May 26, 2017

Searching for China’s Water(25) On The Glaciers at 5400m Above Sea-Level

Day One On The Glaciers at 5400m Above Sea-Level

Author and photographer: Wang Yongchen

You could say that July 13th, 2009 was the most challenging day of my life.

Today, I walked for 16 hours, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., at 5400 meters above sea level, looking for the glacier at the source of the Yangtze River. I had to battle Level 8 to Level 10 winds and hailstones hitting my face. I crossed a fast-flowing river at waist depth. After dark, I got lost, and with the strong wind and hailstones, I could hardly stand…

On July 12th, after seeing a snow-capped mountain far off in the distance, we decided to continue searching for new glaciers. Yong Yang called this place the source of the Yangtze River. There were many icy mountains, glaciers, and Yangtze source streams without names. Indeed, our records of these virgins mountains and waters were of great scientific importance.

As for me, I hugely regret that I failed to take pictures of the ice towers like Jianggudiru Glacier, which I took photos of 11 years ago. So, I continue to thirst for chances to take pictures of these ice towers.

Breakfast on July 13th

Passing Jokuls (snow or ice-capped mountains)

On the way to the glaciers


Tibetan antelopes walking towards the glaciers

Statistics released by China’s Meteorological Administration in 2009 show that the average temperature of Tibet in July was the highest on record since 1951. The temperature of some areas of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau was 2 degrees Centigrade higher than average years. Meanwhile, precipitation in western and southern Tibet decreased by 30%-80% on average.

Beneath the great specter of global warming, the increasing number of extreme high temperature incidents in Tibet this summer is somewhat random, but also inevitable. Although global warming is a global issue, because of its unique geography and environment, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has already become one of the places most affected by climate change. The elimination of glaciers and the deterioration of the plateau ecosystem must be sufficiently focused on.

Walking in Jiangyuan, we felt those hailstones striking us as we would countless times that day, and beneath the glaciers we saw dry riverbeds, and colorful flowers and grass growing in them.

The degenerated riverbeds

The purple flowers in Jiangyuan

Red flowers in the riverbeds

White flowers at Jiangyuan

Small white flowers in Jiangyuan

Yellow flowers in Jiangyuan

Leaves and flowers in Jiangyuan

Purple flowers along the edges of Jiangyuan

Arrangements of red and green in Jiangyuan

A small plant in the rapid stream

Green in Jiangyuan

Layered plants

‘Even when the mountain are in sight, running there will kill your horse,’ the saying goes, and in Jiangyuan, you deeply understand its full meaning.  At 10:00 a.m., when we set off, Yang Yong said that it would take us 3 or 4 hours to get to the far-away glaciers and jokuls. Being the eldest one in our group, I was afraid of holding back the others. Moreover, over the last two days I had walked almost without getting dizzy even once, so I had the idea that I must go as far as possible while I was able. So, even while Yang Yong and other young people were having a rest, I didn’t stop a jot and kept going. My inner goal was that I had to take pictures for the ice towers. Having set a goal, I could walk as fast as possible on the plateau.

The coming glaciers

Tiny as we were, we stood in front of the glaciers

Riverbeds in Jiangyuan varies between day and night, which I knew well after kayaking with the current between the Yangtze headwaters and the Jianggudiru Glacier in 1998. If, when we woke up in the morning, there was no water in the river, the river wasn’t necessarily dry. When the sun rises, the glaciers melt, and the water slowly starts flowing. During the trip in Jiangyuan, we have seen some interesting things. There were many braided stream systems that were even dry in the afternoon. In this case, which I have mentioned before, Tibetans would ask lamas to request rain from the heavens. When we got there, we had no choice but to cry out, it’s high time that people pay attention to the effects of climate change on Jiangyuan.

When we walked towards the glaciers today, they seemed to be in good shape. As we got closer to the glaciers, however, we could see that more and more water was flowing from them.

‘Even when the mountain are in sight, running there will kill your horse’

Increasing water flow

Can you ford it?

