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Same Source, Oceans Apart


English Translation of Chiu-Ying Lam’s Article on 18 June 2018. This article is first published in Traditional Chinese here.


During early June, starting from Zhubalongxiang of Batang in Western Sichuan, I crossed Jinsha River and entered Tibet through China National Highway 318.

In front of me were the famous Hengduan Mountains, a series of mountain ranges branching mainly north-south in direction. Across history, it served as a major roadblock between Sichuan and Tibet.

From Batang, Sichuan (Rightmost white box) to Baxoi, Tibet (White box second from left). From right to left the three rivers Jinsha, Lancang and Nu run through the mountain range in parallel. (Courtesy of Chiu-Ying Lam)

The branches of the Hengduan Mountains originate from the pressure of the Indian plate towards the East, creating several folds in the crust along the north-south direction in this region. A mountain chain stretches across the top; towards the bottom were three great rivers roaring from the plateau down to the south: The Jinsha, The Lancang, and The Nu. The steep slopes on both shores of the rivers form V-shaped gorges.

Despite the three great rivers running parallel within fifty kilometers of each other here, they drain into the sea thousands of miles apart. 

The Lancang: V-shaped dry-hot valleys near Rumeizhen. (Chiu-Ying Lam)

Travelling west from Batang, it is a must to go up the hills and down the valleys, scaling thousands of meters at at time. Where the route is steep, back-and-forth hairpin turns are heavily relied upon to gain elevation. Despite the advancement of engineering techniques, the geological features mean that landslides and rockfalls are nothing out of the ordinary, requiring constant emergency repairs from the highway maintenance crew. Combined with the arduous journey and winding paths which lead to accidents on the hundred-mile route all the time, facing a blockage is all but a foregone conclusion.

All day journeying within great peaks and chasms I had this great revelation: Despite the three great rivers running parallel within fifty kilometers of each other here, they drain into the sea thousands of miles apart.

The raging Jinsha rumbles down south and enters Yunnan, twisting and turning left and right inside the mountains, then bends east, forming the main course of the Yangtze River. It finally drains into the East China Sea, connecting with the Pacific.

The Lancang continues its southerly course after passing Yunnan, entering Laos at Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in the South. Down the rechristened Mekong River goes, through Cambodia and into the South China Sea in Southern Vietnam.

The Nu also runs South into Yunnan, but enters Myanmar at western Baoshan, renaming itself the Salween, and flows south into the Indian Ocean.

Three great rivers start virtually from the same point at Eastern Tibet, but in the face of “random factors” such as geology further downstream, the Yangtze River ended up three thousand kilometers from the Mekong, while the latter and the Salween are a thousand kilometers apart. They even drain into different seas: The East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

Life might be a bit similar: high school classmates receive the same education in the same school, but once they graduate and work in society, their individual circumstances lead them to various and vastly different careers.

Just like life, a river goes forward by its own effort. But nobody could foresee the countless obstacles in this journey; only by going along with the flow and not forcing things would you one day reach the estuary. Nevertheless, where you end up depends on your hard work and the accumulation of fate along the way.



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Chiu-Ying Lam

Chiu-Ying is a Hong Kong meteorologist, bird-watcher, and conservationist. Graduated from the University of Hong Kong and Imperial College London, he served as the director of the Hong Kong Observatory from 2003 to 2009. Microplanet 64288 Lamchiuying is named after him. Currently, Chiu-Ying is an adjunct professor at CUHK, maintains a strong social media presence, and runs his own Chinese blog.

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