Yamdrok Tso, Tibet

Lake Locations:

Tibet -

Also known as:  Yamdrok Yumtso, Yamdrok Lake

Yamdrok Tso Lake, one of four holy lakes in Tibet, lies at an elevation of 14,570 feet on the Tibetan Plateau. Long hidden from the world by the remote location of this undeveloped country and the secretive nature of both Tibetan and Chinese rule, Yamdrok Tso is finally open for tourism. Also called Yamdrok Yumtso, the name roughly translates to ‘the jade lake in the upper pastureland’. Other translations call it ‘Swan Lake’, but the former name is far more descriptive of the location and color. Reputed to be the home of a Tibetan Buddhist goddess, the famed Samding Monastery overlooks the lake from a narrow peninsula. Devout Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, traditionally make pilgrimages here.

With 167,538 acres, the lake is nearly 45 miles long. Local fishermen catch native varieties of fish in the lake for sale in local villages and markets. Set against the backdrop of perpetually snow-covered peaks, the lake lies among rolling hills with nearly the climate of a desert. For nine months of the year, Tibet gets almost no rainfall due to the ‘rain-shadow’ cast by the nearby mountains. The bare slopes grow only sparse grass for grazing animals, the mainstay of agriculture in Tibet. The deep blue-green of the lake adds a mass of welcome color to the often brown slopes. Colorful prayer flags placed by the religious on pilgrimage add spots of riotous color to overlooks along the shore.

With the addition of Yamdrok Tso to a few tour itineraries, local villagers have begun to develop cottage industries to create crafts to sell to the new tourist trade. In keeping with Tibetan tradition, these trade goods are often brightly colored, as are the saddles and harnesses of the yaks they bring to the lake to offer yak rides to arriving tourists. The stark contrast between the brown (green in its short season) hills, the jade-green lake and the spots of traditional color all add to the exotic nature of a rare trip to Yamdrok Tso. The lake is a busy flyway stop-over for waterfowl which can often be seen feeding on the waters. In winter, the lake often freezes and snow covers the hills. Always there is a sense of awe surrounding what is clearly a very holy place to the people of Tibet.

So far, there are no real lodgings available at Yamdrok Tso, and no boating, fishing or swimming beaches. Small establishments in local village sell some prepared food. Most visitors arrive as a part of a tour, usually one that is focused on the capital of Lhasa, 75 miles to the north. About a 30-minute drive to the east, Nangartse is the nearest town to the lake of any real size. A number of small guest houses, restaurants and shops there serve both tourists and pilgrims who have come to walk around the lake in honor of Dorje Pakmo, the resident goddess. A railway, completed in 2006, travels to Lhasa from Xining over very high elevations. Such altitude requires special attention to health concerns; the railway demands a medical certificate of health to travel and also carries oxygen for all passengers in case it should be necessary. From Lhasa, travelers will need to hire a car and driver or take a tour bus on to Yamdrok Tso. and will likely return to Lhasa before nightfall.

Until very recently, Tibet has been a very closed society; tourism is just beginning here. Most tourism focuses on the rich heritage of religious facilities in the nation, a heritage that is in danger of being diluted by increasing Chinese influence. Tibet and China have had a contentious history over the centuries, with Tibet claiming its autonomy and China claiming it as a province. In 1950, the new Chinese Communist regime ‘liberated’ Tibet from its feudal and monastic form of government. Many in Tibet still consider it a hostile occupation. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government remain in exile in Nepal on the other side of the Himalayas. It is hoped that the Chinese leaders here recognize the historical value of the ornate textiles, painted panels and voluminous religious texts dating back over a thousand years. These are stored within the many monasteries tucked away atop mountains, cliffs and other nearly inaccessible places. There has been some effort to make some of them available to tourists and researchers. Only through serious study will the complete history of Tibet come to light.

Tibet is officially Tibet Autonomous Region, China, known within China as Xizang. Yamdrok Tso is the largest freshwater lake in southern Tibet. The huge lake is almost a closed basin: short streams bring in snow melt water from the surrounding mountains. A small stream at the west end of the lake is the only natural outlet. The vast lake lies in what is called the Trans-Himalayas, a poorly defined mountainous region often called the Roof of the World, with an average elevation of over 16,000 feet. To the north is the Kailas Range. Between the two mountain ranges lies the river valley region, home to Yamdrok Tso. The plateau is also home to the Yarlang River (known in India as the Brahmaputra River), the Indus River, and the Satluj River.

Because of this source of water, China is very interested in Tibet as a hydroelectric center. In 1996, the Chinese government installed a tunnel from Yamdrok Tso to remove water for hydroelectric purposes – a highly controversial project. The hydroelectric plan calls for Yamdrok Tso to be used as a pumped storage lake, but environmentalists are concerned that pumping water back into the oligotrophic lake from the eutrophic Yarlung River will change water conditions, harming the environment. Tibetan traditionalists are more worried that the project will possibly drain the lake, invoking the old myth that if the lake ever runs dry, Tibet itself will disappear. More practical considerations reflect the concern that since China took control of Tibet in 1950, many more Chinese immigrants have been moved to Tibet, and that the generated power is meant to benefit those immigrants.

A visit to Yamdrok Tso is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tibet is still a traditional devout Buddhist society with a rich cultural heritage. The Tibetan experience is like no other place on earth. So come try your hand at drinking hot buttered tea astride a colorfully bedecked yak while overlooking Yamdrok Tso. Visit a few monasteries and gaze in awe at uniquely cantilevered architecture atop dizzying precipices. It certainly won’t be the same dull resort vacation your friends will be bragging about next year. And, imagine the pictures!

Things to do at Yamdrok Tso

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Yamdrok Tso Photo Gallery

Yamdrok Tso Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Dammed

Surface Area: 167,538 acres

Shoreline Length: 155 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 14,570 feet

Average Depth: 77 feet

Maximum Depth: 197 feet

Water Volume: 12,971 acre-feet

Completion Year: 1996

Trophic State: Oligotrophic

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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