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Traveling the 38th Parallel A Water Line around the World

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Part I

Asia Map 1

"What we have to work on in the twenty-first century is to overcome the division between people and the environment, so the future of humans won't be different from the future of nature."

South Korean high school student

The Four Rivers "Restoration" Project

Our journey began in Korea. Hundreds of years ago, Seoul, the capital of modern South Korea, was a newly founded village along the banks of a picturesque creek called Chonggyecheon (37°35′N). As the city grew, the creek became a sewer and finally was covered over by concrete and a freeway. Several years ago, Mayor Lee Myung-bak decided to bring the creek back to the daylight. Now, a seminatural river parkway serves the urban residents of the city. We walked there from our lodge, a traditional inn with bamboo walls, sliding doorways, and an Ethernet-connected computer in every room; modern Seoul is one of the world's most wired nations.

Walkways line both banks of the flowing creek, which is punctuated by cascades and stepping-stone bridges. Chonggyecheon impressed us as an urban park, though water from the Han River must be pumped in at considerable energy costs to enhance the flow. The park is used day and night and clearly appreciated by local residents, from children splashing in the creek to romantic couples strolling hand in hand and elderly dog walkers. The mayor moved on to become the nation's president, and his new campaign, to redesign South Korea's four largest rivers-the Han, Nakdong, Geum, and Yeongsan-was a much more controversial objective.

In 2009, gigantic excavators began carving riverside bluffs away to double the width of the channels while digging them 12 to 18 feet deeper. The $20 billion national project encompassed the construction of sixteen new dams on the main channels of the four rivers, plus five more on their tributaries, the enlargement of eighty-seven existing small dams, and the addition of concrete lining along 200 miles of riverbank. President Lee called the effort part of a "Green New Deal" intended to store water against the prospect of drought, prevent flooding, improve water quality, restore river ecosystems, promote river-related recreation, and (perhaps above all) to stimulate the economy by creating 190,000 construction jobs and spending a sum equal to almost 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

The goals of the Four Rivers Restoration Project sounded commendable, but when viewed closely, the list of benefits seemed exaggerated. We learned the details from and toured part of the construction site with the "Korean Federation for Environmental Movement" (KFEM). Their national headquarters is a comfortable old residence converted to offices, with commuter bicycles lining the walls. There we met with Choony Kim, the organization's chief of international affairs.

As Choony explained, South Korea, though densely populated, has plenty of water. Episodes of flooding occur primarily on upper tributaries rather than in the main river channels, where the work was focused. And the engineering approach will likely degrade, rather than improve, water quality, because slower water movement increases accumulations of algae and pollutants. Most important, the removal of natural wetlands and streamside vegetation clearly does not achieve "river ecosystem restoration," but rather destroys habitat. Natural beauty and wetlands critical to migratory birds and other wildlife were being replaced with bike paths, spraying fountains, and many miles of city-style parks.

When we pointed out that dams and channelization are old ideas about how to manage rivers, Choony said, "Many experts agree." She had worked for KFEM since 1995, after studying at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in the United States. She speaks excellent English and was eager to talk to international visitors about the project, to counter publicity the government was providing to media outside Korea. Choony showed us dramatic before-and-after photographs taken at construction sites. As rivers are widened, villages and farms must be relocated. Her frustration showed as she explained that some of the displaced rice farmers, following years of encouragement by the government and environmental groups, had transitioned to organic farming, controlling insect pests in the paddies with ducks instead of pesticides and using weed-eating snails in place of herbicides. Shutting down those farms near the river meant 15 years of effort wasted.

An unexpected impact of losing so much farmland was a national "kimchi crisis" in the autumn after our visit, as a shortage of cabbage was blamed on lost farm production due to the Four Rivers Project. Kimchi, the spicy national dish, was served at every meal we ate in Korea. The cabbage shortage became a political issue, debated by the national legislature.

"The government calls this 'green economy,' but has no concern about the ecology," Choony said. "They just keep construction workers busy, busy, busy." The project is being pushed along aggressively because South Korea's presidents are limited to one five-year term and so President Lee "wants everything done in his time," Choony said.

The river widening and excavations do face opposition within the country. Polls find that the majority of the public opposes the work, both for its $20 billion cost and for its ecological impact. In a national election just before we visited, the president's ruling party had lost about half of its controlling majority in the legislature to opponents from other parties. Despite that change, the project was forging ahead, with a goal to finish by 2013. We asked Choony what KFEM hoped would happen to halt the work.

"The president cares about voices from the international community. He took part in the G20 meeting in Toronto, Canada [in 2010]. Korea will be the host government next time. He has created the Global Green Growth Institute. They want to advocate this Four Rivers Restoration Project to the international community, saying it creates jobs and 'green economic growth.' We say, 'No, if you look at this case, it's not real.' We give out information, but other nations listen to the government. So we need to give information to the international community, because he may listen to that voice. The international voice can come back to the domestic voice."

In the United States, a project of this type would require extensive environmental impact studies and would possibly be checked by lawsuits. In South Korea, KFEM lost a lawsuit against the project based on its impact to an endangered aster species (Aster altaicus) that depends on the riverbank environments. The court was persuaded by the government's promise to mitigate the impact by rescuing the asters from excavation areas and cultivating them in special plots.

From a watershed that gathers runoff from mountains to the east and southeast, the great Han River passes through Seoul, then turns northwest until it enters the ocean at the Demilitarized Zone. We followed the river upstream from Seoul to Yeoju, a city on the south fork of the Han. Our driver, KFEM photographer Jong-Hak Park, had a medallion hung on the dashboard of his car showing that he supported the International Crane Foundation. Now 68 years old, he had worked with KFEM for 12 years. "I love KFEM, because my grandson has allergy," he told us. "I heard that it's from environmental pollution, so I will keep the environment."

Two other young and energetic KFEM staffers, Yong-un Ma, the organization's wetlands expert, and Naree Jeong, coordinator of a Nature Conservation Team, showed us a six-mile stretch of the river where construction crews were building three dams and excavators were filling trucks with loads of riverbed sand and gravel, adding to mountains of material piled nearby. The scale of the work was shocking. We had never seen so many gigantic excavators at work, digging, widening, chewing up, and spitting out the former riverbed. The dams we saw under construction were close enough together so that a series of excavated "water basins," separated by gates and locks, could conceivably become a continuous canal to serve shipping. Opponents of the project think that is exactly the point, as a grand canal connecting the nation's rivers was one of President Lee's key campaign promises until negative public opinion stopped the plan. 

The Koreans working against the project were inspiring. It seemed hopeless, yet they were bearing witness to anyone who would listen, and asking us to "please tell the rest of the world what is happening to our rivers." KFEM was created when several South Korean groups involved in anti-pollution and anti-nuclear issues merged in 1987. The nongovernmental organization has fifty local chapters, whose 30,000 members pay monthly dues.

We were treated grandly that evening with a feast held at a restaurant overlooking the river owned by Hang Jin Lee, the head of the Yeoju chapter of KFEM. He told us that he is "not a born environmentalist, but about 10 years ago my friends asked me to work for the environment. I began to realize that environmental protection is very, very important. And now I cannot leave this work." Having given considerable thought to two opposing characteristics of humanity, consciousness and greed, he hoped that "we can regain the essence of consciousness-the relationship with living things and nonliving things."

From the window in our hotel room that night, we had a view of the Han River midway between the two work sites we had seen that day, where excavators continued to chew away at the riverbank.

The United States went through a river damming, channel straightening, and concrete armoring stage in the past century. We learned that a more effective way to manage watershed systems is to allow floodplains to absorb high-water episodes and regulate flows while the riverbank vegetation filters impurities. So it was frustrating to watch the living river bottom being pulled out and lush riverside plateaus being excavated. Although the momentum of the work seemed impossible to stop, opponents of the project remained determined. On a poster in the Yeoju KFEM office, the endangered aster plant was depicted restraining an excavator. Mr. Ma told us the words on the poster read: "Be Persistent; It Is Your River."

Ecological Recovery behind Barbed Wire

On the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War, June 25, 2010, we entered the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. We were with a delegation from Pasadena, California, which has a "Friendship City" relationship with Paju, a booming South Korean city on the edge of the DMZ (37°46′N). Few travelers are allowed inside the Joint Security Area of the DMZ, administered by the United Nations, so this was a unique opportunity for our 38th parallel exploration. 

A strip of land 150 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, the DMZ crosses the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel. A peace treaty was never formalized to end the Korean War, and North and South Korea each keep hundreds of thousands of soldiers massed along their borders in a tense military standoff, with the DMZ functioning as a no-man's-land between the two nations. The war began in 1950, the year David was born, and the cease-fire came in 1953, Janet's birth year. During our entire lives, soldiers have stood watch over a land fringed with barbed wire and perhaps a million landmines; at the same time, the land has healed itself and an inadvertent ecological recovery has occurred.

Most of that landscape was farmed for thousands of years, then ravaged when it became a battlefield. Ironically, after years of war and a peaceful standoff that has kept human activity out of the DMZ, eleven hundred types of plants now grow behind the barbed wire, and the land is green and lush. At the western edge of the DMZ, the Han and Imjin Rivers estuary provides rich tidelands and riparian habitat for wildlife, including eighteen endemic fish species (found only there) and the endangered Korean Golden Frog (Pelophylax chosenicus). The Han River estuary is the only one in South Korea that retains its natural function as a nursery for marine life in the Yellow Sea; others along the nation's coast have been degraded by wetlands reclamation or dams at river mouths. Many endangered or threatened bird and mammal species are thriving in the estuary and in other wetland basins inside the DMZ, including three species of cranes that arrive each winter. Asiatic Black Bears (Ursus thibetanus) are found, as well as leopards, lynx, and possibly the exceedingly rare Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), if glimpses seen on military surveillance cameras and territorial scratch marks on trees have been correctly interpreted.

Winter is the peak season for migratory birds; but the summer residents we saw included herons, egrets, and magpies; flocks of Bean Geese (Anser fabalis); and the colorful Black-Capped Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata). We had numerous fleeting looks at Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis), whose males have large tusks at their jaws, but no antlers.

Seeing any wildlife was a treat, as we were allowed only to travel directly to Daesong-dong village, where 212 South Koreans live inside the DMZ (37°57′N). The Pasadena delegation was granted special permission to enter the Zone to dedicate a new dental clinic there on the war's 60th anniversary. The group included Yung Nam, a Korean-American dentist, who was the inspiring force behind the clinic. Until this time, we had no idea that any people actually lived inside the DMZ, but both South and North Korea are allowed small "unification" or "peace" villages. The rest of the Zone remains unoccupied, and that is where the ecological experiment in human exclusion has been under way.

Our group passed through checkpoints where serious-looking soldiers closely examined our passports and paperwork before giving the driver a piece of cloth to hang from the window of our van-a low-tech signal that we had permission to be inside the Joint Security Area itself. Beyond the checkpoint, our initial impressions were of verdant forest and quiet. The energy and bustle of modern South Korea had been left behind.

Dr. Nam's plans to dedicate the dental clinic at Daesong-dong were thwarted at the last minute because of tension with North Korea over the torpedoing of a South Korean gunboat. United Nations administrators were concerned that North Korea might consider a ceremonial gathering, even for such a benevolent purpose, provocative. It was a reminder of just how volatile (and sometimes illogical) the relationship remains in that region. Although the clinic dedication was off, our delegation was allowed to visit the school where it will someday be established. From a rooftop observatory in Daesong-dong, our eyes were inevitably drawn toward structures in the North Korean "peace village" just 400 yards away. A North Korean flag flew from a provocatively tall pole, an invitation to a flagpole "arms race" that the South has declined.

Our guides pointed toward hillsides denuded by the fuel-wood scavenging of impoverished North Koreans, where the deforestation has caused severe floods and soil erosion. The southern side's thick forests offered a striking contrast, though Dr. Nam recalled barren hills around his home near Paju when he was growing up, during and just following the Korean War. After the war, the South Korean government put many citizens to work planting trees to reestablish forests, though the trees most often planted were conifers instead of native trees, so that habitats for many species never recovered.

Our delegation was lodged in Paju City. Municipal officials gave us business cards bearing the slogan (also mounted on every taxi in the city) "GG Paju," standing for "Good and Great Paju." Undeterred by the tensions of the DMZ that it borders, Paju is one of the fastest-growing cities in fast-growing South Korea. Paju's population had increased by over 80 percent in the prior decade, and the mayor's office had rather incredible plans to double the population in the coming decade by attracting high-tech industries. This frenzied economic activity presents a concern for people watching the ecological recovery within the neighboring DMZ and wondering what the future will hold, if and when that land is once again opened to development. Plans have been prepared for developing the Han River Estuary into a major seaport and building a new "Reunification City" in the Cheorwon Basin, one of the important wetland areas in the DMZ.

To promote transformation of the DMZ, a symbol of war, into "a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature," the DMZ Forum was founded in 1994, with headquarters in New York. Its members hope to build enough international support to create a nature preserve and international peace park and forestall any destructive consequences if the Zone ever opens to the world.

The local DMZ Ecological Research Institute works with South Korean schoolchildren to shape eco-friendly attitudes within the nation itself by taking students into the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), a strip of land three miles wide that parallels the southern edge of the DMZ. Though also fringed with barbed wire and closely guarded, the CCZ is not off-limits to South Koreans. Some commute there to work on family farms, while many join international tourists visiting Korean War historic sites. Our guide was JungRok An, a student at the Korea University in Seoul who founded the Youth Exploration Team program for the institute, which brings high school students to the CCZ from all across Korea.

Only 20 years old, JungRok is an articulate and knowledgeable researcher, a dedicated proponent of environmental education, and a born leader. "To protect the DMZ for the future," he told us, "I think youth are the most effective." "EcoYouth" students receive one year of classroom orientation and attend field camps to learn research techniques, then begin individual or small-group ecological study projects within the CCZ. JungRok's own involvement had begun five years earlier with research on Swan Geese (Anser cygnoides). His father heads the institute's education section.

