(English translation: Dominique Pascalé)
Its muddy waters talk of the history of a land that it has been irrigating and carving for millions of years. Its whirlpools tell the story of the men who inhabit its banks and the secrets of the countries it passes through. The Mekong is a big book that we wanted to read from the first page, from the first words. So Mireille and I decided to travel to its source. At an altitude of 5224m on the tibetan plateau, the Mekong is born at the foot of a peak the nomads call "Lasagongma" which in Tibetan means "the highest mountain".

pierre à prière ©Mireille Damphousse Site en français
The source of the Mekong was discovered in 1994 by a Sino-Japanese team following the North branch; at the same time a French team (M. Peissel) was travelling up the West branch, trying to accomplish the same thing. Until 1999 a number of Sino-Japanese and American expeditions established once and for all that the real source was that of the North branch.
(Map from Japanese Alpine News, No. 1, 2001, drawn by Tomatsu Nakamura of the Japanese Alpine Club. )
 
Tibetan finery in Northern Sichuan.

Tibetan costumes in Northern Sichuan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bus trip on tibet roads

 

After a long bus ride from Chengdu, we finally reach Zhato on Sept 20th 2005.
Zhato (Alt. 4000m) is located in the "Farwest" of China. This is the end of the line; the only busses leaving here are going back downhill. It is impossible to go farther West, but we soon learn that it is possible to reach Zhaqi and maybe find horses there.
We hire a taxi to take us from Zhato to Zhaqi for 200 Yuans (20Euros). On the way we climb to a pass at 4900m.
Just short of the pass our accelerator cable breaks and is promptly repaired with some creative thinking and...a knot! We then have to push the car to get it to start again, and after 5 minutes spent catching our breath, we are on our way.
Zhaqi (Alt. 4500m) is a former Chinese advanced post, an abandonned barracks where a few Kampas who have become sedentary now live.The Kampas are a Tibetan ethnic group and they account for 95% of the population in the region.Traditionally shepherds and warriors, they are the only Tibetans to have fought the Chinese in armed combat.
We are told the the source is only 5 days from here on horseback and only one day with a Jeep. Communicating has become extremely difficult since we arrived to this end of the world. People talk to us either in Chinese or Tibetan, but above all people cannot read and even seem to have had no instruction whatsoever. We try to get horses from the nomads and fail: they have better things to do than showing some tourists around. We also fail to find a Jeep and in any case it wouldn't be safe to leave with only one Jeep: unlike horses it could break down and leave us stranded. We set our tent up near the river and try to light a fire with yak droppings (I did bring my camping stove with some fuel just in case). We picked up a number of dry droppings and found some kindling and some paper in the village. The droppings don`t burn right away: they char. So we think we need only light the paper, the paper lights the wood which in turn lights the first droppings and then on to the next one: nothing to it! Well...no. To our surprise, at this altitude our lighters are useless and when, after prolonged coaxings we get them to produce a tiny spark and finally light the paper, the flame goes out almost instantly. Nevermind, we're not going to take any sh.t from the equipment. A good squirt of gazoline on the droppings and the paper and we finally have fire. We will have lukewarm soup because of course it would be too much to ask to get it to boil. Thankfully Mireille has brought a water filter. The next day we boil water for tea with my camping stove: it work beautifully and even gets the water to the simmering point. Still no horses, but we are negociating with a bunch of young motobikers. It is hard to figure out wether they have any idea what an expedition this is going to be. One of them seems simple minded and the other ``Geng song` is very quick and shrewd, but so rough that even with the help of his fingers, he has a great deal of trouble figuring out that between the 23rd and the 28th the trek totals of five days. Moreover I am worried that he is envious: he has an eye on our gear, he looks shifty. At that point, the village teacher joins the negotiations and is a great help to us. He speaks a little English, he looks trustworthy and his mere presence gives some weight to the motobiker's proposal.
We are therefore ready to agree and we decide to meet the next day.
In the afternoon we go for a walk and end up under the tent of some nomads who give us yogurt. They have a guitar: I play Brassens for them and give them a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Nothing could have been more suitable: their faces light up. They press the picture to their forehead and then stare at it with rapture. We leave the tent and according to the custom we say goodby by sticking our tongue out.

