Lasagongma Springs, Tibetan Plateau

The Source of the Mekong

January 1st, 2017

A River’s Tail ends where the Mekong begins - at the Lasagongma Springs, high up on the Tibetan plateau.

After more than a year and half of following the Mekong through four countries, we end our journey more than five kilometres higher and nearly 5000km away from where we started at the South China Sea.

It wasn’t until we turned off the paved highway and onto a roughly graded dirt road that the reality of finishing our project began to set in. For more than a year and a half we had been following the Mekong and it had become something of a compulsion. It was no longer something we were consciously aware of but rather it seemed like an instinct, like something we had always done and would always do. But of course we would not always do this and in reality we were only two days from the journey’s end.

Despite the fact that we had been anticipating reaching the source of the Mekong for many months and were surrounded by some of the most beautifully barren landscape imaginable, it was difficult to feel truly excited. Actually it was difficult to feel much at all in the way of emotions; instead the endless bouncing of the 4x4 had numbed us to most feelings.

Though there were not many roads to choose from so far out on the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau, the monotonous jostling of the drive was periodically broken up by the appearance of a crossroads at which point we would spill out of the vehicles to stretch our legs and consult a map and compass. Every few hours a nomad on a motorcycle would pass and we would flag him down to ask for directions, which were always given with a vague point in some general direction.

But apart from these encounters, there was no clear route to the source. These remote rural roads had no names and were not marked by any signs. There were no tourist information maps or distance markers to guide the way, just the general knowledge that if we needed to head West. And so we did.

The School at the End of the World

“There is only the school,” said the headmaster, Rinchen Londup, “nothing else happens here.”

Looking around the village of Ngam-nak it was easy to see what he meant, though to refer to the small cluster of buildings as a village was somewhat of a misnomer. Ngam-nak had no industry, no agriculture apart from a few semi-wild horses that grazed in the surrounding hills, and no permanent population. The seven teachers, two cooks, and roughly 110 primary school students who currently inhabited the community stayed for only half the year before returning home to their families each summer.

For the teachers (most of whom were ethnic Han Chinese as opposed to Tibetan) that might mean a major metropolis like Shanghai or Guangzhou. For the students, all the children of the nomadic yak herding families who were spread across the plateau, home was most likely a tent that moved as their animals grazed. The only reason Ngam-nak existed was to provide a basic level of education for the region’s nomadic children; no one thought of it as home. But despite the transitory nature of Ngam-nak, the school was an important fixture in the area.

“It is very important to teach these kids,” said Ma Hai Long, one of the Chinese teachers on staff. “Even though it's a very large area, the population is very small and they cannot [afford to] send the kids to big cities.”

According to headmaster Rinchen Londup, almost all of the small local schools that used to dot the plateau had been forced to close due to high costs and lack of students. Recognizing the looming educational crisis, the government built the area’s first - and only - modern school at Ngam-nak. Where there used to be only a few yak dung structures, a ten-classroom school now stood. Crowded but clean dormitories ringed the building, and two full time cooks churned out massive quantities of hearty winter food from its well stocked kitchen.

By far the most prominent structure was the gymnasium. With the winter temperatures often falling to -20 degrees (and lower still during the night), the glass-ceilinged gym allowed the children to be active without risking frostbite. As tough as the young nomads were (they typically wore only jeans and simple jackets where we were bundled under multiple layers of thermal underwear and fleece), it was difficult to imagine anyone playing a game of badminton in a subzero snowstorm.

Though not much more than a necessary stopping point on the way to the Lasagongma springs, Ngam-nuk was a place of some distinction as the last significantly inhabited place before reaching the source. And as Rinchen Londop explained, this put his school at the centre of some of the most globally important environmental issues, such as climate change and international water security.

"I don't know what this area means to the world, but I know it's very important for the Mekong,” Rinchen told us. “All the rivers here flow into the Mekong and some are dying as it gets hotter. Lately there have been a lot of people from the government and organizations who told us how important the Mekong is because all people and animals need water. They also tell us the importance of keeping the area clean, so now we take the students and pick up garbage."

