A new Mekong source – the true one at last?

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.

Mekong expedition – July 15 and after

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.

Mekong expedition – July 13

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 walk.

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.

Mekong expedition – July 12

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.

Mekong expedition – July 11

Not a day as planned.

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.

Mekongexpeditie – 11 juli

Geen dag volgens plan.

We passeren een groepje picknickende Tibetaanse nomaden. Ze hebben voorraden gekocht in Zaduo en zijn op weg naar hun weidegronden in de vallei van de Gaodepu. Dat is de langste bronrivier van de Zayaqu, en dus van de Mekong. Waar de Gaodepu ontspringt, ontspringt de Mekong. We hadden eerst nog naar Zaxiqiwa willen gaan maar besluiten het, ook letterlijk, links te laten liggen en samen met deze mensen en hun twee auto’s te reizen.

De weg wordt een spoor en soms nog minder dan dat. Af en toe loopt een van de auto’s vast. Dan wordt er lachend en enthousiast geduwd en gesleept. Het lijkt soms geklungel waarbij we van de regen in de drup raken. Maar uiteindelijk wordt iedereen altijd weer vlot getrokken, al duurt het een keer anderhalf uur.

Pakkend T-shirt van de jongste chauffeur. Geen muur voor hem. Hij leeft in een van de vrijste ruimtes op aarde.

‘Beroemde band, beroemde plaat’, probeer ik hem uit te leggen. Maar hij heeft er geen benul van. Laat staan van ingewikkelde westerse associaties met huisvestingsprogramma van de Chinese overheid, waarbij de nomaden worden samengebracht in nieuwe permanente nederzettingen en een einde wordt gemaakt aan hun traditionele bestaan met hun vee op de graslanden. Volgens voorstanders een maatregel om bodem en milieu te beschermen, volgens tegenstanders om de bevolking meer te controleren.

Geen muur voor hem. Maar in de toekomst?

We zetten voor het eerst Luciano’s  tentje van het Zwitserse merk H. op. ‘De Rolls Royce onder de tenten’, laat hij weten, ‘kostte twaalf jaar geleden al 1.000 dollar’. Tegen middernacht noodweer met hagel en ijsregen. Er valt niets te doen dan in je slaapzak overeind zitten en wachten wat er komen gaat. Tot mijn verbazing houdt de tent het. Dan gaat het grondzeil lekken en houdt mijn verbazing op. ‘Oh, nou ja, hij wordt oud en ik heb hem al een tijd niet gebruikt’.

Ahh, dit was het uitzicht van de dag, op de Tuo Ji zijrivier (van rechts) die uitkomt in de Mekong.

Mekong expedition – July 10

We bump along the atrocious ‘road’ that leads out of Zaduo. When not holding on to my seat or the door handle I do things that are just about impossible – making notes, eating bread and cheese, sending a text message as long as we are still within range of Zaduo’s mobile signal.

On the first pass driver Renqing throws small prayer papers to the heavens. Maybe they protect us from serious mishap. But not from his car breaking down, 25 kilometers out of Zaduo we have to turn back. Repairs take hours, when we set out again it is late afternoon. We certainly will not get to Zaxiqiwa, that we were aiming for today.

Renqing chooses another route than last year, staying south of the Mekong, locally called the Zaqu, and for a while we don’t see the river. Near dusk we rejoin it, then get to a confluence. I am in doubt momentarily, than excitedly realize we have come to Ganasongdou, a major spot for Mekong explorers.

From west (right in this picture) flows the Zanaqu (‘Black River’), from north the Zayaqu (‘White River’), and together from here they are the Zaqu. In 1994 explorer Michel Peissel claimed he had discovered the source of the Mekong at the head of the western Zanaqu. However, he approached its headwaters by sticking even further to the south than we have done today, and only further west at the hamlet of Moyun he joined the Zanaqu. He never actually saw the Ganasong confluence. If he had he would have realized that the northern Zayaqu is the larger of the two rivers with a higher water discharge. It subsequently turned out too that the Zayaqu is longer, and therefore that the source of the Mekong had to be at the head of the Zayaqu.

A terrible hailstorm breaks when we have half pitched Renqing’s tall tent. It collapses. We dash for shelter in the car. After, we roll out our sleeping bags in a nearby empty tent, left by nomads no doubt. Call it a stroke of good luck. It is gone when we return a couple of days later.

