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Sierra magazine
Explore | Qinghai Province, China


Near the headwaters of the Yellow River in China's Qinghai Province, a Golok nomad relishes the Tibetan Plateau's short-lived summer.

"A river is a different kind of mystery, a mystery of distance and becoming, a mystery of source. Touch its fluent body and you touch far places."
—John Daniel, Oregon Rivers

Slightly nauseated and fighting an altitude-induced headache, I stand atop the gentle summit of a 15,000-foot peak, deep in the folds of the Tibetan Plateau. Faded prayer flags snap in the wind, sending sutras afloat over a sea of stubbly grassland. This lonely mountaintop marks the headwaters of the Yellow River, one of Asia's most important waterways. Far downstream, its banks cradle traces of ancient Chinese civilization, and its flow irrigates crops that nourish millions. More than 3,000 meandering, dam-infested miles to the east—tired and sullied and laden with the silt that gives it its name—the Yellow spills into the Bo Hai Sea.

But here, in the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, the river is a clear and silent brook seeping from the snow. The quiet setting belies the stream's significance.

In the distance, saker falcons hover on russet wings, awaiting the jack-in-the-box pop of pikas. Tibetan gazelles paw at sun-baked soil, searching for roots to snack on. A kiang's snow-white belly clashes with the camouflage of its tawny coat. A wolf slinks off. Among the menagerie are sheep, goats, yaks, and Tibetan nomads, who've roamed with these animals for millennia.

In the distance a slate cloud hangs over a lake where earlier I walked alongside a nomad making his spring migration—these days a sight as rare as a snow leopard. Ribbons of white flutter down from the cloud's blackened underbelly. I am reluctant to leave this birthing ground, this place where so much originates. I descend amid a flurry of snowflakes—the sky reaching down to feed the river's initial drip. —Molly Loomis

Photo by Stefano Pensotti

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