After sharing a meal of noodles and yak meat with the teaching staff, we were given an empty classroom to sleep in for the night and prepared for an early departure to the Lasagongma springs - where the Mekong began and A River’s Tail would end.

​An Ending at the Beginning

“It’s not far now,” said our Tibetan travel companion, Tashi, as our vehicle bounced violently over the uneven ground. “We just need to pick someone up first.”

So far into what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we had no idea who we could possibly be picking up. But as Tashi was the only member of our team who had been to the source of the Mekong before, we accepted this seemingly strange statement without question.

We had left the road behind some time ago; the grasslands that had looked deceptively smooth from a distance were actually so heavily pockmarked by ruts, mounds, and gopher holes that we’d had to slow to nearly walking pace to avoid destroying the vehicle’s axles. Streams and lakes crossed the plains, hinting at how water-rich the area was, but all were frozen solid in the frigidity of winter

After several bone-jarring hours, a lone house appeared on the landscape. It was the only structure of any kind we had seen in some time, and it seemed like an alien feature on the endless sea of brown grass. As we neared the house a young boy playing in front of the house turned to watch us for a time before running inside and reemerging with a man who we assumed to be his father.

It was hard to imagine a more isolated place to raise a family, but Tsetrim Yumden had been doing it for almost a year after taking over his brother’s job as guardian of the Lasagongma springs. The almost fantastical sounding position had been created after a string of unfortunate incidents involving disrespectful tourists led locals to keep a closer watch over the springs.

“This land is very important,” Tsetrim said. “Our ancestors have lived here for centuries and we need to protect it.” A volunteer post rather than a paying job, Tsetrim received nothing for his service other than permission to live rent-free in the modest yak-dung home. Yet he felt its importance was so great he planned to devote several more years of his life to watching over the springs. When we told him why we’d come, he immediately jumped in the car to show us the safest route over the last few kilometres to the source of the Mekong.

“Two or three years ago, a Chinese tourist came here and peed in the source, saying ‘I want five countries to drink my urine,’” Tsetrim told us when we asked why a guardian was necessary when it was so difficult to access the area. “If I'd seen him, I would have killed him.” While he did not seem in any way like a naturally aggressive man, he said it with such solemnity that we all believed he meant it. “I want people to come and see this beautiful land, but I need to make sure they respect it.”

When our car finally stopped a few hundred metres away from a blue-tinted frozen pool of water, not much bigger than a swimming pool, only the presence of prayer flags indicated that there was anything special about it. “Here the Mekong is small,” Tsetrim said helpfully, sensing our confusion. “If you don’t know what it is, it could be hard to notice.”

Standing over the pool of ice, we were each lost in our own thoughts and barely spoke as we struggled to accept what we were seeing. We were more than 5000km from where the Mekong met the South China Sea, and more than 5000 metres higher in altitude. It was almost inconceivable that this tiny pond was the source of the same river we had been following for more than a year and a half. And yet it was.

Of course the source of the Mekong was not always like this. In the spring, when mountain snows melted and flooded the valley, the area would look totally different. But in its current state of a series of disjointed pools, the most important source of water for millions of Asians looked small and fragile. And based on what we’d seen downriver, this was not so far from the truth.

“My message for the people living downriver is that my family is living this rough life because of this water. If there is no water, we cannot live,” said Tsetrim. “So we work very hard to keep the water clean for ourselves and the millions of people who live downstream.”

Though we had envisioned reaching this point of our journey for many months previously, we were all too overwhelmed by the moment to celebrate beyond a few token hugs. Mostly we stood silently and stared at the ice that would become the source of life for so many, unable to comprehend the magnitude of its importance.

And then we headed for home, more sure than ever of the Mekong’s importance but just as uncertain about what the future would hold for the great river.

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