Mar. 23, 2023

Searching for China’s Water (7) The Cars Breaking down All Day Long

Searching for China’s Water (7)

-The Cars Breaking down All Day Long

Words and Pictures by Yongchen Wang 

On the road, cars can break down or get stuck in the mud. All drivers may have experienced dealing with these kinds of conditions that make car travel dreadful. But have you ever spent a day trying to get your car moving—and not just one car, but three cars all stuck in the mud together? Perhaps some people have had this happen to them, but definitely not many. On June 24, 2009, however, we found ourselves going dealing with this for a full day on the Tibetan plateau.

Early morning near a sand dune on the plateau

Beside a sand dune on the plateau

Around 9 AM

The clarity of the morning air on the plateau is such that a person feels that they can almost see the air they are breathing being sucked into their lungs. Last night it was as if we used sand dunes to sleep on. In today’s clear morning, though, we saw that we had actually slept next to the sand dunes, which, throughout the development of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau have helped maintain this incredibly old ecosystem. The free slope and grass, accompanied by the blue sky and white clouds, were like a symphony.

We set out after 8 AM; our targets were two large lakes first formed by the growth of the Yellow River—Zhaling Lake and E’ling Lake. When we came here in 2007, the locals told us that these two lakes at the source of the Yellow River were smaller than before. The impact of global climate change on the plateau is all too clear through changes in the water here. Yesterday we saw the Yellow River and the Xingxing Hai wetland at Maduo Bridge, one place where these changes can be seen. High evaporation has turned lakes into dunes, rendered grasslands barren, and turned wetlands into desiccated fields.

Not long after we left—we could still see the sand dunes we had “slept on” last night—geology expert Yang Yong, using his previous experience here, quickly charged into a watery area, and it was then that our car came to a stop in the water.

At first we didn’t think the situation was that serious. But when one of the three cars traveling together tried to pull out the submerged vehicle and also got stuck in the mud, we started to worry.

Attaching a steel rope

Two cars also stuck in the mud

Inflating a “Desert Balloon” Jack

We used all of the tools we had: rocks, shovels, strong “monkey pole” high lift jacks, and “desert balloon” jacks. However, in addition to the car “lying” in the water peacefully watching our efforts, there were the other two cars, one of which would get pulled out of the mud before sinking again, while the other would get stuck and then get pulled out again.

On this plateau, at 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) above sea level, it is somewhat difficult to breathe even when you’re not doing anything, not to mention when you’re moving rocks, and shoveling mud with iron shovels. So there was nothing to do but try out other methods.

Our “saviors” arrive

We even used a “Titan”

Gasping in the thin air, we were able to call over a group of Tibetan men on horses. We asked them what we could do to get out of this mess, thinking that they surely would be experienced with these problems, having spent many years living at the headwaters of the Yangtze. One of them, who appeared to be the leader, first had us tie a rope to the front of the car. With Yang Yong in the driver’s seat adding gas, the rest of us, along with four Tibetan men, spread out and started a game of “tug of war.”

Amazingly, even the Tibetan men, each of whom seemed like a titan to me, couldn’t pull out the car, so it looked like this method wasn’t going to work. Under their commands, we took another tack. Using a “desert balloon” jack to push the car up, we put rocks and boards underneath the tires, and everyone moved from the front of the car to the back and pushed with all their might!

But after only five days, the car that was supposed to take us to the sources of the Yellow and the Yangtze as we looked for the water China needs to respond to global warming, no matter how we tugged and pulled, wouldn’t go anywhere.

The Tibetan men shook their heads. They came on horseback, and for them our stuck car was just strange. They didn’t know the phrase—global climate change—that we use to describe the ecological changes on the Yangtze in recent years; all the same, the changes in climate and on the grassland they had seen caught them off guard. Last month, my fellow traveler Li Guoping, the host of the Jiangsu Auto Show, had brought a tour group to the source of the Yangtze. The blizzard this may, Li Guoping said, had caused serious harm to the herders of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

Two days ago, Yang Yong said that by June the Yangtze had already started to flood. He worries that both the Yellow and the Yangtze will have major floods this season.

