Mar. 23, 2023

Yang Yong: A River Emergency

 April 12, 2011

Source: Beijing Youth Daily,


 Yang Yong in the Tongtian River


Yang Yong is an independent geologist who studies mountainous areas in western China. In the past 24 years, Yang adventured in China's western mountains alone for his research and went to places where no one else explored, publishing monographs on his investigations.

In 1986, Yang started and participated in a rafting exploration for studying the

Yangtze River. He has been developing special tourism in the western China since 1992 by exploring, researching and investigating all at his own expense. In 2006, he organized a public welfare project named Find Water for China for which he thoroughly investigated Jiangheyuan in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (where the Yellow River, the Yangtze River and the CanglanRiver originate) and the arid region in Northwest China. The research, which covers more than 10,000 kilometers, fully reveals conditions of rivers and water resources in western China as climate change continues. In addition, from 2005 to 2009, he also participated in a feasibility study of the western route of the engineering project “South-North Water Transfer Engineering Project”, considering potential ecology and geological disasters.

Yang Yong is the calmest person I have ever met, as if nothing can shake what he believes in. For him, the most valuable thing to do is to dedicate his life to personally acquiring knowledge and verification of the true state of nature. He always tells people that it is not difficult to know about nature as long as one is committed to do so.

He can be considered an explorer, a scientist, an environmentalist, or simply a person without any excessive desires.

He says he would like to be seen as an independent geologist, in spite of the fact that to be someone truly independent is extremely difficult.

He stressed the following two points repeatedly: first, a big picture understanding is important when decisions regarding water resources in western China are made; second, fundamental scientific research should be strengthened in order to understand the unsolved problems about the southwestern area and only after that, can development be carried out in the region.



A presentation for the above-mentioned Find Water for China public welfare project was held in Bloom Gallery at noon, March 24, 2011. This place, located in the 798 ArtDistrict in Beijing, can accommodate only 30 people.

Yang was not there when I arrived. After absentmindedly sitting down, I looked up to realize River Tour (Jiang He Xing), a drama about exploration was being played on the screen.

Speaking of River Tour, first I have to mention Decade River Project (Jiang He Shi Nian Xing) initiated by Wang Yongchen, an environmentalist, in 2006, which conducts complete research annually on all the major rivers running through

HengduanMountains in Southwest China for ten consecutive years. This project offers participants personal understanding about ecological changes rivers undergo because of intense exploitation. Almost every year, Yang Yong is invited by Wang as the accompanying expert. In 2008, a group of play creators joined the project, and a year later, Jiang He Xing, an avant-garde play was performed in public.

On the screen, as the long white cloth unrolled to its end, people suddenly cut it with scissors or even tore it into pieces by hands, making all sorts of harsh noises. The pieces of white cloth were left on the ground like dying flowers.

I heard some one asking, "what does the white cloth stand for?"

"Rivers, perhaps," another one whispered.

"They tore it into pieces. Does that mean rivers are destroyed and cut off ?"

"I guess so. I have never been to the Hengduan Mountains, but the director and playwright seem to be telling the audience rivers are dying from over exploitation with hydropower stations, mine exploration, highway building, fishery, shipping, water transferring, irrigation, deforestation, etc."

At this moment, I saw Yang Yong quietly walking into the room. He was not wearing his normal outdoorsy clothes, and his bristly chin was decently shaved.

Yang takes his work seriously. He stood on the platform, speaking in a slow but firm voice. The day before the report, he stay up until 4:00 in the morning to prepare his PPT presentation which contains several hundred pictures. I attended many of Yang’s presentations and knew that in every presentation he always has more than he can cover. Each slide contains abundant information; if he has enough time and the audience is patient enough, he can talk about each and every slide for dozens of minutes.

Yang has participated in the exploration project Find Water for China since 2006 with the ambitious goal to  fully uncover the current situation of China’s water resources. He does this by going to the souces to see whether glaciers, wetlands and lakes can still provide for people who live on them. Yang calls it “blanket investigation.”

In the summer of 2006, Yang Yong and his team set off for the exploration even before they received the promised funds. Along the western route of South-North Water Transfer Project planned by the government, they conducted two investigations and later expanded their research into international rivers that originate in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. These rivers include the BrahmaputraRiver, the Nu River, the LancangRiver, and the ShiquanRiver. Now, he shows the public his worries about China’s water resources with what he has seen and heard as well as the large numbers of photos he has taken.

