Xinjiang: Glacier tourism banned

The province of Xinjiang – full name Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – that borders Kyrgyzstan in the far western reaches of China, is one of the country’s more geographically extreme provinces, befitting of its translated name of “new frontier.” The cities of Karakoram and Urumqi were important stops on the Silk Road, and they have grown in importance as the central government implemented its ‘go west’ strategy, and long before that as places of business for the Han Chinese who moved – and were moved – to the province, in order to consolidate an ethnic Chinese presence there.

Uyghur and Islamic traditions make Xinjiang something of a tourist attraction for Chinese, but though they might visit the province to taste the lamb and naan, they come to see the landscapes, which are both brutal and beautiful, with stretches of unforgiving desert punctuated by oases, and towering, snowcapped mountains like the Tianshan range. Amongst the mountains you will find 18,311 of China’s 46,377 glaciers, those creaking, slow-moving rivers of ice that are the source of rivers, and that through their sensitivity to their surrounding environment serve as barometers for climate change.

It is the latter that has led to the banning of glacier tourism in Xinjiang, where temperatures over the past 50 years have increased at a far quicker rate than the global average. Warming temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions have led to the accelerated retreat of many of Xinjiang’s glaciers, and tourists, who frequently left litter and damaged the glaciers they were previously allowed to clamber over, are now limited to viewing the glaciers from a distance.

天山
Aerial view of the Tianshan mountains, Xinjiang.

There has been an awareness of the problems tourists pose to Xinjiang’s glaciers for some time, as tourists were banned from visiting glaciers in the Urumqi area in 2006. But Xinjiang, despite the wealth of natural resources in the region, is still quite poor, and local herdsmen and farmers are more than willing to drive tourists perched on the back of their motorbikes up to the out of limits glaciers. This is likely to continue, and it highlights again the problem that China has with enforcing laws and regulations. However, mining has stopped within a 948 km² protection zone, and vehicles on sections of national highway near the zone are also restricted, which is hoped to have some impact on the retreat of the glaciers.

That retreat has been increasing steadily, however, and is predicted to accelerate during this century. “Glaciers in the Tianshan Mountains have receded by 15 to 30 percent in the last three decades,” said Chen Xi from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, “and they will continue to retreat by 60 percent in the next 20 years, and by 80 to 90 percent half a century from today.” The cumulative effects of climate change, mining, and land reclamation are difficult to reverse, even for ambitious Chinese engineers and scientists. China emits more greenhouse gases than any other nation, mostly through industrial coal use, and these emissions are expected to rise until 2025 or 2030, despite recent efforts to make cutbacks. Greenhouse gases are also the main cause of climate change, creating a vicious cycle of which China’s glaciers are in the centre.

Melting glaciers glaciers will have a disastrous effect on the Xinjiang region, according to the Tianshan Mountains Glacier Observation Station. The volume of meltwater from Glacier No. 1 has reduced after several years of receding, which has led to droughts and water shortages in an already arid environment. And it is not just in Xinjiang that the impact of retreating glaciers is being felt: in Gansu province, the Mengke glacier – as well as others – has been retreating since the 1990s; in the case of Gansu, this has resulted in flooding, and will cause further flooding in the long term.

Other provincial and regional governments outside Xinjiang have not announced bans on glacier tourism, though Xinjiang is calling for them to do so. Glacier tourism in Xinjiang has only brought in 1 billion renminbi ($153 million) over the past years, though the damage that it has contributed to the retreating glaciers will be ‘incalculable.’

***

Sources:

Xinjiang Region of China Bans Glacier Tourism, Citing Risk to Ecosystem, 16/02/2016, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/world/asia/china-xinjiang-glacier-tourism.html?ref=world&_r=0

Xinjiang to ban tourists to glaciers, 11/02/2016, i Cross China, http://www.icrosschina.com/news/2016/0211/24095.shtml

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