The River of 60 Million People

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Although the Mekong river slides through six countries and various climates, its geographical and spiritual source is said to lie on the high, dry Tibetan plateau. Text and photographs by Christine McNab. Published on BBC on December 6, 2016.

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The spiritual source of the Mekong

The Mekong river – one of the world’s longest – provides food, water and livelihoods to some 60 million people in six countries. For much of its journey, it slides through tropical climates; places like Vietnam and Thailand that keep you swatting insects and sweating day and night.

But the exact source of the Mekong River has long been disputed. Tibetans believe the spiritual source of what they call the “Dza Chu” (the river of rocks) springs from the near-mystical Zaxiqiwa Lakes on the high, dry Tibetan Plateau in a remote part of China’s Qinghai province.

A long-running search

Tibetans know that the “real”, geographic source of the Mekong lies further up on the glaciers of the high mountains that rise from the plateau. For years, explorers have tried to determine exactly where that is. At the turn of the 19th Century, French explorers claimed to have found it. Another Frenchman – Michael Peissel – quite famously plotted a new spot in the mid-1990s, at a time when Japanese teams also worked hard to locate the source. In 1999, Chinese teams determined the source to be higher, at Jifu Mountain. The most recent report comes from explorers Pieter Neele and Luciano Lepre, who published their findings in 2014. They described yet a new source: a stream from a glacier at 5,374m on an unnamed mountain beside Jifu.

But the spiritual source holds great significance for the Tibetan people.

Light on the high prairies

The 270km journey to the clear headwaters from the nearest airport – Yushu airport in Qinghai Province – rarely falls below 4,000m in elevation and climbs as high as 4,900m. As we drove, every vista was an earthy palette of prairie, the highest mountains and the bluest skies. A never-ending play of shadows and light unfolded as the sun and clouds raced across the landscape. Yaks grazed in every direction, and the nomadic houses – some tents, some simple mud-brick homes – were spaced many kilometres from one another.

End of the road

It’s impossible to make the journey with anything less than a sturdy 4×4 (you could also go by horse, but it would take many days). After a few hours of driving, the paved road ended and we settled in for several hours of slow-going bone rattling on dirt tracks.

A vital waterway

After several hours on the road, near a town called Zachey in Zadoi district, we passed a Tibetan nun walking near the Mekong (which is known in China as the Lancang). Sonanwangmo, 46, grew up nearby in a nomadic family of six children, herding yaks, and has been a nun since she was 13.

“I love this area,” she told me. “We can drink this water, and of course, it helps the yaks as well. This river is important because it flows halfway around the world.”

The purest place

Yaks are adapted to high altitudes and are a lifeline for Tibetan nomads, who live in places where only tough grasses and wildflowers grow. Every morning at first light, the nomads milk their yaks, and turn the milk into fresh yogurt, butter and cheese. Families will butcher a yak or two each year for the meat. They spin the wool to make shelters and clothing. And even the dung is used for fencing and cooking fires.


“The yaks give everything. We live because of the yaks. And the yaks need this river, which is so clean. Without water, none of us can live.” – Yinzo, 68, who grew up in the mountains near the Dza Chu.

At the source

After two full days of travel, we arrived at the Zaxiqiwa Lakes. The deep blue lakes sprung out of the marshland surrounded by damp soil, crunchy grasses and a carpet of wildflowers. At this high altitude, the air was so thin and the world so quiet, I could hear the beat of eagles’ wings as they soared overhead. Faded tents of prayer flags stood on the horizon, beckoning us to the main lake, accessible only by foot as the ground is too soft for driving.

An auspicious spot

The 5th Dalai Lama ­is believed to have named the lakes as “a source of rivers” when he came upon them during a nine-month journey from Lhasa to meet the Emperor of China in Beijing. Tibetans revere “the Great 5th” as he is considered a powerful spiritual and temporal leader who unified Tibet during his reign in the 17th Century, after the Tibetan region had withstood years of conflict. The fact that he travelled through this region and spent time to meditate here makes the area especially auspicious and holy.

The mother

The lake is a pilgrimage site, with Tibetans and others coming to pay tribute. They believe the waters can heal the sick. Locals say that even in the deepest winter, when the land is covered in snow and ice, the water here does not freeze. One Tibetan nomad described the area as the “Mother of the Mekong”, telling me that “we have a duty to protect her and all her children down the river.”

A mystical landscape

As the sun set, the land glowed golden. We were absolutely alone. Clouds shifted over the mountains on the horizon and their shadows raced across the grasses. When I closed my eyes, there was no sound except for the occasional sharp chirp of a bird, or the lapping of water against the land. The real world felt so, so far away. If there was a time to be absolutely present in the moment, it was now.

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