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The Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau

Written by Carol WangUpdated Jan. 11, 2022

The Tibetan Plateau is also called the Plateau of Tibet or the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, or the inland plateau of Asia. It is the largest and highest plateau in the world with an average elevation of around 4,500 meters (14,800 ft).

The Tibetan Plateau is known as "the roof of the world" and "the third pole". Most of its area is in China's Tibet and Qinghai provinces. Here is interesting geographical, historical, cultural, and travel-related information so that you can know all about “the roof of the world”.

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Where is the Tibetan Plateau?

Definition: The Tibetan plateau could be defined as the high-altitude area 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) or more above sea level bounded by the Himalayas and other lesser-known mountain ranges in and around China.

Extent: With the Pamir Plateau to its west and the Loess Plateau in the East, the Tibetan Plateau starts from the southern margin of the Himalayas and stretches northward to the northern edge of the Kunlun Mountains and the Altun Mountain.

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It is about 2,800km (1,700 miles) wide from east to west and up to 1,500 km (900 miles) across from north to south, with a total area of about 2.5 million square kilometers (1 million square miles).

Almost a quarter of the land area of China is the Tibetan plateau. Most of the Plateau is in Tibet and a part of it is in Qinghai. Not all of Tibet is part of the plateau though since there are lowlands in the southeast in Nyingchi and Shannan.

Politically: Other portions of the plateau area are in Sichuan and Xinjiang in China, as well as the Himalayas and Karakoram Range in Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Bhutan. In Pakistan, the boundary starts east of the town of Rudok. Two northern districts of Nepal are considered part of this plateau region.

  • Length: 2,800 km (1,730 miles) east to west
  • Width:300–1,500 km (180–930 miles) north to south
  • Total area: 2,500,000 square km (970,000 square miles)

Contact us if you are interested in a trip to China, Nepal, India, or Bhutan.

Location of Tibetan  Plateau

What is the Tibetan Plateau Unique For?

The Tibetan Plateau is known as "the roof of the world" as it's the highest and largest plateau on Earth. At elevation 3,000–5,000 meters (10,000–16,000 feet), it is the birthplace of several of the world’s major rivers in South Asia and East Asia.

There are many of the world’s highest lakes on the plateau, including Lake Namtso and Qinghai Lake.

The deepest and longest canyon in the world is the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, about 1½ hours from Lhasa by car. It is a river valley like a long trench cut across the Tibetan Plateau just north of the Himalayas leading down to lowlands in the Nyingchi region of Tibet and Bangladesh.

The deepest point is 6,009 meters (19,714 feet) deep. It’s deeper than any mountain in the US is tall!

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Tibetan Plateau History

How was the Tibetan Plateau formed?

The formation of the Tibetan Plateau is tied to Himalayan orogeny. The Tibetan Plateau has been lifted up twice by tectonic plate movements.

About 70 million years ago geologists estimate, the northward-moving Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate.

The movement resulted in strong uplift of the then southern edge of the Asian continental mass, which led to the uplift of the Tibetan plateau: from the Himalayas in the south to the Kunlun Mountains and the Hoh Xil area in the north.

As the Indian plate continued to drift northward, it caused secondary crumpling of the Tibetan Plateau: Mt. Kailash and Mt. Nyenchen Tangula were lifted up sharply.

Nyenchen TangulaMt. Nyenchen Tangula

The Tibet region was separated from the ocean and became a large land inland plateau north of the Indian subcontinent.

The Tibetan Plateau’s terrain was once a vast plain with dense rivers and lakes and full of the lush jungle with a southern coastline. How different it is now!

The formation of the Tibetan Plateau with several uplift stages has left it high and dry, crisscrossed with mountain ranges, and mostly barren or grassy.

Still growing, the Tibetan Plateau’s spread has slowed to an annual growth rate of 7 cm wider per year. The "roof of the world" is getting wider and higher, while Mount Everest the highest peak on earth rises with it.

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Tibetan Imperial Age and Afterwards

It wasn’t until the early 7th century that Songtsen Gampo (the first king of Tibet) unified the kingdoms on the Tibetan plateau and set up his capital in Lhasa. His empire was known as the Tupo Kingdom.