We were with a group of Youth Exploration Team students from high schools in Seoul on their first day of orientation. The institute's education staff handled two other groups that same day: high school students who were a full year into their studies, plus an elementary school class. Although South Koreans can visit the Civilian Control Zone, these students had never been there. Our itinerary included the Dorasan railroad station, where South Korean trains must stop, though the tracks continue to the north. Map displays explain how ties to Russia and Europe will become possible whenever the route reopens. We also went to places tourists never see, including wetlands along the Imjin River.

Along the Han and Imjin Rivers, local farmers from Paju grow rice and ginseng. Loosely strung electric lines serve irrigation pumps that lift river water to the fields. Ginseng has become a key moneymaker for farmers, but requires plastic covers on frames to shade the plants. The covers also keep out birds and other wildlife, so the continuing expansion of ginseng fields concerns JungRok. Rice fields, by contrast, can be beneficial feeding and resting wetlands for migrating waterfowl (a role we were familiar with from the Sacramento Valley and Delta in California, where the stubble left in flooded rice fields after harvests serves seasonal bird migrations). Along roadsides, dozens of red triangular signs with skulls and crossbones warned of land mines. The kids found the grim warnings fascinating and took photos of each other posed in front of the signs. At one point, as we got out of our van to look at a pond, soldiers on patrol told us we had to move along, that we were not supposed to stop there. Reminders of armed hostility were unavoidable.

That afternoon a drizzling rain began to fall. The annual summer monsoon was forecast to start that day, and it did, at 4 P.M., right on schedule. The highway back toward Paju paralleled the river estuary, where egrets fished behind a chain-link fence topped by razor wire.

We asked JungRok what he most wanted people to know about his project and the institute. "Before I started these DMZ ecological exploration teams, I thought, 'What can I do to help this environment that is now endangered by humans?' One way is to change the mind itself, so that's why I thought of youth. The whole environmental problem is on us, the youth, because it will happen when we are older, and it will happen for our children. So if youth are talking to adults about this environment and how it is beautiful and mystical and important, it could bring change."

On the van ride out of the CCZ, we rode with six high school students who had already completed a year of work. Armed with nets and collecting jars, they had spent the day sampling water quality in ponds and documenting populations of aquatic invertebrates and amphibians. They were eager to speak into our tape recorder, as if it were a direct audio link to the world, to explain what they wished people to know about the DMZ and their hopes for the future.

"Hello listeners," one girlbegan. Janet told her that she would someday be a television personality or a diplomat, which made all of the students laugh. "I hope you know that the DMZ in Korea is a very valuable, ecologically important place. Even though the 'demilitarized' name is a meaning about military values, there are also environmentally important things in there, and even after Korea is unified, we need to keep up the habitat interests of the place. Thank you."

A quiet young man from CheongShim International Academy provided this eloquent conclusion: "I think you two just realized, today, what I realized working as a DMZ member. You mentioned the irony you found here, how the war between people led to a better future for this environment. I think that's the main point. What we have to work on in the twenty-first century is to overcome that irony, the division between people and the environment, so the future of humans won't be different from the future of nature."

On September 3, 2010, the South Korean Ministry of the Environment announced it was designating three areas inside the DMZ, including the Chopyeongdo and Jangdanbando wetlands at the Imjin River estuary, as "wetland protection areas." This classification was done to counter development plans being considered by "various government departments and local authorities ... despite [the DMZ's] high ecological and scientific value" (Jong-whi, 2010). Domestic legal designation as protected areas is the first step toward classification as national parks and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.

China's Yellow River Delta

High-speed freeways paralleled the east coast on the long drive from Beijing, China, south toward the city of Dong Ying. Orchards were blooming on this mid-April day, and rows of cottonwood trees along the highway were leafing out, recently planted as part of a massive national campaign to counter climate change by capturing atmospheric carbon and, as we would see in central and western China, to erect a "green wall" against expanding deserts. Many millions of trees had already been planted.

Our guide and translator across eastern China was Kinder (pronounced "kin-dur") Jinde Shu, who has a special interest in natural places and migratory birds and could offer us helpful connections with China's parks and nature reserves. He was China's first member of the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), an American organization for professionals who conduct interpretive programs and design educational exhibits for parks. He has translated NAI materials into Chinese and coordinated training for China's parks and reserve staff. Our starting point on the 38th parallel in China would be the National Nature Reserve at the Yellow River Delta, where a special tour had been arranged by the deputy director, a personal friend of Kinder's.

The highway crossed over water channels along an almost perfectly flat landscape. Such terrain, along with the extremely high silt loads the Yellow River carries, explains why the river (the Huang Ho, in Mandarin Chinese) repeatedly fills its channel with silt and then jumps into new routes to the Bohai Sea, a northern gulf on the Yellow Sea. The mouth of the Yellow has shifted more than fifty times in the last 150 years. Today it enters the ocean several miles south of the 38th parallel, but just a few years ago it occupied a channel exactly on the latitude line. 

This river carries the highest silt content in the world, a brownish-yellow sediment load that explains its name (huang means "yellow") and averages more than one billion tons of silt each year. "When the Yellow River flows clear" is a Chinese saying for an event that will never happen (similar to the English expression "when pigs fly.") The delta zone adds an average of 8,000 acres annually, and China's youngest wetlands keep expanding.

The Yellow River flows west to east, beginning as snowmelt in the Kunlun Mountains, crossing the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and passing through nine Chinese provinces. The 3,400-mile-long river's main stream and thirty-five tributaries have a combined length of 8,380 miles and drain a 290,500-square-mile watershed. It is China's second-longest river (the Yangtze, about 500 miles longer, follows a parallel path farther south). Our four-week trip across China began at the delta and brought us to the Yellow River several times more, far inland.

From our perspective traveling upriver from the coast, the river channel bent southwest through alluvial plains of wind-blown silt ("loess"), then turned north for hundreds of miles (circling the Ordos Desert within Inner Mongolia), before making a great sweep south again, then bending southwest toward its Tibetan headwaters. In central China we would follow the main course of the river for about 250 miles and then travel along a tributary for 100 miles, the Huang Shui, which descends from eastern Qinghai Province.

Where the Yellow River crosses flat floodplains, it has been confined between levees for thousands of years. Sediment inexorably settles onto the riverbed, forcing residents to keep elevating flood-protection walls in response. In places, the river runs 20 to 30 feet above adjacent farmlands and villages, putting 90 million people in the floodplain at tremendous risk if levees fail. Not only is the Yellow China's "Mother River," sustaining life along its length, but it is also the nation's "River of Sorrow." Archaeological evidence of disastrous floods dates back more than 2,000 years. In 1887, one of many historic Yellow River floods killed nearly 2 million people. The worst flood disaster in world history occurred here in August 1931, killing about 3.7 million people. Such numbers are worth a moment's reflection; China's vast landscape and population size make the scale of catastrophes unimaginable.

The Mother River has, ironically, also been given very little respect, as it has become a convenient sewer and waste disposal point for towns and factories. Some segments of the river are so badly polluted that the toxic water is even unfit for farm irrigation. Thirty percent of the river's fish species were extinct by 2007, according to the Chinese government.

From the bustling industrial city of Dong Ying, we drove about 40 miles to the delta. When we started out, we could scarcely believe a protected wetland would be at the end of that road. Construction zones gave way to farmland, then to China's second-largest oilfield, and finally to marshes. At the gate of the Yellow River Delta National Nature Reserve, a massive Oriental White Stork (Ciconia ciconia boyciana) lifted off in a flash of black and white. Twenty-eightpairs of storks had bred at the delta that year, which serves as an avian international airport each autumn, winter, and spring. Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) streaked by in a high wind as we walked down boardwalks with intricately carved handrails to elevated bird-watching towers.

Our reserve guide was Shen Kai, a young engineer on the staff and a bird expert who carried a camera with a huge telephoto lens. His supercharged energy kept us zooming between spots in the wetlands as we struggled to keep his car in sight up ahead. The nature reserve was created in 1992 to enhance and protect the delta and its wetlands for migratory and nesting birds. More than 6 million birds use the protected lands every year-296 species, including six of the world's nine species of cranes. Seven of the species that depend on the reserve's wetlands are "class 1 priority" species in China (equivalent to the United States' endangered species designation), including cranes, eagles, and storks.

Two separate sections of land, together totaling 378,000 acres, reflect the most recent major shift in the river's path: a northern parcel of the reserve coincides with the Yellow River's sea entrance before 1976 (on the 38th parallel), while the present channel passes through a larger parcel about 15 miles to the south. Huge oil and natural gas fields lie between the two areas, with some oil wells pumping inside the reserve itself. Pollution is a concern, along with habitat fragmentation caused by roads and installations, but the managers' greatest struggle is to secure enough "eco-water" from the main river to optimize ecological conditions in the marshes.

With increasing water consumption upstream, the Yellow River reached the sea only one year in the 1990s. As with our nation's Colorado River, which dries up before reaching the Gulf of California in Mexico, there have been too many competing demands for human use of Yellow River water. The national Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) responded to that problem by regulating water use, setting specific allotments for each of the nine provinces along the river basin. Amounts are based on a 1987 estimate that the river carries 15 trillion gallons of water annually, but-in another parallel to the Colorado River, whose flow rates were overestimated when states negotiated water rights-in the past decade the Yellow River's volume has fallen to 14 trillion gallons; in 2003 flows were below 12 trillion gallons. We visited during the spring dry season, yet flowing water was reaching the sea, thanks to the YRCC's new conservation regulations. Since 2003, there has been enough reliable flow to allow water diversions into wetland ponds, "but still only half of what that landscape needs," according to Shen Kai.

The rainy season here arrives with the hot days of the summer monsoon. Flow in the Yellow River peaks between July and October, elevated by heavy monsoonal rains across the eastern half of China. The summer months, spanning May and October, also bring more than 150,000 tourists. Spring is dry and windy, as we can attest: morning winds nearly swept us off our feet while we stood on the rooftop viewing platform of a new visitor center.

The modernistic building, completed in 2010, looms over the landscape, six stories high. It is called the "Ecological Port" because it sits on the south bank of the river where boat tours begin. From the rooftop we had jaw-dropping views of the marsh and the Yellow River heading toward the ocean, just a quarter-mile away. The new center did not yet offer any services-all funding seemed to have gone into the incredible structure-but it appeared large enough to handle thousands of visitors. On less windy days, two tour boats were available for cruising the river out into the nearby sea. A dramatic mixing line between blue ocean and yellow river water is a must-see that the wind denied us.

The howling gusts, thankfully, stopped during our lunch in the nearby town of Xian He (the name meaning "holy crane"). We were honored with a special restaurant meal arranged by Kinder's friend Li Juanzhang, the deputy director of the reserve. Mr. Li was unable to join us, but we feasted on dishes unfamiliar to us-sea cucumber and octopus. It was far too much food for us and our guides to finish, but as in Korea, Chinese culture calls for excess when honoring guests.

During lunch, Shen Kai told us that what he liked best about working at the reserve was protecting the birds and preserving the special character of the wetlands and tidal lands. He grew up in the local area and had a university degree in petroleum engineering.

That afternoon, with the air blessedly calm, we watched Red-Crowned Cranes (Grus japonensis) in flight. We had missed the breeding season for cranes, and most of them had migrated north again, but some were kept in cages and turned loose daily to fly free. Joining a group of Chinese tourists, we watched enraptured as the birds circled near us again and again. Cranes are the "birds of heaven," the "holy bird" of China, associated with love, happiness, and all good things, especially longevity. Their lifespans approach eight decades (the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, has documented an 83-year-old Siberian Crane). Cranes are often depicted together with pine trees in Chinese art as both are long-lived. Reverence for cranes is part of Chinese culture.

When the practice of releasing captive birds to fly free began, some birds, inevitably, chose not to return, despite the lure of abundant food. Mr. Li told us that was fine. "It was best for them. But when they do come back, it shows good relations between cranes and people."

That philosophical opinion was also expressed during our evening dinner, another feast hosted by the reserve. Kinder had met the deputy director when they worked together on a Siberian Crane wetlands project. Mr. Li had begun working there twenty years earlier when the first protective status began on the delta as a local effort. Within a few years, in 1992, the reserve became a National Nature Reserve.

Beside each dinner plate that evening was a small toasting glass that a waitress skillfully kept full to the very brim with a rice liquor. There were many toasts, including one to adequate "eco-water" for the reserve. As Kinder translated, Mr. Li told us how difficult water management can be, but he added that serving the birds was a worthwhile, satisfying goal.

"From the view of conservation management, it is a challenge," he said. "Personally, it is a very heavy burden to maintain this piece of land, but it is an important job. Compared with the United States and other developed nations, where it is easier to preserve nature with established policies and strong public involvement, we have much to improve. Fortunately we have a supportive local government, so that gives us a lighter burden." For example, after the central government appropriated $5 million for wetlands restoration, state and local governments provided another $12 million. The regional wealth based on the oil and natural gas industries made that generosity possible.

The Colorado and Yellow Rivers have much in common: both drain vast regions within each country, both were named for the colors given by heavy loads of silt (colorado means "red" in Spanish), and so much water is diverted that both rivers stopped reaching the sea. Given the rivers' similarities, we agreed that there should be a "sister rivers" relationship established between the two. Although ecological health requires more water than the reserve has yet been able to secure, it was good to see that the notoriously dry Yellow River Delta had, at least, been addressed. Regulations imposed by the YRCC the entire length of the watershed show that China can respond to the conflicts between rapid industrialization, historic water uses by cities and farms, and the needs of the natural environment. How well national regulations are actually being implemented in the distant provinces was a question we would explore further as we crossed the country. We left the Yellow River Delta impressed by the enthusiasm of the reserve staff and hopeful that China's Mother River might continue to reach the sea with "birds of heaven" winging overhead.

