Sacred lands and snow leopards


I imagine England’s green and pleasant land, with a church spire above the gentle landscape. Surely John Constable painted it. Bracing myself against the howling wind and driving snow, thankful for my NGS Antarctic special issue jacket on this mid-summer day, I couldn’t be further from home. Yet, here on the Tibetan plateau of Qinghai Province, China, religion dominates the landscape, just as much as in England. And it’s vitally import for a big cat — the snow leopard.

At nearly 5,000 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level, there’s a pass through the much higher mountains on either side. It’s strewn with prayer flags, red and blue cloths shredded by the wind. At each flap, they send the messages written on them to God.

This is a harsh place. In some harsh winters, many have died in the extreme cold. And a few years back, a massive earthquake destroyed every building in the largest town, Yushu. Everything has been rebuilt, it’s uniform newness chilling in its way. It doesn’t quite hide the landslides on the mountains above the town and the massive towers of monasteries that the quake had upended.

Heading from Yushu, we travel for hours on the excellent roads the Chinese authorities are building. The occasional small towns are government-issue too, with single story, identical homes built on a grid. Lacking indoor toilets — one has to walk to communal ones — they have electricity. And, yes, the authorities insist, every child must go to school.

That’s as radical a change as it was in the USA or Europe in the days when most worked on the land. Then literacy was a distraction — and one not enjoyed by my Norfolk great-grandfather. It’s a radical ecological change, too, concentrating families that once spread widely across this remote landscape into communities with —> Read More