Mar. 23, 2023

Searching for China’s Water(26) The Wilderness Is A Living Mu

(26) The Wilderness Is A Living Mu

Author:  Yongchen Wang 

We experienced the strongest rains and hailstorms between July 13th and 14th, 2009. When we got up in the morning, we found that we were practically living in a big puddle. That is, although we floundered in water, the tent managed to survive the strong wind without being blown away, but we failed to resist the hail, which melted and leaked into our tent where we were sleeping.

Hailstones sleeted outside our tents. (Taken by Yang Yong)

Liu Yiman, a journalist in the Xinhua news agency, and I put our cameras beside our pillows, which turned out to be drenched in the water. Fortunately, Yang Yong’s camera was still able to take pictures.

Yang Yong was still immersed thought, marveling at how he could now tell the difference between the inland rivers and the outflow of Yangtze River after seeing the glaciers the previous day.

We found our way in the system of inland marshes.

 The braided riverbed of an inland river (Taken by Yang Yong)

It’s certain that in this investigation, what worried us most were the ecological changes visible in Jiang Yuan. During the past several days I have been writing an essay about our experience in Jiang Yuan, ‘The Messages of Rivers Collected in Green Earth’ which includes information about the challenges Jiang Yuan is facing, the influences of climate change on the Jiang Yuan Glaciers, and news about the large rainstorms occurring along the Yangtze River.

Source: Xinhua News network, Beijing August 5th, (Journalist Yao Runfeng). Since August 1st, heavy rains have occurred regularly in Sichuan, Chongqing, Hupei and Shanxi provinces, with storms occurring in some areas. The State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters predicted that on August 7th, the peak discharge of water at the Three Gorges Dam would be about 56000 m3/s, becoming the biggest flood in the upper Yangtze River since 2004.

It is documented that floods caused by heavy rains have already damaged the banks of the Jinsha River, Dadu River, Chishui River, Jialing River, Pei River and Han River and other main branches in the upper level of the Yangtze River. On August 8th, the water level rose to 181.48 meters in the Cun Tan hydrological station along the main stream in the upper Yangtze River, well above the 0.98-meter warning limit. The river’s flow rate was 51900 m3/s; the current rate of inflow is 51000 m3/s, while its outflow is 39100 m3/s; the water level at the Yangtze River’s Yichang hydrological station is 50.97 meters, which is only 2.03 meters away from the ‘alert’level, with a flow rate of 39800 m3/s.

The collapse of a bank in an inner river. (Taken by Yang Yong)

Desertification worsens in areas with closed drainage, and chains of sand dunes appear in some areas.  (Taken by Yang Yong)  

In 1998, when I came to Jiang Yuan, local people told me that Jiang Yuan suffered from heavy snow in winter and spring. But when summers came, floods occurred in the lower level of the Yangtze. In recent years, people living in both the upper and lower Yangtze River have lost most their money and belongings. Is there any connection between the snow in Jiang Yuan and flood in the lower Yangtze? What is it? In recent years, the scientists whom I have interviewed agree that the questions above should be answered only after research has been done. However, this kind of research is done much more rarely than expected. For example, we found that in Suojia County in Jiangyuan, they spent 1.5 million yuan to buy researching equipment for Suojia Solar Power Station, Suojia Automatic Meteorological Station and Suojia Wild Animal Disease Protecting Station. But the equipment has been lying for 6 years because nobody knows how to use them. And there are even three such equipment stations in Jiangyuan now.


When doing field research, each herdsman we met mentioned that the snow had lasted for more than 10 days in April and May of this year. The so-called ‘heavy snow disaster’ caused them great loss in damages and resulted in the death of 10,820 head of livestock in the small town of Gang Ni in Jiang Yuan. 

But, is there anyone doing research on the ‘heavy snow disaster’and its influence on the lower Yangtze River?

When conducting research interviews at the T'uo-t'uo River hydrological station, a CCTV journalist and I asked the manager of the hydrological station: “From your monitoring, how does the T'uo-t'uo River react to global climate change?”

He answered: “Our task was to record, not to analyze. We had no idea of what changes were actually happening. Even the hydrological map that hangs on our wall was sent down to us by high-ranking government officials.”

