The central part of Asia is dominated by the largest and the highest mountain system on the Earth. It contains the famous giant mountain ranges of the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindukush, Pamir, the Great Tibetan Plateau and its mountains, and more. These mountain ranges are divided and cut by deep canyons. Among them is the longest and the deepest on the Earth- the Grand Canyon of Yarlung Tsangpo River, dividing the Himalayas from the Great Tibetan Plateau and the Hengduan Mountains. Let’s go on a journey to this spectacular natural wonder and let’s explore it!
Table of Contents
Basic facts about Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon
The majestic mountain range of the Himalayas stretches from Pakistan to Northeast India and the eastern part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and it is one of the most popular mountain ranges in the world. But not too many people know that there is another mountain range behind the Himalayas, north of it, and lower than it, but almost as long as it.
It is called Transhimalaya, and its highest peak is Nyenchen Tanghla (7162 m). Probably you have heard about Mount Kailash? Do you know that it is not located in the Himalayas, but in the neighboring Transhimalaya?
The beginning of the Yarlung Tsangpo River
And somewhere in the middle parts of the two parallel mountain ranges, two streams start their way down- one from the Himalayas and one from the Transhimalaya. The Himalayan one is called Chemayungdung, starting from glaciers at about 5500 m, and the Transhimalayan one is Mayun Tsangpo, starting from other glaciers at about 5700 m.
Soon, they merge at 4680 m and form the Yarlung Tsangpo River. It flows eastward between the two mountain ranges, passing through moderate mountain gorges and wide plains. It gradually descends, getting deeper and deeper, but it is not its Grand Canyon yet.
Entering the Grand Canyon
Eventually, the river reaches the town of Pei, Tibetan Autonomous Region, at about 2920 m altitude. The fantastic Mount Namcha Barwa (7782 m) of the Himalayas rises on the right and Gyala Peri (7294 m) of the Transhimalaya- on the left. Here is the beginning of the Upper Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. The Yarlung Tsangpo “dives” between the two giants, descending deeper and deeper, and reaching a depth of about 5100 m.
What follows next is a wild bending between the two giants that results in a general change of the river’s direction, first to the north, then to the south. After about 240 km, it descends to about 1520 m, where its tributary Yi’Yong Tsangpo merges with Yarlung Tsangpo (in this area is the deepest canyon’s depth on Earth- 6003 m!), and from this point begins the Lower Gorge of the canyon.
At about 600 m altitude, the river enters India, and from this point, it is called Brahmaputra. Here, the canyon becomes softer and turns just into a large mountain valley. Finally, at the town of Pasighat (160 m altitude), it exits the giant mountains and flows into the North Indian Plain, turning west-southwest, until it merges with the Ganges at Rajbari, Bangladesh.
The total length of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is measured as 504 km, which is a bit longer than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. This fact, along with the 6003 m of depth, makes the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon the deepest and the longest canyon on the Earth.
In such a giant Earth’s formation, with altitudes from 200 to 7782 m, located in the subtropics, you can expect a great variety of natural zones. Indeed, there are subtropical jungles in the lowest points that gradually turn into mountain deciduous and coniferous forests, then into alpine forests. Over 4500 m altitude, the forest leaves space for shrubs, and the shrubs- to alpine tundra. Finally, the highest elevations present an Arctic type of climate with eternal snow and ice.
Such a diverse nature is also a habitat for diverse fauna. The local plants and animals are adapted not only to the local climatic zones but also to the harsh environment of steepness- everything is extremely steep, and there is almost no flat point here. Among the plants, the Himalayan Cypress deserves special attention- it is known as the tallest tree in Asia (about 100 m). And among the animals is the rare takin, a type of deer which can be seen only here.
History and local culture
Most of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is located within the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China, in the Tibetan historical and cultural region. So, the history of Yarlung Tsangpo is closely related to the history of Tibet. Although the area is difficult to access, the local Tibetans have built their settlements on the bottom, or on the slopes of the canyon, scattered here or there.
Their life is adapted to the harsh and steep environment. Today, a part of the canyon, in its Upper Gorge, is turned into a National Park. In general, the whole canyon is difficult to access and explore, but for those who reach it, it offers amazing adventures.
How to explore Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon
Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is not like most of the largest canyons in the world– well-arranged, with roads on the bottom, tourist sites, and more. This one is much more difficult to access. There is no road on the bottom that you can follow from end to end. Yes, there is no such road in the Colorado Grand Canyon too, but at least there is a rafting option. But there is no such option on the Yarlung Tsangpo.
