Illusion in Mekong Headwaters and Enchantments in Highlands

A Journey through Eastern Tibet

Tamotsu (Tom) Nakamura

I returned home on 26 June 2013, from a three week 4500 km journey through eastern Tibet: West Sichuan-Qinghai. Unfortunately the first objective to explore hidden and untrodden peaks and glaciers in the remotest Mekong river headwaters was not attained, since a horse caravan could not be organised because almost all nomads had gone out for digging caterpillar fungus. In spite of my Tibetan guide Awang's two-day- effort to find nomads to help us at the 4700-4800 m high headwaters, we had to give up gathering horses and horse keepers. I shall return in August of 2014.

Nevertheless, the journey was filled with an abundant harvest.

Members and Itinerary

An elderly pair, Tom Nakamura (78) and Tadao Shintani (69) were the members supported by a capable English speaking Tibetan guide Awang (36), a Tibetan cook, Tshering(43) and two Han drivers, You hong wei (45) and Zhang qi juu (40). Two Mitsubishi Pajero vehicles were used.

7 June : Chengdu to Kangding (2500 m)
8 June : Kangding – Chetoshan pass (4298 m) – Kangding Airport (4250 m) – Tagong Grasslands – Ganzi (3400 m)
9 June : Ganzi – Manugango – Sichuan/Qinghai border pass (4700 m) – Yushu (3650 m)
10 June : Yushu, visit to Jeku monastery.
11 June : Yushu – Border with Zadoi County (4250 m) – Changlashan pass (4712 m) – Zadoi (4020 m)
12 June : Zadoi – crossed 11 high passes between 4500-4800 m – Hongse village (4700 m) which is a base for heading to Mekong Headwaters.
13 June : Unsuccessful efforts to gather horses
14 June : Hongse – access to Mekong headwaters (for tourists) – Zaqing (4260 m) – Zadoi
15 June : Zadoi – Yushu
16 June : Yushu – Three Rivers Park – Bayanharshan pass (4824 m) – Madoi (4220 m)
17 June : Madoi – Yellow River source-Lake Ngoring (4250 m) – Madoi
18 June : Madoi – panorama north face of Amnye Machen massif – Xueshan village (3780 m) – Maqin (3780 m)
19 June : Maqin – Qingqinshan pass (4382 m) – Gandu (4040 m) – Dari (3980 m) – Bayu (3830 m) – Longgeshan pass (4398 m) (panorama NW face of Nyaibo Yuze range) – Nyainbo Yuze Cottage (4100 m)
20 June : Cottage – lookout point of Lake and east face of Nyainbo Yuze – Bayu – Pema (3560 m)
21 June : Pema – a pass at 4510 m – Border Qinghai-Sichuan (3750 m) – Seda / Serthar (3860 m) – Serthar Buddhist Institute (3800-4200 m) – Institute Guest House (3925 m)
22 June : Guest House – Barkam (2630 m)
23 June : Barkam – Chengdu

Uncertain Frontiers caught in a hive of Western Development

Construction of dams and new roads with tunnels is progressing along the Dadu He river basin from Ximien to Kangding/Danba. Mountain slopes and surroundings are being mercilessly destroyed. Kanding town is developing very fast and a new airport at 4250 m near Cheto Shan pass (4298 m) has started operations. A new by-pass road has been built from the airport to Tagong monastery through beautiful grasslands pastured with yaks and sheep. Incessant destructive construction continues on the frontier of the West Sichuan Highlands and Qinghai Province. New construction and refurbishing of monasteries are also on in full swing. You would be surprised to see the construction rush of monasteries everywhere in the Kham and Amdo Tibetan territories. The glittering monastery of Tagong, unique prayer flags of Manugango lamasery, rapid expansion of historical Zogcheng monastery in Sichuan and large scale reconstruction of Jeku monastery in Qinghai heavily damaged by the earthquake in 2011 are a great attraction for travelers.

Over almost all areas where Tibetan nomads inhabit in eastern Tibet of Kham and Amdo, a drastic migration policy is forcibly being executed. New compounds known as ‘New Village’ with compact and modern houses are being built near towns or close to main roads. This is resulting in a rapid change of lifestyle for nomads. They stay in their new house in winter and live in a tent for pasturing in summer.

Our serious concern was the restriction on foreigners imposed by the public security bureau (PSB) since last year in the counties where fire suicide by Tibetan monks had often taken place. Fortunately, however, we were checked only one time between Ganzi and Manugango, a junction to Chola Shan pass/Dege and Yushu of Qinghai. But we had to pay 400 RMB for two cars - the reason given was excessive loads. (The officer first requested 4000 RMB.)

