Series about the creatures that live in China's most beautiful landscapes. The remote Tibetan plateau is home to chiru antelopes, wild yaks, foxes and bears.
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The Tibetan plateau is a quarter of China.
Much of it is extremely remote and inhospitable.
Its southern border runs through the world's highest mountain range,
the formidable Himalayas.
Its central part is a windswept and freezing
wilderness the size of Western Europe.
But this challenging place is home to incredible wildlife.
There are more large creatures here than anywhere else in China.
Tibet has been a province of China for more than 50 years,
yet it has a unique character,
shaped by over 1,000 years of Tibetan Buddhism.
This obscure and archaic-looking religion
has produced one of the most enlightened cultures on Earth.
Here, people have a long tradition of co-existing peacefully
with the creatures and landscape around them,
a relationship which has helped to protect
their fragile environment.
In this programme we will discover why this harsh land with its ancient
culture is vitally important for much of our planet.
It's the beginning of winter,
high up on the Tibetan plateau.
The temperature will soon drop to minus 40 Celsius.
Out here, life is reduced to a single imperative - survival.
For the argali, the world's largest sheep,
it means searching for a few tufts of grass.
Descending from the hilltops to lower altitudes,
the argali band together for safety.
Hopefully, down here, they'll be able to find enough food
to last them through the rest of the winter.
Although this winter landscape looks barren and forbidding,
Tibet's remote grasslands support a surprising variety of creatures.
Though at this time of year, they can be hard to track down.
By comparison, Tibet's capital, Lhasa, is a hive of activity.
Lhasa is a focus for large numbers of pilgrims
who congregate at the city's temples each day.
Tibet is home to over 2.5 million people,
most of whom are deeply religious.
Though Tibetan Buddhist worship centres on elaborate temples, statues and images,
its beliefs are intimately linked with the wild landscapes of Tibet.
The starting point for that relationship is the mountain range
that runs along Tibet's southern border.
Over 3,000 kilometres long,
the Himalayas are China's real Great Wall.
With hundreds of peaks over 7,000 metres and 13 peaks
higher than 8,000 metres, they are the highest mountains on Earth.
The Tibetan region contains over 35,000 glaciers
that cover over 100,000 square kilometres.
They comprise the largest area of ice outside the polar regions,
and nearly a sixth of the world's total.
These glaciers are the source of most of the water in the region.
And the Tibetan plateau is studded with glacial lakes.
At over 4,500 metres up, Lake Manasarovar
in the far west of Tibet,
is the highest freshwater lake in the world.
In late spring,
the chilly lake waters are a magnet for breeding birds.
The crested grebe woos his mate with offerings of weed for her nest.
Finally, the honeymoon suite
is ready for action.
The grebes are joined by the highest-flying birds in the world.
Having spent the winter south of the Himalayas,
bar-headed geese make the hazardous mountain crossing each spring
to breed on the plateau's lakes.
The geese nest together for safety.
But so many chicks hatching at the same time
means that it can be tricky finding your parents.
Fortunately, once down at the water's edge,
there's enough food for all of them.
Fed by the mountain glaciers,
the Tibetan plateau even has its own inland sea.
This is Qinghai Lake...
Millions of years of evaporation have concentrated the minerals in the lake,
turning the water salty.
Rich in fish, its waters attract thousands of cormorants.
But it's not just wildlife that values Tibet's lakes and seas.
Their life-giving waters are also important to people.
Tibetan religion is a unique mix of Buddhism and much older
Shamanic beliefs that were once widespread throughout the region.
This hybrid religion forms the basis of an extraordinary relationship with nature.
In Shamanic belief, the land is imbued with magical properties
which aid communication with the spirit world.
Here animal skulls are decorated,
and rocks are carved with sacred mantras,
groups of syllables that are considered to have spiritual power.
The reciting of the mantras is believed to create a magical sound
that reverberates through the universe.
The landscape is decorated with multi-coloured flags which
represent the five elements - fire, wood, earth, water and iron.
The flags are printed with prayers to purify the air
and pacify the gods,
and the wind blows the prayers to heaven.
The poles on which the prayer flags are mounted
are regularly replenished with fresh flags.
The old flags are treasured.
Those nearest the top of the pole
are the most auspicious,
so competition for these can get fierce!
The golden dome, which is mounted right at the top of the prayer pole,
is the most sacred object of all.
