The famous 8th Century Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai and Wang Zhihuan both used their poems to praise the Yellow River. Li wrote, “The Yellow River water comes from the sky” or heaven, while Wang described it similarly, “Yellow River far and high among the white clouds.”
In my experience, though, the Yellow River came from right below my feet. I was standing above its source, at the ridge and watershed between the two great rivers of China, the Yellow and the Yangtze. It was not at all “yellow,” either, but pure and clear.
We had arrived here after almost three weeks on the road and a two-day hike at high elevation, at times traveling on a yak. Our team of 18 finally reached the new source of the Yellow River on June 29. Long before our arrival, knowledge and legend about the source region had evolved over centuries. The ancient book of “Yu Gong” of the Spring and Autumn Period or 2200BC described the upper Yellow River as coming out of the Ji Shi Mountains, an area between today’s Lanzhou and Xining.
By the 3rd century BC, the legendary “Shan Hai Jing” (Mountain and Sea Almanac) proclaimed that the river came from the Kunlun Mountains. By the 13th Century Yuan Dynasty, the imperial court began sending teams to explore its headwater region. During the 17th Century Qing Dynasty, many more expeditions were dispatched, expanding our knowledge of the source region. At times such expeditions were to make offerings to the River Gods at its source, to subdue the flooding and turmoil the Yellow River created downstream.
In contemporary times, especially after the People’s Republic of China was founded, only two scientific expeditions were launched to learn more about the Yellow River source, one in 1952 and one in 1978. They returned quite different results. The 1978 team theorized the source tributary should be the southern branch Ka-ri Qu rather than the middle Yueguzong Qu. By the 1990s, general beliefs and officials maps and atlases began citing the Yellow River source as the westernmost tributary of the Ka-ri Qu. Astone tablet with the inscription “Yellow River Source” bearing calligraphy of then President Jiang Zemin was put at this official source. Then in 2004, Professor Liu Shaochuang of the Remote Sensing Institute in Beijing put forth another theory. After measuring modern satellite images, he surmised that the Yellow River source should be the southern branch of the Ka-ri Qu, at a formerly neglected tributary he called Lalangqing Qu.
Our team of, with the assistance of Martin Ruzek – a former NASA scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a friend of 25 years – was heading for the scientific source. By comparing satellite data from several sources, Martin studied the length of four probable sources. His calculations suggested that the southern branch, or scientific source, was at least 15 kilometers longer than the official source, though both are tributaries of the Ka-ri Qu. Local Tibetas called this tributary Jarong Quhu, and it was in the uppermost reaches beyond Lalangqing Qu, which Professor Liu had identified.
Our goal was clear, but recent tremors in China – physical and political – hampered our progress. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake on the eastern section of the plateau on May 12 had devastated the region. And political turmoil in Tibet had triggered tightened security measures en route from Yunnan to Qinghai.
Our team needed to make a huge detour, skirting the main part of the plateau to approach from the west along the Xining/Lhasa railroad. This was to bypass all police checkpoints that would prevent potentially troublesome visitors from entering. Our group was only a little “troublesome,” trying to achieve a difficult undertaking in turbulent time. Along the way, we witnessed the devastation of villages and communities in the eastern flank of the quake-stricken area as we proceeded with heightened vigilance.
Serendipitously, this untraditional approach from the west allowed us the chance to see the plateau’s vast scenic beauty – and have numerous encounters with the wildlife of the region. A new awareness of the need for conservation among officials has allowed animals such as the Tibetan Gazelle and Wild Ass to multiply. Even foxes frequently crossed our path. Gazelles were friendly and rather approachable, so we took advantage of close-up photographic opportunities.
Sitting in the front car, I quickly grew tired of calling out sightings to Bill Bleisch, our chief biologist. At one point, though, I shouted excitedly over the radio, “Nine o’clock, a horse!” this creature has indeed become a rare sighting since most nomads had switched from horses to motorcycles in the last decade. We often saw Tibetan nomads on motorcycles herding their yak or sheep. Black yak0hair tents, likewise, have been replaced by green or white canvas army tents. Almost every thread in the plateau’s social fabric is undergoing changes.
At the final village closest to our destination, I discovered just how rare horses had become. There were none to be procured for our final approach to the source. “If you need 20 horses, it may take 20 days to round then up,” said local party secretary Tashi Jianduo. Helpful as he was, there was no way he could find so many horses in a short time.
We followed Ja Cao Qu, one of the tributaries of the Tong Tian He or upper Yangtze, and setp up base camp about 18 kilometers from the source, measured in a straight line through our Global Positioning System. From here, we had to hike for two days to cross the watershed to our destination, the Yellow River source. Two local Tibetans were recruited as caravan helpers and they brought 12 yaks to carry our load. Luckily, we could ride three of the yaks 00 sparing me the agony of a long hike at high elevation. I soon learned that while this saved me from pain in my legs, the pain in my butt from riding without a saddle was probably worse. By now, no guides could help us as we were seeking a little-known creek with no Tibetan name on the map, just a spot with longitude and latitude
The first day’s hike got us closer to the source, and we set up our advance camp. To lighten the load, we carried only seven tents instead of 10, crowding there members into each tent. The weather had been nasty, tossing rain, hail and snow our way throughout the days as we closed in on our goal. Fortunately, the worst of the brutal weather came mainly at night as we slept, not while we were hiking.
