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Field Notebook

December 28, 2007
Tibet #1

I wake not sure if it is day or night. China Air, westbound over the Pacific. The plane sends a muffled, continuous roar across hundreds of nodding heads. I lean over and crack the window shade. White light breaks through. Where are we? Below is a coastline, long, white waves arriving on the east shore of Siberia. Flying inland, we pass over spruce-green forest, a flat, Arctic jungle. A big, broad river comes into view. What is that river? It must have a name. But I know none of the names here. I know deserts, and the way sand drifts in the wind. I know the Colorado, the Salt, the Bavispe. Forty years of my life spent between the Rocky Mountains and Sonora have worn a comfortable groove into me, so many names I could write a dictionary. Sometimes I wish I was in my home landscape, and I was not on this flight. Trade a month in a remote quarter of Tibet for an equal month in the west end of the Grand Canyon. I know the secret paths in the Canyon, the countless stone corridors. Here I know nothing. Still, I took the job. With clean notebooks ready in my pack, I was heading for a river. Not the river passing below, but another river beyond Siberia and beyond the heart of China, past the Yellow and the Yangtze to the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. It is the upper Salween, and it has never been run in a boat The size of the Colorado, it churns through 17,000-foot mountains. Its gorges are uncharted, disappearing into the digital folds of Google Earth. No one has ever tried it before. It is too remote, too unknown. Afraid? Before starting the trip, I asked Jason Moore, a Colorado boatman who is also on the expedition, if he was afraid. Jason, 43 years old, is a Hollywood-handsome man. He would be good on camera. He purses his lips and considers my question. "No. No, not afraid," he says. "Just concerned." Leaning over my tray table, noodles and tea, I study the empty quarter of Siberia passing below. There are no roads or settlements. More rivers come into view, long, silver loops of lost geography. River after river, Asia empties itself into the sea. I grow tired counting. I close the shade and fall back asleep.

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