Last Descent of the Great Bend of the Yangtze - Part I
In my short tenure at International Rivers, I've come to expect dams in every corner of every country around the globe. Still, I was shocked by the ubiquitous nature of these concrete beasts as we flew above China. On the three-hour flight south from Beijing to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, I counted over 70 dams.
This was excellent preparation for our possible last descent of the Great Bend of the Yangtze River. If these small, insignificant streams were subject to that much engineering, certainly China's signature river, the Yangtze, or Jinsha as it's known in this region, would be a primary target of China's ambitious hydropower companies. I was about to find out that there are no shortage of future plans to tame the Yangtze's waters, already home to the Three Gorges Dam (the world's largest man-made structure and possibly its largest environmental disaster).
I arrived in Lijiang, an 800-year-old stone town surrounded by a rapidly spreading Chinese city, to meet the rest of the team. This was no ordinary bunch of American adrenaline junkies. The participants had been hand-selected by Last Descents River Expeditions (LD) and China Rivers Project (CRP), US and China-based organizations whose combined mission is to protect China's river heritage and encourage conservation - by taking Chinese media, policy-makers, and citizens to experience first-hand those very same rivers. The organizers assembled Chinese and American journalists, scientists, and environmentalists of the highest caliber. Many of the Chinese were able to join the trip for free as part of LD/CRP's scholarship program - after all, if you want people to try something new sometimes you've got to entice them.
Seven days guiding a raft down one of China's grandest canyons? They didn't have to convince me.
Take Me to the River
Yulong Snow Mountain looms over Lijiang like a Himalayan step-child. Over 18,000 feet high, it has been tempting international mountaineers for decades, but word on the street is that it's never been summitted. It's a sacred mountain to the local Naxi people, a minority group numbering some 300,000 in Southern China. While there are no laws forbidding its ascent, the members of an unsuccessful Japanese expedition in the 1980's might attest to the fact that the mountain itself doesn't want to be climbed - if they hadn't died trying.
We opted to go around the mountain instead of over it. A three-hour drive brought us to the picturesque village of Daju. While we ate lunch, our trip leader spoke to some local farmers about coming down to the end of the road to help us carry our gear to the river's edge. For a fair price they were happy to oblige, and thank goodness for that - it was a half mile and 200 vertical feet from the spot where our truck got stuck, and we had more than two tons of gear.
While 11 people spent a day pumping up rafts, rigging them with aluminum frames, and strapping in a week's worth of food and supplies, the rest of the group sauntered through one of China's most scenic canyons - Tiger Leaping Gorge - on their way to a charming local guest house. I won't say which group I was privileged to be part of, but let's just say that having to wait 15 minutes for a freshly-baked walnut cake while sipping scotch and watching the sunset over one of the most dramatic rapids in the world was not a hardship through which I had to suffer. In any case, the leisure crew arrived the next morning well-rested and ready to jump aboard. After a few days of hard work it was finally time to let the river take over.
Shoving off the shore into the current, I was overcome with joy and let out a few yee-has, betraying my crude American river-rat history. I'd heard a few tales about what lay downstream, but they were all vague enough that no mental picture had yet formed in my head. I didn't yet know what the rapids would be like, or that the canyon walls would tower thousands of feet straight up, or that the water would be a milky emerald green for the entire 120 miles of our trip. I didn't even know we'd be going that far.
Up until the previous day, we'd all been told that the plan was to go 65 miles - halfway down the Great Bend of the Yangtze - taking out at the ancient stone village of Baoshan, before we reached the second of the under-construction dams on this section. Thankfully, our trip leader, Travis Winn, had done a reconnaisance of the trip a few days prior, and determined that although construction was well under way, we would in fact be able to pass the Ahai Dam site. The news that we'd be able go the full distance was doubly welcome - not only did that mean more time on the river, it also meant we'd get to see with our own eyes this controversial mega-project.
The Ahai Dam, one of a cascade of eight dams planned for the Yangtze between Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Three Gorges Dam, had already caused the only other raft trip this year to abort the lower section of the trip. It will almost certainly be far enough along by the time next year's rafting season rolls around to prevent another group from passing through. After that, if the Ahai and its sister dams continue at their current pace, the entire Great Bend will soon be one long reservoir. That's a big loss for those of us privileged enough to have been able to see its grandeur, but to a Naxi villager whose family has spent generations living here, farming and building terraces into the steep walls of the valley - well, it's hard for me to even comprehend how they might feel.
That feeling of impending tragedy would follow us throughout our journey, even as we cheered through rapids and laughed over cold beers in camp.
(Part 1 in a 3 part series - photos by Colin Carpenter)