, Afghanistan

How to explore Baba Mountains

It is not easy. These mountains are located entirely in Afghanistan, and as we all know, this country still remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world.It is still unstable, and there is almost no tourism there. First, you have to obtain a visa, no matter from which country are you from. Then, you can enter the country from Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or through some border passes from Pakistan.

Once you enter Afghanistan, you can rent a car from the bigger cities Kabul, Kandahar, Herat or Mazar-e-Sharif. It is better to rent a 4×4 vehicle, because many roads remain unpaved. Then you can penetrate deep into the Baba Mountains. The main road crossing the mountains is the central Afghan highway A77-AH77, which connects Herat with Kabul via Chaghcharan. Not far from it is Bamian, a city with ancient history, which can be your best starting point for trekking in Baba Mountains. But again- it is dangerous! There is Taliban activity in most of the mountain areas, and you can be a victim of terrorists!

The main summit of Baba Mountains reaches Shibar Pass, the beginning of Hindukush. But before that, there is another “foot” of the Greater Ranges- a chain of mountains coming from south- Spin Ghar (Safed Koh), Toba Kakar and several others, so let’s follow them too.

Spin Ghar and Sulaiman Mountains

This is another chain of mountains, another “foot” of the Greater Ranges. It is connected by watershed from the southern mountains in Iran, turns northward and connects with Baba Mountains in Afghanistan, then both mountain chains reach Hindukush. Sulaiman Mountains are in the south, reaching 3578 m at Zarghun Ghar, but the highest peak in the whole chain is in Spin Ghar in the north- Mt. Sikaram (4761 m).

Kabul River cuts the mountain chain on its way to Indus River. There is a famous mountain pass in this place- Khyber Pass, which is considered as “the beginning of the Himalaya”, although geographically the real Himalaya begins much easter, beyond the Indus River.

In Spin Ghar, Afghanistan
In Spin Ghar, Afghanistan

How to explore Spin Ghar and Sulaiman Mountains

This mountain chain is shared between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so the border between these two countries passes through the chain. This border and the area around it, however, is not a safe place. It is poorly guarded, and the Talibans are quite active there, so it makes it dangerous. But not everywhere. There are still places in Pakistan, around Quetta and other cities that are relatively safe, and you can try to explore these wild and remote mountains, far from the tourist streams there.

So, these two main mountain chains meet together in Afghanistan, and a little further their common watershed reaches Shibar Pass, the gate of the Greater Ranges proper.

Hindukush

It is the extreme southwest part of the Greater Ranges. Its highest peak is Tirichmir (7709 m). Its summit goes northeast, reaching Wakhan corridor, where it connects with Pamir, Karakoram and Himalaya. It is share mainly between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The main watershed of Hindukush begins from Shibar Pass and proceeds northeastward to the place where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China meet. It is divided into a chain of subranges, separated by a succession of mountain passes. Panj River divides Hindukush from Pamir in the north, and Kunar river divides its from Hindu Raj- a smaller range related with Karakoram. Finally, Hindukush merges with Karakoram (there is disagreement on which pass marks the exact border between these two ranges, but in general, Kilik Pass is the most accepted). 

Hindukush above the mist
Hindukush above the mist

How to explore Hindukush

Most of Hindukush is difficult to explore, because its main part is located in Afghanistan, which is still a dangerous and unstable country. However, its Pakistani part is safer. Its highest peak Tirichmir is located on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is easier to reach from Pakistan. Its most popular part is Chitral, and it is the main starting point for exploring Tirichmir. Today it is one of the favorite place for adventurous explorers in Pakistan. 

The rest of Hindukush is more remote and off the beaten. However, the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan is one of the safest places in the country, as it is quite far from the main Taliban activities. But again, forget about a well-arranged tourism, it still remains a place for wild adventures.

Now, before we proceed eastward, let’s first head to the northwestern branch of the Greater Ranges, to the lands of Pamir and Tianshan.

Pamir

This mountain range lies north of Hindukush and between Amudarya and Syrdasya rivers. Its highest peak is Kongur Tag (7649 m). The range is shared between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China (Xinjiang). There are two fantastic highways in Pamir, providing breathtaking views and amazing mountain experience- Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, and Karakoram Highway in its Chinese section, in Xinjiang. 

In general, Pamir is divided into Western and Eastern part. The western part is larger in area, located mainly in Tajikistan. It is known as the “Pamir proper”, with its highest peak Ismoil Somoni (7495 m), which is still considered by some as the highest peak in the whole Pamir. It is because the Eastern Pamir, which is higher, is located beyond Ghez River is sometimes determined as a part of Kunlunshan, another “Greater Range”. But for me, and for the locals, it is still Pamir, with its local stunning landscapes and fantastic giant peaks. 

