When man defies his limits: living in the altitude

When man defies his limits: living in the altitude

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La Rinconada - Peru
La Rinconada - Perú. The highest city in the world.

The extremely diverse terrain of our planet presents to men a scary number of characteristics: Quality, advantage, fertility, productivity, moisture, dryness...But also challenges men with adversity. These difficulties can occur in any type of terrain or altitude. Let’s think of it in another way, if we had the ability to configure a soil with the click of a mouse, we could select the difficulty of an infertile soil as a sandy desert soil, only instead of applying it where it naturally occurs in Africa, in low altitude as the Sahara, let's apply a different altitude, miles above sea level. The result is obviously a very adverse environment for human beings not only by soil infertility, but the altitude itself and all the limitations it imposes on us, homo sapiens.

It turns out that this mouse click configuring this infertile soil in high altitudes is not a fantasy, it exists on our planet and in many countries, placing men face to face with what is most challenging in nature. Still, there are villages and cities where people live permanently at high altitudes, we know some impressive cases.

It is rather ironic. We lovers of the altitude sport style (sometimes as a way of life), risk our lives fighting our own physiology to arrive at these altitudes, we approach carrying weight, set up a base camp, set up a high camp, go for the mountain summit bid and come back down as fast as we can to avoid the dreaded effects of heights. There are people who literally live on top of these altitudes making our effort a social joke. Years ago I heard a joke, and I’ll tell it later at end of text.

A quick Internet search reveals dozens of lists of the highest cities in the world and the list is never the same, they have some cities in common, but the order does not fits, different names arise, especially altitudes are different in 80% of cases when checked with the coordinates via Google Earth measurement (which can change about 180 feet, I checked myself!). I did an extensive research and reached some conclusions, I will expose here a list of cities and it’s not necessarily a list of the highest, but simply high towns (or villages) where the only certainty is that "the position of kingship" is the first, the highest city of the world effectively. At least until they discover a higher city than this...

However, before demonstrating the research results, we turn our attention to a striking detail. The men defies nature and not specifically the altitude only living there, but also building structures on high altitudes. Well, just write it does not help to understand the magnitude of this example, the men not only builds on the altitude, but altitude record in building a structure of 1.957 km long! Unbelievable isn’t it? It is a fact.

The rail line of Qinghai, known as "Qinghai - Tibet railway," or "Qingzang railway" stretches over 1.957 kms (1.216 miles) along the Tibetan plateau, a region known as the roof of the world because of the average altitude of 4.900 meters high (16.076 feet). The first 815 kms (506 miles) of the railway were completed in 1984, and the remaining 1.142 kms (710 miles) completed in 2006. Along the route there are 45 stations, and one of these is the highest train station in the world, Tanggula Station at 5.068 meters of altitude (16.627 feet!). In all 45 stations, there are only seven with regular employees and the remaining 38 are controlled remotely from Xining.

To build in such high altitudes is not easy, especially in the region of permafrost. Permafrost means soil that is constantly below zero degrees (celcius), in freezing level. For months or year round continuously. In simpler language, frozen ground. For this reason to dig into the earth to plant seeds is virtually impossible, and the use of a Jackhammer is essential. The freezing temperature depends on the soil and soil saturation, basically climatic conditions.

Now it’s easier to understand why the second part of the railway, more than seven hundred miles, could only be built two decades after the completion of the first part. The engineers had to spend years resolving the fact of having to build in a region of permafrost, a real challenge for modern engineering. The key factor is freezing itself. Some areas are arid, some areas receive rainfall or snowfall, when the water freezes it expands, which could cause serious structural damage not only on track, but the structures of the stations.

Now let’s see more frightening numbers of the rail line of nearly 2.000 kms: There are 45 stations, 675 bridges (totaling 160 kms over bridges), 550 kms (342 miles) of the railway are in permafrost region, and the line also includes several tunnels and among them is higher tunnel of the world, the Fenghuoshan tunnel of 1.338 meters (about 0,8 miles) in length, which is at 4.905 meters (16.093 feet) of altitude.

