This is a trek into the cultural and natural wonders of southern Kham, into the watershed area of Asia’s mightiest rivers – the Salween, Mekong and the Yangtze, and the deep canyons of Kham. We approach the Three Parallel Rivers site from the south, treading paths forged by our ancestors, the Khampa caravan traders. The same route pursued by French and Swiss missionaries in their attempts to penetrate the Tibetan hinterland at the turn of the 20th century.
We trek through the section where the three great rivers flow in parallels at times a mere 50 km apart, to create one of the world’s richest biodiversity spots. Here, some of the deepest gorges lie wedged between glaciated mountain ranges and rivers that cascade into the Salween and the Mekong. This wild terrain gives us a moment to pause and to realize the Khampas’ innate love for the outdoors, and why they rank as among the greatest travelers of the pre-modern era.
Tsedro, Catholic church
It was later traversed by the notable British explorer and botanist Frank Kingdon Ward, who left fascinating accounts of the three mysterious rivers and their people. Fittingly, the Three Rivers region of southern Kham was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July 2003.
The trip also offers us a rich cultural experience and a chance to see the interesting vortex of various ethnic groups and faiths, including the Lisu, Naxi, Yi and Tibetans. In some of the remote villages we find Tibetans who remain staunch Catholics to this date.
In the late 19th-century Catholic church in Tsedro village, we witness choruses and hymns being sung and a Bible transcribed in Tibetan.
The trip culminates up in the Buddhist Tibetan cultural realm, high up the Mekong in the lap of the majestic Khawakarpo range. We get a taste of Tibetan frontier culture in Gyalthang, a Gelug town with its imposing Sumtsenling monastery. During the 45-minute flight to Kunming, we get a bird’s eye view of the rivers and ranges we covered on this trip.