At Mekong's Source In China, Past And Present Collide The Mekong River, one of the world's longest waterways, has a long and turbulent history. It begins its 3,000-mile journey high on the Tibetan plateau of China's Qinghai province, where its once-nomadic residents try to preserve their culture and traditions against the challenges of modernity.
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At Mekong's Source In China, Past And Present Collide

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At Mekong's Source In China, Past And Present Collide

At Mekong's Source In China, Past And Present Collide

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The fabled Mekong River has long been a fount of commerce, communication and conflict in Southeast Asia. From its headwaters in Tibet, the river flows through six countries on its way to the South China Sea.

This week, NPR Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan travels the river to find out how the people and cultures along its banks are coping in the modern world. In the first of a five-part series, he begins high on the Tibetan Plateau in the mountains of China's Qinghai Province.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: It's a long way to the source of the Mekong, a three-day journey by four-wheel drive from the nearest airport in Xining. Then another day on horseback, but early on, I met some travelers whose journey made mine seem easy.

Step, step.

(Soundbite of scraping)

SULLIVAN: Slide. Step, step, slide. Two young Buddhist monks on a pilgrimage to the Tibetan city of Lhasa. They will walk and slide - their chests protected by leather aprons - all the way, as they fling themselves to the pavement and closer to their goal.

It's more than 400 miles from their monastery to Lhasa. Their journey, one says, will take six months.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign Language Spoken)

SULLIVAN: He says it will be hard, but worth it, a chance to pray at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and accumulate merit and good karma along the way. This makes perfect sense to my Tibetan colleagues who are also looking for good karma, or at least a little help on our journey. And they ask for it regularly at the high mountain passes on our way.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign Language Spoken)

SULLIVAN: The passes are draped in brightly colored prayer flags left by previous travelers. The shouting, the guide explains, an offering both to God and the local mountain deities to protect us on our journey. A little luck doesn't hurt on this highway where landslides or avalanches can cut the road for days, even weeks.

(Soundbite of flowing water)

SULLIVAN: The Tibetan Plateau is the source of almost all Asia's great rivers, the Yangtze, the Ganges and the Mekong among them, and one of the world's largest sources of fresh water. This area was occupied by the Chinese some 60 years ago. But they stick mainly to the towns - the countryside, still the domain of Tibetan nomads.

We go off-road, up river three days into our journey, traveling along the rocky bed of the Mekong. Here, a glacial stream the Tibetans know as the Shaksgam. It's clear, icy cold and sweet.

(Soundbite of barking dogs)

SULLIVAN: Our destination for the evening, a small mud-walled shack on a bluff overlooking the river, where a trio of Tibetan Mastiffs demand to know why we're here.

(Soundbite of barking dogs)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign Language Spoken)

SULLIVAN: Our host, Sonam Yarpel(ph), spends the harsh Tibetan winters here with his yaks and his family. He says he gets to the nearest town maybe twice a year to sell yak butter and cheese. The family burns dried yak dung for heat, but has a solar-powered TV and DVD player. The panel, he says, a gift from the Chinese government. A government that would probably be less than happy if they saw the picture of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, on the wall.

(Soundbite of horse hooves)

SULLIVAN: The next morning, our host lends us a few horses for the final push to the source. Sure-footed and even-tempered, they pick their way carefully through the icy river and boggy terrain. Yesterday, we spotted a pack of wolves loping alongside the river. Today, it's mountain gazelle, eagles and wild donkeys.

(Soundbite of horse hooves)

SULLIVAN: My guide, a Tibetan country boy who now lives in the city and doesn't get out nearly enough, surprises me when he starts singing as we ride.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing in foreign language)

SULLIVAN: I got to be honest, this kind of thing is usually embarrassing, but not this time. And when I ask him why he's singing, he just laughs as if I'm the idiot. And of course he's right. He's Tibetan. He's on a horse in the mountains far from anyone or anything that could bother him. Why wouldn't he be singing?

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing in foreign language)

SULLIVAN: His mood changes, though, when we talk about the Chinese government's efforts to rein in the nomads, to fence in their traditional grazing areas and resettle them in towns. The government says it's an effort to avoid environmental degradation. The Tibetans see it as another attempt by the Chinese to wipe out their traditions and their culture.

The weather turns abruptly. The sun disappears. The snow starts and I start to worry. But by early afternoon, we finally reach our destination in a near whiteout: a tiny marker and an even tinier trickle coming from the rock more than three miles above sea level, some 3,000 miles from where the Mekong finally empties into the South China Sea.

(Soundbite of flowing water)

Mr. SONAM YARPEL (Host): Now we're at the real source of the Mekong River. So, in Chinese called Lancang Jiang. It means Mekong River. And in Tibetan we call it Dzachu. And this is the original source. Then we can see the tiny stream coming under the rock, and this is the real source of the Mekong River, I think.

SULLIVAN: Now, the Chinese government says this is the real source but Tibetans believe otherwise.

Mr. YARPEL: Yeah. Tibetans believe the other source to the South, its about 30 kilometers at the place called a Dzachu, that's the source that Tibetans believe.