Pamir, Mt. Muztagh Ata
Pamir, Mt. Muztagh Ata

How to explore Pamir

Exploring Pamir is easier than Hindukush, but it still depends which part of Pamir you want to visit. The western part is shared by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Once you arrive in one of these countries, you are free to go wherever you want, with some exceptions near the borders (as in many other countries, there are restrictions in the border areas, and a permit is usually required to go there). You can rent a car, or use the local public transport “marshrutka” (type of minibus) to reach a starting point, then you can “attack” the wild mountain.

But the eastern part of Pamir in China is more complicated. The whole area of Pamir in Xinjiang, China, is considered a part of the local border area, and is currently restricted for foreigners. They can travel only on the Karakoram Highway, and only by joining an organized tour (from Kashgar). Even if they come from Pakistan through Khunjerab Pass, they still can’t travel free. There are some other nearby areas, including the two giant peaks Kongur Tagh and Muztagh Ata, but again- only by an organized tour or climbing expedition. 

Now, let’s proceed further in northeast direction, following the border between Kyrgyzstan and China. The Greater Ranges proceed into Tianshan, looking like a “flag” of this mountain lands on the map.

Tianshan

Tianshan is the northernmost “Greater Range”. It is long in shape, with many branches. Its highest peak is Jengish Chokusu (7439 m). This broad mountain land is shared mainly between Kyrgyzstan and China (Xinjiang), and is present in small parts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Although it looks like a long mountain summit, it consists of several main subranges, merging or dividing from each other. In one of them you can see one of the most beautiful snowy peaks on the Earth- Khan Tengri (6995 m, or 7010 m with its icy cap).

Tianshan is the farthest mountain range from any ocean. It is located exactly in the middle of Asia. So, it is remote, and at the same time, considered as one of the most beautiful mountain land on the Earth. Many people fall in love with the Alps or the Rocky Mountains, but they can’t imagine how beautiful is Tianshan, with its grasslands, gorgeous forests, deep valleys and snowy peaks. When add to this beauty the nomadic culture of the local people- Kyrgyz, Mongol and Kazakh, when you see their gers (yurts) and their flocks of horses, the whole image is like a fantastic fairy tale. 

Alpine valley with coniferous forests, Tianshan
Alpine valley with coniferous forests, Tianshan

How to explore Tianshan

Tianshan is an easy to reach place, but again it depends in which country you go. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan parts of the range are free to access, again with exception of their border areas. You can travel to various starting points by marshrutka or rental car, then you can freely enjoy the mountain wherever you want. The most popular part of Tianshan is Terskey Alatau subrange near Karakol, with its fantastic Djety Oguz and Arashan valleys.

But in China…it is again more complicated. The border area is restricted for foreigners. There are local autonomous prefectures like Bayingolin, where foreigners are allowed to pass, but can’t sleep in any hotel, only in local gers or their own tents, and they are not allowed to visit any sightseeings. Yes, it can be adventurous, but you can really feel a bit “discriminated” when you see the Chinese around you enjoying everything, but you have to stay outside. There are certain trails in Tianshan and you can go there without special permits (unless they are in the border area), but again, you may have troubles if you want to go free and leave these trails. 

The last subrange of Tianshan almost touches Mongolia, and beyond it, the mountain disappear in the vast Mongolian grasslands and deserts. This is the northern end of the Greater Ranges, so let’s back to the south. There is Tarim.

Tarim

You see the large eye-shaped spot on the map, separating Tianshan from the rest of the Greater Ranges? This is Tarim, a depression with average altitude between 900 and 1200 m only, and its larger part is the Taklamakan Desert- one of the deadliest deserts on the Earth. So, it is low, it is not a “Greater Range”, but its interior is not less difficult to reach than the harshest high mountains on our planet. Only the oasis ring of roads and the cities around the desert like Kashgar, Aksu, Korla and Khotan are hospitable, beautiful and full of unique local culture and history. 

So, let’s “cross” Tarim, and back to the real Greater Ranges, to the place where the main summit divides into north and east at the end of Hindukush. The next range in front of us is Karakoram, the second highest mountain range on the Earth.

Karakoram and Hindu Raj

This is a fantastic, giant and wild “supermountain”. Four of the fourteen 8000ers are located here, including its highest peak, the famous K2 (8611 m), called also Chogori, the second highest peak on the Earth. Karakoram is also the most glaciated mountain range on our planet, and one of the most difficult naturally area to cross. It is shared between China (Xinjiang) and Pakistan, as well as it “touches” India at Ladakh, and the extreme points of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Its “little brother”, called Hindu Raj is a Karakoram’s extention between Indus and Kunar rivers, reaching the lowlands at the Indus Valley. Its highest peak is Koyo Zom (6872 m). Maybe because it doesn’t reach 7000 m, and is “in the shadow” of Karakoram, it is not such popular.

