I ended up at the New Year’s Eve event of C-Trip Yunnan, held in a convention center in provincial capital Kunming.
C-Trip is a colossal travel company. Flights, train tickets, tours,
hotels – they do it all. Total revenue over 2018 4.5 billion US$, total
number of employees 45.000 . The Yunnan province branch is much
smaller, but there were still about a thousand people at the party.
It wasn’t my usual environment. Introductions came with the question
whether you’re buyer or seller, talk was of sales figures. To me a
‘market’ is a place where ethnic minorities gather in traditional dress.
But it was fun to attend.
There were speeches and kitschy music and a light show. Bonuses and
trophies were handed out to C-Trippers who performed well. Recent
acquisition Qunar (literally ‘Go where’) was welcomed to the C-Trip
There was a peptalk by the CEO, with plans and intentions for 2020
that could simply be summarized as: More! I couldn’t follow it in all
its detail, but was the Chinese Dream mentioned in his speech? And did I
hear someone at my table joke that the Chinese Dream was quite tiring?
Things went on and on. People mostly busied themselves with their
phones, had a chat. A sudden rise in interest for the lottery. You could
win trips. Two weeks to Japan or the USA, or a cruise. If less lucky
you only got to Halong Bay.
Dinner was served. Duck and beef and pork. And stomach of unclear
origin. Slices of raw fish in Japanese sauce, and a braised fish.
Vegetables and flower cakes. All in fixed amounts per table though,
there were no second servings. Same for the drinks. Two bottles of
Chilean wine per table, no more. I was lucky, at my table most prefered
The event dragged on into the evening. Out on stage it was more of
the same. Awards, talks, a bit of song and dance. By now it took too
long. It got cold, it is a Kunming winter after all, without heating.
A few left. But could you really? We were still waiting for the main lottery prize, a high end smartphone it was rumoured.
I wasn’t in the draw. To join you had to scan a QR code in the main
lobby. To win a smart phone you had to have one. I didn’t, mine recently
crashed and I didn’t yet replace it. Life ain’t fair.
At last the draw for second prize, Huawei’s top model phone.
And then for first prize, an iPhone 11. The draw was computerized, on a screen all the entrants flashed by in super quick succession. Anticipation built. It was won by …. the manager who had presented the whole event. Confusion, laughter. I guess it was prearranged.
The draw was redone. This time it made the day of someone in the audience.
Soon after the hall was empty, everyone made their way home.
It was a pleasure to see many old friends. It was a good day.
30 years ago today on January 26, 1989, I first set foot in China.
I followed the backpacker’s trail of the day. Hongkong, Guangzhou,
Yangshuo, Yunnan, Leshan, Chengdu, Xi’an, Beijing. I still let Lonely
Planet dictate my travel routes. In fact, coming across their first
China guidebook in a guesthouse in Indonesia a few months before had
made me come to China in the first place.
It wasn’t easy. It was a struggle to get a ticket for a bus or train,
a bed in a hotel. The towns were mostly drab and grey. It was
frustrating at times, but fascination won out big time, fascination with
the masses of people, the endless bus and train journeys, the size of
Beijing and its boulevards and monuments, the curiosity of the people.
Little could I know that I would return to the country countless
times. That I would visit countless places, known at first, off the
beaten track later. That I would be a tour leader in China. That I would
circle the globe several times, distance-wise, on Chinese hard sleeper
trains. That I would one day learn the language. That I would live in
Nor could I imagine the enormous changes that would come to China. Who could?
Kachin from Myanmar crossing the border to Ruili for a festival of the Jingpo: different name, same ethnic group.
Aini at Lancang market.
Limi Yi with their spectacular dress, living isolated in Wumulong.
Encounters with Wa, Dai, Bulang.
The plan was to visit ethnic minority festivals and markets in the
southwest of Yunnan province. Markets take place any time of year.
Festivals don’t, but shortly after Chinese New Year is a good hunting
It wasn’t easy to work out the exact days and locations of festivals.
