TO THE SOURCE OF THE SALWEEN RIVER, BARELY

Wong How Man
Dunhuang, Gansu - 21 June 2011

Satellite map showing source of the Salween RiverIt all seems it happened only yesterday. But it has taken me exactly one week to recuperate enough to begin writing about it.  

Reality check with nature, a most punishing experience

“This will cause loss of life!” exclaimed Song while shaking.  He had just stumbled into the house, a nomad’s camp, almost in shock. His shivering was contagious as I too was in the house only minutes ahead, frozen from shoulder to foot, though mainly on the left side of my body, as the blizzard hit us from the east as we were riding south. Song could not stop the shaking in his face, his hands, his knees, and his feet. This was an obvious sign of borderline hyperthermia. Once that sets in, it would take a long time to get his body back to warmth, if at all. But the stove was burning hot, with yak dung being refilled every few minutes.

I asked that hot water in a cup be poured to thaw his hands, and insisted that he hold another hot cup between his hands. With shaking hands, he drank up the hot water. It took upward of an hour for Song, usually a jolly professor from Kunming, to finally settle down. “I fell off the horse once and remounted. But I knew if I fell off a second time, I would never be able to get up, and would simply die of exposure,” he said matter of factly.

Bill Bleisch was close behind me, arriving as one of the early survivors in our team. He sat quietly and motionless beside the stove, like a frozen statue waiting to thaw. Momentarily Paul Buzzard rushed through the door, all frozen on his outside. He quickly took off most of his clothes, all wet on the inside. With his boots and socks off, he put his feet up close to the stove to nurse them back to life and avoid frost-bite.

Cao Zhongyu, my long-time driver/assistant came in next. He had walked the last hour in the blizzard, leading his horse which refused to go on anymore. This would become a familiar story as most of the horses were tired from the long day of riding, which started at eight in the morning and by now it was seven in the evening, and the unexpected snowstorm.

Base Camp within range of river sourceBut this is summer and high season on the plateau, when flowers are blossoming and the marmots and pikas are out in droves. What has happened to nature’s routine and the circuit of seasons? Has Mother Nature gone mad? Has global climate change started impacting the high plateau? We thought the glaciers were receding and the area was warming up. Could such unusual and extreme weather be a reflection of what is worse to come?  

We do not have the answer. At the moment, we must first deal with a snow blizzard unknown to us, nor to nomads of the high plateau in Tibet. Their sheep herd is usually sheared by this time of the year. Without their thick fleece, would they be able to bear the brunt of the snowstorm like a cold winter? What would happen to their newborn lambs and baby yaks? Would they also survive this onslaught of unexpected snowstorm? But I must have my priorities mixed up. I have far more important issues at hand.

We were missing three members of our team, Chris Dickinson, our filmmaker, Wang Chih Hung, an Editor from Taiwan, and Wil Ruzek, our GPS expert/geographer. They had not come into this herder house along the way back to our base camp (six other members stayed behind to watch over our cars and main camp).   Bill quietly noted that Will had the highest chance of survival. He was the youngest and strongest hikers among us, totally adequate in the use of GPS in directing himself even in darkness to base camp. He had refused my several attempts to get him to use a horse. These stubborn mid-westerners I thought! But for Chris and Wang, they could easily be lost in such undulating terrain, and be at the mercy of fate and uncertainty. Nature however doesn’t seem to bestow mercy much at all.

Outside, the snow is still falling hard but visibility is gradually returning to half normal, normal that is, within half a kilometer of sight. Earlier, the entire terrain was whited-out, a disorientating experience as the snow was whipped up by strong wind and the sleet came down sideways toward us from the east, reducing horses and their riders to left-sided half snowmen. 

I rode on a lead horse, following our Tibetan guide Pengcho as closely as I could. I had to wipe off the sleet on half my body every few minutes. But moments later, I would again be molded into half sleet man. I called out as loud as I could, mustering the remaining strength and breath to get Pengcho to slow down. I could see those riding behind me were spreading out further and further into the distance and the fog and snow cut our visibility less and less. But he too must have felt the pressure and danger of time, and must have wanted to reach a safe house as quickly as possible.