Or it will be, once it's retrieved.
The old Shamanic beliefs of Tibet
ascribed magical powers to the landscape...
..but there's a far more tangible source of power here
which owes nothing at all to magic.
Strewn across the plateau are boiling thermal springs,
the evidence of mighty natural forces
which have been at work over millions of years.
Deep below the surface, the vast continental plates
of Asia and India are crashing into each other.
The turmoil below erupts in clouds of sulphurous steam.
It seems unlikely that scalding mineral springs should support life.
But one unlikely creature thrives here precisely because of them.
The hot spring snake is unique to Tibet
and is believed to have survived the inhospitable conditions up
on the plateau principally thanks to this natural central heating.
These cold-blooded snakes hang out in streams and rivers which are fed
by the hot springs, where they enjoy a surprisingly productive lifestyle.
Slipping into the warm water,
they wait patiently, bobbing their heads on the lookout for fish.
Thanks to its unlikely relationship
with the volcanic forces which built the Himalayas,
the hot spring snake is able to survive
at altitudes up to 4,500 metres,
making it the highest-living snake in the world.
The slow-motion crash between Asia and India
has been going on for 30 million years.
The Himalayas are the crumple-zone
created by these two colliding landmasses,
a bewildering maze of mountains and valleys,
home to elusive wild creatures.
In this rugged and unforgiving terrain,
littered with fractured rock and ice cold rivers,
the slightest miscalculation may have fatal consequences.
The snow leopard is the world's highest-living big cat.
But there's another, smaller predator that ranges even higher,
almost to the roof of the world.
At a mind-numbing 8,848 metres high,
Everest is one of the most hostile places for life on Earth.
Hundreds of people have died trying to conquer it.
But when climbers first reached the ice fields three quarters of the way
up the mountain, something had already beaten them to it.
This jumping spider is the highest permanent resident on the planet.
Totally at home amongst the glaciers of Everest,
it scours the slopes for wind-borne prey such as springtails.
Chinese call this fierce little hunter the "fly tiger".
Jumping spiders are found all over the world.
Their eight eyes include an oversized central pair,
which act like powerful binoculars to spot potential victims.
They use hydraulic pressure to work their legs like pistons,
catapulting up to 30 times their own body length.
The ideal way to get around in rocky terrain.
But like all mountaineers, they always secure a safety line first.
A springtail grazes on detritus,
unaware that it's being stalked by such an acrobatic predator.
The Tibetans call Everest "Qomolangma",
meaning "mother of the world".
It's a mark of their affection for the mountain,
however brutal it may appear.
Venture further from the mountains and out into the open plateau,
and life doesn't appear to get any easier.
High winds scour the landscape and temperatures
can drop from baking to freezing in moments.
This is the Chang Tang or Northern Grassland.
It's so remote that it's been called the Third Pole.
It's about 5,000 metres above sea level,
way above the point at which altitude sickness starts to affect humans.
At this height, most people are gasping for breath.
But lack of oxygen hasn't cramped this creature's style.
Chiru, or Tibetan antelope, have arrived for the winter rut.
In the energy-sapping thin air, the males must try to control
groups of females by constantly rounding them up and corralling them.
But the chiru have an advantage.
Their red blood cell count is twice as high as ours,
sufficient to supply their muscles with oxygen
even at this extreme altitude.
Nevertheless, it's hard work keeping his harem in check,
and the male's life is about to get even harder.
Another male is gearing up to steal his females.
With their rapier-like horns,
the males won't risk fighting unless they really have to.
But if neither backs down, conflict is inevitable.
Some of these fights end in death.
While the males fence, the females look on.
Injured and weakened by the battle, the loser will be an easy target
for the predators and scavengers that patrol the wilderness.
Out here there's little room for mistakes.
With a clear view of the endless plateau below,
vultures are quick to spot any opportunity.
A dead yak has drawn a crowd.
Vultures aren't famous for their table manners.
The vultures do well here,
as the vast Tibetan wilderness is home to many large creatures.
Living in herds of up to 200
in the remoter corners of the Tibetan plateau,
wild yaks travel large distances, grazing on the alpine tundra.
Strong and secure over mountain passes and rivers,
the yak is in its element at altitude.
So much so that it gets sick if it goes below 3,000 metres.
Standing two metres tall at the shoulder and weighing more
than 800 kilos, the wild yak is both formidable and aggressive.
