Tibet is high and its land is pure.
Its snowy mountains are at the head of everything,
The sources of innumerable rivers and streams,
It is the center of the sphere of the gods.
A Tibetan Hymn
As I spread my blanket-sized map of northwestern China on the dining table in the comfort of Hong Kong, I ran my finger west through Qinghai Province, across the thick paper, tracing the route I hoped to take over the coming days. Past Xining, the provincial capital, west to Jyekundo (in small type) and then farther on. A faint red line marking the narrowest and least maintained of the region's roads expired at a small dot labeled Dzatoe. Beyond Dzatoe, a spidery map trace of blue-the Dzachu, or Mekong-extended into a ganglia of tributaries, streams and rivulets, to the very sources of the river itself.
I found it difficult to visualize what those faint weaving blues and reds really represented, what tales they told, what they felt like, how many of my bones would bruise over these purported roads. Many years before, at least a decade earlier, I had been to Xining, an arid and remote place and the closest city with air service to the Mekong's source, but never beyond the city limits; it was there I was to fly to begin this journey. As I loaded my backpack-a sackful of lightweight clothing, a heavy sweater for the frigid nights, a sleeping bag (for where there were no hotels) and a thermal blanket to go with it, a satchel with a razor, toothbrush, assorted antibiotics and vitamins, a pair of decent binoculars, a camera, a basic satellite global positioning system (GPS) device that could tell me where I was, how high, and how fast I was moving, a clutch of maps and a few good books-I did so with an uncomfortable mix of emotions: anxiety over the unknown; eagerness at the possibilities that lay ahead; some self-doubt at the very burden of spending a year mostly by myself on a river I scarcely knew heading into lands I had never seen. As a correspondent for the Times for many years, I had more often than not found myself in cushy hotels on my travels, unworried about costs, cosseted in the certainties of an institutional structure that worried about my well-being and that was available in emergencies to yank me out of desperate situations. This was different. This was me and the river.
Ahead of me, for at least a couple of months, lay travel in Tibet, and what had been Tibet before China hived off chunks of it and tacked them onto neighboring Chinese provinces. China's rulers, ethnic Hans, communist in name, authoritarian in instinct, have been wary of allowing foreigners in Tibet. In 1987, when I was on a reporting trip to Tibet, a spontaneous revolt against Chinese rule erupted in Lhasa, leaving several monks dead, a Chinese police station torched and hundreds of other Tibetans shipped off to prisons. While I and several colleagues attempted to report on those events, we were rounded up by state security police and ordered out of Tibet; China did not then and does not now want the world to see the manner of its subjugation of Tibet and still sharply regulates visits there. That day, waiting for the plane that would take me out of Tibet, I was suddenly dragged from among my colleagues and arrested by the police for what they said was "beating up a policeman," a rather laughable accusation given my lamentable pugilistic skills and rather slight build. I was hustled into a concrete chamber where, after reading the charge to me (which was dutifully videotaped and recorded by a note taker), they issued me a document in Tibetan and Chinese replete with a half dozen decorous red stamps warning me not to repeat my crime; today, opulently framed, it hangs on the wall of my home. As I prepared to head back toward Tibet now, I harbored apprehensions about what this trip to the region might hold if the police wondered about a lone foreigner wandering in remote areas. At the same time though, I knew, because I had been to China many times in the last decade, that restrictions over foreigners traveling in the country had eased substantially. I also knew that there was not much to be gained from worrying about what I could not control.
It was typically sweltering in Hong Kong as I headed west and north, first to Guangzhou, and then by Xinjiang Airlines to Xining. As cities go, Xining is among the most forlorn, an expanse of 1950s Socialist-era blockhouse architecture squatting on China's desolate northwestern plains. I told myself that this Mekong journey would truly begin, not on an airplane, but above the river itself on a hill, or in a valley of yaks, or with my toes in a rushing stream of the river's first waters. I had difficulty imagining precisely what I would find, but my more immediate concern was to find a bus to Jyekundo, twenty-two hours away, where I would meet an old friend from the Tibetan plateau of northern Yunnan, a former Buddhist monk, scholar of Buddhist scriptures and adventurer, Dakpa Kelden. For a time, we would travel together.
