Monday, April 18, 2005

A world away from anything I have experienced

When you hit the buy now button for a plane ticket you never really know what to expect from an upcoming trip. And buying a ticket to China was one of the most unusual places to which I had ever traveled. Most places I've gone were fairly easy; Europe, New Zealand, Central and South America. I could either speak the language or at least hack the language enough to get around town and communicate with locals. But in China the letters were now symbols, the manners shockingly different and by the time I arrived it was apparent to me that I was a world away from anything I had ever experienced.


photo by Christie Dobson

China was spectacular. My interest was piqued in China when I saw The Yunnan Great Rivers Expedition on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN). This documentary was about the Nature Conservancy's Yunnan Great Rivers Project, a historic partnership between the Chinese government and a U.S.-based non-governemmental organization. I was already attracted to big water kayaking, and mile deep canyons. But after seeing this documentary I wanted to view first hand at what scientists identified as being one of the most biologically diverse temperate regions in the world. Four of the great rivers of Asia - the Yangtze, Salween, Irrawaddy and the Mekong - flow off the Tibetan plateau and are pinched, compressed and constricted to within 90 kilometers of each other. The area is rich in natural resources on which people increasingly depend on. And the area is being threatened by many factors and challenges. I was particularly interested in how a viable eco-rafting industry might help to promote sustainable economic development that is consistent with and celebrates the region's unique natural and cultural heritage.

photo by Christie Dobson

photo by Willie Kern

Missoula, MT based Tarkio Kayak Adventures was running a kayak and raft trip down the Great Bend of the Yangtze. It was a chance to paddle with an all-star crew (Willie Kern, Jed Weingarten, Polk Deters, Jim Norton, Land Heflin, Dunbar Hardy and Travis Winn) and see Asia and the rivers with my own eyes. The crew would also be training several local Chinese, Naxi, and Tibetan guides. These indigenous men were trekking guides that worked during the warmer months but were looking for guiding jobs to supplement their seasonal summer work. This became part of an agreement with the Nature Conservancy to assess the feasibility of, and help develop model for, locally owned and operated river trips.

photo by Christie Dobson

The environmental movement in China feels like it's years behind the United States. But the Chinese are well aware of their resources and are working diligently to protect areas throughout China. The Yunnan project is 4 times the size of Yellowstone. As you can imagine this is no small task. Dredging, mining and the damming of rivers seem to be big factors in the destruction of these ancient gorges. The assessment group that ran the river 2 years prior to our trip tells us that they only saw 10 dredgers on the entire river, we saw the same amount of dredging boats before lunch most days. The rate at which the project area is being transformed is alarming and the destruction that has happened and is continuing right now is devastating.

photo by Dunbar Hardy

However, it's not gone yet. And that's where the story gets better. As we left the large dredging boats along the river, and the thought of upcoming dams, we entered into beautiful gorges where people exist - but in harmony. You see canyon walls that climb 1000 feet up and out of the gorge. You witness an environment worth saving and you feel it's force. My conclusion was simple. I was getting to see something that might or might not be saved. It became painfully real. I became incredibly inspired. One person can't save a river, it takes a boatload.

Tiger Leaping Gorge - this gorge is being threatened by dams. The first pic is of 'Spam in a Can' rapid.


photos by Christie Dobson

Jim Norton who helped lead the projects said The pain and price of losing places like the Grent Bend can inform and inspire conversation efforts elsewhere like a backhanded wake-up call, it hurts and that I hoped people who went on those trip would recognize that they are part of a very special, very limited archive of memory of what was there, what was lost and that would inspire their engagement elsewhere, that the best way to honor losing places like the Great Bend is to fight like a mother-----somewhere else they may be geographically disconnected but conceptually related battles it is all related.

photo by Willie Kern

As our river trip came to a close it was the beginning of another round of meetings, talks and slide shows for Willie, Jed and Jim with the Chinese government, the Nature Conservancy, the governor and local tourism organizations. Works are in progress to prevent dams, dredging and mining while encouraging eco-tourism in the Yunnan Province. For me it was back to the U.S. and putting this newly acquired energy to good work right here at home.

As I set my schedule for the season I was sure to include a few more days volunteering for local river clean ups. I made myself a promise to write my AW membership check on time this year. I plan to volunteer and help with other causes such as cleaner air, better wildlife habitat or just picking up a piece of trash that blows by. I won't forget China. Because it's the kind of experience that inspires you to do more, see more and experience more.

Christie Dobson

For more information about the Yunnan Great Rivers Project go to www.nature.org.
For information about trips to the Yangtze go to www.teamtarkio.com.

3 comments:

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Pete Winn said...

I'm Travis Winn's father, have led many river trips in in western China. Nice story about the Great Bend. I hear you're returning for another trip this summer. If you'd like a copy of a DVD I recently completed on exploring the rivers of western China from 1985 to 2005, send me an email with your smail address or call me at 970-242-7108. My website has a history of first descents that the DVD is based on, also has info on my previous expeditions, geology, geography, ecology and culture of greater Tibet.