To the source of the Mekong – One

The car fills with the whispered Tibetan prayers of the man from Zaduo. I have asked him to join, none of us knows the way.

The first high mountain pass draws oohs and aahs for its beauty. But we don’t pause, focused as we are on our aim: the Mekong’s source at Zaxiqiwa.

Otherwise we are silent.

The local guide announces ten mountain passes. I soon lose count. Marco doesn’t.

The road winds up and down, right and left. A labyrinth in an empty world.

I make notes, see what my GPS has got to say about our progress.

We approach a river. I jot down it is the biggest stream we have seen so far. When I look up we are in the middle already – and stuck.

Ten centimeters of water soon fill the car. We crawl out through the back, in hopes the water is less deep than left and right perhaps. Or because instinctively people always choose the shortest way to safety. I am sure it looks comical.

Phuntsok has set out without anything one may need: chain or rope for towing, tools, jerrycan, spade, plastic to keep luggage dry. I still bought the latter two – but should have checked better.

After a while a truck. The driver has a rope, we have a cord that ties our luggage together. They wind them together. – that’s clever, I think. It pulls our car out of the river. But it kind of drowned, can’t be brought back to life. The truck moves on, we have to turn back to Zaduo – somehow.

We had gotten halfway.

A tractor shows up. A stroke of good luck. It is in the area because of a grass-sowing program that should prevent soil erosion.

This time there is only our luggage cord to pull our car. It snaps right away.

The tractor goes, comes back much later with a steel cable, tows us up a pass where its driver makes it known he doesn’t have enough gas to tow us any further and takes off. Soon after our guide from Zaduo also leaves in a rare passing car, it has one empty seat.

Darkness falls, we warm some food, pitch tents.

Not so far from each other: the sources of the Yangtse, Yellow River and Mekong

Three of Asia’s longest rivers, the Yangtse (6,300 km), Yellow River (5,500 km) and Mekong (4,900 km) all have their source in China’s Qinghai province, at the northern part of the Tibetan plateau.

Seems like a remarkable fact. But rivers that start furthest inland and at this highest plateau don’t have much choice but to become the longest on their way to the sea.

Besides all three come from Yushu prefecture (the administrative unit below provincial level). And two of them, the Yangtse and Mekong, even come from the same county of Zaduo (the administrative unit below prefectural level).

This if you accept the length of a river’s longest tributary as the criterion to determine a river’s source.

Introduction of satellite measurements has made establishment of river lengths more easy and more reliable. It has led to the ‘relocation’ of the source of all three rivers. The Dang Qu turns out to be a longer tributary of the Yangtse than the Tuotuo He so that its source, traditionally at Geladandong west of Yushu, moves to Zaduo county. The Kari Qu turns out to be longer than the Yueguzong Qu, shifting the Yellow River’s source to the territory of Yushu. The disagreement about the Mekong’s source doesn’t matter in this respect: it will remain in Zaduo county, whatever the outcome.

Phuntsok – the road to Qumalai – Phuntsok

Authorities that don’t allow you to travel in their area, terrible weather, impassable roads – you consider all kinds of stumbling blocks and problems. What if at the end of the road no horses or motorbikes are available to continue your trip, what if one of us gets altitude sickness? You have pondered it. But an obstructive driver hasn’t crossed your mind.

This time I have to be plee before Phuntsok (I may have altered his name, then again I may not) is willing to drive to Yushu via Qumalai instead of via Maduo where we have been already.

He complains about the fuel price. Can’t think of a more illogical argument because he will have to get gas anyway and the way to Qumalai is shorter than to Maduo. Besides: I warned him three days ago there may be no gas station here, I offered buying a jerrycan for him. There was no need, he would take care of it, a friend had told him gas was available here. It is, but it has been transported here in drums and comes at double the normal price.

He: ‘I don’t know that road.’ Me: ‘Neither do I, that’s why I want to take it.’

It goes on for a bit. Then for once he gives in.

It is empty and beautiful.

We enter the valley of the Kari Qu, so wide that it is a plain. The Kari Qu is a tributary of the Yellow River. The longest even, modern satellite measurements show. That’s why some argue the head of the Kari Qu should be recognized as the source of the Yellow River. Traditionally the start of the Yueguzonglie stream is viewed as such. That is the source we visited, and the one that the road signs (flawed as they are) direct you to.