A clapperless blue bell hung overhead, immense, flawless, infinitely clear. Stapled to it like the nub end of a rivet flared a white-yellow sun, naked and small. A range of stegosaurus-bladed mountain peaks rimmed a velvety, baize green sea of rolling hills. On some hillocks, at a distance measured in exhausting hours, like a bag of spilled coffee beans on sparse carpet, herds of stoop-shouldered yaks gnawed at the tough, crew-cut grass. High up a hill, whipped by an insistent wind, clean and cold in high August, a huddle of three black tents clung resolutely to a barren, treeless perch. Smoke seeped from a tent peak, only to be instantly scrubbed away by the wind's stiff brush.
In the distance ran a dirt-and-stone track that crept between the nearest town and this place on the vast Tibetan plateau. The town, Tibetans know it as Dzatoe, brags not much more than a string of cement-and-mud buildings, only a handful reaching two stories. It straddles a runwaylike main street of sturdy concrete where a few motorcycles race up and down, heading nowhere. An occasional battered, open-backed truck rumbles in from Xining, forty-eight hours away. Dzatoe is the last commercial outpost before Qinghai Province melts into limitless, roadless miles of mountainous plateau, grassy hill lands and a tangled filigree of streams and rivers.
On Chinese maps, this plateau is shown as deep within Qinghai Province, although no Chinese, save a sprinkling of Communist officials, live outside the capital or the towns and villages in the far east of the province. The south and west of Qinghai were once the northern reaches of Tibet proper, but the province now exists not as any cultural or linguistic entity in its own right-it has no cuisine of its own, no dialect, no local costume or custom-but as a Chinese administrative unit, one of the country's most impoverished, and home to much of China's vast prison gulag.
Several hours past Dzatoe, on a stony, unmapped track, the aging Japanese four-wheel drive I shared with Dakpa and a lackadaisical Tibetan driver jolted along shin-deep ruts and skirted gashlike fissures that cracked the earth. We had hugged the river, now the faint rust brown color of unfired pottery, thirty or so yards wide, as it serpentined across the grasslands from the hills ahead. Then I saw those three black tents, lashed to the earth by a cat's cradle of ropes and cording. Below us, on a mesa of scrub grass that ran to the river, yaks chawed the short, tough grass and, if they were lucky, the rare cluster of gerbera daisies that sometimes sequinned the grasslands. I told Dakpa we should stop here-or perhaps better-start here. The car uttered a faint gasp when the driver turned the engine off.
Dakpa and I started our hike up the hill, he far more acclimated to the enervating effects of altitude than I. (For those who have not been raised at altitude, the thin oxygen over time has a progressively debilitating effect, and in serious cases can bring illness and death.) Very quickly, my heart was beating with a manic thump that I imagined augured ill, or worse; I ran regularly, but no amount of running prepares one for the effects of oxygen depletion at altitude. My pocket GPS device put us above 15,500 feet, nearly three miles above the surface of the placid South China Sea, into which the Mekong runs. As we trekked up the hill, small brown marmots popped from tunnels to assess our intentions. A great lammergeier eagle beat through the thin air above us, the silence sliced by the shyup, shyup, shyup of its huge wings. The marmots vanished.
We managed our way over the last rise to the nomads' encampment and suddenly a black-and-tan mastiff hurtled toward us, its teeth bared as it loosed what struck me more as a lionine than doglike roar, until the chain linked to its collar tautened abruptly, yanking the beast backward. It continued barking, testing the perimeter of its chain, eyeing us meanly. All Tibetan nomads have guard dogs, and all of them react ferociously to strangers, Dakpa told me. Standing cautiously just beyond the hound's orbit, Dakpa called toward the tents. A tent flap raised and an older, wizened man emerged, his shoulder-length gray hair disordered. He hesitated before ordering the dog back to the tents, where it immediately padded.
