After our journey with Isabella Bird to explore the Yangtze river, we turn to more modern expeditions organised by the Chinese government both to explore the river and determine its source. Since the first expedition in 1973, many others have occurred in recent years, mostly to preserve the ecology.
My main source for the 1976 expedition is an article in Ifeng. I have tried to preserve the colourful language where possible. In the postscript there are more recent discoveries about China’s largest and most famous river.
In 1973 the Yangtze River Basin Planning Office wanted to publish a film and television brochure about the Yangtze River. This was to promote the achievements of the Yangtze River water conservancy project in time for the 30th anniversary of National Day in 1979. However, Chinese academics had different opinions on where the source of the Yangtze River lay.
At that time, some even thought that the Yangtze River and the Yellow River were sister rivers. This fallacy is widespread and has a profound impact. Even geography textbooks for primary and secondary schools use this statement, setting the Yangtze River at 5,800 kilometres in length, making it the fourth longest river in the world. To clarify the source of the Yangtze River, China’s “mother river”, an expedition to explore the source of the Yangtze River began in the summer of 1976. On July 5 of that year, a team composed of 28 people, including reporters, set off from Xining and headed towards the source of the Yangtze River.
Xining is about 600 miles to the northwest of Chengdu, the most westerly large Chinese city visited by Isabella Bird. The city was a commercial hub along the Northern Silk Road for over 2000 years, and was a stronghold of the Han, Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties’ resistance against nomadic attacks from the west. Today, its main industries are chemicals, high technology, and tourism.
Xining City is in the Huangshui River Basin and the terrain is relatively low. The members of the expedition, who came from all over China, felt that it was not much different from other north-western cities. However, as soon as they left Xining City, the plateau breezes made everyone feel cool even in midsummer. The expedition used heavy trucks – at that time a relatively comfortable way to travel.
Southwest of Xining City is the Nanshan Mountain. In folklore, locals believed that there was a phoenix flying here, so it is called Phoenix Mountain. At the northern foot of Phoenix Mountain, the expedition team saw a large temple complex. This was a temple of a sect of Chinese Buddhism in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). It was larger during the Yongle period of the Ming Dynasty (960–1127). It was then ruined in wars. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that it was rebuilt with the support of the local government and the people. Today, the Nanshan Temple complex covering an area of 6,000 square meters, has become a holy place for Chinese Buddhism in northern Qinghai.
Going south, into the depths of the mountains, there are green walls and golden tiles appearing on the hillside. This is the holy place of the Yellow Sect (Gelu Sect) of Tibetan Buddhism—Taer Temple.
After this, the expedition saw a strange mountain. This is the Riyue Mountain, which is said to have been transformed into a mirror by a Chinese princess when she entered the Tibet to marry a Tibetan king in the 7th century.
When you pass Riyue Mountain to the west, you will suddenly feel bright. The cows and sheep on the vast grassland are scattered like stars.
The convoy raced west along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, and the expedition team arrived at the shore of Qinghai Lake in the morning sun.
On the vast Qinghai Lake, countless sand gulls flew and danced, and the waves of the waves saw the faintly visible yellow shadows of the leaping yellow fish. Many fishing boats swam around on the surface of the water, making us instantly forget that this was on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Local herdsmen galloped and herded horses by the lake. As they walked along the south bank, they could vaguely see the three islands in the centre of the lake, as if a little bit of ink lingered in the vast blue.
On July 10, the expedition team travelled along the highway to a small town for rest. Nearby is a lake exclusively for Tibetans to mine salt. But it also has a stunning beauty. This shallow lake, rich in mineral salts, is sandwiched between several mountains. The north and south mountains are covered with snow all year round.
The team continued to move along on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. The dirt road that was not paved with asphalt was comfortable on the plains, but once it entered the mountains, the trucks could only drive very slowly.
On July 13, the expedition team crossed the border of Dulan County and entered the eastern edge of the Qaidam Basin. The motorcade travelled along the northern foothills of the Burhan Buda mountain range in very inaccessible conditions. At first, salinized deserts and swamps appeared on both sides of the road, and then the Gobi-like Qaidam Desert appeared.
For several days, they saw no villages and towns. Even the Tibetan herdsmen only appeared sporadically. Five days later, after several days of isolation, the convoy finally arrived at Golmud, the main city of the Qaidam Basin.
In the 1950’s, potash and gas fields were discovered near Golmud. The first oil pipeline and potassium fertilizer factory were opened in 1989. In the 2010’s, further investment followed realization of the importance of the Sanhu‘s supplies of lithium and rare earths for modern personal electronics and electric cars.
After a brief rest here, local people told everyone that they would really enter the snowy plateau next, and every subsequent day would be a hundred times more difficult than the day before!
The expedition team turned south and went deep into the snow-covered plateau along the Golmud River. Due to the high and cold terrain and sparse vegetation along the Golmud River, the pastures are generally no more than 5 cm high. Only in summer, a very small number of Tibetan herders come here for nomadism, which is basically a no man’s land.
