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.

Mekongexpeditie – 15 juli en daarna

We rijden naar Zaduo, daarna Yushu, daarna Serxu waar we rusten in het klooster guesthouse, de was doen, goed eten, foto’s bekijken, aantekeningen maken. En daarna naar Garze waar onze wegen scheiden.

Vorige maand zag ik op het busstation van Kangding dat er een rechtstreekse bus naar Xichang gaat via een route die ik niet ken, en van daar zullen andere onbekende bus routes me naar Yunnan en Kunming brengen, basiskamp sinds zeven jaar.

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.

Mekong expedition – July 9

It’s an uncomfortable ride from Yushu to Zaduo. Bumpy and slow, made so by road works. The accompanying encampments and installations are an eyesore on the grasslands. Two high passes are still beautiful but a tunnel is being dug underneath one of them.

Closer to Zaduo the Mekong, swift and brown-red. Tibetan prayer flags span the river, so do bridges under construction.

Mekong near Zaduo

I meet up with Luciano. He is nearing the end of his eight month walk along the Mekong. We first met on the internet, then in Savannakhet in southern Laos (on the Mekong indeed), and decided to team up to get to the river’s sources.

We meet up with driver Renqing who drove me to Zaxiqiwa last year. That is the most easily accessible source of the Mekong, revered by indigenuous Tibetan nomads for whom this is a spiritual place.

The idea is he will drop us at Zaxiqiwa again. From there we will walk to the Jifu and Guosongmucha sources, about 160 kilometers there and back. Those are higher up and seen as the Mekong’s real sources by the more rationally and scientifically inclined – Chinese, Japanese, westerners.

But we change plan. Renqing says he can get us closer to the sources with his jeep.

It is the bears. Local people warn attacks have occurred, people have died. They simply rip your tent apart. There is no defence. Bears used to stay clear of people when they still carried guns. But the government doesn’t allow that anymore.

‘Don’t worry about wolves’, they add  reassuringly, ‘they don’t do harm to humans’. They are in wild lands, the Mekong’s headwaters.

No doubt the bear threat exists. No doubt too the threat is exaggerated. But I am the worrying type. So we will travel more by jeep. And whenever possible camp near some of the rare nomad encampments where yaks, guard dogs and more people live, and where bears steer clear of.

Mekongexpeditie – 9 juli

Het is een oncomfortabele rit van Yushu naar Zaduo. Het hobbelt en het schiet niet op vanwege wegwerkzaamheden. De bijbehorende kampementen en installaties doen op de fraaie graslanden zeer aan je ogen. Twee passen liggen er nog mooi bij, maar onder de ene wordt een tunnel gegraven.

Dichter bij Zaduo de Mekong, roodbruin en snelstromend. Tibetaanse gebedsvlaggen overspannen de rivier, bruggen in aanbouw ook.

De Mekong nabij Zaduo

Ik zie Luciano weer. Hij nadert het einde van zijn acht maanden durende wandeling langs de Mekong. We ontmoetten elkaar eerst op het internet, toen in Savannakhet in het zuiden van Laos (inderdaad, aan de Mekong), en besloten samen naar de bronnen van de rivier te gaan.

Ik zie chauffeur Renqing weer die me vorig jaar naar Zaxiqiwa reed. Dat is de meest toegankelijke bron van de Mekong, aanbeden door de inheemse Tibetaanse nomaden voor wie het een spirituele plek is.

Het idee is dat hij ons nu weer naar Zaxiqiwa brengt. Dan lopen we verder naar de Jifu en Guosongmucha bronnen, heen en weer ongeveer 160 kilometer. Die liggen hoger en verder stroomopwaarts en worden beschouwd als de werkelijke bronnen van de Mekong door degenen met een meer rationele en wetenschappelijke kijk op de wereld – Chinezen, Japanners, westerlingen.

Maar we veranderen van plan. Renqing zegt dat hij ons met zijn jeep een stuk verder kan brengen.

Het zijn de beren. Lokale mensen waarschuwen dat er mensen zijn aangevallen en gedood. Ze rijten je tent uiteen, je kunt er niets tegen beginnen. Ze waren schuw zolang de nomaden nog geweren hadden, maar dat mag van de overheid niet meer.

