Mar. 23, 2023
Decade River Project 2010 (5) The Lancang River

Decade River Project 2010 (5) The Lancang River, a river undergoing transformation

Written and pictured by WANG Yongchen

On November 28, 2010, members of the Decade River Project 2010 set off for a visit to the Mekong River, also known as the Lancang, in China.

The view approaching the Lancang River

Traveling in the midst of clouds

The Lancang River in southwest China is the world's ninth longest river, Asia's fourth longest river, and Southeast Asia’s longest river. It is originated in a mountain called Fuji. The Lancang originates at the foot of Jifu Mountain, in Zaduo County, Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province, longitude 94 ° 40཰ " N and 33 ° 45ཬ" E with the total length of 4909 km. Also known as the Mekong River outside China, it is the border river between Myanmar and Laos.

Lake Tonle Sap on the Mekong

Lancang River runs through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, going into the South China Sea of the Pacific Ocean through southern Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. With a total drainage area of 810,000 sq km, it is the river in Asia that runs through the greatest number of countries. People call it the Oriental Danube. The part of the river in China is 2,179 kilometers long, flowing through Qinghai Province, Tibet Province and Yunnan Province. The portion in Yunnan Province is 1,247 kilometers long with a drainage area of 165,000 square kilometers, accounting for 22.5% of the entire Lancang - Mekong River basin. Bi River, Yangbi River, Weiyuan River, and Buyuan River are just a few examples of its numerous tributaries.

Rivers and mountains always go together.

Are yellow flowers along the river natural?

The upper and middle reaches of the Lancang River cuts the Hengduan Mountain with many high, sharp, and deep valleys. The lower reaches flow through many flat villages and dams. Among them, the well-known 8,000-meter-long Jinghong and Ganlan Dams. A cascade hydropower station is planned to be built on the main stream of Lancang River.

If you look up for Lancang River in, a Chinese search engine, part of the entry about river development reads as follows; Tributaries cascade development plan, according to surveys or plans, 25 dam hydropower plants are proposed to be built on the mainstream of the Lancang River. From north to south these hydropower plants are Yongsai (38,000 kW), Aduo (60,000 kW), Saiqing (37,500 kW), Angsai (55,000 kW), ATong (52,600 kW), Arikada (69,000 kW), Gongdu (13 million kW), Dahan (140,000 kW), Niang la (82,000 kW), Zhenda (1,400,000 kW), Guxue (1,200,000 kW), Liutongjiang (550,000 kW), Jiabi (430,000 kW), Wunonglong(800,000 kW), Tuoba(1,640,000 kW), Huangden (2,000,000 kW), Tiemenkan (1,780,000 kW), Gongguoqiao (900,000 kW), Xiaowan (4,2000,000 kW), Manwan (1,670,000 kW), Dachaoshan (1,350,000 kW ), Nuozhadu (5,850,000 kW), Jinghong (1,750,000 kW), Ganlanba (150,000 kW) and Mengsong (600,000 kW), the total installed capacity is projected to be 25,664,000 kW with annual power output being 1,280.8 MW • h by using the 2,749-meter fall.

Do you think so many dams should be built on one river? At least I don’t.

It has been a long time since my last visit to
Xishuangbanna which, according to my friend who just visited there, is completely transformed by rubber trees planted in large quantities. Neither its natural scenery nor its beauty remains the same.