We searched the world wide web of course. That contradicted itself, as
always. I banked on local lüyouju (government travel bureaus)
providing reliable information. But ìf they picked up the phone they
sent us to the wrong place (according to the bureau in Eshan we had to
go to their village of Dalongtan, but nothing happened there) or they
weren’t aware of a festival that in fact did take place (in Ximeng they
hadn’t heard about the Lahu festivities in their county).
Festivals and markets aren’t scheduled to suit travellers of course.
We had to hurry from Dalongtan to Eshan to Mojiang to Pu’er to Lancang
in one day, changing buses at each place. And getting from Wumulong to
Ruili within one day was a logistical challenge as well. Sometimes too
we had too much time. We were stuck in Lincang for 24 hours with nothing
much to do. (Need a map?J)
Bus stations were teeming with men and women leaving their families for another year after the New Year holiday, returning to the factories and construction sites in China’s east. Those family members didn’t see them off. Chinese don’t wave goodbye. Maybe it’s too painful. Being witness to it is one of those travel experiences that matter as much as the destination of a trip.
We first visit the village variety of the Lahu New Year. Music and
dance, eating and drinking, music and dance, eating and drinking, on and
on. The next day the main celebration is more ceremonial. There is
someone who looks like a minister and something that seems like a
sermon, there is prayer and kneeling down to earth and sacrifice of
pieces of wood or bark. It is pure and a shock of colour. But I am swept
away only when people climb en masse and with great sense of purpose
through a forest to a second terrain at the top of the mountain.
Religiously it remains misty. Wikipedia about the Lahu: originally polytheistic, later Buddhism and Christianity were introduced. People in Mengka talk about “worshipping Buddha”. But there is no sign of him. Above the only altar the only image is a photo of…. Mao.
The Jingpo festival in Ruili is adopted by the government. Even the local lüyouju knew about it. It is a large scale affair, and not as authentic. A group of women in Jingpo dress represent their village, but ethnically more than half are Han Chinese or Dai. I am watching a staged event. But people enjoy themselves, join the long line of dancing people that winds about the festival grounds. A brass band blows and beats fervently for hours at a stretch. How did this western music ever get here? Through the former Britisch colony of Birma?
Beyond the stage reality is more captivating. Many Kachin have come
from Myanmar. With a ‘Red Booklet’, a border pass, they are allowed into
China for a week, not the whole country but a border zone. A young guy
tells me he goes back to Myanmar every seven days and immediately
returns again with a new one week stamp. He effectively lives in China.
A man wants to show me photos in his phone. Kachin rebel fighters (or
independence fighters, depending on one’s perspective) firing at the
Myanmar government army. ‘Last week’, he says. I can’t verify of course.
In one of the festival’s market stands someone sells T-shirts of the Kachin Independence Army.
Calls to lüyouju: 15
Of which answered: 3
Calls to bus stations: 8
Calls from bus stations: 2
Military checkpoints: 5
That included thorough luggage check: 1
Kilometers (Kunming at beginning and end): 2.700
Ethnic minorities: 9
My co-travellers (all from Spain): 4
Other foreigners ran into: 0
David, Enric, Eva, Vicente: thanks for making the trip possible.
Awaiting publication of an article I wrote for Japanese Alpine News, detailing why I believe the new Mekong source I discovered last July together with Luciano Lepre has to be considered the river’s true source. What will reactions be?
I first introduced this source in a couple of blogs that you can find elsewhere on this page, posted between August 12 and 28, 2013.
Trips I am planning later in 2014:
In July will set out on a great China road trip. This will diagonally cut through China from the southwest (China/Laos border post at Mohan) to the northeast (China’s northernmost county of Mohe on the Russian border). Four weeks and 6,000 kilometers or so. From subtropical to Siberian latitude, crossing China’s main rivers: the Yangtze in the south, the Yellow River in the north. Public transport: battered mid-size buses, modern touring car models, the occasional high speed train. Always among the Chinese people – those still poor, those of the new middle class, those now rich. Small villages, huge cities. No better way to experience China.
Yunnan – Myanmar border trip
Will roughly follow this border, staying on the Chinese side. Starting in the south in the lands of the Wa – my current favorite tribe. Headhunters as late as the 1960’s they are now the kindest and most welcoming of people. Among other ethnic groups will be the Kachin, called Jingpo in China.
Of course there is the semi-independent (?) Wa State itself, across the border….. Accessible or not? That would be another trip.
These are exploratory trips. They will stay clear of places described in guidebooks. I believe real travel takes you to the unknown. By nature an exploratory trip does not have a fixed schedule. Just a fixed general idea.
In November I will guide a Yunnan tour. That is well researched already, but it is a tour I much like to do. It takes in the best, most interesting and most authentic places Yunnan has to offer. Ancient villages, hill tribe markets and natural beauty all are part of the itinerary.
I started out with the tempting thought we were the first to visit both the Jifu and the Guosongmucha source. I wrote that all of the expeditions to the headwaters concentrated on one source, and one only (blog post of August 12). But re-reading publications on the search for the Mekong source I find conflicting accounts about this. It is possible Dr. Liu Shaochuang visited both places during his 1999 expedition. So maybe the idea was to good to be true.
But here is an even more tempting thought. We have discovered a ‘new’ source of the Mekong, previously visited nor identified by anyone. And in doing so we finally found the Mekong’s real source.
Hubris? Making a fool of myself? Possibly.
The fact though is that the Mekong’s source at the head of the Gaodepu, always refered to as the Jifu Shan source, is not on Jifu Shan (‘shan’ is Chinese for ‘mountain’).
See this picture first, taken from the valley of the Gaoshanxigu looking in a northerly direction. The mountain to the right (east) is Jifu Shan. But the Gaodepu’s source, and so the Mekong’s source, is on the norhteastern face of the mountain to the left. (On this photo that means on the back side of the mountain.)
The next two photos are taken in the valley of the Gaodepu looking in a southerly direction. Now Jifu Shan is to our left.
At this confluence the stream from the left is the bigger one. So that is the one we followed when hiking to the source. It turned out that it loops around the hill that can be seen ahead. At no point did we come across a stream from the left, i.e. a stream running down from Jifu Shan, feeding into the Gaodepu.
Behind the hill is the Tibetan ‘marker’ for the river source. But we found that small trickles of water flowed from higher up still. We followed these, and in doing so climbed the mountain to the right in the picture, until we reached the foot of the glacier.This is the source of the Gaodepu and of the Mekong. It is not on Jifu Shan, but on the mountain west of it.
Now to the claims of the ‘father’ of the Jifu Shan source, Dr. Liu Shaochuang. In 1999 he published the location of the Gaodepu’s source and contended it is the Mekong’s source. In ‘Geoinformation Science’, 1999, no. 2, he wrote:
‘The headwaters of Zayaqu are those of the Mekong River. The headwaters are in Jifu Shan 5552m (N33 45 35, E 94 41 12) which is on the boundary of Zhidoi County and Zadoi County. Water supply source to the headwaters is one of snow basins in Zhidoi County.’ (As quoted by Mr. Kitamura in Japanese Alpine News, Vol. 10, 2009).
Then in the March 2007 issue of ‘Geo-spatial Information Science’, page 54, he came up with different coordinates for the Gaodepu’s / Mekong’s source:
‘The Mekong originates from the foot of Mountain Jifu. The geographic position of the source of the Mekong is latitude 33 45 48 N and longitude 94 40 52 E, in which the elevation is 5.200 meter, on the boundary of Zaduo County and Zhiduo County, Qinghai, China.’
