My Tibetan interpreter, the driver, and I stopped just past Mato’s three stores at a small brick building. Inside, we met the one and only official in charge of overseeing the entire area around the source of the Yellow River, an area of about 5,000 square kilometers. The official’s name was Ni-ma Tsai-jen. He was Tibetan. When I told him I was hoping to reach the source of the Yellow River, he smiled. Then he laughed. He couldn’t contain his mirth. He said only a handful of Chinese and a camera crew from Japan’s NHK [national public broadcasting organization] had succeeded in reaching it. Of more than a dozen Westerners who had visited the area, none had made it to the source. I was surprised, but I told him I still planned to try. When he realized he couldn’t dissuade me, he asked two of his assistants to accompany us as guides. Neither of them had been to the source either, but he thought they might be of some help or at least make sure we came back alive.

We were less than 50 kilometers from the source of the Yellow River, but the sun was fading on our efforts that day. After another dinner of hot noodles and mutton, courtesy of Ni-ma Tsai-jen, we settled in for the night. It was a long night. The village’s elevation was slightly over 4,400 meters, and the air was so thin that several times during the night I woke up suffocating from lack of it. It was like sleeping underwater. My sides ached for weeks afterward. I wasn’t alone. My driver and interpreter were having the same difficulties. Shortly before dawn, we finally gave up, loaded our gear into the jeep, and took off. We all squeezed into the front seat, while our two Tibetan guides supplied by Ni-ma Tsai-jen sat in back. Neither of them had been to the source of the Yellow River either, but they had a rough idea of the general direction, which was more than we had.

From Mato, we headed southwest on the road that led toward the country seat of Chumalai, about 100 kilometers away. After about 10 kilometers, we turned off onto another dirt track. It had been snowing off and on for several days, and we could barely make out the ruts that led over a crest and down into the Yukutsungli Basin. Suddenly there was a break in the storm clouds to the east, and the first rays of dawn washed the snow in a salmon-colored glow. The Yukutsungli Basin was vast, empty, and ringed on all sides by snow-covered hills.

We snaked our way to the bottom of the basin and began heading across it. The snow was beginning to melt, and there were small ponds everywhere. The driver gunned the engine and drove through a small stream. We came to a second stream, and he tried the same thing. This time, the far bank, it turned out, wasn’t frozen, and the wheels sank about a foot into the mud and gravel. We spent an hour trying to get it out, but nothing worked. Not only were the tires stuck in the mud, the engine wouldn’t start either. We were stuck, indeed. After repeated failures to get the engine going and the wheels unstuck, my interpreter suggested I try to go the rest of the way on foot. If I left right then, he said, I just might make it. One of the two guides said he would go with me. How could I refuse? And so we began walking across the tundra. There were still a few snowflakes in the air, but the morning sun was shining just above the eastern horizon. Despite the inauspicious beginning, it looked like it was going to be a great day. We trudged on, hopscotching our way on the tufts of dry, bunched grass and making frequent detours around small ponds. After two hours, my guide spotted a herd of yaks on the horizon, and we veered toward it. Half an hour later, we reached the herd and asked the herders if they knew where the source of the Yellow River was.

It seemed like such a stupid question. Why would they know where the source of the river was? They were herders. But they surprised me. The pointed toward one of the snow-covered hills that ringed the Yukutsungli Basin. It looked too far to walk. When I asked if we could hire their horses, they said they were too thin. In that part of China, a horse was a person’s most valuable possession, and they didn’t like to ride theirs until the beginning of summer, after their horses had fattened up on new grass. Since it was too far to walk and we couldn’t hire horses, my guide suggested heading back. I looked again at the hill the herders had pointed to. It was on the west side of the Yukutsungli Basin, and it did look far away. But I decided to try. I told my guide that we could turn back later if it looked like we couldn’t make it there and back before dark. I thanked the herders and started walking.

The basin had an elevation of 4,500 meters, or nearly 15,000 feet, and distances were deceptive at that altitude. Also, the thinner air forced us to walk at a slower pace. We spent the next several hours panting our way across the tundra, not talking, just walking and gasping for air. After about three hours, we saw another family of herders and stopped again to ask directions. Again, they knew where it was. The source of the Yellow River, they said, was on the other side of the ridge. It was right in front of us, only about an hour away. It was hard to believe. We were almost there. But my guide said we had already gone too far. If we didn’t start walking back to our jeep now, we would never make it before dark.

I shrugged and told him to go back without me; I would spend the night with the herders if I couldn’t make it back and they could pick me up the next day, assuming they got the jeep unstuck and the engine working again. Obviously the thin air had impaired my judgment. I thanked the herders and headed off alone. Realizing I was not to be reasoned with, my guide caught up with me.

