Himalayan Journal vol.58
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.58

Publication year:
2002

Editor:
Harish Kapadia
Index
  1. TWO POEMS
    (REV. ROY GREENWOOD)
  2. HIMALAYA: MYTHICAL SHANGRI LA TO GLOBALISING COCKPIT1
    (A. D. MODDIE)
  3. QUEST FOR SOURCE OF THE MEKONG RIVER
    (TAMOTSU NAKAMURA)
  4. FIRST ASCENT OF TIRSULI WEST
    (MAJOR KULWANT SINGH DHAMI, SM)
  5. NANDA GHUNTI FROM BOTH SIDES
    (MARTIN MORAN)
  6. MERU PEAK: THE GATE TO THE SKY
    (VALERI BABANOV)
  7. A CLIMB IN THE CLOUDS
    (ARNAB BANERJEE)
  8. PERMIT ME, SANCTUARY
    (STEVEN BERRY)
  9. NANDA DEVI JUGGERNAUT
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  10. THE TRIDENT OF SHIVA
    (COLIN KNOWLES)
  11. LAST MINUTE JOURNEY
    (ANTONELLA CICOGNA and MARIO MANICA)
  12. A DATE WITH THE TIMELESS MOUNTAINS
    (Lt. Col. A. ABBEY)
  13. IN THE LAND OF ARGANS
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  14. BARBAROSSA
    (MARK RICHEY)
  15. BRITISH SOLU EXPEDITION 2000
    (DAVE WILKINSON)
  16. TRAVELS WITH DONKEYS IN THE KUN LUN
    (COLONEL HENRY DAY)
  17. TO THE ALPS OF TIBET
    (TAMOTSU NAKAMURA)
  18. EXPEDITIONS AND NOTES
  19. BOOK REVIEWS
  20. IN MEMORIAM
  21. CORRESPONDENCE
  22. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 2001
  23. CLUB PROCEEDINGS

QUEST FOR SOURCE OF THE MEKONG RIVER

TAMOTSU NAKAMURA

Notes on a Controversial Issue on the Real Source

"............... Then I took an altitude reading (4975 m, or 16,322 feet); and, most important of course, the exact latitude and longitude.

Lat. 33°16' 534 N.

Long. 93°52' 929 E.

ON THE SURFACE these numbers were the entire purpose of our venture, the figures necessary to be able to pinpoint the source on any map of the world. This was what geography and exploration were all about. Just a few numbers, yet what a struggle to record them? How much bloodshed, tears, and sweat so that what had been spelled out in 1866 as the goal of the Mekong Committee of the French Societe de Geographie could at long last be fulfilled. Suddenly it became important to record the day, September 17, 1994. Twenty-five years after man had set foot on the moon, here we were recording for the first time the source of the third-largest river of Asia."

These are the words of Dr. Michel Peissel, leader of Franco-British Expedition to the source of Mekong river that appears in his book, The Last Barbarians - The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong in Tibet (Henry Holt, New York 1997). Needless to say, he is one of the world's foremost Tibet experts. When I read it, however, I had a feeling that something was not quite correct about Dr. Peissel's claim since I acknowledged that Japan-Sino Joint party had reached another source of Mekong a couple of days earlier than the Peissel's party did. The issue seems controversial. It would be worthwhile, therefore, to look into a chronicle of the exploration of the upper Mekong and to follow the footsteps of the current expeditions to have searched the source of Mekong.

A brief history of the exploration 1866 to 1894

In succession to the death of Henri Mouhot, a discoverer of Angkor Wat, who had first led a French expedition to the Upper Mekong in 1866, Doudart de Lagree of French Navy took over Mouhot's post. The newly appointed leader crossed the border to Yunnan province of China and further continued march northeastward to the Upper Yangtze on the way to Tali Fu together with Francis Garnier, a famous explorer of Northwest Yunnan. The same tragedy fell on Lagree too. He died of a disease at Hui-tse in 1868, while Garni er could arrive at Tali Fu being helped by a missionary, M. Leiguilcher.

1868 was a notable year for the chronicle. In this year no less than three attempts from three points were made to penetrate the obscurities of the unknown region. One was by Lagree's party which had started from Saigon; a second was by Mr. T.T. Cooper from Sichuan to East Tibet; the third by an English party of Major Sladen from Bhamo (Burma) on the Irrawaddy river. The great effort of the Lagree's expedition had been the exploration of the Mekong, which they ascended and surveyed from the delta, as far as the point of latitude 22°00'. From there they travelled through Southern Yunnan and reached the provincial capital, Yunnan Fu (Kunming) at the end of 1867, the first time in my knowledge that any European traveller (not being a missionary priest) since Marco Polo visited in 1283.