There are many well-known places in the Karakoram Range that travelers who like high mountains have probably heard- K2, Gasherbrum, Baltoro Glacier, Rakaposhi, Khunjerab Pass, as well as the valleys of Hunza and Gilgit- the most visited areas of the range, starting points for exploring its interior- all located on or along the famous Karakoram Highway.

Karakoram, the most glaciated non-polar area
Karakoram, the most glaciated non-polar area

How to explore Karakoram and Hindu Raj

Once you enter Pakistan, it is easy to explore Karakoram and Hindu Raj. You just have to travel on the Karakoram Highway, on Hunza and Gilgit valleys to reach the main towns and villages in the area. Then, you can explore the area by freely hiking the wild mountain- both in Karakoram or Hindu Raj. 

But of course, this is only the “easier” part of Karakoram. Its not that easy in the border areas of Pakistan, and almost impossible in the Afghanistan and Tajikistan corners. In China, it is still complicated. The whole of Karakoram is located within the China’s larger border area, so you can go there only by an organized tour- only in certain places. Crossing the Khunjerab Pass is currently very difficult, in both directions, but still possible, with a bunch of red paper. But aside of the Karakoram Highway, you can only reach the foot of K2 by an expensive organized trekking tour. Actually, K2 is accessible by another trekking from Pakistani side too.

Now, let’s cross the Indus River. Beyond it, we enter the “king of the whole mountains”- the majestic Himalaya.

Himalaya

The Himalaya is the most famous mountain range of all, with the highest peak on the Earth- Everest (8848 m). It is a long range, stretching from Indus to Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) rivers, for about 2500 km, marking the boundary between the tropical lowlands of India and the harsh mountain world of Tibet. The Himalayas are shared between China (Tibet), Nepal, India with Sikkim, and Bhutan. It is one of the best places on the Earth that you can see the various geographical zones in altitude- from tropical jungles to polar type of glaciers. 

From west, the Himalaya begins with a gorgeous 8000-er- Nanga Parbat, rising high above the Indus River gorge, and ends with Namcha Barwa- another giant, rising spectacularly over the valley of Yarlung Tsangpo. And in the middle, there is a long chain of giants like Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Makalu, Lhotze, Kangchenjunga, the beautiful Ama Dablam, Machapuchare and many others, beside the highest and most famous peak in the world- Mount Everest.

Himalaya, Mount Everest
Himalaya, Mount Everest

How to explore Himalaya

Himalaya is too famous, too popular. So, its no wonder that tourism in this mountain is much more developed, more than any other “Greater Range”. And of course, the most popular place is Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal, where crowds of tourists join the Everest Base Camp trek every year. There are many other treks, going to every 8000-er’s foot, base camp, or just circulating around it, or just going to many other spectacular places in the mountain.

However, there are still some places that are more complicated. The border with China passes on the whole Himalaya range, which means that there is a border area. And again, on the Chinese side it is more difficult. There is the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and foreigners can’t travel freely there, but only by organized tour. Bhutan is another complicated country. Again- you can’t go trekking in Bhutan on your own, but only by joining a trek. 

Yarlung Tsangpo River flows north of the Himalaya, forming its northern boundary. Let’s go beyond it- into a deeply off the beaten area, remote, harsh and desolate. This is Trans-Himalaya.

Trans-Himalaya

Trans-Himalaya is a less prominent mountain range, located in the southern part of the Great Tibetan Plateau. Its highest peak is Nyenchen Tanghla (7162 m), and it is located entirely in China, mainly in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and a small part of Qinghai. 

In general, Trans-Himalaya consist of two main subranges- Gangdise in the west, and Nyenchen Tanghla in the east. The capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region Lhasa is located in a valley close to one of Nyenchen Tanghla branches. And in the west you can visit one of the most famous peaks in the Greater Ranges- Mt. Kailash (Kangrinboqe), considered as the “holiest peak” in the Tibetan Buddhism. The rest of the mountain range consist of bare polar tundra type of landscapes, scattered snowy peaks and a lot of plains and lakes. One of the most popular lakes is Nam Tso in Nyenchen Tanghla subrange. 

