We followed the long frozen trail of ice that the locals call the Zacu down a wide valley that was lashed with freezing winds and bouts of snow. The affects of altitude sickness began to seriously take its toll on most of the team and morale was diminishing quickly as freezing winds tortured our bodies.
Read About The Complete Mekong Descent
Our photographer Stan who could not even carry his camera bag to the source slowly began to recover as we descended but Nico the director was so exhausted that he barely managed to get his filming gear out of the bag in the six days around the source. The time definitely seemed right for the team to make their
way back to the four wheel drive some two days ride away and for me to continue the expedition solo.
After two long days we came across the first abode on the Mekong, in the form of a small white tent occupied by a family of 4 near the crest of a hill some 200 meters from the river. The head of the family, old man Rasha invited us in for some yak butter tea and raw yak meat which brought some welcome relief from the cold.
Rasha would have done Bob Marley proud with a thick head of dreadlocks that he had to tie up to prevent from dragging on the ground when he walked. Before long we had arranged for Rasha’s eldest son Changa to
proceed down the river with me while the rest of the team headed back toward the comforts of civilization. Just as the team began to leave heavy snow began falling and with several members in quite a state physically I was quite concerned for their well being.
Staying with the nomadic yak herders of the high plains is a major highlight of travelling Tibet. These rugged yet hospitable people do not hesitate to take complete strangers into their homes and lives in a natural display of kindness. That night I received a banquet of yak stew and barley bread before being tucked into bed for a good nights sleep.
Our first days ride was long and hard as we made our way through fine sleet and snow. We crossed the frozen Mekong several times. Two large mastiff dogs joined us. "Bong" and "Zhah" were keen hunters and didn't mind throwing their weight around when they entered a new camp that was the territory of a different band of dogs. There truly is an abundance of wildlife on the Qinghai plateau. Bong and Zah
proved invaluable for spotting herds of deer and antelope at great distances and provided some light entertainment by attempting to chase antelope up incredibly steep mountain ridges. It would appear that because the area is inhabited only by herders who have access to an abundance of yak meat, that hunting wildlife does not take as high a priority as in other parts of China.
As the day wore on a blizzard loomed on the horizon and engulfed us at 3.00 p.m. We attempted to push on
but within 40 minutes we were both freezing and we were forced to set up the tent with 5 hours of daylight remaining . It was a long afternoon as strong gusts of wind and snow whipped the side of the tent at times with such force that it seemed we could be blown away.
The next morning we awoke to 6 centimeters of snow. The valley widened but remained rimmed by 5000+
meter mountains. A small amount of water began to flow as the infant Mekong river began returning to life from its icy slumber. Peculiarly , the water here was clearer than at the source where it was already tinged by the red clays that give the river its characteristic color.
We passed 4 herders camps throughout the day. Each encounter began inevitably with a dog fight as our mastiffs tried to assume the position of top dogs followed by a brief chat and an offer to drink yak butter tea. At the fourth camp we decided to spend the night. We were greeted at this camp by the biggest and scariest looking mastiff that I have ever seen. In Tibet large well built dogs are highly prized because they are the only creatures capable of keeping the packs of wolves at bay. This dog reminded me of "Coujo" from the B grade 80's horror movie and Bong and Zah wisely kept a good distance. Fortunately he was chained to a stake that looked sturdy enough so I wondered by without too much concern as he viciously barked and yanked at his anchor . As usual the locals were hospitable and curious, digging through all of my bags to play with what ever toys they could find.
The following morning I discreetly snuck out of the tent to make a nature call. There was really no where that was out of sight of the camp so I chose a small hill nearby and began to attend to business. I was 3 quarters done when I heard a dreadful growl and bark. I looked down the hill to see Coujo bounding up towards me. Someone had obviously taken him off the chain during the night to look after the yaks that were standing in a large group nearby. Mist explode from his mouth with each bark . He looked like the meant business and was closing in quick so there was not much time to react . I had time to either pull up my pants or reach for some rocks. I stood up and pelted a fist sized rock towards Coujo as a deterrent and rather than slow him down this seemed to inspire a more rapid attack.
