Magazine article Geographical

Journey to the Source of the Mekong: For Decades, the Source of the Mighty Mekong Has Caused Debate among Geographers the World over. Last Year, John Pilkington Followed the Great River from Its Sprawling Delta in Vietnam to China's Qinghai Province, North of Tibet, in Order to Try to Set the Record Straight

Magazine article Geographical

Journey to the Source of the Mekong: For Decades, the Source of the Mighty Mekong Has Caused Debate among Geographers the World over. Last Year, John Pilkington Followed the Great River from Its Sprawling Delta in Vietnam to China's Qinghai Province, North of Tibet, in Order to Try to Set the Record Straight

Article excerpt

The Mekong has lured me for years. At 4,200 kilometres it's the world's 12th-longest river, whose very name suggests mystery. Its lower reaches fascinated early French explorers, notably Francis Garnier, who spent two years from 1866 trying to forge a trading route along the Mekong from French Southeast Asia into China. Thwarted by sandbanks, cataracts and politics, he barely reached the Chinese border before turning his attention eastwards to the Red River.

Even today, the Mekong's dramatic gorges in Tibet and Yunnan are rarely visited, so they offer long stretches of exhilarating exploring. The Chinese call the river Lancang Jiang, 'Turbulent Flood'; the Tibetans Za Qu, 'Water on the Rocks'. Who could resist the call of such tempting names?

As a geographer, I was spellbound by the late 1990s race to find the source of the Mekong. This began when another distinguished Frenchman, the Tibet specialist Michel Peissel, claimed in Geographical (April 1995) to have found it the previous year on a pass called Rupsa La, at an altitude of 4,975 metres on the Qinghai plateau north of Tibet. Experts in China, Japan and the USA questioned Peissel's claim, and after some spirited debate, four separate expeditions in 1999 established a cluster of new 'sources' 90 kilometres northeast of Peissel's. In October of that year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences declared the true source to be Lasagongma, a stream that issued front a glacier at 5,224 metres on the north face of a prominent peak called Guosongmucha.

Among other things, the academy is China's official surveying and mapping authority, so I thought this would be the end of the matter. But, in 2002, the leader of one of the academy's expeditions, Dr Liu Shaochuang, published his own appraisal, which placed the source at 5,200 metres on nearby Jifu Shan.

But I wasn't convinced, so I decided to find out for myself.

Before leaving for Vietnam, I visited the Map Room at the RGS-IBG. There I found a once-top-secret 1:1,000,000 Soviet map dated 1971 that clearly showed the two competing tributaries.

So it was that in January 2003, I set off, like Gamier, from the old French customs house in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and headed for the southern tip of Vietnam, where the Mekong divides into a dozen delta channels before spilling into the South China Sea. Over the next four months I walked, hitchhiked and commandeered boats through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. The river here is a broad highway, a vast fishing ground and a prolific irrigator of crops. The legendary quarter-ton giant Mekong catfish has been fished virtually to extinction, but other freshwater species form the staple diet of some 30 million people. And the fertile silt brought downriver with the rains has made the Mekong's floodplain the ricebasket of Southeast Asia. Punctuated only by the Khone Falls in southern Laos, which had sounded the death knell for Garnier's dream, the lower 1,500 kilometres are navigable by surprisingly large vessels, a fact not lost on the tourist-cruise industry.

In the Lao capital, Vientiane, I persuaded a sleepy Chinese consul to grant me a 90-day visa. Few foreigners seem aware that the Mekong is a spectacular and legal way of entering China. Chinese cargo boats ply upstream daily from the Thai port of Chiang Saen, and after some tortuous negotiations I secured a passage. The three-day voyage took me through the heart of the so-called Golden Triangle, where poppies are grown for opium production.

For the next 1,000 kilometres I was in China's vast and enigmatic Yunnan province, home to the parallel gorges of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween. Long stretches of the river here proved completely inaccessible, and I could understand why Garnier's expedition gave up. I made wide detours, hitchhiking through communities of extraordinary minorities such as the Lisu, Hani and Dai. Returning to the Mekong above the town of Weixi, I broke my journey in a tiny Lisu village called Yezhi. …

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