The First Two Objectives – Ganzi to Yushu/Zadoi

Before reaching the main objective, the Mekong Headwaters, we had two other objectives as mentioned earlier i.e. to reconnoitre the following peaks in the two areas, where reconnaissance and climbing have not yet happened. They could be future alpine paradises:

Monument near Yellow River headwaters. (Tom Nakamura)

Monument near Yellow River headwaters. (Tom Nakamura)

Chola Shan East massif, Sichuan

Peaks north of Manugango between a road to Yushu and Sichuan-Tibet Highway (north) are totally untouched. 5200 – 5500 m rock peaks range south to north. Fortunately almost all peaks have been photographed and recorded. The main peak, Chola Shan I (6168 m), is now a popular mountain for commercial expeditions organised by Chinese companies.

Rock peaks in the Upper Mekong near Zadoi, Qinghai

This area is hard to explain from a geographical point of view. However, if you travel from Yushu town to Zadoi in the upper Mekong, you will come across many alluring peaks though they are less than 6000 m.

  1. North of Yushu town between Yushu and border with Zadoi County: many 5400 – 5700 m impressive snow and rock peaks are viewed.
  2. Between Yushu/Zadoi county border and Dadoi town: There are two clusters of 5200 – 5400 m outstanding rock peaks. A panorama from Changlashan pass (4712 m) is breathtaking. One massif has peaks closely seen from the pass. The other massif is located closely east of Zadoi town through which the upper Mekong river flows west to east.
  3. Area surrounding Zadoi town has also many fascinating peaks between 5300 – 5800 m but yet to be surveyed. They are viewed from a road Zaqing northwards to the Mekong headwaters.

Yushu (Jyekundo) – Cross roads of early explorers

Yushu was an important crossroad of the traffic to Lhasa from the east. Famous explorers and missionaries stayed in or passed through Jyekundo towards west or east. Some of them are:-
December 1881 – January 1882: Pundit ‘AK’, British India
May 1889: William Rockhill, an American diplomat
November 1892 – January 1893: Miss. Annie Taylor, China Inland Mission, British
May – June 1894: De Rhins and Grenard after reaching a Mekong river source, French
September 1898: Dr. Suisie C. Rijnhart, a missionary from the Netherlands
August 1900: Kolzoff, a Russian explorer
April 1918: Erich Teichman, British Consular Officer
May 1922: Brigadier George Pereira, British and Alexandra David-Neel, French

To the upper Mekong, Zadoi, and problems of ‘Caterpillar Fungus’

Fine weather continued. We headed to Zadoi from Yushu on 11 June. A new airport (3800 m) 30 minutes north of Yushu town is in service.

Caterpillar fungus. (Kenzo Okawa)

Caterpillar fungus. (Kenzo Okawa)

In an hour’s drive from the airport we crossed a pass of 4504 m, passed a junction 4250 m to Nangcheng and then we reached a check post in Shizu Station at the county border of Yushu and Zadoi. A problem arose here. All travellers were checked at this check post not only by the Public Security polices but county officers and representatives of villagers. The reason of inspection is to prevent outsiders (non-residents of Zadoi County) from entering Zadoi to gather caterpillar fungus now sold at a very high price. June and July is the season of cropping. Bloody fights and disputes are not unusual to guard territory from the outsiders in eastern Tibet. Zadoi town is known as a base for exploring the source and headwaters of the Mekong river. The surrounding landscape features the beautiful upper Mekong basin but the town itself is very dirty and uncomfortable to stay. During June to July, primary schools are closed for caterpillar fungus gathering and many street shops are shuttered. The same takes place in Nagchu too. My guide Awang says that inhabitants in Zadoi are unfriendly Khamba while Amdo people are friendly.

Water birds near Mekong Headwaters. (Tom Nakamura)

Water birds near Mekong Headwaters. (Tom Nakamura)

On 12 June, weather was still fine and we departed from Zadoi northwards to Hongse (4700 m), one of the four villages of Zaqing District, which is a starting point to organise a horse caravan for heading to the main objective, untrodden and unknown large glaciers and many hidden 5800 m peaks. They are recognised on the Chinese 1:100,000 topographical map and Google map as well. A road from Zadoi town crosses the Mekong to the north and directly ascends straight up to a 4750 m pass to Zaqing District. Rock peaks seen eastwards are picturesque. These are part of the Qiajaima massif that has the highest peak 5930 m in the Mekong headwaters in the north of Zaqing. This peak was climbed by a Japanese party in 2004.

We further crossed nine high passes of 4400 – 4700 m and arrived at Hongse (4700 m) late afternoon. There is only one nomad house and the Communist Party’ meeting office. We stayed in a nomad family tent.