Sherpherd on his motorbike

Sherpherd on his motorbike, beyong him: Zhaqi village.

 

Below: camping monks

"Tibet" Caractere

"Tibet" caractere

 

camping monks

 

To accomplish this trek we bought supplies to make tsampa (flour+butter+tea) and we stored the yak butter under the tent canvas inside our food container. I was afraid it might melt if kept inside the tent. When we get back from our walk, the crock of butter has vanished. Moreover someone tried to get inside, the zipper had been moved, but since we had padlocked it, they hadn't succeeded even though a small penknife would have made short work of the thin screen that keeps the bugs out. Who on earth would have stolen a two-bit container and some butter -something that is readily available here. And since we are dealing with a thief why would he leave valuable equipment in the tent when it would have been so easy to take it? Obviously there was no premeditation here, it was spur of the moment and I would even say naive. Not being able to rationalize this burglary, we lost a large part of our trustfulness and gained a measure of fear. A stranger travels with confidence in a country where he feels protected by the law and even more so where the rule of law is strict and even dictatorial but I doubt that the law reaches this far, there is no red flag on the horizon, nothing but this barrack building abandoned by the Chinese. Without rule of law there is only trust, and if trust becomes impossible, the best course is to leave. I reach this painful conclusion, and I call it painful because to me the fact that I cannot trust my fellow human beings really is very painful. But there it is: it turns out that our motobikers are nothing but little shits out to fill their pockets. Mulling over all this, the night seems interminable, all the more so because all night the dogs are restless and noisy.
Following Geng Song advice we move the tent to an area right in the middle of the village in plain sight of everyone. This move does not meet with the approval of the dogs and all night they howl at us going as far as attacking the tent itself at one point. It woke me up in fear, but obviously I didn't go out. The next day we find that one of the ropes has been chewed and severed. The fact is that everywhere in the steppe shepherds train their dogs for meanness to ward off bears and wolves. One has to be careful when on horseback or out to relieve oneself at night. It is a bad idea to wander off: a dog could mistake you for a stranger. Thankfully I am a man, because in these circumstances, it takes a certain amount of nerve for a woman who also has to squat.The next day I tell Mireille that it might be a good idea to go back to Zhato. She agrees. We need help but who can we trust? Nobody here understands in the least our wacky endeavor. "The quest for the source of the Mekong" is a romantic notion so foreign to Tibetan culture as to be totally incomprehensible. I tell her: "Lets go back to Zhato, then we'll see. I hope that the Gods are going to wake up, because it isn't fair to have to give up so close to the goal".

The roof of the world: a shepherd and his dog. The roof of the world: a shepherd and his dog.
Tibetan horse above Zhato; a dam is visible in the backgroud but a dam is being built that will soon change the landscape.
tibetan horse

 

The following morning Geng Song ferries us back to Zhato on his motorcycle, one at a time. I am the first one to go, leaving Mireille who is teaching the school children how to play Mikado. "It is amazing, she will tell me later, Not one of them tries to show me that he is better at it than the others, they play as a team. They ponder together what the best approach is, the talk it out, and then whoever is next to play puts the plan in action. They solve it together". Meanwhile I go accross the pass on the motorcycle (brrr! cold.) I have a few hours before Mireille arrives herself, so I decide to go and eat. A sea of smiling, happy faces, welcomes me in a restaurant the is nearly full. There is one seat accross from a thirtyish man; he wears a saffron-colored 'Nike' jacket. Smiling, he signals me to sit down. He looks educated, with an open and energetic face. He is from Kangse, a large provincial town in Sichuan. I tell him about the sources; with empathy, he tells me that as soon as I finish eating he will take me to see a friend of his who owns a Jeep. When we leave, I notice that he is wearing the cassock of a priest. In his car we drive uo the main street and he stops every Jeep we come accross. He talks to the drivers and every time they seem to know and respect him greatly. Nevertheless, when my project is explained, nobody seems the least bit interested. At the end of the street he stops the car in the yard of a house. People come out and press their foreheads against his with all the signs of utter joy. They would do the same thing if it was a picture of the Dalai Lama himself. Could it be that this man is a saint?! After an hour's search, he drives me back to the hotel promising to keep looking on his own. He will get back to me this evening. When Mireille comes back I tell her: ''You know, I met a lama or something, and he's going to help us.''

