Salween Overview

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The Salween in northeastern Tibet is also called the Nu Jiang in Chinese and the Nagqu or Black River in Tibetan. It’s the shortest of the major rivers draining western China – only 1500 miles long. Its source is a spring north of the town of Nagqu near the Tibet - Qinghai border at an elevation of about 17,000 feet.

Earth Science Expeditions ran a first descent of the Salween headwaters from near Nagqu to Biru in 2000. Steve Currey had tried to run this stretch in 1995, but completion and filling of the Chalong Dam about 50 miles downstream from the town of Nagqu dried up the river. ESE was told the dam was on a large tributary flowing from the north, but found out the hard way that the dam was on the main stream after rowing half way across the six mile long reservoir in a strong upstream wind. Fortunately, the Chinese engineer in charge of the dam offered vehicles to help them portage around the 100 foot high structure. The team consisted of Mike Connelly and David Hettig, oarsmen, Lisa Nelowet, Phil Wegener, Gordon Bare, Phil Smith, Travis Winn and Pete Winn in kayaks, and Liu Li, their Chinese host, and Da Wa, their Tibetan interpreter, helped row.

With the exception of a few Class 3 rapids in a black rock canyon near Biru at the end of the 150 mile stretch, the river was a busy Class 2.5, dropping an average of 15 feet per mile. Initially, the flow was about 2500 cfs, but heavy rains swelled it to 20,000 by the takeout on the 10th day. Except in the black rock canyon stretch, the river flowed over gravels it had eroded from its own ice age deposits, so the scenery and culture were the most memorable events.

The Salween flows through Khampa country in eastern Tibet. This group of Tibetans was the first line of defense, and occasional offense, against the Chinese over the centuries. They still harbor hard feelings about the invasion in 1950 and can be intimidating. They’re tall for Tibetans, plus the men are excellent horsemen and carry large beautifully decorated knives, so for their Chinese host, Liu Li, it was a Class 5 cultural experience. In one camp, the Khampas took their permit and wouldn’t return it because it was written in Chinese, not Tibetan. They held it overnight, then the next morning told them to stop at the county seat 10 miles down river to get permission to continue. In general, however, the team was welcomed by the nomads and villagers they encountered.

In June 2007, ESE and Last Descents ran a first descent of the Salween from Biru to Sadeng. Here the river makes a sharp bend to the south, then southeast, flowing through a deep canyon in metamorphic rocks along the northwest side of the 20,000 foot east Tibetan Alps. The team was led by Pete Winn, oarsman, who helped train Chong Dak and Na Ming Hui. His son, Travis Winn, kayaker, was coleader, and his daughter Carmen and his wife Cindy Appel rowed one of the catarafts. Sarge Preston rowed the third cataraft. Sarge's son James, Drew Kirk and Ralf Buckley also kayaked, and Scott Sanderson was the trip videographer. Russian topos and Google Earth satellite image data indicated the 90 mile stretch of river had a moderate gradient of about 12 feet per mile for the projected June flows of about 5,000 cfs. The Goggle Earth images were taken in the winter, when the river is covered with ice. The team assumed that the river wouldn't freeze over where there were major rapids, but learned the hard way that ice can buildup on rocks and form bridges over rapids, so it's not feasible to scout using winter satellite images. After two days of Class 2 to Class 3 rapids, they entered a narrow gorge with several Class 4 rapids and one Class 5 rapid. The Class 5 rapid was marginally runnable and couldn't be lined or portaged. There was a monastery on the cliff 500' above the last rapid, so they called it Om Gorge. It took them an entire day to go three miles. Of all of the canyons ESE has explored in Tibet, this one had the most abundant wildlife and the team was blessed with dozens of spectacular side canyon waterfalls.

