Our journey from Lijiang to Zhongdian took us through one of the most extraordinary geographical phenomena on our planet. For three hundred odd miles three rivers take parallel courses separated by mountains reaching over 20,000 feet in height and forming some of the world’s deepest gorges, only to suddenly diverge and take very different routes. The three rivers are the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze.
We have already been to the estuaries of two of the rivers, indeed canoed on one of them. The Mekong, after crossing Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, emerges in Vietnam’s South China Sea (which we’d visited in 2014 and 2015), the Yangtze empties into the East China Sea near Shanghai, the mega-city we’d landed at and started our journey which would eventually take us to Tibet. The Salween we’ve never seen although we knew it finished up in the Indian Ocean near Moulmein, Burma and its old pagoda made famous by that haunting Kipling barrack-room ballad which starts:
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
(Kipling was captured by the beauty of the Burmese girls) and famously sung by Australian Peter Dawson.
The distance between the estuaries of these three rivers covers thousands of miles yet they all start and flow for hundreds of miles close to each other in parallel courses. It’s a phenomenon that has always intrigued me ever since I spotted it in my school atlas.
It’s no easy matter to get from one river to another even when they run in parallel. Mountain ranges over twenty thousand feet high separate one watercourse from the other. It’s possible in some cases to swing oneself across on a rope cable slung across the world’s deepest gorges like some locals but I didn’t have time to try this transportation system out.
(Courtesy QB news)
The whole area is called the ‘three parallel rivers of Yunnan protected area’ and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The region is not just a geographical marvel: it’s also what UNESCO describes as “the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth” and “an exceptional range of topographical features – from gorges to karst to glaciated peaks — associated with the site being at a ‘collision point’ of tectonic plates”
The most astonishing feature is the sudden acute hairpin bend the Yangtze takes to turn from its southerly course, northwards and finish up as China’s main river and the world’s third largest. We were unable to get to this mythical riverine bend but here’s a picture of it we found on a shop poster:
Our stops on this journey included climbing up a rather rickety tower with an even wobblier spiral staircase, the top which did, however reward us with magnificent views of the young Yangtze:
There was also a stop at a market where I found some unusually-shaped pears. They were truly not pear-shaped!
We also stopped at a local village and were introduced to one of the families there. The large square draped hat of the elder lady of the family told me that the family belong to the Yi ethnic group.
Let these photographs of their house and village speak for themselves. That’s yak meat drying from the beams by the way:
As a stark reminder of China’s rapid modernization were these pylons which would eventually take another railway into Tibet, this time routing from the east through Chengdu.
No doubt the time will come when one will be able to get a cheap return ticket to Lijiang from St Pancras station London.
The journey to Zhongdian was remarkable for its scenic beauty but it was also very tantalising. I could have spent months just exploring the three parallel rivers area. But if one lifetime is not enough to visit Rome then I wonder how many reincarnations on the Buddhist wheel of samsara are needed to explore China.