WITH THE CERS TEAM TO THE SOURCE OF THE SALWEEN:
NOTES FROM THE TRAIL

Dr William Bleisch
Chengdu - June 2011

Flowers of source region June 10th: After a tough but productive CERS Board Meeting, Howman, Berry Sin, Wang Zhihong, Chris (with all his gear for film-making), Sharon and I travel by car from Hong Kong across the border at the giant highway side border-crossing to Shenzhen and then on by plane to Dunhuang, with a stop in Xi’an. There, we meet the rest of the CERS team with the five CERS Land Rovers, already equipped for the harsh conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. Fresh from the office, my head is still full of donor visits, budgets and reports. No wonder I never have a thought worth writing anymore!  Still, it is good to be back in the open spaces again.

June 11th, 11:00: At the Kunlun Mountain pass, there are several monuments, including one that is very meaningful to me; the monument to Suonandajie, the county leader who was martyred in the struggle to stop poaching of the Tibetan Antelope in Kekexili.  He was killed by poachers near this spot. Clear skies and cumulus clouds.  

Chris and Will spot a Tibetan Gazelle just below the pass – our first wildlife. We pass many small herds and individual Gazelle and a few Wild Yak, then more and more wildlife, including one herd of 53 Tibetan Antelope. All the Antelope are female except one male with horns slightly shorter than an adult’s – perhaps he is 2 years old. It is the beginning of the migration of females, who are crossing the road east to west on their way to calving grounds in the remote center of the Kunlun range. They still have a long way to go before the start of calving next month.

High tension power lines are being installed parallel to the road and train tracks. This has become a corridor of infrastructure separating two adjacent nature reserves – the Kekexili Nature Reserve to the west, and the Three Rivers Source Nature Reserve to the east. There is not much truck traffic on the road to Lhasa now, most freight travels along the new train tracks. 

Dr Bleisch on horseJune 12th, Camp 1, 4700 meters above sea level, near the Tangula Mountain pass, 8:10: Our first morning camping out. The tents are already down and the camp is already packed up. What an efficient team! I still feel lousy, however, from the rapid ascent. I can only move as if in slow motion, but this too will pass. A Power Bar and a cup of Starbucks instant coffee for breakfast under an overcast sky picks me up. Prayer flags flutter above the Tibetan village and in front of snow-covered mountains beyond. First one, then a pair, then more pairs of Ruddy Shellducks fly west calling. The sound seems sad, but it makes be happy to hear, since to my ears it means the Tibetan Plateau.

14:29: We cross the upper reaches of the Salween River, only a small rivulet here near the source. The habitat is wet meadows with clumps of hard grasses scattered among short grass and sedges. The ground is treacherous here, especially those areas without much vegetation and with scattered stones. These look safe, but the mud is like quicksand, sucking in anything that weighs more than a feather, and leaving the unwary walker standing on one foot with a shoe lost in the mud. All the cars are repeatedly getting stuck, sometimes seriously. The rest of the team are efficient about setting up the tackle to use one car’s winch to tow another car out, then repeating the procedure when the first car gets stuck in the same spot. I am no help at all. I have no energy at all at this elevation and cannot even stay in the wind for very long.

June 13th, Camp 2, 5063 meters: I am feeling much better this morning, but others are feeling much worse after digging the cars out of the mud several times yesterday. While two cars scout out the road ahead, I find the energy to take a short walk, heading northwest across the wet meadows. Star-bursts of yellow Gentians are poking up from out of the mud. With no leaves showing yet, the flowers look like toy stars scattered by a child. Shore Larks call sweetly from many directions.  They scurry through the short grass, head down, somehow resembling mice more than birds.

Sound asleep in nomad’s stable at 5000 metersJune 14th, Camp 2 to the source: Up at 6:10 and ready to go at 7:26. Five horses are already ready, another 6 are on their way. Camp 2 is within sight of the Lok Niang or Sheep Heart Mountain, a dark pyramid that stands at the left toe of the valley from which flows the headwaters of the Salween. Our destination, the source of the Salween, has already been mapped by Will Ruzeck on his iPad over a brilliantly colored satellite image of the region. I load the coordinates into my GPS, just in case.

12:35: I am using my saddle and horse as a writing desk. We have crossed the ridge and can now see the Salween mainstream again below us. Here it is a fast-flowing clear stream. Snow-covered mountains encircle us on 270 degrees. Howman and Zhaxi Duojie are among the first to the top of the ridge. It is windy and overcast – somehow the perfect backdrop for this remote place. It starts to sleet as we make the final ascent on foot to the “glacier source” of the Salween, a dripping ice face at the top of the divide. Not much time to write now. After photos and champagne, we start down as the weather quickly deteriorates. 