A mountain pass, 4.840 meters says my GPS. We are on the divide of the Yellow River and the Yangtse basin.

I have traveled thousands of kilometers through the Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai. But landscapes continue to come up with something new. This time it is black-grey rocks and rubble that rise above the grassland. They remind of past volcanic activity, but there are no other traces of it.

Qumalai. It has been a long day. I want to head to my hotel room. But there is Phuntsok. He wants money. Since day one he complains about his allowance for food and lodging, even though it was agreed on with his boss. His first week isn’t out yet, but I give him another week’s allowance. An attempt to get some goodwill. It will proof fruitless.

The school that failed

The flag has sunk half-mast. So has the basketball board. The school is closed down.

The man minding the premises explains that the road from Maduo was too unreliable a supply line. It passes straight through a swamp, often is not passable. Then staff and students ended up without provisions.

A case of idealism overtaken by reality.

The retreat of ‘development’, civilisation’ or whatever you like to call it may be temporary though. China 2012 is determined not to let nature obstruct its countless infrastructural projects. On a low ridge on the horizon bulldozers and heavy trucks are moving about.

Five years from now? Who’s to say? A tourist bus on a short stop at a small school, ten kilometers of asphalt to go to its destination, the head of the Yellow River?

To the Yellow River source – Final stretch

It is an ugly place. A now defunct school. A few low buildings. Garbage and mud. An unfinished bridge – our car had to stay at the other side. At the edge of this dilapidated settlement that sign: seven kilometers to the Yellow River source.

I have been waiting for four hours. Marco and Eric have left on the back of the two available motorcycles. The drivers said it was a 45 minute transfer. They would come back to pick me up.

I wait on the bridge. I wait in the courtyard. I wait in the car. It rains and I wait in the one heated kitchen.

Five hours. There are those who can wait calmly, take a nap, concentrate on something else, read a book. I am not among them. I wait and do nothing.

Seven hours. Almost dark. They show up, exhausted, cold and wet. A bit of a hellish story of ankle deep mud and knee deep water.

They have made it to the source. In mountaineering: expedition succeeded when at least one member reaches the top. No need for an expedition organizer to get there himself. Or is it? Everybody knows Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. But who remembers James Hunt?

They offer to wait for me tomorrow while I go to the Yellow River source with one of the motorbike drivers. I consider. But my heart is much more with the Mekong source that we will aim for next. I am afraid we may need the extra day spent here for that attempt. I decide we move on.

To the Yellow River source – Beating the misleading signs

Setting out from Maduo we first came to this Bull’s Head statue with the inscription underneath explaining it is a monument to the Yellow River source.

Fifty 50 meters away a stone marker even pretends you are actually there and just says: ‘Yellow River source’.

That source though is still more than 200 kilometers away. Who could be fooled into believing he is at a river source here? These markers are high on a hill between two lakes making for a beautiful viewpoint but there is no spring, no brook, no water running down from here.

We moved on. I kept track of where we were and how far we had to go by means of kilometer markers. Their numbers went up until 108, but then started counting down from 222, then became unreadable. There was only this dirt road though, so it couldn’t be we lost our way.

We stayed overnight at Maduo – not to be confused with the earlier Maduo. This one is much smaller and though transcribed in western alphabet the names seem identical, written in Chinese characters the two are different.

Soon after leaving the next morning we came to a junction with this sign.

We turned left. 41 kilometers to go. Or was it? No useful map, paper or digital, exists of this region. But I had entered the coordinates of the river’s source in my GPS and it gave me the distance to our destination as the crow flies. I soon became suspicious. We got closer – but very slowly. We ran into another car after about 15 kilometers, a fortunate coincidence in these empty parts, and asked the driver. We should have turned right.

It took a bit of a headache to work this out. But this sign is exactly correct when turned 90 degrees right. By which I mean either turn the sign including its poles right (in a horizontal way), or leave the poles where they are and turn just the sign on top of them (in a vertical way). If you can still follow.

Next post: was this final sign correct? And did we reach the river’s source?