But without this fearsome creature,
it's unlikely that humans would have survived up here.
Once domesticated, the yak is an amazing animal,
providing the Tibetans with transport,
food, wool for clothes and tents,
and manure for fuel.
It's held in such high regard
that its fur is even used to decorate
the sacred prayer flag poles,
and yak butter is used as an offering to the gods.
The yak has even led the Tibetans to buried treasure.
In summer, people can be seen scouring the grassland,
bent over in deep concentration.
This is the world's weirdest harvest.
Tibetans first investigated this strange root-like organism,
known locally as "yartsa gunbu",
when their yaks appeared to have more energy after grazing on it.
Rumours of its amazing properties gradually spread, and today,
the yartsa gunbu is a passport into a shady, underground world.
It's possible to dig up 40 of them in a day,
the proceeds from which may provide half the collector's annual income.
Yartsa gunbu has been used
as a traditional remedy for thousands of years,
though only by the very wealthy.
It has been bartered for tea and silk,
and is worth more than four times its weight in silver.
So lucrative is this trade,
that sites and information are jealously guarded.
At the nearby market, the yartsa gunbu are cleaned,
and their true nature becomes clear.
The yartsa gunbu translates as "summer grass, winter worm".
The winter worm is a caterpillar.
It eats the roots of grasses
in preparation for its transformation into a moth.
But some winter worms never make it as moths.
Instead, a strange growth erupts from their body,
appearing above ground in summer.
This is the "summer grass" -
a fungus called Cordyceps,
whose spores have infected the caterpillar,
using its body as their host.
Modern scientific tests have shown that substances contained
in Cordyceps lower blood pressure and make it easier to breathe.
So in recent years, harvesting this natural treasure
has grown into a huge and profitable business.
Yartsa gunbu sells for big money in the top department stores of Lhasa,
and there is a growing market outside of Tibet.
Although Tibet is modernising fast,
it retains a deeply spiritual culture.
Even today, Tibetan valleys resound to distinctive
and extraordinary calls to prayer.
The Tibetan horn may be the world's most unwieldy instrument,
but its sound is unique.
MULTIPLE HORNS BELLOW
Every morning, the nuns assemble for practice.
The air is chilly, but they soon warm up.
Monks and nuns comprise a substantial portion of society,
largely self-contained and isolated.
Deep within the monastery is the spiritual engine
that drives much of Tibetan culture.
Buddhists believe in an endless cycle of rebirth,
in which the actions of this life will impact on the next.
The goal of Buddhism is to escape from this earthly cycle of pain
and suffering by achieving a state of freedom called enlightenment.
The enlightened guides, or spiritual teachers, are called lamas.
The possibility of escaping the cycle of life and death
and the promise of enlightenment, encourages people to perform activities that benefit all beings.
This belief assigns as much importance to the environment and its creatures as it does to humans,
since every living creature is believed to have a soul.
In the remote lands of Tibet, for over 1,000 years
this concept has been translated
into practical benefits for wildlife,
and it starts literally on their doorstep.
Buddhist monasteries have sacred sites,
areas where taboos are placed on the hunting and killing of animals.
Some creatures have become so tame that the nuns are able to hand-feed them,
like these Tibetan-eared pheasants.
NUN BECKONS BIRD
Thanks to hand-outs from the nuns, these rare birds can survive the worst of the winter.
In this extreme place, people with few resources
are prepared to share them with their needy fellow creatures.
The Tibetan example is a model for conservation.
This respect for wildlife
extends beyond the monasteries
and into the wider community.
One of Tibet's most sacred creatures is the black-necked crane.
In summer, they live and breed
out on the plateau,
but in winter they congregate on farmland.
70% of the world's population can be found here.
The species was only recently identified by scientists,
but it has been known to Tibetans for hundreds of years.
In the 17th century, Tibet's supreme lama wrote,
"Crane, lend me your wings, I go no farther than Lithang county.
"And thence, return again."
Tibetans believed he was predicting the site of his own reincarnation
and in due course his successor was found,
sure enough, living in Lithang county.
Even today, black-necked cranes are treated with reverence and
are welcomed by farmers as they land in the fields around the villages.
Here, they perform their elaborate sky-pointing rituals.
After the dignified business of parading,
they begin to forage for leftover barley...
..helped by the pigs which break up the soil.
