On June 27th, 2017, Zaduo county, Qinghai province, the Last Descents rafted through the Jiamoma shoal successfully on a rubber boat in the Lancang river’s core area Angsai Grand Canyon.
Rafting is an emerging sport for the sports industry in China, especially long-distance rafting trips that last for a few days. At present, there aren’t many rivers in the country have the conditions for rafting and there is also a lack of such services.
This time in the 57th issue of Photo Gallery, we followed China Raft to Sanjiangyuan National Park’s Lancangjiang area and experienced a long-distance rafting trip that lasted eight days, getting an exclusive view of this magnificent land that would soon to become an official national park. A rafting team from Colorado’s Grand Canyon showed TMTPost how a professional team organizes and operates long-distance rafting activities.
Today, there is an increasing number of Chinese people interested in hiking and trekking in the wilds. What potential does this demand provide? And what is it really like to be out in the wild? This time, Travis Winn, founder of Last Descents, is taking TMTPost to the field to find some answers.
June 23rd, 2017, at Yushu, Qinghai province. Several days before the journey began, Last Descents’ team was having a preparation meeting. Captain Jed was briefing 12 guests from the U.S. on the trip details, and giving out water-proof bags and rafting suits.
The water-proof bags contained sleeping bags and some belongings of the guests. In 2006, Travis Winn, founded Last Descents, which means the last rafting. Hydropower stations are now being built around the country, making it increasingly impossible for raft enthusiasts to raft in many regions in China. That said, a first raft in a certain river might be the last one.
This time the team would be rafting along the Zhaqu river, a journey of 120km, which would last eight days. The day before they hit the road, the captains and local workers were relocating the necessities to the departure point in Yushu’s Zaduo county. There were six captains for the entire trip, including Travis Winn himself. Five out of them are American, while only one is Chinese. All of them are seasoned raft captains, with over ten years of experience in rafting in Colorado’s Grand Canyon. The rafting industry in China is far from mature, and therefore it’s not very easy to find professional equipment that meet the safety standards of a long-distance rafting trip. Winn purchased these equipment from the U.S.
Tang Jianzhong was the only Chinese captain in the team. He was the cook and responsible of making dinners for the whole crew. Tang became a mountain guide in the 90s and started to set foot in rafting in 2004. He has accumulated a rafting distance of over 7,000km, having rafted in the Grand Canyon, White Salmon, Preyett, Nanpan river, Lancang river, Nu river, Babian river, Niulan river, Tongtian river, Jinsha river etc. He is the only Chinese captain who had successfully rafted from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek at the Grand Canyon, which is a distance of 360km, without tipping in all dangerous bunds.
The day the guests were about to depart, Zaduo county’s party committee secretary Cai Danzhou came to say goodbye. Zaduo county is where Lancang river originates from. Famous for cordyceps, the county has strong biodiversity. It’s home to wild animals like leopards, snow leopards, grizzly bears, wolves, white-lipped deer, bharals, Tibetan foxes, red foxes etc. The local government has a strong interest in the development of rafting industry. As a high-end sport activity, rafting doesn’t require much supporting infrastructures and creates little influence over the local environment. This makes rafting an opportunity of nature preservation, cultural development and local economic development.
Before departure, captain Jonah was explaining safety details to the crew. There were four rafts, four kayaks, and one paddle boat. The kayaks would have a fixed crew, while other crew members would stay on the other boats. Everyone would stay on a different ship controlled by a different captain. The rafting schedule was quite flexible. The captains would adjust the daily distance goal in accordance with the weather and the crew’s conditions. “We will not rush it. We can enjoy this national park as we slowly drift along the river. It’s just as magnificent as the Grand Canyon.”
Jonah is an experienced captain from the Grand Canyon as well as an outdoor sports photographer and documentary maker. When he was first taken to a raft activity by his parents, he was only nine months ago. And this time, he is the safety director on the boats.
Lancang river flows through six countries and goes into the south China sea. It’s the seventh longest river in the world and it’s called Mekong river. In early 80s, Travis Winn’s father Pete was rafting in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau for scientific research in partnership with Chinese Academy of Sciences. Influenced by his father, Winn had developed a strong interest in China’s raging rivers.
