River Exploration on the Great Bend and the Yangtze
The use of boats on the Great Bend reaches back into the 27,000 years of human history on the Yangtze. But it was only in the past twenty-two years that whitewater boats have been chasing the River of Golden Sands down the Tibetan Plateau. The story of river exploration begins in 1986 during the race between a team of American adventures and Chinese rafters to become the first to score a source to sea descent of Asia’s longest river. The fervor got so hot, and the decision-making so hasty, that it resulted in the death of 12 rafters. The tragic events kept a section of the Great Bend un-run until the following year when Mountain Travel Sobek completed exploration of this section in 1987.
It wasn’t long before the quality of the whitewater, the scenery and the river’s cultural significance (the river was crossed at the Great Bend by the Khans in the 13th century and then by the communist army led by Mao Zedong in 1937) led rafting company’s to lead international based clientele down this now classic section of big-water rafting. Travis Winn estimates that since the early 90s the river has been run twice a year, making it Chinese most frequently rafted multi-day run. But the road to the put in is still a four-wheel drive dirt track. It is Travis’s hope that by developing rafting in China he and Last Descents can spur river conservation here. That option closed on the Great Bend, but it hasn’t for rivers such as the lower Salween that are slated to be dammed in the coming years.
Travis’s point, and it is one that seeing the Great Bend first hand drove home for all of us at EP, is there is still time to use rafting and other economic incentives to slow dam construction in China. It’s one way to keep the history of river running a living one, and help protect the environmental and cultural integrity of these beautiful places.
Photos by Adam Elliott