Mar. 23, 2023

Searching for China’s Water (15)Revering Nature on the High Plateau

Searching for China’s Water (15)-Revering Nature on the High Plateau

Words and Pictures by Yongchen Wang

June 2, 2009
On July 2, 2009, Chen Xianxin bought a sheep from a herdsman whose house we were staying in. After a few days of life on the plateau, we needed an extra meal. Anyone who didn't eat mutton could eat the pure, all-natural yoghurt made by the hostesses, or drink the hot butter tea they had boiled. During the mornings, the women were bustling inside the tent.

Ox horn questioning the heavens
Morning in the tent
Making butter tea is easier than it used to be
While adults busied themselves with their housework, the children ate and watched them. Qiu Song, a young Tibetan man, is the son of the hostess. The hostess has had ten children, one of whom died, leaving her with nine. The family keeps more than 1,000 sheep and more than 20 yaks. When the woman’s husband died, they put him to rest in the traditional Tibetan way—sky burial. 

Qiu Song lives alone. Since his injury, this is probably the first time he has seen his mother. As soon as he arrived today, mother and son embraced each other as they mingled their tears. We talked to him for a while yesterday, when we saw him outside the tent, holding an IV drip bottle aloft. He told us he had earned about 1,500 RMB digging up caterpillar fungus. But after the harvest, he and his wife returned home to find that seven of their cattle had died, leaving only two. To make matters worse, he hurt himself when he sped too quickly on his motorcycle, costing him a lot of money. However, it was clear from Qiu Song's words that these circumstances didn’t worry him. He had even capped two copper teeth at the cost of 120 RMB. Here was a Tibetan man of the Yangze headwaters. 
Children in the tent
The kids’ breakfast on the plateau
Injured after riding a motorcycle

Newly sheared sheep

It had hailed and stormed for most of the day yesterday, and after we set out today, Yang Yong, laying flat next to a trickling stream flowing through a plateau meadow, drank several mouthfuls of the meltwater. Several of us tried the water as well. Truly sweet.

Drinking water from river’s source
The unpredictable clouds at the river's source
Before we set off, Yang Yong had expressed concern about today's journey, as he had never gone down this road. From Suojia County, we were headed first to Maduo County, and then to Yanshiping. But according to the map, there was no road. As it was the rainy season, we knew it was going to be a challenge for us to trek across a plateau meadow to make it to the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and reach the Tuo-tuo River. But we didn't expect the Pagerlo, which was always used to pull other cars out of the mud, to get stuck in the mud as soon as we left the gate. While we were trying to pull the Pagerlo out, a heavy wind filled with hailstones hit us, soaking everyone like soup-drowned chickens.

And just as we pulled out the Pagerlo, one of Yang Yong's wheels got stuck in the mud.

Pushing the car
One car freed, and another gets stuck

Li Guoping, after pulling out the car
After Yang Yong got his car out of the mud, we kept going. Our convoy rolled over the grassy plains, and while we were fording a river, one of the cars burnt-out in the middle of the river. Li Guoping, 50, was the leader of the China Solo Tourism Alliance. Every time we had a car stuck, he was our commander and strongman. Jack in hand, no matter how deep the wheel was stuck in the mud, he could always get it out in a jiffy. Without a man like Li Guoping, who knows how much time it would have taken us to pull the cars out.


World between the clouds and water on the plateau
After rain came fair weather. Seeing the picturesque scenery at the river's source, the world between clouds and water, we forgot our previous troubles and lost ourselves in nature. We were awe-inspired by the wall of solid rock at the foot of the mountain, which seemed as a mountain gate, preserving its safety and tranquility.
However, amidst our reverie at the beauty and magic of nature, another chance in circumstances came our way.

It happened because we were completely reliant on our own groping attempts to find a road. There was a way through the water, but the depth of the river was unknown. Driving through the meadow was fine if there were only jolts, but in fact there were hidden dangers in the grass. Yang Yong went ahead of us to clear the course. As a result, he always got stuck in mud or water.

Puddles, rat holes, and collapsed rat holes formed the landscape
Got stuck again

Getting out of the quagmire

We drove around Moqu at 4600 to 4800 meters above sea level. Since we got stuck far too many times, the tent where we ate mutton in the morning was still in sight.

The river source is the river source. Although it is the most sensitive area to the global climate change, it is formed not only by glacial meltwater but also by vegetation and groundwater. Anyone who has ever been on the plateau will remember its web-like water system and its peculiar meadows.

Perhaps this is what real nature is, a place whose beauty cannot be reproduced by humans. In the presence of such beauty, we do not only feel amazed, but also feel some reverence and appreciation. Apprehending its majesty, we can do nothing but accept it, and in acceptance seek harmony.
Waiting for a pull
Stuck in the water
On the plateau, this feeling is strong and deep.

In 2005, there was a debate on "whether humans should worship nature" stirred up in the media by an academician and me. The Indian Ocean tsunami had just happened at that time, so I published an article called "Humans Should Revere Nature" in the Beijing News. Soon after that, the academician published an article named "Revering Nature is Unscientific" in Global magazine. Then, I wrote another article called "Revering Nature is Not Unscientific" and the academician wrote "Revering Nature is Anti-human". Following that, the debate on whether revering nature is “unscientific” or respectful to nature spread throughout the media. We originally thought that the debate would make humans recognize the important role nature had played in our life and also would teach us the art of harmony, but the debate did not continue in the media and we didn’t why.

Clouds at the river's source
The last red cloud over the horizon

Dusk approaches
On July 2, 2009, while camping, we figured out that we had only traveled 20 or so kilometers, as we got stuck in the headwaters nine times at 4500 to 4800 meters above sea level.
During the windy night, the wolves kept howling. Our tent also howled as the wind blew. Hiding in the tent, we thought, "How can humans not revere nature!"
Tomorrow, we are going to travel through the marsh to Yanshiping, which sits astride the Qinghai-Tibet Highway.

Translator: Yan Feng
Proofreader: Andrew Scheineson


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