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In 1998, I became involved in a ragtag whitewater expedition to Southwestern China. Our goal was the first descent of the Nu Jaing, the “Angry River.” This is the river the Burmese call the Salween. We ran the roughly 200-mile stretch from the rim of the Tibetan Plateau, through an enormous canyon cut into the Himalayan foothills north of the Burma border, down to the lowland jungle. We were the first long-noses to be allowed into the area since the Revolution. The hill people were a medley of small, subsistence farming minority cultures such as the Nu, Litsu, and Naxshi, most of apparently Indochinese origin. (A few are of mysterious origin. Anyone know of a good anthropology?). Most of them didn’t speak Chinese, and many had never met a Han Chinese, much less a Westerner. They were all terribly concerned that we would drown our silly selves in their river, not without reason.
The trip was organized by a local lawyer, Jennifer, who had studied Chinese law, spoke Manderin badly, and had scouted the river from a rented Jeep the previous year. She was not of sound mind (a picaresque tale in itself) but nevertheless managed to assemble a force of about twenty including a handful of expert rivermen, some casual paddlers such as myself, a few tourists, and several of the tiny community of Chinese river rats.
For once of only twice, I kept a journal of the expedition, and have meant for many years to transcribe it. We were featured in Chinese newspapers and television at the time, but the only published report that has made it back to America, to my knowledge, was a two-page article in Paddler Magazine. “Other Voices” gave me a nudge, at last, to get started. Here, then, is an account of our first few days on the river. Many spellings of Chinese names are wild guesses, for which I apologize.
The expedition started with a long, somewhat life-threatening bus ride over slippery, monsoon-soaked mountain roads. The roads were often crowded with walking tractors, bicycles, and grannies with haystacks on their backs—all of which the driver blithely passed on blind curves. After a while, we didn’t even want to know. We progressed from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, across the Yangtze and Mekong rivers to Fuling, where the Nu flows out of the mountains. At every village, we stopped, hauled out our instruments, and had a musical street party to meet the locals. Mike always picked “Heart of Gold.” Food and lodging were the sort used by locals, about $5 a day.
We drove for a few days up the cobblestone highway along the river to its high point at the Tibetan border. I worked with Mike Gheleta (Justice Department environmental lawyer and former river guide on the Rogue) to sketch a map of the river including good camping beaches and major rapids. We tried to estimate the severity of the rapids, often at a mile’s distance (with poor results, as you’ll see). We were much handicapped when Jennifer confiscated my GPS and Defense Mapping Agency charts, fearing the Commies would start asking questions.
At last we arrived at Baoshang, the end of the road and the last village below Tibet, where I pick up the tale:
October 29: A dirty little village, the streets a quagmire with pigs rooting in the garbage. The monsoon continues...We stopped at the local guesthouse and immediately set to work unloading the truck into a paved courtyard. We sorted things as best we could in the rain and chaos, and hired many villagers to help us carry the boats and gear five slippery kilometers down rice paddies to the river. Between loads, we grabbed an excellent meal, mostly cooked by our comrade Yu Guin Guin. As always, the locals were friendly, curious, and crowded.
We arrived at the beach in great disorder. Guin Guin helped me pitch my tent (and is constantly helping me down steps and such. Concerned for the elderly?) She’s a beautiful young woman, a professor of sport at a university in Beijing, famous for having circumnavigated all of China on one of their horrible, heavy, one-speed bicycles. [Afterword: she later married Phil Wegener, one of our kayakers, and moved to Boulder. She’s still here.]
Frank and I threw up a couple of big tarps for group shelter. We found we were down there with no food and little camping gear for the Chinese. Shih opposed having people climb the mud back to the village in the dark. Finally, he and a couple of others came down with a few buckets of flatbread, apples, and Spam. We even managed to make a little music. Guin Guin and the doctor taught Zia and me a beautiful traditional melody.
October 30: Shih berated Jennifer, who’d gone to bed oblivious to the chaos. The rest of us breakfasted on bread, water, and rice gruel. I spent the morning talking to a pretty TV reporter, and helping to bring down the rest of the gear. All still in RELENTLESS RAIN. The Chinese are pretty uncomfortable. Their tents and sleeping bags really aren’t up to this weather. They moved their gear into some shallow caves along the beach, fretting about snakes: we’d seen a livid green viper (dead) in the Gongshan market.
Finally Mike, Norbert, and I floundered back to Baoshang to finish drawing the maps. Shih was also paranoid about the Authorities seeing our maps, so we took a pot of cha up to the bus driver’s room and labored the evening away. We missed most of the pre-launch party, but finally walked down to the Middle School for leftovers of rice, goat, and vile brandy, all by candle-light in the school woodshop. The students crowded around demanding autographs. Beautiful kids! The school is on a bluff above a wooded gorge where a roaring waterfall drives a small power plant. A wildly romantic place.
A hundred autographs later we skidded in the slime and dark back to the beach, where Shih got us roaring drunk around a bonfire. Everyone’s tent leaked a little, and the zipper on my ancient North Face failed (again).
