Today is THE day! How to tell the extraordinary, the indescribable? Where to start? Those last 48hours has been like a lifetime experience… We leave Zadoi at sunrise, and head to a moutain pass at 5000m high. We are stunned by the waking himalayan beauty. The bright morning sun slowly warms up the valley and surrounding mountains. Long low clouds lay on the ground, like a ghost bride veil jailed by sharp rocky peaks. Up on the pass, payer flags flutter in the wind. Our driver stops the jeep and losts himself in psalms and prayers, throwing in the wind hundreds of little colorful square pieces of paper on which are written in tibetan messages for the Gods. We breathe quicker from the altitude and our eyes are wet with emotion. Then the 4WD drifts slowly on the other side…
Himalaya, lost in the world of Gods
To get to Zaxiqiwa, the sacred source of the Mekong river, one has to drive 7 hours on a rough dirt track through the himalayan steppes. Seven hours during which the 4WD squeaks and creaks in a not very reassuring way. But our guide will quickly prove his value. We can’t contest his talent as a driver nor the quality of his chinese 4WD which will endure the bumps and mistreatments of the road all the way courageously. Suddenly, two wild wolves appear before us, looking for an early breakfast. But we are no Red Riding Hood, they run away as soon as they see us. Nature around is fascinating: we see many little birds, raptors, foxes, marmots, himalayan donkeys and antelopes, pikas and all kind of small rodents.
At one point, we pass through two massive natural pillars, forming like a gate to another world. Is this the entrance to the abode of the gods? The himalayan landscape is so dramatic that we are tempted to believe so. Soon after, we drive through another high pass crowned by hundreds of prayer flags before discovering a second valley at the bottom of which flows a river. Nearby stands a monastery, lost, lonesome…Serenity! There, the 4WD fords the river for the first time.
The next hours are a sequence of high passes and beautiful deep valleys. We will particularly keep in mind one of them: as we were driving on a ridge, flirting with the emptiness , we suddenly found the road in front of us blocked by a massive truck. As the truck tried to maneuver in reverse to let us go through, we get the time to admire one of the most beautiful views we ever had the chance to see.
Zaxiqiwa: spiritual source of the Mekong river
As the beautiful wrinkles of mother Earth drift behind, we enter an unbounded plain. The mekong is flowing there, a little stream in the vastness. We have to ford it a few times. The taditional tibetan music playing constantly in the car fits the panorama perfectly. As we drive through the plain, many little lakes appear on the way. The steppes become muddy, treacherous. That doesn’t bother our guide much. Definitely a good driver, he gets us through that booby trapped land with no problem at all… Until the wheels start spinning in the mud dangerously. In no time, the jeep is completely bogged down! As our driver starts battling against the sludgy ground, he points us two prayer masts erected in the distance.
- « Zaxiqiwa, Zaxiqiwa! He tells us. He makes a sign for us to go forward on foot and to come back to him later. »
As a matter of fact, we are quite happy to be able to walk instead of driving there. We really wished to be able to reach the source at our own pace, to really feel this very special moment. The source is only a few kilometers away, but walking there will actually be quite testing! At 4880m high, on an uneven ground, exercising is not the easiest task! When we get to the source, a bit dizzy, we are filled with a very special feeling. Serenity, plenitude? We can’t say. It’s a clever mix between the happiness to be now part of the very few westerners whose been there before and that deep emotion felt by every human hearts when setting foot on a very holy place. It’s indescribable…
We are also surprised by the plainness of this place. Well, it’s an himalayan source so of course we weren’t expecting to find the Sacré-Coeur or the Mecca. What we mean is that the surrounding landscape is not particularly beautiful (a bit like an unbounded yellow marsh) compared to the stunning panoramas we saw on the way. But, as you cannot see on the pictures, the place is filled with a beautiful mystical and soothing aura. And it’s also a strong symbol: the beginning of 8 months traveling for us, and (more importantly) the beginning of Life itself for all the people living along its banks, from remote China to Vietnam. The Mekong river: large artery of Asia.
Suddenly, we hear an engine roar coming from behind us, breaking the magic. The 4WD pops up, our driver smiling broadly from ear to ear, proud as a king. What a character! He managed to unstuck the jeep! And tonight we will set camp at the foot of the source! A few hours later he invites us for dinner under his pretty nomad tent. As we have a long conversation (to be fair, we are mostly gesturing, but it works!!) about our different lives, families, jobs… Our guide shares generously with us some of his food: half dried boiled yack meat, half raw potatoes, tibetan fried bread, yack buttered tea and yack buttered tsampa (barley flour mixed with water and an unknown quantity of our driver’s saliva). Strong tastes… Particularly the yack meat, which is moreover very fat, hard and chewy. Our guide understands that we love it and dices some in our chinese noodles soup… Yum!
Back in our own little dome tent, as we try to fall asleep, a band of massive cumulonimbus decide against it. They start playing a terrifying thunder-symphony of a rare violence! Accompanied by a heavy hail storm playing a genius yet hellish xylophone solo on the canvas roof our tent. We hold each other, trembling like two terrorized rabbits. Atmosphere « end of the world » in the Himalaya. We pray for our tent to last out!
A return to the world of men
In the morning, the world is hidden under a thick humid fog. Strange surrealist shapes emerge from the ghoulish marsh, like the prayer flags masts which could be taken for those of the ghost Flying Dutch. The silence around is deafening. Our guide takes us for a stroll around to shoot a few memory-pictures with him. He is waiting for the clouds to dissipate before driving us back. Which is a good idea in this immensity. Here, if you lost the track, you lost your life! As the fog lessen, he tells us he will drive us back to Zadoi by another path, offering beautiful spots to take pictures. But, before we leave, we make a little detour to visit a nomad family that the photographer Luciano Lepre met three years ago. He took a few pictures that we offer them today, with a few apples and grapes as they don’t have many opportunities to eat fruits in the steppes.
It will take us several hours to see bits of civilization here and there. Unfortunately, one who says « civilization » also says « pollution ». We oscillate between amazement in front of the natural wonders of the mountains and sadness when we see trash everywhere. The pollution of the Mekong river starts at 5000m high… The main star-product of this pollution: the plastic bottle!
A few hours before Zadoi, we stop on the banks of the Mekong river. There, the rushing waters carry a lot of sediments, turning the whole river bright red. The grass displays such a brilliant green and the sky such a vibrant blue that the view is absolutely stunning! Such a colorful contrast!
Back in town, the trip is not yet finished. Our guide kindly invites us home to spend the night and share a nice dinner prepared by his wife, an excellent cook! Here is the menu: shredded beef sautéed with green capsicums, fresh onions, grated potatoes and delicate local spices. The dish is accompanied by a refreshing cucumber salad. Delicious!
Tomorrow, we will have to abandon all those wonders… New adventures are calling us!
See you soon !
M. & Mme Shoes
M. & Mme Shoes
Traveling to Zaxiqiwa, in Qinghai and in western China :
- With language difficulties, cultural differencies and troubles with public transportation, discovering west China, rural, remote and authentic is not easy.
We recommand you to refer or hire Pieter Neele, guide and specialist of western China. He has been traveling in those parts of China for more than 10 years and has guided travelers, adventurers and photographs in some of the most remote and untouched parts of the country. He went several times at Zaxiqiwa and the Mekong river source region, and even discovered a new source of the river (THE source) ! More than a guide, he speaks the local language and have great knowledge about the History of the country, local customs and ethnies.