In July 1890, the French Government entrusted Dutreuil de Rhins, who had been a distinguished explorer to Congo, Indo-China and Central Asia as well, with a scientific mission to Upper Asia. In October of the same year Fernand Grenard was appointed to the mission. The small party calmly left Paris on 19 February, 1891. It was a start of the long journey over three years across the Caucasus, Russian Turkestan, Chinese Turkestan, Karakoram pass to Ladakh, again back to Chinese Turkestan, Taklamakan Desert, Kun Lun and then desolate Changtang high plateau towards Lhasa of their destination from the northwest. Three months of uninviting hardships of a struggle against the desolate wilderness of the northern Tibet brought the travellers to Nam Co Lake (Tengri Nor), and here they were but a week's march to Lhasa. After Bonvalot, they were the first Europeans to touch the shores of the lake since the day of Huc. However the officials of the Lhasa deputation stopped them to further proceed to Lhasa. So they turned northward as Bower, Littledale, Rockhill, and Bonvalot had to turn, and as far as Nakchu-ka they followed the usual Mongol pilgrim and caravan route bound for the Chinese frontier at Sining Fu (Xining).

In early March of 1894, from Nagchu de Rhins and Grenard left the direct pilgrim road and struck into the northern trade route between Lhasa and Batang, eastward. But subsequently they made a long detour to regain the direct route to Xining, on the way of which they travelled through the source of the Mekong river. They explored a part of the upper Salween river and, having crossed Tangla range, they found themselves on a marshy plateau crossed by the Dam Chu, the longest branch of the Yangtze river. They made what was, from the geographical point of view, the most interesting discovery in their journey, but it resulted in a fatal accident when de Rhins was brutally murdered by local Khambas near Jyekundo.

On 8 April they entered from the Yangtze river basin into the Mekong river basin. Grenard described it: 'At nine o'clock in the morning, we had the satisfaction, in crossing the Zanag Lungmug la, to achieve one of the objects which we had set ourselves to accomplish. From this pass, which is 5,100 m high, runs the Lungmug Chu, the most westerly of the source of the Mekong. The joys of discovery, which are enough to make any good explorer forget the sufferings of a journey were increased twofold for us by the fact that this humble stream of water, now motionless under ice, but soon to flow over mountains and plains to French territory,

..................... '' in his book Tibet; The Country and Inhabitants (Hutchinson, London 1904). They followed the Lungmug Chu down to Zanag (Current Chinese name: Zanaqu river), one of the two main headwaters of the Upper Mekong and rather hastily congratulated themselves for having discovered the source of the great river. The head of Lungmug Chu, which, they claimed, they had reached first was not exactly a pinpoint of the real source of the Mekong. This is shown in the attached sketch map, which is drawn being based on the topographical maps of both the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (1:100,000) and the Russian mapping agency (1:200,000).

Franco-British expedition 1994

'One of the last great geographical mysteries of the world solved' -The Geographical, The magazine of The Royal Geographical Society. Dr. Peissel wrote in his book that the tacit approval and publicity of the Royal Geographical Society convinced the skeptics at last who had been a suspicious about the performance of the Franco-British party. The following is the Record of The Geographical Journal, Vol. 161 Part 2, July 1995.

The source of the Mekong identified

Explorer - Tibetologist Michel Peissel FRGS accompanied by DR. Jaques Falck and the Hon. Sebastian Guinness have just returned from China after having located and surveyed the principal source of the Mekong River. They reached the source on the 17 September 1994 at the head of the Rup-sa pass at an elevation of 4975 m. The Rup-sa pass is on a saddle which links the Drug-di and Sag-ri ranges which frame the last forty kilometres of the course of the Dza-nak (Current Chinese name: Zaqu river), or Black-Dza as the upper Mekong is called in Tibet.

The Rup-sa pass marks the watershed between the Mekong and the Yangste river system. The exact location of the source is at latitude 33°16'N; longitude 93°52'E.

Over the past century a dozen expeditions failed to reach source of the Mekong. 1894 the French explorer Dutireuil de Rhins was assassinated by Tibetan Khambas just two months after having erroneously recorded the source of the Mekong to be that of the Lung- Mog (Lungmug of Grenard) river, a tributary on the right bank of the Dza-nak.

To the best of our knowledge there is no other record or claim of the source having been reached by other foreigners (underlined by author). Of the early explorers who travelled the region, Kozloff, Teichman and Rockhill never reached the source. The reasons for this were both political and geographical.

The source of the Mekong is located in the very inner heartland of the highest and most inhospitable portion of the central Asian highlands, hundreds of kilometres from any settlement. The region was part of the far-flung realm of the kings of Nangchen, the home of 200,000 Khamba nomads who still live a life very similar to that of their earliest ancestors. Nomadic mounted warriors, these Nangchen Khambas are divided into 25 semi-independent tribes who ferociously opposed the Chinese takeover, in the same manner in which they had, in the past, opposed all those who attempted to penetrate their territory. To complicate matters further they were never under the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama. Most of these nomads still escape Chinese control and as a result the Chinese Government has been reluctant to authorise foreigners to travel into southern Qinghai.