Historians think that Tibetan Empire, centered in Lhasa, eventually grew to cover a huge area. The Tibetan Empire at its greatest extent between the 780s and the 790s covered Kashmir and spanned far west of Kashgar, so it included present-day northern Pakistan and areas west of it.

In the opening years of the 9th century, the empire included the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang and the Himalayas, and it reached the provinces of Gansu and Yunnan. The empire fell due to civil war in the 840s.

During the Ming Empire period (1368–1644), the Dalai Lamas began to rule the Tibetans. The fifth Dalai Lama built the Potala Palace in Lhasa in 1645–9 to be the palace and fortress of the Dalai Lamas, cementing their central place in Tibetan history until the modern China era.

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Geography of the Tibetan Plateau

Rivers of the Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau is known as the birthplace of many famous rivers. Its southern Himalayan mountains contain the headwaters of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers, which flow southwards through the Indian subcontinent.

Several rivers originate on Tibetan Plateau and flow eastwards and southeastwards. The eastwards flowing rivers are the Yellow River I and the Yangtze, which flows east through China to the Yellow Sea.

The southeastward flowing rivers are the Mekong and Salween in the Southeast Asian peninsula and the Irrawaddy River in Burma.

Lakes on the Tibetan Plateau

There are more than 1,500 lakes on the Tibetan Plateau, accounting for 50% of the total area of lakes in China. Among them, there are 1,091 lakes with an area of more than 1 square kilometer. That makes it the plateau containing the largest area and number of lakes.

Chaerhan Salt LakeChaerhan Salt Lake on Tibetan Plateau

There are both freshwater and saltwater lakes on the plateau.

In the northeast corner of the plateau, Qinghai Lake is the largest inland saltwater lake in China. It covers an area of 4,573 square kilometers (1,766 square miles). The lake is about 3,260 meters (10,700feet) above sea level.

The Chaerhan Salt Lake is the largest salt lake in China. At the same time, it is also one of the most famous interior salt lakes in the world. Lake Namtso at an altitude of 4,718 meters (15,420 feet) is the biggest saltwater lake in Tibet.

Freshwater lakes on the plateau include Lake Manasarovar, Lake Yamdrok, and Lake Pangong Tso.

To find out more on 10 Sacred Lakes of Tibet

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Animals of the Tibetan Plateau

Most of the plateau is grassland, and some of it is tundra-like in the arctic. Because the region is high and arid, there aren't a lot of big animals. Large animals include wolves, leopards, antelopes, and yaks. Large birds such as hawks, eagles, and vultures also live there.

The Population of the Tibetan Plateau

Most of the population of the plateau is ethnic Tibetan, but there are also ethnic Han Chinese, Mongols, and other ethnic groups. It is estimated that 4.5 million Tibetans live on the plateau as well as a few hundred thousand other people.

Tibetans don't only live in Tibet. They also live in several Chinese provinces west and north of Tibet such as Qinghai. Tibet has a population of about 3 million, and Qinghai has a population of almost 6 million. But many of these people don’t live in plateau areas of these provinces.

There is such a low population on the Tibetan Plateau because the climate there is not very suitable for human habitation. 80% of the terrain is “desert” (tundra and high mountains). The climate is dry and cold with a lack of oxygen.

Contact us to plan a trip to Qinghai also

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Elevation of the Tibetan Plateau

In the map below, you can see that the highest prefectures of the plateau in Tibet are in the north and west. Lhasa Prefecture in the center is substantially lower and Nyingchi is the lowest prefecture. The Himalayan Mountain chain is the southern boundary of the vast plateau.

Tibetan prefectures elevation map

How do Tibetans Survive High Altitudes?

Tibetan Plateau has an average altitude of 4,500 meters; it is difficult for ordinary people to visit there. Oxygen is 35% to 40% below that at sea level.

More than 50% of the Tibetan Plateau’s population live in areas around 3,500 meters above sea level, while the hardiest nomads can reside at altitudes above 4,800 meters.

