Tenzin's green eyes bored into me as I looked at his sunburnt face. "Qinghai Lake is a very holy place for us. We regard it as the 'soul' of Qinghai."
He was sitting by the side of a road running parallel to the lake shore. The sound of cars rushing past filled the air as Tenzin's kneepads, torn and grazed, fluttered in the wind generated just a meter or two away. Tenzin was taking a momentary break from prostrating his way around the 360km circumference of the lake, in a stark and vivid act demonstrating the importance of this lake to Tibetans, who make up 80 percent of people in the region.
Located at 3200 meters above sea-level on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau in the northwest of China, Qinghai Lake is the country's largest inland body of saltwater at 4318 square kilometers in area. Over the past century, however, the lake has found itself in a worrying downward trend as 700 square kilometers of its area have been lost and its surface level has dropped by 13 meters.
The reasons for these recent changes are surprisingly hard to pinpoint. Seasonal climactic variations have been cited by authorities, global warming by others. Overgrazing and desertification are also suspected culprits, yet the exact cause remains unclear. As studies continue, however, it is widely thought that a combination of the above factors are at work.
"I came here just after I graduated from high school, nearly 10 years ago and the water level was up there," said my Tibetan guide, Dawa, as he pointed some 15 meters up the gentle slope behind us. We had arrived at the lake's 'port' which acted as more of a tourist-trap than a functioning dock. Qinghai lake is a popular destination on the domestic tourist route, as thousands of visitors descend upon it every day, each paying handsomely to experience China's famous "Blue Sea Lake." Tourists ride pleasure boats, jet-skis and speedboats and are treated to views of what is genuinely a breathtakingly beautiful body of water.
Beyond the fences that encapsulate the lake and keep visitors at bay, herders and nomads roam the fringes with their flocks of yaks and sheep. Living just as their ancestors did in the region for hundreds of years before them, they live in a fluctuating existence according to the seasons, residing in the hills and mountains that surround the lake in the winter and then descending to the lake-shore in the summer.
"For many years the lake has decreased [in size]", said Norbu, a herder in his 60s who has lived in the region for over 40 years. "Some years it retreated as much as 1 meter per year," he commented to us as he gently guided his flock of 400 sheep around the lake.
As we sat on the east shore of the lake with Norbu, towering sand dunes loomed above us at the location which had been dubbed 'sand island.' This giant tongue of sand dominates the east side of the lake, stretching into the water and cleaving the grassland either side of it.
A result of westerly winds and Aeolian erosion, the desert's grip has increased in recent years as it has taken advantage of the lake's decrease in size. From 1958 to 2001, the sand area grew from 587.4 square kilometers to 805.8 square kilometers, prompting local authorities into action.
In 2008, the Qinghai provincial government announced an ambitious program to "restore the beauty of the lake" with an investment of 1.57 billion yuan (US$224 million) over the subsequent 10 years. The project aims to "revert 854,700 hectares of pasture to grassland, protect 276,600 hectares of wetland, harness 182,600 hectares of degraded grassland and build 34,400 hectares of forest in the area."
The program also aims to relocate many of the nomadic herders who have historically lived in the area. They have not been directly blamed for degradation but authorities have indicated their concern at the threat from the one million plus sheep that graze in the region.
"Life has got harder, for sure. Five years ago, the government started to allot grasslands to nomads. Since then, we only have this land", said Erelo, a 28-year old herder who was currently living in a traditional tent on the edges of the lake with his wife. "Also, we've heard that in two years, the government will remove all the nomads around the lake because they want to protect it."
A slight drizzle broke out above the lake on the last day I was there. Dark clouds had rolled quickly in over the surrounding hills. These recent rains had led to state news outlets optimistically declaring "China's largest saltwater lake grows after 50 years of shrinking." The slight increase in surface area of the lake in the past two years was confirmed by the herders we spoke to, but skepticism prevailed about the long-term trend. "I'm not very sure about it stopping," said Shuqiang Duan of Qinghai Province's Hydrology and Water Resources Survey Bureau, when I sought his opinion if we were seeing the end of the gradual decline.
As the drizzle continued and my car turned away from the lake for the final time, my thoughts turned back to Tenzin, who was working his way around the lake that was so important to him and his faith.
"I have been around twice, so far. By circling it seven times, we can clear our sins and wrongdoings", he told me. I couldn't help but wish that it was that easy to solve all of the worrying trends and problems on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau.