Of all the major rivers in the world, the Mekong is last to have its geographic source identified. Even as late as 2003, there was controversy. In 1994, Michel Peissel, a Frenchman, declared it was a spring on Rupsa Pass. In 1995, 1999 and again in 2001, the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research the Chinese Academy of Sciences identified it as a stream flowing from a glacier on Mt. Lasagongma,. In 2002, Chinese Academy of Sciences Remote Sensing Division located the source as a spring discharging from a glacier on Mt. Jifu. The issue is still unresolved, and may revolve around which glacier is retreating faster. Regardless, it is about 2700 miles from its source in southwest Qinghai, where it is called the Za Qu, to its mouth Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam. When the river begins to drop off the Tibetan Plateau near Qamdo, it becomes the Lancang Jiang, or Turbulent River, until it passes into Myanmar and is called the Mekong, or River of Sorrow.
In 1999, two teams planned to complete first descents of the Mekong from near its source – an American team from Grand Junction, Colorado, and a Japanese team from the Tokyo Univerisity of Agriculture. Neither team knew about the other team. If UPS hadn’t lost a passport and plane ticket two days before the American team departed, they would have beaten the Japanese to the first descent. Instead, they arrived the afternoon of the day the Japanese departed, only to find a Polaroid film wrapper with Japanese script in a yak dung fire pit. The American team had already traveled three days by air, five days on class 5 roads, and four days riding Tibetan ponies with wooden saddles. Then a blizzard caused another day’s delay, so there was no way to catch the Japanese team. But, they did see a snow leopard, which made up for everything.
The nine member Japanese team was led by Masauki Kitamura, who in 1994 had traveled by horse to the source on Mt. Lasagongma, and planned to someday float the river. Needless to say, his dream came true. The American team, traveling under a permit issued to Earth Science Expeditions, consisted of Pete Winn, trip leader, Scott Sanderson, David Hettig, Steve Van Beek, Mark Gamble, Stephanie Morrisette, Jamie Ross, Kerry Ross, and Ma Da.
The teams only encountered one Class 6 rapid, caused by a landslide into the river. The Americans named it Snow Leopard Falls because they had just seen a snow leopard that morning. Over the one hundred mile stretch to Zadoi, where the Americans ended their trip, the gradient averages 25 feet per mile and the late summer flow increased from less than 500 cfs to about 2500 cfs. The Zhi Xi La Wu monastery, in a Shangri La setting which can only be reached by trail or river, was one of the few Tibetan monasteries that the Red Guards didn’t destroy during the Cultural Revolution. The Japanese team continued another 150 miles past Zadoi to the town of Qamdo in far northeastern Tibet. They encountered several Class 4 and two Class 5 rapids in this stretch and had to portage the first dam on the Mekong, located near the town of Nanchen.
In April 2004, Winn and Kitamura joined with Liu Li of Sichuan Scientific Exploration Association of Chengdu to complete a first descent of the Mekong in Tibet. Trip members included three other Chinese: Feng Chun, who was on the 1986 all Chinese first descent of the Yangtze, Song Yipin, who owns a rafting company in Yunnan, and Mu Zhengpeng, a Shanghai TV news producer. The three other Japanese rafters were Aoki Ryosuki, Ishi Konihito and Masata Kamedo, plus there were three American kayakers: Travis Winn, John Mattson and Steve Van Beek, and one Australian kayaker: Ralf Buckley. The trip began in Qamdo and the original plan was to raft with safety kayaks to Yangjing on the Tibet – Yunnan border. April was chosen because the water flow was still low, yet winter was over.
The group had three catarafts and for the first 70 miles or so the river was only Class 2 to 3. They had been warned about a ten foot river wide drop caused by a landslide a few miles after the end of the road. It wasn’t safely runnable so they portaged it. After this the river was Class 3 – 4 for about 15 miles, then they began to encounter rapids that were challenging but runnable in kayaks, but not safe for the rafts. After a half mile portage, the team encountered another unraftable rapid less than a mile downstream, and further scouting revealed another one just before the trail left the river. Consequently, they decided to abort the expedition and packed all of their gear out of the canyon along a trail up a side creek to a village with a truck. It took three days to hike out and another two days to drive over two 15,000 ft passes to the main highway.
In June 2004, a month later, an Australian kayaker, Mick O’Shea, managed to complete the remaining unrun section of the river in Tibet. It took him three days to blast down 180 miles of river with dozens of Class 4 to 5 bigwater rapids. This is comparable to racing through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in four days - you really don’t know what you’ve missed. And, according to the Chinese, O’Shea did not have a permit and they wouldn’t have issued one to him because but this was not the type of boating they want to promote. They have a strong interest in learning from and working with foreigner boaters and prefer that Chinese representatives participate in river expeditions in China.
