River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong


Along the Mekong, from northern Tibet to Lijiang, from Luang Prabang to Phnom Penh to Can Lo, I moved from one world to another, among cultural islands often ignorant of each other’s presence. Yet each island, as if built on shifting sands and eroded and reshaped by a universal sea, was re-forming itself, or was being remolded, was expanding its horizons or sinking under the rising waters of a cultural global warming. It was a journey between worlds, worlds fragiley conjoined by a river both ominous and ...

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Along the Mekong, from northern Tibet to Lijiang, from Luang Prabang to Phnom Penh to Can Lo, I moved from one world to another, among cultural islands often ignorant of each other’s presence. Yet each island, as if built on shifting sands and eroded and reshaped by a universal sea, was re-forming itself, or was being remolded, was expanding its horizons or sinking under the rising waters of a cultural global warming. It was a journey between worlds, worlds fragiley conjoined by a river both ominous and luminescent, muscular and bosomy, harsh and sensuous.

From windswept plateaus to the South China Sea, the Mekong flows for three thousand miles, snaking its way through Southeast Asia. Long fascinated with this part of the world, former New York Times correspondent Edward Gargan embarked on an ambitious exploration of the Mekong and those living within its watershed. The River’s Tale is a rare and profound book that delivers more than a correspondent’s account of a place. It is a seminal examination of the Mekong and its people, a testament to the their struggles, their defeats and their victories.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
For Americans of a certain age, Vietnam is not so much a destination as it is a scar on the national psyche: a once-gaping wound, inelegantly sutured by both time and a pervasive, deliberate forgetting. Nearly three decades after the war it is still the rare traveler who visits Vietnam, to see what really lies beneath the bandage of our collective amnesia. Yet author Edward Gargan has done just that with The River's Tale. Uniquely qualified as journalist, linguist, and scholar (not to mention formerly imprisoned draft resister), Gargan offers a reflective personal account, full of passion and exasperation, of his year of travels along the Mekong River, from its beginnings (as the Dzachu) in the mountains of Tibet to its sprawling finish in the vast, fecund Mekong Delta south of Saigon.

The River's Tale is also a thought-provoking primer on the complicated history, culture, and politics of the whole of Southeast Asia. In this region as nowhere else, where the twitching remains of U.S. bombing missions linger on in Laos, where the Cambodian "killing fields" still have the power to terrorize, where the everyday extermination of a people (and their faith) marches on in Tibet, the personal is the political -- and our teachers are the people of the Mekong, who, feeling the frisson of traditional vs. modern/Western culture, share their own oftentimes heartbreaking and sometimes hopeful stories, gradually and inexorably revealing realities too long denied. Engrossing and important, The River's Tale is a work that Americans would do well to read -- not just as an act of healing, but of prevention as well. (Janet Dudley)

From the Publisher
“Far more than a picturesque personal travel diary. . .[Gargan] tells a unique and thought-provoking story.”–The New York Times

“Gargan’s handling of the complex histories of the countries, tribes, regions and peoples touched by this great river is just right.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Gargan has crafted a fine account of a very engaging journey. . . . It manages to convey a nuanced sense of place that makes one want to grab a backpack and jump on the first slow boat to pull to shore.” –San José Mercury News

“A fascinating journey through one of the world’s most compelling landscapes.” –New Jersey Star-Ledger

“Vivid, sometimes gripping . . . a solid accomplishment.” –America

“An excellent travelogue. A colorful and closely detailed account of travels along Southeast Asia’s contested lifeline.” –Kirkus Reviews