When I woke up in the morning of June 29, our tents were enveloped in show. To my surprise, I found our two caravan helpers – who had no tent for cover – sleeping under heavy yak blankets next to our tent, using two umbrellas as their shelters. We joked that our camp had seven and a half tents.
At 9am, with fresh snow on the ground, we began our hike to the source. It was about six kilometers upward from camp, just a few contour lines on the map. It was a tough slog, though, and we cleared a few ridges at a snail’s pace, advancing through the fog. In places, we dragged ourselves forward on soft ground as the wet bud clinging to our boots grew heavier and heavier. Walking in a straight line was a challenge. At this high elevation, cushion-like plants hugged the ground, creating innumerous hummocks, interspersed with potholes filled with water. We had to pay full attention to each step we took, zigzagging and hopping along.
As we trudged on, the fog cleared and we could see two mountains with snow patches. Our final goal was a creek between these two peaks. By 11:30am, we cleared a ridge and caught a pair of Rudy Shelduck with their ducklings by surprise. This was the divide between the Yangtze and the Yellow River. Below us, a creek flowed north toward the plain. Martin confirmed that this was the source river of the Yellow River. He assured us if we followed it upstream, we would soon reach the source itself.
Everyone was tired, but no one dragged their feet. The gradient was less steep and some younger members of our group began to march ahead. I called out for everyone to stay together: I wanted us all to arrive at the source at the same time. Expedition success, I believe, depend on group effort, not a solo adventure.
At one point, Marin asked us to pause. This was the spot, he told us, that Professor Liu had pinpointed as the source. But in front of us, the stream obviously continued further toward the ridge. By now it was narrowing quickly and I asked that my Olympics torch be taken out of the backpack, this authentic torch was given to me as a personal souvenir after I participated in a torch relay at Qinghai Lake on June 23. I passed it to our team members as we grew closer to our ultimate goal, each one taking a turn. Without the flame or the politics that flowed the torch around the world, I had intended to make our final steps to the source as significant, if not more so, as the Olympics torch relay. Aside from the official relay to the top of Everest at 8,848 meters, this was the highest elevation the torch had attained – well above 4,800 meters.
At last, the special moment arrived: 34˚29’31.1”N 96˚20’24.6”E, elevation 4,878 meters, Time 12:15 June 29, 2008.
The one line seems short and simple, but there was a lot of anxiety and hard work behind it. The map of China, and indeed that of the world, changed at that very moment. It seems improbable that the source of a river as important as the Yellow River – the second longest in China – could still be redefined at such a late date. Man had set foot on the Moon almost 40 years ago, and has since explored the surface of Mars with our spacecraft.
Occasionally I’m asked what the big deal is about visiting the source of a river, especially now that modern technology can pinpoint it on our computer screen in the coziness of our home. To put it perspective, man has known for thousands of years that there is a moon. But setting foot on the moon was a monumental step. Likewise setting foot at a major river source is a small step for How Man, but a big step for man.
The spirit of exploration and the quest for knowledge are qualities that helped mankind advance to where we are today. Eighteen of us – from different countries, several minority nationalities (four Tibetans and two Bai), and even a person from Taiwan, arrived at a newly defined sources of the Yellow River, at least 15 kilometers longer than previously defined sources. China Exploration & Research Society has now reached new heights in exploration. We redefined the Yangtze source in 2005, the Mekong’s in 2007 and now the Yellow River’s.
To mark the spot, we set up a long string of Tibetan prayer flags. Paper wind horse cards, called longda in Tibetan, were released to honor the mountain deity. I cherished my special moment as I knelt respectfully with one knee on each bank of the Yellow River and drank from the source. I collected water samples to take home for tests, just as we did at the Yangtze River and Mekong. I also collected a few small rocks as mementos. Finally, we opened our Moet & Chandon champagne to share. But it could never be as tasty as a sip of freezing water from the source.
We lingered for just over an hour and had lunch on the watershed. As another storm began to close in, we packed up and headed back to camp. As we descended the hill, I thought of a riddle to ask Martin. “Which came first, the Yangtze or the Yellow River?” I asked. A geologist by training, Martin thought of a few moments, but could not give me an answer. “Well, as bother rivers start with a Y, they are almost tied. But since Yangtze starts with Ya and Yellow with ‘Ye,’ the right answer is Yangte,” I said with a smile.
Now that CERS has attained the “Triple Crown” – finding the source of the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Yellow Rivers – an obvious question arises: What’s next? Well, I heard that there may be water on Mars…