Yang Yong says in his presentation that the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is running short of water, which may lead to major rivers drying-up. Many glaciers begin to disintegrate and are melting rapidly. Compared to 20 years ago, they have retreated 300 to 500 meters; so have glaciers in the rest of the world. In the context of global climate change, a lot of habitats for migratory birds on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau have witnessed some new changes. Migratory birds seem to have fallen in love with these places as they either migrate at different time periods or stay longer than usual. He took the Yangtze River as an example. “The Yangtze River allegedly has three sources, i.e., the TuotuoRiver the main source, the Dangqu Rivier the southern source and the northern source. They found in their investigation that the ChumaerRiver, the northern source, shows signs of desertification that can affect a large range of land. On the northern slope of the KunlunMountains some perennial rivers are becoming seasonal rivers….”

What disturbs Yang Yong the most is “the overlap and overconcentration of industries.” “Some hydropower stations and mining factory clusters are being built on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and in the Hengduan Mountains area, which is in sharp contrast with ecotourism areas as well as ecologically fragile areas, because the former is an extensive economic way of development while the latter calls for environmental protection… Especially since the 1980s, there have been large areas of destructive gold mining at riverheads with no reclamation measures, resulting in serious, irreversible damage to the eco-system and making the HengduanMountains even more fragile than before. In recent years mining became popular on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau as well. After the Yushu earthquake, all the mining sites we studied are located somewhere over 4000 m above sea level. Lacking in-depth geological protection and effective management, these sites have caused serious damage to water sources and the overall environment.”

At this point the host reminded Yang Yong he was running out of time. “Let me finish the last two sentences.” Said Yang.

Those two sentences have been mentioned by him quite a few times. The first is about how to improve the situation of water resources in western China. He thinks that decision-making or planning should be done with a macro perspective or a big picture understading of the situation. It’s not a simple technological problem, and it shouldn’t be approached only out of immediate, partial and local interests. The other sentence concerns how to face the craze for developing the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the HengduanMountains. Yang believes that fundamental scientific research should be strengthened in order to understand the unsolved problems about southwestern China as soon as possible. Only after that can people start considering developing the area; otherwise on the one hand we will be developing economically, yet at the same time hurting our environment and paying the price in pollution treatment and disaster relief.

To be over-equipped in the wild only gets one into trouble. The simplest is the best.

Those who just know Yang Yong always regard him an explorer, and therefore usually expect him to be well equipped with outdoor gear from head to toe.

These people are wrong. In fact, Yang has few requirements about his equipment. It is usually the case that when he is to set off, the promised funds and gears are still not ready for him to use. As much as he prioritizes his research, he has to start his exploration with the simplest equipment.

In 1985, when Yang was preparing for his rafting along the Yangtze River expedition, he had a tailor make a tent with the cloth he found in a waste management company. In 2009, because of a serious shortage of funds, he bought the cheapest tent in a market in Yushu for only 80 yuan. In Ali, Tibet, as they didn’t have money, the team members decided to sleep in a sheep pen after inquiring in many hotels. Moreover, sometimes he even eats moldy bread. None of these matters for Yang because he only cares about how to accomplish what he wants to accomplish in the fastest possible way.

Yang says, “Many people waste their life waiting, but I don’t have that much time to wait. There is something good about being poor. We can learn from local people and nature. What the local people wear is the best outdoor clothes and what the local people use is the best outdoor equipment. One can surely live there just the same way as the local people do, as they learn their way throughout several thousand years’ experience and that must be the simplest and the most scientific. For instance, the herdsmen need only two rods to pitch a tent. It’s simple and practical. But pitching a tent is very difficult for us, not to mention the tent we pitch is not strong enough.”

“Besides,” he continued, “we can get rid of many unnecessary burdens. As a matter of fact, if one thinks too much and prepares too well for field research, it may very likely impact the business. For example, when investigating the source of the Yangtze River, we drifted along the river. Some rice, meat, vegetables, and a stove to cook should be enough, but in fact, team members several boxes of hardtack and energy bars. The rafting boat got very heavy. Meanwhile, because of the draught, the river became more and more shallow. As a result, we had to get off the boat and drag it forward. Over-equipment is too much of a hassle, in my opinion. The simplest is the best.”

Yang Yong has countless accidents in his field trips, but he believes in his problem-solving ability and he never counts on others to rescue him.

Unexpected situations are unavoidable in the wild. Other than experience, staying calm is the most important when handling them.

On Jun 13, 2009, a team led by Yang set off from Chengdu in four off-road jeeps. They planned to go through such provinces and autonomous regions as Sichuan, Qinghai, Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shanxi, and Henan, with a focus on studying the glaciers of Kunlun Mountains and Qilian Mountains as well as the overall glacier reserve and melted volume, hydrological conditions and evaporation patterns, and the utilization of glacier runoff in the north-western region. Lasting 142 days, the trip covered more than 43,000 kilometres. Yang commented with emotion, “Both courage and luck were needed.”