So much numbers ah? Now hold on the chair: The reign of Tanggula station as the highest train station in the world is going to fall soon! There is a project under study for the construction of another altitude railway in Asia, it will be the Bilaspur-Leh railway, which will have about 498 kms (309 miles) long in India, and the highest point is at the impressive altitude of 5.325 meters (17.470 feet!) above sea level, can you guys believe it? The budget is under consideration and if approved, the conclusion of the construction is scheduled for the end of 2015.

Impressive data of the so called “evolution”. Now observe the data of human life in high altitudes.

The construction of the Chinese railway was not for nothing or just to get included in guinness book, in fact the intention was to reduce the time of this three days trip to only 15 hours by train, connecting several altitude cities along the way. So certainly live above 4.000 meters has become infinitely more viable for residents “of the roof of the world”, so far isolated by hundreds of miles each other, and days of travel on the back of an animal.

Some of the highest towns or villages in the world with permanent population, ridicularizing our effort to get there:

The city considered the highest in the world: La Rinconada / Peru:

La Rinconada is at unimaginable 5.100 meters of altitude (16.732 feet), and some buildings are almost at 5.400 meters of altitude (17.717 feet). However, it’s taken as the official elevation 5.100 meters since 90% of the buildings are at this altitude.

This “city in the clouds” belongs to Ananea District, Province of San Antonio de Putina, near Puno in Peru. Its population grew dramatically in the last 10 years, nearly 230%. After the 2009 census, the number found of people living in the city is impressive, 30.000 permanent residents!

Economy: Gold mining, this explains the number of people risking their lives at this altitude, dangerous even for Peruvians. The city is so high that there is glaciers in lower altitudes than the city itself, and the nearby mountain is almost 5.900 meters of altitude (19.357 feet), heavly glaciated.

The work system is inhuman, a system called "Cachorreo". The miners work thirty days without any payment and at the 31st day, they can carry on their shoulders as much ore as they can. If there is there some gold nugget, it will be pure luck.

The situation gets worse, the work in such extreme conditions cause heavy contamination, and constantly sick people by mercury poisoning as it’s used in gold mining. Adults and children. Cases are registered daily for respiratory problems like pneumonia and pulmonary edema.

Here’s an very interesting video about La Rinconada:

(in spanish)


La Rinconada - Peru - 5100m
Sat view

City coordinates: 14 ° 37'37 .41 "S / 69 ° 26'39 .76" W

The “second highest city in the world”, a mystery called Wenzhuan (or Wenquan), supposedly is 5.019 meters high (16.467 feet), China:

Little is known about this Chinese city. Everything I found is little information. The city was founded in 1955 and is north of the Tangla mountains. This was all I could find.

In fact, before finding fresh info in march 30, 2012, I thought the city was a mystery that could be solved as soon as the satellite images are fully updated in Asia (on Google Earth), since it is observed today regions where old image is still displayed, with very low quality.

I was able to find Tangla mountains, but didn’t find the city, even after several hours of searching an area of about 10,000 sq. Kms (6.214 sq. Miles). I increased the search to the web and all I found was other curious seeking information about the city online, and no answer whatsoever. Nobody even has the coordinates, then it gets really complicated to learn more. I found questions online about the coordinates and photos but nobody has it.

Just three days ago the wikipedia page about this village was updated, and it has new information about it. Actually it says that some tourists visited the city in 2000 and defined as “very small, just a few buildings”, and they said the altitude was a little bit higher than 4.800 meters. They also visited hot springs there and marked by GPS coordinates the military post of the city: 33°26′30″N 91°56′00″E, which is said to be around 20 or 30 kms north of the village itself, with that info I finally found the city after weeks of search. The altitude found at Google Earth is not 5.019 meters high but 4.862 meters (15.951 feet) high, and barely can be called a city, as it has only a few constructions as seen from above.

Even so, if the settlement may or may not be called city, in fact at 4.862 meters high, is the second highest city in the world as far as I know.


Wenquan - 4862m
Sat view

City coordinates: 14 ° 33'13 .46 "N / 91 ° 51'14 .79"E

The high Amdo, at 4.700 meters (15.420 feet) of altitude in Tibet:

I was lucky to find this small town, I was while searching for the above mentioned town, following roads, rivers and even the railway on Google Earth, I was surprised to find a city so well structured at this altitude!

