First Descent of the Mekong Headwaters, Qinghai and Tibet, China

By international geographic convention, the source of a river is the furthest source of water from the mouth of the river, typically a spring or glacier. The agency of the country responsible for official surveys makes the final decision regarding geographic sources of rivers within its boundaries.

The geographic source of the Mekong River (Langcang Jiang) was officially recognized by the Commission for Integrated Survey of Natural Resources of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in October 1999 as being located at an altitude of 5224 meters (17,135 feet) at the foot of the glacier that discharges into Lasagongma Creek on the north side of Guosongmucha Mountain (5514 m or 18,086 ft), 94 41 44 E longitude, 33 42 31 N latitude. For a map and picture of the source and a brief history of the discovery of the geographic source, go to The Source of the Mekong River.

This source was probably first identified by non-Tibetans in 1994 by a Japanese-Chinese team led by Masayuki Kitamura of the Exploration Club of Tokyo University of Agriculture (TUA) under the sponsorship of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 1999, Masayuki Kitamura returned and completed a first descent of the Mekong headwaters within Qinghai. The following is a summary of the expedition report published by TUA in the Japanese Alpine Club Magazine "Gakujin" No. 632, February 2000, translated into English by Japanese Alpine Club member Tamotsu Nakamura.

The First Descent of the Source of the Mekong

Descending 560km by a rafting boat in Tibet-Qinghai Plateau August to October 1999

The Exploration Club of Tokyo University of Agriculture (TUA)
The Chinese Academy of Science (CAS)

The Japan-Sino Joint Expedition succeeded in the first descent of the source of the Mekong River from the headwaters to Qamdo in the fall of 1999. It should be also noted that the American party of Earth Science Expedition led by Mr. Pete Winn navigated the same course as far as Zadoi, starting only one day later.

Members of the Expedition:

Masayuki Kitamura (Leader, TUA, 30 years old)
Wu Jian-sheng (CAS)
Ryosuke Aoki (Sub-leader, TUA, 23)
Zhou Jun (The Institute of Tibet-Qinghai Plateau)
Kazunori Fujimori (TUA, Accounting, 37)
Alidari Bartle (Interperter)
Aya Yamamoto (TUA, Food & medicals, 23)
Yosuke Uchida (TUA, Equipment, 21)
Takao Momoi (TUA, Navigation equipment, 21)

Itinerary and Highlights:

Aug. 19: Arrived at Xining, Qingahi.

Aug. 21 to 23: Move from Xining to Yushu (Jyekundo) by a bus.

Aug. 27: From Yushu to Zhidoi (4235m) by a Beijing Jeep and a truck.

Aug. 28: From Zhidoi to Zahe (4580m) by cars, a point where they originally planned to start the caravan.

Aug. 29: Return from Zahe to Zhidoi by cars. As they could not hire yaks and horses at Zahe, they decided to come back to Yushu.

Aug. 30: From Zhidoi to Yushu by cars, wait in Yushu one day.

Sep. 1: From Yushu to Zadoi (4100m) by cars, wait in Zadoi twi days. A reconnaissance party went towards Nangchen.

Sep. 4: From Zadoi to near Danrong (4000m) by 2 Beijing Jeeps and a truck where they made camping.

Sep. 5. From camp site to Moyun (4501m) by cars.

Sep. 7: Caravan started from Moyun to Tent Site 1 (T.S.1). Support party went to Zadoi.

Sep. 8: The 2nd day of the caravan. They proceeded from T.S.1 to T.S.2 round a sacred mountain, Zanarigen, a legendary (spiritual) source of the Mekong.

Sep. 9: The 3rd day of the caravan. The rain fall that did not cease from the previous day stopped them at T.S.2.

Sep. 10: The 4th day of the caravan. Getting wet to the skin in a hailstorm and rain they moved from T.S.2 to T.S.3.

Sep. 11: The 5th day of the caravan. The navigation party to descend the headwater advanced from T.S.3 to T.S.4, whilst the other party went to a confluence with Zayaqu.