When investigating the source of the Yellow River, the team reached the first desert known as Ya Niang Desert in upper Yellow River. Unexpectedly, four jeeps were all stuck in mud and couldn’t move at all. Not until the second day did some shepherd pass. We asked him to take a team member on his motorcycle. “After driving over a hundred kilometres, finally the team member found somewhere there with cellphone coverage and he called for help. Not until the following day did a car arrived, bringing some pieces of wood boards to get the jeeps moving again.”

After entering the AltunMountain, freshwater ran short and Yang had to manage all the drinking water together. “There were only eight people left in the team at that time, and we decided that every three people could drink only one bottle of water each day.

When climbing over the QilianMountain, the team ran into heavy rain which led to four unsuccessful attempts to find a pass. “We tried five times to climb over the QilianMountain!” Yang Yong put it in this way. Cars had to drive on a wooden bridge abandoned for over ten years, with the heart-trembling sounds of the bridge and the surging river underneath. Lives could be lost at any time with. Such life-risking experience is very common in field investigations.

One day in August, 2010, the team narrowly escaped death in Sling Co in the north of Tibet.

Yang Yong’s teammate Wang Fangchen, a researcher at Beijing Institute of Ecological Engineering played a video clip on his computer. It was recorded by Yang’s son Yang Fan back then. Starting from 2005, Yang Yong gradually included his son in his exploration.

On Aug, 9, they were stopped by a bay when driving on the firm saline land of lake bed. As usual, Yang decided to drive across the water through the narrowest part. However, as soon as the car reached it, the water flooded the front of the car. Unlike any previous experience, the car didn’t move back and forth at all, but just floated on the water and soon began to sink. In no time, the car had almost sunk entirely in water. Yang opened the door and floated to the surface. Wang Fangchen said, “The moment he opened the door, water flushed into the car, leaving maybe less than a minute for me to get out of car.” Yang quickly dived into the water again and smashed the car window with Wang together. Out of his survival instinct, Wang escaped from the broken window. Fortunately, a sleeping bag was drifting out of the window and he grabbed it without realizing what he was doing. The other teammates soon came up to get him and he slowly came to himself. “If it were delayed for 10 seconds, I wouldn’t have survived to tell you the story.”

Two people left to ask for help and the rest of the team went through a freezing night. The next day they got their luggage out of the water. Almost all the equipment, instrument, specimens and supplies were soaking wet, and quite a lot were broken.

Yang Yong does not blindly believe in luck. He knows that the more composed and calm one is, the more likely one can survive in desperate situations. Exploring no-man-land for a long period of time is very risky. Cars may roll over or get stuck somewhere; gas and food may run out; team members may have conflicts. One tiny thing can decide whether to survive or die. Yang has left all his fear behind.

“Everyone is physiologically afraid of certain situation. Like me, I am not scared of high mountains or steep cliffs, but I am scared of water. Nevertheless, expeditioning appeals to me. In order to carry out my research, I have to endure all these. I feel like someone is watching over us, because although we are often caught in a hopeless situation, in the end we can survive in the nick of time. It’s hard to explain, but we do have plenty of such examples.”

We experienced something like this in the Find Water for China project. “We were driving a jeep across a river against its current. Experience told us the river could be crossed. But as it was in the flood season, the river was very deep and strong tides came one after another with water flooding over the car window. All of a sudden, the jeep stopped working and was to be washed away by the waves. We were so desperate. The jeep was dead; and if it was washed away, we were doomed. What’s worse, even if we made it work again, it could hardly move because of the mud at the bottom of the river. Other people might just let it be, but that was not me. I kept trying, and surprisingly the engine began to run again. More surprisingly, because of current force, the jeep got moving again and I carefully drove it to the river bank.”

In his twenty years’ expedition experience, Yang Yong has never called for help no matter how dangerous the situation is. His friend Zhang Shijun, the vice president of Chinese Desertification Fund, gave Yang a maritime satellite telephone, but Yang has never used it worrying making phone calls is too expensive. “Rescue is way too complex as it needs to mobilize a great deal of human, material and social resources. What is more important is that rescuers are not necessarily as familiar with the roads as we are, and therefore they can take more risks and the cost is too high. I believe in my problem-solving ability and in my planing, so waiting for rescue is never an option.”

“My research focuses on ecological and social issues. Few people work on these and mainstream scientists do not want to work in this field. I have to do it myself if I want it done. One cannot always rely on others to know what he wants to know.”

Probably only idealists living in their own dreams can have a smile like this.

On May 12th, 2008, Yang Yong was on an expedition in BatangCounty, Ganzi prefecture, Sichuan Province when Wenchuan Earthquake happened. On hearing the news, they immediately drove to Wenchuan. Yang’s twenty years’ expedition experience and geology studying told him that Wenchuan was located in MinjiangRiverValley where there were deep canyons and many hydropower stations, meaning earthquakes can cause sub-geological disasters including massive collapse, landslide, barrier lake groups. The most pressing matter at the moment was to investigate the geological disasters caused by the earthquake in order to help with the rescue work.