Come evening we are in the hotel's lounge with the staff and the guests. The mood is warm and easygoing. We all eat together; we are offered a large bowl of stampa, but we have to make it ourselves. One has to mix the flour, the butter and the tea with the hand, it forms a brownish ball similar to modelling clay. Clumsily I upset my bowl and half of the contents fall on the floor. Everyone tries to help me, including Mireille who has already practised in Nepal. Too much flour, not enough tea...there is always something to blame. Then one has to swallow this thick paste and someone asks me if there is anything like it in France. I tell them that back home, in the south of France, we have something called 'estoufadou' and everyone around me starts repeating the word to make sure they'll remember it.
But all of a sudden the man I saw this morning comes near. One of the diners springs up and shouts:'Lama! lama! lama". Instantly, dropping chopsticks in the soup, giving up a game of dominoes or turning away from a prayer book, everyone is on their feet. A religious silence is followed by animated talk and laughter. The lama signals that evryone sould sit down and he comes to Mireille and I. I whisper to her ear: "Behold my buddies! Impressive, no!?" The lama has the religious responsibility of the Zhato district and that of Kangse. He carries the good word everywhere in China and he has also travelled to Japan, Corea, Vietnam and a number of Asian countries. He is a joyful individual and seems full of kindness. To show me that he empathizes with Christians, he makes the sigh of the cross upon his breast. In return, I take the picture of the Dalai Lama out of my pocket. His eyes pop as though I had just shown him a priceless treasure. A lama he may be, but this simple photograph, downloaded from the internet and printed on glossy paper gives him as much pleasure as it would anyone else. He stares at it and religiously presses it to his forehead. Unfortunately, it is my last picture, my last cartridge. In Tibet, such a picture is like a magic lighter: it lights up faces with joy. The lama was unable to find us a Jeep. He has no English and our conversation is short. He would much rather spend the evening showing us his gadgets: his two state-of-the-art portable phones, his Citizen watch (he asks me to spell the name so that he can pronounce it) his diode flashlight that is worn on the forehead... then he offers me a very pretty, very soft stuffed toy attached to a key chain.''This will be a perfect gift for a kid" I say. Mireille disagrees: "You are not going to give away the gift of a lama, would you!?" I tell her: "This gift fills me joy but if I can give even more joy to someone else by giving it away, then I will do so without scruples".

Kandze, Tibetan Bouddhism has 2 major spiritual schools: that of the red headdress and that of the yellow headdress. Nowadays the "Nike" headdress is very "in"! portable nike Street scene on Kandze