Back when floods on the lower Yangtze created devastation in 1999, in order to see how floods in East China were related to the Yangtze headwaters, I went along with China’s first female Yangtze headwaters inspection team. I remember that when we got there, our guide Ouyue told us that during that winter they had suffered a “White Disaster”. Several hundred of his family’s cows and sheep froze to death.

In an interview about the Yangtze headwaters, Shen Yongping, an associate fellow at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute on Glaciers and Permafrost in Lanzhou told me that from late May to early June is the monsoon season around the Yangtze headwaters. But in 1998, the first rainfall didn’t come until June 25. This late monsoon was abnormally fierce. Throughout all of July, August, and September, rain fell practically every day. This was rarely seen on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. This was closely related to the floods on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze during the summer of 1998.

Shen Yongping also told me about one other experience, one that I frequently use when talking about China’s ecological crisis. This is what he said: during the 60’s, some scientists wanted to conduct an experiment, so they dug up a very small piece of frozen turf from a mountain on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. At the time they thought, “This is just a small piece, there’s no way it could cause a great environmental impact.” Who would have thought, because they destroyed such a small piece of frozen earth, the turf on the entire mountain later started to degrade. By the 1980’s, the mountain had become bald.

In fact, because humanity knows so little about nature, how can our errors be limited to those of this kind?
Just as we found ourselves without any way to get our cars out of the quagmire, the Tibetan couple who had showed us the road to the big sand dunes rode up on a motorbike. The woman’s Chinese was good enough for us to clearly tell her that we still had a car in Maduo County. Yesterday, one member of our team had to stay behind because of bad altitude sickness, and he was still in Maduo County waiting for us. That car had our important tools in it.

We asked them if they could take one of us to a Yellow River town more than 60 kilometers away that had a cell phone signal, so we could get the car to come quickly. After the couple talked it over, the husband had Chen Xianxin hop on, and they hit the road in a rush. Chen, a Wenzhou native, who wasn’t even wearing a jacket, disappeared into the distance on the back of the motorcycle.

Yang Yong said that we had no choice but to spend the night here, so we would have to set up tents and then cook food. So, battling the winds on the high plain, we started our preparations for the night.


The wind was very strong

This is where we would spend the night

We boiled water and made instant porridge

Already frozen to the bone, Chen Xianxin returned and told us that, in two hours the other car would arrive with tools and wooden boards.

Hope, which was so important for us after 8 hours in the mud. Though our dinner was instant porridge made with boiled water scooped out of a pond, we all found it to be particularly appetizing.

The car came, and so did our hope. In particular, Li Guoping, the Jianghe automobile columnist, was like an “invincible army” as he, coming over in shorts, started to issue orders to everyone. We, who had spent an exhausting day digging and filling, watched his enthusiasm, while the setting sun settled on the plateau. It created quite an admirable work of art, full of hardship, but also joy.

New hope

This 50 year-old man also joined our struggle in the water

As the sun was setting, our car was still in the water

The plateau in the setting sun

The glowing sunset over the plateau is quite beautiful, but it also turned the wetland we had been making “combat” with all day into an oozing beach. I photographed everything, and bearing some guilt, I also offer caution, in hopes that people in the next expedition do a better job than us.

The wetlands that broke us down

For guilt there must be some recompense. I offer a warning in hopes that anybody driving onto the plateau definitely brings all necessary tools, as these not only require little effort and save time, but also won’t cause the plateau ecosystem to be scarred on our account.

Under the illumination of car headlights, our car, after a day spent in the water, departed. Equilibrium was restored to the Yangtze headwaters.

Final efforts

The car did not stop on the way back to the road

An unforgettable day

Because I wanted to make up lost ground in our investigation, I didn’t sleep in the tent we set up in the evening wind. This was my first time driving 3 hours at night, as we sped back to Maduo County.

The tranquil plateau

Tomorrow we will definitely go see the monument for the Yellow River headwaters. Look out for news!

Translator: Andrew Scheineson 

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