Sep. 12: The 6th day of the caravan. The navigation party proceeded from T.S.4 to T.S. 5 (Put-in point). Meanwhile the other party was in stand-by.

Sep. 13: The two members of Kitamura and Uchida started the navigation by an inflatable canoe of 3 meter long. in the headwater from T.S.5 to T.S.6, a confluence with Zayaqu. Minus 5 C at 7:00am. Water temperature was 1 C. Cloudy and very cold. They went down 40 km in ten hours.

Sep. 14: They navigated from T.S.6 to T.S.7, a confluence with Zanaqu. The other party of Fujimori and Aoki joined and used a raft-boat. It was fine. Minus 3 C in the morning. They received a message from the support party in Zadoi that the American professional party was coming for descending the same course.

Sep. 15: Navigation from T.S.7 to T.S.8. They set up tents before the gorge and ascend a mountain in the vicinity for reconnaissance. But they were unable to have a view forward.

Sep. 16: From T.S.8 to T.S.9. 2 C in the morning. They passed through the rapids of a narrow gorge of Class VI. No good progress was gained due to a danger of falling rocks. A huge rock blocked the mid stream of the river of only 10 meters width. They made a portage of 300 meters.

Sep. 17: From T.S.9 to T.S.10. They did running down of the rapids Class VI.

Sep. 18: From T.S.10 to Zadoi. They were forced to make a portage using cars to by-pass the rapids of "Red blood slope" of Class VI which were blocked with huge falling boulders to make the stream complicated. The rapids looked like a raging river of Japan after heavy rain falls. The members changed here.

Sep. 19: They stayed at Zadoi for taking rest.

Sep. 20: They commence again the navigation from Zadoi to T.S.11. The support party left for Nangchen.

Sep. 21: From T.S.11 to T.S.12. Using horses they made a portage to avoid the rapids of Class VI which is difficult to steer a boat.

Sep. 22: From T.S.12 to T.S.13. They navigated "Rubicon" that was considered the most hazardous point in the upper Mekong. The least information was available on this area. The name of place is "Where may monkeys live." They challenged and succeeded in rafting down through the formidable gorge of as narrow as 10 meters width streaming between precipitous walls in the both banks.

Sep. 23: From T.S.13 to T.S.14. An information that there would be rapids on the way made them careful. The navigation party ran down together with the support party cooperating each other.

Sep. 24: From T.S.14 to T.S.15 via Nangchen. There is a dam at Nangchen. They made a portage to detour round the dam and procured foods, etc. at Nangchen.

Sep. 25: From T.S.15 to T.S.16. They made a portage to avoid the second largest falls in the upper Mekong that are called Jalarungga.

Sep. 26: From T.S.16 to T.S.17. They easily passed through the rapids of Class III to IV below the falls.

Sep. 27: From T.S. 17 to T.S.18. Autumn leaves were beautiful. They entered into Tibetan Autonomous Region. They were suddenly attacked by villagers and were robbed at the camping site. They made a narrow escape from the violent Tibetans, but it was a dreadful experience.

Sep. 28: From T.S.18 to T.S.19. They made running down of the 500m long rapids of Class IV to V. The public security joined them.

Sep. 29: They stayed at T.S.19. The public security police searched for the stolen items.

Sep. 30: At T.S.19. The public security came back. Almost all the items were recovered.

Oct. 1: From T.S.19 to Qamdo (3370m). The rapids of Class IV to V continued. They passed through the rapids being helped by information from the support party. The navigation was completed here.

Oct. 2: They moved from Qamdo to a camping site on the river bank of a tributary of the Mekong by a Beijing Jeep and a truck.

Oct. 3: From the camping site to Nangchen by cars.

Oct. 4: From Nangchen to Yushu by cars.

Oct. 5 to 7: From Yushu to Xining by a bus.

Oct. 9 to10: From Xining to Beijing by train.

History of First Descents of the rivers of Tibet and western China

More info about rivers in China