For six days we've been idle in the area and still no Jeep. But we are becoming famous around here and sooner or later something's going to come out of it. We have only to walk up the avenue to shake hands with this one who served up soup or that one who drove us in a taxi or talked to us with three words of English and three of Chinese. In other words it is becoming known that there are strangers in town and that they plan to reach the springs of the Mekong. One good morning 6 or 7 men come and knock on our door. I scan the faces and determine that only one looks ''educated''. His name is Dorjee, he is well built, thirtyish, with the mountaineer's body of a Nepaleese sherpa. He heads the group and he seems trustworthy. They have come because they heard that we wished to reach the headwaters. To one side is a man I recognise: the driver of the taxi with the broken drive belt.
What is he doing here? Among the group there is also a friend of Dorjee who acts as the interpreter and other friends who might supply the Jeep. We learn with surprise that on seven occasions he has already led to the springs tourists and scientists. But all of them has come with their own Jeeps (through an travel agency, obviously). He knows all the pitfalls, where the nomads have their encampments and how to get horses. He figures one day's drive with the Jeeps to 'Romse', then a day and a half on horseback to the springs. Both ways, it means 5 days. We negociate at lenght because he is expensive: 40 Euros per day for himself,
but we must also hire, for 40 E more his friend who speaks English and that is out of the question. We don't need his chum. One more stumbling block: he is a teacher and he is going to have to take time off without pay and that will not sit well with his boss; all the more so because we can never be sure we will return in 5 days. We finally agree on a lump sum of 530 E, everything included. We still have to find a Jeep and on that score, things don't look good. Dorjee is known to be a stellar driver but nobody is volunteering their Jeep, even for more than 150E, because if it breaks down we agreed that the owner will pay the repairs. The next day, still no Jeep and the fact that the weather is getting worse and worse does not improve my mood. Our hotel sits above the Mekong and when I brush my teeth I spit into the whirling and muddy waters of the river that batter the piers of the nearby bridge. There is going to be mud, and then will we be able to cross the fords? A trip on horseback through rain and snow: it is daunting. We really need the weather to improve. While we wait we spend the afternoon climbing to a neaby peak: it takes us 4 1/2 hours to climb 800m and reach 4900m.
It is almost comparable to the Pyrenees, but morally harder. On the way down we a rain and hailstorm drenches us, but by evening we are already dry. Dorjee has news: he has found a Jeep, it belongs to a friend and he is pleased because it is brand new. We leave tomorrow. The earth shakes for a few moments while we are having a last chat: short panic in the hotel then all is back to normal. (Much later we will learn that in Pakistan, on the other side of the Himalaya, there was a major seismic shock that killed thousands of people.)

Above Zhato, practice walk with Mireille.

bird

 

 

Above Zhato, practice walk with Mireille.

 

himalaya marmot Zha-Chu river (Mekong) above Zhato
Zha-Chu river (Mekong) above Zhato


We leave early, in the rain, and we take along the owner of the Jeep who will take over from Dorjee when the going is easy. The track is fair but after an hour we encounter mud and from now on, it won't let up. After the first pass the trail is more like a track through the forest like we have at home in the Pyrenees when bulldozers have been dragging tree trunks. Even on foot it would be tricky! Dorjee fights the wheel as best he can but the 4-wheel drive is helpless in this muddy nightmare. Dorjee ask us to get out because the car is slipping and sliding as though on soapsuds and we could well leave the trail and go over the edge.In the end Dorjee gives up and starts to back up. At the bottom we climb back in the car and he tells me: 'I'm sorry'. At that point I am thinking that we are going to go back to Zhato, that this really is hopeless. But not at all: Dorjee has a plan B: after asking some workers who happen to be there, instead of going through the pass, he takes the river road! When the road becomes impassable, the river takes over. Later we will go through several other passes and I have lost track of the number of times we had to take the shovel out and throw rocks under the wheels after getting bogged down. We ford the river: 'Close the windows! Check the windows!...Om mane padme om! We zing through, water reaching the hood. Come evening, we reach Romse. Romse is nothing but a school built for the children of the nomads. There are about thirty of them who live there 3 to 6 month with a handful of adults and one teacher, one of Dorjee's cousins. As if our trials hadn't been enough, our Jeep sinks in the mud, a hundred meters from the gate. The children come running with a piece of rope that they fasten to the Jeep and then pull. A very nice gesture, but the little school lost in this boundless grey landscape is a sorry sight indeed. Nothing could be more isolated. They live on next to nothing; the red flag flutters on the roof but it seems to be the only thing the government was able to give them.FOllowing Dorjee's advice we brought school supplies. To thank us, the children sing a song. Dorjee is busy photographing the orphans -there are six- and also the children that are sick because he wants to try and shake up the authorities. One little girl is handicapped by a horribly swollen foot as well as part of her leg. Mireille is a doctor and she examines her, but there is nothing she can do. She would need orthopaedic shoes and socks; they would have to be changed every six month as the child grows. None of this is available here. The worse thing would be to amputate or even drain the swelling: the resulting infection could kill her. Mireille asks her if it is painful? Yes, all the time. The girl cries. What a horrible day.

nomad girl morning footingtibetan school

  Fly over pictures to enlarge them  
  Typical steppe and bog landscape of the high plains
  The nomads are kind and hospitable  
  H139A détails nomades  
   Kiang of Tibet, H462 ©Mireille Damphousse  
   naissance d'un fleuve  
   paturages de yaks  
  paysage d'altitude hymalayen  
  petit lac hymalayen  
 