The South-North Water Transfer Project

As we drove back toward Beijing, our route crossed the path of a new aqueduct being built to bring water from the Yangtze River to Beijing, but it was underground, out of sight. The first phases of the gigantic South-North Water Transfer Project were being constructed to shift water from southern China, where 80 percent of the nation's precipitation falls, to the drier north, particularly to address the thirst generated by industry and population growth near Beijing. While the imbalance between wet regions and human thirst is geographically reversed in California, where north-to-south aqueducts serve Southern California cities and farms, the approach to water supply issues is similar to that in China: build long-distance aqueducts. Ultimately, China intends to complete 1,800 miles of canals along three routes to move almost 12 trillion gallons of water each year. Work began in 2002 on the middle route from the Han River, and the eastern route from the Yangtze. Construction crews missed a goal to finish the eastern aqueduct before China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics; completion is now projected for 2013. The third, western route, which will begin high on the Tibetan Plateau at the headwaters of the Yangtze, faces even more daunting engineering challenges, so work there has been delayed.

The route of the eastern aqueduct uses existing parts of China's ancient Grand Canal. That feat of early engineering began 2,000 years ago and was continued by successive dynasties to make barge travel possible along 1,100 miles of canal connecting the Yangtze, Yellow, and other rivers. (Hangzhou, in the south, was finally linked with Beijing in 600 A.D.). Perhaps 2.5 million laborers worked on the canal and a paved highway along its length. The twenty-first-century construction is all about water supply, rather than transportation.

Water coming from the Yangtze River is highly polluted, necessitating construction of hundreds of costly sewage treatment plants in the north. Industrial pollution and China's national demand for water increased in step with the country's recent phenomenal growth as new industries, especially power plants, required more of the nation's already limited water supply. The Chinese have pioneered coal-fired power plant technologies that use much less water, yet overall, thirst still grows while the available water supply has actually declined.

Climate warming is altering rainfall patterns and melting glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the headwaters for half of the Yellow River's flow. Thousands of lakes have dried up in the plateau, sometimes called China's water tower, and in 2007, Chinese scientists documented a 10 percent shrinkage in wetlands that feed the nation's two largest rivers. A series of reports sponsored by Circle of Blue and titled "Choke Point: China" that analyzed conflicts between water and energy noted: "China's total water resource, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, has dropped 13 percent since the start of the century.... That's as much water lost to China each year as flows through the mouth of the Mississippi River in nine months" (Schneider, 2011).

China's reliance on coal as a power source helped push it past the United States as the number-one emitter of greenhouse gases. In the past five decades, climate warming accelerated globally as the human population rose from 3 billion in 1960 to 7 billion in 2012. While the atmosphere's greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon that is critical to life on Earth, humanity's burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution has elevated atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to levels not seen in the past 650,000 years. The carbon dioxide level, which was about 270 parts per million in 1800, rose past 390 parts per million in 2012. After analyzing all the variables that naturally alter climate, including fluctuations in solar radiation, variations in the Earth's rotation, and volcanic eruptions, computer models can match the observed trends only when they include the elevated greenhouse gases released by human burning of fossil fuels.

We hear so much about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, we tend to forget that the effects of climate warming on the planet's life are felt, ultimately, through the water cycle. Energy trapped by an enhanced greenhouse effect translates into daily weather and long-term climate changes, because warmer oceans and land surfaces evaporate more water, and warmer air holds not only more energy but also more water vapor. Increasingly extreme and variable weather brings hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Annual snowpack and rainfall totals change, glacial melting accelerates, sea levels rise, and new runoff patterns complicate the management of reservoir storage for farm irrigation, industrial use, and drinking water. Across Asia, Europe, and the United States along the 38th parallel, we encountered examples of such challenges and learned how nations were responding.

We were returning to Beijing to catch a flight the next evening. Janet had visited that city before and thought the air seemed cleaner than the last time she was there, in the summer of 2007. Air pollution was so bad then that she could not see buildings a few blocks away. The difference might simply have been seasonal; we were traveling in the spring instead of summer. But major efforts had been made to clean up the air for the 2008 Olympic Games and Kinder told us that several polluting factories and power plants, shut down that year, had never reopened. Still, small particulates from coal-fired power plants, truck and car exhausts, and dust remain major problems in China's cities. After walking on the streets in each city where we stayed, our throats and eyes would be irritated.

China is trying to address the air quality and climate change problems with cutting-edge technologies to reduce coal plant emissions, with major investments in wind and solar energy, and by encouraging cleaner-running vehicles. Several of the cars and vans we traveled in were fueled with compressed natural gas, a cleaner-burning fuel than gasoline. Small three-wheeled electric trucks and electric motorcycles were common; we spotted a number of motorcycles parked on sidewalks with extension cords running inside stores to charge batteries. The national tree-planting campaign was another way to clean the air and reduce dust pollution.

Kinder had worked on an International Friendship Forest in conjunction with the Olympics. During our layover in the city, he was eager to show us the native plantings in the shadow of the Great Wall, north of Beijing, complete with an extensive trail system and interpretative signs. Unfortunately, a guard was keeping people off the trail that day due to fire danger, and the path's starting point had been commandeered as a motor scooter parking lot. Dust and sun bleaching made his signs hard to read. Kinder was obviously disappointed with the upkeep. This pattern was repeated at other national parks we saw in China: money and thought poured into a facility without long-term operational support. In most parks we saw grandiose buildings, fancy entrance gates and fountains, but too few maps, brochures, or information panels for visitors.

Kinder may be the person to correct that situation. Believing that it is important for Chinese national parks and nature reserves to provide meaningful scientific information and the conservation stories behind the scenery, he hopes to organize more training for park staff, including international exchanges with park interpreters.

From Beijing, we flew southwest to the transportation hub of Xi'an, where we took a rainy-day tour of the city's old walls and joined tourist hordes to view the famous Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang. Xi'an and the Great Wall near Beijing were two places in China where we did not stand out as the only Westerners.

Xi'an was once the eastern starting point for the historic Silk Road, a trade route we would follow for hundreds of miles in western China. It was the capital of the Han Dynasty during the peak of Silk Road trading. The ancient city is on the Wei River about 60 miles from where it joins the Yellow River, and about 110 miles upstream from Sanmenxia Dam. Kinder made sure we knew that the infamous dam had been designed by Soviet engineers, not Chinese.

Construction of the dam began in 1954, on a 900-foot-tall plug across the Yellow River at the narrows of the Three Gate Gorge-not to be confused with the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. More than 400,000 people were forced to relocate when Sanmenxia was built (more than a million lost their homes because of the Three Gorges Dam). As we had seen in South Korea along the Han River, forced resettlement is one of the drawbacks balanced against benefits of river damming to serve broader goals, despite the cost to local populations and to communities that must absorb those who are relocated. Although payments or land-for-land exchanges occur, often high-yield farmland in floodplains has been replaced with poorer-quality land on upper reaches.

The Sanmenxia Dam was supposed to control floods and trap the river's sediments, an explicit goal being "a clear Yellow River" below the dam in order to halt accumulations of sediments that led to floods whenever the river jumped course. Some Chinese experts warned about the folly of purposely trapping so much sediment. In 1963, just three years after the dam began storing water and sediment, the reservoir had accumulated four billion tons of material and lost 40 percent of its storage capacity. Hydroelectric turbines became clogged with silt. A "tail" of sediment was backing upriver, creating new threats of flooding as far upstream as Xi'an. The dam's gates had to be left open and turbines pulled out so water could pass through and flush some of the accumulation. The reservoir became nearly worthless for storing water or generating electricity. In 2000 a second large dam was completed a bit farther downstream on the Yellow River. Although silt-discharge channels were incorporated, that reservoir is predicted to "reach equilibrium with silts" by 2020.

The Mother River has never been easy to control.

National Parks of Ningxia

The moment we stepped off the plane in Yinchuan, we were struck by the changed climate: although the sun was about to set, the air was noticeably warmer and drier than it had been in eastern China. We were in Ningxia Autonomous Province, about 600 miles from the east coast of this vast nation and just south of Inner Mongolia (38°30′N; 106°20′E). Annual precipitation there is only about 12 inches. Signs were written in both Chinese characters and Arabic script.

Yinchuan city sits beside the Yellow River in the shadow of the Helan Mountains. We visited several national parks in the area including Sand Lake, known for its birdlife. A huge entrance arch in the shape of a crane greeted us, along with a bank of fee collection stations. One must pay the entry fee, then also buy a boat ride, the only way to really see the lake and sand dune island. We decided to sidestep the steep entry fees and enjoy the birds to be seen outside in nearby fish-rearing ponds, including Grey Herons, River Lapwings, Great Crested Grebes, Grey-Headed Lapwings, White Wagtails, Egrets, Black-Necked Stilts, and Hoopoe.

The same approach to infrastructure was repeated in other nearby parks: massive, gleaming entrance buildings with marble staircases and plazas, along with high entry fees plus extra charges for trams, boats, and films. It is an interesting approach to park management-landscape preservation coupled with costly ecotourism playgrounds.

The water at Sand Lake comes from the Yellow River. The abundance of surface water, there and in fish-rearing ponds that lined the highway, was a bit startling, since water use along the river is tightly controlled by the Yellow River Conservancy Commission. Most of the diked ponds were former wetlands converted to fish culture. China has a long history of inland aquaculture and ranks first in the world in commercial fish rearing. Freshwater aquaculture includes various species of native Carp plus exotic Tilapia from Africa.

The visitor center and museum at the Helan Mountains National Nature Reserve had two floors of museum displays and replica petroglyphs. We were happy to move outdoors and walk the canyon trail with the real rock art. There, hundreds of intricate petroglyphs are pecked into the stone, some of them dating back 6,000 years.

A small creek trickled along the bottom of the canyon. The park had informative interpretive signs, and small dots were painted near some of the artwork that, having faded, might otherwise be overlooked. "Chinglish," is what our guidebook called the language on signs, some of which bore humorous translations; still, they managed to communicate key messages:

"Please appreciate the sceneries and the historic sites as you want to be appreciated."

"Well treat the environment and nature."

"No mountaineering for hillside steep the stone loosening!"

Kinder was interested in our reactions to the signs, wanting to know if we understood the messages. Here again, his English skills and connections with park interpreters may be able to help make the translations more accurate (while perhaps taking away some of the charm of the signs).

Even in that pristine setting, park managers could not resist remodeling the creek bed into ponds lined with stones. In some of these man-made pools, large carp (goldfish) swam.

Toward sunset, we were back in the city of Yinchuan at the Yuehai Wetlands National Park. Our driver dropped us at the bottom of a huge staircase that led up to a stadium framed by Romanesque arches. Walking through an arch, we would not have been surprised to see gladiators battling in the arena below. Instead, players were kicking a ball across a soccer field at the edge of a large reservoir. The water came from a tributary of the Yellow River that runs through the city. While wedding couples were photographed amid the columns in the sunset glow, fishermen and birds enjoyed the lake. The man-made lake and its grandiose structures were built to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Ningxia Autonomous Province's creation. One of the lake's justifications was to restore wetland acreage previously lost to farm drainage in that region.

The amount of total water allotted to each of the nine provinces through which the Yellow River passes is set by the national YRCC. In Ningxia, with 15 percent of China's irrigated farms, agriculture uses about 93 percent of the province's allotment, but that number is changing. To provide more water to cities and to coal-based industries, the government wants farm water use to drop by 22 percent. Construction of new factories and power plants can proceed only after irrigation canals serving farms are lined or repaired, to free up "new" water. By 2010 three such water-trading projects had remodeled 37 miles of canals and 105 miles of substreams in Ningxia, making 13 billion gallons of water a year available to new coal-burning power plants (Ivanova, 2011).

From Yinchuan, we traveled south, paralleling the Yellow River in a car powered by compressed natural gas. We were pleased by the skills of our hired driver, but had to stay calm in the backseat while his frequent passing turned the ride into a pulse-raising adventure-sometimes three cars occupied the full width of the two-lane roads. It seemed best not to watch. Along the river-fronting highway, we passed more channels diverting water to fish ponds, saw sheep and donkeys (on the east coast there were few grazing animals), and also spotted an aluminum factory and a magnesium factory on the riverbank, both busily pouring smoke into the air.

Driving, instead of taking an overnight train, was a last-minute change of plans that allowed us to see more of the countryside and to stay a night inside Shapatou National Nature Reserve, near the city of Zhongwei. About halfway there we stopped when our GPS told us we had reached 38°00′N. A tall river-viewing tower was under construction outside the village of Qingtongxia Zhan, though not yet ready for use.

Shapatou is called "the hat of the desert," because it perches at the very edge of the Tengger Desert, where advancing sand dunes are halted by the Yellow River (37°27′N). Silk Road travelers crossed this water barrier on leather rafts. The region was short on trees for wooden boats, but was rich in livestock, so they devised an ingenious solution to the problem: they soaked sheep hides in oil and brine to make them air-tight, sewed the legs shut, and then inflated the skins like balloons. Lashed side by side, the hides kept wooden platforms afloat. In Shapatou National Nature Reserve, tourists ride on rafts supported by twelve to fourteen skins and navigated downstream in the fast-moving current by a paddler who sometimes teaches his passengers a traditional boating song, "The Yellow River Has 99 Bends."

The meeting of river and desert at Shapatou makes a dramatic natural setting, but there, as in the other national parks, moneymaking ecotourism activities abounded. We rode camels, the "ships of the desert," to the summit of dunes that loomed 300 feet above the river. That one-way ride deposited us near starting points for overnight camel-caravan camping trips; there were dune buggies to rent and race around on a marked course; zip-line cables spanned the river for sliding over and back; bungee jumping was available from a platform hanging out over the water; and sand-sliding was a quick way down the hill. 

Seeking more natural experiences, we glissaded down the steep face of the dunes-a new experience for Kinder (this was also his first visit to the region)-and crossed a footbridge over the river to a marsh, alive with birds. A section of the Great Wall was nearby, crumbling but still impressive. Its effectiveness as a frontier barrier must have been enhanced by the nearby river. We were 600 miles west of the better-known sections of Great Wall we had seen outside Beijing.