The farmers are happy to have these sacred birds on their fields.
Within the village, religion is an integral part of life.
Each prayer wheel is inscribed with mantras.
Spinning them has much the same effect as reciting the prayers.
Perhaps the Buddha would have enjoyed the thought that his teachings could provide so much fun!
Buddhist respect for nature may find expression in practical ways too.
This bird has a broken wing
and has been nursed back to health by the villagers.
Such kind acts are common where people believe that helping other
beings, animals or people, in this life, may bring rewards in the next.
The culture of veneration and protection
extends right across Tibet,
helping to preserve a unique yet fragile ecosystem.
Out on the plateau, there's a small creature that's at the root
of much of the grasslands' delicate ecology.
Despite summer snowstorms, the pika, a relative of rabbits and hares,
is perpetually eating and gathering grass,
and digging burrows for its family.
The pika's constant excavations aerate the soil,
which helps the plants to grow.
In the short summer, the landscape is carpeted with hardy grasses
and decorated with endemic flowers.
In such a frugal environment,
the pika's farming helps to kick-start the food chain.
But the pika itself is a very tasty morsel.
Its presence has enabled an uneasy relationship to develop
between two of the plateau's most opportunistic predators...
..the fox and the bear.
The Tibetan brown bear, a close relative of the grizzly,
tries to dig the pikas out of their burrows.
Even hard-frozen soil presents little obstacle
to a determined bear.
The wily Tibetan fox is quick to spot any opportunity.
True to form, the crafty fox claims the prize.
A combination of inaccessibility and ancient traditions which forbid hunting,
means that in some parts of the plateau,
wild animals have remained relatively undisturbed, even today.
But in those areas which are within reach of motor vehicles,
these historical safeguards have been undermined.
This change is illustrated in the fortunes of the chiru.
A century ago, millions migrated across the plateau.
Unfortunately for the chiru, its fur, known as "shahtoosh",
or "king of wools", is highly prized.
In recent decades, poachers have been able to venture
deep into the wilderness, killing thousands of chiru.
However, the situation is improving.
Anti-poaching laws are now actively enforced, so every summer,
female chiru can head to the birthing grounds in relative safety.
Out on the plateau, new-born chiru are vulnerable to predators.
So the mothers must try to hide and protect them.
The most recent problem faced by the chiru is the new Tibet-Qinghai
railway, which cuts right through their traditional migration routes.
Running nearly 2,000 kilometres through some of the highest
terrain on Earth, the railway is an astonishing technical feat.
It's too early to see its effect on the wildlife,
but the engineers have made efforts to incorporate underpasses,
where wildlife can cross the line in safety.
As the modern world increasingly impacts on Tibet,
its traditions could be in danger of being eroded.
But thanks to the sheer scale of this remote region,
there are still many wild places that have so far remained largely intact.
The least explored area of all is found in Tibet's far south-east.
Here the Yarlung River, Tibet's longest,
has carved through the Himalayas,
allowing monsoon clouds from India to pass through.
This is Tibet's most secret corner.
According to legend, the Yarlung gorge
was rendered magically invisible in the eighth century
and can only be seen by those who have attained sufficient spiritual knowledge and wisdom.
At two days' walk from the nearest road,
this hidden region wasn't explored by outsiders until the 1990s.
Thanks to the annual monsoon,
the whole landscape is covered in lush forest.
The scale of the gorge is breathtaking.
As the Yarlung River cuts through the mountains,
it's created the world's deepest gorge,
three times deeper than America's Grand Canyon.
This vast and mysterious place
provides a vital clue
to Tibet's importance for the rest of the world.
The monsoon which sustains this lush and fertile valley
owes its very existence to the Tibetan plateau.
Like a giant hotplate, the plateau heats up in the spring and summer.
The change in air pressure
draws in warm moist air from the Indian Ocean in the south.
Thanks to this, over a billion people from India to Burma
benefit from the monsoon rain that this wind brings with it.
Tibet is the engine that drives the fertility of a whole subcontinent.
But Tibet has an even greater role in the ecology of the region.
Clues to this function are found in a legend that pre-dates even the ancient Tibetan culture
and which still draws pilgrims from all over the world.
Several world religions believe in a mythical mountain
that's equivalent to the Garden of Eden.
Its peak has four faces, aligned to the points of the compass,
and from its summit four rivers are said to flow to the four quarters of the world.