In March, 2008, Trip Jennings and Andy Mazer of Epicocity and Travis Winn and Adam Elliott of Last Descents kayaked most of the section of the Mekong in Tibet that O'Shea had run in 2004. For a solo boater, one of the problems of claiming a first descent is documentation. O'Shea's documentation is very weak, but another boater who met him a few days after he had left Tibet vouched for him. The 2008 team is not convinced that O'Shea completed the first descent of this remote section of the Mekong river canyon. Although they encountered some major rapids, there were far fewer of them than O'Shea describes in his online messages, his book, "In the Naga's Wake", and his video "Exploring the Mother of Rivers".
In October 2002, Kitamura and the Japanese team returned to run the Mekong in northwestern Yunnan. At this time of year, the flow was about 20,000 cfs and it has about the same 15 ft per mile average gradient as most other rivers as they fall off the Plateau. However, averages can be deceptive. Near the border, the river is sandwiched between the Salween on the west and the Yangtze on the east, creating deep narrow canyons with few places to stop and scout. One of these is Moon Gorge, which has several Class 6 rapids at October flows. The Japanese team wisely decided to line or portage most of this gorge.
In December 2002, an American team led by Jim Norton and Jed Weingarten successfully ran most of Moon Gorge at even lower flows, but they had larger rafts and several kayakers for scouting and rescue. Other members of the expedition were Willie Kern, Polk Deters, Ben Fadely, Matt Yost and Rob Elliott. Jim’s father Ed Norton represents the Nature Conservancy, which was retained by the Chinese to help set up Great Rivers National Park in northwest Yunnan. This park is about twice the size of the largest national park in the greater United States. To reduce deforestation caused by logging and excessive firewood harvesting, Nature Conservancy is helping the Chinese install waste composters that produce biogas.
In 1994, Earth Science Expeditions, or ESE, ran a first descent of the Yangbi River, a large tributary of the Mekong in western Yunnan. The river drains Er Hai, a large lake near Dali. Pete Winn and Mike Connelly had scouted rivers in this area in 1987, but since then the Chinese had built a series of small dams and a large paper mill on the river in the gorge below the lake, and the effluent added a new dimension to kayaking: don’t tip over, period!
The river dropped about 20 feet per mile, and at the October flow of about 2500 cfs, the Class 2 to Class 4 rapids over the 70 mile stretch were quite manageable. The group consisted of Pete Winn and Mike Connelly, co-leaders and kayakers, Ralf Buckley, kayaker, Ben Foster and Will Downs, oarsmen, and Peter Molnar, Sarah Newstadtl and Han Chunyu, who helped row.
There are about 60 minority nationalities in China. With the exception of Tibetans and Mongols, most of them are similar in physical appearance to the majority Han Chinese. However, they each have their own culture, including language, clothing, architecture and fishing techniques. The Yangbi drainage is inhabited by the Bai, meaning White, who live high on ridges above the river.
For the Yangbi expedition, they were only able to find maps made by the US Army while building the Burma Road in WWII, which were worthless on the river. Although some of the children spoke Mandarin, none of the adults did, and asking them where they were eventually resulted in the statement “Well, you’re right here. Where else could you be?”
In spite of the foam and a huge red sign warning about plague in the area, the trip went well until the confluence with the mainstream Mekong. Here, the river rose and slowed down – a sign that they were on a reservoir. Sure enough, the Chinese had completed the 300 foot high Man Wan dam and filled it in one year by shutting the gates. Plus, they were drilling the main river channel near the confluence with the Yangbi to determine the feasibility of constructing another dam. At first, the team thought they would have to row the 70 miles to the dam, but it turned out that the Chinese had already established a ferry service on the new reservoir.
In 1995, ESE returned to run the main stream of the Mekong from the Yongbao Bridge to the Man Wan Dam. ESE had originally planned to run this section in 1989, long before the dam was completed, but the Tienanmen Square incident in Beijing caused a six year delay. If you don’t recall, thousands of Chinese students demonstrated against the government in the first display of mass civil disobedience since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. This time, the government responded with brute military force. Needless to say, this was a sad time for China, and it had a very negative impact on international tourism.
The ESE team boated 100 miles on a flow of about 25,000 cfs in October. The stretch had an average gradient of only 12 feet per mile, slightly higher than the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and had similar rapids. One of the rafts flipped in the largest rapids, which the team called Dragon’s Teeth due to the large boulders scattered by a huge landslide that was caused by a double quake in 1988.
