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A Modern China Explorer : Having Found a New Source of the Yangtze, Herman Wong Takes on the Old Silk Route.

August 31, 1986|LYNN M. OSEN | Lynn M. Osen, a Newport Beach writer, is the author of the book "Women in Mathematics."

Ancient cities are thought to lie buried along the old trade routes of Central Asia, and Herman Wong of Monterey Park intends to find them. Working with scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, using imaging radar developed by NASA, the photojournalist and explorer plans to search for lost cities hidden like time capsules beneath China's vast Taklimakan and Gobi deserts.

Those familiar with Wong's adventures expect nothing short of success. A modern Marco Polo, he combines Space Age technology with the old-fashioned work of land exploration. At a time when some consider space the only frontier, Wong is making discoveries on Earth. For instance, recent findings of his seem destined to change the map of China.

"He hardly looks the age to be an old China hand," the editors of National Geographic have written. Yet over the last four years, the 37-year-old Wong has led six expeditions to China sponsored by the magazine. His slight frame and quiet demeanor give scant clue to his accomplishments, stamina and determination.

Early last year, Wong planned and led an expedition to study the Yangtze, China's longest and meanest river. Sometimes called Asia's Amazon, the Yangtze rises in the mountains of Tibet's high plateau and traverses central China for almost 4,000 miles before emptying into the East China Sea near Shanghai. In some places, it is a wide, flowing freeway on which much of China's commerce moves; in others, it plummets through steep rock canyons with names like the Gates of Hell, where its waters rush by at up to 20 feet per second.

"The Chinese say if you haven't been up the 'great river,' you haven't been anywhere," Wong says. "The Yangtze has changed China's fortunes and geography many times over the centuries, so of course there's a certain mystique about the river. Over a thousand tributaries drain into the Yangtze, and over a third of the country's billion people live along its basin. You can't ignore a river like that."

The Yangtze's size precludes a neat game plan for exploration. The Chinese government allowed his team (including assistants, drivers, a mechanic, a pharmacist and local guides) to bring in off-road vehicles and boats modified for high-altitude operation. The group flew in more than two tons of equipment, food and supplies. But they were to find that modern technology could take them only so far.

Wong began exploring the river's lower portion in January, 1985, returning to the United States in May to make an interim report and to wait for favorable weather before tackling the river's hostile upper reaches. In June, 1985, he and his team returned, this time spending four months at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet. Here their four-wheel-drive vehicles were no match for mud, permafrost and mountains.

Forced to abandon the vehicles, Wong set up camp at 18,000 feet. "There were five of us traveling on foot," Wong says. "Nomads were kind enough to lend us four yaks, but we could ride only one of them. We could lean against them for support, however, and even that helped when we had to crisscross the river, which was icy at that altitude."

Eight months after he began the project, Wong reached the Yangtze's glacial source, the site accepted by the Chinese government since 1976 as the river's headwaters. But talks with Chinese scientists and with nomads who summered in the mountains below led Wong to suspect that another source of the river might exist farther east.

In August, exploring in an eastern marshland basin of the Dam Qu River, he and his team discovered that additional source. Wong, who is not given to overstatement, says, "The new source increases former claims for the Yangtze's length by a considerable amount, possibly enough to establish that the river's length equals, or exceeds, that of the Amazon."

Remote sensing, developed for space exploration and including large-format cameras and satellite and radar imaging--will be used by JPL scientists to further authenticate the discovery, which has been acknowledged, but not yet endorsed, by China's Geographic Research Institute. Wong's interests in China are rooted in his heritage. Born in Hong Kong, he was educated in the United States and graduated from the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in journalism and art. (His given name, How-Man, was anglicized into "Herman" by childhood friends.)

One of his chief interests--documenting traditions of China's minorities--took on new urgency during a recent visit to a group of nomads on the rugged northern border near Siberia. The tribe has only 166 individuals remaining. "One fragile, little 70-year-old woman was the tribe's only shaman, a religious figure and a bridge to the tribe's past," Wong says. "None of her generation was left to preserve the rituals that had once formed the core of the group's tribal beliefs, and once she is gone there would be no one to take her place. That's my imperative: to record these data before they slip out of memory."

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