This morning we are lying comfortably in our sleeping bag when cries from a bunch of children wake us up. In the morning frost they are marching like well trained little soldiers and chanting 'Yi!...Er!...San!...Shi! (1,2,3,4) The little formation repeats in unison what the leader shouts. We get up and start attending to the horses. We leave four of us plus a packhorse. The shepherd who owns the horses is along for the ride, his name is Passang. He is an easygoing shepherd with a weakness for brandy but he shares with his five-year old niece! After a day spent slowly negociating the bogs (steppe peppered with water and mudholes, impassable unless one is walking or horseback riding) we reach the camp where Passang's sister lives. It is the last camp before the sources. Dorjee wanted us to go further so that tomorrow wouln't be too hard, but he is hesitant, we cannot sleep under our own tent: there are bears in the area and since there is nothing but grass, bears are mean and carnivorous. Therefore we are told to expect 10 to 12 hours of trot tomorrow! If the weather does not cooperate I already know I won't be up to it. In the meantime we had best gather our strengh. On the menu: milk products and Yak meat. In Tibet tents are weaved with yak wool; they are comfortable but not as comfortable as Mongolian tents since there is no floor coverings and no decorations: on lives directly on the ground. Yet this family is on the rich side: it owns 300 sheep, 190 yaks and 15 horses. The only appearance of wealth seems to be the women's attire. They wear heavy jeweled headdresses. The head of the household wears one made of coral, mother of pearl and semi-precious stones and we are told that it is worth a measly 4000E. When these shepherdesses go down to town they display for everyone to see the wealth of their clan and the arrangement of the jewellery shows wether they are married or not! And when they go through a rough winter and lose a lot of yaks, they can always sell some of the stones to rebuild the herd. They are the family bank.

D-day has arrived; we are off to the springs. We follow the first tributary of the Mekong. It is a shortcut since the springs of the Mekong and this tributary are only separated by a pass. The tributary is shorter in Km (otherwise it, and not the other one would be the Mekong). Therefore we onlu need go through the pass at the foot of which springs the tributary, and directly behind is the Mekong! (I hope this is clear enough.) The weather is fine, the scenery magnificent, we come accross some white cranes and wild ducks and suddently we come face to face with something that at first I mistake for antelopes so great is they nimbleness. On closer inspection they look more like small horses or donkeys with large heads and hides that are brown-gold. They look exactly like the pre-historic paintings on the walls of the caves at Lascaux! I have attained more than I could ever dream of: to be galloping to reach the spring of one of Asia's largest and most magnificent river, crossing landscapes comparable to those of the Ice Age and pursuing prehistoric-looking animals! The landscape is indeed awesome; the sky is enormous; it covers 2/3 of our field of vision and it is endlessly stormy: a blinding light gives way to the darkest blue, and then to the right blackness. But it is echoed on the left by a large area of snowy white. A snow shower here, and over there, hail; beams of light, a timid rainbow...The horizon is studded with glaciers all around us. We are getting near to the spring. The horses have a hard time but they do make it to the pass. Their hoofs are covered in snow; we are at 5300m. Dorjee says that we must climb on foot to a place above the pass where the water usually springs out, but at this time it is under the snow. We leave the horses and climb on foot. The snow reaches to our calves. Every sis steps I need to stop and catch my breath. I take a few pictures of the springs, then I climb back down to the pass. I wait while Dorjee and Passang say a Bouddhist prayer, the I hand out some prayer papers (they look like confettis) and we all throw them up together: "May the gods be victorious!!!!" and thecolored bits of paper are carried away by the wind.