Last year (1994), as part of a two-year study of the Tibetan horse, Dr. Peissel was allowed as an exception, into western Nangchen where he identified a new breed of hot-blooded horse with enlarged lungs. It was in continuation of this research that he was allowed to travel to the source of the Mekong in 1994 under the auspices of the Qinghai Mountaineering Association.

The Geographical, April 1995 mentioned that Peissel acknowledges the possibility that Chinese Military may have recorded the true source of the Mekong. "Alas any such information, if it exists, was never published." And this, he says, would be a necessary requirement for them to claim its discovery.

Regarding this question, Dr. Peissel himself mentions in his book only what he heard from the staff of the travel office of the Chinese Academy of Science in Zadoi, who had organised the Japanese party composed of 6 members from the Agricultural University of Tokyo, under the leadership of Mr. Junichi Nakanishi assisted by Mr. Masayuki Kitamura. Peissel was told by the staff that the Japanese party had not been looking for the source of the Mekong after all. Dr. Peissel should have contacted either the Chinese Academy of Science or the Agricultural University of Tokyo in order to obtain their record of having reached the real source of the Mekong just five days earlier than the day the Franco-British party stood on the head of Rup-sa pass.

Japan-Sino Joint Expedition 1994

We should say that it was merely a coincidence that the two expeditions entered simultaneously into the source of the Mekong in September 1994, with the same mission to search and survey the real source of the Mekong.

According to the latest data being issued by the Chinese Academy of Science, the name of the Mekong river varies in the four stages as under:

Mekong.................... The lower stream in Myanmar, Laos,

Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

(1) Lancang Jiang................. The middle and lower stream from

Qamdo (Chamdo) to the border between China and Myanmar/ Laos.

(2) Zaqu (Dza Chu)............ The upper stream- the Upper Mekong

- from Ganasongdou to Qamdo.

(3) Zayaqu (Dza Kar)........... The upper stream of the northernmost

source to Ganasongdou, which is a confluence with Zanaqu.

(4) Zanaqu (Dza Nak)......... The upper stream of the westernmost

source to Ganasongdou.

Here is raised a question: which should be recognized as the real source of the Mekong, Zayaqu or Zanaqu? That is if only one source is to be selected to be more authentic from a geographical point of view. It is understood, however, that this question has been resolved by the survey of the Japan-Sino Joint party in 1994 and the other two parties in 1999, both of which were expedited separately in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Science. The report on the Japanese part is summarized as under:

A Japan-Sino Joint expedition of the Agricultural University and the Chinese Academy of Science consisting of six Japanese and four Chinese members departed from Sining on 20 August 1994 and arrived at Zadoi via Yushu (Jyekundo) on 25 August. Zadoi is the remotest county of the Qinghai Province within which lies the source of the Mekong. On the following day they drove from Zadoi village (4100 m) to Moyun (4539 m), the last settlement on the right bank of Zanaqu which was the starting point of the caravan with yaks and horses.

2 to 4 September: Moyun to Ganasongdou, a confluence of Zayaqu and Zanaqu where they measured discharge (the flowing water volume) of the both streams. The discharge from Zayaqu was proved to be five times that of Zanaqu. As a result that they judged that Zayaqu must be the real source of the Mekong and accordingly they chose a way up to search the watershed of Zayaqu.

5 to 12 September: Caravan and survey from Ganasongdou to Lasagongma. On 12 September they discovered the geographical source, which was flowing out from a glacier. The location is in a latitude 33°42' 41" and longitude 94°41' 37" (recorded from GPS) at 5160 m above sea level.

13 to 17 September: Climbing a peak of 5632 m, the highest in the vicinity and moving to one of the legendary sources, Zaxiqiwa lake in a latitude 33°34' 15" and longitude 94°18' 14" at 4650 m.

18 to 20 September: Searching the other legendary source, a sacred mountain of Zanarigen in a latitude 33°19' 20" and longitude 94°13' 40" at 5550 m, 17 km north of Moyun, and upon returning to Moyun their field work was completed.

They specified two categories of the source of the Mekong.
  1. Zayaqu: A. Geographical source-------- Lasagongma
B. Legendary source------------ Zaxiqiwa lake
  1. Zanaqu: A. Geographical source-------- Chajialima Mountain
B. Legendary source------------- Zanarigen and two

other places

(Note - It cannot be confirmed whether Chajialima Mountain corresponds to the Rup-sa pass of Dr. Peissel.)

On 9 November the Xinhua (national press agency of China) released the news that the expedition team of the Chinese Academy of Science and the Agricultural University of Tokyo surveyed Zayaqu, a left tributary of Zaqu in early September, and the experts of the both institutions confirmed a head-spring of Zayaqu to be the source of Lancang Jiang (Mekong river).

SUMMARY

Discussions about source of Mekong river, based on a visit to the region by the author, who is from the Japanese Alpine Club.