AT THE SOURCE OF THE MEKONG

Wong How Man
Mekong Source, Zadoi, Qinghai - 13 May 2007

Frozen Bytes - Technology struggling with the coldWe are at our most forward camp, near 5,000 meters. Most of the computers we brought along are not working – they are frozen, literally. Although I have kept mine inside my sleeping bag to keep it warm, the extended battery that usually delivers at least six hours of power is showing only half of that capacity. This is to be expected in such extreme climate. Even my most energetic team members are slowing as they expend calories trying to keep warm. It is in the middle of May, but when I awoke at 6 am, I found an overnight storm had deposited a 10-centimeter carpet of fluffy white snow on our campsite.

When we arrived the previous afternoon, the sun was shining and we were all excited about the ultimate march to the Mekong source.

Mekong Expedition in snowThe expedition base camp covered by snow

The drive to base camp over the riverbed of this Mekong tributary had not been easy – it was barely more than three meters wide in most places. After setting camp, we sent our guides to the nearest nomadic camp and asked them to arrange to have 15 horses delivered to our camp at 9 am the next day. We joked that 9 am might translate into noon for the Tibetans. With that cover of snow, we felt we would be lucky indeed if the horses arrived by noon for our final trek to the glacier source of the Mekong River.

Until the snow began to fall, we had been most lucky. At Zadoi, the town closest to the Mekong source, we were pleased to discover we would not have to make an anticipated 10-day roundtrip horseback ride to and from the source. We were told a road had been built to the source just a year ago. Though it came from vice country chief Ding – who said he had driven that road all the way to the glacier just days ago, that claim turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. When we finally drove out, the road ended about 30 kilometers from the source. We had to drive the rest of the way over riverbed and bumpy grassland. A few faint motorcycle tracks gave us some indication of where we should drive.

Martin Ruzek, formerly with NASA and now acting as CERS’ Earth System Scientist, has been using a global positioning system. His real-time tracking of our path and directions assured us we were on course, getting ever closer to the source. He had compared previous reports by several groups organized by the Chinese Academy of Science since the early 1990s. The source’s origin has been hotly debated over the years and now with detailed satellite and radar images from space, we are certain our team is pursuing the scientifically correct source, the longest tributary from the mouth of the Mekong.

A day earlier, our guides had taken us on a long detour to visit the spiritual or traditional source, a mysterious phenomena with a group of water springs on an earth mound. Local Tibetans believe this to be the source of the Zaqu, or uppermost reaches of the Mekong. CERS’ goal is the scientific source. Both are important, and we were determined to see the two of them.

Wild WolfA lone wolf near the river sourceOn the day we traveled the remote region between the two sources, we saw many Tibetan Gazelles, a herd of Wild Ass, a wolf and two pairs of Black-necked Cranes. Wolves are usually apprehensive of large groups of people, but this one stayed close to use for a long time. We also found a pair of Wild Yak horns, suggesting there would be live animals nearby. Their presence probably led to the increase in local domestic yaks’ size, since wild and domestic yaks occasionally mate when nomads herd their livestock into the mountains.

We decided to proceed on horseback when one of our Land Rovers became mired in the riverbed among rocks and water. The GPS showed we were only 6.5 kilometers – as the crow flies – from the glacier source. While it seemed a manageable distance, the terrain was unforgiving, with uneven clumps of earth and myriad water holes dotting the land around us. It would be impossible to hike on foot without getting sucked into the mud every other step. Would the horses arrive even as the snow continued to fall?

The flakes began to drift down more slowly. As I gazed north towards the nomad’s camps, I spied horses’ heads rising above the low ridge in front of me. I called out to the team members to announce caravan’s arrival. After half an hour of saddling up and tweaking the gear, we were off.

The long line of horses meandering through the marshes made quite a spectacle, but my mind was focused on the ultimate glacier source of the mighty Mekong. Luckily, the snow stopped as we proceeded towards our goal and we could see patches of blue sky. The stream we were following grew narrower, until it was less than a meter across – and then it split into two. With GPS in hand, Martin was certain the stream to the right was the one to follow, as he has studied these tributaries from space images over and over again.

Bill BleischCERS Science Director Dr. Bill Bleisch checking the GPS coordinatesAfter a 90-minute ride, we reached a ridge at 5,100 meters where a stone slab stood with the inscription “Langcang Jiang Yuan” (Mekong River Source). But the physical source should be hidden behind a mound of gravel about 100 meters higher, at the tongue of a small glacier. Since it had been snowing heavily, many areas were covered and no horse could take us up the steep incline. The team was exhausted from the rarefied air and most seemed content where they were, taking a picture in front of the demarcation stone.

Without consulting the others, Martin and I went on ahead, inching our way up the loose gravel side of the hill. As I stopped to catch my breath, I glimpsed behind me our UK filmmaker Chris Dickenson, Wang Chih Hung from Taiwan, as well as Bill Bleisch and Berry all following us. We had to make our own switch-back path to climb this last hill, breathless though we all were. It took another 30 minutes to reach the top of another small flat area at 5,175 meters. The glacier source of the Mekong was in front of us, and we were actually 20 meters or so above the snow-covered glacier’s tongue.

We took numerous perspective shots and even some panorama record shots to document this important place, and important moment. Then we slowly descended to the glacier’s head. It was crucial that Martin take an accurate GPS reading of our location’s coordinates. Though our readings differed slightly from an earlier recording by the Chinese Academy of Science team, the discrepancy was within an acceptable margin of error. Since glaciers throughout the Tibetan plateau are receding due to global warming, the earlier record may be slightly shorter than our latest one. Classic doctrine dictates measuring a river according to its furthest source from the mouth, so our reading may be longer than the previous one.
The magnificent scenery and the sacred feeling of being at the Mekong’s source overwhelmed my thought. For me, spirituality takes dominance over science. Those who could not experience the special moment themselves would consider scientific fact more important.

I collected four tiny rocks as my lucky charms from the source. At a small patch of snow about 20 meters from the glacier tongue, I pushed through a hole of packed snow and reached an icy pool of running water about 20 centimeters below my feet. I wanted to get on my knees to drink from this sacred water hole – despite my fears of plunging through the snow. With respect, I used my hands to cup the water and drink.

Withstanding the bite of the freezing water, I submerged the four bottles I brought along to collect water samples for later analysis. It did not occur to me that chemical analysis could show the contents contain heavy metals or bacteria rendering them unfit to drink. Wong How Man drinking from the   Mekong sourceWong How Man drinking from the source of the MekongFor a mega river that feeds the lifeline of six countries and tens of millions of people downstream, the thought that the water could be toxic is like blasphemy. The water here must be spiritually pure, whatever elements it may contain.

We lingered as long as we could and descended again to the stone inscription marking the dividing ridge. The rest of the team was waiting for us. After snapping many photos of the whole group, we mounted our horses for the ride back to camp. The weather had turned for the worse and snow began falling. But no one complained as we had met our goal.

“33°42’38.8”N 94°41’45.4”E, 12:45 May 13, 2007.” This is an important piece of data indeed. The coordinates are scientific, the time personal. Drinking from the source of a great river of the world, and old Chinese saying springs to mind again: “When drinking water, think about the source.” I also recalled what I wrote having had my first taste of the water from the source of the Yangtze more than two decades ago. “The water is freezing, but it warms my heart.”