First (and only) descent of Hukuo Falls, Yellow River, 1987

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The Chinese have been boating flatwater stretches of their rivers for centuries. They didn’t develop an interest in whitewater rafting until 1985, when their government announced that it was negotiating with Americans for the right to complete a first descent of the Yangtze. This caused a furor among those who felt that an all Chinese team should be the first to raft China’s longest and largest river.

Eleven Chinese and one American died in the race to raft the Yangtze in 1986, followed by the deaths of seven more Chinese on the Yellow River in 1987. After these disasters, it wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that Chinese and foreign organizations renewed their interest in exploring the major rivers of western China - over 15 years after other major rivers of the world had been explored. Since then, multinational teams of whitewater boaters have run most of the major rivers of western China, and guided tours are available for some segments.

The rivers of western China drain some of steepest topography on our planet. Their sources are in Himalaya Mountains or on the Tibetan Plateau, which are so high and massive they are often called the Third Pole due to their effect on global climate. They split the atmosphere’s jet stream, resulting in rainforests south of the Himalayas and desert terrain to the north. The Tibetan Plateau is 13,000 feet higher than the Tarim Basin and Russian Steppes, 12,000 feet higher than the Gobi Desert, 11,000 feet higher than the Yangtze Platform, and 15,000 feet higher than the Sichuan, Ganges and Indus basins.

The Tibetan Plateau is really a basin - it is surrounded by mountain ranges that tower above it. The Himalayas and the Kunlun and Karkoram mountain ranges are two to three miles higher than the Plateau, and the Altyn Tagh, Gobi and Hengduan mountain ranges average a mile higher than the Plateau.

Can you imagine putting your raft or kayak in the river at elevations of 15,000 to 18,000 feet? That’s higher than any mountain in the lower 48 states! And, with the exception of the Indus, all of these rivers fall to an elevation of 3000 feet above sea level or lower while still within the borders of China. Consequently, there’s an abundance wild whitewater boating as these rivers drop off the Plateau.

Why is this region so high? In the 1960’s, geologists developed the theory of plate tectonics, which proposes that large plates of the earth’s thin, rigid outer crust move slowly around the globe, creating the Atlantic Ocean between South America and Africa and creating volcanic mountains like the Andes where Pacific Ocean crust is being subducted beneath continental crust.

Huge mountain ranges in the interior of continents containing the likes of Mount Everest require further explanation. Geologists believe that India was once attached to Antarctica and Africa and rifted apart and begin drifting north about 200 million years ago. About 60 million years ago it began to collide with Asia, forming the Himalayas and ultimately the Tibetan Plateau. Geologists believe most of the Plateau reached its current average elevation of 15,000 feet about 8 million years ago, but uplift is still occurring – western China is the most seismically active region on earth.

The collision between India and Asia and the resulting uplift has created one of the greatest ranges in plant and animal life on our planet. In the 1980’s the Chinese recognized the need to preserve the Chang Tang, the area of the Tibetan Plateau characterized by numerous large lakes with no external drainage. They have expanded it several times, and it now includes the source of the Yangtze. To reduce flooding and improve water quality, they have also implemented a plan to reduce population densities in the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers and have recently closed dozens of mines in Tibet. On the other hand, due to a serious shortage of water in northern China, there are plans to build a canal from the Yangzte headwaters to the Yellow River headwaters in the next twenty years or so.

To control the impacts of climbing and trekking tourism, the Chinese created several national parks and wildlife preserves, including one on the north side of Mt. Everest. They also plan to create a new preserve in the Great Bend of the Tsangpo in southeastern Tibet - at 15,000 feet, the deepest gorge on our planet.

