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The cradle of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River is known as the “mother river” of the Chinese nation. For this reason, its source on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau bears special spiritual symbolism in the hearts of many Chinese people. In October 2013, I joined several of my travel-loving friends to trek hundreds of miles to the source more than 4,000 meters above the sea level.
The source of the Yellow River is located in Madoi County, in northwestern China’s Qinghai Province. In fact, Madoi means the “source of the Yellow River” in Tibetan. About 60 kilometers separates the county seat from the Yellow River Source Scenic Area.
As early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), renowned poet Li Bai penned a verse claiming that “water of the Yellow River comes from heaven.” The feudal governments of the Tang, Yuan (1271-1368), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties each dispatched explorers to find the source of the Yellow River. However, not until 1985 did the Yellow River Conservancy Commission assert that the river originates in Yoigilangleb, an olive-shaped basin extending 40 kilometers from east to west and 60 kilometers from south to north. Spring water sprouting from the basin merges with the Gar River, which feeds the Maqu River, the uppermost reaches of the Yellow River, which local Tibetans call Peacock River. The river flows from snow-capped mountains into Gyaring Lake. From the lake’s southeastern tip, a tributary leads to Ngoring Lake.
Accurately known as “sister lakes near the source of the Yellow River,” Gyaring and Ngoring are the two biggest freshwater lakes in the source area, at an altitude of 4,300 meters. The two lakes are separated by a mountain, with the shortest route between them measuring a dozen kilometers. A valley connects the lakes, which from an aerial view resembles a butterfly’s wings. After nourishing the two lakes, the Yellow River makes its way through a vast alpine grassland.
Words couldn’t possibly do justice to the beauty of Ngoring Lake when we first saw it: The azure lake appeared boundless, with white clouds reflecting across its glassy surface. Although winter was already creeping across the plateau during our October visit, we still marveled at birds hovering over the lake and wild animals such as Tibetan antelopes, wild donkeys, and Mongolian gazelles roaming its shoals.