Frank Gibney
In The River's Tale, this book makes more than a good beginning. Not many Americans would attempt the trek of this huge river, from sources to delta. Few even remember seeing the name except for casual mentions during the Vietnam War, when the delta saw heavy fighting and some surviving Washington peaceniks hoped to create regional harmony with a Mekong Basin power project. Still fewer would possess the knowledge, the imagination, the wit and the deep- rooted sympathy with Asian peoples that characterize Mr. Gargan's writing. He tells a unique and thought- provoking story, and take a close look at the riverine maps before you start reading it.
New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A chronicle of a year-long journey along the nearly 3,000 miles of the Mekong River as it descends from the Tibetan plateau through southern Asia, Gargan's book is a vivid look at the disparate peoples settled the length of the river's path. As the living is often hard on the river, so too is the journey for Gargan (China's Fate), a former New York Times correspondent in Asia: he finds himself sleeping on floors, stranded on rutted highways and arguing with fickle boatmen over the course of his travels. But his own misadventures don't overshadow the larger story of the region, a story of the tension between tradition and modernity in an area long accustomed to the influences of outside forces: "Tibetan Khamba horsemen lathered in yak butter... gallop across endless grasslands rising from the river's pebbled shores, herding yaks as their ancestors did; while two thousand miles to the south, Vietnamese cosmetics salesmen... scoot about on Hondas... hawking American beauty shampoos and face soaps." Gargan's passion for the subject makes him acutely sensitive to the rhythms and details of the communities he visits; it also makes his prose slightly purple. At times so many faces and facts are packed in that they blur as if Gargan were traveling by train instead of the various rickety contraptions he does take. Still, it's an absorbing and informative read for anyone interested in the region. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Gargan is a New York Times journalist who has spent a lot of his adult life in Asia. Always fascinated by rivers, he decided to take a year to travel the length of the Mekong, from its beginnings in the mountains of Tibet to the delta in Vietnam. The 3,000-mile journey took him from Tibet, to China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He went overland at times along the river by bus or other transport, talking to people, seeing the culture, and writing about it. Numerous small b/w photographs illustrate the text. As a good journalist, he pays attention to the economy, to politics, to history, to individual life stories as he reports his experiences. This is a well-written travelogue, frankly only for those YAs serious about this part of the world. It would be easy for a student to choose to read chapters on specific countries they may be studying: for instance, Tibet, or Vietnam. Doing so would give that reader a much wider view of that country than is provided by encyclopedia articles, for example. And Gargan's journey may inspire YAs to plan their own future journeys into exotic parts of our world. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 332p. illus. bibliog. index.,
— Claire Rosser
Library Journal
Gargan, a veteran New York Times reporter and author of China's Fate: A People's Turbulent Struggle with Reform and Repression 1980-1990, has crafted a highly informed account of his year-long, 3000-mile journey through countries along the Mekong River (China, Tibet, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam). Making many stops in remote areas where such ancient cultural fragments as pre-Buddhist religions, Tang dynasty songs, disappearing languages, and old rituals still remain, Gargan witnessed contrasts of horror and beauty that signify the area's recent history. These include Angkor Wat amidst Pol Pot's genocidal ruins, opium flourishing in the Golden Triangle, Shangri-la, grinding poverty, the Burma Road, life in the Xishuangbanna administrative district, Internet cafes that coexist with ancient customs, and China's long administrative arm. Gargan, who is clearly well versed in the history and customs of traditional Asia, writes poignantly of illiterate peasants, war-hardened natives, and his fellow travelers. He paints a candid picture of the varied Mekong cultures as they are today. An account to savor, this is highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Margaret W. Norton, Oak Park, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A travelogue of a 1998 trip down the Mekong River through China, Tibet, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Gargan (an Asia correspondent for ) sometimes strayed from the river's banks and spent time in various villages and cities. Along the way he reflects on the history of the Tibetan monks, the genocide of Pol Pot, and, of course, the legacies of the Vietnam War. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A colorful and closely detailed account of travels along Southeast Asia's contested lifeline, from former New York Times correspondent Gargan (China's Fate, 1990).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375705595
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/7/2003
  • Series: Vintage Departures Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 703,784
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward A. Gargan worked as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the New York Times in West Africa, China, India, and Hong Kong, was a magazine writer for the Los Angeles Times, and now covers Asia for Newsday. He was an Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of China’s Fate. He is based in Beijing and has a home on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
The Dzachu

Tibet is high and its land is pure.
Its snowy mountains are at the head of everything,
The sources of innumerable rivers and streams,
It is the center of the sphere of the gods.

-A Tibetan Hymn

As I spread my blanket-sized map of northwestern China on the dining table in the comfort of Hong Kong, I ran my finger west through Qinghai Province, across the thick paper, tracing the route I hoped to take over the coming days. Past Xining, the provincial capital, west to Jyekundo (in small type) and then farther on. A faint red line marking the narrowest and least maintained of the region's roads expired at a small dot labeled Dzatoe. Beyond Dzatoe, a spidery map trace of blue-the Dzachu, or Mekong-extended into a ganglia of tributaries, streams and rivulets, to the very sources of the river itself.