Other rapids were named Chinese Lunch for huge hole that looked like it could eat boat after boat and still be hungry, Ganbei, or Bottom’s Up, a Chinese drinking toast, because another raft flipped there, and a mile long rapid with huge rolling waves that gave the kayakers paddlegasms was named the Sexy Dozen.
The team, led by Pete Winn, included David Hettig and Bob Rabkin as oarsmen, Ryon Swann and David Daboll on a two man paddlecat, Steve Van Beek and Fred St. Goar as kayakers, and Han Chunyu helped row the rafts. And of course, they now knew the reservoir was easy to cross. ESE ran a repeat trip in 1996 so Mike Connelly could see the river. He’d dislocated a shoulder kayaking in Washington and couldn’t join the 1995 trip.
ESE had heard that the Chinese were building another major dam on the Mekong below the Man Wan dam, and decided to run the stretch below Man Wan before it was inundated. They put-in below the dam in April, 1997, before the Spring snowmelt and summer monsoons bloated the river its seasonal high of 200,000 cfs, thinking they had permission to take-out at the dam construction site 100 miles downstream.
The average gradient was only 7 feet per mile, but for the first 40 miles there river was flat, so they knew the gradient had to increase. As they progressed down the river, Yi people, who are famous for their pottery with red, black and yellow geometric designs, would come into camp and tell them about a 10 meter waterfall ten or twenty kilometers downstream. Of course, few knew what a meter was, and fewer still knew what a kilometer was, so the ESE team really didn’t pay much attention to their stories.
The team was led by Pete Winn, kayaker, and included David Hettig and Mike Winn as oarsmen, Ralf Buckley, Steve Van Beek and Tuckey Fone as kayakers, with Kym Gentry, Mark Halliday and Ma Da helping to row. When they rounded a bend half way to the takeout and saw the Da Shao Shan dam site, they realized there was a possibility the Chinese would abort their trip if they landed, so they ignored the guy who drove down and tried to wave them over. They passed the huge intakes that were currently diverting a third of the river and would divert the entire river in a few months when the dam foundation was built. Then, just as the diverted river rejoined the main stream, the team encountered a major rapid and was forced to stop and scout. Fortunately neither raft flipped, only one kayaker went for a swim, and, miraculously, the Chinese just cheered and waved them on.
For the next several days, the team ran one huge rapid after another, with names such as Red Bottom, Horse and Pig, and No Exit. By the time they reached their last camp, they wondered if they would have to row uphill to reach the take-out at the Jinggu – Lincang bridge. Here they were met by Ma Nan, an English speaking plant microbiologist. She married David Hettig a few years later.
In July, 2004, Australian Mick O’Shea kayaked from the Jinggu-Lincang bridge to the Myanmar border. The upper forty miles of this section were the only remaining unrun stretch of the Mekong in China. After the last rapid, the river flows through Xishuanbana Wildlife Preserve, where motorized boats have been taking tourists to view rainforest wildlife for over two decades.
The Da Shao Shan Dam was completed in 2003 and the reservoir was nearly full in 2004. The Chinese plan to complete seven major dams on the Mekong in western Yunnan by 2018, flooding about 400 miles of river to produce as much power as all of the major dams operated by the US Bureau of Reclamation in the western USA. The total power produced will also be comparable to Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. The upper-most reservoir will flood the lower part of Great Rivers National Park, and at over 1000 feet high, the Xiaowan Dam at the Yangbi confluence will be the highest on our planet.
The Chinese are desperate to develop energy resources to provide for the explosive growth of their economy since the fall of communism twenty years ago. The land area of China is about the same as that of the US including Alaska, but they have four times the population, and now that the fetters of communism have been released, their productivity is skyrocketing.
Like the Tibetan Plateau, western Yunnan is one of the most seismically active regions of our planet. There have been ten large quakes during the past 75 years. Two of them struck within ten minutes of each other in 1988, causing the landslide that formed Dragon’s Teeth Rapids that ESE ran in 1995 and 1996. Geologists believe these quakes are related to India’s collision with Asia. India has penetrated 1000 miles into Asia, and some of the displaced crust has been shifted east and southeastward along faults with hundreds of miles of horizontal displacement, forming the bulge of eastern China and the Indo China peninsula. This idea was first proposed as a result of clay modeling in the early 1980’s. Since then most of the large faults have been identified, and many of these are still very active.
Seems like a pretty risky area to be constructing seven major dams, but to the Chinese it’s less risky than building huge cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles on the San Andreas Fault. One can only hope a large quake doesn’t cause the collapse of one or more of these major dams, resulting in a devastating flood in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.