A lake and snowy peaks in Trans-Himalaya
A lake and snowy peaks in Trans-Himalaya

How to explore Trans-Himalaya

It is difficult. Since Trans-Himalaya is located mainly within the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where the foreign travelers are required to join an organized tour (although not necessary a group tour). You can’t go freely there. And except for Mt. Kailash and Nam Tso area, everything else is off the beaten, without any tourist acticity, so reaching these off the beaten places would be quite expensive. 

But that’s not the most difficult place in the Greater Ranges to reach. Let’s go further north, deep into the Great Tibetan Plateau. 

Chang Tang

If you think that Mount Everest is the most difficult place to reach in the Greater Ranges, you don’t know about Chang Tang. This is the main part of the Great Tibetan Plateau- its whole western part. Its average altitude is around 4900 m. Can you imagine an area larger than France and Spain entirely situated in such altitude? What cities and villages can exist in such a place? It is a vast, empty, desolate and very harsh polar-like wilderness. Most of its territorhey is uninhabited, so it is third largest no man area on the Earth, after Antarctica and Greenland. 

Endless plains covered with scattered tundra or almost bare, endorheic lakes, lonely snowy peaks and deep blue sky, with no people- this is Chang Tang. You can see it in the map- the Great Tibetan Plateau is like a large eye-like shape, in sharp contrast with the surrounding lowlands, and Chang Tang is the main part of this shape. It is located mainly within the northern part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and small parts of Qinghai and Xinjiang.

Desolate emptiness in Chang Tang
Desolate emptiness in Chang Tang

How to explore Chang Tang

Extremely difficult. You see the photo above? This is a vast area on average 4900 m altitude. There is a story about a man who crossed Chang Tang for 77 days, and it is an adventure like a crossing of Antarctica. Forget about tourism there. Besides, a large part of Chang Tang is turned into a national reserve due to the rich wildlife thriving there, so it is a heavily restricted area. 

It is not impossible to penetrate in Chang Tang, but you have to prepare a lot of money for a bunch of permits. And if you are enough lucky to get all the permits, you have to prepare for exploring one of the largest “in the middle of nowhere” lands on the Earth. 

Kunlunshan

Finally, we cross the vast Great Tibetan Plateau to its northern boundary. There is a long  mountain range, like an antipode of the Himalaya, but on the opposite side of the plateau. This is Kunlunshan- one of the longest mountain ranges in Asia. Its highest peak is Liushi Shan (7167 m). From the west, it begins southeast of Eastern Pamir, and northeast of Karakoram, then proceeds further eastward on the border between Xinjiang and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, then proceeds into Qinghai Province. 

Kunlunshan is again vast, desolate and harsh. Only its easternmost branches like Bayan Har and Amnye Machen gradually enter in a little more civilized Tibetan area. In fact, it marks the northern edge of Chang Tang, and the same wilderness is present there, with rich wildlife, and almost no population. 

Amnye Machin, Kunlunshan, The Greater Ranges
Mt. Amnye Machin, the easternmost branch of Kunlunshan

How to explore Kunlunshan

Again- very difficult, except of its easternmost branches. Most of Kunlunshan is again located within heavily restricted areas, where no foreigners are allowed, with some (very expensive and unsure) exceptions. And if you can’t obtain your access to these parts of Kunlunshan, then you can try traveling to Lhasa from Xining by train (by organized tour and travel permits). The train crosses Kunlunshan, so at least you can see it from there.

But an easier way is to travel on the road connecting Xining and Yushu. It is in Qinghai province and there is no requirement for any travel permits, so you can freely travel there with no restrictions. Just need to arrange your private transport, and you can taste the wilderness of Kunlunshan in Bayan Har and Amnye Machen branches. 

Altyn Tagh and Qilian Mountains

The western half of Kunlunshan marks the northern boundary between the Great Tibetan Plateau and the Tarim Basin. But from the middle of the range, Kunlunshan proceeds inside the plateau. Instead, another mountain range proceeds northeastward as the northern edge of Tibet and all the Greater Ranges. It is Altyn Tagh, and its neighbour Qilian Mountains. The highest peak there is Sulamutag (6245 m), and the highest peak of Qilian is Kangzegyai (5808 m). 

These two ranges, along with Kunlunshan create a lower depressions in the middle. The largest lake in China- Qinghai Lake is located in the easternmost of these depressions. Another amazing lake there is Chaka Salt Lake- one of the most saline bodies of water on the Earth. Both these two ranges are shared mainly between Qinghai and Gansu provinces, as well as a bit of Xinjiang. 

Grasslands on Qilian Mountains
Grasslands on Qilian Mountains

How to explore Altyn Tagh and Qilian Mountains

These mountain ranges are partially opened for foreigners. But there are three restricted prefectures- Delingha, Qilian and Mengyuan. You can still enter Qilian and Mengyuan with travel permits, but Delingha is completely forbidden due to an important military complex located there. All other parts of these mountains are freely opened for travel and explore.

