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Saturday, September 21, 2013

A flat earth and a racing land 2

In December 2011, I published a piece entitled "Where's Asia?" For many months, it was the most popular post on my blog and I couldn't really work out why. Sure, it was interesting enough, but that fascinating?

   Then, by a bit of detective work, it came to me. It wasn't what I had written that attracted attention, it was the fact that I had blank maps of Asia in there, and that's what teachers wanted to borrow, for their own tests. So much for brilliant writing!

   I hope you did your homework. No? Well then, I suppose I better start at the beginning. And yes, I know a lot of you already know all about this, but let me go through it again briefly.

   There once was a great continent. There was a time when all the Southern Hemisphere continents which exist today were part of this one enormous landmass. For one reason or another that don't matter here, the vast continent started to break up, and all the continents we see today went their separate ways, riding on plates like those moving walkways at the airport, and drifted across the planet.

   The one of interest here, and if you stick with me long enough you’ll see why, is what we now call India. It was mostly attached to Antarctica and Africa but apparently wasn't keen on the relationship, so it took a fast escalator across that part of the ocean that now bears its name. It built up quite a bit of momentum, and eventually it crashed into Asia at the point where it now on the world map.

   This caused all sorts of ructions, but the main one was that a large section of land was pushed upwards, now called the Himalayas. It had nowhere to go but up. 

   On what is the western side or to the left if you look at the map below, it also pushed up a range called the Hindu Kush. To the northern side of the Himalayas it banked up a great stretch of land that we now call the Tibetan plateau.

   Not content with making such a mess of the southern part of the Asian land mass, it caused a good deal of mischief by raising the sea floor on what is now the Chinese side, and that's where we get those wonderful structures around Guilin that used to be the sea floor. If you look at the brown parts of the map in particular you can see how much of the land mass was raised up.

   So India's arrival completely changed the face of Asia.

   I'm not a geomorphologist, but it doesn't take an expert to see the dramatic changes to everything that this troublesome continent of India caused when it crashed slowly but inexorably into Asia.

   Some parts were actually forced downwards, and you can see what looks like a great hole in the ground to the north of the Tibetan plateau. It's called the Tarim Basin, and for a very good reason, because a basin is exactly what it's shaped like. Many parts of it are below sea level, even though it’s a vast desert, with enormous sand dunes in some parts, and huge areas of rocky sterile stony plains in others. It's a very forbidding place, I can tell you. I've travelled by train through a lot of it. What a story that was.

   But it's what the presence of those mountains do that makes a vast impact on the nature of the continent, and ultimately, its people. The high mountains catch the clouds as they drift across the land mass. It's freezing there because of the height, and what would normally fall as rain usually falls as snow.

   The mountains become snow-capped and retain vast amounts of water in the form of ice and snow. When the weather warms up, the snow melts and starts to run down into the valleys. These become the tributaries of great rivers on the Indian side, of the Ganges and Indus, and in the annual rainy season, they water vast areas of the northern part of the subcontinent.

Asia [cropped]
See all those huge rivers streaming down from the Himalayas!
   A similar thing happened on the Chinese side of the Himalayas, with the formation of its great rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze, and the Mekong and Irrawaddy further south in IndoChina. In short, all the great rivers of Asia begin in the Himalayas.

   The snow also melts in Tibet, slowly in the summer, but it doesn't create great rivers such as in India and China. If anything, it acts as a kind of dam. The water builds up and doesn't form into rivers that race down towards the lowlands. It goes underground, and gigantic reserves of beautiful mountain water end up being stored deep under the ground in western China. At places it bubbles to surface and large oases appear in the deserts.

   You probably know most of this if not all already. What I'm interested in talking about is the effect this has had on people who came to India and China at a much later time than all this happened.

   If the Himalayan range hadn't been pushed up in the way it did by India’s arrival, we wouldn't have the Indians and the Chinese. It's as simple – and complicated – as that. But how come they turned out to be so different physically, and so vastly different culturally? That's the really fascinating bit, and my story in the final part.


  1. It's like reading a mystery novel - can't wait for the end! (But I will, of course...)

  2. Wonderful - your way of explaining what is amazing and, I think, still happening but slowly now? And it brought back to me a memory of finding a sea fossil in a Himalayan pass and the mind-bending wonder of that. Now off to read about your travels in Tibet.(I was there in 1984 but I don't suppose we bumped into each other!)Looking foward to the final part and happy to wait however long it takes. I simply can't imagine the patience and sheer will-power you must be using to write these posts with one semi-serviceable hand and dodgy eyesight, but glad you do.


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