The change in coordinates may seem minor. But it means shifting the source from Jifu Shan to the mountain to the west of it. This is easily visible on Google Earth. And it corresponds with our own observations: the source is on the mountain to the west of Jifu Shan. Our GPS readings for the source: 33 45 677 N and 94 40 562 E. We were using a slightly different ‘decimal’ unit for the last digits, but this is quite close to the 2007 source of Liu. However, our source is located at an altitude of 5.374 meters (GPS measured), so no less than 174 meters higher than Liu’s, at the foot of the glacier where ice melts and starts to flow. So I regard our source on the mountain to the west of Jifu Shan as a more valid Mekong source than Liu’s. It is important to know also that Liu himself has not visited this source west of Jifu Shan, his claim is the result of the study of satellite images.
(By the way, Liu erroneously repeats in 2007 that the source is straddling the boundary between Zaduo and Zhiduo, which is also the divide between the Mekong and the Yangtse basin. Jifu Shan and his original source location are indeed on this divide. But the mountain to the west is not, it is inside the Mekong basin. (See the first photo above.))
Those that favour Guosongmucha above Jifu as the source of the Mekong have come up with arguments to discredit Jifu. I would like to discredit some of these attempts to discredit.
According to Zhou Changjin and Guan Zhihua the Jifu source is less valid than Guosongmucha because the larger part of Jifu’s glacier is located in the Yangtse basin, a smaller part in the Mekong basin. With the new source west of Jifu, and inside the Mekong basin this becomes an irrelevant remark. Furthermore they ‘accuse’ the Jifu / Gaodepu stream of seasonal changes. However, there is nothing seasonal about the glacial source west of Jifu: it will not run dry at any point of year.
Wong How Man in a newspaper article with dateline Taipei, July 11, 2007 calls Jifu a ‘wetland source’ as opposed to the ‘glacial source’ of Guosongmucha, maybe suggesting a glacial source has to be taken more seriously. As seen however: the source west of Jifu is glacial too, located 400 meters higher than the wetland. In the same article he levels against the Jifu / Gaodepu stream that it is only longer than the Guosongmucha / Gaoshanxigu stream because it does a lot of meandering. The Gaoshanxigu doesn’t, ‘it seemed to be because (it) has a much larger flow thus creating a much larger riverbed and allowing the river to flow in a straight line.’ And he suggests ‘a scenario that if it were to have a smaller flow, the river would meander much more, making it longer.’ First I have to dispute the Gaoshanxigu doesn’t meander because of its larger flow. It doesn’t meander because it is mostly hemmed in by somewhat elevated banks. Second meandering is not only influenced by speed and volume of a water flow, but also by factors as softness of terrain. The meandering of the Gaodepu takes place in a relatively short stretch. After coming down from the mountain it flows rather straight through a rocky river bed, then for a couple of kilometers meanders through soft wetland, then for more than half the distance between source and Yeyongsong confluence flows straight again through a hard rocky bed.
Note that despite everything Wong has to say about the Gaodepu and Jifu Shan, he has visited neither.
In 2009 two teams announced their intent go on an expedition to the Mekong headwaters. I don’t know if these have indeed taken place. I have found no record of their results. I can’t exclude the possibility they have come up with findings similar to ours. I readily concede of course if anyone shows proof in the shape of photos or GPS tracks they discovered the source on the mountain west of Jifu before we did.
If they do, my tempting thought of having discovered a ‘new’ Mekong source, and even finally the true Mekong source, was to good to be true.
But it will not take away the immense satisfaction of having found this source by ourselves, not by viewing satellite images, but by actually exploring on the ground, following a stream, climbing a mountain and ending up at the foot of a glacier where ice melts and Mekong water starts to flow.
We drive to Zaduo, then Yushu, then Serxu where we rest in the monastery guesthouse, do laundry, eat well, watch photos, make notes. Then to Garze from where we go our own ways.
Last month at the bus station of Kangding I saw there is a direct bus to Xichang along a route that I don’t know, and from there other unknown bus routes lead into Yunnan and will get me to Kunming, ‘base camp’ for seven years now.