I found it difficult to visualize what those faint weaving blues and reds really represented, what tales they told, what they felt like, how many of my bones would bruise over these purported roads. Many years before, at least a decade earlier, I had been to Xining, an arid and remote place and the closest city with air service to the Mekong's source, but never beyond the city limits; it was there I was to fly to begin this journey. As I loaded my backpack-a sackful of lightweight clothing, a heavy sweater for the frigid nights, a sleeping bag (for where there were no hotels) and a thermal blanket to go with it, a satchel with a razor, toothbrush, assorted antibiotics and vitamins, a pair of decent binoculars, a camera, a basic satellite global positioning system (GPS) device that could tell me where I was, how high, and how fast I was moving, a clutch of maps and a few good books-I did so with an uncomfortable mix of emotions: anxiety over the unknown; eagerness at the possibilities that lay ahead; some self-doubt at the very burden of spending a year mostly by myself on a river I scarcely knew heading into lands I had never seen. As a correspondent for the Times for many years, I had more often than not found myself in cushy hotels on my travels, unworried about costs, cosseted in the certainties of an institutional structure that worried about my well-being and that was available in emergencies to yank me out of desperate situations. This was different. This was me and the river.

Ahead of me, for at least a couple of months, lay travel in Tibet, and what had been Tibet before China hived off chunks of it and tacked them onto neighboring Chinese provinces. China's rulers, ethnic Hans, communist in name, authoritarian in instinct, have been wary of allowing foreigners in Tibet. In 1987, when I was on a reporting trip to Tibet, a spontaneous revolt against Chinese rule erupted in Lhasa, leaving several monks dead, a Chinese police station torched and hundreds of other Tibetans shipped off to prisons. While I and several colleagues attempted to report on those events, we were rounded up by state security police and ordered out of Tibet; China did not then and does not now want the world to see the manner of its subjugation of Tibet and still sharply regulates visits there. That day, waiting for the plane that would take me out of Tibet, I was suddenly dragged from among my colleagues and arrested by the police for what they said was "beating up a policeman," a rather laughable accusation given my lamentable pugilistic skills and rather slight build. I was hustled into a concrete chamber where, after reading the charge to me (which was dutifully videotaped and recorded by a note taker), they issued me a document in Tibetan and Chinese replete with a half dozen decorous red stamps warning me not to repeat my crime; today, opulently framed, it hangs on the wall of my home. As I prepared to head back toward Tibet now, I harbored apprehensions about what this trip to the region might hold if the police wondered about a lone foreigner wandering in remote areas. At the same time though, I knew, because I had been to China many times in the last decade, that restrictions over foreigners traveling in the country had eased substantially. I also knew that there was not much to be gained from worrying about what I could not control.

It was typically sweltering in Hong Kong as I headed west and north, first to Guangzhou, and then by Xinjiang Airlines to Xining. As cities go, Xining is among the most forlorn, an expanse of 1950s Socialist-era blockhouse architecture squatting on China's desolate northwestern plains. I told myself that this Mekong journey would truly begin, not on an airplane, but above the river itself on a hill, or in a valley of yaks, or with my toes in a rushing stream of the river's first waters. I had difficulty imagining precisely what I would find, but my more immediate concern was to find a bus to Jyekundo, twenty-two hours away, where I would meet an old friend from the Tibetan plateau of northern Yunnan, a former Buddhist monk, scholar of Buddhist scriptures and adventurer, Dakpa Kelden. For a time, we would travel together.

A clapperless blue bell hung overhead, immense, flawless, infinitely clear. Stapled to it like the nub end of a rivet flared a white-yellow sun, naked and small. A range of stegosaurus-bladed mountain peaks rimmed a velvety, baize green sea of rolling hills. On some hillocks, at a distance measured in exhausting hours, like a bag of spilled coffee beans on sparse carpet, herds of stoop-shouldered yaks gnawed at the tough, crew-cut grass. High up a hill, whipped by an insistent wind, clean and cold in high August, a huddle of three black tents clung resolutely to a barren, treeless perch. Smoke seeped from a tent peak, only to be instantly scrubbed away by the wind's stiff brush.

In the distance ran a dirt-and-stone track that crept between the nearest town and this place on the vast Tibetan plateau. The town, Tibetans know it as Dzatoe, brags not much more than a string of cement-and-mud buildings, only a handful reaching two stories. It straddles a runwaylike main street of sturdy concrete where a few motorcycles race up and down, heading nowhere. An occasional battered, open-backed truck rumbles in from Xining, forty-eight hours away. Dzatoe is the last commercial outpost before Qinghai Province melts into limitless, roadless miles of mountainous plateau, grassy hill lands and a tangled filigree of streams and rivers.

