Go with the flow
Asia's Mekong River is like a living creature: As it winds through the continent, its waters seem to grow older and more weathered. A journey to this turbulent waterway's humble birthplace reveals a fresh, 'pure' world untouched by technology
For the first time in my life, I hear nothing at all.
Three of us – my guide, the driver (who happens to be a monk) and I – sit on a blanket stretched on a field 12,000 feet above sea level. A summer picnic on the roof of the world. In the near distance, yaks stand like boulders, silent as they graze.
And then, a swoosh. An eagle takes flight. I hear its wings push the air. Maybe, if I tilt my head, I'll hear the headwaters of the Mekong burbling down the mountains.
With patience and a spine of steel, I'll soon see those waters, springing from a near-mystical grassland on the Tibetan Plateau.
As part of a personal project, I had a fascination with the Mekong river. I'd spent much of 2016 visiting Mekong countries.
In Vietnam, I marvelled as thin women steered their boats beside enormous cargo ships on the Mekong Delta.
In Cambodia, I spoke with activists fighting to save the Irrawaddy dolphin. At the Golden Triangle, I watched men strain to pull water buffalo onto longboats destined for China.
During those travels, I envisioned the Mekong as a living creature, its waters growing older, perhaps more jaded with every mile travelled toward the sea.
So, where was it the youngest, the freshest and, just maybe, the most innocent?
It's a place called Zaxiqiwa – small spring-fed lakes that reflect the ever-shifting dance of sun, clouds and sky.
The journey requires a four-wheel drive and a fairly sturdy back as you lurch across "roads" that are sometimes little more than yak tracks.
My driver, the monk called Basang, said almost nothing as we followed the Mekong (called the Dzachu) upward through grassy valleys and over near-5,000-metre passes bounded by lengths of prayer flags.
Every few miles, by the river or on a hillside, we passed a lone tent or small house – the homes of Tibetan nomadic families there to graze their yaks on summer pastures.
We drove on for several hours and stopped often for photos or a stretch. At that altitude, I had to be careful to take deep breaths and slow down – all the better, as we had time to spot eagles, a rare "kiang" (a Tibetan wild donkey) and thousands of adorable pikas. This is also the land of the snow leopard.
In the late afternoon, we climbed one more pass. Our guide pointed and smiled – Zaxiqiwa! And there they were – small lakes glimmering in the distance, nestled on grasslands dotted with millions of wildflowers.
We set up camp by one of the lakes. Geese bobbed on the blue waters. A late-afternoon sun embraced the grassland. Storm clouds darkened the sky and raced shadows across the endless fields and mountains. Prayer flags waved, marking this place, the spiritual source of the Mekong.
I breathed. It was the cleanest air in the world. Once again, I could hear nothing. Really, not a thing.
The world was fresh and, yes, absolutely innocent.
"This place is so pure," a woman called Leray tells me as we sit together in the family's yak-wool tent. Leray and her family are Tibetan nomads. They live in these high mountains from April to September.
"Pure" is the perfect word for this splendour. It's a wilderness of grasses, wildflowers, lush valleys, clear streams and soaring glacier-capped mountains. There is no electricity, no factories, no real roads.
Nomadic life is hard, she explains, but she loves it. She and her family wake at sunrise. They collect yak dung: essential fuel for the cooking fire. As we sit together, she feeds patties of dung into the clay oven. It doesn't smell, not one bit. Why?
"The grass is so clean here," she explains. The yaks eat this clean grass, and, well, everything they produce is clean.
To a nomad, the yak is life itself. Families kill one or two every year for the meat. They clip and spin the wool, which can be woven into the black tents people use for shelter in the summer months. "One tent lasts for decades," Leray tells me. Her family has about 200 yaks and they milk 50 of them every morning. They churn the milk into butter, boil it to make cheese and ferment it to make salty-sweet yogurt.
Yaks are also valuable and can sell for about $3,500 each. A family's wealth is measured in yaks, together with women's jewellery. Tibetan women wear colourful necklaces and headwear made of turquoise and other precious stones.
I ask the family if I can take a photo. Leray's daughter rushes away to put on her traditional Tibetan dress. Her hair has never been cut and she wears it in a thick braid.
Posing for the camera against a pristine wilderness, I imagine her great-grandmother might have looked the very same.
Leray looks up at the mountain and says things are changing. "When I was a girl, we couldn't see the rock on this mountain as the glacier covered all of it."