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is not only China’s water tower, but also the key to unlocking mysteries about planet earth. In this so-called “wild museum”,  desolation is everywhere. Desolation in nature isn’t necessarily frightening. However, in the 21st century, an age when humans must pay closer attention to global climate change, desolation in research cannot help but be frightening. 

Yang Yong conducted his independent investigation portion under harsh physical conditions, which adds to his research’s value and significance.

Photographs of the plants, head-shaped mountains and animal-shaped rocks in the Tibetan Plateau’s‘wild museum’are on display in the “Rivers” section of our website. Yang Yong, the geologist, has taken some more miraculous pictures.

 Stone rings in Jiang Yuan

Fossils of marine animals.

On July 14th, it rained as soon as we had left the jokuls (snow-covered mountains) and glaciers in Jiang Yuan. The rain didn’t stop as quickly as it normally does, but instead lasted for the whole day. This entire day of rain made our experience with the Jiang Yuan look like this: (see photo below)

Finding a path amidst the water.

Rushing water

Riding in the river

We managed to get out of the water.

Looking back at the river we were riding in

The river, which runs 5000 meters above sea level, was the biggest challenge for the young people accompanying us. As soon as we exited the river, our truck became lodged in the mud. All wearing waterproof clothes, the young men and women wedged a plank into the gap between the wheels and the mud, and jacked the truck up one crank at a time. Zhou Yu, a freelance photographer, and Yang Fan, a journalist for a travel channel, recorded the whole process, but only after they had helped put the jack away. When the young people got back into our car, they couldn’t say a word or do anything but tremble.

Our interviews recorded not only the history of Jiang Yuan, but also how human beings come to understand nature and get along with it.  I have no idea what future generations will think about our investigation.

In 1998, I talked to a friend from the U.S. about my experience during my first investigation in Jiang Yuan. She said, “that wasn’t an exploration, but a risk.” Can you tell the difference between an exploration and a risk?

If someone were to ask me that same question, I would ask a question in reply: can you tell the difference between national investigation and personal investigation?

We will talk about this topic later.

The cloudy Jiang Yuan (taken by Yang Yong)

A jokul among the 700 glaciers in Jiang Yuan

When the sunset came, the reason why we couldn’t take one step further caught us off guard … 

We couldn’t go any further because we were suddenly drenched in water

Our car is overheating. (Taken by Yang Yong)

The sun came out again. But after a whole day of driving through water, our car started to ‘protest’.

Chen Xianxin and I sat in the car while Yuan Xiaojin was driving. It was I who first heard the sound of the tires deflating, and at the same time, Yuan Xiaojin, who is nicknamed ‘the monkey’, noticed the sound too. While we were checking whether there was something wrong with the wheels, people from the  car ahead started shouting: “your car is on fire!” Before we could get out of our car, the other people had rushed over to us holding fire extinguishers, and put out the fire right away. However, as a result, our car wouldn’t go any further.

Luckily, just at that moment, a single herders’ tent appeared against the red sunset.

Tonight we have place to sleep (taken by Yang Yong)

Cars in the sunset (taken by Yang Yong)

The Golden Jiang Yuan

Having pitched the tents, we entered the tent of a father and his son who live in the tents when they herd cattle in Jiang Yuan. The first sentence I uttered upon entering the tent was: “where there is a fire, there is hope.”

The reason why I changed my career from professional journalism to focusing on the environment is that I witnessed the beauty of wild animals that are living in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau as their own paradise, and I also witnessed human beings’ hunting of these animals. This stark contrast finally led me to the conclusion that I should spare no effort in protecting the beauty of nature throughout my whole life. Right now, after an entire day of traveling in the icy water, the fire makes a warm home for us.

Cooking food over a fire inside the tent

A man inside the tent in Jiang Yuan

It’s hard for us to communicate with the father and son because of the language barrier. Judging from the goods stored in tent, we concluded that the tent was only used in summer when they herd cattle. However, concerned for our comfort, the herders used a bellows made of sheepskin to make the tent warm by blowing on a fire they made out of sticks picked up from riverbank.

When the Jiang Yuan sun was about to leave the horizon.

Tomorrow, our cars will go on traveling in the mud of Jiang Yuan. We don’t yet know where we will spend the rest of the seemingly endless dark nights.

Translator: Fangxing Li
Proofreader: Allegra Fonda-Bonardi

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