Like the case above, little is known about Amdo. In fact it is a huge province Amdo, one of Tibet's three. It covers dozens of villages, where some of the Lamas were born and thrived.

The village has the same name as the province. There is virtually no information about the city that is 3kms long and probably about 5.000 people living up there judging by the buildings, their number and size of the city. It is connected to the rest of the world by the Amdo train station, which is at 4.711 meters (15.456 feet) of altitude.


Amdo - 4700m
Sat view

City coordinates: 32 ° 16'12 .93 "N / 91 ° 40'37 .58"E

Another jewelry from the heights, Morococha, Peru, 4.550 meters high (14.928 feet):

This high Peruvian andean city does not have secrets, it lives primarily by silver mining, which hardly is found these days, leaving only tin (stannum) to be pulled out.

By 2005, the census recorded a population of 4.690 people, but this number has been updated recently and has nearly doubled, today it is estimated almost 8.000 permanent inhabitants in Morococha.

The altitude also causes health problems in children especially, but the journey to salvation is not very complicated, since only 130 kms (80.78 miles) separates the small city to the capital Lima, at sea level.


Morococha - 4542 m
Sat view

City coordinates: 11 ° 35'49 .21 "S / 76 ° 08'34 .05"W

More Asian civilization in the highest places, Tanggulashan, China, 4.542 meters high (14.902 feet):

This city is nothing more than an administrative area of Qinghai province. In 2006 census the city had a population of 1.280 people, and currently has around 1.900 permanent inhabitants.

Its economy is basically sheep and products they do from it. Isolated, cold in winter (down to -20°C in absolute temperature, not to mention wind chill), the small town is connected to the world by another altitude train station, the station is called Tuotuohe and is at 4.553 meters (14.938 feet) of altitude.

In 2007 a Tibetan carpet factory was opened in the city, employing 80 people.

From the nearby mountains, it stands out as the highest Geladaindong Peak, of 6.621 meters (21.722 feet) of altitude.


Tanggulashan - 4542m
Sat view

City coordinates: 34 ° 13'01 .47 "N / 92 ° 26'23 .69"E

Nagchu, many Tibetans in the city which is 4.530 meters (14.862 feet) high:

The large town of Nagchu is also at “the roof of the Tibetan world”, at 4.530 meters of altitude, and has a staggering number of around 80.000 inhabitants.

The plans for this city are huge. There is an ongoing project to build the highest airport in the world that will be outside the city, two hundred meters below the civilization area, the opening is scheduled for 2014.

In 1950 the city was limited to some houses, and today is a great city with the promise of incredible growth with the completion of the airport construction. The men literally living on the edge!


Nagchu - 4530 m
Sat view

City coordinates: 34 ° 13'01 .47 "N / 92 ° 26'23 .69"E

Ge'Gyai, hidden in the heights 4.520 meters (14.829 feet) high:

Just like Amdo, I found out about this small Chinese city looking for the second highest city of the world. Judging by the size and amount of city buildings, probably has a population of approximately 2.000 people.

Everything I found about the small town is that the inhabitants live breeding, certainly sheep.


Ge Gyai - 4520 m
Sat view

City coordinates: 32 ° 23'40 .89 "N / 81 ° 08'22 .61"E

Back to South America, Cerro del Pasco in Peru at 4.370 meters (14.337 feet) high:

A true metropolis in the Peruvian Andes, with nothing less than an estimated 80.000 permanent inhabitants, which makes this one of the most populous mining altitude towns in the world. Some parts of the city exceed 4.400 meters high (14.436 feet).

A truly historic city, founded in 1578. It grew up thriving on silver extraction.

The importance of Cerro de Pasco is also due to having been the birthplace and home of Daniel Alcides Carrión, a noted physician who sacrificed himself for the Peruvian people, when purposely infected himself with the dreaded disease known as the “Peruvian wart” (caused by Bartonella bacilliformis), he was trying to find a cure for the disease, which devastated the Peruvian population in nineteenth century.

He died from the disease after becoming infected in 1885 still very young, and became a martyr in the country. From the first day he was infected until the day of his death in Lima, it was just 40 days.