Travis Winn’s father is a geologist, and an expert of rafting. When he was five months old, his parents took him to raft. At the age of 13, he had already finished rafting along the Grand Canyon on his own. Travis Winn started to raft in China in 2000. During the past 17 years, Winn had rafted in Butongtian river, Jinsha river, Ya-lung river, Nu river, Lancang river etc. in China. Every year, Wen Dachuan spends four months on the river in China. The upper stream region of Lancang river is one of his favorite. He believes that no matter who comes here to raft, he or she would have a brand new perception of China’s river. They would become aware that China also has such a beautiful and natural place that has been protected well. “Everyone will be proud of China once they enter this river and see this view.”
At noon, the “fleet” would dock at the bund to have lunch. Despite the bumpy journey, the crew would have breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. They always had lunch at a temporary site. Before leaving again, every guest in the team would need to fill up an information form that asked them about their eating habits, health condition etc. The captain would make preparation for team members with special needs.
Cold western dishes were provided for lunch. When preparing and eating the meal, only some organic wastes would be disposed in the river. Other solid wastes would be carried along by the team and would be disposed on shore after the rafting journey ends.
Before lunch, Drew and his little daughter lined up to wash their hands. The water used for hand washing and drinking is the river water, purified by professional medicine. The purification process would take about 12 hours, and after that the water quality can reach the drinking water standard in the U.S.
Drew and his two daughters are from Idaho state. The three of them completed the journey by rafting the kayaks. This was the third time they came to China for rafting. The two daughters were born in China. When they were only ten months old. Drew adopted them in China and brought them back to the U.S.
Drew runs a company in the Silicon Valley. He purposefully brings his daughters to China to raft. “I am hoping that my two daughters would understand the rivers in China better and learn to respect these magnificent rivers. I bring them back to their birthplace to give them the chance to see their hometown, to know their roots and origins. This matters a lot in our house,” Drew told TMTPost.
This is a kayak enthusiast family. Drew’s two daughters learned to kayak at the age of three. They began kayaking in a still lake and kept practicing for four years before trying it on an actual river. Drew’s elder daughter is now 14 years old while the other one is two years younger. Growing up in a household passionate about outdoor sports, the two girls has been receiving systematic and professional sports training. Besides kayaking, they also once made it into the top 10 at the American Youth Skiing Competition.
Jiamoma shoal is the most dangerous shoal for the whole trip. Located at the core area of Angsai Grand Canyon, sharp rocks would even surface when the water level at the Jiamoma shoal lowers. Legend has it that there was a young man wanting to cross the river here. To ensure safety, he asked a fortune teller whether he should cross it from here or not. “You can cross it, but I don’t advise you to do so. Bad luck would happen to you after you cross the river,” the fortune teller said. The young man did jump across the river at last. After reaching the other side, he couldn’t help and looked back. Then he just fell into the river and drowned.
Captain Tang was observing the water at the shoal. During rafting, the captain would observe the water flow all the time. When going through dangerous shoals, they would pay extra attention. By observing the water, they can judge if the risk is within control range or if it’s acceptable. If they decided to cross a shoal, they would need to find a route for the boats and make back-up plans for worst case scenarios, for instance, if the boats tipped.
When the kayaks were crossing the shoal, Travis Winn was paddling around the downstream of the shoal. On this water level, the boats could cross the shoal directly. But the boats still risked of tipping as the waves raged along. There were swirls and intense waves in this area. If people fell into the river, the situation could be very dangerous. An immediate rescue would be essential.
Captain Jonah paddled with a kayak through the Jiamoma shoal. For a professional rafter, knowing the pattern of rivers is a powerful weapon. The river pattern can be used by the rafter to get to the destination. However, great skills and techniques are required to do so.
Female captain Kristin brought two guests through the Jiamoma shoal with a rubber boat. Going through shoals is a way of embracing the mighty power of rivers. “When we get on the boat and the boat is pushed into the river, we feel the power of the river immediately. At this moment, humans and nature are united as one,” Travis said.