Unenviable position to be inOnce we rounded up everyone in my group, I urged our guide and the owner of the “safe house” to send out a search party looking for the missing three. We quickly offered to pay them a premium of 500rmb just to get a few horses out for the search. If the three were lost, there would be no chance of survival in such punishing weather. They could only succumb to exposure, and be victims of nature. If such accident should happen, it would be a first major debacle in our decades of expeditions. I kept pondering in my mind how I would tell their loved ones should that speculation become a reality.

A lone red speck up a hill turned out to be Will, braving his way toward main camp with the aid of his GPS. It was still eight kilometers away, or a good three hours hike, in good weather that is. Our guides guided him to our safe house. He too was beaten and exhausted, though surviving. He paired up with Paul in taking up their permanent seats along the long stove inside the house.

I dozed off into sleep on a sofa from both exhaustion and anxiety about the missing “two.” It was already dark, about 10pm, when excitement suddenly ensued in the house, waking me up. Our search party returned with news that the other “two” were found, hiding out and surviving at another nomad’s camp about an hour away from us. We set up a night shift among those sleeping next to the stove, to continuously refilling the fire with yak dung to keep us all warm. I let down the stone in my heart, and fell asleep again, more soundly than ever before!

I have always said that being with nature is a most humbling experience. This encounter with nature, even a brush with death, offers evidence of assertion and belief. It happened on our return journey after the exhilarating achievement of reaching our goal, the source of the Salween River.

Attempt for the source

Choosing a route with satellite help

The Salween, running for almost 3000 kilometers in distance, has its upper reaches in the border of Qinghai and Tibet. Its glacier-fed source drains from a high elevation, part of the eastern flank of the Tanggula Mountain. The river flows through Tibet from west to east cutting a swath on the high plateau, then taking a southerly course in eastern Tibet through high mountains and snowfields, before plunging down canyons and cascades into northwestern Yunnan. Following a path parallel to the border of Yunnan with Myanmar, it continues its course in a north-south orientation before exiting China into a slight meandering channel through the jungle and forests of eastern Myanmar. For a short distance, it defines the border between Myanmar and Thailand in the south, before finally emptying its murky water into the Andaman Sea. 

The delta and bay where it enters the sea are all within the territory of Myanmar. But two-thirds of the river length flows through China, mostly in Tibet and partly in Yunnan. While the drainage area of the river supports a huge population downstream, its upper reaches are little known. The source of the river evaded explorers and scientists throughout the 20th century though a few attempts had been made to search for its origin.

As early as the 1930s, two English explorers, Kaulback and Hanbury, made a year-long effort to get to its source. They retreated pitifully, barely surviving the hostile climate and more hostile tribal warriors and bandits. Two books I brought along on this expedition, each written by one of the explorers, remained to tell of their horror and harrowing stories. CERS attempted to complete their unfulfilled goal, reaching the source of the Salween and defining its location.

CERS’ preparation to explore the source of the Salween has been going on for months. Martin Ruzek, our associate NASA scientist who helped us narrow down the many tributaries of the upper reaches had been at work measuring the headwater region from various high-resolution space images. Corroborating Beijing’s Professor Liu Shaoqong who has devoted recent years to pinpointing river sources of the world, Martin’s analysis helped locate the Salween source before we launched an expedition of groundtruthing to verify that discovery.

Last minute changes to the scheduling of a space program prevented Martin from joining our team. Instead his son Will who is a young and capable geographer and a former CERS student intern took his seat as our GPS guidance expert. Other members included Bill Bleisch, CERS Science Director, Song Hokun, social economist, Paul Buzzard, CERS Field Biologist, Zazhi Doji (Zhadoi) a Tibetan conservationist, his Tibetan assistant Lasar, Wang Chi-Hung, Editor-in-Chief of a leading Taiwan magazine, Chris Dickinson, CERS filmmaker and several CERS staff and guest drivers in the support team, totaling 19 members.