October 31: The monsoon is running very late. It hasn’t stopped raining since we entered Yunnan, and it’s STILL raining. Jennifer still hasn’t figured out logistics, so we scratched up a breakfast of rice gruel and potatoes baked in last night’s bonfire. We worked hard to break camp and get the boats rigged before the Press arrived. By 10:00 the beach was crowded with a few hundred villagers and reporters, who didn’t get in the way too much. I recruited a couple of boys to bail out the oared raft and carry it to the water.
We finally launched about 1, with Shih, Wan Shi, and the other Chinese boatmen in the paddle raft for training. The river was big and pushy. Back at Fuling I’d made a crude flow measurement at 30,000 cubic feet per second. The river gauge data were evidently State Secrets. We hit nothing but big riffles, but had to fight hard to stay out of a big hole at one point. The Chinese picked up paddle rafting quickly. Shih is younger and a bit stronger than I. I learned that a Farmer John wetsuit and a paddling jacket aren’t warm enough for the monsoon.
We stopped in the first village, the one with a Catholic Church. The beach was too small, so Mike scouted with the bus and located an expansive beach a mile downstream. We set up the kitchen under the shelter of a highway bridge. The cook and gear could get down from the cobblestone road, so we had our first proper meal since Baoshang, and huddled around the fire drying gear. Zia showed up for dinner dressed as a witch, picturesquely accompanied by a local bat. Happy Halloween! About bedtime the monsoon rains finally stopped, never to return.
November 1: There were massive delays getting launched. The commissary was still in chaos, so it took hours to get everyone fed. Dave moved, and all but Jennifer agreed, that we’d operate from a base camp in Gongshan to improve the logistics. We were finally ready by 2 PM, then Jennifer wanted to have a ceremony to pass out official t-shirts and such. She was firmly overruled because of the hour.
I’d been a bit worried by the rapid below camp. Mike had rated it a Grand Canyon Class 2 as we scouted from the bus, but it looked much rougher than that—and in fact we had to ride ten-foot waves. I wonder how good our other estimates were. We made a short run down to a large, attractive beach below a tiny village. Here the bus was supposed to pick us up and take us to Gongshan, but it didn’t show up for an hour and a half. By then it was almost dark, so we conferred with the village elder and camped where we were.
Bill Snyder told us later that the bus was late because Jennifer had refused to even look for a camp at Gongshan, and had insisted on stopping for a long lunch rather than meeting us on time. Passive aggressive. After dinner we held a group meeting (not attended by Jennifer) at which we executed a putsch. We agreed to confine J. to negotiating baksheesh with the local politicians, and turned practical logistics over to a revolutionary committee (which did indeed make the trains run on time thereafter). This was all done by Robert’s Rules of Order, nice as you please. I wonder what the Chinese thought.
We managed to launch in good order by 11 AM. I was in a hybrid oar/paddle raft under Mike’s command, Frank captained the oared raft, Jennifer and Dennis were in one of the Catarafts, and Scott, Dave, Phil, and Brad in kayaks.
We were immediately in trouble. The Cat did a complete backflip off a huge wave. We were following close behind, and I was able to grab Jennifer and haul her aboard. Phil tried to pick up Dennis, but window-shaded in a big hole, and both of them swam for it.
As we cleared the first train of waves, we saw Frank’s boat beached, and landed to help. They had managed to pick up Dennis, but an oarlock broke. Frank and Greg had grabbed paddles and desperately flailed to shore. Inspecting the broken oarlock, we discovered that the Kunming woodworkers who had built the frame had fastened the oarlock down with light wood screws! We made repairs with duct tape and spit, then launched again. We picked up Phil on the far bank, then scouted the next rapid—which was a monster resembling the Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls, featuring a gigantic hole stretching from bank to bank. We avoided it by sneaking through the boulders on the left bank.
In the next rapid we were blindsided by a sudden lateral wave off the left bank, and flipped so quickly that I swallowed a pint of water as I came up under the raft. I scrambled out at the bow, and hung off the grab line trying to puke up the river. Someone yelled at me to get the hell out of there. I looked over my shoulder and saw that half the river was pillowed high against a cabin-sized boulder, and I was about to get sandwiched. I gasped back amidships before we hit, and hung there coughing until I was dragged into Frank’s boat.
Finally we straggled into Gongshan, greeted by TV cameras and a cheering crowd, and rejoined the rest of the party to learn their fate.
Scott had abandoned his kayak, jumped aboard the overturned Cat, and tried to flip it back up. He couldn’t manage it solo. As he was swept into the giant hole, he leaped toward the shore and took a violent swim anyway. The boat got flipped up again in the next rapid, and beached itself by a bridge a mile down, minus all of its oars.
Brad and Dave miscommunicated about the next rapid, and Brad paddled right into the giant hole. Three times he was knocked over and managed to roll up. The fourth time he missed his roll and took his violent swim.
The road crew, meantime, saw the Cat floating down the river belly up, and frantically drove up and down the river trying to account for everyone. Somehow all the people and boats got collected, relatively undamaged, and delivered to Gongshan. We left the boats (hopefully under guard), checked into a cheap teahouse, scrounged some dinner, and I slept ten hours.
Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Smythe
Chuck Smythe has lived in Colorado since the mid-60s. A retired astronomer, computer hack, and environmental extremist, he is spending his declining years on music (see his October 2 piece, "A musical conundrum in five voices") and on such skiing and mountaineering as an old man can still manage.