Until now, there is only one successful expedition that has completed only the Upper Gorge of the canyon. So, as you can see, even the expeditions can’t complete the whole canyon due to the harsh terrain. That’s why the Yarlung Tsangpo was called “The Everest of Rivers”.
In addition, this canyon is located in a complicated political area. Most of it is within the borders of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, where foreigners can travel only by an organized tour, and only in some parts and places of TAR. The border between India and China in this region is also under dispute, which is the reason for more military presence than normal.
If you are Chinese, you can reach more points of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. You can even go rafting (only on some sections of the canyon). But if you are a foreigner, you can go only to several certain points, allowing foreigners. And there are also some places where nobody can go but only some military personnel.
The Upper Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon
This section of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon stretches from 2920 to about 1530 m and is located west and north of Mt Namcha Barwa. It starts from Pei, and this town is the best (and in fact, the only) spot with some tourism, at least for now.
Here the canyon is at its beginning and it is still not too narrow. A panoramic road was built, making a circle on both sides of the river, with some spectacular views of the gorge, including one of the bends, and the majestic Mt Namcha Barwa.
From this point is the real, the wildest, and the non-touristy section of the Upper Gorge. It is off-limit for tourists- there are no roads, only a short rafting section in the beginning (and only for Chinese). Only the locals know some hidden trails, and even they can’t go everywhere- the terrain gets too steep and difficult.
The hidden waterfalls
There are four identified waterfalls in the Upper Gorge. The highest of them is Tsangpo Badong II (33 m) and the next is Tsangpo Badong I (30 m). But again, they are currently inaccessible to tourists. Only scientists or highly adventurous people can reach them. They can include foreigners, the area is not restricted for them, but since they need an organized tour, it would be almost impossible to find a Tibetan travel company that would agree to guide them on the wild and extreme hidden trails to the waterfalls.
A little further is the small village of Zhaqu. Here is the end of the Upper Gorge- the merging point with Yi Gong Tsangpo River. From this point, the Lower Gorge starts. This is also the northernmost point of the canyon
The Lower Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon
The Lower Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon technically proceeds until the exit of the river into the Northeast Indian Plain. But officially, it is calculated to the border with India, at about 600 m altitude.
In general, here the Yarlung Tsangpo River flows southward. The section of this gorge between the confluence with Yi Gong Tsangpo River and the villages of Gadain and Jarasa is the least explored part of the canyon. It has never been passed by any expedition, only partially visited by some scientists, and by the locals. So, it is very likely that it can contain still undiscovered waterfalls or other hidden gems. For now, it has been seen in full only in the satellite maps.
Then, there are the villages of Gadain and Jarasa. Gadain is a highly isolated Tibetan settlement, connected to the rest of the world only by hiking trails. The neighboring Jarasa is already connected to a small Tibetan town called Takmo by a larger road.
From Takmo, there is a normal road that leads to Metog, the main town on the Lower Gorge. Metog (Motuo) is intended to become the second Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon tourist spot. Today, there is a new road connecting Pei with Metog, passing through a tunnel under the Himalayas and reaching the Yarlung Tsangpo at the village of Drepung.
This area is still open for foreigners (but again, only with an organized tour), and here you can go hiking on the difficult trails on the slopes of the canyon. Here you can explore a part of the Lower Gorge on the road that follows the bottom of the canyon between Takmo, through Metog, to Drepung (in the downward direction).
However, beyond Drepung starts the border zone. Foreigners can’t go there, even with an organized tour. It is restricted even to the Chinese. There are only a few small villages, and only the locals with special permits can go there, on a dirt road.
Yarlung Tsangpo- Brahmaputra in India
Eventually, the road ends at 600 m altitude, and the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India. Beyond the border, in the Indian territory, there is no road to the first town, but only wild trails to the few villages around the river. The road starts from the town of Tuting (450 m altitude), it has even a small airport. From here, you can follow the river to Pasighat, the exit of the mountains.
As you can see, there is currently no way to complete the whole Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, and nobody has ever done it, for natural, and political reasons. Maybe one day it can be done, with some special conditions, but for now, it remains in the future.
Mount Namcha Barwa
When we talk about the Grand Canyon of Yarlung Tsangpo, we can’t skip the main “character” of this phenomenon- Mount Namcha Barwa. There would be no such canyon without this magnificent mountain. The whole canyon actually “embraces” Namcha Barwa, surrounding it from the west, north, east, and even southeast.