‘Maak je geen zorgen om de wolven’, zeggen ze er geruststellend bij, ‘die doen mensen geen kwaad’. Het is een wilde wereld, waar de Mekong ontspringt.

Ongetwijfeld bestaat de dreiging van beren. Ongetwijfeld ook wordt de dreiging overdreven. Maar ik behoor tot het zich zorgen makende slag. Dus we zullen meer per jeep reizen. En als het kan overnachten bij de weinige ver uit elkaar liggende nomadenkampementen waar jaks en waakhonden en groepjes mensen leven, die door beren worden gemeden.

To the source of the Mekong – Two

We set out from Zaduo again, it’s three days later. Only driver Renqing comes with us this time. He grew up in the Zaxiqiwa area, and he speaks Chinese though Tibetan is his mother tongue. So no need for a guide or interpreter.

He shows little mercy for his Chinese built pick-up truck. Stretches of rough road, potholes, streams – he just pushes on. Once, when ahead the trail gets very muddy, I manage to convince him to take a detour – but that is an exception.

We get to the spot where we got stuck. I want to check first. But he only stops to shift to four-wheel drive mode. He takes a shallower passage. I am sure I feel my feet getting wet. But it’s imagination. We have crossed.

More tributaries of the Mekong follow. Renqing volunteers the name of each of them. We get to the river’s main stream and drive further upstream.

Then the road turns west and leaves the Mekong. So do we.

Marco and Eric are artists who have asked me to facilitate their trip to the origins of the Yellow River and Mekong. We had long discussions: which sources to go to? Several choices are possible, as previous blog posts show. In the end for the Mekong they decided on Zaxiqiwa – the ‘spiritual’ source of the river revered by local Tibetan people. I can’t argue with their artistic decisions of course. But being the more rational type I am disappointed I will not get to the source of my choice, the ‘scientific’ one at the head of the Mekong’s longest tributary, at the foot of Jifu Mountain.

This is why we leave the Mekong’s main stream.

A low pass. Ahead the Zaxiqiwa plain, maybe 15 kilometers across, ringed by hills, dotted with countless silver blue pools. Its green more fresh than any we have seen in the 1,800 kilometers we drove to get here from Xining.

A pang. I am caught off guard. We stop briefly, but the urge to enter this place is stronger than to take in its view. We descend and move across the plain to the Mekong’s Zaxiqiwa source. The sound of birds, the sound of the wind. Brilliant end-of-afternoon light. It’s a moving place to be and one of the purest on earth. The meaning of ‘spiritual source’ dawns on me.

Zaxiqiwa, ‘spiritual’ source of the Mekong

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.

Vrij dicht bij elkaar: de oorsprong van de Yangtse, Gele Rivier en Mekong

Drie van Azië’s langste rivieren, de Yangtse (6.300km), Gele Rivier (5.500 km) en Mekong (4.900 km), hebben hun bron allemaal in de Chinese provincie Qinghai, op het noordelijke deel van de Tibetaanse hoogvlakte.

Lijkt een opmerkelijk gegeven. Maar rivieren die in dit verste binnenland en op dit hoogste plateau ontspringen hebben niet veel andere keus dan onderweg naar zee de langste te worden.

Ze komen bovendien alle drie uit de prefectuur Yushu (de administratieve eenheid onder provincie niveau). En twee van hen, de Yangtse en de Mekong, komen zelfs beide uit de county Zaduo (de administratieve eenheid onder prefectuur niveau).

Dit als je de lengte van de langste tak van een rivier als criterium neemt om te bepalen wat zijn bron is.

De introductie van satelliet metingen heeft vaststelling van rivierlengtes eenvoudiger en betrouwbaarder gemaakt. Het heeft geleid tot de ‘verplaatsing’ van de bron van alle drie de rivieren. De Dang Qu blijkt een langere arm van de Yangtse dan de Tuotuo He waardoor zijn bron, traditioneel bij Geladandong ten westen van Yushu, nu in Zaduo county komt te liggen. De Kari Qu blijkt langer dan de Yueguzong Qu waardoor de bron van de Gele Rivier naar het grondgebied van Yushu verschuift. De onenigheid over de oorsprong van de Mekong zal wat dit betreft niet uitmaken: de bron blijft in alle gevallen in Zaduo county.