I quickly reached for another rock and with my pants around my ankles flung it at him several seconds before he would have been upon me. It hit him solidly on the left shoulder and he let out a semi bark/yelp and hesitated for a moment before closing into within two meters. I screamed at him as
aggressively as I could and faked throwing another rock as he snapped toward my hand. This close range stand off with me screaming and him snapping went on for a further 2 or 3 seconds that seemed like an eternity before I heard a yell from down near the tent. The headman was running up the hill towards me and numerous bodies began emerging from the tent flaps to see what was going on . Coujo looked visibly concerned and backed off a few steps. A couple of seconds later a hail of rocks rained down in the vicinity of me and Coujo as the whole family came to my rescue. Coujo was now in full flight and with him out of my face I reached down to grab some more rocks just in case. It was then that I realized that my parts were still around my ankles and modesty took over from malice as the family looked on in concern. By the time my pants were back up the entire family burst out in laughter and I kind of wished that I could disappear.
I was pleased to finish breakfast and glad that I could not understand the comments which made the entire family break out in sporadic laughter . I said my goodbyes and knew by the glint in Changa's eye that this would not be the last I would hear about the Coujo Epic.
We proceeded by horse for another two days as the Mekong progressively thawed but occasional sections of ice with water flowing underneath ensured that river remained un-navigable. The wide valley narrowed to
form a tight gorge and several times I thought it would not be possible to proceed by horse, but the locals had etched a tiny path through the most difficult terrain.
We rounded a bend where a huge pile of "Mani" stones were stacked under several Buddhist stupas. "Um mani pad me ho" is the most common tartaric verse in Tibetan Buddhism. The devout lay people and monks alike spend countless hours repeating the verse along their path to enlightenment and there is a long standing tradition of carving the verse into rocks and placing them at sites of spiritual significance. Hundreds of millions of these beautifully carved stones lay scattered across the Tibetan plateau. I rounded another bend and to my surprise encountered the first Buddhist Monastery on the Mekong River "Drahiliapough"
This ancient settlement of some 40 or so rammed earth and pinewood buildings is a true gem that obviously escaped the devastation of the cultural revolution during which time 95% of all Tibetan Monastery were destroyed. The remoteness of this gorge is no doubt what saved the ornate buildings.
I spent the night in the company of monks who found my experiences with Coujo, as told gleefully by my companion Changa simply hilarious. Of course I played it all down somewhat, indicating that I actually had things completely under control and even managed to distract them from what was obviously the funniest story ever told in the monastery by putting on a concert using a small banjo style instrument that emerged from one of the temples.
Two more full days of riding brought me to a point where the road met the river and there were no river wide ice packs obstructing it's flow. Finally I had reached the point where it was possible to start the navigation. I was met by the production crew and we returned to the town of Zato to re-group and start again, or so I thought.
Upon my return it became evident that significant funds that were pledged by sponsors had still not been received by the project and this now caused a serious problem as the logistics bill for the next section through the Tibetan Autonomous Region needed to be paid in advance.
In addition to this team morale was very low. After such an amazing trek I was on a real high and tried my best to fire up the lads, but I did not have a great deal of success. A mixture of fatigue, delays, depression and now uncertainty over funds to continue had taken it's toll on Nico and Stan who really did not have much drive left in them.
We agreed that it would be best for them to edit their work for a few days and think about whether they had the motivation to continue or not while I began the navigation South. I found it difficult to relate to the lack of energy, for me it was the experience of a lifetime and even though we were encountering some serious problems I did not see anything that could not be overcome and it never crossed my mind for a moment to give up.
It occurred to me that although from my perspective it was a once in a life time experience for this particular crew, it was work and work that had to be done under extremely trying conditions that they found intolerable. I decided that if they could not find inspiration in this type of work then it would probably be better for them and the expedition if they did not continue.
After 2 days in Zato we drove up towards the point where my trek finished. To our surprise, about 35 kilometers from Zato, we encountered a wolf at close range. Stan whipped out his camera and managed to get several shots of this beautiful creature at a range of 20 meters. It was an awesome encounter.
Finally after years of planning and preparation my navigation of the Mekong river was about to begin. It was a great moment as I snapped on my spray skirt and slid down a rill of glacial gravel into the swift Mekong waters. I paddled 35 kilometers in 3 hrs, arriving in Zato at sunset.
Little did I know that I would spend the next 3 weeks in Zato chasing pledged funds that never arrived and locating a new director and photographer. The entire project was at risk with sponsors claiming to have sent funds that were never arrived. When we asked these sponsors for the account details of where the money was sent so that we could track the funds we were not given a response. It was extremely frustrating.
I was forced to call in help from friends and relatives who came to the aid of the project. It's at times like this that you really find out who you can count on. By June first the project was back on track and I was paddling South. It has taken some time but the project is now fully back on track with a new and experienced production team. Stay tuned for a full update coming soon!