WAKING UP THE LONELY DRAGON

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“X! Hurry up! We are not movie stars;” How Man, leader of the expedition, shouts out loud. The whole CERS team is ready to conduct the ceremony of throwing longest prayers at the source of the Irrawaddy River, altitude 4821m. It is cold and windy, and nobody wants to stay there for any longer than necessary. I am still calibrating the DJI drone camera that I plan to fly above the team as they throw out the light paper slips printed with prayers. It would be a great shot of a great moment to be captured forever. I move my freezing cold fingers fast. As expected, the remote controller reacts a bit slower than it should. GPS signal is strong. The gimbal camera, however, detects an under-exposed image quality, probably because of the dull sky with white clouds beneath it. Fog spreading around has also confused the camera sensor as to whether it is bright or dark. The monitor reveals very low visibility. I have to switch all settings to manual control and hide myself in the down jacket to protect the remote controller. Adding to this hectic rush, rain starts to fall, occasional changing to hail. Drone cameras are not supposed to fly in rain. The four electric motors of the propellers are easily short circuited if penetrated by water. A tiny drop on the camera lens will ruin the image and the list of possible damage continues. What the hell, there is no time to reason with nature.
“I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky!” This journey to the source of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River and China’s Dulong River (獨龍江 “Lonely Dragon River”) is the second attempt for the team. I was absent from the first due to a family matter, therefore I have prepared myself well to compensate for the loss. I am ready to film at the source. I am eager to fly above 4800m. Let’s go. Perhaps because I have a movie making background, it always seems to me that the behind the scenes footage is more interesting than the final product. The journey from CERS Zhongdian headquarters to the source is approximately 600km, but it is by far the most comfortable river source expedition, as I am told by veteran team members who have explored the other four river sources, which were two to three thousand kilometres and weeks away. We planned to reach the source within two easy days of travel. It is a journey to the west that crosses the famous three rivers in one go; the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween or Nu. All roads are cement paved with spectacular scenery along the river gorges. So how come we end up reaching the source only on the fifth day?

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Just three hours drive from the starting point, we encounter the first obstacle, a multi-layered land slide by the Yangtze River. Coming from a small city like Hong Kong, my definition of a landslide is something like a car-size mass of mud and rock blocking the road. Occasionally, there is an unfortunate vehicular victim nearby. Drivers can detour to avoid the traffic even though the landslide will be cleared within the next few minutes. Landslides in China, however, have opened my eyes wide and haunted my notion of scale as a city dweller. Along the hundred miles of river bank, there is no other choice of road unless you take a U-turn to the nearest detour, which is normally a few hundred miles away. You are absolutely stuck. The CERS team will waste no time in waiting. One driver stands by with the cars and the rest of the team explore the vicinity. Blocked by a second landslide, we walk across a suspension bridge over the Nu River to visit “Foggy Village,” 霧里村. There we discover an isolated village of Nu minority people with less than 150 residents, mostly toddlers and aged grandparents. We visit the village vice-chief’s house where we buy for our museum a few old pieces of farming and weaving equipment, and a carved bamboo smoking pipe. The good thing is that there are bulldozers everywhere, a sign of China’s economic growth, but they may charge you for clearance service. Some villagers would take this life-risking opportunity to make a few dollars, RMB100 per car. Pay them if you want to move on. It happened to us on the third road block, when we reached the “Great Sand Slide” 大大大 on the third day. The scale of the rolling stones is stunning. My visual estimate of the slide is 2500m high and 1200m wide. I feel like Hawaii’s long beach is leaning 45 degrees above me. From afar, a human is like a sesame seed underneath a giant leaking sack of rice. Sand and rock are occasionally sliding down on the road, then into the river, creating a thundering noise, very much like a storm. In weird contrast, it is a beautiful, sunny, blue- sky day. Tragedy happens when people mistake the nice weather and cross under the slide. They neglect the fact that strong wind on the top of the mountain is blowing things up. We take our chance once we feel the wind has quieted down. The 20 meters section that is covered by falling sand below the slide would take us less than 5 seconds to cross. It looks easy, but luckily, we don’t make it. A giant rock suddenly falls in front of us. We retreat and settle a mile away from the danger zone to witness this natural rock and roll show. After nearly five hours of filming, we set up our tent further away and talk to a few travellers who are also affected by the blockage. It will soon be the Mid-Autumn Festival, a day for Chinese families to get together. By the Nu River, we are warmed by the light of an almost full moon night. Moving on, we pass the gorges of the Nu River and reach the natural forest area. There, inevitably, we encounter multiple road blocks again, man-made this time. Security level is high, as the China government will soon be hosting the 19th National Congress. Everywhere, everyone and every moment must be kept stable; nothing should happen and nothing can happen. At every check point, we and our cars were stopped, searched and identity cards checked. Usually, for each car and passenger, it takes around 30 minutes. We have ten people and three cars, enough time for a soccer match.

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No one can bargain with nature, but we keep our momentum and reach the nearest village to the source on the fourth day. Some members of the team have already experienced the hardship of hiking up this mountain, as last time only two horses were available. This time, 11 horses are hired to carry us and all our gear up the mountain. However, horse riding has never been my favourite sport. As an Oxfam 100km Trail-walker for four consecutive years, I actually prefer hiking rather than riding an unfamiliar horse. In my role as the filmmaker, I have to ride a horse if I am to catch up with the action. Rolling a camera on horseback, recording every crucial moment at the front and behind the team as they proceed, is truly a test of a videographer. Every horseman, as always, claims his horse is a good breed. I can feel that my horse, named Lokpei, is annoyed with me, as I constantly move back and forth to find a good angle. I’m glad that she does not bump me off in retaliation. For me, the significance of defining the location of a river source is that the place and its vicinity can now be well protected, be it for religious, spiritual, cultural or scientific reasons. I want to see this place left untouched and let it be there for another million years. No doubt as to the Tibetans’ belief; this is a sacred spot. The weather turns sour as we arrive. We have planned this trip for months but were only permitted by the weather to spend 8 minutes there. I constantly remind myself that two past expedition team members, Wang Chih Hung the journalist and Chris Dickinson the videographer, went missing in a blizzard white-out after happily reaching the source of the Salween River in 2011. They were located the next morning, luckily still alive. An occasional change of weather could permanently change one’s life. Throwing the prayer cards may buy you another minute of leniency, but it seems we have awoken a lonely dragon. Quickly, we should leave quietly before it gets angry, very angry.

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