The Crew Completes 200+ Miles On The Mekong River!
Check out each point on the map for photos, stories and audio updates from the river!
I couldn’t believe how smoothly the trip was going. Our kayaks and baggage arrived with us in the Kunming airport, expedition leader and close friend Travis Winn picked us up right on time, and three and a half of our four days of driving to the put-in were behind us. At 16,000 feet of elevation on the Tibetan Plateau, everything looked great. As the checkpoint gate closed in front of us just 30 miles from our put in however, I realized things were about to change.
Days later we would learn via satellite phone that the situation in Lhasa had become very tense as Tibetans protested and the Chinese government responded. All travel in Tibet was restricted, and little did we know foreigners prohibited from entering. As a result, no amount of negotiation in Travis’ fluent Chinese would open the gate between us and our goal. The quickest way out of Tibet for us however crossed the Mekong river at 10,000 feet above sea level. This crossing was also the entry point for a section of river that had allegedly been run 4 years earlier by an Australian kayaker at peak monsoon flood, alone. All his photos and video were lost before exiting the canyon. Our interest was peaked.
Not interested in being skunked, and with no idea just how serious the situation in Tibet would become, we put on a 140 mile section of whitewater, the only description we had of the run was unscoutable, unportagable, unsuitable for kayaking. Thankfully the water levels were much lower than when that observation was made.
As we put on, the scenery was unbelievable with tall desert canyon walls, warm weather and high spirits. The whitewater followed suit, proving to be fun class VI/V in one of the most remote canyons in the world.
We were all struck by the fact that, at every small oasis we would find Tibetan villagers able to subsist on yak butter tea and barley flower in the harsh high elevation winter. They were all incredibly friendly but testing their rich tea caused a food poisoning induced layover above the first class V gorge.
As we continued through the high quality whitewater we learned that our original take out, still deep in Tibet would not be an option as all foreigners had already been removed from the region. Being caught in Tibet could mean being detained long enough to prevent our next trip, an important last descent mission, or worse.
If we were to escape with out hassle, we would have to paddle an extra 70 miles through another undocumented canyon flanked by 20,000 foot peaks on either side. As we hugged the cliffs along the banks of the river and passed under a Tibetan checkpoint unnoticed, the reality began to set in. Seven days into our ten-day food supply committing to this canyon was a risk, but our only reasonable option out.
The next 50 miles of river turned out to be not only the most fun and best white water, it was also the most challenging and most scenic.
Finally after close to 210 miles of paddling the Mekong we crossed into Yunnan and drove away psyched and nearly in disbelief of how runnable the stretch had been. In the entire Mekong Gorges section we had only portaged two rapids! Truely a classic class IV/V expedition run.