The most touristy place in the area is Qinghai Lake, and Qilian Mountains begin north of it, Due to its proximity to the lake, Qilian is easily to reach and explore. You can see the beauty of this mountain if you travel by train from Xinjiang to Xining, if the train passes on the railroad through the mountain. 

Hengduan Mountains

Finally, we reach the easternmost part of the Greater Ranges- Hengduan. Actually, this is not a single range, but a series of ranges which are not directly connected by summits, but are separated by deep valleys. They are situated from north to south, and the rivers between them are Yarlung Tsangpo, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze (Jinshajiang), Yalong and Dadu. 

Here the Great Tibetan Plateau is slightly lower and not such plain like in Chang Tang. The whole Hengduan doesn’t have clear boundaries, and begins gradually from the interior of the plateau, then descends from the other side into the lower Yungui Plateau on the east, and the mountains of Indochina on the south. Its main ranges are Khakabo Razi, east of it- Meili Xueshan with its extensions, then Mangkam and Yun ranges. Beyond them is Shaluli Range (with the beautiful Chola, Genyen and Yading subranges), then Xueshan Range where the highest peak Minya Konka (7556 m) is located, and finally- Qionglai Range (with Siguniang Mountain), reaching the plain of Sichuan.

Mt. Genyen, in Shaluli range, Hengduan
Mt. Genyen, in Shaluli range, Hengduan

How to explore Hengduan Mountains

Most of Hengduan Mountains are located in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces of China. They are opened for foreigners, with exception of the border areas with Myanmar. But the western parts of the area, located in the Tibetan Autonomous Region is currently completely closed for foreigners. It is situated in Chamdo Prefecture- the only prefecture in Tibet which is forbidden for foreigners for some reasons. 

In Myanmar and the extensions in Laos and even Vietnam, the mountains are also opened, but relatively difficult to access, because are again situated in border areas, or just far from roads. But in China, in Sichuan and Yunnan, there are a lot of touristy places like Lijiang, Shangri La, Yading, Litang, Kangding, Jiuzhaigou or Siguniang. So, it is quite easy to go there and freely explore the beautiful Eastern Tibet.

More travel tips

As you can see, there is a lot to explore in this part of the Earth. Some places are easy to visit, even touristy, while other places are restricted, very difficult to access, or 100% forbidden for foreign visitors. 

Some of the most significant places in the Greater Ranges are the mountain peaks. They are majestic, they are gorgeous, and they are temptating. These giants are “calling” you to conquer them! But it is not easy. Not only because the natural conditions on Everest, K2, Makaly, Nanga Parbat, Muztagh Ata, Minya Konka and many other peaks are harsh and extreme, but also because all they are small restricted areas. You can’t just climb them, but you have to pay a tax. The higher is the peak, the more expensive is the tax. So, only rich or sponsored people climb Everest.

However, you can get a great experience by just joining a trekking to the base camps of the high peaks, circling around them or just passing nearby. Or, you can hire a van or a car, and travel on the roads in Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang or Eastern Tibet. There are many other options too- hiking, biking, or just aiming at certain spot somewhere and relaxing there. 

The challenge

But again, Everest is easy compared to some other peaks. Let’s give an example. There is a peak, called Kangzhagri, located literally in the middle of nowhere, in Chang Tang Plateau. If you want to climb it, first you have to arrange an organized tour, because it is in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (and you have to pay for it). Then, it is in the Chang Tang nature reserve- again, you have to pay for a permit to enter. Finally, it is a 6000-er, and you have to pay a climbing tax. All of this require a lot of money, and no guarantee that you can get all the permits. 

I wish the Greater Ranges were like thousands of years ago- a free and wild land, where the only restrictions come from the nature. On the other side, these restrictions probably really protect this land of mountains. So, the Roof ot the World will always remain a dream for every explorer and traveler- one of the most beautiful parts of the Earth.

Get more inspiration from the video below!

Take a look at some books about the highest mountains on the Earth:

 

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How to explore the Greater Ranges- a journey on the "Roof of the World". Read about the highest mountain on the Earth, and travel tips how to explore them How to explore the Greater Ranges- a journey on the "Roof of the World". Read about the highest mountain on the Earth, and travel tips how to explore them How to explore the Greater Ranges- a journey on the "Roof of the World". Read about the highest mountain on the Earth, and travel tips how to explore them


Krasen and Ying Ying

a travel couple from Bulgaria and China. We love to explore our planet and we want to make it meaningful. Welcome to our travel blog!

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