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Nagqu Lake and River: top five lakes and rivers in northern Tibet

December,14 2018 BY Master Kungga Dundruk 0 COMMENTS

Lying in the north of Tibet, Nagqu is a unique area of the region that is unlike any other in the world. The largest prefecture in Tibet, covering almost 47 percent of the total land area of the Tibet Autonomous Prefecture, this huge land is filled with lakes and rivers, that almost cover the entire area. With more than a thousand lakes covering the area, Nagqu is a stunning landscape that is a pleasure to behold. From the vast lakes such as Nam-Tso to the smallest of ponds, there are lakes around every corner, and in every valley across the area.

Most of Nagqu is made up of the vast Changtang Grasslands, the immense prairie that stretches from Qinghai Province in the east to Ngari Prefecture in the west. Throughout this entire region, rivers run along the many valley floors, joining together where the valleys meet, and many of which end up emptying into some of the world’s longest rivers. Rivers like the Salween, which starts in northern Tibet as the Nagqu River.

Top Five Rivers and Lakes in Nagqu

Of all the lakes and rivers in Nagqu, and there are literally thousands, there are some that are more famous and more popular, and which are the major attractions for tourists. It is these rivers and lakes that tourists travel to visit, to see the stunning beauty of a plateau lake and the delights of the rivers that flow endlessly through the valleys of the plateau.

Nagqu River (4,400 meters)

The Nagqu River is one of the least well-known rivers in Tibet for tourists, but it is the headwater for one of the largest rivers in the world, the Salween. Starting as an outflow from the Ganong Lake, the smaller sister of Cona Lake, one of the larger lakes in Tibet, the Nagqu River is an important river in the area, and is a water source for many of the farms in Amdo County. The river flows out of Ganong Lake and heads roughly southwest, into Seni District and on past Nagqu Town, where it is joined by the Caiqu River, before heading east and flowing into Nagqu Lake.

Nagqu River, the headwater of the Salween in TibetNagqu River is the source of the Salween in Tibet.

As the river flows out from the northern end of the lake, it turns to head east once more, traveling for hundreds of kilometers until it converges with the Yuequ River, in Biru County. At the convergence of these to rivers, the river then becomes the Nujiang River, also known as the Nu River, which flows onwards into mainland China, and eventually turns into the Salween, which flows down from the plateau and through mainland China, Burma, and Thailand to spill its waters into the Andaman Sea. The river source sits at an altitude of more than 4,400 meters, and drops to only 4,200 meters where it converges to form the Nujiang River.

Cona Lake (4,594 meters)

Lying in Amdo County, Cona Lake is one of the largest lakes in the region, and sits close to the road between Amdo Town and Nagqu Town. The lake has been considered holy in the Tibetan Bon religion for thousands of years, and is now a holy lake in Tibetan Buddhism, believed to be the “ soul lake” of the living Buddha, Razheng. Lying at an altitude of around 4,594 meters above sea level, the lake is around 300 square kilometers, and is the sister lake of Ganong Tso, which lies off its southeastern shore.

Cona Lake, one of the largest lakes in NagquThe Qinghai-Tibet Railway will offer you a opportunity to enjoy the beautiful Cona Lake in Tibet.

A natural channel connects the two lakes, with the waters of Lake Cona flowing out into Lake Ganong, and then on into the Nagqu River, which empties into the Nujiang River, or the Salween. Also known in Tibet as Tsonga Lake, it can be clearly seen from the train, as it passes through Nagqu on the way to Lhasa, with the Tsonag Lake Railway Station being one of the many unmanned stations along the route of the Qinghai Tibet Railway.

Namtso Lake (4,718 meters)

Lying on the southern edge of Nagqu, bordering with Lhasa, Lake Namtso is the largest lake in Tibet, and the highest of the Great Three Holy Lakes of Tibet, sitting at an altitude of 4,718 meters above sea level. Located between the vast Changtang prairie and the holy Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains, the lake lies in its own endorheic basin in the center of the plateau. Known locally as the “ Heavenly Lake”, this stunning body of water is also the highest saline lake on the planet.

Namtso Lake, the largest lake in TibetThe holy Namtso Lake is one popular attraction with stunning landscape in Tibet.

The lake has five uninhabited islands that were once major hermitage sites in Tibet, and would be accessed in the winter months by walking across the frozen surface of the lake. The hermits would spend the entire summer in meditation and contemplation on the islands, and only able to return to the mainland once the lake freezes over again at the end of autumn, as the winter weather set in. The largest of the islands lies in the northwest corner of the lake, and is now a home to hundreds of species of migrant birds that head for the lake in the summer for the feeding grounds the lake provides.

