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 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.

Mekongexpeditie – 13 juli

De hele trip denk ik niet aan mijn moeder, broer of zus. Niet aan mijn vader. Niet aan vriendinnen van vroeger of nu. Niet aan andere vrienden. Niet aan Bach of Rush. Niet aan favoriete boeken. Niet aan sportuitslagen. Niet aan kwalen en ziektes waarover ik me makkelijk en nodeloos zorgen maak. Niet aan komende reizen. Ik denk aan niemand, en aan geen van de dingen die normaal mijn leven bepalen. En ik ben me niet eens bewust dat ik daar allemaal niet aan denk.

Alleen maar die focus. Waar zet ik mijn voeten? Genoeg eten in onze dagrugzakken? Raak ik niet ver achterop bij Luciano; of omgekeerd? Wat gaat het weer doen? Hoe houden we ons de waakhonden van de nomaden van het lijf? En wanneer ik me die dingen niet afvraag, voel ik mijn zere voeten.

We lopen.

We bereiken de Mekongbron bij Mount Guosongmucha. Lager gelegen dan de Jifu-bron, en de riviertak die hier begint is korter dan de Gaodepu die ontspringt bij Jifu. Maar hij is dramatischer, de gletsjers zijn indrukwekkender en de waterstroom is groter en veel krachtiger.

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.

De bronnen van de Mekong bereikt

Op 12 juli 2013 bereikte ik, samen met Zwitser Luciano Lepre, de bron van de Mekong aan de voet van de gletsjer van Mount Jifu, in het leegste deel van China’s provincie Qinghai.

Een dag later bezochten we ook de bron op Mount Guosongmucha. Sommigen vinden nog steeds dat dat de werkelijke bron van de Mekong is omdat de riviertak die hier ontspringt meer water afvoert dan de rivier die ontspringt op Jifu, hoewel inmiddels is aangetoond dat de Jifu bron hoger ligt en zijn rivier langer is.

Het is verleidelijk te denken dat wij de eersten zijn die beide bronnen hebben bereikt. Expedities die sinds het midden van de jaren 1990 op pad gingen om te bepalen wat nu de echte bron van de Mekong is concentreerden zich merkwaardig genoeg op òf Guosongmucha òf Jifu en namen niet de moeite ook nog naar de andere bron te gaan.

Een jaar geleden kwam ik al heel dichtbij de Jifu bron, zoals je in eerdere blogberichten kunt zien. Een dun stroompje Mekong water zocht zijn weg tussen stenen, keien, de eerste sneeuw. Ik telde mijn bronpoging half. Maar twijfel knaagde: mijn gps-track geprojecteerd op Google Earth liet achteraf zien dat ik nog 140 meter verwijderd was geweest van een sneeuwveld dat eruit zag als het begin van de rivier. Deze keer bleek me dat de voet van de Jifu gletsjer in werkelijkheid zelfs nog een kilometer verder lag, en 250 meter hoger.

Ik ben blij – maak er maar van heel blij – nu geen twijfels meer te hebben de bronnen van de Mekong bereikt te hebben.

Bron van de Mekong, Mount Jifu gletsjer, mijn GPS gaf aan NB 33.45.671, OL 94.40.562,  hoogte 5.374 meter.

Toevoeging Later wist ik te bepalen dat deze hoogste gletsjer, waar de Mekong ontspringt, niet op Mount Jifu ligt, maar op de berg die er aan de westkant naast ligt. De genoemde GPS locatie is correct.