THE SOURCE OF THE YELLOW RIVER: AN OLYMPIC-SIZED EVENT (34°29'31.1"N 96°20'24.6"E)

The CERS expedition to the source of the Yellow River in 2008 followed founder Howman Wong’s contribution as an Olympic torch bearer for the 2008 games in Beijing. The expedition also documented other historical events no less momentous for China and world.

34°29'31.1" 96°20'24.6", 4878 meters above sea level, 12:15, 29 June 2008

Explorers have searched for the source of the Yellow River since earliest times. The great Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai described the Yellow River flowing down from heaven. In 1280 AD, a Yuan dynasty official was given the responsibility for surveying the Yellow River source. Officers sent by the Qing Emperor correctly identified a stream that flow into Zaling Lake as the highest source. After 1949, a series of geographic expeditions proposed various locations as the ultimate source of the river.

Geographer Martin Ruzek and Wong How Man, with the benefit of modern technology and advanced satellite imagery, were able to identify the putative source of the Yellow River on maps even before the expedition began. The CERS route to the source was not the traditional approach, directly up the main channel of the river. Instead, guided by geographer Martin Ruzek and his GPS, the team approached by vehicle from the upper reaches of the Yangtze watershed, crossing the divide and reaching the Yellow River source on foot only on the last two day of the expedition.

On the way, the team was surprised to find that horses were no longer available. Most nomadic herders had switched to motorcycles instead. The culture of the nomadic horseman was rapidly fading, sent into twilight by new access to the cash economy and by government programs for voluntary resettlement of nomad families.

The expedition team stopped briefly at the nomad winter settlement of Qiuzhi, where they interviewed nomad families and the local living Buddha, Geri Rimpoche. Like most of the nomadic communities in this region, this community had been affected by the government policy for “ecological resettlement.” 40 families in the village had already accepted government subsidies to move to the city, and only 160 families remained. However, through a unique arrangement, the village had also formed a voluntary committee to protect wildlife, particularly the Wild Yak that still occur near their summer pastures. Perhaps community-based conservation can provide an alternative future for Tibetan nomads, more equitable and dignified than joining aid-dependent communities of ecological refugees.

The Yellow River source region seemed barren and desolate; a marked contract between the wetlands of the Yangtze source region to the southeast. This is a harbinger of changes to come, as the Yangtze flows south, then east through central China, a region with abundant water resources, while the Yellow River runs through the dry north, a region of deserts, dry land pastures and water-starved irrigated fields. Water demand is so great that the river sometimes runs dry. The waters that come from heaven now often do not reach the sea.