SULLIVAN: Either way, this source and the other source meet. And when they meet, they form the riverbed.

Mr. YARPEL: Yes.

SULLIVAN: We know it as the Dzachu.

Mr. YARPEL: Yeah. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: And does this river have any spiritual significance for Tibetans who are very spiritual people and who are very close to the earth in general?

Mr. YARPEL: Yeah. Some Tibetans, I believe that there are some kind of spirit we call nagas, spirits of the water, the sea. And these are nagas, we call them nagas. So when we are kids, we are told by our parents that if you do anything to the spring or to the river, a nagas will pay you back, like make you sick or, you know, bad fortune or bad luck.

SULLIVAN: Some Tibetans say that bad luck has come already to the river at the town named for the river some 40 miles to the south and east.

(Soundbite of construction)

SULLIVAN: A decade ago, Dzato was a frontier outpost of single-story buildings and a few shops. Today it's a boomtown, apartment blocks and businesses sprouting like weeds in the shadow of the mountains and the stupa on the hill.

(Soundbite of construction)

SULLIVAN: These workers are building a new entertainment complex, complete with cinema and Internet cafe on the southern bank of the mocha-colored river. Raw sewage flows into the Dzachu or Mekong directly across from us near a small mountain of trash. And all of this is too much for one longtime resident here, who doesn't want to give his name.

Unidentified Man #5: (Through translator) All the sewage from the town, from the hospital, from the restaurants, from the houses, everything gets thrown into the river. And it's not just the Chinese doing it, it's young Tibetans too. All they care about is making money.

SULLIVAN: Just a few miles downriver, a small hydropower station has been built to provide electricity for the town and the surrounding area. The first of four dams the Chinese have already built on the river they call the Lancang Jiang, or the turbulent one. The biggest for now is at Manwan, several hundred miles downriver in southern Yunnan Province, where the turbulent one has been tamed.

(Soundbite of motor)

SULLIVAN: The Mekong here, above the massive Manwan Dam, is a 50-mile long lake, not a river. And the power generated by the dam has helped fuel China's economic boom and the jobs that have come with it. And while environmentalists worry about the dam's effects on local communities and on fisheries downstream, boatman Zhi Huazhou(ph) is having none of it.

Mr. ZHI HUAZHOU: (Through translator) I make a lot more money giving boat rides to tourists than I did as a farmer. Sure, some villages were destroyed when this place was flooded, but the people were compensated. Some complained it wasnt enough, but everyone has a different perspective, I guess. But for me, the dam has been a good thing.

SULLIVAN: Others who live along the river in Yunnan province arent convinced.

Ms. MAI YAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Mai Yan runs a small hotel not far from where the Mekong tumbles out of the Tibet in a torrent. An area that is home to many ethnic minorities where the government is planning several more dams, she says, that may leave her town and several others in this valley underwater too. Like many here, she is uneasy with the prospect and uneasy with the influx of majority Han Chinese that development has brought. She is from the ethnic Bai minority, her father ethnic Hui and her husband ethnic Lisu.

Ms. YAN: (Through Translator) Before this village was mostly Bai and that was the language spoken here. But now, the majority is Han, and the main language is Chinese. The older generation still speaks their own language, but for younger people like me, our first language is Chinese.

SULLIVAN: A geologist working for a local mining company listens intently at a nearby table, then pulls me aside as were checking out. Hes ethnic Bai, too, and views the Han Chinese with suspicion. There are a lot more Han than the government says there are, he says, and more and more are moving here. The Chinese, he says softly, are dangerous. To whom I ask? To the ethnic minorities, he says, and to our neighbors.

(Soundbite of crowd)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: A spirited card game on the dock at the Mekong River port of Guanlei fresh fruit, most of it apples, loaded on their Chinese river boats bound for the markets of Bangkok and beyond. The trip down the Mekong to northern Thailand will take 10 hours or so longer, a crew member says if the boats have to wait for the dam upriver to release enough water to allow their heavily laden vessels to pass.

(Soundbite of boat siren)

SULLIVAN: Our captain eases his 100-feet-long boat downriver, where it quickly gathers speed in the swift curt. The ship is too big it seems to sluice its way through the narrow and rock-strewn rapids here where the river isnt much wider than our vessel. But the captain knows what hes doing. And where the river widens out, other boats pass us heading north, stacked high with timber and cars, feeding Chinas growing appetite for both.

(Soundbite of boat)

SULLIVAN: Sunset on the Lancang Jiang heading downriver from Guanlei, China to Thailand, theres a light rainfall sitting here on the stern and a magnificent rainbow, which I take as an auspicious sign. On the left side of the river is Myanmar, the hills covered in a carpet on forest, on the right for the next few minutes at least, its still China.

More than 1,000 miles from the source, the river is almost three times lower here in southern China than it was when it started, that tiny trickle high in the mountains. But even here in southern China, the river is still more than half a mile above sea level. Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are all still ahead.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, on the Lancang Jiang River heading south.

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