On Chinese maps, this plateau is shown as deep within Qinghai Province, although no Chinese, save a sprinkling of Communist officials, live outside the capital or the towns and villages in the far east of the province. The south and west of Qinghai were once the northern reaches of Tibet proper, but the province now exists not as any cultural or linguistic entity in its own right-it has no cuisine of its own, no dialect, no local costume or custom-but as a Chinese administrative unit, one of the country's most impoverished, and home to much of China's vast prison gulag.

Several hours past Dzatoe, on a stony, unmapped track, the aging Japanese four-wheel drive I shared with Dakpa and a lackadaisical Tibetan driver jolted along shin-deep ruts and skirted gashlike fissures that cracked the earth. We had hugged the river, now the faint rust brown color of unfired pottery, thirty or so yards wide, as it serpentined across the grasslands from the hills ahead. Then I saw those three black tents, lashed to the earth by a cat's cradle of ropes and cording. Below us, on a mesa of scrub grass that ran to the river, yaks chawed the short, tough grass and, if they were lucky, the rare cluster of gerbera daisies that sometimes sequinned the grasslands. I told Dakpa we should stop here-or perhaps better-start here. The car uttered a faint gasp when the driver turned the engine off.

Dakpa and I started our hike up the hill, he far more acclimated to the enervating effects of altitude than I. (For those who have not been raised at altitude, the thin oxygen over time has a progressively debilitating effect, and in serious cases can bring illness and death.) Very quickly, my heart was beating with a manic thump that I imagined augured ill, or worse; I ran regularly, but no amount of running prepares one for the effects of oxygen depletion at altitude. My pocket GPS device put us above 15,500 feet, nearly three miles above the surface of the placid South China Sea, into which the Mekong runs. As we trekked up the hill, small brown marmots popped from tunnels to assess our intentions. A great lammergeier eagle beat through the thin air above us, the silence sliced by the shyup, shyup, shyup of its huge wings. The marmots vanished.

We managed our way over the last rise to the nomads' encampment and suddenly a black-and-tan mastiff hurtled toward us, its teeth bared as it loosed what struck me more as a lionine than doglike roar, until the chain linked to its collar tautened abruptly, yanking the beast backward. It continued barking, testing the perimeter of its chain, eyeing us meanly. All Tibetan nomads have guard dogs, and all of them react ferociously to strangers, Dakpa told me. Standing cautiously just beyond the hound's orbit, Dakpa called toward the tents. A tent flap raised and an older, wizened man emerged, his shoulder-length gray hair disordered. He hesitated before ordering the dog back to the tents, where it immediately padded.

He stared at us for a time. "Come," he said finally, "sit here," gesturing to a couple of logs squared around an extinct fire. The dog's commotion had roused everyone, and-men, women, children and infants in arms appeared from the three large black tents, tents woven from the thickest yak wool. A tent flap snapped and a small boy bolted into the open in a ragged checked shirt and muddied khaki trousers, a Chicago Bulls hat clamped askew on his head. A young woman in a high-collared, Chinese-style blue satin jacket nursed an infant as she squatted in front of us. Another woman in a brown wool robe placed in our hands steaming bowls of yak butter tea, a concoction of tea, salt and yak butter that is churned in a narrow wooden tube with a long-handled plunger. It is an acquired taste.

In parts of Tibet, a common ditty is sometimes sung about yak butter tea (for Tibetans, a dre is a female, yak a male), as Dakpa did as he noisily slurped his:

One, the best tea from China,
Two, the pure dre butter of Tibet,
Three, the white salt from the northern plains,
All three meeting in the copper pot.
Yet, how the tea is brewed
Is up to you, O tea maker. . . .

Dakpa and the old man-he gave his name as Phon Dza, the head of what he later told us was a clan of three families-sat and talked, Dakpa of his life in the far northwest of Yunnan, the old man listening, chewing on the bit of a long-stemmed pipe. "It's not like here," Dakpa said, "with you and your yaks. I have no yaks." The old man nodded, twin tendrils of smoke leaking from his nose. "We all live in a town now," Dakpa went on. "Even though it is Tibetan, there are Chinese there now. And we are rebuilding our monastery." Phon Dza listened as Dakpa continued describing a Tibetan land so different from his own, nodding from time to time. Then he interrupted. "No yaks?" he asked. "Really no yaks?" Yes, said Dakpa. As we sat on small Tibetan rugs, which the women had bundled out of the tents, the infant Dzachu, the seeds of the Mekong, uncoiled across the plateau beneath us, already brusque in its passage. Phon Dza, a man of calm and patience, his face hewn sharply with pronounced cheekbones and a high, clear brow, told us that he had always lived within sight of the Dzachu and had traveled with his herds in these mountains and pastures for sixty-eight years.

