A Life in Extremis

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Geologist-Explorer Documents China’s Rivers

Yang Yong is a renowned explorer and the director of the Hengduan Mountain Research Society, whose mission is to promote the conservation and sustainable development of a large mountain range in southwest China known for its biodiversity (including the Giant Panda) and the three major rivers that cut through the range: the Yangtze, Salween (Nu) and Mekong rivers. The group has been instrumental in increasing understanding of the biomes of western China and the impacts that development projects could have on these fragile ecosystems. Yang Yong has spoken out in the media and to the government about the seismic risks of building dams on the largely free-flowing Salween/Nu River, which is located on a number of active fault lines. Here is his personal narrative about the intersection between his life’s work and love of rivers.

Since I was a child, I have had a passion for discovering nature’s secrets and nurtured it through exploring atlases and whatever information I could get my hands on. I went to college to study geology, where every analysis and action was performed with the goal of uncovering these secrets. No words can describe the happiness I felt from one discovery to the next, and I felt that I had finally satisfied my intellectual curiosity.

Soon after, I joined a Yangtze River rafting trip, which was almost 20 years ago.  At that time, I wanted to apply my training in geology to the examination of the river’s geology and geomorphology, as well as to analyze its vegetation, ecological conditions, and water quality. I wished to combine this professional endeavor with my lifelong desire to personally travel along the mighty Yangtze. It was on this trip that I found myself forging an unexpectedly close relationship with the river. In 1991, I gave up my work in a large state-owned enterprise – abandoning the opportunities to earn a living abroad – and launched a new career in the study and research of the Yangtze River. Over the years, I have traveled almost all of the rivers of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. I developed a profound understanding and a strong bond with the rivers, which has since filled my life with value and meaning.

The recent unprecedented level of development along western China’s rivers large and small signifies disaster for the country’s ecological lifelines. This has repeatedly stirred me to action. I have raised my own funds and formulated my own research topics to embark on research expeditions along the rivers. My voyages abound with risks and hardships, and are frequently accompanied by the threat of death. Through these dangers, I have found joy in discovery, bitterness in my plights, struggle between life and death, and the solemnity of hopelessness. But I ultimately find comfort in the fact that I have tasted all the extremes of life.

When I investigated the Jinsha River on foot, I found that historical records had indicated several occasions where mega-landslides had obstructed the river’s flow. I summited to the top of where the land had begun crumbling – going from 700 meters above sea level to more than 3200 meters.  In addition to obtaining first-hand information on the development of these landslides, I was astounded by the sight of millions of cubic meters of rock perilously clinging to the hill. I realized that mining activities had heavily impact the stability of the land, posing a serious threat to the valley’s villages below. I reported my warning to the relevant geology and mining administration agencies. Later, when I traveld to the Yalong, Salween (Nu) and Brahmaputra rivers, I made a similar prediction.

On one trip in 1991, a companion and I embarked along the Yalong River on foot. That day we climbed through an active landslide area at 4000 meters. In the evening we got lost in a heavy fog. Wearing thin clothes while at a high elevation and under heavy rain, we had to lie close to stay warm. Our bodies did not stop trembling, our teeth did not stop chattering, and we felt like death was imminent. I imagined people finding two intertwined corpses the next day. Several days later, consecutive days of heavy rain caused a river to surge, and its turbulent flow blocked our path. In the midst of our predicament, a few people from across the banks spotted us. They quickly carried over wood and rope – jeopardizing their lives in the rapid waters – to construct a makeshift bridge and bring us to safety.  We later discovered that they were employees from the Yalong River Timber and Water Transportation Bureau, who were stranded for several days because of the continuous downpour.

In 2006, I began conducting an independent four-year assessment of the South-North Water Transfer Project, a major water diversion project to bring water from the Yangtze to the Yellow River region. Our field work lasted for more than 500 days. Volunteers and I traveled together to western China’s major river systems, covering over 10,000 kilometers by vehicle and foot. We traversed snow-capped mountains, glaciers, wetlands, the Gobi desert, grasslands, forests, and glacial rivers. Our expedition felt like those undertaken by 19th century explorers.

Unlike previous voyages along the Yangtze or Yalong rivers, this series of river surveys posed more challenges because of the variations in geography and terrain. There was no backup support, and many of our destinations have rarely, if ever, been explored or investigated. We followed each river from its source to the planned section for water diversion. The expedition was exhaustively detailed as we aimed to reach the glacial source of 10 rivers, as well as five major deserts, and the borders of entire basins. Our equipment was both modern and primitive: domestically manufactured off-road jeeps, advanced photography equipment and GPS, military coats, canvas shoes, Tibetan style tents, and some brand-name outdoor products funded by friends.

After completing our journey, we returned with an abundance of data and have since endeavored to use what we’ve found to expand our knowledge about China’s major rivers and contribute to the grassroots environmental movement. I have always advocated in our expeditions that we both respect and fear nature, and reflect on the course of human development, its impacts on nature, and our future as a species. I am grateful to everyone who has helped us along the way.