Illusion of Unknown Peaks and Glaciers

Our plan was drawn up in consultation with Masayuki Kitamura of the Tokyo University of Agriculture. Kitamura is an expert on the Mekong. He first reached the true source of the Mekong in 1994 and later accomplished the complete descent from the source to the river mouth in Vietnam. He recommended Hongse village to start a horse caravan to the destination. He advised two routes along river streams to reach the northern side of the area that we were to explore.

Maqen Kangri II (6268 m) east face. (Kuniaki Sakai)

Maqen Kangri II (6268 m) east face. (Kuniaki Sakai)

Maqen Kangri I (6282 m) east face. (Pedor Detjen)

Maqen Kangri I (6282 m) east face. (Pedor Detjen)

Nyainbo Yuze (5300 m) north face. (Yasoyuki Takeuchi)

Nyainbo Yuze (5300 m) north face. (Yasoyuki Takeuchi)

As soon as we arrived at Hongse, we first asked our host from the nomad family to arrange for a horse caravan. But his reaction was discouraging. As Kitamura had warned, almost all horses and nomads in the vicinity were out in the mountains digging caterpillar fungus. We visited two nomads houses far from each other in the wide open valley of the headwaters at 4700 – 4800 m hoping to find horses and horse keepers but in vain. However, fascinating landscapes of the plains, valleys, streams with remaining snow beds, 5400 – 5500 m rock and snow peaks and fauna such as water birds and deer allured and enchanted us.

The following day, 13 June was cloudy with soft sunbeams. We carried on looking for horses. We drove along the southwestern foot of the mountains, beyond which there must be the veiled peaks and glaciers of our objective. Nowhere horses were found. Nomads told us to come in August after caterpillar fungus season of June and July is over, as enough horses would be available and weather would be warm and stable. On 14 June, we returned to Zadoi and then to Yushu on 15 June for continuing our journey to the next stage.

When writing this article, an email came from the Netherlands. A Dutchman and an Italian reported that they had reached a new source of the Mekong in Jifi Shan and sent me a picture of mountains of our objective taken southeastwards from the Jifi Shan. It is invaluable information to unveil the hidden mountains.

Bayanharshan and Source of the Yellow River

We proceeded to the next stage: (1) Bayanharshan and Yellow river headwaters (2) Amnye Machen massif (3) Mountains in Golok, Nyainbo Yuze (4) Serthar Buddhist Institute, Sichuan.

We followed a road eastwards from Yushu on 16 June. Here too we saw a hive of development in progress. A new highway from Yushu to Xining was being constructed. The road soon crosses the upper Yangtze, Tiantong He, and continues through 4000 m high fertile grasslands towards the Bayanharshan pass (4824 m).

Bayanharshan is a name of the main peak (5262 m) of long and huge Bayanharshan mountain range stretching northwest to southeast sharing the watershed of the Yellow river (Huang He) and the Yangtze river (Chang Jiang) in Qinghai Province. But the mountains are not high. The western rim is Yagradagze Shan (5214 m) and the eastern rim is an outstanding Nyainbo Yuze (5369 m) massif of the Golok mountains.

Stone tower near Li Xian. (Tom Nakamura)

Stone tower near Li Xian. (Tom Nakamura)

The western rim is Yagradagze Shan (5214 m) and the eastern rim is an outstanding Nyainbo Yuze (5369 m) massif of the Golok mountains.

We stayed at Madoi (4220 m), a newly developed town, for two days to visit the Lake Ngoring (4250 m) of the Yellow river headwaters. Peaks of the Bayanharshan were seen beyond the turquoise blue lake of Ngoring with water birds and a herd of Yaks.

The Bayanharshan (5267 m) was ascended by a Japanese party, members of the Japan-China Joint Yellow River Headwaters Expedition 1985. But the climbing team found a wooden turret on the top, perhaps brought by nomads.

Amnye Machen having long been Mountains of Mystery

After visit to the Yellow river headwaters, on 18 June we headed to the Amnye Machen massif. Leaving the main road to Xining we entered a road going southeast for reconnoitering the Amnye Machen. Fortunately the weather was not bad. First we saw a whole panorama of the north face, in the middle of which was the gentle but highest Maqen Kangri I (6282 m). Later we could identify all the peaks. Then we crossed a 4500 m pass and drove down a valley of Weigela in the eastern side of the massif. Peaks after peaks appeared. We passed through Xueshan village (3780 m) and lodged at a sizeable town of Maqen, a county capital.

It is well-known that Amnye Machen had long been ‘Mountains of Mystery’ until the mid 19th century. The first westerner to have seen the mountains was British Brigadier George Pereira. On the way from Beijing to Lhasa in 1922, he saw it from a distance and assumed its height to be some 7500 m. Inspired by Pereira’s information, an explorer-plant hunter, Joseph Rock organised an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society in 1929 and its record was published in the National Geographic Magazine – February 19301. A paragraph from that article is quoted as below:

“After dangerous, difficult months, I reached the headwaters of the 2000-mile long Yellow river and the towering, unexplored range of Amnyi Machen, twenty-eight thousand feet, or almost as high as Everest, its tallest peak lifts its snow-white head, majestic as the Matterhorn.”