Cerro de Pasco - 4370 m
Sat view

City coordinates: 10 ° 40'47 .86 "S / 76 ° 15'14 .38"W

Shiquanhe, a gem of Chinese ground at 4.290 meters (14.075 feet) high:

This city is located at about 230 kms northwest of Mount Kailash, sacred and world famous mountain, its peak has never been officially climbed. Mount Kailash is 6.638 meters (21.778 feet) of altitude.

The city grew in size absurdly, in 1978 there were 1.500 inhabitants and by 2008 the official number was 30.000. Today it is said that "the inhabitants of Shiquanhe enjoy the comforts of life with cultural and commercial establishments."

It is the largest city in Ngari Prefecture, which has a few more cities under their responsibility. I could not identify the main economic activity of the city, but even tourism is part of the income, since the city is equipped with shops and restaurants for tourists.

The satellite image of the city suggests agriculture, which is made possible due to the river by the same name that runs through the city.


Shiquanhe - 4290m
Sat view

City coordinates: 32 ° 30'39 .86 "N / 80 ° 06'20 .77"E

Final words - the joke I heard

Well, I could continue exemplifying more and more with a hundred cities above 4.000 meters (13.123 feet) and hundreds of other cities above 3.000 meters (9.843 feet), but then the text would be boring and repetitive, besides would be losing the initial premise which is life in the highest cities in theworld.

About the joke I mentioned at the beginning of the text: On one occasion, when I was trying to climb Villarica volcano that has its summit at 2.840 meters (9.318 feet) high (and recently got more exposure here in Brazil after a brazilian engineer lost his life due to inexperience), I had to quite my summit bid because of a terrible whiteout which reduced visibility to less than twenty feet, and I was only beginning at 2.000 meters (6.562 feet), combined with winds of 70 km / h (around 45 miles/h). Going down, I stopped in an abandoned building that serves as a refuge in case of storms, and I was chatting with some middle-aged men who were there.

The majority (to my surprise) was Bolivian, living in the city trying to support their families exploring the commercial life that is to guide tourists in Villarica, guaranteed work every day.

So, I was asked about my personal achievements, at the time the highest mountain I'd climbed was Sairecabur volcano, which altitude is a mystery guarded by nervous speeches of climbers who claim it is 5.976 meters (19.606 feet) high, and another part that used geodetic GPS and measured in more than one occasion over 6.000 meters, being the lower altitude found among these measurements 6.006 meters (19.705 feet), the one I used to build the mountain page here on SP. Anyway, when I spoke about the mountain they laughed at me.

I asked the reason for the laughter and the answer was: "Brazilian andinist, before I moved here was a miner and lived at 4.200 meters (13.780 feet) in the mining camp of Cerro Rico, going to town only because of women". He gave me a funny laugh, he and his companions, and I of course, ridiculed by the statement. He further concluded, "Sairecabur is very easy, you can arrive by car at 5.500 meters (18.045 feet), I've been there".

Well, I retired to my insignificance and descended back to Pucón. I could tell him that in 2007 I got to the top of the Cerro Rico (for those who do not know this mountain is in Potosi/ Bolivia, which is mistakenly often sold online commercially as the "highest city in the world") from 4.300 meters to the summit walking and dressed as a miner , but it doesn’t matter. The joke was on me anyway hehehe...


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Rinconada, _Peru
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qinghai% E2% 80% 93Tibet_Railway
http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Alcides_Carri% C3% B3n

External Links

A brazilian website to get mountains info, including gps files to download:http://www.rumos.net.br/rumos/

My youtube channel: www.youtube.com/parofes
- Now with 250+ videos online!

The biggest brazilian website about climbing and mountaineering, for which I'm a columnist:


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-17 of 17
Bill Reed

Bill Reed - Mar 30, 2012 8:20 pm - Voted 10/10

Very interesting....

And I thought Leadville was high... Don't know how people can maintain, long term at those altitudes. Internal changes in white & red blood cells I guess.
Thanks for taking the time to research and post it!


PAROFES - Apr 4, 2012 8:00 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Very interesting....

Well, at 10.150 feet Leadville is really high! hehehe
As I said, in some places like La Rinconada, you can't! It is dangerous even for bolivians or peruvians, people get sick and die constantly up there.
Glad you like Bill!


lcarreau - Mar 30, 2012 8:35 pm - Voted 10/10

Born a Lowlander ...