June 15th: A near disaster yesterday. After we started down from the Salween’s source, we were stuck in a near white-out storm. Tenzin Phuntsok, the local leader and our local guide, struck out towards a herder’s shelter that he knew. With visibility limited by sleet and snow, no landmarks were in sight. All the rest of us could do was to follow the horse in front of us. We lost sight of Tenzin’s horse twice, but he waited for us ahead and we found him again, and then again. But Chris and Wang Zhihong’s horses had had enough, and they sat down motionless in the snow and refused to go on. Without the rest of us realizing what was happening, they were left behind and forced to follow on foot.  

Team taking turn on oxygen enriched airAfter what seemed like hours of anxious waiting, we finally heard some news from riders sent out to find them. Miraculously, late in the evening they had found their way to another herder camp and safety.  

Paul and Will arrived at our shelter very late and were completely soaked through.  They had set out for the source from Camp 2 on foot after the other horses had left. Although walking the entire way, they almost caught up with the team at the source.   

We all sleep packed together on the floor of the families storage shed, surrounded by bags of barley and yak stomachs stuffed with butter. A short canvas tarp is our only quilt. I shiver through much of the night, but am glad that everyone is safe.

A local dog followed us on the entire journey. She behaved like a classic hunting dog, stopping and scanning the horizon and staring at anything unusual or of interest. She could not resist chasing two Tibetan Wild Ass that we spotted near the river source. Later, she herself was chased and badly bitten by two dogs at the herders’ camp where we spent the night. She limped back to Camp 2 with us on three legs and spent the next day sleeping outside and nursing her lame leg. 

We spend the rest of the day resting to recover from saddle sores and sleep loss. The afternoon brings a beautiful classic Tibetan Plateau sky, deep blue and windy with puffy cumulus clouds. 

As we rest, I compare our trip with the 1935 classic expedition of Ronald Kaulback and John Hanbury-Tracy, two British explorers of another era. Together with a Sherpa from Nepal, named Lewa, and a Tibetan named Nyima Dondrup, they traveled up the Salween in search of the source. The two British wrote parallel accounts of the journey, called Salween and The Black River respectively, and these give detailed descriptions of their preparations and misadventures. 

Tibetan Gazelle near roadStarting from Mytkina in what was then British Burma on April 4, 1935, they traveled up through jungle roads to Shikathang in present day TAR. They then detoured to map tributaries and passes all the way to Po’me and Pemako in the west, including mapping much of remote Zayul. They returned to the Salween at the Su Chu on November 14, just as winter began to set in in earnest. On January 17, they returned from more mapping surveys to the town of Nakshö Biru for a rest, only to find that they were now under house arrest on suspicion of being Russian spies. Apparently, one of them had grown such a full beard that the local magistrate decided he must be a Russian Bolshevik disguised as a British subject. They were held for four months until April 5, when a letter finally arrived from Lhasa confirming their permits and allowing them to continue their travels. But by then the “Chang’pa” herders of the northern grasslands were moving south into the Salween source region, and it was considered too dangerous to travel there. Reluctantly, they turned back to India, after 12 months on expedition, never having reached their goal. 

I wonder how the Kaulback/Hanbury-Tracy expedition could face the decision to turn back short of their goal. I suppose the 52 yak loads of baggage they brought along might have seemed easy pickings to the nomads of the Chang-Tang, who were then famous as being ruthless raiders. The fact that the loads were all guarded by just one ceremonial soldier (who doubled as dishwasher) could have added to the perception of risk. But the descendants of those very same Chang’pa nomads have been our hosts and guides on our expeditions, and they have become our close friends. Without their help, we could never have made it to the source of the Salween, even with all the latest satellite imagery and navigational aids. We paid the local village headman, Tenzin Phunstok, 300 RMB each for 14 hardy ponies with saddles and tack for 2 days – not cheap, but hardly robbery. It is hard to imagine that the two experienced British explorers could not convince their ancestors to become their guides instead of their robbers. They were clearly sympathetic to Tibetans and their beliefs. Perhaps, after one year in the field, the local acceptance of life as it is had rubbed off on the two men and dulled their zeal for their goal. 

Wild Yak by the Kunlun PassJune 17th: As I rush back to my office responsibilities in Chengdu, I arrive alone in Golmud. After a last northwestern dinner of 20 skewers of roast lamb I come out of the little roadside restaurant at dusk to see a stunning scene before me.  As the sun sets behind me, the dry mountains behind the train station appear as if wrapped in old blue tarps, as if part of some great industrial infrastructure scheme. I know that the green meadows of the Tibetan Plateau are still behind them, but are they safe from the break-neck development I see all around here on the edge?

June 18th: I am back in Chengdu for only one hour, and already reviewing a presentation for a donor meeting. Re-entry to civilization is even tougher than the trip itself. I hope I will not slip too easily back into the fog of desk work. At least I will have my saddle sores for a few days to remind me of the days when my greatest care was staying on my horse and when my joy in the open space knew no bounds.