Mar. 23, 2023

Searching for China’s Water (8) Two Lakes at the Source of the Yellow River

Searching for China’s Water (8) – Global Climate Change and Two Lakes at the Source of the Yellow River
Words and Pictures by Yongchen Wang

On June 25, 2009, a day after our group spent a day pulling our car out of a marsh near the Yaniang Dunes (Maps show these dunes but don’t provide a name, and since the local name for it is Yaniang, Yang Yong decided to christen it thus) and returned to Maduo Township, we headed west from Maduo towards niutoubei, the “Bull’s Head” Monument. As far as tourist trips are concerned, niutoubei is the source of the Yellow River. However, its true source is another 60 kilometers away, at a bend in the Yueguzongliequ in the Yuguzonglie Basin.

Nowadays there is a more-or-less completed tourist road leading out of Maduo Township. Yang Yong says that his first trip here was in 1992. That time, they walked to the Yalong River. Then, they took a van when they got here. Their driver told them that there were wolf pack’s in the area. And sure enough, they actually saw wolves, as well as herds of Tibetan wild ass and Tibetan gazelles.

The two times that I’ve been here, in 2007 and this year, I haven’t seen any wolves, but you can still see significant numbers of gazelle and wild ass.

Tibetan gazelles near niutoubei

A special prayer

That time, Yang Yong’s team went from Maduo Township to the place where the Tibetan King Songtsan Gambo married Princess Wencheng (during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century), also the site of today’s niutoubei at the foot of the mountain (at that point there was still no niutoubei), which took an entire day’s time. Today it only took us three hours to reach niutoubei. Yang Yong only remembers that there used to be a fishing ground there, but no people. They had camped there for a night.

The Yellow River No. 1 Hydropower Station

E’ling Lake

Yingqin Beach

The Yellow River’s No. 1 Hydropower Station was built where E’ling lake leads into the mouth of the Yellow River. This hydropower station became operational in 2006. Yang Yong says that, because of the riverbed gradient at the exit to E’ling Lake, the effective reservoir size for the power plant is 1.9 billion cubic meters; larger than two Zipingpu dams.

Yang Yong’s evaluation of the Yellow River No. 1 Hydropower Station is that, while in recent years the water volumes for E’ling Lake and Za’ling Lake have decreased and their surface areas have shrunk, the reservoir can play a definite rule in stabilizing the water volume and surface area of the lakes.

 As for problems with the Yellow River No. 1 Power Plant, Yang Yong believes that: because the lake water freezes in the winter, generating power is impossible. However, the electricity generated by this power plant is very important for Maduo County.

He also believes that the barrier dam will likely influence the lake’s fish and E’ling Lake’s regular flow to a definite degree. However, at the moment nobody knows what more substantial impact the dam may have on the lower reaches of the Yellow River, as nobody has undertaken analytical research on this question. After Yang Yong tested the water in the lower reservoir, he said: “brackish.” He told us that if it is very salty, that means that the volume of evaporated water is very high. Originally, these two lakes were freshwater.

Walking beside E’ling Lake

The original lake surface has already become a winding road

According to written records, at its largest E’ling lake was 800 square kilometers, and its depth was 22 meters. Now the lake surface is only 600-some square kilometers, and its depth is a mere 17 meters. Za’ling Lake was once 600 square kilometers, but now it doesn’t reach 500 square kilometers.

Looking at the present, there are no more catches at the fishing grounds. In 2004, Yang Yong’s team proposed an idea to the Maduo Township government: in these plateau lakes, if the fish are scarce, the food chain will be broken. If people raise some eagles, dogs, and foxes, and also limit fishing, in this way they can safeguard a coordinated biological sytem.

Looking at present circumstances, because mice have created many eagle-like frames to scare the mice around these mountain lakes, although the government built some eagle platforms, the results are still not evident, and there have not been any flocks there. So for E’ling Lake and Za’ling Lake, ecological restoration is still very arduous.

Spreading its wings


Yang Yong analyzed several symptoms of the grim trends developing in the natural environment of these two large lakes;
1. Lakeside grasslands have deteriorated, with excessive desertification turning the area into desert piece by piece;
2. Lakeshores are clearly receding, with increasing groups of smaller independent lakes;
3. Rodents are still rampant;
4. Biological depression. Besides the dwindling, fragmentary numbers of Tibetan antelope and Tibetan wild ass, other animals are scarcely seen.
5. Many tributaries networks are drying up, springs are not flowing, groundwater levels are decreasing, and the water supply is greatly decreasing.
Za’ling Lake’s desertification is much more serious than E’ling Lake’s.
My view of the change in E’ling Lake was this: In 2007, as we stood at niutoubei, we could still see the lake surface on the right side. This time, as far as the eye could see there appeared to be wetlands. But Yang Yong believes that the change over two years couldn’t be this drastic, that this change is because of seasonal differences. In 2007 we were at niutoubei in August.

It appears that, in the distance, the lake surface is already gone

E’ling Lake from niutoubei in 2007

The E’ling Lakeshore

Yang Yong gazing out into the distance

Lakeside interview

We left niutoubei and walked down a road leading us down the mountain and along Za’ling Lake. At the lakeside, the photos I took were of things beyond the scope of human customs and traditions. Some of the photos were quite pretty on the surface, but in the end, I fear that I need to consult an ecological expert in order to explain the color of the water.

A betrothal site commemorating the history of the Han and Tibetan people

Home by the lake

Lake and Mountain


Yang Yong said that E’ling Lake and Za’ling Lake have a connecting channel between them, and that our campsite that night was at this river’s mouth. In the past few years, because of climate change, this riverine connection between the two lakes has dried up and stopped flowing. This year’s water levels are relatively high, so he estimated that the river shouldn’t be dry. But this time, no matter whether you were looking at Za’ling Lake or E’ling Lake, it was easy to see the lake water’s line of retreat. Between these two lakes, was another gourd-shaped lake. This central lake contained the channel linking the two large lakes. Nature’s rivers are diverse and have their own particular functions. At the Yangtze headwaters, nature’s lakes also appear to have their own features.

Za’ling Lake’s retreating waterline

The river and lake connection

As the sun was setting in the west, we raised a tent by Za’ling Lake. Tonight we would be sleeping lakeside at Za’ling. To use one of my favorite phrases, we rested on the waters of the Yellow River source, and there entered sleep. That night we dreamed with the birds and fishes of the lake.

Overnight at Za’ling Lake

Two dishes at a soup beside Za’ling Lake

Birds playing at the Yellow River mouth

Schools of fish in Za’ling Lake


Tomorrow we will go to the Yueguzonglie Basin, the true headwaters for the Yellow River. Stay tuned for news from the river source.

Translator: Andrew Scheineson 

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