Highly detailed museum exhibits in the park explained desert natural history and the work carried on by the Desert Research Institute to combat the expansion of deserts. Eighteen percent of China's land is threatened by desertification, an increase in unusable sand and gravel soils caused by overcultivation, overgrazing, and logging. In China, where global climate change is not a controversy that is avoided, the displays explained that climate warming is accelerating desertification problems. The onset of spring arrives 2.4 days earlier than it did in the 1980s, and China's glaciers have undergone a 21 percent reduction in the past 50 years. Since the institute pioneered a system of straw thatch squares to control blowing sand, the "Shapatou mode" has been applied to almost 400,000 acres, allowing vegetation cover to increase from less than 1 percent to over 42 percent in the most successful treatment areas. The effort began a half-century ago, motivated by a need to keep sand off the Bao-Lan Railway tracks that run from Inner Mongolia south through Gansu Province. Despite the successes of the Shapatou method of dune stabilization and the national tree-planting campaign we had seen along every highway, Chinese officials predict a 300-year effort to achieve stabilization.

A poetic greeting was displayed in the first room of the museum:

Here, the rolling Yellow River frames an "S" type basin,

becoming quiet tenderness ...

Here, quiet and ancient houses stand with 100-meter high hill, sand, mountain, river, park, symbiotic harmony, thousands of years living together ...

So, dear friends, forget your troubles,

hugging to the desert,

exploring the scientific truth,

feeling nature's purity;

Maintain the natural balance with your heart.

We wandered into the Desert Research Institute, which is affiliated with the China Academy of Sciences. The compound seemed abandoned until we located a graduate student working by herself in a laboratory with flasks of water and soil. She told us she was analyzing relationships between soils and plant restoration. About forty faculty and students use the institute's facilities, but that day everyone else was in the field.

Despite the institute's efforts, desertification remains a major concern in western and central China. High winds on our second day in Shapatou gave us a small taste of the potential for sandstorms, which can be so severe in the spring that haze from China swept into the jet stream whitens the sky above our Sierra Nevada home.

Our rooms were inside the park, only 50 feet from the edge of the river, which we could see out the windows. Kinder said the hotel was "not bad for a national park," after showing us the trick for stopping the running toilet. (Toilets are not the subject of this book, but a tip for travelers to China: carry your own supply of paper. There may or may not be any, even in new hotels with beautiful decorative paper dispensers). In the restaurant beside the hotel a chef showed us a live fish, caught that day in the Yellow River, that he then cooked for our dinner.

Hide boats and camels at this ancient river crossing were evidence of the Silk Road history that we would continually encounter from there across Asia. Camel caravans moved steadily between China, Europe, and India between the middle of the first millennium B.C. Activity along the Silk Road routes peaked during the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.-220 A.D.) and surged during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) and again while the Mongols ruled northern China (1220-1368 A.D.). From China came silk, iron, steel, bronze objects, lacquerware, and hides. Europe and India bartered glass, gold and silver objects, incense, amber, pigments, ivory, and slaves. When the Ming Dynasty sealed itself off from the outside world, near the end of the fourteenth century, activity ceased. Figure 5 about here

Trade was also ongoing within the region itself. China required horses for defense against attack from nomads. The horses were, ironically, acquired by trading with horse-rearing nomads. During the Tang Dynasty, China paid the Uygurs 1 million bolts of silk for 100,000 horses each year.

According to his famous diary, in 1273 Marco Polo traveled east on the southern Silk Road, moving from oasis to oasis. The young man's father and uncle had come to the court of the fifth Mongolian ruler, Kublai Khan, in 1265. A year later, they carried a message to the pope requesting one hundred missionaries be sent to the khan's court. That never happened, but two Dominican monks, plus Marco, began a return trip. More interested in seeing Palestine, the monks left the group in Syria, but Marco reached Kashgar, then Yarkand and Khotan (today's Hotan). He dictated his famous descriptions of the following 18 years he spent in China to a fellow prisoner in 1298, while he was incarcerated during a war between Venice and Genoa.

The Taklimakan Desert was-and is-the most daunting obstacle to travelers moving across western China. The name Taklimakan, in the Uighur language, means "the place where travelers will never get out." At Lanzhou, northern and southern routes split to circle that desert, which is about one-third the size of California. The southern branch passed through Xining then skirted the edge of the great desert along a string of oasis towns. The 38th parallel traces that southern portion of the Taklimakan, so the second half of our journey across China would take us first to Lanzhou and Xining, before we leapfrogged by air over the vast distance to reach Hotan, Yarkand, and Kashgar.

Up the Yellow River to Lanzhou's Green Camel Bell

The city of Lanzhou was an important Silk Road hub that became a major industrial center for modern China. With 3.2 million people, Lanzhou is the first major city on the Yellow River after it flows out of the mountains. The city is south of the 38th parallel, but just as deserts and mountain ranges once funneled Silk Road caravans, major highways now follow the Yellow River south before continuing westward.

Blowing sand and dust turned the sky white as we approached Lanzhou. When airborne, sand does not appear light brown, but fills the sky with small haze particles. Major sandstorms were then occurring across northwest China, though local conditions were not so severe.

Lanzhou hugs the banks of the Yellow River for 24 miles and is confined by hills on either side of the river gorge. We checked into a Super 8 hotel, the American chain, with landscape photographs of Arizona and Utah on the lobby walls and a Route 66 sign in our room. A short walk brought us to the city's central square, where large groups of men and women were doing a popular Mongolian dance as we came out of a supermarket. As the sun went down, a garbage truck drove by blaring music like an ice cream van in the States. The song, on that warm May night, was "Jingle Bells."

Liping Ran met us with bright eyes and an infectious smile; setting other projects aside, she devoted the next two days to us. Liping is a project coordinator with the NGO Green Camel Bell (GCB), whose mission is to protect the environment of western China, seeking "green mountains, clear water, blue sky, man and nature in harmony." The organization's unusual name was chosen, she told us, because "green is our dream-where we hope to go will be green; camels are well adapted to their environment, as are the GCB staff and volunteers, but can get lost in the vast desert, so ringing bells help people know where we are, and they bring luck."

We also met the NGO's founder, Zhao Zhong, who received a Time Magazine "Hero of the Environment" award in 2009. GCB's full-time staff of six people work with two interns, two part-time staffers, and about thirty volunteers on a wide variety of projects including grass-brick construction, sustainable agriculture, environmental education, and community development. The organization has an impressive list of international supporters from the United States and Europe, including, since 2006, Pacific Environment, headquartered in San Francisco. On one office wall were logos for twenty-six organizations, including the World Environmental Fund, International Rivers, the Global Greengrants Fund, the World Keeper Alliance, and the Ford Foundation.

Liping began working for GCB as one of its first staffers after she completed her degree in environmental science in 2008. "When I graduated, I thought I should do good things for the environment, so I chose this job," Liping said. "I think the youth should take responsibility for the environment," she added, using words almost identical to those spoken by the younger activist JungRok in South Korea.

GCB works mainly in Gansu Province, which extends north and south between mountain ranges and desert. The organization became heavily involved in reconstruction after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province (southwest of Gansu), where a magnitude 8.0 quake killed at least 68,000 people. In Wenchuan village, near the epicenter, GCB has been supporting reconstruction with green techniques, such as using straw-bale bricks instead of cement and providing ecotoilets that need no water (the whole effort helped by Friends of Nature).

In the center of Gansu Province, GCB persuaded farmers who traditionally grow wheat, corn, and potatoes to add sunflowers as a crop, because the growing plants add nutrients to the region's alkaline soil and need little water. They help farmers to form cooperatives and have provided some farm machinery, again with help from international groups. Farm family annual incomes doubled in 2009, rising by $30.

Most of the region's economy is related to the Yellow River in some way. University students are trained by GCB to be environmental educators in primary and middle schools. Their program theme in 2011 was "Yellow River history, culture, and pollution." Teams of "river protectors" are also trained to monitor the water's oxygen demand level, an indicator of pollution levels. They post the data they collect to the national Environmental Protection Bureau's water pollution map. "We are the third audit," Liping said, "the independent party that checks these things, along with the local and national governments." Though GCB has three hundred factories on an office blacklist, only a few of those are on the national map. The Time article "Heroes of the Environment, 2009" pointed out that "multi-nationals and their offshoots have taken note [of GCB's audits]. After a brewery it part-owned in Tianshui ended up on the map, beer giant Carlsberg installed wastewater-treatment facilities. State-owned firms that are found polluting usually feign indifference, but at least they know they are being watched, a new and uncomfortable experience" (Ramzay, 2009).

At the time of our visit to Lanzhou, only 30 percent of the city's sewage was treated before going into the river, but a new sewage treatment plant was under construction. Once it begins cleaning the city's wastes in 2012, about 90 percent will be treated. Before 2006, all of the city's sewage went straight into the Yellow River, along with chemical, oil, and other industrial pollutants.

"Because we are on the upper watershed of the Yellow River, we must be responsible about not polluting the river for domestic users," Liping said. She was especially proud of her successful project to improve drinking-water quality in the small village of Liangjiawan (population 1,500), upriver from downtown Lanzhou. After a low flow-through dam was built across the Yellow River in 2007 to generate hydroelectricity, water began eddying back upstream. The nearby village had always taken its drinking water upriver from the point where their untreated wastes entered the river. Now the village's intake pump began sucking water contaminated with sewage. Liping and Green Camel Bell helped organize the village leaders to seek changes and secured water purifiers for each village home, four purifying machines for the village school, and a new water pipe system and purifying chemicals to serve the community.

Why would a dam be designed so poorly? China's laws do require an environmental review, but the flawed process did not identify the problem. Because the dam generates electricity with flowing water-a clean alternative to coal-the company secured carbon trade credits, and the impact on local people was not addressed.

We went upriver with Liping that afternoon to see another village with a slightly different drinking-water problem. It was nice to be outside under blue skies with temperatures, Liping said, as warm as summer. Although Lanzhou has long been notorious for severe air pollution, winter is when the problem worsens, once everyone begins heating with coal.

Another small hydroelectric dam had recently been completed across the Yellow River, downstream from Cxian Shui, a small village of narrow dirt lanes that hugs the riverbank. This village depended on clean water from a community well that, two years previously, was drilled deeper to get below a layer of saltwater. Liping approached several ladies in the village to ask about their water. They seemed reluctant at first to talk, but Liping's charm and sincerity won them over. We heard that new pipes had broken and were never repaired, so now they were hauling drinking and cooking water in buckets from the Yellow River, which had to be boiled. Some people had plastic water pipes running aboveground to the river and fed by submersible pumps. Another option was a 10-minute walk to the well lugging heavy buckets. Once they began describing their plight, the women's frustration became obvious.

The young baby we met and all the people in that village deserve better. Safe and clean drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights, affirmed in a United Nations resolution in 2010. Liping's next step will be to contact village leaders to confirm the stories she heard from the residents and begin working toward a solution.

Green Camel Bell is a pioneering group in China, helping to effect change in attitudes regarding the environment. Liping told us that the staffers are all unmarried and completely dedicated to their work, but that some find it hard in the present Chinese culture to explain the value of their work to friends and family.

The first Chinese NGO was founded in 1994. Friends of Nature focused on environmental education at first, until the cautious central government made it clear that its role could broaden. By 2006 more than 350,000 NGOs were officially registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. With rapid economic growth driving China's society, enforcing compliance with national environmental regulations had become difficult. The NGOs serve as that useful "third audit" described by Liping.

On our second day in Lanzhou, our guide Kinder departed for Beijing to meet another group. With Liping, we went to see 60-foot-tall waterwheels, ingeniously powered by the flowing current of the Yellow River to lift water high above the riverbanks. Similar mills have served this city, local farms, and grinding mills ever since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.). In 1952 Lanzhou, "the waterwheel city," still had 252 of the big wheels lining both banks of the river. Some of those still operating are hundreds of years old.

Massive logs in the waterwheel frames were evidence big trees once grew on nearby forested hillsides that today are mostly treeless. Beside the highway coming into Lanzhou, terraces were planted with small conifers, part of the national tree-planting campaign. Japanese groups have even come to Lanzhou to plant some of those trees, because the spring dust storms blow their direction.

Liping arranged a meeting at a teahouse with one of her university professors, Zhang Songlin, who teaches geography and environmental science at Northwest Normal University. She translated as the professor told us about sustainable development issues in China. "All countries need to have sustainable development," he said, "but many of our local governments focus on [fostering] higher GDP." Throughout China, whenever the subject was economic growth and development, the speakers used the shorthand GDP for gross domestic product.

"Officials, while serving their terms in office, need good results so they can go out at a high rank. People need jobs. Young people need an income to buy a house, get married, and become self-sufficient. But the old Chinese culture respected nature. People and nature were thought of as one. In old times, the belief was that if you harm the environment, you would be punished. Now, increased GDP is the belief. We don't trust each other enough. We can't trust food safety. Air quality is improving little by little, and also water quality, but I am not very hopeful about the future." Despite that pessimism, Professor Songlin agreed with us that Green Camel Bell's work was a reason for hope.

That night, Liping escorted us to the train station as we were heading west to the city of Xining. She would undertake her next task in Wuwei, a city right on the 38th parallel, where she would begin still another water-quality investigation.

Qinghai-Blue Lake of the Tibetan Plateau

Xining is the home of the Qinghai (pronounced "ching-high") Salt Lake Institute. We had seen a news story in the Chinese press in 2008 headlined "Massive Program Launched to Save Qinghai Lake" (Xinhua News Agency, 2008). That parallel to the historic efforts to save Mono Lake, plus the fact that China's largest saline lake occupies a watershed intersecting the 38th parallel, made Qinghai Lake, east of Xining, a must-see destination.

A researcher at Mono Lake wrote to introduce us to Professor Fafu Li from the institute, who was our gracious host for several days. Fafu arranged a meeting with institute scientists and graduate students interested in hearing about Mono Lake and our 38th parallel project. He had worked for 19 years at the institute.

One of the faculty members at our meeting was Dr. Junqing Yu, the author of a book (written in English) about Qinghai Lake. He particularly wanted to compare the chemistry of Mono with the vast inland sea of central China. Qinghai Lake is saline, though less salty than Mono Lake or the ocean (at 14 grams per liter dissolved salts). Its water is quite alkaline, though, with a pH of 9.2 (Mono Lake water is pH 10, similar to mild detergent). Qinghai is also supersaturated with dissolved aragonite and calcite, the two common crystal forms of calcium carbonate and the main ingredients in Mono Lake's tufa towers.