Travis Winn of Last Descents and Eric Ladd from Big Sky Montana led a first descent of the Salween from Sadeng to Marri in September, 2007. This was a large group - sixteen total, including Craig Childs, a writer for Men's Journal. There were four rafts and four kayakers on the 180 mile expedition. Unfortunately, Tibet was experiencing an exceptionally high amount of rainfall and the river was flooding when the team arrived in Sadeng. The river finally began to subside after five days of waiting at the put-in. During this time the team lived in tents provided by the local monastery and for many participants the extended interaction with the monks was the highlight of the expedition. Even after putting in on the declining flow, the river was estimated to be 30,000 cfs, a high flow for the average gradient of 12' per mile. Late the first day, they encountered a Class 5 rapid with huge waves that they called Waimea after the giant surf waves of Hawaii. Fortunately there was only one flip, and fortunately the river had subsided enough that beaches for camping had surfaced. In many respects, it was a dream trip - there were many large, fun, safe rapids, beautiful campsites, deep narrow canyons, and occasional stunning views of the eastern Tibetan Alps towering 10,000 feet above the river. This canyon with its rapids and scenery is comparable to the Grand Canyon, and other than the Class 5 road to the put-in at Sadeng and the Class 5 shuttle to Marri, it would be a great repeat trip.

The last section of the Salween to be explored was run in March 2008 by kayakers Jed Weingarten and Willie Kern. They encountered a floating drill rig, a sure indication that the Chinese are planning to build a dam in this stretch. Although the average gradient for the 100 mile stretch from Marri to Po is only 13' per mile, most of the drop occurs in the last 25 miles. Here the river begins its precipitous drop off the southeast edge of Tibetan Plateau, passing around the eastern end of the east Tibetan Alps. In this stretch, there are multiple large Class 6 rapids caused by active landslides, so portaging was nearly as dangerous as kayaking.

In March 2007 a team of six expert kayakers led by Travis Winn, Willie Kern and Jed Weingarten completed a first descent of the 180 mile stretch of the Salween from Po to the Yunnan border. The other kayakers were Adam Elliott, Eric Southwick and Oliver Deschler. This section of river has a high average gradient - 18' per mile, and the team lucked out with unusually low flows and great weather. The river flows through narrow gorges with numerous Class 5 rapids and there are several portages. There is no trail along most of the river, so access to the occasional village high above the river is over 16,000' passes from the Mekong Canyon to the east. The complex geology as the river carves through the 20,000' high peaks of the Hengduan Mountains creates a wide variety of rapids and very colorful scenery.

A team of expert big water kayakers including Jed Weingarten, Willie Kern and Scott Lindgren boated the Salween from the Tibet-Yunnan border to the town of Gongshan, a distance of about 80 miles, in 2004, of which about 30 miles was a first descent.

In 1996, White Pearl Expeditions organized a first descent of the Salween in northwestern Yunnan. The American component included Phil Wegener, David Pazzuti, Scott Young, Brad Rosensweig and Greg Draughbaugh as kayakers and Dennis Schultz, Mike Gheleta and Fred Leuthold as oarsmen, plus another 15 people took turns paddling the rafts. Chinese participants included Xi Yi, Xi Ong, Ya Sha, and Yu Juanjuan. Phil Wegener married Yu Juanjuan a few years later. He also kayaked on the 2000 Salween headwaters expedition and has run about one third of the river in China.

At low flows in October, the river carries about 30,000 cfs. The team ran about 150 miles with an average gradient of about 15 feet per mile. This is a roadside run, so they car camped. As a result, their light rafts often flipped in the larger rapids, and they wisely decided that only two kayakers, Scott Young and Dave Pizzutti, should run the largest rapid on the stretch, Leaping Tiger. Although very impressive, the rapid is not to be confused with Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Great Bend of the Yangtze, which is ten mile long suicide run.

The main purposes of the expedition were to help convince the Chinese to include the river canyon in a nature preserve and to show the Chinese that rafting could be a source of tourism revenue. It was partly successful – the Salween in northwest Yunnan is now part of Great Rivers National Park, but it has not been commercially run as of 2005. In 2004 the Yunnan government proposed to build thirteen large dams that would essentially flood the entire river in Yunnan. The plan was serio usly criticized by a rapidly growing Chinese environmental movement and is now on hold pending a review by the federal government. Concern about public opinion is a rare occurrence in China and indicates increasing respect for the environment among their leaders.

The Yuqu, the largest tributary to the Salween, was run by a group of Last Descent River expedition kayakers in 2015.

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