 The Lancang River is cut into segments

Known as “mountains rising above calm lakes”

Digging sand away from the river

Floating river lanterns

From Dali to Lijiang, the Lancang River looks like a white chain that connects the trees and mountains. It sometimes flows quietly, and it may also dance excitedly like happy songs. Visitors of the Old Town of Lijiang get different feelings as the seasons change giving them an impression to truly understand why it is often said that water is the soul of Lijiang. Lijiang is built with the water, and the water the lifeblood of the city.
Divided into numerous small tributaries, the river flows to the walls like walls surround a family. The main thoroughfares are beside the river, the alleys are just near the river, and the houses are built over the river. The city streets are integrated with water in a harmoniously beautiful way. I went there for the first time when it had just been awarded World Cultural Heritage. The local people were very pleased to inform me of their newly awarded status and how it had really contributed to mark the city’s importance.


the Old Town of Lijiang

The part of Lancang River that flows from Tibet to Yunnan, which is more than 1000 km long, goes past the steep valleys of the Hengduan Mountain Range, with standing cliffs and scattering river rocks. The water flow changes with the seasons. In Han Dynasty, the Shu Cloth Qiong Zhuea Tumidinoda Zhang Qian had seen in Afghanistan when he had been traveling to the Western Region (a Han Dynasty term for the area west of Yumenguan, including what is now Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia) were actually transported by the Sichuan-Yunan-Burma-India Road and would pass ferry along the Langcang River, namely the Lanjing Ferry. A bamboo bridge was built there in Tang Dynasty, which was replaced by a wooden one in Yuan Dynasty.  500 years ago it was changed into a chain bridge. Xu Xiake, a well-known Chinese traveler and writer, visited this place on March 28 during the reign of Chongzhen in Ming Dynasty.  Xu noted, as he wrote in his book Xu Travel • Yunnan Tour Diary 8, that “on the eastern side of the iron-chain bridge there was a stone gate beside the river, inside the gate was a Temple of Marquis Wu and a building of Revenue Department; on the western side there was also a stone gate inside which there were towers built in the name of its builders. The bridge was kept almost the same during the governance of Kuomintang. It stood by the precipitous cliffs as if it were its guardian, ten thousand men were unable to get through.

Now in the 21st century, standing on the Jihong Bridge, I could still see the waves in the Lancang River, albeit slightly different from what Xu had described in his book.  The caravan walking past the 18-iron-chain bridge could somehow still remind me of how the past may have been. 

The river at present

The river in 2007

The Lancang River now is no longer than the one I remembered. It is deadly calm with its surrounding bold mountains.

The rhododendron protistumon is the kind of flower I have written about related to the Lancang River.  One of the places that Lancang River flows past is Baoshan, a prefecture-level city surrounded by Gaoligong Mountain in Yunan. When I was traveling along Langcang River in 2002, I heard a novel but true story.  James • Goodhart, a 67-year-old eccentric and stubborn bird lover from Britain had been to Gaoligong Mountain three times in order to find a type of birds named lophophorus sclateri.  Each trip cost more $2500.  At last, he did see what he had been waiting for at a blink of an eye. However short he had seen the bird, it became No. 6001 bird species on his bird watching list.

The rhododendron protistumon trees were found in 1907, and since the publication and naming, a model has been on display at the British Museum, having been regarded sacred by the British.

Mr. Feng Guomei and his assistants, who are experts on azaleas and camellias at Chinese Academy of Botanical Sciences in Kunming, at last found the rhododendron protistumon in 1981 on the West Slope of Tengchong Gaoligong Mountain at Datang, Tengchong County.  As the search continued, a new record was also made. The one that Forrest discovered was 87 cm in diameter. The one that still blossoms every year in the Gaoligong Mountain has a diameter of 305 cm, 218cm wider than the specimen in Edinburgh Botanic Garden.

The biggest rhododendron protistumon that has ever been discovered has a height of more than 30 meters and the root is 3.05 meters long. It grows into five branches, each of which is more than one meter in diameter. Every 22 to 24 flowers form a flower cluster, and the tree has thousands of clusters altogether. When the flowering season comes each year in February, it is very spectacular to see so many flowers.

On February 21, 2004, after having climbed the mountain for 4 hours, we saw the first rhododendron protistumon. What was special about it was that it grew very high on a cliff. We had to look up in order to see the flowers. Looking from the front, the tiny flowers were like barrel skirts with laces, while looking backwards, they were like glasses full of red wine. When the sun shone through the leaves and branches, the trees with flowers and the petals on the ground turned the forest into a beautiful painting.