Lakes like Qinghai and Mono that occupy closed basins with no outlet gradually accumulate salts dissolved from the watershed by tributary streams. The Earth's oceans are salty for the same reason. Qinghai Lake's watershed valley, drained by six rivers, covers more than 11,400 square miles. Most of its water arrives via the Buh River, which extends northwest almost 200 miles to the crest of the Datong Mountains, just north of the 38th parallel. The Qinghai Nanshan Mountains, south of the lake, approach the shore more closely. As we saw during two days of exploring, the Nanshan provide a scenic snow-covered backdrop, something like the mountain setting at Mono Lake. Qinghai's water surface covers 1,700 square miles-a huge inland sea vastly bigger than Mono Lake, more comparable in size to Utah's Great Salt Lake. As the only large water body in central China, it stands out on maps. 

Fafu and a driver took us to the lake, pleased, it seemed, to be escaping from the office on an overnight road trip. From Xining we crossed a pass at 11,250 feet above sea level and left the Yellow River watershed behind. The surface of Qinghai Lake is 10,154 feet above sea level.

It took most of the day to travel around the gigantic lake to its western shore, 220 miles from Xining. Grazing animals abound in the grasslands along the lake, and we got our first close look at yaks (Bos grunniens)-thousands of them and even more sheep. The diet of the local Tibetans is almost entirely meat, especially mutton.

Buddhist prayer flagging was strung in many places around the basin. The Mongolian name for the lake, Kokonor, means "blue lake." Both Mongolians and Tibetans consider it a sacred place. Here on the shore of the vast sea in 1578, a Mongolian leader conferred the title dalai lama for the first time, to a spiritual leader named Sonam Gyatso. Dalai is Mongolian for "ocean," while lama is a Tibetan word for priest.

The main tourist destination at Qinghai Lake is Niao Dao National Nature Reserve, also called simply Bird Island, on the west shore. Each year, about 100,000 birds encompassing 189 species migrate through or nest there. Bar-Headed Geese (Anser indicus) arrive in the spring after crossing the Himalayas from India at elevations over 25,000 feet. Unlike the cranes of South Korea and the Yellow River Delta, which winter on the 38th parallel but nest far to the north in the spring, these waterfowl moved up from the south, where they migrated to avoid the harsh winters on this, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Another pattern would be evident once we reached wetlands and lakes on the 38th parallel in Europe and North America, where migratory birds stop only long enough to rest and refuel while traveling each spring and summer between northern nest sites and "winter avoidance" ranges in the Southern Hemisphere. Migrations are ultimately driven by the seasonal freezing and thawing of water, which forces plants and animals to adapt to protect body cells that are, essentially, complex concoctions of water.

After the long car trip, we were eager to walk, and so enjoyed the 200-yard stroll through an underground tunnel, wide and well lit with photographs of wildlife and scenery, that leads to a viewing blind where nesting geese were just a few yards away on the other side of glass windows. Thanks to the lengthy approach that keeps people out of sight, the birds were unaware that dozens of humans were within a few yards, watching their intricate courtship displays and flights. Here, the Chinese inclination for grand structures had produced the most spectacular bird blind we had ever seen.

An electric shuttle bus dropped us at another observation point above a nesting colony of Common Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo)and Black-Headed Gulls (Larus ridibunus). A trail led down to the edge of the lake. The water tasted slightly bitter, and we smiled at the familiar sight of suds forming where waves agitated the water on the shore. The lake supports diatoms and various kinds of algae that feed just one kind of fish, the endemic Scale-less or Naked Carp (Osteichthyes cypriniformes).

The carp never showed themselves. They have been protected from fishing for almost 20 years, yet at the hotel restaurant that night our waitress asked Fafu if we wanted to order the fish! He declined and told us that it would be "very illegal"; he could lose his job if he had said yes. It seemed a fishy situation that the protected carp was available there on a menu that otherwise featured meat and potatoes.

Grassland surrounds Qinghai Lake in an almost treeless landscape where a limited water supply makes crop growing difficult. Sheep, goats, and yaks graze the grasslands, competing for forage with diminishing numbers of wild Przewalski's Gazelles (Procapra przewalskii), an endangered species. Much of the grassland close to the lake has been converted to rapeseed (Brassica napsus) farming. That requires irrigation that has contributed to the decline of the lake, which lost 10 feet of its depth and shrank by about 150 square miles between 1959 and 2006. Publicity photographs for Qinghai Lake always feature the bright-yellow rapeseed flowers that bloom in the summer. The plant is valued for making canola oil, plus by-products of oil production that include animal fodder and "oil-cake" fertilizer. Fields were brown and stubble was burning when we were there; it was still early spring at that altitude.

The government's 10-year plan to "save Qinghai Lake" includes actions across the watershed to maintain the lake level and improve ecological conditions. Some irrigated farm fields have been taken out of production, sheep numbers are to be reduced by about 1 million animals, and 2 million acres of irrigated pasture are to revert to grassland. "Ecological migration" of the region's nomadic herders will relocate four thousand people.

To reduce livestock numbers, individual, fenced grazing parcels have been allotted to the traditionally nomadic people. In several places along the southwestern and northern shores, we saw new houses provided by the government. The nomads are still allowed to roam with their herds to higher ground during the summer, but total numbers of animals are controlled. Additional justifications, says the government, for the controversial forced housing change are clean drinking water, improved housing conditions, and better diets.

The government has also been poisoning rodents, which officials say degrade grasslands and compete for forage with livestock. This program is also controversial. Some researchers consider the targeted Plateau Pika(Ochotona curzoniae)a "keystone species" in the grassland ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau, providing food for predators and burrows for birds seeking breeding shelters. The only pika we saw were mounted specimens in a museum.

On the north shore, Kangtsa is the largest town in the lake basin. It is an agricultural center and the capital city of a county with the same name. Nearby, a railroad line that connects the area to Lhasa was being converted for electric locomotives. New electric lines were running everywhere, some from solar and wind generating plants. The high plateau must have looked very different just 20 years ago. The region illustrates a dilemma facing central and western China, where public services are improving, but at a cost to traditional ways of life.

After circling the north side of the lake on a very rough road, we stopped at Qinghai Lake National Park. There had once been a grand plan here for lake cruises. Docks and other infrastructure were built, but the government decided that boat engines were too polluting and halted the project. In fact, no boats of any kind are allowed. Although the potholed access road and abandoned facilities gave the park a ghost-town feeling, there was a bus group of tourists there that day, and a crew was stabilizing sand dunes using the straw squares developed at Shapatou. The elevation, clean air, and endless vistas reminded us of home.

Before leaving the Qinghai Lake area, we crossed a 12,500-foot-high pass into a separate basin and explored hypersaline Chaka Lake. Only bacteria live in its concentrated brine, as in the Dead Sea of Israel. Saltworks have been here for centuries. Fafu told us that Chaka could provide enough domestic salt for the entire world for 500 years! Large barges moved through a channel past evaporation ponds toward the middle of the lake. We walked, far from the open water, along a jetty lined by a layer of salt a foot thick.

While we lunched at a small noodle cafe that mostly served locals, the waitress suddenly told us to hurry and finish because a serious sandstorm was blowing in. We barely beat it back to Xining.

Under skies turned white by blowing sand, we practically flew across the Taklimakan Desert to Urumqi, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Hotan to Kashgar on the Southern Silk Road

The tourist map for Xinjiang states that Urumqi, the transportation hub in northwest China, is the city farthest from any ocean in the world, over 2,000 miles from Beijing and the east coast of China. Our next goal was actually Hotan, one of the oasis towns along the southern Silk Road to Kashgar. Resolving some confusion arising from the Chinese spelling of that city as "Hetian" on airport signs, we made our connection and were happy to see our Uygur guide, Abdul Wayit, and a friend from home, Rick Kattelmann, waiting for us at the Hotan airport. Rick is a retired hydrologist, now a serious photographer, who had traveled here before and recommended Abdul's guiding services. Abdul, 23 years old, handsome, and ambitious, had learned English and become a guide as a way to leave the family farm. He was eager to share his Uygur culture and became an invaluable window into the soul of his people.

Hotan is famous as an oasis on the Silk Road and especially for its jade and silk. The sprawling settlement is an island of green in the Taklimakan Desert, with orchards of fruits and nuts and fields of wheat going on for miles. At the eastern edge of town, men were planting and drip-irrigating peach trees and tamarisk as part of the "green wall" that holds back the shifting dunes. 

Hotan exists because of its water-the White Jade (Yurungkax) and Black Jade (Karakash) Rivers, which flow from the Kunlun Mountains. After the two merge north of the city, they become the Hotan River, which continues north and soon disappears beneath the desert sand, except during the wettest seasons. Hotan traded in jade with Mesopotamia from the third millennium onward. A new discovery in 2001 in the riverbed gravels started a modern-day jade rush, a frenzied free-for-all in which miners have torn up the riverbed using everything from shovels to huge excavators. People sleep among the tailing piles and work with lights at night, looking for the shine of the precious stones. In an informal jade market near the river (a parking-lot gathering), men haggled over stones. One jade buyer showed us a golf-ball-sized piece that, he said, was worth 5,000 yuan (about $1,600). He glanced at a small rock we found and tossed the worthless river stone contemptuously on the ground.

The jade found here is rarely green. Most of it is "mutton-fat jade"-opaque, creamy white, with tan or orange tinges. Abdul told us that many people in Hotan had become wealthy by prospecting, as the market price per ounce is as much as forty times higher than that for gold. "Eighty percent of the people in Hotan now have cars," he said, attributing that to jade trading. Local Uygurs sell their finds to Chinese middlemen who serve the demand from growing numbers of wealthy Chinese. In Chinese culture, jade is the most valuable of precious stones, symbolizing perfection, constancy, and immortality.

Those ethereal qualities contrast with the toil of thousands of miners and hundreds of large earthmovers that we saw turning over the riverbed. The channel looked like the aftermath of the California Gold Rush, where mounds of dredged gravel are still seen, 150 years later, heaped along the banks of foothill rivers.

When melting snow sends high flows down toward Hotan, the torn-up channel can no longer contain the water, so floods have become a threat (as they did in California by 1860). In 2007 the Chinese government issued a notice to stop the heavy-equipment work, but prospectors ignored the order, and local officials did not enforce it. We saw plenty of excavators at work, along with small groups of people wielding shovels.

Silk, rather than jade, has been Hotan's most famous and enduring trade item for centuries. A factory in Hotan still does the whole process by hand, extracting the thread from the cocoons of silk moths, then spinning, dying, and weaving fabrics for garments and tapestries.

Farming has been the traditional support for most of the population of Hotan, which is renowned for its almonds and walnuts, plus fruit and vegetable staples. Thanks to irrigation, the greenery of the oasis city was more extensive than we expected, though it was just a short drive from the center of town to the edge of the desert.

Walking across dunes gave us a feel for the abrupt change. A half-mile into the desert, a tomb and small mosque marked the burial site of Imam Asil, who died about 900 years ago during a war between Uygur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists that went on for hundreds of years. Pitchers with water for washing before prayer were being filled from a well. A bucket is lowered and raised dozens of times a day. We took turns at the crank, confirming something we already appreciated: water is heavy-eight pounds per gallon, hauled up 20 feet at a time.

That night in Hotan, Abdul asked if we wanted to "eat the food Marco Polo took back to Italy." The spaghetti was delicious, though Marco Polo did not eat his with tomato sauce in the thirteenth century. The legend of Polo introducing pasta to Italy is a popular story in that region, but Italians actually had been making pasta for centuries before Polo came to China.

Driving west from Hotan, we stopped in the village of Kargilik to explore a colorful weekly market. Underneath red tents, the colors of silk clothing and textiles glowed with fiery brilliance. This oasis was the junction point with a route to Ladakh over passes through the Himalayas to the south.

We continued westward and northward toward Yarkand and Kashgar. Even with an air-conditioned van and a good driver, the 350-mile, often bumpy trip felt long. What must it have been like to do this same trip on a slow-moving camel? A railroad is set to open soon along the route, and a new highway was under construction. The evolution of the Silk Road continues.

It was a relief to break up the trip with a night in Yarkand, a small town by Chinese standards, with only 560,000 people (38°17′'N), surrounded by the largest oasis in Xinjiang Province. Water comes down the Tarim River out of the Karakorum Mountains, then flows northeast year-round along the northern edge of the desert. On a walk through the oldest section of the city, we asked Abdul about a sign painted on a mud wall. "We only have one Earth, so practice family planning," he translated, adding that the government had placed the sign there.

"We agree with that message very much," we told him. "What do you think?"

"I think it is good," Abdul said, then grinned and added, "but I still want five children." Large families are a way for Uygurs to fight back against what they perceive as an invasion by the Han Chinese, who keep moving to the western province. Although the government limits rural Uygur families to three children, it is apparently possible to circumvent the limit if babies are born in different localities.

Northwest of Yarkand, the desert suddenly turned green again when we passed a reservoir outside Yengisar, "the town of knives." Abdul asked if we wanted to stop and shop for a knife, but of course there was no way to bring one home in our carry-on luggage. He told us that Uygur men used to always carry knives on their right hips. "Our knife is our manhood," he explained. But after violent demonstrations in recent years, men are no longer allowed to openly carry a knife. "If I wore one now, soon I would belong to the police," Abdul said.

The Uygur region seems a whole different country than the rest of China. For much of human history, it was. Veiled women mix in the business districts with Han Chinese women in miniskirts and high heels, but the two cultures segregate into separate residential areas of the cities. After China took over in 1948, the province was named Xinjiang, meaning "new frontier." The Han living in China's crowded east are encouraged to move west. The ensuing influx has generated tension that has erupted in violence in Urumqi and Kashgar. Just a year before our trip, our friend Rick had toured the same region and seen everywhere a heavy presence of military and police. Happily, things had calmed down since then. (But a year after our visit, violence flared again, and the police shot several demonstrators.)

Along the highway, a truck was parked in our lane while the driver negotiated with a sheepherder for some of his animals bunched nearby. What sheep found to eat in that desert was a mystery; it appeared nearly barren (in part because there were so many sheep and goats nibbling whatever grew). The purchased sheep were likely going to the Sunday animal market in Kashgar. 