And, will probably DIE a Lowlander ... interesting reading, though!


PAROFES - Apr 4, 2012 8:01 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Born a Lowlander ...

Me too...although I d like to live around 4.000 m high for change...


chris_goulet - Apr 2, 2012 12:22 am - Voted 10/10

Altitude junkies

Having mountain biked in the windy Atacama desert, returning from Ojos del Salado in Chile, I can tell you it's quite hard to get enough air to pedal on the volcanic ash road at 4600m. To imagine living at 5100m, is mind-boggling!

Muito obrigado com voce


PAROFES - Apr 4, 2012 8:02 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Altitude junkies

I rather walk/ hike up, it's easier to find oxigen like that hehehe
Thanks for reading Chris!


Scott - Apr 2, 2012 10:21 pm - Voted 10/10

Good Article (mention of Nepal too)

Great article.

Some villages in Nepal are also impressively high, but are too small to be considered to be cities.

Gorak Shep is at 5170 meters/16968 and Lobuche is at 4910 meters/16115 feet.


PAROFES - Apr 4, 2012 8:09 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Good Article (mention of Nepal too)

Hey Scott!
Glad you like it.
I had a look (while reasearching) at Gorak Shep and I thought it was too small, and didn't find any info about people living there permanently, that's the reason I didn't put it. But Lobuche, never heard of it!
Even so, I looked at GE for it and found it, too, too small. I could see 9 structures and that's it. Well, I thought that was bigger than Gorak shep (which I could count 7).
Great to mention it of course!

I think both of them can be defined as "well set base camps", like Aconcagua BC which is almost like a small city.


Scott - Apr 14, 2012 2:29 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Good Article (mention of Nepal too)

I had a look (while reasearching) at Gorak Shep and I thought it was too small, and didn't find any info about people living there permanently, that's the reason I didn't put it. But Lobuche, never heard of it!

Both are inhabited year round (but only in the last 30 years or so), but yes, both are quite small. It used to be, before the trekking boom in Nepal the the two villages were vacated during the winter and inhabited the rest of the year, but now they are inhabited year round.


macintosh - Apr 17, 2012 1:22 pm - Hasn't voted

I thank you too :)



PAROFES - Apr 18, 2012 7:03 am - Hasn't voted

Re: I thank you too :)



markhallam - Apr 27, 2012 4:02 pm - Voted 10/10

Great article Paulo

I have always understood that around 5000m is the highest a human can live without suffering deterioration. La Riconada defies belief at 5100-5400m... and to think that on top of that they are being poisened by the chemicals from Gold mining! They must want that gold very badly!
Thanks for sharing this with us.
best wishes, Mark


PAROFES - May 2, 2012 7:58 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great article Paulo

Hey Mark!
Glad you drop by and read this. I knew you d like it.
Gold can do that to people...sad, just sad.

wheelerpeak20 - May 31, 2013 2:16 am - Hasn't voted

that awesome mountain

i have looked EVERYWHERE for the name of that mountain above LR
i would love to climb it


PAROFES - May 31, 2013 1:51 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: that awesome mountain

There are 3 mountains near La Rinconada, one is 5552m high (in the photo - and I think it's called "Bella Durmiente" - this means "sleeping beauty"), another one by its right side that is 5820m high and another one in the same mountain chain that is 5830m high, I couldn't find the name of those two...
But this is all a mountain chain that is just 8 miles long and includes three main summits.
All that info I found in Google Earth. Altitudes too.


Proterra - Jul 23, 2013 4:34 am - Voted 10/10

Love this article

Have always been amazed by how high some of those places actually are, noticing that I actually had some bad sleep the first days of staying at around 3,250 metres...

I think there's even places higher up, but they're not cities - I believe I read somewhere they've found remains of an Inca settlement over 6,200 metres and that there was a manned border station between India and China at something like 5,950 metres...


PAROFES - Jul 25, 2013 11:52 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Love this article

Oh yes, there are quite a few ruins here in south America, some (in Lullaillaco volcano for instance) really high, this one at aprox, 6.680m, just 60 vertical meters below the summit.
(3 mummies found at this place, the children of lullaillaco they're called)
Inca settlements are very, very high.

But remember, this article is about permanent populated areas.

Best wishes from Brazil!

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