Thanks to its life-giving waters,
this mountain is known as the "axis of the world."
In one of the remotest areas of Tibet, there's a place where this legend takes physical form.
That place is Mount Kailash.
By an uncanny coincidence, Mount Kailash perfectly matches the legend
of the mythical axis of the world.
Its four faces are roughly aligned to the compass,
and four major rivers flow from its foothills.
These are some of the most significant rivers in Asia.
The Yarlung, which becomes India's Brahmaputra,
the Indus and Sutlej, which flow to Pakistan,
and the Karnali, a major feeder for the Ganges.
Thanks to its connection with the mythical mountain,
Kailash is so sacred that it has never been climbed.
It's Tibet's most important pilgrimage site.
For Tibetans, pilgrimage is a journey from ignorance to enlightenment.
A pilgrimage around the sacred mountain is believed to wipe out
the sins of a lifetime, increasing the chance of a better rebirth.
Most pilgrims time their visit for the most important festival in the Tibetan calendar.
For over 1,000 years they have gathered at the foot of Kailash
for the Saga Dawa festival to celebrate Buddha's enlightenment.
HORN BELLOWS, METALLIC TINKLING
The festival climaxes with the raising of the newly dressed altar,
a 25-metre flagpole.
The full entourage of Tibetan monks make the most of the occasion,
with music, prayers, and blessings.
Hundreds of fresh prayer flags are prepared and added to the pole.
The head lama's sacred scarf adds the final touch to the proceedings.
HE SPEAKS IN OWN LANGUAGE
But the significance of Mount Kailash isn't confined to Buddhists alone.
Other faiths venture to this remote place,
many from far beyond the Himalayas.
Threatening to upstage the Buddhists, the Hindus arrive,
adding their own mix of colour and music.
When suitable respect has been paid,
it's time for the newly dressed prayer pole to be raised.
MAN YELLS COMMAND
The pole must end up straight...
or it will be a bad omen for Tibet.
At last the pole stands true and the new prayers can be blown to the heavens.
Around this point, the power of the Tibetan landscape and the beliefs of many cultures converge.
More prayers, written on pieces of paper called "wind horses", are thrown into the air and flutter
upwards towards the peak of Kailash, where the gods of the different faiths are believed to reside.
Here, at the axis of the world, is a rare vision of harmony.
For a few, there is one final but essential task to perform.
Buddhists believe in the concept of rebirth, and at Kailash,
the journey from one life to the next
is marked with an ancient but outlandish ritual.
Tibetans believe there's no need to keep or bury the bodies of their dead,
since a departed life will already have kindled a new one elsewhere.
The word for burial in Tibetan means "giving offerings to the birds",
an act of generosity in line with the concept of compassion for all beings.
By doing good deeds, Buddhists believe that they can contribute to the process of enlightenment.
So, a sky burial at Kailash contributes to a brighter future.
There may be legends of mythical mountains and rivers that form the "axis of the world".
But the Tibetan plateau itself, with its mountains, glaciers, and rivers,
and as the engine that drives the monsoon,
lays fair claim to being the real axis of the world.
Apart from feeding the rivers of India and Pakistan,
Tibet's glaciers are the source of even more great rivers.
Vietnam's Mekong, Burma's Salween and the Yangtze and the Yellow,
both of which flow into China.
Each year, enough water flows from the Tibetan plateau
to fill the entire Yellow River,
the mother river of Chinese civilisation.
Today, in China alone, 300 million people depend on water
from the Tibetan plateau.
With its profound effect on Asia's weather and water systems,
the Tibetan plateau helps to sustain almost half the world's population.
For the moment, at least.
Close to the summit of Mount Everest,
a forest of ice once covered much of the area.
But now, thanks to climate change,
much of it has gone.
Within the next 30 years
it's predicted that 80% of the Tibetan glaciers could disappear.
In many ways,
Tibet's fragile environment is the barometer of our world.
What happens to it today,
in time, will affect us all.
Documentary capturing pioneering images to exhibit the dazzling array of mysterious and wonderful creatures that live in China's most beautiful landscapes.
The vast Tibetan plateau is one of the world's most remote places and home to chiru antelopes, wild yaks, foxes and bears. It has a remarkable culture shaped by over one thousand years of Buddhism, while its mountains and glaciers provide a vital life-support system for half the planet.