Mount Namcha Barwa (7782 m) is the easternmost outpost of the Himalayas, a relatively isolated peak, third in prominence in the highest mountain range on the planet. It is the highest peak in the Namcha Barwa Himal, the easternmost sub-range of the Himalayas.
This peak is considered one of the most beautiful mountains on the Earth, mainly due to its spectacular image and zoning- from tropical rainforest on the lowest foot to the eternal snow and ice on the top, which can be seen from aside as different colors and nuances. So, this peak is the main jewel of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon.
It has been climbed only once, in 1992. All other attempts were unsuccessful, some of them with tragic loss. So, most probably you would never step on the top, but maybe you would be lucky to see this giant in its full beauty from aside! It is not easy, because due to the local climatic conditions, most of the time it is hidden in clouds and fog.
So, to recap. Currently, the whole Grand Canyon of Yarlung Tsangpo is inaccessible. There are only two small areas open for tourists: the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon Park in Pei (The Upper Gorge), and the town of Metog (The Lower Gorge). In addition, we can add the lowest section of this canyon, in Indian territory, where the river is called Brahmaputra, but generally, it is considered out of the Grand Canyon.
Everywhere else along the canyon is extremely difficult to access, and the border area is totally closed to everybody, even for Chinese. So, let’s focus on these two tourist sections of the canyon and see some useful tips.
How to get to the Upper Gorge
This is the most accessible and developed part of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon.
So, if you are non-Chinese, the first thing you should do is to contact a Tibetan authorized travel company and arrange your travel permit for TAR, and your organized tour (it doesn’t necessarily mean “a group tour”, you can do it alone but still with a local guide).
Then, you have to reach the town of Nyingchi (Linzhi). You can go there by bus from Lhasa, or by plane to its domestic Milin Airport- from Lhasa, Chengdu, Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, and other major cities in China.
There are organized tours from Lhasa to the Yarlung Tsangpo National Park (the tourist part of the Upper Gorge), but if you go there independently, first you go to Nyingchi, and from there take a bus to Pei.
From here, you enter the National Park. There are local shuttles that can take you on the new circleway (it crosses the river on a newly built bridge), enjoying the breathtaking sceneries of the canyon and the mountain peaks around it. And there are short river cruises you can try too. There is even an option to proceed downstream on a new road to Gyala Village. And this is the farthest point you can reach on the Upper Gorge.
Fees and working hours
All of this is a bit expensive.
The basic entrance fee is 150 CNY. Then, if you want a shuttle (7 or 9-seat van), you have to pay an additional 80 CNY. A full combined ticket, including the river cruise, is 449 CNY.
The site opens at 6:00 and closes at 18:00.
Normally, a tour to the Upper Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon can be completed in one day. There are not too many options to spend the night in the area. Except for a few guesthouses like Grand Canyon Inn in Zhiba Village, there are no places to stay in the area.
How to get to the Lower Gorge
The Lower Gorge is more remote and more difficult to reach. At least it was until they built some new roads.
The main destination in the Lower Gorge is Metog (Motuo). Until recently, this town was quite isolated, and only dirt roads connected it to the rest of the world. But now there is a new road, called Pemo Highway, connecting it with Pei. It crosses the main summit of Namcha Barwa Range through a tunnel and descends to Drepung and Metog.
Obviously, tourism is going to develop here, but for now, it is still in its initial stages. Currently, the best way to reach Metog is to join an organized tour from Nyingchi. Yes, you can do it more independently (but again with a local private guide), but it would be more expensive, however, still possible.
The best you can do in Metog is to go hiking. Several trails lead you to various spots with fantastic views on the slopes of the canyon. Most of them are very difficult, some even dangerous. In other words, this is an area for adventurers, who are ready for extreme hiking and curious to see the local people, with their culture and lifestyle. Again, the only options to spend the night in Metog are only a few guesthouses.
This is the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its Grand Canyon- the Everest of Rivers. Except for a few spots, the whole canyon is extremely difficult to explore and is a big challenge, only for some hardcore adventurers. But in recent years, even if you are a “softer” traveler, you can still touch and taste this natural wonder and enjoy its majestic beauty.
Take a look at this video for more impressions from the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon:
Check some travel books about Yarlung Tsangpo and Tibet:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.