Because they grow up there and through heredity, Tibetans have more nitrogen oxide in their blood than any other ethnic group. This helps them absorb oxygen more easily.

Low oxygen makes it difficult for people over 60 and many other people to visit some parts of the plateau such as Ngari (Ali Prefecture) in northeastern Tibet because the altitude is high at over 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) and facilities are primitive.

So, people who wish to travel to higher regions of the plateau should acclimate first lower down. For example, travelers in Tibet could first spend at least 3 days at a place with relatively low altitude such as Lhasa for acclimatization before traveling to a higher altitude.

Even Lhasa itself gives almost everyone a case of mild altitude sickness.

See How to Deal with Altitude Sickness in Tibet.

Altitudes of major Tibet places of interest

The cultural and architectural attractions are mainly around the city of Lhasa in a circle around it that includes Shigatse and Gyantse (up to altitude 4,000 meters) within a 4-or-5-hour drive southwest Lhasa and Nagqu (altitude 4,500 meters) a 5-or-6-hour drive north of Lhasa.

See more on Altitudes of Major Tibet Destinations.

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Tibetan Plateau Climate

The weather on the plateau depends on the altitude: temperature decreases with an increase of altitude. It is generally dry and cold in winter, while cool and rainy in summer, sometimes with hail. The average July high is 20°C (68°F) and the January low averages-6°C (21°F).

Why Is the Tibetan Plateau So Dry?

With its high altitudes, the air is thinner and therefore drier on the Tibetan plateau. Also, the warm and humid monsoon air from the Indian Ocean is blocked by the Himalayan mountain chain. Thus the annual precipitation in the plateau’s south is less than 600 mm.

Meanwhile, the northern half of the plateau is even drier, being further from the ocean. The Kunlun Mountain chain area is an alpine desert with very little rainfall — annual precipitation averaging less than 100 mm.

How has the Rise of the Tibetan Plateau Affected Climate?

The uplift of the Tibetan Plateau is a big contributor to South and East Asia’s monsoon climate.

Due to the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau, the upper atmosphere can be heated more quickly, resulting in a greater temperature difference between the continent and the Indian Ocean.

This adds to the strength of southwesterly monsoon winds, which bring abundant rainfall to southern Asia.

The Tibetan Plateau plays an important role in the climate of China and even Northern Asia. It is calculated that there would not be a Siberia-Mongolia high-pressure zone without the Tibetan Plateau.

The area of Lhasa is at an elevation of around 3,700 meters (12,000 feet), and it is pleasant in the summer. In the winters, though, temperatures are well below freezing.

The high altitude makes it feel warmer in the sunshine. However, bad weather feels harsher at higher altitudes. Low pressure and higher wind speeds reduce oxygen levels and temperature.

In the Ngari (Ali) region, during the daytime in August, the temperature is above 10 ℃ (50 ℉), but it may drop to subfreezing at night.

Contact us to check  Tibet Climate.

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Transport on the Tibetan Plateau

Constructing railroads on the plateau is difficult because of the rugged terrain and permafrost in some areas. However, in 2006, a railway was built all the way to Lhasa from Xining.

Qinghai-Tibet railwayQinghai-Tibet railway

This was a major achievement: the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the highest railway in the world. The scenery along the railway is beautiful, stark, and almost otherworldly. Several times, the train goes above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). The terrain is like few places in the world.

Tibetan travel is possible by plane or train, but at times, there are travel restrictions. Most people go to the inner Tibetan Plateau via Lhasa and a Qinghai-Tibet train or a flight.

See more on Lhasa Transportation.

Contact us to check train prices etc. for the Qinghai-Tibet railway or other transport.

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Visiting the Tibetan Plateau with Us

If you are interested in visiting Tibet, our popular 7-Day Tibet Tour by Train from Xining takes a Qinghai–Tibet train allowing you to relax while you acclimate to the elevation before seeing the Lhasa sights.

Having a knowledgeable local guide and interpreter is very useful and actually mandatory in Tibet. We can also arrange the mandatory Tibet Permits as an approved operator for Tibet tours.

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