Renqing blocks the entrance with his car. Then scours the vicinity – for bears?

Renqing snores, I hear from 3.00 to 6.00 am.

Mekongexpeditie – 10 juli

We stuiteren over de ‘weg’ die van Zaduo naar het westen loopt. Ik zoek houvast aan de achterbank of het portier en doe dingen die nauwelijks gaan – notities maken, brood en kaas snijden, sms-en zolang we nog binnen bereik van Zaduo’s zendmasten zijn.

Op de eerste bergpas strooit chauffeur Renqing gebedspapiertjes hemelwaarts. Misschien beschermen ze ons tegen ernstige problemen. Maar niet tegen autopech, 25 kilometer buiten Zaduo moeten we omkeren. Reparatie duurt uren, als we weer op pad gaan is het laat in de middag. Zaxiqiwa, ons doel van vandaag, zullen we zeker niet bereiken.

Renqing kiest een andere route dan vorig jaar, zuidelijk van de Mekong die lokaal de Zaqu heet. Tegen de schemer voegen we ons weer bij de rivier. Dan komen we aan een samenvloeiing van twee stromen. Ik twijfel even, realiseer me dan opgetogen dat dit Ganasongdou is, een belangrijke plek voor Mekongontdekkers.

Vanuit het westen (rechts op de foto) stroomt de Zanaqu (‘Zwarte Rivier’), vanuit het noorden de Zayaqu (‘Witte Rivier’), samen heten ze vanaf hier Zaqu. In 1994 reisde Michel Peissel  naar de plek waar de westelijke Zanaqu ontspringt en hij claimde dat hij daarmee de bron van de Mekong had ontdekt. Maar hij bereikte het brongebied door vanuit Zaduo nog zuidelijker aan te houden dan wij vandaag hebben gedaan, pas een stuk verder naar het westen bij het gehucht Moyun voegde hij zich bij de rivier. De samenvloeiing bij Ganasong heeft hij nooit gezien. Had hij dat wel, dan zou hij opgemerkt hebben dat de noordelijke Zayaqu de grotere van de twee rivieren is die meer water afvoert. In de jaren daarop kwam ook vast te staan dat de Zayaqu langer is en dat de bron van de Mekong dus gezocht moet worden in het brongebied van de Zayaqu.

Een snijdende hagelstorm barst los als we Renqing’s hoge tent half hebben opgezet. Het zaakje stort in. We vluchten de auto in. Als de bui voorbij is leggen we onze slaapzakken in een lege tent die even verderop staat, achtergelaten door nomaden. Noem het een gelukje. Als we hier op de terugweg langs komen is hij weg.

Renqing blokkeert met zijn jeep de ingang. Dan speurt hij de omgeving af, turend in het donker, schijnend met een zaklamp – zoekend naar tekenen van beren?

Renqing snurkt, hoor ik ‘s nachts van 3.00 tot 6.00.

The Mekong sources reached

On July 12, 2013, together with Swiss Luciano Lepre, I reached the source of the Mekong at the foot of the glacier of Jifu Mountain, in the emptiest parts of China’s Qinghai province.

The next day we also visited the source at Guosongmucha Mountain, still favored by some as the Mekong’s true source on the grouds that the tributary running from here has a higher water discharge than the river running from Jifu, even though the Jifu source is located higher and its river is longer.

It is tempting to think we are the first ever to have reached both these sources. Expeditions that since the mid 1990’s set out to establish which is the Mekong’s real source very strangely concentrated on either Guosongmucha or Jifu and didn’t bother to visit the other.

I had come close to reaching the Jifu source a year ago, as you can see in previous blog posts. Trickles of Mekong water made their way between stones, pebbles, a first patch of snow. I half counted my source bid, but there was nagging doubt: my gps-track of the trip projected on Google Earth subsequently showed I had been a mere 140 meters away from the start of a snow field that looked like the source. I found out this time it was in fact even another kilometer to the glacier foot, located 250 meter higher. It feels good – make that: very good – I am left with no doubts this time about reaching the Mekong’s source.

 Source of the Mekong, Mount Jifu glacier, my GPS read N 33.45.671,  E 94.40.562, altitude 5.374 meters.

Postscript Later I determined that this highest glacier, where the Mekong starts, is not on Mount Jifu, but on the mountain to its west. The GPS location mentioned is correct.