Yellow River geography

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The course of the Yellow River lies entirely within China. It is the largest source of surface water for northern China. Called the Huang He by the Chinese, its source is a spring at 34 29 31.1N, 96 20 24.6E, Elevation 4878 meters (15,951 feet), southwest of two large lakes near Madoi in central Qinghai (Gyaring and Ngorin). A Japanese team explored the headwaters area by road in 1985 (TV footage), the Cousteau Society explored it by road, scuba and boat in 1996 ("From the Gates of Tibet to the Source of the Huange He" by Gregoire Koulbanis, Calypso Log, Cousteau Society), and Chinese team visited it in 2008 (China Exploration and Research Society). In spite of its 2900 mile length, it never becomes a really large river because it flows across long stretches of desert on its way to its mouth at Bo Hai Bay near North Korea. This region is covered by tens of thousands of square miles of wind-blown yellow-colored silt, called loess, that was produced by glaciers that covered this area during the last ice age. The river is named after the color of the silt.

From its source, the Yellow flows southeast into the Zoige Basin, then makes a huge U turn and flows northwest, crossing the Anyemaqen Mountains before resuming an eastward course. In the Anyemaqen Mountains, the Yellow has cut through sixteen hundred feet of sedimentary beds that are less than 2 million years old. The current theory is that the river once continued to flow southeast from the Zoige Basin across the northern Min Mountains, then flowed north and joined its current path across northern China. However, rapid uplift in the Min Mountains area due to India’s collision with Asia caused the river to pond and flow northwestward. The river carved deep canyons through its own sediments during subsequent uplift of the Anyemaqen Mountains.

Other major rivers draining the Tibetan Plateau have an average gradient of about 15 feet per mile. The gradient of the upper Yellow is comparable to that of the Colorado in the Grand Canyon – about 10 feet per mile. In the deep canyons where the river traverses the Anyemaqen Mountains, there are large rapids like those in the Grand Canyon which resulted in the deaths of seven Chinese rafters on a source-to-sea first descent in 1987. The Beijing team lost one member, the Ma An Shan team lost two members, and the Luoyang team lost 4 members.

There are at least 15 dams in the lower 2000 miles. Two in Qinghai were completed after the 1987 first descent, but the river still flows free in the gorges of the Anyemaqen Mountains. One of China’s famous landmarks is the 100 foot high Hukuo Falls in northeastern China where the Yellow river flows over a ledge of hard sandstone. Unbeliveably, a Chinese rafting team ran the falls.

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