During April to October each year, Kristin would be rafting on different rivers of the U.S. and China. “I leave home every spring. I won’t be able to see my family until eight months later,” she said, telling TMTPost that her families didn’t really understand her career choice at first. “The turning point was the time I took my mom to raft on a river. This is not an ordinary job. My mom saw the power rivers give me. She saw that I am happy on the river and started to understand my choice of option.”
Another female captain in the crew, Kelli, is a very outgoing American girl. The mystic and naturally unique Zhequ river is the most beautiful river she has rafted on, she said. Kelli also travels between China and the U.S. every year and rafts on the two countries’ rivers. She believes that each river has its own god. The strength of a river is greater than us humans, and each rafter should respect the river, she said. Kelli loves her work and life on the river. “The most beautiful place on earth is my office. I wouldn’t have exchanged it for anything.”
Kelli’s father passed away when she was nine. Losing somebody that important at such a young age made her realize that life is too short and she should pursue things she really likes and just enjoy life itself. “Every time I look up to the starry sky in the evening when drifting on the river, the brightest star would be my dad. He looks at me from above. This was how I felt when I was a kid, and I still feel the same.”
To provide the guests with a deeper understanding of the national park, the captains also arranged three hikes during the eight-day rafting trip. On June 28th, two American guests were hiking in the park.
View from the Niebeng Sacred Mountain. This sacred mountain is located in the Lancang river’s Angsai Grand Canyon in Sanjiangyuan National Park. There is a large area of Danxian landform from the cretaceous period in the park.
On a peak near the Niebeng Sacred Mountain, a weathered Buddha is watching the valley from above. The rock on the peak had been weathered to a buddha head shape. Looking from the distant, it’s like a buddha is watching from above. Local people call the rock sea snail. In the valley, there are an ancient temple and tower facing this rock.
During the trek, hikers have to climb up hills decorated with prayer flags. The accompanying Chinese culture ambassador introduced the stories of prayer flags and Mani rock stacks etc. to the guests. The ambassador is a local person, proficient in speaking Mandarin, Tibetan and English. He introduces Tibetan culture to the guests and tell them stories of local legends and myths.
On July 1st, the hikers trekked to a temple at the bund of Lancang river. After the visit, they started to play basketball with the monks.
Two bharal were eating on a hillside near the river. When hiking and rafting, wild animals such as bharal, hawks, eagles, snow leopards, and bears etc. were often spotted.
Buzz is a lawyer and college teacher. Buzz and his wife joined the rafting tour to see their son Jed, who was one of the captains. The pair has a son and a daughter. The daughter is a city girl, and went to work in New York, while the son Jed loves nature. Jed left to live in the nature before he turned 20. In the past, Buzz and his wife would worry more about Jed than their daughter as he lived a “natural life”. After rafting with their son and learning about the life in the wild, they had changed their mindset. “Compared with our son who lives in the nature, our daughter faces more dangers in the city.”
After one day of rafting, the boats were docked at the bund. Captain Jed was setting up bitts at the bund. Buzz misses his kids a lot, but he always tells himself to hold them close and let them go. “In America, many kids were badly wounded in a war or were even killed. Their families are still living their lives. They are very strong. Compared with them, I haven’t lost anything. This is nothing,” Buzz said, thinking that even though he hardly sees his son, he’s happy that his son is doing something he’s passionate about and is living a happy life.
Everyone would need to help unload the necessities and equipment. When setting up a camp or leaving for the next destination, everyone would line up to move the equipment and necessities.
When the guests were setting up their tents and sorting out their personal belongings, the captains were preparing dinner. Tonight’s dinner was Chinese food, made by Tang. Every meal was different. Tang loves to study cooking and had once opened a restaurant. “As a cook, I feel very satisfied seeing everybody eating up all the dishes I made.”
The camp’s temporary toilet was a square shape hole dug by the crew. Once finished using the toilet, the user had to throw some soil into the hole to cover the waste. And when the crew was about the depart the next day, the captains would fill up the hole with soil completely. All the waste papers would be taken away in bags. Toilet paper was put on a “toilet table near the toilet”, acting as a “key”. If there was no toilet paper on the table, it means somebody was using the toilet now.
