Tianshan's Crown Exploring the land of glaciers and snow leopards

08:49, September 06, 2010      

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Mount Tomur is home to some of the most extensive glaciers in the world. Shown here is the Qiongtailan Glacier that covers the eastern slopes of the peak.(Source: Shanghai Daily)
The first Chinese expedition to Mount Tomur was politically driven: a move to declare the mountain part of China. It also confirmed Tomur as the highest peak in the Tianshan Mountains, opening the way to scientific expeditions.

The breathtaking region in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region contains some of the world's most extensive glaciers as well as rich wildlife, including the snow leopard. It is now a nature preserve.

Located in the county of Wensu (Onsu), Mt Tomur - meaning "iron" in Uygur - lies on the border with the former Soviet Union, an area that is now China's agreed border with Kyrgyzstan. Given its proximity to the border, Mt Tomur has been of considerable political significance over the years.

In 1943, the then Soviet Union sent a team to conduct surveys from the northern slope of Mt Tomur, and in 1946 marked its position on the Sino-Soviet border with a new name: Victory Peak. Ten years later, in 1956, a Soviet team successfully scaled the peak from its northeastern slope.

Some Chinese leaders recognized this as a pressing territorial issue, but the turmoil of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) put everything on hold. It was only in 1977 that China set out to climb and survey Mt Tomur, an expedition considered to have "substantial political and military significance."

The Tomur region is also historically important. Prior to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the Tianshan Mountains were called the Northern Mountains, while the Kunlun Mountains were known as the Southern Mountains. Between 139 and 126 BC, the Han Dynasty envoy Zhang Qian (widely credited for opening the Silk Road) crossed the Tianshan Mountains to reach the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia.

During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the Tomur region was a vital conduit for trade and cultural exchange between Europe and China. Merchants, envoys, monks and missionaries passed through. One of the most prominent travelers was the monk Xuanzang, who documented the glaciers of Tomur on his way to India in AD 629.

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