Kashgar is famous as a former Silk Road trading center and current crossroads bridging China and Central Asia. Pomegranates and apricots are the specialty crops, grown near the city with water from the Kashgar River. The city's namesake), this stream descends from the Karakorum and Kunlun mountain ranges. Marco Polo wrote in the thirteenth century that the "inhabitants have very fine orchards and vineyards and flourishing estates. Cotton grows here in plenty, besides flax and hemp. The soil is fruitful and productive of all the means of life. This country is the starting-point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world" (Polo, 1982 [1958], 65).

Outside Kashgar, we visited Abdul's family farm, where he was born and raised, and we met his mother, father, and wife. It was a great honor to be invited into a Uygur home. Knowing they were part of a conservative culture, Janet asked if she should cover her head with a scarf while in their house. "No," Abdul answered, "they understand you are not from here."

The farm grows corn, wheat, and apricots (the latter are often eaten green), and the family raises a few cows, goats, and chickens. There's also a friendly cat. Abdul's wife cut and stretched noodles, her flashing fingers working the dough before she cooked the pasta. We gave his mother a Mono Lake shopping bag, and she seemed thrilled after she saw how it stuffed into a small sack.

The famed markets of Kashgar are incredibly colorful, with dramatically dyed fabrics, luscious fruits, and shiny copper pots. Women go to market in exquisite dresses that, Janet said, she would consider wearing only to a formal wedding. Livestock are brought each Sunday to a special market where sheep, donkeys, cows, goats, and even cats and dogs have been sold or traded for centuries. There was an area to test-ride sale horses at top speed.

On the way to the market, we drove by Kashgar's street market for cellphones. In the twenty-first century, people buy and barter for items that have been manufactured for thousands of years, while carrying on cellphone conservations.

Many buildings in Kashgar's old town were being torn down and rebuilt with fired bricks and reinforcing steel instead of mud bricks. The government says the changes are necessary to protect against earthquakes, but Abdul believes the old city withstood many quakes with no problems. Forced renovation contributes to a perception that the Han Chinese are undermining the Uygur culture. The government insists that it respects minority cultures and pledges to keep most of the old town intact as a tourist attraction-with an admission charge.

Walking along Kashgar's streets, as in every city in China, can be a terrifying adventure. Chinese drivers do not slow down for pedestrians. One learns to follow the herd at crossings, to wait at the edge, and again on the line in the middle of the highway, as cars speed by too close for comfort, then proceed when it is safe. Traffic was less hectic in the old town, where we saw abalone shells for sale, though we were thousands of miles from the ocean. The shiny material is used to ornament items like knife handles. After watching a man skillfully turning wood on a lathe, we bought several small items-keepsakes from that oasis trading center on the twenty-first-century Silk Road.

The Edge of China and Turkmenistan

The Karakorum Highway (locals call it the KKH) connects China to Pakistan through the westernmost of the highway passes across the Himalayas. We were eager to compare the high country along China's western border to our home in the Sierra Nevada. A challenging barrier for Silk Road traders, the mountains are also the source of the melted snow and glacial ice that descends into the Taklimakan Desert basin to create the oases that made Silk Road travel possible.

A cutoff to the north from the main highway led to Oytagh Glacier, at the head of a scenic pastoral valley. Oytagh means "mountain basin." Backed by towering mountains, the valley community was raising crops along the river, while livestock grazed on the new spring grass. Yaks, camels, and Kyrgyz yurts, hats, and clothing appeared here, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. It felt good to breathe clear mountain air. The river was muddy with water because the glacier, hanging below peaks towering 21,000 feet, was melting fast.

The Oytagh Glacier viewpoint is 9,533 feet above sea level. Just as we reached the viewpoint, an avalanche dropped from the cliff west of the distant glacier. To the left, a waterfall plummeted as straight as the upper Yosemite Falls, for hundreds of feet. Or farther, perhaps. Scale was hard to judge in this grand landscape.

The view from the end of the trail was once straight down onto the lip of the glacier, but the ice had retreated drastically and now was at least a half-mile away, leaving behind only frozen humps covered with black silt. Glacial retreat there was even more dramatic and obvious than in the Sierra Nevada. Some of the clearest signs of atmospheric warming can be seen at the world's higher elevations. Just as the glacial melting in Tibet is a threat to the Yellow River, rapid glacier melting-at a rate of 7 percent a year-in the mountains of northwestern China creates a water-supply concern for people downhill, as glaciers have been the dependable water source for rivers that serve the region's farms and cities.

Although we had planned to sleep that night in a yurt, we learned they were available only to Chinese tourists, not foreigners. Water was shut off inside the park, including the restroom buildings serving the yurts and even in the hotel built for foreigners, because of damage from frozen pipes that winter. Big jugs of water were provided for toilet flushing. The restaurant next door was also not quite ready for business. The staff offered to kill a sheep and barbecue kebobs, but we were too hungry to wait that long, so we made do with our own supplies. A thermos of hot water was left outside the door in the morning so we could make instant coffee.

Next morning, in the valley village, children gathered in their schoolyard to salute the flag while a recorded anthem played. A local bus was taking on passengers, including two live sheep being settled into the back luggage compartment, where suitcases are carried on urban routes.

The Karakorum Highway continued its climb up toward the Pamir Mountains. A herd of Bactrian (two-humped) camels grazed in a wash, and after photographing them, we asked Abdul if they were running wild. He said, "There are no wild things in China." (Happily, that is an overstatement; we had seen lots of wild birds, though few wild mammals). The road also passed construction sites in the Gez River canyon for a hydroelectric generating plant and, at the canyon's head, a new dam. An 800-foot drop from the dam would turn turbines to generate 200 megawatts of electricity. Most of the construction workers had been trained while working on the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

Sand Dune Lake (not to be confused with Sand Lake near Yinchuan) will be elevated by the dam. We stopped to photograph yaks and yurts and immediately attracted men selling malachite and jade jewelry. There, at 10,770 feet, the road turned directly south toward Karakul Lake. In that remote location surrounded by mountain peaks, Abdul's cellphone rang. He seemed surprised that we were amazed by the phone reception; China has exceptional coverage. The call was from our Chinese guide, Kinder, checking to see how we were progressing.

Travel guidebooks name Karakul Lake, 11,999 feet above sea level, the most beautiful lake in China. Clouds obscured the nearby mountain peaks that afternoon, but when we returned on the following day, there was a clear view of snow-covered Muztagh Ata, the 24,757-foot mountain that towers over the south end of the lake and sends water down the Yarkand River to serve oases in the desert. To the east, clouds continued to hover around two peaks in the Kongur Mountains, both higher than 25,000 feet. Kyrgyz nomads live near the lake and raise sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, yaks, and camels.

Janet went for another camel ride along the lakeshore. Those amazing creatures can handle everything from hot desert sands to cold, rocky mountain trails. Seeing them was a reminder that here, high on the Pamir Plateau, we were still on the Silk Road.

We drove up to 13,374-foot Tashkurgan Pass and passed the "Welcome to Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County" sign, written in Chinese and English. Here, at 74°55′E longitude, was our point farthest west in China, 44 degrees of longitude from the Yellow River Delta.

The highway plummeted almost 3,000 feet to an intersection where trucks were turning west toward the international border with Tajikistan, only seven miles away. We continued on the KKH, watching our GPS for exactly 38°00′N, and stopped there for photos in front of a small mosque not far from Takiman village.

About 70 miles south, the highway would crest again at Kunjerab Pass (15,397 feet) and the border with Pakistan. We stopped, instead, at Tashkurgan, just as Chinese caravans had done for centuries to transfer their wares to Central Asian traders (37°47′N). Beyond there, branches of the old Silk Road led south to Kashmir and India. The westward route continued through Kabul (Afghanistan), then south of the Caspian Sea via Tehran (in Persia, now Iran), before turning back toward the 38th parallel and the Mediterranean ports in Turkey.

Tashkurgan was our final destination in China. Fortress ruins on the hill above the city date to the eighth century, 500 years before Marco Polo passed through. The culture of neighboring Tajikistan dominates the Tashkurgan population, so traditional dress was again different, with women wearing pillbox hats covered by scarfs.

Crossing China had been fascinating, infuriating, mysterious, and wonderful. We took away memories of vast deserts punctuated by oases fed by snowmelt from amazing mountains, by rivers that refuse to be tamed, and by mostly wild parklands that persist along with crowded cities and the world's largest population. While China is still officially a Communist nation, capitalist enterprises burgeon across the country in the twenty-first century, and the central government does not have total control. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that NGO groups like Green Camel Bell are welcomed by the national government because they implement and help enforce environmental laws in distant provinces-a sign that China is not simply ignoring the unwelcome side-effects of rapid development.

Returning to Urumqi to fly west on the 38th parallel, we passed above desperately poor Tajikistan, war-torn northern Afghanistan, and a finger of southern Uzbekistan to reach Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.

When the GPS screen showed we had reached the 61° East longitude in Turkmenistan, we stopped the car. Back home, at Mono Lake, the 38° latitude line intersects the 119° West longitude; since 61° + 119° = 180°, we were halfway around the globe in Turkmenistan, where local clocks were 12 hours different from California.

Earlier in Ashgabat, the capital and largest city (37°58′N), we had been met by our next local guide, Berkeli Atayev, tall, dark, and welcoming. Berkeli had visited Great Salt Lake seven years earlier with a group of Turkmenistan tourism officials. This day, he drove us straight east for five hours toward Merv, the most influential ancient city they never taught us about in world history class. After weeks in China, the most immediate impression of Turkmenistan was how few people there seemed to be; the national population comes to just slightly more than 5 million.

Halfway to Merv we reached that halfway-round-the-world longitude point, beside a reservoir that stored Karakum Canal water. Completed in 1954, when Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union, the canal diverts 50 percent of the Amu Darya River, a major tributary of the Aral Sea. The canal supplies 90 percent of the nation's water and moves it 540 miles to Ashgabat and to farmland along the route, making it the second-longest aqueduct in the world. (San Diego reaches 444 miles into the Central Valley via the California State Water Project; the Los Angeles Aqueduct extends 338 miles into the Mono Lake basin. The city of Sirt, in Libya, moves water the farthest-745 miles from sub-Saharan aquifers to the north coast [Shea, 2011]). With the water, Turkmenistan grows cotton, a crop farmed there for 2,000 years, as well as fruits, vegetables, rice, and wheat on the tiny portion of the country (4 percent) that is arable. Most of the nation is covered by the Karakum Desert.

Because of diversions from the river tributaries to the Aral Sea by Turkmenistan and other nations, the fourth-largest lake in the world lost 90 percent of its volume by 1970. Its water level dropped more than 60 feet, causing the sea to split into two small lakes. Salinity increased to lethal levels for fish, and a vast acreage of toxic salt-covered land was exposed to the wind. Downwind in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, respiratory diseases and throat cancer rates soared. The Aral Sea's problems originate in other nations, and so far, little has been done to effectively address one of the world's greatest environmental tragedies, though a dam was funded by the World Bank's International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea to wall off the remnant in Kazakhstan, which has improved conditions there, on a small scale, for fish, birds, and residents. In 2010 Turkmenistan hosted a meeting in Ashgabat with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan-the four Central Asian nations with the most stake in the Aral Sea. Despite this high-level exchange of views and the statements issued about the importance of solving the Aral Sea's problems, effective action has not yet followed.

Although the Karakum Canal permitted agriculture to spread across southern Turkmenistan and addressed the thirst of its cities, the unlined canal has also leaked water along its route for a half-century, dissolving salts in the ground that are then drawn to the surface by evaporation. Ironically, the irrigation canal increased salinity on 2 million acres to levels unsuitable for crops and fouled local wells near the canal.

The government hopes salinity on southern farmlands will be reduced by sending 2.6 trillion gallons of salty irrigation runoff water each year to a natural depression in northern Turkmenistan, creating Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) Lake. Begun in 2000, a 1,650-mile network of canals to be complete by 2020 will fill the basin until the lake reaches a surface area of 770 square miles and is 230 feet deep. The quality of the water in the resulting lake (perhaps better thought of as a sump) is a concern. Proponents also claim that Turkmenistan's new man-made lake will serve as a habitat for migratory birds and a new source of agricultural water that will make the nearby desert lands bloom with plants and livestock.

The predicted benefits may be short-lived. Life tends to follow water, certainly, but how much transformation can happen in the desert will be limited by the salinity and toxicity of the runoff. The Salton Sea in Southern California also serves as a low-elevation collection point for runoff from Imperial Valley farms, but accumulated salts (plus fertilizers and pesticides) are now approaching concentrations lethal to fish, with effects passed along to millions of migratory birds that depend on the lake.

The billions spent (4.5 billion in U.S. currency) on the Golden Age Lake project could instead be used to finally line the Karakum Canal and return the conserved water to the Aral Sea, but this lake project has been a favorite scheme of Turkmenistan's previous two presidents (both dictators for life), who have embraced many grandiose Soviet-style construction projects.

Our goal that first day in the country was the city of Mary, which sits next to (and in some places sprawls into) ancient Merv, a State Historic and Cultural Park. Our guide was Yevgenia Golubeva, of Russian heritage, assigned by the national tourist bureau. One of the most important cities along the Silk Roads of Central Asia, Merv was an administrative, trading, military, and religious center. Different cultures took turns dominating the city, each building its own mud-brick walls, houses, fortresses, and mosques. Greeks were in charge in the first few centuries B.C., backed by Alexander the Great's army. Under the Seljuk Turks from 1145 to 1153 Merv may have been the largest city in the world, with a population of 200,000 (Rosenburg, 1987). The Persian mathematician Omar Khayyam used an observatory there; he is perhaps most famous in our country for his poems published as The Rubaiyat.

Merv existed at that location because of water brought from a reservoir on the Murghab River. The Murghab flows from the mountains of Afghanistan and creates a lush valley, a welcoming contrast for settlers and travelers to the harsh Karakum Desert. The water that made the city possible was also its Achilles's heel, taken advantage of by sons of Genghis Khan. They arrived with an army of eight thousand soldiers in 1221 A.D. and were repulsed by defenders at the walls until the Mongols destroyed the city's dam on the river. With no water supply, the Mervians opened the city's gates to the besiegers, who proceeded to massacre the inhabitants. Merv's ancient glory came to an end.