He stared at us for a time. "Come," he said finally, "sit here," gesturing to a couple of logs squared around an extinct fire. The dog's commotion had roused everyone, and-men, women, children and infants in arms appeared from the three large black tents, tents woven from the thickest yak wool. A tent flap snapped and a small boy bolted into the open in a ragged checked shirt and muddied khaki trousers, a Chicago Bulls hat clamped askew on his head. A young woman in a high-collared, Chinese-style blue satin jacket nursed an infant as she squatted in front of us. Another woman in a brown wool robe placed in our hands steaming bowls of yak butter tea, a concoction of tea, salt and yak butter that is churned in a narrow wooden tube with a long-handled plunger. It is an acquired taste.
In parts of Tibet, a common ditty is sometimes sung about yak butter tea (for Tibetans, a dre is a female, yak a male), as Dakpa did as he noisily slurped his:
One, the best tea from China,
Two, the pure dre butter of Tibet,
Three, the white salt from the northern plains,
All three meeting in the copper pot.
Yet, how the tea is brewed
Is up to you, O tea maker. . . .
Dakpa and the old man-he gave his name as Phon Dza, the head of what he later told us was a clan of three families-sat and talked, Dakpa of his life in the far northwest of Yunnan, the old man listening, chewing on the bit of a long-stemmed pipe. "It's not like here," Dakpa said, "with you and your yaks. I have no yaks." The old man nodded, twin tendrils of smoke leaking from his nose. "We all live in a town now," Dakpa went on. "Even though it is Tibetan, there are Chinese there now. And we are rebuilding our monastery." Phon Dza listened as Dakpa continued describing a Tibetan land so different from his own, nodding from time to time. Then he interrupted. "No yaks?" he asked. "Really no yaks?" Yes, said Dakpa. As we sat on small Tibetan rugs, which the women had bundled out of the tents, the infant Dzachu, the seeds of the Mekong, uncoiled across the plateau beneath us, already brusque in its passage. Phon Dza, a man of calm and patience, his face hewn sharply with pronounced cheekbones and a high, clear brow, told us that he had always lived within sight of the Dzachu and had traveled with his herds in these mountains and pastures for sixty-eight years.
"In all, there are twelve of us here," he said, "my five children, three with wives, brothers, sisters and children." He rearranged his legs on the rug, blew across the surface of his tea bowl to push the film of greasy butter from the surface of the tea and drank. His rough blue wool pants and pajama-like, flap-collared shirt had not been washed in some time, nor had the clothes of the family who sat around us. Cleanliness means different things in the mountains, with yak butter used for grooming hair and on the face as a block against the wind and cold. Dakpa rendered Phon Dza's Tibetan into English.
"All of my children are working with yaks. Some go to the mountains to collect caterpillar fungus to sell in the town." High in the mountains, the fragile, hidden fungus that is prized as a delicacy and for its purported medicinal virtues is gathered and sold to traders in nearby towns. Even so, like many nomadic herders, Phon Dza is often on the margins of the monetary economy. "If many people go out and look, in one season maybe we can get one kilo. But often we cannot find that much. For one kilo, we can get ten thousand to fifteen thousand yuan," the equivalent of between $1,220 and $1,830, "depending on the quality. But we cannot be sure we can gather even a kilo every year. Sometimes the fungus does not grow, or we cannot find it." Still, for anyone here, such a sum is an immense amount of money. "We also sell yak meat and yak butter in town. For a kilo of butter, we get twenty yuan," or $2.40. "We have to buy barley to get tsampa"-the flour milled from barley that is the staple grain of Tibetans-"wheat, tea, everything. We sell what we can." Unlike other regions of Tibet, the altitude is too high here for barley to flourish, and so it must be trucked in from lower climes. Below us and higher on steeply rising mountainsides, Phon Dza's herds chewed their way through the late summer grasses.
It is the yaks-huge, woolly, cowlike creatures with shaggy brows and deep black eyes-that are the lifeblood of nomadic herders. The herders' large tents are woven from the thickest yak hair. Butter from the yak is a food, the requisite flavoring for tea, a cosmetic, the fuel for votive lamps. Even the bushy pom-pom of a yak tail is used as a fly whisk. And, of course, yak meat is a staple in the diet. "Yaks," Phon Dza said simply, "are our life." (Continues...)