The guests would have enough time to set up tents, manage their belongings, and stroll around the camp every day they arrived a camping site.
In the camp, two marmots were taking a peep at the humans. In this grassland where wild flowers blossom, marmots had set up their homes here. These little animals didn’t seem to be scared by the presence of humans.
In the camp, marmots were interacting with humans closely. The wild nature gives people a sense of security. It’s also a safe haven for the animals here.
A guest was walking along the Lancang river near the camp. In the nature, people start to find their role and position in life when they realize they are not able to control the environment around them. They fit into the nature. “It’s not like realizing how small we are we will be unhappy. Instead, we would come to understand that we don’t have to think too much. We only need to learn about nature’s law, and respect nature. Then we do whatever we are able to do,” Travis believes that a sense of security would grow from a harmonious relationship with the nature.
Around the camp, two guests were sitting by the boat and reading. The Last Descents set up a River Library, which provides the guests with books on nature, environment and river, in both English and Chinese.
It happened to be a guest’s birthday. The captains prepared him a birthday present: some snacks that were popular when he was in a boy scout. Everybody gathered around the camp fire and sang him a birthday song. He was amazed.
The captains would organize games and activities in the camp. In an obstacle run competition, two guests would need to pass many obstacles to reach the finish line.
In the last day’s afternoon, the crew gathered together and shared their experiences and thoughts during the trip. These people who were strangers to each other had become friends.
The milky way was shining above the camp in a tranquil night.
Before leaving for the next destination, the mountain before the camp was shrouded by mist.
After a small rain in the morning, the captain blew the horn after preparing breakfast to wake up the rest of the crew. This time, Jed played his guitar in front of the tents to provide “morning call service”.
Every morning before hitting the road, there would be a poem session, a lecture on river, or a group yoga. During a lecture, Winn shared his opinions on the planning of the China national park and introduced Zhaqu’s status to the western guests. “Some people think this place should be planned as the rest of the popular tourist attractions in the country. But I don’t think it’s a good idea. China has too many tourist attractions but little wilds. If a country didn’t have any place that’s natural and wild, then this country’s kids, or adults, would never grow up. The people in this country would never know what is true nature.”
On the grassland near the river, a deserted house stood lonely on the side. In Winn’s opinion, China’s national park can’t just copy America’s and asks all the local residents to move away. “I am drawn to here because there are people to meet and talk to here. These people will tell you how much they love their homeland. They will tell you the names of the sacred mountains and rivers, the myths and the legends. They will tell you the usage of the plants out there. Their ancestors and themselves have been living in this place for many years. They respect the environment and understand the river. Their relationship with the nature is in harmony.”
A narrow road goes along the spanning river in Angsai Grand Canyon. In 2013, encouraged by government policy, the local government built this road along Lancang river to make it more convenient for villagers to commute. The local government has always wanted to make this road better and wider to allow bigger cars to drive on since that. “This could be a top-notch hiking route,” Travis said. “If they made this road more modern, the national park would lose its appeal. People who drive to enter this place wouldn’t spend much time exploring and enjoying the nature here, and therefore they wouldn’t have much impression after they left. And it generates little profit for local villagers.”
July 2nd, afternoon. The rafting journey had come to an end as the rafting team reached the final destination. The captains and guests unloaded all necessities and equipment together and washed the boats, then carried the boats back to the shore.
It took a long time to exhaust all the air of the rubber boats, so everyone just jumped on them to put up pressure. Eight days without smartphones and computers, as well as urban social life, the guests enjoyed a long period of pure happiness. “When people realize they don’t really need all those material stuff, they will find the balance. And when they achieve so, they will become the best of themselves when back in society.”
Travis Winn started to arrange the following events when back in the base. The Last Descents is now training rafting captains for the local region to equip the local government with qualified personnel to provide rafting service. It’s envisioned that rafting system similar to that of the Grand Canyon will be built here to let more people enjoy the magnificent rivers and mountains of China and raise the awareness of nature preservation.
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Translated by Garrett Lee (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.