The lake also has five peninsulas that jut out into the waters, the largest of which lies on the southeastern shores of the lake, and is the location of the Tashi Dor Monastery. The peninsula of Tashi Dor is more than two kilometers long and is the location of several nomadic herder’s camps. There are two chapels that make up the monastery, and the furthest one from the shore is the main monastery building, which features a statue of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). Outside, there are a number of amazing attractions, including hermit caves, a rock with a hole to test one’s merit, and two tall stones that look like hands.

Siling Tso (5,386 meters)

As high lakes go, there is none higher than Siling Co, which lies on the southern edges of the Changtang Grasslands in Zhongba County. At an altitude of 5,386 meters above sea level, this is the highest lake in the world. The outflow of the lake flows into the Yarlung Zangbo River, far to the south, and is one of the major tributaries of the river that eventually becomes the massive Brahmaputra. The lake is the second largest in Tibet, after Lake Namtso, and lies on a natural dry tundra.

Siling Tso, the highest lake in the worldOur clients are enjoying the stunning Siling Tso in Nagqu.

Legends surrounding the lake include the legend of Siling, an archdemon that once lived in Duilongdeqing County, to the west of Lhasa. The demon devoured thousands of people daily, both human and animal, and would eventually have eaten every soul on the planet where it was not for the intervention of the Buddhist master, Padmasambhava. After arriving in the area, Padmasambhava spoke to the demon, and convinced him to confess daily and live in the lake, never devouring another soul. Since then, the lake has been known as Siling Tso, or “ Siling Demon Lake”.

Tangra Yum Tso (4,530 meters)

Lying in the southwest of Nyima County of Nagqu is the stunning Tangra Yum Tso, a holy lake in the ancient Bon religion of Tibet. The fourth largest salt lake in China, this beautiful lake lies at an altitude of around 4,530 meters above sea level, and is around 70 kilometers long. It is said that the waters of the lake can change color up to three times in one day, and to the west of the lake lies an immense cliff of deep red rocks.

Tangra Yum Tso, the fourth largest salt lake in ChinaTangra Yum Tso is the holy lake of the Bön believers in Tibet.

The lake lies in a ring of mountains, with only one way in, through a gap in the mountains at Mount Darguo on the eastern side of the lake. A holy mountain of the Bon religion, Darguo has seven peaks to its black slopes, all of which are perpetually covered in snow, like a line of irregular pyramids. In the red cliffs to the western side of the lake is what is believed to be the oldest monastery of the Bon faith, Yuben Monastery, which dates back more than 2,000 years. Legend tells of the husband and wife, Darguo and Tangra Yum Tso, who felt for the people of the land, who had no barley. They stole a sack of barley from Quxui, and when fighting their way back, an arrow split the sack, spilling the barley on the ground. When Darguo returned to his people, only a handful remained. He scattered it across the land, and it was cultivated from the milk of his wife, Tangra Yum tso, which gave the people a thriving harvest of barley from then onwards.

What travel documents do I need for northern Tibet Nagqu tour?

Traveling to Tibet requires you to have a valid passport and Chinese Entry Visa, as well as the renowned Tibet Travel Permit. Issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) in Lhasa, and often known as the TTB Permit, this permit is required to enter Tibet and travel in the opened areas of the region. Since the permit covers Nagqu as well as Lhasa, so not other permits are required.


Traveling to Tibet for the thousands of lakes that cover the area of Nagqu is a stunning adventure that few people have ever experienced. As it is off the beaten track for most tourists to the region, it is a unique opportunity to visit one of the oldest regions of Tibetan civilization, and the location of the ancient Zhangzhung culture, which covered most of Tibet for centuries before the rise of the Tubo Kingdom.

For those that want to visit the stunning lakes of Nagqu, it can be done easily with a tour of Tibet. Independent travel is not permitted in the region, and all tourists must be on an organized tour provided by a registered tour operator. While there are many tours of Tibet that cover the major sites of Lhasa, Shigatse, and Mount Everest, there are also some that cover places like Lake Namtso. However, for a tour that includes the lakes in the rest of Nagqu, you can contact us and discuss the options of a customized tour of Tibet, to include some of these stunning lakes and rivers.

Master Kungga Dundruk

About the Author - Master Kungga Dundruk

The Lhasa-born prodigy used to study business overseas, and got his Bachelor of Business in Nepal and India before moving back to his homeland.With pure passion for life and unlimited love for Tibet, Kunga started his guide career as early as 1997.

Responsible, considerate and humorous, he devoted his entire life guiding and serving international tourists travelling in Tibet.As a legendary Tibetan travel guru with 20-year pro guide experience , he once had an exclusive interview with the US media. Currently he is working in Tibet Vista as the Tour Operating Director. Whenever our clients run into troubles, he is your first call and will offer prompt support.

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