The Salween, Mekong and Yangtze rivers and several large tributaries to the Yangzte such as the Yalong and Dadu flow through the Hengduan Mountains east of the Tibetan Plateau. Gongga Shan, known to the Tibetans as Minya Konka, is the highest mountain outside the Himalaya range, and the area has dozens of peaks over 20,000 feet. Due to decreasing numbers of endangered species such as the giant panda, snow leopard and blue sheep, they’ve established several large wildlife preserves to eliminate hunting. To encourage ecotourism to replace lost jobs, they established Great Rivers National Park in northwest Yunnan. Here, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers are each larger than the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, yet the distance from one gorge to the next is only 50 miles and their gorges are twice as deep.

Much of this area is in ethnographic Tibet. Over the past 1500 years, Han Chinese and Tibetans have intermittently clashed, at times because the Tibetans joined with Mongols to capture Chinese territory, and at other times because Chinese desired to gain control of Tibetan land. Mostly, however, the two cultures have coexisted peacefully, and once upon a time even exchanged princesses. Today, Tibetans still occupy the high country where they graze yaks and sheep and grow barley. They trading wool, skins and meat to the Chinese who grow fruits and vegetables in their river valley farms.

In addition to different languages and agricultural practices, the Tibetans and Chinese have different religious beliefs. The Chinese have practiced various forms of Confucianism, Taoism and Mayahana Buddhism for two to three thousand years and have renewed their interest in these religions following the collapse of communism twenty years ago. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet about 800 AD, Tibetans practiced Bon, a shamanistic religion which involves animal sacrifice. The form of Buddhism which finally spread throughout Tibet beginning about 1200 AD incorporated many Bon elements, and there are still enclaves of Tibetans who practice Bon. Tibetans are well known for their sky burials, in which the deceased are cut into pieces and fed to vultures, and monasteries collect and store the skulls of monks.

Tibetans are an unusually tough and resourceful people due in large part to the challenge of living in such a harsh environment. In spite of the major changes in their social system that have been imposed by the Chinese over the past 50 years, the Tibetans have risen to the challenge and have begun to prosper. Their population has doubled in the past decade, but 80 percent of Tibetans are still nomads and their dependence on yaks and sheep is causing overgrazing. In addition, the process of providing education and medical care to nomads is slow, so the Chinese are pushing them to move to villages and to learn the skills necessary to support tourism and to trade with other regions.

Tibetan Buddhism is a very colorful religion, and visits to monasteries are a major reason for the dramatic increase in visitation to Tibet since the Chinese opened Tibet to tourism twenty years ago. On a typical summer day in 2004, over nine hundred Chinese and 100 foreign tourists arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet - a total of about 300,000 per year. After the Qingzang Railroad opened in July 2006, domestic tourism skyrocketed and total tourism increased to over four million in 2007.

The Chinese hosted the summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008. However, due to riots in Lhasa and other areas of Tibet in March, the Chinese closed Tibet to foreign tourism until late summer, so few foreign tourists visited Tibet. Most of them visited traditional Chinese tourist sites such as the Forbidden City and Great Wall near Beijing, the terracotta soldiers in Xian and the karst topography near Guilin. However, the Chinese expect foreign tourism to Tibetan areas of western China to expand in 2009 and are investing heavily in the infrastructure of this area.

Wilderness sports such as trekking and mountaineering are gaining in popularity, but the river touring industry is still in its infancy. Hydropower dams are being built and many rivers are being inundated – in particular the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers in Yunnan. On the other hand, the Chinese are improving access to many rivers and have recently begun to reduce permit fees for rivers that were once closed to foreign boaters.

This website is the first river guidebook to the rivers of this area. Over the next decade, the spectacular rivers of western China will become popular destinations for whitewater boaters. Commercial expeditions for foreign tourists have been run on the upper Yangtze in Qinghai and the Yangtze in the Great Bend in Yunnan since the mid 1990’s and on the Tsangpo and its tributaries in the area around Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, since 2002. In the past few years a few Chinese companies have begun to offer one day commercial trips on rivers near Chengdu, Kunming and a few other large cities in western China. However, with the exception of these areas, whitewater boating in China is still largely exploratory in nature.

A Guide to Rivers of Western China