The Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon is a deep and long canyon in China. The Yarlung Tsangpo River, usually just called "Zangbo" (also spelled "Tsangpo", meaning "purifier"), originates from Mount Kailash and running east for about 1700 km drains a northern section of the Himalayas before its enters the gorge near Pe, Tibet. The canyon has a length of about 150 miles as the gorge bends around Mount Namcha Barwa (7756 m) and cuts its way through the eastern Himalayan range. Its waters drop from 3,000 m near Pe to about 300 m at the end of the gorge. After this passage the river enters Arunachal Pradesh, India, and eventually becomes the Brahmaputra.
The gorge has a unique ecosystem with species of animals and plants barely explored and affected by human influence. Its climate ranges from subtropical to arctic. The rare takin is one of the animals hunted by the local tribes.
Since the 1990’s the Yarlung Tsangpo River has been the destination of a number of teams that engage in exploration and whitewater kayaking. The river has been called the “Everest of Rivers” because of the extreme conditions of the river. The first attempt to run was made in 1993 by a Japanese group who lost one member on the river.
In October 1998, a kayaking expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society attempted to navigate the Tsangpo Gorge. Troubled by unanticipated high water levels, the expedition ended in tragedy when expert kayaker Doug Gordon lost his life. The largest waterfall of the river, the "Hidden Falls" of the Tsangpo Gorge, was not reached by outside explorers until 1998, by a team consisting of Ken Storm, Hamid Sarder, Ian Baker and their Monpa guides. They estimated the height of the falls to be about 108 feet. The falls, which, along with the rest of the Pemako area, are considered a sacred site by Tibetan Buddhists, had been concealed until then from outsiders, including the Chinese authorities.
In January-February, 2002, an international group consisting of Scott Lindgren, Steve Fisher, Mike Abbott, Allan Ellard, Dustin Knapp, and Johnnie and Willie Kern, completed the first descent of the upper Tsangpo gorge section.
Its beauty, remoteness, and mystique make it one of the places thought to have inspired the notion of Shangri-La in James Hilton's book Lost Horizon in 1933.
While the government of the PRC has declared the establishment of a "Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon National Reservation", there have also been governmental plans and feasibility studies for a major dam to harness hydroelectric power and divert water to other areas in China. The size of the dam in the Tsongpo gorge would exceed that of Three Gorges Dam as it is anticipated that such a plant would generate 40,000 megawatts electricity, more than twice the output of Three Gorges. It has been estimated that construction may start in 2009. It is feared that there will be displacement of local populations, destruction of ecosystems, and an impact for downstream people in India and Bangladesh. The project is criticized by India because of its negative impact upon the residents downstream. Analysts think that the livelihood of up to 100 million people could be at stake and therefore voice fears that the completion of the water diversion component of the project could sparkle an Indian-Chinese water war if no proper management is taking place. However, another type of dam, the inflatable, is possible that would obviate any necessity for a huge concrete structure. R.B. Cathcart, in 1999, first suggested a fabric dam—inflatable with freshwater or air—could block the Yarlung Tsangpo Caynon upstream of Namcha Barwa. Water would then be conveyed via a hardrock tunnel to a point downstream from that mountain, affording the generation of tens of thousands of megawatts—power which would have to be distributed internationally and equitably through a Himalayan power grid.