In steep canyons, rolling rocks and scraps kept falling down towards the road which was already covered with rocks, blocking the way of rescue cars and teams. Yang’s yellow off-road jeep passed one rescue team and then another. On this crisis-ridden road, he was shocked to see the earthquake had brought detrimental damage to hydropower projects in MinjiangRiverValley and resulted in numerous massive landslides and mountain collapses. On his way to Yingxiu on foot, he encountered more and more disasters that should be studied and recorded. He would go up into mountains for closer research when local people told him the condition of collapses and cracks in the mountains.

From May 14 to 24, he travelled for more than 2,000 kilometers to some of the worst-hit areas such as Wenchuan, Li County, Mao County, Beichuan, Mianzhu, Shifang, DoujiangWier, Pengzhou, Yingxiu, Zipingpu, and so on to investigate the latest situation and hidden dangers created by the landslide mass, reservoirs, power stations, and dams. In June, upon invitation Yang reported his findings to China’s National Development and Reform Commission and ChineseAcademy of Science several times. His reports later became significant reference for related departments to make decisions. Their concerns about the barrier lake in Tangjiashan helped the government to make a strategic decision in time.

The year 2008 was merely a beginning. Yang intends to conduct a five-year investigation into secondary geological disasters caused by the Wenchuan Earthquake. In each of the following years, he will spend one month visiting the disaster-hit areas to do what he calls the “blanket investigation.” Also, he picks over ten sites with hidden dangers where he continues his investigation during and after flood seasons. Since May 2008, Yang has attended many earthquake-related seminars and disaster analysis meetings. His continuous investigation, analysis and study gave birth to a book entitled The Cracked Field and the Collapsed Mountain of the Longmen Mountains-Geological Heritage and Secondary Geological Disasters of the 5·12 Wenchuan Earthquake (《龙门山地裂山崩——512汶川地震地质遗迹及地质次生灾害》)

People who know about Yang all agree that he cherishes friendship very much. Some of his teammates lost their lives in glaciers, deserts, rivers and mountains during expeditions. When Yang goes back to these places, he always pays homage to them with a cigarette and a bottle of liquor.   

“I respect Nature and explore it in awe. For me, nature is incredibly intelligent. When I see a mountain, I want to be more intimate with it instead of wishing to conquer it.  Out in the wild, I was filled with excitement all the time. I had some radishes and potatoes and I cooked my meal with cow-droppings I picked in the meadow or sandlot. Wild donkeys would gather to look at us. These moments were more relaxing than going on a vacation.”

Every time he goes back to Chengdu or Beijing, Yang is always surrounded by many people. Each time before setting out, he always asks them, “would you like to go with me this time?”

They are sort of interested but are also full of worries, saying the trip is full of uncertainties. Yang then replies that doesn’t matter; as long as you want something done, you can have it done. “Nothing can stop me from doing what I want to do. Money or even life cannot prevent me from carrying on my plan.”

Shui Xiaojie, Yang’s long-term research partner once said, “Yang paid for his bill with wrinkled bills taken out directly from his pocket-I noticed that he still hasn’t adjusted to using a wallet after so many years. He keeps money scattered throughout his pockets, and his smile is as innocent as a little child, which makes me, a generation younger than him, so jealous. A man in his forties and fifties still has smile like this. Probably only an idealist who lives in his own dreams can do so.”

However, Yang also has his worries. Water, especially in Southwest China, is always an unforgettable concern of Yang. He said, “large-scale urban constructions and industrial expansion in the Southwest have greatly increased water consumption, leading to more serious water shortages. In addition, many new reservoirs have been built in the region. In the past, people built reservoirs for irrigation and flood prevention. However, after the reform and opening policy began in 1979, people invested in this field in order to develop hydropower, because it is profitable and generates more tax revenue. Therefore, agricultural needs are ignored. Today, reservoirs are being built on main stream of rivers and have already been built all over tributaries. Looking down from a plane, it looks like a beehive with loblollies here and there. Too many reservoirs dry up the surface watercourses, causing changes of microclimate which then influence the macroclimate, just like a cold can trigger pneumonia. Reservoirs are constructed in such a disorderly way that upper and lower reaches of a river “compete” for water. Without a central allocation system, the disadvantaged will be hurt. Although certain regions and groups may benefit from it, the overall interests will certainly be harmed.

Water conservation projects should be a tool to improve ecology rather than damage it. If water conservation facilities cannot meet the integrated demand of protecting the ecological environment necessary for agriculture, reservoirs can bring greater threats to the environment or even lead to more frequent extreme weather events.”   


Translator: Ding JieqiongYang WenlongLi Hongyi

Proofreader: BAO Lan



Reported by: Feng Yongfeng



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