Our tour, on a hot, sunny day, included the forts and mosques still standing; much of the ancient city's mud structures have dissolved away or been destroyed. We found cool shade inside a twelfth-century ice house, though its roof was missing; double walls still trapped an insulating dead-air space like a thermos, as nesting swallows flew in and out. Camels grazed in the historic park, though Turkmenistan had single-humped dromedaries, instead of the Bactrian two-humpers of western China.

On our return to Ashgabat, we visited downtown markets and city museums. We toured a stable for some of the nation's fabulous Akhal Teke horses, a type that may have been the source for the Arabian breed. The national museum's exhibit about the importance of horses in the Turkmen culture called them "the wings of a young man" and quoted a local proverb: "Getting up early in the morning, first greet your father, then greet your horse." A new horse-racing arena was adorned with statues and gleamed with marble and gilt trimming. Elegant stables housed the Turkmenistan president's retired horses.

Massive architecture is the rule for government buildings in Ashgabat, contrasting with Soviet-era cinder-block apartments on nearby streets. The image of the president appears in all public places. Ashgabat felt like some combination of The Wizard of Oz and a visit behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

No other tourists were on the streets. Berkeli would like people from other countries to know that "we are kind, hospitable people, and would like to see more tourists. Though our economy is mostly based on minerals and cotton, there are lots of possibilities for tourism, which would provide people with jobs and an income. For example, Turkey's GDP is based 20 percent on tourism, but Turkmenistan's is only a fraction of 1 percent."

Authorities controlling travel into the country are not so welcoming. Paperwork for tourists is daunting, including an "invitation" required to enter the country before one can secure a visa and a sheaf of travel papers that one must carry everywhere. The bureaucracy seems to distrust foreign travelers. Before we left the Ashgabat airport, our bags were scanned at four different locations and our passports checked six times before we reached the waiting room.

The 38th parallel extends from Turkmenistan's western border across the south end of the Caspian Sea, which is about one-third as salty as the ocean. We flew above that great landlocked lake, the largest in the world, famed as a source of caviar. Seven species and subspecies of sturgeon have provided eggs for the delicacy, but the fish have declined to the edge of extinction due to overfishing and water pollution (pesticides, heavy metals, and oil), and because dams block spawning access up the Volga and Kura Rivers. Beyond the Caspian Sea, our plane passed over a small arm of northern Iran to reach eastern Turkey.

Hasankeyf in Peril on the Tigris River

Lake Van, in eastern Turkey, was our first stop on a 15-day trip across the width of that vast country, where the national government has built dozens of dams along its major rivers and campaigns have only just begun to modernize wasteful irrigation practices on farms that consume three-quarters of the nation's developed water.

A great inland sea in an enclosed basin, with alkaline water whose strange chemistry produces large calcium carbonate structures underwater, in a dramatic setting with snow-covered volcanic peaks and a lake surface thousands of feet above sea level ... all of that sounds exactly like Mono Lake, our home on the 38th parallel. It also describes Lake Van, the largest lake in Turkey.

Lake Van also differs from Mono Lake in significant ways. It is much larger, with a 270-mile shoreline (Mono's is about 40 miles) and an average depth of 560 feet (today, Mono Lake averages about 60 feet deep), with its deepest point at 1,480 feet (the deepest place in Mono Lake is only about 150 feet).

Van holds a lot of water, but not so much salt. It is the largest soda lake on Earth, its chemical mix dominated by carbonates and also containing sulfates (both key ingredients in Mono), but without our home lake's chlorides-the ion associated with dissolved table salt. There are fish in Lake Van, though only a single endemic speciesis adapted to the unusual water chemistry-the Pearl Mullet (Chalcalburnus tarichi). Mono Lake is far too salty for fish. The alkalinity of both lakes is fairly close, around pH 9.8 for Van and 10 for Mono. Besides the mullets, Van supports hundreds of species of plankton and many migratory and nesting birds. Even its calcium carbonate structures are chemically related to Mono Lake's tufa formations. Van's are out of sight in the depths, where cyanobacteria build aragonite towers up to 130 feet tall.

The region's harsh continental climate (far inland from any ocean influence) brings cold, snowy winters. Lake Van is fed by rain and snowmelt and by the Bendimahi and Zilan Rivers, entering from the north, and the Karasu and Micinger Rivers from the east.

We arrived in the city of Van on the southeast shore of the lake (38°29′N). Adem, a student about to graduate from medical school, was on our bus. As many other helpful Turkish people would do during our sojourn, he introduced himself, answered all our questions, was interested in our project, and even walked with us through the city to be sure we found our hotel.

Following his directions, we took a minibus out to the lakeshore where local kids were swimming and women and their babies enjoyed the sun on the dock. The water felt slippery, and our wet fingertips tasted like baking soda. The water here, as at Mono Lake, can be used to wash clothes. Salts extracted from the lake are sold as detergents. Climate scientists have been drilling down through Lake Van's bottom mud to examine a half-million years of climate data from the sedimentary record. 

Van was the capital of the Urartian kingdom between the tenth and eighth centuries B.C. In the first decades of the twentieth century, it was at the center of the "ethnic cleansing" against Armenians that occurred when Turkey exerted control. Because the lake basin, surrounded by snowy peaks, is strikingly beautiful, an old Armenian proverb has it that "Van in this world, paradise in the next."

Today, desperate Kurdish refugees fill camps near Van to escape from political turmoil in Iran and Iraq. Far-eastern Turkey struggles with poverty and a history of ethnic strife between its Kurdish residents and the national government. Van was the only city on our journey where we felt threatened. That evening, a young man on a crowded street yanked Janet's sunglasses from around her neck and ran off.

Van is connected to the city of Tarvan, 60 miles across the lake, by a train ferry because a land route would have to contend with the lakeshore's extremely rugged terrain. We traveled by bus on the winding road near that southern shoreline, crossed the scenic Taurus Mountains, and descended through the upper Tigris River watershed to the city of Batman, a gritty oil production center. Our objective was a few miles farther south, the ancient village of Hasankeyf on the Tigris.

It was sunny and warm the day of our visit to Hasankeyf, a town with dwellings, chapels, and a fortress carved into limestone bluffs along the Tigris River (37°42′N). Our guide was Ipek Tasli, the young and energetic local coordinator for the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, part of a coalition of seventy-two groups (municipalities, environmental organizations, and chambers of commerce). Hasankeyf is threatened by water that will back up behind Ilisu Dam, which is under construction a few miles inside Turkey's southern border. If completed, the 400-foot-high dam will create a massive reservoir and cover two hundred villages and displace up to 80,000 people. All but the highest sections of Hasankeyf would be submerged. 

The setting, among rolling hills and sheer, honey-colored cliffs rising from the edge of the river, is breathtaking. This may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited town sites on Earth, with archeological evidence dating back 12,000 years. Hasankeyf served as a commercial center along the Silk Road from China during the early Middle Ages. Two stone piers and an arch are all that remain of the supports for a wooden bridge, built in 1116 A.D., that Marco Polo probably crossed.

We used a modern bridge, then hiked uphill to see some of the thousands of caves cut into the limestone cliffs for residences. Ruins of a hilltop castle built by the Byzantine emperor Constantine perched 600 feet above the river. Mongol's destroyed most of the castle. A hidden stairway cut inside the cliff afforded access to river water during sieges. Hasankeyf eventually became part of Alexander the Great's kingdom and later was incorporated into the Roman Empire.

In a tea shop in one of the caves overlooking the main street, Ipek told us her work for the initiative had begun two years earlier, though the group formed in 1997. The Ilisu Dam is part of the Turkish government's Southeastern Anatolia Project, commonly referred to as GAP, from the Turkish-language project name: Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi. GAP is one of the largest dam and hydroelectric projects in the world. Planning on the $1.5 billion project began in the 1950s, and construction in the 1980s. Twenty-two dams are being built along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, along with nineteen hydroelectric power plants. The water is projected to double Turkey's irrigated farm acreage.

Our recently published maps were already out-of-date in depicting new reservoirs. Few free-flowing stretches remain on the rivers. As we traveled by bus farther west, passing one reservoir after another, each dam backed up slack water almost to the base of the next.

International resistance to the Ilisu Dam project developed because the reservoir will flood extremely significant historical and archaeological sites. Swiss, German, and Austrian underwriters within the European Union that had funded initial work pulled out in December 2008 after so many objections were raised. A list of 150 World Bank conditions dealing with the environment, protection of heritage sites, relocation of residents, and effects on Iraq would have to be addressed if the European underwriters were to provide funding. The Turkish government, however, vows to fund the construction on its own and projects completion in 2017. Ipek's coalition wonders if hidden money, possibly from China, is making that possible. The local Kurdish population is wary, considering this dam puts additional pressure on the region's Kurdish communities to assimilate into the Turkish culture. As earlier dams were completed as part of the GAP project, many people forced to resettle received no compensation from the government because land titles were too poorly recorded to back up claims. Kurdish villagers moved away from rural areas to urban centers, especially the cities of Batman and Diyarbakir, where they had to develop new job and social skills to survive.

"Here is not Turkey," Ipek told us. "Of course, it is in the territory of Turkey, but we are not Turks. We are a different nation [that includes] northern Iraq, part of Iran, and part of Syria." She worries about being arrested for opposing a state project, which is a crime in Turkey.

Turkey's dam building and the reduced flows downriver on the Tigris and Euphrates are generating tension with neighboring Syria and Iraq. The two downstream nations demand that more water be released, but Turkey remains focused on filling its reservoirs. Forty percent less water will flow to Syria and even less to Iraq, farther downstream. Both nations depend on the Tigris and Euphrates to grow food and serve growing populations. Here is yet another stressor to the political stability of the Middle East.

Despite these concerns for the future, the mood in Hasankeyf was celebratory on the day we visited, which was a national holiday. Returning to the riverside, we watched people of all ages splashing in the shallows and young adults dancing and singing in the street. Seated on divans around a low table in a restaurant built over the flowing water, we ate a meal of fish, taken fresh from the river and barbecued, while looking down at other fish nibbling at our crumbs.

The Tigris River creates a unique riparian ecosystem. The local economy is based on fishing and farming. If the reservoir is filled, conditions for native fish will change and the river ecosystem will be obliterated. A Turkish environmental group, Doga Dernegi, has made a local soft-shelled turtle (Rafetus euphraticus) the symbol of these consequences. The turtle used to be found along the Euphrates River, but is nearly gone there now because so many dams have been erected. Ilisu Dam may bring the species to the brink of extinction. Turkey has no law equivalent to the United States' Endangered Species Act, nor, apparently, a public trust doctrine on which to rely for legal protection. It could help if Turkey was accepted into the European Union, which has more progressive environmental laws.

That some people seem to care more deeply about these environmental concerns than about the likely impact on the local people amazed Ipek. Twenty-five years old, knowledgeable and eloquent, she told us that a German ambassador to Turkey has said that the nation is big, has lots of other cultural sites, and Hasankeyf's earthen cliffs and caves will be destroyed by time anyway. Despite such unfortunate "If you've seen one ancient site, you've seen them all" attitudes, she and her group remain determined to lobby internationally for pressure on the Turkish government. "Hasankeyf does not belong to Turkey, it belongs to humankind," Ipek said, her dark eyes blazing. "We ask the people of the world to save Hasankeyf."


We stood knee-deep in the Euphrates River after a long bus ride through the hills of eastern Turkey, westward from Hasankeyf toward the city of Malatya. The Euphrates is the longest river in southwestern Asia, rising in highlands northwest of Van and terminating far to the south in the Persian Gulf. The fertile land between the lower Tigris and Euphrates Rivers cradled Mesopotamian cultures, and water from both rivers enabled the first irrigated agriculture, nurtured some of the world's oldest known human settlements, and inspired the dreams and follies of kings. Only a few miles to the east, archaeologists were uncovering a 7,000-year-old city called Arslantepe.

North of Malatya, we waded into the warm water at a city park beside a ferry dock. On the way there, the local bus passed through Battalgazi, the site of an ancient caravanserai for Silk Road travelers and their camels. The Euphrates was backed up there in yet another GAP reservoir, the Karakaya. Tamarisk trees lined the shore and provided shade in the park. They are an exotic problem species for desert wetlands in the United States, but part of the natural order in Central Asia.

Suddenly we realized that we had attracted a half-circle of gendarma, the local military police, all carrying machine rifles. "What are you doing?" one asked. The English speaker was a handsome young man doing three months of national military service (we would learn) who taught English in Malatya and had been an exchange student in Seattle, Washington.

"Is it a problem to be here?" we asked. The answer was no, and though their demeanor seemed friendly, being confronted at the edge of the water by rifle-toting soldiers made us uneasy. We exchanged a worried glance, wondering if going to places not frequented by tourists was a mistake that had finally caught up with us. Pulling out our map, we explained the book project that had us traveling around the world along that local latitude line.

The soldiers were there to meet a passenger ferry, which arrived at the dock a few minutes later. One held the leash of a narcotics-detection dog that splashed into the water and lapped a drink. The ferry provided local service; internal security is a priority in this Kurdish section of Turkey where tensions have led to violence.

Once the soldiers finished inspecting the arriving passengers and vehicles, the one who had spoken to us returned, saying that his commander invited us to come to their barracks in Battalgazi, have tea, and talk about their area's historic sites. We were not sure what to think of the invitation. Was declining really an option? We explained that we were using the public bus system.

They told us they could arrange a car ride for us. We walked with the translator to a sedan in which two men in civilian clothes sat in the front seat. They had been in the park when we arrived, perhaps undercover. Neither of those men spoke a word or even turned to look at us.