After passing the Nanshan Pass, the expedition team formally entered the Kunlun Mountains, with towering mountains on both sides like walls. The Golmud River, which originated in the Kunlun Mountains and is formed by the confluence of snow and spring water, rushes down from a high mountain gorge with an altitude of more than 4000 meters. The convoy zigzagged slowly forward in the valley and arrived at the small town of Nachitai.
Here, they visited the most famous spring – the Kunlun Mountain-Kunlun Holy Spring. The Tibetan guide told them that this is the legendary “iceberg nectar”. Drinking the spring water here is blessed by the Buddha, and drinking will be safe.
After everyone drank the sweet water, they mustered their energy to continue to the south.
Finally, in the early morning, the Tibetan guide pointed to the gap in the mountains ahead and shouted:
There is Kunlun Pass!
Everyone was overjoyed.
On the east and west sides of Kunlun Mountain, Yuxu and Yuzhu stand side by side at an altitude of 6000 meters.
This is like a fairyland wrapped in silver all year round, surrounded by clouds and mist, forming the well-known Kunlun June Snow Spectacle. The slopes of the mountain are covered with snow and the mountainside is surrounded by white clouds.
On the desolate dirt road, there are only glaciers. The frozen mounds, stone forests and stone rings cover each other all the year round. The colourful “salt flowers” blooming by the salt lakes of the plateau appear occasionally, and the glaciers will evaporate from time to time. The water temperature can sometimes be as high as 91℃. Fortunately, there are hordes of Tibetan antelopes as a background colour of life in a variety of natural scenery.
The Chumar River, which crosses the north source of Yangtze River, is the most terrifying section of the journey. The Tibetan guide said with some horror:
We Tibetans, when we arrived at Wudaoliang, we cried and called to our mother again! People get sick.
Sure enough, in this lifeless plateau, many members of the expedition team experienced severe altitude sickness. Breathing difficulties were accompanied by heart palpitations, insomnia, and headaches. Fortunately, the team had prepared sufficient oxygen reserves and heating materials. Everyone was able to continue.
Due to the lack of roads, the trucks fell into ditches and swamps from time to time. The team only travelled 100 kilometres in five days. Finally, on August 5th, the expedition arrived in the Jiangyuan area of Nangji Balong. The river is like a broom, forming a large area of tidal flat swamp here. Different rivers meander around here, and it is difficult to distinguish where the source is. No wonder our predecessors can only say “the source of the river is like a broom, scattered very wide.”
The task of exploring the source of the Tuotuo River is the most severe. There are high mountains and deep valleys on the way to the Tuotuo River and no roads. So they hired horses and yaks from the Tibetan herdsmen along the river.
The team travelled steadily westward along the permafrost that never melted. Sandstorms blew up from time to time making the journey dangerous.
After traveling west for more than 100 kilometres, through the canyons and floodplains, we finally arrived at the Gachadi Rugang Snow Mountain in the Batong Mountains.
Here, the team saw a steady stream of snow water pouring into the Tuotuo River. They knew that the source of the Tuotuo River was already in sight, and after such a long journey, made them full of joy.
The expedition finally determined that the Tuotuo River is the source of the Yangtze River, and the Jianggendiru Glacier on the East Mountain of Gladan is the starting point.
So far, the length of the Yangtze River has been extended from 5,800 kilometres to 6,280 kilometres, surpassing the Mississippi River and becoming the third longest river in the world.
As the 1976 expedition found out, the source of the Yangtze fascinated but eluded generations of Chinese living along the lower reaches of the river. Western explorers of the 19th and 20th Century also found it elusive, though several had a good idea about it. Up until the Ming Dynasty in the 14th to 17th Century, the river was thought to originate from the Min River of Sichuan. It was the Ming scholar explorer Xu Xiake (1587-1641) who successfully traced the upper reaches to the Jinsha River, the correct upper tributary of the Yangtze. Geographers in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) further identified the Tongtian He which flows into the Jinsha. It was not until 1976 that PRC geographers (the story above) defined the Yangtze source as originating from Tuotuohe high up in western Qinghai Province.
However, this finding was still erroneous. The China Exploration and Research Society made multiple attempts and finally defined what is now recognized as the scientific, geographic, and officially accepted source of the mighty Yangtze River, third longest river in the world.
Between 1985 and 1986, the CERS led a National Geographic Expedition studying the Yangtze River from mouth to source. The team arrived at Jianggendiru glacier of Geladandong Mountain, which was defined (above) as the river’s source in 1976. The glacier is the source of the Tuotuohe, one of three main tributaries of the upper Yangtze.
In 2005, with the latest and higher-resolution satellite images on hand, and with the help of NASA scientists, the expedition realized that there was a longer tributary of the Dam Qu. In earlier space images a section of the upper reaches was hidden by cloud cover. Another large-scale, international, expedition involving 24 members, including geographers, remote sensing experts, biologists, anthropologists, doctors, car mechanics, support staff and two film crews, was organized to explore this newer source.
After much effort, the multidisciplinary team reached Jashigela, a snowy peak, with its melting snow stream adding 2.4 kilometres to the length of the Yangtze River over the previous source established in 1976, 1985 and 1995. Today, this new source is recognized as the real source of the Yangtze.
32°36’14″N 94°30’44″E, 5,170 m above sea level.