"In all, there are twelve of us here," he said, "my five children, three with wives, brothers, sisters and children." He rearranged his legs on the rug, blew across the surface of his tea bowl to push the film of greasy butter from the surface of the tea and drank. His rough blue wool pants and pajama-like, flap-collared shirt had not been washed in some time, nor had the clothes of the family who sat around us. Cleanliness means different things in the mountains, with yak butter used for grooming hair and on the face as a block against the wind and cold. Dakpa rendered Phon Dza's Tibetan into English.

"All of my children are working with yaks. Some go to the mountains to collect caterpillar fungus to sell in the town." High in the mountains, the fragile, hidden fungus that is prized as a delicacy and for its purported medicinal virtues is gathered and sold to traders in nearby towns. Even so, like many nomadic herders, Phon Dza is often on the margins of the monetary economy. "If many people go out and look, in one season maybe we can get one kilo. But often we cannot find that much. For one kilo, we can get ten thousand to fifteen thousand yuan," the equivalent of between $1,220 and $1,830, "depending on the quality. But we cannot be sure we can gather even a kilo every year. Sometimes the fungus does not grow, or we cannot find it." Still, for anyone here, such a sum is an immense amount of money. "We also sell yak meat and yak butter in town. For a kilo of butter, we get twenty yuan," or $2.40. "We have to buy barley to get tsampa"-the flour milled from barley that is the staple grain of Tibetans-"wheat, tea, everything. We sell what we can." Unlike other regions of Tibet, the altitude is too high here for barley to flourish, and so it must be trucked in from lower climes. Below us and higher on steeply rising mountainsides, Phon Dza's herds chewed their way through the late summer grasses.

It is the yaks-huge, woolly, cowlike creatures with shaggy brows and deep black eyes-that are the lifeblood of nomadic herders. The herders' large tents are woven from the thickest yak hair. Butter from the yak is a food, the requisite flavoring for tea, a cosmetic, the fuel for votive lamps. Even the bushy pom-pom of a yak tail is used as a fly whisk. And, of course, yak meat is a staple in the diet. "Yaks," Phon Dza said simply, "are our life."

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Table of Contents

A Note on Names and Places xi
Map xiii
Introduction 3
1 The Dzachu 13
2 Shangri-la 41
3 Brigands, Headhunters and Banana Pancakes 74
4 The Golden Triangle 115
5 Boats, Buddha and a Million Elephants 145
6 Baguettes to Marx 175
7 Dolphins, Smiles and Murder 209
8 Memory, the Hill of the Poison Tree, and Hope 238
9 Nine Dragons 268
10 "Bien Dong, Bien Dong ..." 296
Sources 315
Acknowledgments 321
Index 323
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 12, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Trip to Other Worlds

    This is a wonderful read for those who like to explore remote parts of the world, especially those parts where the lifestyle is still twentieth century or earlier. The River's Tale starts in the north in Tibet and finishes in the south at the China Sea. In between are diverse geographies, languages, histories, and cultures, all emerging from rich traditions and struggling to find a place in the twenty first-century. Gargan takes the time to explore and ponder.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2003

    The Endless Journey Down the Mekong

    A Really interesting and observant 3,000 mile trip down the Mekong, primarily by boat. From the river's mouth to its end in the Mekong Delta: Tibet, China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Edward Gargan could have avoided the draft during the Vietnam war, but instead he stood up for his beliefs and refused to register, thus serving time in federal prison. This was an influential experience, and he did refer to it at times, and American war situation in Indo-china. Noting the past history and recent events of these places, and then talking with people to get their perception and viewpoints on where things are headed. Very balanced outlook of relevant historical occurrences, recent political situations, and down-to-earth local conversations about life in these places. Indigenous life and the cultural aspects of it in the areas he visited were extremely well noted. If your ready for a journey that takes you far behind the scenes of life and culture in and around Indo-China, then this is a perfect book for you. Frankly, as I got deeper and deeper into the journey down the Mekong River I almost got bored with the repetative flow of town after town.

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