Our support team took off with five Land Rovers from Kunming in southern China and arrived Dunhuang along the Silk Road to the north as rendezvous point with the rest of my team who flew into the desert oasis. Loads of equipment, tents, gear, and food supply were divided up into rations, readied for our two part expedition, going to the Salween source being the first goal of our weeks-long trip. 

Setting out with blue sky and confidence

We departed Dunhuang on June 10 climbing in elevation, through the Qilian Mountains and later the Kunlun Mountains, toward the Tibetan plateau. Once on the plateau, I wore three layers of pants, fleece on the inside, down in the mid-layer, and wind and waterproof pants on the outside. My layering on my upper body changed according to the situation, depending on whether I was inside the car, in a tent, or outdoors.

The night of June 11 was spent inside tents pitched at 4785 meters elevation, slightly off the road from Qinghai to Lhasa, and below the forbidden height of the Tanggula Pass at 5231 meters in elevation. Several members of the team felt the altitude and complained about lack of sleep the next morning.  We administered use of our Oxygen Concentrator (Airsep) and pushed on toward our goal. Some of us later used the oxygen tanks we brought along but everyone refrained from using the last resort device, our two portable compression chambers.

On June 12, after consultation with nearby nomads, our team went off-road 25 kilometers past the Tanggula Pass and headed east. We could see a snow range in the distance which was our destination - the source. Earlier we had devised four probable routes of approach to the source, a glacier of rather massive size.  Two of those routes would head in from Qinghai with a longer and much harder gradient in approach. Those were ruled out early on. Two other approaches come in through a much more gradual route with less gradient from within Tibet, a politically sensitive route as there were several foreigners in my team.  But the geographic and political border was so marginal that I decided to take the risk and explain the blurriness or aberration if caught across the border.

No one knew whether what showed up as faint tracks from a 2006 satellite image was a real road, or it was even still there. It turned out to be winter tracks toward some nomad’s camp near our target. Winter tracks quickly become marshes and soft ground during the summer time, just as we were making our approach. That translated into our Land Rovers being mired in mud and led to exhaustive exercises of digging, and using of the winches and sand-tracks to free ourselves. In half a day of constant struggle, we inched forward gradually until we reached a river crossing, the upper reaches of the source of the Salween.  We had covered about 19 kilometers of the 42 kilometers needed to get to the source.

Near a nomad’s house, we decided to set up our Base Camp.  We were 17 kilometers from the source as the crow flies, and probably 50% longer in hiking distance. It seemed all within reasonable reach, assuming that we could procure horses and yaks to take us forward. Riding through snowOur elevation was already 5060 meters and those who complained earlier about headache were now unusually quiet. After all, complaint required more strength and every breath counts at such a height. But they were suffering more as evidenced by the color on their faces, lips and nails.  Most of them retired into their tents much of the time. Going to the source would mean scaling even higher.

Toward the source

On June 13, two cars were sent out to scout for a route in order to get our team closer to the source. They went out for hours and returned to base, reporting that with much difficulty they could only advance a meager 5.8 kilometers, on a ridge within sight of the glacier source. By now we have calculated that it would be about 24 kilometers of hiking to get us to the source. For the scouting cars, much time was expended on finding a safe route to drive along so as not to be mired further into the mud. They failed to even reach the riverbed, beat a retreat and returned to camp.

In the mean time, Zhadoi was able to strike a deal with Pengcho, a local nomad, to round up as many as 12 horses to take us to the source. Pengcho’s family could come up with 4 horses. By offering prices upward to 300Rmb per horse we managed to attract a few families willing to reorganize their herding duties and became horse caravan helpers for one day. Providing saddles for the horses was another challenge as motorcycles have long replaced horses as the transport mode of choice.  Finally departure time was set at 7am the following morning, June 14, from camp. By evening, five horses arrived, grazing near our camp.  We heard seven more would reach camp in the morning.