Joseph Rock’s expedition started at Jone in Gansu Province and via the famous Labrang monastery reached present Maqen in Qinghai Province. In 1949 an American pilot, L. Clerk accessed Amnye Machen but its accurate altitude could not be measured.

It had to wait till the new China was constituted to unveil the Mountains of Mystery. In June 1960, the Beijing Geology Institute expedition made the first ascent of Maqen Kangri II (6268 m). The Chinese party surveyed and researched for two months. They identified the highest peak and other peaks as under.

Main summit – Maqen Kangri I (6282 m), II (6268 m), III (6090 m), IV (6070 m), and V (5966 m).

The Deng Xio Pini’ reform and open-door policy in late 1970 led to making climbing possible. On 22 May 1981, a Japanese party from Joetsu, Niigata, made the first ascent of the main summit Maqen Kangri I (6282 m) from the eastern side via Halon valley, and a German party climbed soon after. In autumn of 1984, a Japanese party from Nagano ascended Maqen Kangri II. In 1993 a Japanese party of Tottori University climbed Peak III of Amnye Machen group (6090 m). This peak was first scaled in 1984 by the Wuhan Geology University, China.

Golok horseman. (Tom Nakamura)

Golok horseman. (Tom Nakamura)

Golok and Nyaibo Yuze – Serthar Buddhists Institute

The Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai is a region between the mountain ranges of Amnye Machen and Bayanharshan. The southern side of the Bayanharshan East forms a complicated topography with valleys that is connected to the Hengduan mountains in Sichuan. Annual average temperature is minus 4℃, and annual rain fall is 500 – 700 mm. The other impression of Golok is that it used to be a notorious borderland of savage and brutal Tibetans. They sometimes attacked trade caravans and even explorers. However it is now a peaceful land with fertile pastures to herd Yaks and magnificent monasteries.

On 19 June, we crossed four high passes of 4200 – 4500 m heading to Nyainbo Yuze. At 2.00 p.m. we stood at the Longgeshan pass (4398 m), the best lookout point of the northwest face of mighty rock peaks range of Nyainbo Yuze massif. It is a really breathtaking panorama. We were overwhelmed and touched by the landscape.

Nyainbo Yuze is a local Tibetan name of the Golok mountains. The massif is about 40 km south to north and 20 km east to west with deep valleys and many glacial lakes. Numerous granite rock peaks and pinnacles tower to sky ranging like the teeth of a saw. They may be compared to the rock peaks of Siguniang massif of the Qionglai mountains in Sichuan. The northern side of the main summit (5369 m) with beautiful lake, Ximen Co, is now becoming a touristic spot for Chinese visitors. However, almost the entire massif remains unfrequented in the other area, and must draw attention as a climbing paradise in future like the Qionglai mountains where climbers are rushing.

Serthar institute. (Tom Nakamura)

Serthar institute. (Tom Nakamura)

In 1989 a Japanese party from Kyoto attempted to climb the main summit (5369 m) from the lake, Ximen Co. The party set up a base camp above the southern end of the lake and followed a route along a glacier. However, they could not stand atop the highest peak but climbed an adjacent peak a little bit lower. After the Japanese expedition, a team of the Qinghai Mountaineering Association succeeded in the first ascent of the main summit (5396 m), but their climbing route and year of the ascent are yet to be confirmed.

Serthar sky burial yard. (Tom Nakamura)

Serthar sky burial yard. (Tom Nakamura)

On 20 June, we left Nyainbo Yuze and took a return way via the Serthar Buddhist Institute, Sichuan. The Institute has been opened for foreigners since March 2013. We spent a night in a guest house of the Institute at 4000 m. The institute is the largest Tibetan Buddhists Academy in China with 20,000 residents including lamas, teachers, monks, nuns and students being administrated by the government. The whole compound consisting of temples, schools and accommodations spreading over at 3800 – 4000 m in a valley are huge and spectacular. A mani-wheel symbol building is brilliantly lit up at night. A wide sky burial yard with an awful tower has been newly constructed outside the institute.

We safely arrived at Chengdu on 23 June finishing a 4500 km long journey through Sichuan – Qinghai – Sichuan.

An exploratory 4500 km long road journey observing mountains of Sichuan-Qianghai undertaken by two senior explorers from Japan.


  1. ‘Seeking the Mountains of Mystery: An Expedition on the China-Tibet Frontier to the Unexplored Amnyi Machen Range, One of Whose Peaks Rivals Everest’

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