When one of our companions, Zhou Yu, told me that it was already 5 o’clock, I realized that I had been walking for 7 hours at such a high elevation. Zhou Yu said that we could walk till 6 o’clock at most. This meant that if we walked at the speed at which we came, we would get back at 2 a.m., long after night had fallen.

The glaciers were before us, but we could only keep walking for another hour. The glaciers, which had been basking in the sun all day, began to change from a trickle of water to a torrent. The frothing torrent lay across the path we were traveling on to get to the glaciers.

Having seen that I was so recklessly enthusiastic to rush to the glaciers, Zhou Yu grabbed my arms and walked into the water together with me, warning me that I musn’t go on if the water submerged my thighs, let alone my waist!

When the moment the water submerged my waist came, I realized that I couldn’t walk one step further, not because of coldness, but because of the torrent. Though we helped each other, we still couldn’t stand firmly nor walk one step further. Meanwhile, I thought, I won’t worry about myself if I fall into the water because I am able to swim. What I cared about most was my camera hanging on my neck. I couldn’t never take any more pictures or save the ones I took if I fell.

We had no choice but get out of the river. Chen Xianxin, who had walked further than I had, had reached the foot of the glaciers, but was stopped by the torrent in front of the glaciers. He could also not get any closer.

The river which we could not cross.

Take a picture with the glaciers.

Walking on the plateau for 8 hours, facing the glaciers which we could see clearly but not get closer to, and blocked by icy Jiangyuan torrent created by glacial melt, I had to tell myself that I wouldn’t be able to take pictures of the Jianggudiru ice towers as I did 11 years ago. This time, regret would follow me, not only for today, but forever.

Looking back at the glaciers after we left

Waking into the ice water

Walking out of the river beneath the glaciers

When Zhou Yu reminded me that we need at least 8 hours back to camp, and that we could still get lot in the dark, I didn’t imagine how serious a problem it could be, and mostly regretted missing the opportunity to take pictures of the ice towers. I even thought that, since sunset at Jiangyuan would be 10 p.m., we could manage to get back to base before dark.

I began to doubt that we were flying from the glaciers when the sky got dark. How could we cover such a long distance and still not get back to the tents?

As it got harder to walk, I told my fellow Zhou Yu and Chen Xianxin not to worry about me. Instead, they should go first and I would go on slowly by myself.

At the point when I couldn’t walk further, and when I got lost, I found Yang Fan and Yuan Xiaojin who were holding flashlights to take us further onwards, I said again, you go first, don’t worry about me.

At the point when I couldn’t walk further, in the dead of night, when the 10-grade wind and hailstone smashed on our heads, faces and bodies, I could do nothing but stand there without moving one step.

However, my fellow travelers didn’t give up the harsh journey. To be precise, I was pulled or dragged by them, and we spent 8 hours, as long as we took to travel to the ice towers, finally getting back to our tents at 2 a.m., completely fatigued after getting lost in the darkness, strong wind and hailstones.

That night, no matter how the strong winds and hailstone assailed our tents, I believed that we were no longer in danger.

After walking for 16 hours at 5400 meters above sea-level, the hailstones became smaller. I raised my voice and said, simply…

This is nature.

I recalled the argument published in The Beijing News about whether we should respect nature or not. If the scholars who claimed that worshipping nature is anti-science and anti-human were to walk in Jiangyuan, would they maintain their stands?

The regret of not taking pictures of the ice towers in Jiangyuan pains me greatly, even now.

Yang Yong said that,’Though we didn’t reach the glaciers, we still can clarify the relationship between the inland rivers and outland rivers of Yangtze River. This is a breakthrough for our understanding of the Yangtze River. To face global climate change and search for water for China, these are two important uses of our investigations and notes.

Tomorrow’s experience is how we managed to walk out of Jiang Yuan, which is another record-breaker.

Translator: Fangxing Li
Proofreader: Andrew Scheineson


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