Our car raced by the slower truck full of soldiers. Again, we looked at each other, silently wondering just what was coming next. The car passed through town and then through a gate into the Battalgazi Gendarma Komutanligi compound. After the gate swung shut, we were politely escorted to a nearby patio and served tea and mulberries. The commander, another officer, and our translator-soldier joined us. (We asked everyone's name and also whether we could take their photographs, but were allowed only to record the name of Commander Samim Paksoy and that of the barracks.) They were gracious people, quite interested in our book project. On a map, we showed them our travel route across their country, and they pointed to their hometowns in central Turkey. They were proud of the nearby Arslantepe archaeological site and presented us with a book about mound excavations there, where an Italian group has been at work for 40 years.

Our worries proved a bit ridiculous, yet it was a big relief when our translator escorted us to a nearby bus station. When the public bus pulled up, he spoke to the driver about dropping us near our hotel in Malatya, and when we arrived, the driver would not accept any money for the fare.

Malatya is famous for its apricots and the colorful bazaar where they are sold. Kamal, an ageless, effervescent character with long curly hair around a bald dome, holds court in his travel "office"-a table at an outdoor café in the park-and arranges tours to Nemrut Dagi.

On that 7,000-foot mountaintop south of Malatya, a king named Antiochus I (who ruled Commagene, a kingdom bounded by the Euphrates River) built a monument to Roman and Persian gods in the first century B.C. and placed his own statue among them. Fine sculptors shaped the likenesses of Apollo, Zeus, Hercules, Tyche, and of course, King Antiochus himself. The magnificent sculpted heads were forgotten by history until they were rediscovered in 1882 by an archaeologist. Major restoration was completed in the early 1980s.

Nemrut Dagi is one of Turkey's must-see treasures, though it takes considerable effort to reach the mountain. We opted for an overnight trip to a lodge nestled a mile below the summit. The remote summit of Nemrut Dagi National Park lies almost exactly on our line, at 37°59′50″N.

We visited the mountaintop terraces and sculptures at sunset and again at sunrise. The massive figures once loomed 25 to 30 feet tall. Roughly hewn bodies still stood, but heads had fallen from above before they were unearthed. They still have a captivating, mystical quality. Honey-colored stone reflects the changing light, and the setting, on a conical mound crowned with small stones that may cover burial chambers, is magnificent. Shining through the morning mist, another reservoir could be seen far to the south, formed by Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates River-a reminder of the water source that irrigated the crops that generated the taxes that supported Antiochus's kingdom and made his extravagant monument possible.

Fairy Chimneys, Tuz Golu, Travertine, and a City That Lost Its Port

In the Cappadocia region of central Turkey, a full day's ride from Malatya on local buses, volcanic ash hardened into rock and eroded by water through the ages has created a fantasy landscape. We left the high mountains and river canyons behind, dropping down to agricultural valleys before following a twisting road into the fairy chimneys, towers, and mushroom shapes that surround the village of Goreme. In the distance a huge snow-capped volcano stood sentinel.

The whitish rock formations are locally called tufa. In our many years of telling visitors about Mono Lake's tufa towers-the photogenic limestone formed when springwater and lakewater mix-we had often heard about "tufa" formations in Cappadocia, though, technically, they are volcanic tuff. Layers of ash that consolidated into tuff rock were gradually eroded by flowing water and wind-blown sand. The ridges, columns, and freestanding towers that resulted were capped by a more resistant, darker layer of basalt, yielding mushroom shapes and distinctive "fairy chimneys." Residents carved cave houses and chapels into the formations, and many are still occupied, with gardens and apricot orchards adding to the Hobbit feel of the valleys. Visitors may even choose to stay in cave hotels complete with windows, terraces, and satellite dishes. Entire underground cities in multiple layers provided refuge during long-ago raids, and even horse stables had been carved into some of the larger rocks.

Three days was barely a beginning for exploring the lovely area. Most of our time was spent hiking, seeking the elevated viewpoints for looking down and across the valleys. Many tourists seek similar views in the dawn balloon rides that contribute significantly to the local economy. Wildflowers abounded, with Turkey mullein (another exotic pest at home that is native here) and irises decorating the hillside. A fox showed itself for a moment. Camels were there too, as a reminder of Turkey's historic connections with China via the Silk Road.

From Goreme, we made a day trip to find Tuz Golu, its name meaning "salt lake." Konya is the nearest big city in that hydrologically closed basin, a central Anatolian farming region renowned as Turkey's breadbasket (37°52′N). Some of the world's thirstiest crops are the specialties here: wheat, sugar beets, cotton, and corn. Turkey is the seventh-largest cotton and sixth-largest sugar beet producer in the world, yet less than one-tenth of it farmland uses modern irrigation techniques. In 2009, pilot projects developed on several hundred acres in Anatolia by World Wildlife Fund-Turkey installed drip irrigation and trained farmers to use the new system; the projects achieved 37 to 50 percent water savings.

Driving north toward Tuz Golu from Konya, we paralleled canals carrying the primary twenty-first-century source of water to the massive inland sea: treated sewage from the city. A huge white expanse shimmered in the heat, but it proved surprisingly hard to reach the shore of Turkey's second-largest lake. From its southern end at 38°30′N it extends north for 50 miles. "Hypersaline" is barely descriptive enough; at 33 percent salinity, this is one of the saltiest lakes in the world.

The water that filled Tuz Golu that spring was fast evaporating with the warm temperatures. The lake appeared tantalizingly close, but reaching the "shore" required a long slog through farm fields and wildflowers, with the water itself still far across Tuz Golu muck. In winter, the lake's deepest point is only six feet down. Every summer it goes almost completely dry, leaving behind a thick layer of salt that is commercially harvested and provides 64 percent of the nation's salt supply. Pollution entering the lake had been making its way onto dining tables via that salt, so a wastewater treatment plant, completed in 2009, had become an urgent health matter.

Despite its expanse, the lake's high salinity limits life. There were no waterbirds to be found that day, though the largest Turkish breeding colony of Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) nests on a group of islands in the southern part of the lake. Their numbers were low the year of our visit, but rebounded in 2011 to a record 16,000 young in a breeding season that followed heavy rainfall in central Anatolia. Plans to increase salt harvesting continue to be a threat, along with global warming and diversions of streams and groundwater to farms in the watershed.

We could see the lake's islands, doubled by their reflections on the water. Land birds did appear as we walked: storks and harriers flew overhead, while many small birds flitted in the fields. A startled jackrabbit bounded out of the grass. We wondered when it had last seen a human visitor. Our approach to the lake was definitely not developed for visitors, though Tuz Golu's water and surrounding wetlands have been declared a specially protected area.

Leaving Cappadocia's strange landscape, we boarded another public bus and headed west on modern highways that follow the ancient Silk Road caravan route into western Turkey. Some caravanserai locations-those "truck stops" for camel caravans-still serve transport and travelers. The driver stopped for gas in Sultannan, 3,000 feet above sea level, where a caravanserai was established in 1229 A.D. Above the high plain we were traveling, Mount Hasan towered in the distance, a conical snow-capped volcano 10,673 feet high, and one of the regional sources of the volcanic deposits that make Cappadocia so magical.

Turkey has the largest fleet of bus companies in the world, needed in a large country where few people own cars and gasoline is expensive. In the east, buses were older than in the western tourist zones, ran less frequently, and were more crowded. Even the older buses, though, were surprisingly comfortable. There was always a steward on board offering water, tea, and lemon hand freshener. The air conditioning usually worked. In the west, buses were fast and immaculate with nicer snacks.

Bus depots were clean, complete with young men or boys that greeted you with a cup of tea as you stepped off. (Tea is ubiquitous in Turkey. The famed Turkish coffee is rare and expensive.) At bus stops, men smoked outside, while the women disappeared into the restroom, where (Janet learned) headscarves came off and everyone lit a cigarette, away from the gaze of men.

One memorable ride began with a huge refrigerator being loaded under the bus. Later, the driver stopped at a roadside market where twenty cans of gasoline were laboriously poured one by one into the gas tank, while passengers smoked cigarettes a few feet away.

Tufa towers are the signature visual element at Mono Lake, so it was interesting to learn that the 38th parallel in western Turkey coincides with spectacular features made of calcium carbonate-the travertine terraces of Pamukkale National Park(37°55′N). Brilliant white terraces and aquamarine water draw tourists from around the world. The face of the travertine hillside looks out over orchards and wheat fields near the Büyük Menderes River (which twists so much it has given us the word meander). Lukewarm springwater at Pamukkale is loaded with calcium carbonate, which precipitates as travertine when exposed to air, in a process similar to cave stalactite formation. It is another example of how calcium, carbonate, and water combine to form beautiful features around the world. 

The white terraces must be dry to really gleam, so park staff shift the flow of warm springwater (95° Fahrenheit) throughout the day, which also provides changeable bathing experiences for visitors. The low-tech system includes ditches, sheets of metal, and plastic bags. The challenge for Pamukkale's managers is to protect the terraces while accommodating thousands of bikini-clad tourists. People are allowed to swim and frolic in artificial pools constructed along an old road routed through the natural terraces. A crew armed with brooms was cleaning dirt and algae from the area that was off-limits.

Adding to the scene are spectacular Roman ruins above the travertine hillside, where Heirapolis was founded in the second century B.C. as a thermal spa and healing center. Multiple earthquakes eventually forced the Romans to abandon the city. A well-preserved ancient theater overlooks Roman baths where modern visitors still float above broken marble columns on the bottom of the pool.

Our day in Pamukkale was an interesting mix of wading, people-watching, and archaeology, punctuated by the shrill whistles of guards whenever people ventured too far up the terraces or neglected to take their shoes off-bare feet are required for everyone, including the uniformed "rangers." The white hillside was lit up after dark, as frogs in the lake below croaked and warbled songs unlike any we had ever heard from the frogs we knew.

At the west coast, Turkey's grand archaeological jewel is Ephesus, which nestles in a canyon in a pine forest at 37°56′N. In its heyday, between 100 and 200 A.D., 250,000 people lived in this Roman capital of Asia Minor, making it the world's fourth-largest city after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. Notables such as Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, and Saint Paul are tied to the history of this great city. The founders of this Greek harbor town, created a man-made port at the mouth of the Cayster River, which kept silting in, requiring the Greeks and then the Romans to continually dredge the navigation channel. As part of the Byzantine Empire between the fourth and thirteenth centuries, the Ephesians stopped maintaining that critical tie with the outside world, and river sediments pushed the shoreline several miles away. Ephesus had to give way to Samos as the key port in the region.

Today, from the top of the huge amphitheater the sea is barely a gleam in the distance, five miles away. Hints of the city's watery history remain, however, with a Harbor Boulevard (paved with marble), harbor gymnasium and baths, and wetland marshes where the port used to be. At the edge of the marsh, on an old church site, several little frogs hopped across the stone floor. 

The Celsus Library of Ephesus, built in 117 A.D., is breathtaking, even when crowded with tourists from the cruise ships that dock in Kusadasi. Terrace houses replete with frescoes and mosaics are being pieced back together like giant jigsaw puzzles. Our new Turkish friend, proprietor of the Liman Hotel beside the modern port, said that what impressed him most about Ephesus was how its ancient residents constructed buildings "without any sticky stuff" (mortar) or modern measuring instruments.

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is the nearby Temple of Artemis, just outside Selçuk, which served travelers stopping to pay homage to the goddess on their way to Ephesus. An early version of the temple, constructed about 550 B.C., was destroyed by fire, and a grander replacement begun in 356 B.C. It was still under construction in 333 when Alexander the Great came to Ephesus.

About 140 B.C., Antipater of Sidon named the world's seven wondrous sites, in a list that praised the Temple of Artemis above all the others:

I have seen the walls of rock-like Babylon that chariots can run upon, and the Zeus on the Alpheus, and the Hanging Gardens and the great statue of the Sun, and the huge labor of the steep pyramids, and the mighty Tomb of Mausolus; but when I looked at the house of Artemis, soaring to the clouds, those others were dimmed. Apart from Olympus, the sun never looked upon its like.

Antipater, XCI, 69 (Gow and Page, 1968)

Only one, 60-foot-high column remains to hint of the 127 marble columns in that great temple (the Parthenon in Athens has 86 columns). The single column remaining incorporates dissociated fragments discovered on the site in the twentieth century. Storks were nesting on top when we were there.

Artemis was a fertility goddess for the people of Ephesus. Her statue in the museum in Selçuk has multiple breasts (or they may have represented eggs or even bull testicles, according to the museum staff). The site is marshy; Pliny the Elder wrote that such wet ground was preferable as protection against earthquakes. In 391 A.D. the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great closed the temple after declaring Christianity the new state religion.

The contrast between hordes of cruise ship tour groups at Ephesus and the lonely Temple of Artemis was striking. We wandered alone in the marsh at the end of an unmarked road that once held one of the wonders of the ancient world. Imposing monuments can, it turns out, have fleeting lives, making those that still remain along the marbled streets of Ephesus that much more precious.

Our westward progression through Cappadocia and Pamukkale had shown us the role of water in spectacular natural landscape features and historical sites that are major attractions for travelers. Until Cappadocia, we had seen almost no other international tourists since leaving the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an, China, thousands of miles to the east. We had crossed 750 miles of inland Turkey by this time, and a dominant impression was how surprisingly green the country appeared. In our ignorance we had envisioned Middle Eastern deserts. Instead, almost all of the land out the bus windows was irrigated and cultivated, except where highways ascended mountain ridges. Turkey is bountiful enough to feed its population and still have extra produce and grain for export, though the country's key rivers have been tamed at the expense of history and nature and a tremendous waste of farm water could be saved by reforming irrigation practices.

Across Asia, from Korea to Turkey, many water problems we encountered remain unresolved. The South Korean project to "restore" its four major rivers was racing toward completion, at the expense of river ecosystems, riparian vegetation, and farmland. No effective measures have been taken to reduce river diversions in Turkmenistan to help the Aral Sea. Although international voices speak out against Turkey's plan to flood ancient Hasankeyf, that government still continues construction on the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River. Tensions between Turkey and nations downstream that share the Tigris and Euphrates heighten concerns about peace in the Middle East. Yet we were impressed by the energy and dedication of activists and park professionals in those nations, even in Turkey, where activists risk arrest when they oppose official government programs.

Our route now entered the Mediterranean, a region that shares climate patterns and a number of water challenges with our home state of California.