We were in China for a 120 mile river trip, and though the Yalong Jiang– a major tributary to the Yangtzee– is in a very remote region, there were people everywhere. The river valley was riddled with villages, foot bridges draped with prayer flags, and horse trails connecting them all. Sometimes the villages would be far, far above us; often the villages were practically on the river banks. Some days passed with no village in sight, but from high above someone would yell “Ni How !” or “Natashe Wei!” We’d scan the slope to see a small figure high above herding yaks or goats or walking his mules, freighted with goods, from one village to the next.
The Yalong Jiang is a startling river. The cold, blue-green water, fast current and formidable rapids walled in by mountains made it a magical place. We all became entranced by the culture, by the people and the houses and the terraced gardens we saw as we paddled by. We made it a goal to spend some nights with the people who cheered as we paddled the river they knew as home.
The first day on the Yalong we stopped at a new Buddhist temple—a beautiful building built with mortar free field stone and post and beams ornately etched. The monks were away but the care taker invited us inside, fed us some delightfully hard and sour yak-milk cheese and made us Tsampa, a porridge of barley flour, sugar, and yak butter tea. He invited us to stay for the night but we had miles to travel and declined his invitation. We dreamed about tsampa for the next week.
The first five days went by without trouble, but we only covered 11 miles on the third day. From my journal:
“The end of day three was special. First, Nate Garr’s classic line, ‘Was it just me, or did anyone else think that was rowdy ?’ in regards to the day’s rapids. As afternoon floated towards dusk we passed under a series of prayer flags stretching from one side of the river to the other—a 200 yard span, maybe more. We rounded a bend on a class III wave train and as I drifted I saw almost the entire village race downhill to the other boaters. The villagers proceeded to give us hard candies and milk caramels—hesitantly at first and then by the handfuls. They were still tossing candy when we paddled out of the eddy.”
We pushed hard covering 66 miles the next two days. We knew our average would fall as the river got steeper and the gorge closed in. We all wanted to visit a village and the fifth night we hiked a mile to the small village of Chin Hia. We were welcomed like old friends. We hung our gear on the outside patio and walked around in our long underwear. Our hosts seemed not to notice. The house was three floors, the bottom floor a corral dedicated to their livestock. On the top floor dried meat hung from the rafters.
We were served a wonderful cabbage soup, thinly sliced pork fat with chili peppers, and a dish of dark pork sausage with fried leeks. Nine of us crowded around the food and the patio filled with neighbors to watch us eat and see what humor we might offer. Our facial expressions after drinking a shot or two of the fiery “Bijou” was entertainment for most.
We awoke that night to the sound of Brian Eustis puking. It was a sound none too friendly. He managed to paddle his boat most of the next day. Lucky for all of us we ended up near a newly built road. We camped nearby hoping Brian’s illness would pass. We woke on day seven and Brian was in no position to paddle. He made the hairy ferry above a class IV rapid that morning to wait for a ride to the town of Mouli, a five hour drive away. It would take the rest of us three long days to meet him in Mouli.
Everyone was mentally and physically exhausted and morale was low– especially because Brian was not with us. Portaging was as difficult as running the rapids, in some cases more difficult. Our boats weighed 70 lbs. and the routes around the rapids wove through boulders normally submerged. One moment of levity came when I stumbled during a portage and landed with my kayak on top of me. I was “land pinned.” I couldn’t move until one of my friends came to my rescue, he wiping away tears of merriment, me wiping tears of frustration. It’s hard to say which comes first, the mental or the physical exhaustion. They build upon each other: as you get exhausted mentally you work harder for less productivity. We had 25 miles left before take out.
Days seven and eight took every hour of light. Two team members swam before lunch on day seven, and everyone agreed we would have to portage more often. We portaged numerous times and another team member swam on the eighth day. The average portage took a half hour. We scoffed Cliff bars at and purified water. The portaging and paddling became surreal; it was, as one paddler put it, “other worldly.” The rapids were gigantic; the waves, rocks, and hydraulics were much bigger than any of us had seen before.
The goal of the trip was to run a river in China that hadn’t been run before, and do it safely. We wanted to bring in a large group of paddlers and get out without any injuries or worse. We started with nine people and ended with eight who were able to run the entire stretch of the Yalong Jiang. Nine persons is much too large a group for a trip of this nature. We were very fortunate. We acted as safely as possible and as frustrating as all the portaging was, it kept the team together and brought everyone through safely.
Was China a scary place to travel? Not in our experience. We paddled 120 miles of a major tributary of the Yangtzee River and found the people of China as friendly as they come. Early in the trip we were invited to spend the night at a government run observation station. We could not accept because the station was too far from where we had set up camp. As we thanked the official he said, “It doesn’t matter. You are Americans, we are Chinese. We are friends.” The next morning he and his wife were on the foot bridge waving as we departed. Wherever we went people were happy to see us and happy to share their food or offer a roof to sleep under.
It’s startling how un-traveled we Americans are. We’ll go to Cancun and Barbados and Europe, the “safe” countries free of terrorists, bird flu, and non-English speakers. In China it’s hard to find anyone who speaks English, but it’s not hard to communicate. We found with a little effort, a lot of smiling and a willingness to be misunderstood we were able to have a great time. As Brian said, “You just pretend. You pretend you understand them and they pretend they understand you and eventually you understand each other.”
The illustrious John Dietter used to chide his Outward Bound students who were prone to sleeping late to “Get out of the bag!” In other words, get out of the warm, comfortable zone. His expression is a metaphor for life. How can we experience life from inside the bag?
In eight days we passed five prospective dam sites. In a few years the section of the Yalong Jiang we explored will be under water.