All this week I don’t think of my mother, brother, sister. Not of my father. Not of lovers past and present. Not of friends. Not of Bach or Rush. Not of favorite books. Not of sports results. Not of health worries that I am prone to. Not of upcoming trips. I think of nobody, of nothing that constitutes life for me normally. And I am not even aware I don’t think of them.
There is just this focus. Where to put my feet? Enough food in our day packs? When Luciano is ahead making sure I stay close; when I am ahead looking around to see if he stays close. What is the weather going to do? How to stay safe from nomads’ guard dogs? And if not these questions, I feel my feet hurting.
We reach the source at Guosongmucha. Located lower than Jifu, and the tributary flowing from here is a bit shorter than the Gaodepu that starts at Jifu. But it is more dramatic, its glaciers are more impressive and more water is running more forceful here.
We walk. We follow the Gaodepu and aim for its head below Mount Jifu: the source of the Mekong.
We make our way through a wetland, finding our footing on hummocks. It isn’t difficult, just tiring after a while.
Further up the ground becomes more solid, consisting of stones and pebbles.
We pass the spot where I turned around last year. After I got home, it seemed on Google Earth to be 140 meters or so away from where the river starts. Indeed a little further on we get to this Tibetan style marker of the Mekong’s source. Source?
Disappointment. No glacier, no spring, no pool where water flows from. Instead the lower part of a rocky slope. Here and there tiny streams can still be seen trickling down between the stones. We move higher up and find a first patch of melting ice, and yet higher up a second patch. Feels more like it. We shoot our source pictures. But now we see the edge of the glacier, high above us still. Luciano hesitates: ‘That is at least another hour’. But I can’t turn around now. We start climbing again. Soon it is my turn to hesitate. I feel uneasy on this steep slope of loose stones, slip a few times.
‘Look for bigger stones and keep walking’, says Luciano. That’s what I do. From then on I am not aware of anything.
I am sitting at the foot of the glacier. I think the final climb has taken me five minutes. I remember nothing. Luciano says it has been about forty, with several short breaks.
My GPS reads N 33.45.677, E 94.40.562, altitude 5.374 meters. This is the highest source of the Mekong at the head of its longest branch.
Weather has been good to us today. Hail and rain when we descend, but mild this time. My shoes leak, I didn’t use them in wet conditions for a year.
We pass a small group of picnicking Tibetan nomads. They have bought provisions in Zaduo and are on their way to their grazing lands in the valley of the Gaodepu. That is the longest source river of the Zayaqu, and so of the Mekong. Where the Gaodepu originates, the Mekong originates. We were to visit Zaxiqiwa first but decide to travel together with these people and their two cars.
The road turns into a trail, or less than a trail. Every now and then a car gets stuck. Then there is pushing or towing – laughing, enthusiastically. Sometimes it seems clumsy, with a car sinking only deeper in the bog. Once it takes an hour and a half. But in the end we always move on.
Striking T-shirt of the youngest driver. No wall for him. He is living in one of the freest spaces on earth.
‘Famous band, famous album’, I try to explain. But he has no idea. Let alone of complicated western associations with settlement programs of the Chinese government, that house nomads in new permanent villages and put an end to their traditional way of living out on the grasslands with their yaks. A measure to protect the soil and the environment according to some, a measure to better control the people according to others.
No wall for him. But what will the future hold?
For the first time we pitch Luciano’s small tent of Swiss brand H. ‘The Rolls Royce among tents’, he says, ‘even 12 years ago it cost a thousand dollars’. At midnight another terrible hailstorm. Nothing to do but sit up straight in a sleeping bag and wait what will happen. To my surprise the tent holds out. Then water starts leaking through the bottom and I am not surprised anymore. ‘Oh well, it is getting older and I didn’t use it for a few years’.
Ahh, this was the view of the day, of the Tuo Ji tributary (from right) joining the Mekong.