Event Detail


Mekong to Tibet

John Pilkington
Thursday, 25 Sep 2008


"The Mekong from Vietnam to Tibet"


John Pilkington


Thursday, 25 September 2008

The Hong Kong Fooll Club, Causeway Bay

6.30pm Drinks Reception; 7.30 pm Lecture

(If you would like to attend this lecture, please would you reply stating the number of tickets you would like to book; there is no need to pay for your tickets in advance.)

We are delighted to welcome to the Royal Geographical Society in Hong Kong John Pilkington, one of the most popular lecturers at RGS London, to speak on some of his expeditions. Mr Pilkington has spent the last 25 years travelling the World, on expeditions to some of its most fascinating sites. A great teller of travellers' tales, Mr. Pilkington's lecture, the second out of a series of three, is also illustrated with stunning photography.

This exciting journey took Mr. Pilkington from the familiar waters of the South China Sea to Tibet and beyond. For years the Mekong had fascinated him, being the world's tenth longest river and its very name suggesting mystery and opiumsmuggling. He set off upstream from the great delta where it divides into dozens of channels before spilling into the ocean in Vietnam. His maps showed the source to be 4,200 km away, on a freezing glacier north of Tibet.

His trip began easily enough. From the rice fields of Vietnam he walked, hitchhiked and commandeered boats through Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma to the gorges of Yunnan province, helped by countless riverpeople including minorities such as the Akha, Naxi and Bai. Once he reached Tibet the journey became illegal, and he made detours to avoid the many government checkpoints. Luckily the police he met were kind, one group even putting him up in their compound.

In Zaduo, a remote Tibetan community which has the distinction of being the Mekong's uppermost riverside settlement, he found a jeep and driver to take him further into the headwaters. "The driver pitched the jeep fearlessly through rivers, his fists quietly clenching like mine as the water swilled around our feet," he wrote. They lodged with families of nomads in their yakwool tents, helping themselves to boiled yakmeat and roasted barley dough, with rancid yakbutter tea.

Eventually, they abandoned the jeep and teamed up with a local horse breeder who knew the source and could provide them with mounts to reach it. The breeder was a pureblooded Khampa, one of the people who struck terror into the Chinese and other outsiders for Centuries, and fearsome to him too, but who gave Mr. Pilkington a full welcome to his family encampment. The breeder's mastiff dogs were another thing the trip and Mr. Pilkington nearly came to an end when one of them savaged him.

Despite his injuries, a blizzard and a major wrong turning, the following evening Mr. Pilkington and his companions stepped onto the glacier which was his destination. As he described it: "Three small figures in the twilight, one of them dancing a jig." The source of the Mekong has inspired a fierce debate between explorers and the Chinese Academy of Sciences over the last few years. The possible true sources had narrowed to two, just a few kilometres apart, at over 5,200 m on the north side of a mountain called Guosongmucha. With the help of his Tibetan friends, Mr. Pilkington managed to reach and map both of them the first European to do so.

The explorer John Pilkington has been called "Britain's greatest tellers of travellers' tales". In 1983, after journeys in Africa and Latin America, he completed an 800 km solo crossing of the western Himalaya. His interest in Asia grew further with the opening in 1986 of the border between Pakistan and China, making it possible for the first time in 40 years to retrace virtually the whole of the Silk Road. John was one of the first modern travellers to do so, and he wrote about the journey in An Adventure on the Old Silk Road. This was followed in 1991 by An Englishman in Patagonia, recounting eight months spent exploring the southernmost tip of South America. In 2000, he became one of only five people in modern times to walk the 2,500 km Royal Road of the Incas in the Andes of Ecuador and Peru.

Listeners to the BBC World Service are familiar with Mr Pilkington's adventure travel documentaries such as The Uttermost Part of the Earth, Pilkington in Patagonia, Pilkington in Kyrgyzstan, and most recently On the Trail of Butch and Sundance, an investigation in Bolivia of the most famous outlaws of the Wild West. He also contributes to the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent and writes regularly for newspapers and magazines. In 2006, the Royal Geographical Society presented him with the prestigious Ness Award for his work in popularising geography and a wider understanding of the world.

Members and their guests are most welcome to attend this lecture, which is HK$100 for Members and HK$150 for others.

See other events in 2008