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Headwaters of The Yellow River

In 1999, the Sichuan Scientific Exploration Association organized a team to explore the headwaters of the Yellow River. They wanted to study the environmental situation in the area close to the great river's source. The team had 20 team members including Professor Tang Bangxing, from the Chengdu Institute of Geography, Academia Sinica, Prof. Zheng Benxing, from the Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Cryopedology, Academia Sinica, and Prof. Li Chengzhi, from the Institute of Oceanology, Academia Sinia. They are all experts in this research field. The exploration photographer Li Tianshe joined this team and he presented us with this article and pictures.

The Huang He, or Yellow River, is the sceond largest river in China after the Yangtze, with a total length of 5464 km (3395 miles). The Huang He rises in Qinghai province in northern China and flows east through deep gorges before turning northeast in Gansu province, flowing for hundreds of kilometers through the Ordos (Mu Us Shamo Desert. The river then proceeds east for about 320 km (about 200 miles) and turns south, flowing swiftly through deposits of loamy soil known as loess. Here the river picks up yellow silt, which colors the water. The Wei River enters the Huang He in central Shaanxi province. The river then flows east to the plains of northern China, where it becomes a meandering stream with a broad channel.

The region around the confluence of the Wei He and the Huang He is called the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was there that Late Stone Age people began to develop the culture that evolved into the Chinese civilization. When these people began to farm, they disturbed the original forest vegetation. Ultimately, this increased the rate of erosion and led to severe environmental problems. In addition to scarring the surface landscape with gullies and eroded formations, the runoff found its way into the Huang He, adding to the silt burden of that stream. The high silt content of the Huang He, which gives the stream its common name of "Yellow River," has resulted in a high rate of sedimentary deposit and a tendency to flood farther east on the North China Plain. The chronic and severe flooding of the Huang He, sometimes accompanied by major changes in the location of the channel, led the Chinese to call it "China's sorrow". Tremendous efforts and vast amounts of human labor have been used in building levees and channels to control it. In recent years, the flow of the Huang He has shown a sharp decline. In its lower reaches as it nears its mouth, the river has frequently ceased to flow. Accumulated data demonstrates that the Huang He has become an intermittent river, flowing strongly only after heavy rains.

Our team departed from Chengdu on August 10, 1999, travelling northwesterly along No. 213 national highway. We passed Miyaluo, and over the 4200-meters-high Mount Zhegu. There are two ways to the headwaters of the Yellow river: one from Jiuzhi County, the other from Banma county, both in Qinghai to negotiate so we chose the second way, though it's 100 kilometers longer.

Fields we passed were all typical Tibetan style landscape. Piles of Mani stones, prayer flags, sutra-reciting lamas, prayer-wheel-in-land Tibetans could be seen everywhere.

Manzhangyixi in Banma County is the watershed of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. The weather in the highlands was changeable. When we got to Maduo, the county seat, we met a hailstorm. 4200-meter-high Maduo city, the highest county in the world, is small, even tiny, but it's clean. It has only two connecting streets in the shape of the English letter T.Only a few stores and pedestrians were seen in the two streets.

We stayed in he rest house. The heating equipment was a stove using dried yak dung as fuel. We were not familiar with the "new' equipment, so we were unable to even boil water.

Xing Xinghai (Star Lakes)

Xingxinghai is lake country near Maduo County. It has lost many of its former attributes. Professor Tang told us that the headwater area of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers conforms to a specific climatic type: a high altitude region with low temperatures, infrequent precipitation, gales, and many near-glacial qualities. These conditions are allied with a complex high altitude ecosystem of predominantly meadow and grassland. Since the 1950s, the environment has deteriorated sharply as a result of global warming, thoughtless timber felling, immoderate herding and rodent damage. The speed of desertification is increasing at a rate affairs has affected the lives of herdsmen.

In the past, Maduo County had the title "Thousand Lakes County" for its 4007 lakes, but now, 2000 lakes have dried up, and some big lakes have diminished into several small ones. E-Ling and Zha-Ling Lake's water levels have gone down very sharply to an average depth of only 3 meters. The result of this diminished water resource is a fall in the water table and considerable gullying. From 1966 to 1988, precipitation in the headstream area was 277 hundred million cubic feet. And since 1994 Maduo County has been ravaged by drought, with much plateau vegetation destroyed, it has become another Gobi or desert. The entire ecosystem has broken down.

Gongba Temple is the sole village near E-ling Lake. E, in Tibetan, means "large". E-ling Lake covers an area of 619 with a water depth of 31 meters. To the west, the elliptical Zhaxi Lake covers 544.4 sq.kms, with a maximum depth of 13 meters. People name the two "Sister Lakes". The Yellow River runs between these two lakes.

The two lakes were called Pohai in the Tang dynasty. Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wencheng held their wedding ceremony here. To show his hospitality and improve his standing. Songsten Gampo held a race meeting. According to local Tibetans, the custom of horse racing on the tablelands originates from that time.

We took part in the local sacrificial ceremony. The vice magistrate read the sacrificial address. Our team members fetched water from their hometowns, and then sprinkled it before the cenotaph. The waters of the Yangtze, the Yarlung Zangbo, Zhujiang, Lancang, Funan and Yellow rivers were intermingled at this spot. We also adorned the stone column marking the source of the Yellow River with hadas we had brought.

To collect more detailed desertification data, we decided to survey the principal water source area. We rented 15 horses and a dozen yaks as our vehicles. Kariqu is the principal source of the mighty Yellow River, whose total length is 5664 kilometers. The drainage area in all covers 752,400 square kilometers.

We divided the team into two parts and took different ways to reach Kariqu. After a half-day's travel, the two teams met around the dying lagoon. We discovered that around the key source, many other lakes had shrunk to cracked dry beds stretching to the horizon. The face of the land was so tragically despoiled we were devastated. Yellow Rive, you need well treating! We make a plea to everyone. Please take care of our environment, love nature.

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