In the morning, we discovered our original horses grazing near camp were nowhere in sight. Somehow four had gotten loose. Fortunately Jadoi’s assistant Lasar was an able horse handler. He took off with the last remaining horse, and rounded up the other four in less than an hour.

Our entourage of eleven riders on horses and two helpers (they were on their own horses) took off at 8am and headed for the source. Paul and Will shared one horse as both were strong hikers and they decided to head for the source on their own, trailing us from behind. The ride was smooth and the horses were tame, but necessarily bumpy to the butt as Tibetan saddle goes. For the lucky ones who got to ride, no one dared complain as six reluctant members had to be left behind to guard our camp.

Worrying about lost membersThe weather was great and the sky blue as we took off. A Tibetan mastiff Jaige, belonging to Pengcho, came along to escort our caravan of horses. His long fur was shedding as the summer approached. Facing a pyramid mountain as way point we even took to a quickened trot at times as our spirits were high. The pyramid was called Lok Nien, referring to it being shaped like a sheep’s heart. The glacier source is just around the mountain hidden from view. By mid day we had rounded Lok Nien and the large expanse of white snowfield was in sight, though getting there required more hours of riding.

 We had intended the ride to the source and back as a day trip, so everyone had taken their own water bottles and snacks like Power Bars and sustenance candy. But by now we knew it would be a long and difficult day, if at all a day trip. I had the strongest of the horses, and kept riding backward now and then to make sure no one was left too far behind. Strong horses and weak ones showed their differences after a couple of hours riding. At my age, I am used to rounding off the rear rather than leading all the time. Jaige acted like my sidekick, staying in front or back at various times, but never slowed or failed to be part of the party. Everyone was most impressed by his loyal perseverance.

At the source

After over six hours of steady riding, we finally arrived at a broad canyon and began following a small stream up toward the snowfield. Along the way, smaller streams flowed from both sides to join the main stream. By the seventh hour, the advance group was within 500 meters of the glacier source and everyone was told by Pengcho to dismount. The horses could go no more as the ground became uneven with boulders, rock fragments and stones. We simply had to walk cautiously and side-step each pace until we cleared the last ridge. We knew the source of the Salween was at hand.

Two of my dedicated staff, Cao Zhongyu and Ah So escorted me on my last stretch to the source. I had to use a walking cane so as not to fall over, given the unevenness of the terrain. We were well over 5000 meters and I had to stop to catch my breath every few steps. Finally I cleared the last ridge and saw the glacier with its several small ice caves in front of me. The last 200 meters was most exhilarating and I walked on finally like a breeze. The moment of satisfaction must be like wings carrying me forward.   Somehow the breathing pattern became coordinated as I took the last few steps toward the field of ice spreading from a mountain of snow in front of me.

Bill Bleisch was ahead of me with his GPS in hand. Chris kept the camera rolling as we recorded our fix on a most beautiful spot in the world, at least as far as I was concerned at that very moment.

Group picture at source as weather changed32 43’ 07”N   92 13’ 46.2”E
15:01 30sec June 14
Elevation 5374 meters

We brought out a large CERS flag for a group photo. I knelt and drank directly from a water hole I dug through the ice. From the same hole I collected three bottles of source water for later analysis, just as we did at the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow River sources. We popped a can of Coca-Cola to share among all members at the source, followed by a bottle of Moet Chardon champagne, which we also shared. The moment was all joy. But we knew time was very limited and we must head back toward camp. In all, we cherished our time at the source for 45 minutes and then began our descent. 

Time was running out and the weather was changing. Black clouds were moving in fast. In less than an hour, we would be facing one of the worst snow blizzards to hit this part of the plateau during the summer months. We failed to make it back to Base Camp the same evening.  Had it not been for a nomad’s camp as a hide-out for the night, we would have been at the mercy of nature and unlikely to live to tell our tales. To us this had been a most humbling experience. We survived both because of the nomads of the high plateau and more so because of the kindness of fate. I hope Jaige the mastiff which accompanied us the entire way felt the same.

At last, our goal we sought - the source of the Salween River - was met.