The photographer from Xinhua News Agency had thought that his professional camera could take a picture of the whole tree so that he would become the first one who had ever taken such a picture. However, the tree was so big that it was difficult even to take a picture of a whole branch. There I saw a big cluster of azaleas in the shape of a question mark. The arrangement also resembled the Big Dipper, as if the position of the shining stars were replaced by the red flowers.

According to scientific estimation, the oldest rhododendron is over 630 years old. The trees can only be found within an area of two to three square kilometers surrounding Gaoligong Mountain. In addition to their limited growing area, the number of such trees is also very limited. There are only 12 rhododendron trees with a diameter of more than 100 cm, and altogether there are less than 300 such rhododendron trees.

If I would write this article again, I would instead talk about how a running river was sadly transformed into a calm lake and how the ethnic diversity disappears along with economic development.

In the evening on November 28, 2010, we visited the place where gathered dam area migrants, the people forced to move because of the constructing of the Dachaoshan Dam, had been relocated.  After climbing mountains for over an hour, we finally got to the migrants’ village. The last part of the road to the village was actually scoured by mountain torrent. These people used to be farmers living along the river, but now they have to live in the mountains. They told us that they understood and supported that China needed more energy and therefore had to build more power plants; but as a result of this government decision, they had to move to places without drinking water. Before they moved here, they had been told that this village was well equipped with water, electricity, roads, medical care stations, cultural centers, schools, cable TV, and farmlands; with such favorable conditions, they were advocated to take a positive response to it.

Interviews at the migrants’ village

Farmers in the migrants’ village said that a water tank is built but there is no water. The question is who should take the responsibility.

Since the winter of 2000, when the relocation project started, a huge amount of money has been spent by the migration office to solve problems of drinking water and irrigation, all in vain. Over the past decade, local government has spent a large sum of money in building a water tank upon the villager’s repeated requests. Yet after a few years, there is no water at all in the water tank. How can people live without water, not to mention remaining unable to irrigate their crops? Instead of improving farmers’ lives, the relocation has decreased their quality of life and made things even more miserable.

As a deputy of the county’s People’s Congress, he has been negotiating with related government departments for nearly ten years, but water has still remained a serious issue.

Professors from Qinghua University are trying to help the deputy.

Experts are taking pictures of letters of appeal written by the villagers.

The villagers showed us a report they wrote about serious problems existing in Dachaoshan Power Plant relocation project in Yun County, Lincang City of Yunnan Province. In the report they claimed that as dam migrants they long for a productive and sustainable life like the one they left behind and want to be good citizens living in a harmonious society under the Party and government’s leadership.  With their current situation however, they dare not even think about it. These problems cannot be solved if no appeal is made to higher authorities for assistance; but even if we do so, the current problems still seem so insurmountable. They can only pin our last hope to the leaders.

Written by all the migrants living in Ganlanqing, Wayao, Hongdouqing, and Huiyingba migrants’ villages.


One of the stamps on this household register booklet says “resident”.

They hope that we will help bring up their issues


We were shown a household register booklet belonging to one of the villagers. They are supposed to be farmers, but on the booklet, one stamp declares their status as “resident”.

We left the village by motorcycles ridden by the villagers who told us that they hoped we could help bring attention to their issues. They have been living in the mountains without water to drink or water to irrigate the land for ten years since their relocation away from the Lancang River.  Are we able to help?  When I got their report, I asked myself to whom could I give it?

At least I will try my best to help. This is my promise.

The dam migrants said when their land was flooded by road construction, part of their loss was financially compensated; but the constructing of dams on the Lancang River occupied their land with no compensation at all.

Dams on the Lancang River

Tomorrow we will move on along the Lancang river. I was wondering whether or not the part of the Lancang River that I am going to see still remains the way it should be.

Translator: BAO Lan
Proofreader: Larry Adamson