TOM #7

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition


The Yellow River

The Yellow River features in my book:  ‘The Other Marco’,  so I thought I would share with you some of the research reading I have done about this interesting waterway in China.

At 5,464 km long, it is the second longest river in Asia.  Its drainage area is a massive 742,443 square kilometers, and was the region where the ancient Chinese civilization originated.  The river was revered for its abundance and feared for its unpredictability.  Rich farmlands, producing plentiful crops for years along the river banks would be swept away periodically by devastating floods.  The Yellow River is also known as China’s Sorrow.  1.6 billion tons of soil is lost annually through erosion and millions of people can die in a single flood disaster.  In 1332/3, barely 40 years after Marco Polo left China, 7 million people were drowned in a massive flood.

The name ‘Yellow River’ describes the ochre colored sediment called loess that the river picks up when flowing across the Loess Plateau.  This ‘mud’ is deposited along the river bed and builds up on the banks when the water slows down across the flood plain, effectively creating a silt trough in which the river is not only contained, but causing it to flow higher than the surrounding country side.  Breaching through this accumulation, sends the water flooding across the low lying land and can change the river’s course as it has done 26 times between 608 BCE and 1938 CE.  The Yellow River has flooded more than 1,500 times during this same period.


TOMyellow R

The Chinese people stand in awe of the Yellow River, and see it not only as a river, but also as the symbol of the Chinese spirit: able to carry burdens as the river must carry the yellow sediment, the ability to adapt as the river changes course when confronted by obstacles and the determination to persevere as the river continues to flow.

Unhappily the symbol of continual flow has been challenged.  Global warming, decreased rainfall in the catchment area, increased water demands from industry and farming has dried up the river for long periods since 1972. [226 days in 1997!]  Even when the river runs now, it is so polluted with sewage from the growing cities along its course that industry and agriculture cannot use it.  The Chinese spirit will have to find a less contaminated symbol to portray perseverance in the future.


One can only hope that this once magnificent river will not share the same fate as the Aral sea.  This vast lake [formally one of the four largest lakes on the world] has dried up almost totally since 1960 due to the rivers feeding into it being rerouted to irrigate huge tracts of desert for crop growing, noticeably cotton.  The disappearing of the Aral sea is known as ‘one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters’. [I would like to add ‘man made disasters’]  Type Aral Sea on Google Images and see the rusted hulks of ships lying around in the desert that once was the sea floor.  I wonder what symbol this portrays?


Ships of the desert lie in the shade of ships in the desert.


The following extract is from the book: ‘The Other Marco’.

TOM [the other Marco] is sent on an errant down the Yellow River on a barge, and experiences the following ultimate adventure when the boat crew senses that a flood is imminent and suggests that they pull up onto high ground and prepare for it:


We reached the island as the pilot had predicted by late afternoon.  The horses were unloaded to graze.  Most of the heavier trunks and boxes were also taken off the boat to make it lighter. Then, using all the available hands, we hauled the boat up the embankment, as high as we could. I judged that the back of the barge was about twice my height above the level of the water.  It did not look high enough to me, but the pilot and the helmsman seemed satisfied.  We were ready to wait.

As it got dark, I looked at the slow moving shallow water once more and lay down to sleep.  Sometime during the night, I awoke to the sound of voices up river.  I sat up, but it was too dark to see anything, so I listened for a while, till it was quiet, and then slept again.

In the morning, a grey mist hung over the river.  It was still flowing slowly along.  I glanced up river and saw a boat aground on the silt.  They had obviously become stuck in the night, which accounted for the voices.

Looking about, I noticed our Mongolian escort was on the highest part of the island, well above the water, rubbing their horses down. Some of the porters were carrying a bag of rice back to the barge to cook.  Our crew was gathered in a small group on the sand bank.  I looked down river where we still had to go, but it was shrouded in mist, so I turned back to see if we could help the stranded boat behind us.  Up river, in the distance, I became aware of a hazy brown disturbance across the water, from one bank, across to the other.  I recognized it at once.  A wall of yellow, boiling water was racing towards us! 

 Driven by fear, I instinctively wanted to scream, but in that instant, I forced myself to not sound scared, and in a controlled and commanding voice, shouted, “Here comes the flood! Get ready!”

The porters dropped the bag of rice and raced to the barge.  The boat crew quickly leapt on board as well.  The Mongolian horsemen settled on staying where they were.  They must have considered their position was high enough and safe.

The helmsman untied the long steering paddle, and both he and the pilot swung it into position.  Everyone else clung to some strong support on the boat and stared at the approaching water.  Yasu braced himself against the stout post onto which the bamboo tow rope was tied.

Tzun and I checked that the box of documents was securely wedged in the locker where it was kept for the trip.  Our other baggage was stacked above the boat on the embankment.  All we could hope for was that the water would not reach us, but pass lower than the back of our boat.

I stared with mounting anxiety at the seething mass of angry water rushing towards us.  A confusion of wreckage tumbled in its leading edge.  We watched in horror as it slammed into the stranded boat below us, shoving the back straight upwards and catapulting the vessel over the bow that had been driven into the yellow silt.  In a flash it was gone, and the surge leapt at us without faltering. 


This short extract from my book: ‘The Other Marco’ describes how I imagined what a real Yellow River flood would have been like.  Needless to say, in all adventure story writing, the situation becomes worse as a second, higher wave catches up to the first one.  Scary!

I am still not sure if the book should be illustrated when it is published.  That decision will no doubt be made with the publisher’s help later.  However, this blog can have pictures, so this is how I see the extract above as a drawing.  Enjoy.




See you in TOM #8 soon.  Monsters 4 Monsters will sport a weird Shark like creature!