She says it's the job of Tibetan nomads to preserve the ecology of the region. "This area is the mother of the Dzachu [Mekong]," she says. "Down the river are her children. It's our job to protect this mother."
Name the rivers of the world and the Mekong, together with maybe the Mississippi, the Nile or the Amazon, comes to mind. At 4,350 kilometres, it's the 12th-longest river in the world. It trickles down from the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau in central China, pulses through deep, rocky gorges and settles into a more serene existence, sliding by a sliver of Myanmar, forms much of the Thailand-Laos border, wends through Cambodia and then fans into the "nine dragons" of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
What's in a name? To the Tibetans, the upper reaches are the Dzachu – the "river of rocks." As it flows through China, it's the Lancang – the "turbulent river." In Thailand and Laos, it's the Mae Nam Khong – the "mother of the waters." In Cambodia, it's roughly the same. The Vietnamese refer to the Song Cuu Long – the "river of nine dragons."
From where? The source of the Mekong has long been questioned. For Tibetans, the spiritual source is the Zaxiqiwa Lakes, possibly designated by the fifth Dalai Lama, credited with uniting 17th-century Tibet. Several explorers have since "found" the source, including French, Japanese and Chinese. The most recent claim comes from explorers Pieter Neele and Luciano Lepre, who argue the Mekong trickles from a glacier on an unnamed mountain about 65 kilometres northeast of the Zaxiqiwa.
Why does it matter?
For the traveller, the Mekong offers a spoil of adventures, including boat cruises and hotels ranging from the very basic to ultraluxury. For tens of millions of locals, the Mekong is a critical lifeline of fish, fresh water and transportation.
It's considered the second-most biodiverse region of the world next to the Amazon basin. And, it's an increasingly important source of hydroelectric power – with more large and controversial dams planned.
If you go, you'll spend time in Gyegu, the capital of Yushu district (known as Jyekundo to Tibetans). The town was nearly levelled by an earthquake in 2010. The city is now tidily rebuilt, with good roads, electricity, Internet and modern hotels for tourists.
The town itself might not hold your attention for long, but the district includes dozens of monasteries that can be visited. There is a famous pilgrimage site a few kilometres down the road called Gyanamani – an enormous stupa containing millions of prayer stones. Tibetans from across the region, including people in traditional dress, come to make merit. You'll see some combining their devotion with a bit of exercise, and the extremely devout prostrating their way around the entire site.
At the end of July – normally July 25 – there is a colourful horse festival in Yushu. Riders compete by performing death-defying tricks on galloping horses. People come out in full finery to watch the races along with spellbinding dancing and other performances. Part of the festival takes place at the main stadium, with other activities in town and also at the traditional grounds near the airport in a stunning valley.
If you go
Hire a guide. It would be possible, but difficult, to arrange a trip to Zaxiqiwa without a local guide.
A good company will ensure a solid four-wheel-drive vehicle, an experienced driver, guide, quality camping gear and food. I recommend Gesar Tours – run by Tibetans who know and love the region. gesartour.com.
The Best Time
Visit this region in the summer when temperatures range into the low 20s C. Start your journey in Yushu district in Qinghai Province, arriving by flight and landing at one of the world's highest airports (almost 4,000 metres above sea level).
The Best Way
From major Canadian cities, fly either to Xining or Chengdu, China, then connect through to Yushu – the closest airport to Zaxiqiwa.
Check with your doctor about how best to prepare for and cope with high altitudes.
Where to Stay
In Gyegu, try the Gesar Palace Hotel, a modern hotel with good rooms, nice views and ordinary breakfasts. Prices average $100 a night.
If you want to try something more local, the Xinzhai Family Hostel has a range of very basic rooms for about $20 in a family-run guesthouse. It's right beside the Gyanamani stupa – a perfect location to absorb a unique cultural experience. Book through booking.com.
On the way to Zaxiqiwa Lakes, your guide will arrange accommodation. Expect basic rooms with a bed, toilet and shower – sometimes down the hall. At Zaxiqiwa you'll camp.
Where to eat
In Gyegu, there are a range of very basic restaurants serving Tibetan food. There are also a few vegetarian eateries in town that cater to Tibetan monks and many Chinese restaurants.
On your journey to Zaxiqiwa, you'll eat at various low-key noodle shops. Take the advice of your guide to find the freshest, best-quality food. At Zaxiqiwa your guide will prepare meals for you on a camp stove.