It wasn’t long before I was regretting my impulsiveness. Every step was agony. My lungs said stop. My eyes had trouble focusing. I finally turned to my guide and said I had had enough. But now it was his turn to push me on. Twice we both dropped to our knees to catch our breath, but that didn’t seem to help. We stood back up and staggered on. Somehow, we managed to cross the ridge, and there they were, the stone slab and the yak horns that marked the source of the Yellow River. We were finally there. The stone slab said “Source of the Yellow River.” I was too tired to laugh and too tired to cry. My guide and I took each other’s pictures. Next to the marker was another stone, put there in 1987 by a team of Chinese adventurers prior to rafting down the river to the sea. I learned later that they didn’t make it. They drowned south of Hsining near the section of the river where the Lungyanghsia Dam was built.

The day was getting late, and the snow had started falling again. But before leaving, I bowed three times in front of the small stone carved with the Tibetan mantra “Om mani padme hum.” The thought finally dawned on me that maybe this time I had asked too much of the gods that had protected me. We started back but at a slower pace; we were both exhausted—the elevation had taken its toll.

Photographs by Bill Porter
Photographs by Bill Porter

As we staggered down from the heights, the cobalt morning sky had given way to a late afternoon snowstorm. We headed in the direction where we had left the jeep, which hopefully would be repaired and out of the mud and waiting for us. As we plodded across the tundra, we decided to veer away from our beeline to the jeep. We headed toward the yurts of some Tibetan herders we had seen in the distance on our way there. As we started in their direction, my guide told me to get behind him, and he reached into his shoulder bag and pulled out a pistol. What the hell was going on, I thought. With his other hand, he pointed at half a dozen small black dots near the yurts. The dots were headed our way, and they were getting bigger. The dots turned out to be very large dogs— very large snarling dogs. As soon as they got close enough, my guide fired his pistol into the air twice. The dogs stopped their headlong rush and started circling. With his free hand, he then reached into his bag and took out a long rope. On one end was a heavy pyramid-shaped metal weight. He started swinging it over both our heads, letting it out gradually until the weight was swirling about 10 meters from us. As the dogs watched it whiz past their heads, they backed off, and we proceeded like that across the tundra toward the yurts. When we got to within hailing distance, the herders called off their dogs, and my guide put away his weapons.

One of the herders lifted the flap of one of the yurts and invited us inside. The yurt was made of yak hair; inside was an iron stove, and just inside the tent flap was the fuel, a pile of dried yak dung. It gave the tent a distinctive smell. But the smell of the yak dung was nothing compared to the smell of yak butter, apparently rancid. Just inside the tent flap, across from the dung, there was also a waist-high pile of butter. I guess they were placed on different sides of the flap so no one would confuse the piles in the dark.

My guide explained what we were doing, and he asked them if we could hire their ponies to take us back to our jeep, which we were hoping would be repaired by the time we got there. The herders shook their heads. They said their ponies were still too weak from the winter. But we were feeling weak too, and we persisted—or at least my guide did, at my urging. It was only with great reluctance and 30 bucks for three ponies—two for us and one for an escort to bring the ponies back—that they finally agreed.

I was so relieved to be riding instead of walking, I could hardly contain myself. And on our way across the tundra, I taught my companions the words to the only riding song I knew, which I edited for the occasion:

One morning when I was out walking for pleasure,
I spied a young herdboy a-riding along.
His hat was pushed back, and his prayer beads did jangle,
and as he approached, he was singing this song:
“Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogies,
it’s your misfortune and none of my own.
Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogies,
you know that Tibet will be your new home.”

I was pretty much on my own for the first part, but they rose to join me for the “Whoopee ti yi yo” part. The herder also sang a couple of Tibetan songs, and my guide joined in. I gave up after a few tries and just bobbed along, letting the pony do all the work.

Tibetan ponies have short legs, to avoid the potholes in the tundra, but they cruise right along. In less than two hours, we made it back to our jeep, just as it was getting dark. The vehicle was, as we had hoped, ready and waiting. After thanking our escort, we all climbed inside and headed back to the Mato trading post.

It was May 25, the year was 1991, and I had finally reached the source of the Yellow River. It had taken me more than two months to travel the river’s 5,000 kilometers, tracing the river along whose shores Chinese civilization began 5,000 years ago and where the Chinese people had first established the sensibility that had made them Chinese. As I sat in the jeep as we bumped our way back across the Yukutsungli Basin in the dark, it all came surging back: the China Coast Ball in Shanghai, the Islands of the Immortals off the Shantung coast, the barren mud flats at the river’s mouth, the weeds on the tomb of Confucius, the cloudy peaks of the sacred mountains off Saishan and Sungshan, the narrowness of the Hanku Pass, endless erosion of the Loess Plateau, and the desert sands, the bumpy roads and the hard seats, and those damned air horns truck drivers used to clear the road, and the cold beer and the warm beer, and the crowds that gathered whenever I took out pictures of my family. But mostly, I remembered the river, flowing, yellow, and relentless.

Adapted from Yellow River Odyssey, by Bill Porter. Chin Music Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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