  nomad campsite
  Nightime falls over the campsite.
Preparing cheese


We climb down under a snow and hail storm that doesn't last. Dorjee falls from his horse while trying to get on the saddle. His high-strung stallion throws him down on the grass. He is not hurt but he can feel a wound he got last year when his horse, sensing the presence of a wolf, had thrown him the same way. There is a good chance he had fractured his elbow then and it set badly. He fears he might not be able to drive back, but fortunately the rain has let up and we still have a second driver waiting for us at Romse. It goes without saying that it was extremely taxing; towards the end my legs were refusing any further service and even on my horse, I was dangling helplessly like a sack of potatoes. I finished the trip utterly exhausted, not to mention a little exposed... my posterior being litterally an open wound! The following day, adding insult to injury, we do it again to get back to Romse, but at a more leisurely pace. Nevetheless the horses are tired, especially mine that I have to coax constantly to get it to move. Instead of looking ahead and following the others through the bogs, he stares at his feet and considers every step. He falters, I press him to go on, and suddenly he makes the wrong move, stumbles in a hole and collapses. I am projected forward and grab the horse's neck. He moans as though I had strangled him. Rushing to free myself before he gets up, I fall into the water and my shoes fill up with water. I get back on the horse and Dorjee, who hasn't seen me fall, has had enough with this horse who refuses to move. He grabs the bridle and pulls as though it were a donkey. His hands are raw, but still he pulls. The horse is even more uneasy, having to follow another horse and unable to chose where he steps. He stumbles endlessly. I am getting fed up with this rodeo act and my legs are too tired to hold me firmly in the saddle. Once again the horse crashes in a hole but this time I hold on to the saddle. My horse gets up and Dorjee wants me to hand my briddle over again. "No way!" I glare at him. Dorjee has promised us a leisurely pace, but he is now trying to get us to trot again. As he will admit later, he has a good mind to get back to Romse early and then press on to Zhato, thereby saving one day. There is no way; and in any case, a typical Fredo incident is about to make him change his mind. It went like this: during a short rest stop I took drinks out of my bag for everyone. The horses meanwhile decided to go live their life somewhere else, so we cut our rest short and went after them. No problem, except that my bag was left behind on the grass, and since my camera was hanging accross my chest, I never noticed the difference when I got back on the saddle (My bag was light because it held nothing but my money and my passport, well protected from the rain!). We rode a good hour before I noticed that my bag and my passport had been left behind, somewhere on the steppe, several Km away. So I took Passang's fast horse and accompanied by Dorjee, I went back. Thankfully, he had a vague idea where we had rested and I soon saw my bag, from quite a distance. We caught up with the others; it was Mireille's turn to ride the slow horse. Mireille had never been on a horse before, but brave and fit, she put up with the long ride and followed Dorjee without a word, Dorjee still pulling on the briddle like a madman. Then the harness broke for the first time. An accident, we thought; we fixed it. A while later, the harness snaps again. But this time Mireille had seen the beast stretching its head when Dorjee was pulling to get it to move. The horse had figured out a way to escape its torturer. Annoyed, Dorjee put the briddle back on. I got down and asked Mireille to change horses with me. This horse is neither an ass nor a lazybones, I am thinking, he is unsure of himself, he needs reassurance and coaxing at the right moment. One has to anticipate his anxieties. Once again Dorjee held his hand out, but again, I refused the help. With patience I got the horse to keep up, and when the going was easy, I even stole a march on the others. It was working! The horse understood, it was trusting me, we were pals, and even close to Romse when the dogs surrounded us noisily, he never shied. We were back with the children and the sick little girl. Mireille repeated her instructions, stressing the importance of keeping the leg elevated.
I gave the girl the plush toy that the lama had given me and she pressed it to her cheek, overjoyed. Mireille attempted to explain its saintly origin, but Dorjee retorted angrily: "Lamas! They ride in a nice car, they have a big house; people give them money and they give nothing back! To hell with the lamas" (Translation approximate).
On the way back, the trail was almost dry, we had no problems and got mired in the mud but once. We left Romse after shaking hands with the adults through open windows and saying goodby to the children, pressed around our Jeep.

Thus we left the craddle of the Mekong, We had reached it and that in turn, it had embraced us. Now we new the First Word of the river. The First Page of this great book told the story of a beautiful and wild country under an inmense sky. Some wacky far-west where the lamas are lords, where the teachers are people of great knowledge, and the doctors remind one of the legends of far away countries.

birth of a river

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