Geography Reference
In-Depth Information
[1975] 1999). Their goal was to assess the feasibility of river navigation between South-
east Asia and mainland China. Although they failed to provide much meaningful inform-
ation on the Mekong, they succeeded in establishing the fact that the Red River of central
Yunnan could serve as a navigable channel for shipping between China and Vietnam. A Je-
suit missionary named Doudart de Lagrée, one of the expedition's original leaders, serves
as an illustration of the hardships this group endured as they traversed inhospitable terrain
and interacted with people from a variety of Yunnan's ethnic groups who questioned their
intentions. Through journal accounts published much later, we learn that Lagrée died an
agonizing death, probably from amoebic dysentery, which caused a liver abscess. One of
the expedition's physicians tried to drain the abscess in a crude surgical procedure under
egregious sanitary conditions, which probably resulted in infection and expedited Lagrée's
demise (Osborne 1975).
The story of the Mekong River Expedition serves to underscore the cultural and historic-
al importance of the Mekong, both to the people who have lived along its banks and to the
opportunistic individuals and institutions that would come to view it as a vital commercial
route connecting much of Southeast Asia and southwest China. It was not until more than a
century after the Mekong River Expedition that the precise source of the river, high on the
Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, was pinpointed. In 1999, the Commission for the Integrated Survey
of Natural Resources, a unit within the Chinese Academy of Sciences, determined it to be
at a glacier at the foot of Guosongmucha Mountain at an altitude of 5,224 meters. By the
time the Lancang reaches southern Yunnan's border with Laos, 2,200 river kilometers later,
it has reached an elevation of lower than 1,000 meters, which highlights the extreme topo-
graphical relief and ecological diversity that characterize the basin. The river also traverses
theterritory ofatleast adozenminority nationalities, including Tibetan, Bai, Dai,Yi,Lahu,
Hani, and Bulang.
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