After spending 15 years at Qinghai’s historic Kumbum monastery, birthplace of religious teacher Tsongkhapa and a popular tourist destination, Tibetan abbot Kumbumtenli lama said worsening pollution from nearby factories has forced him to consider leaving the monastery - something that never occurred to him before.
The Kumbumtenli lama took some disturbing photographs during the past week, which were later posted on his Weibo account. These show black smoke being emitted from factory chimneys. They also show Xining’s Huangzhong township, where the monastery is located, shrouded in a thick layer of smog.
Factories, only several kilometres away in nearby Ganhe Industrial Park, have been secretly discharging pollutants in the evenings, according to locals. This has infuriated Kumbumtenli and other Huangzhong residents.
“The air smells foul now in the morning when I wake up,” said Kumbumtenli lama, who along with several fellow abbots, became ill this week.“I've got a headache, and feel like vomiting,” he said. “I couldn’t open my eyes or eat."
Locals have been complaining about polluted air and water for years. A local drafted an anonymous online letter to Qinghai’s governor in 2010 , complaining about sulphur dioxide and chemicals in the air. But the letter remained unanswered.
In 2006, hundreds of children from families living near the park had blood tests which showed excessive levels of lead in their blood, some five times normal levels, state Xinhua news agency reported.  Factories run by Western Mining were blamed for the pollution, but were never shut down, reported Xinhua.
Many parents have since sent their children away to live elsewhere, Xinhua said.
An official website of the Ganhetan Moore Industry Park,  last updated in 2009, described the park as a “provincial level economic development zone”. Efforts to attract investors started as early as 2002, according to the website. “Metallurgy, chemical and construction materials” are listed as three major industries which the park aims to establish.
Qinghai’s department for environmental protection could not be reached for comment on Thursday.