Feng Chun rowing a cataraft on the Mekong in Tibet. Photo by Liu Li.

River Rafting, The Glory and the Dream
Lancang River International Rafting Story

From Outdoor Exploration Magazine
Shui Xiaojie ( Reporter)

Translated by Nan Hettig (Ma Nan)

The source of Lancang River is located in Zaduo county, Yusu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province. The Lancang River runs through Qinghai, Tibet, Yunnan in China and Burma, Laos, Thai, Cambodia, Vietnam, six countries then into South Sea. It is often called the Eastern Danube; the total length of the river is 4880 km. The part of the river within China lies in rugged and steep topography and there is no road access in the mountains. No one has rafted this stretch so far. A group of rafters made up of Chinese, Americans, Japanese and an Australian started this international Lancang expedition trip from Chamdo on April 8, 2004. But news that the expedition team was in a dangerous situation appeared on the Internet on April 24. Rumors and denials spread out through the Internet. What did happen to them? What will the contribution of this trip be to the development of Chinese rafting?


I read the news titled Four Countries’ Twelve Rafters Missing 7 days During Lancang River Expedition from Singapore’s Zaobao newspaper on April 24, 2004. The news source, a newspaper based on Chengdu, said that twelve team members from four countries - China, America, Japan, and Australia - started the raft descendent in the “Ghost Area” on April 6. They had rafted to Banda town, Mangkang County until April 16, just around 60 km from the destination and at most three days left to accomplish the whole trip. However, seven days had passed since their last time to contact with the ground base in Chengdu. The reporter heard the news from Sichuan Scientific Expedition Associate Yesterday (April 23) that the team might encounter an “unexpectedly dangerous” accident in this ghost area of the Lancang River; if the team members couldn’t take out, their fate would become unknown!

Either a rumor or a misleading story from the media was my first reaction to this news, since I read the news from Xinhua.Net a few days ago that the 4-country’ rafting team had terminated this expedition and they were on the back road.” No matter what, the team’s situation was worrisome.

The member what I was most concerned about in this team was Fengchun, nicknamed as “Yao Ge” (means youngest brother in Chinese slang). He was my teammate in Yalong River Rafting and Han River Rafting. He never stopped river rafting after Yangtze River rafting in 1986. He was constantly a figure in the big domestic river rafting during the past 18 years.

So far, not many big domestic rivers are left without being rafted. But the Lancang River was still a virgin. The 2100km part of the river within China side is the most rugged part. Deep canyons, hard-to-travel roads and few humans live there. No mention how hard this expedition was! Lost contact with Yao Ge ( Fengchun), no phones reached to the team; what did happen to them? No one knew.


Pretty soon, Xinhua news report refuted the rumors; my original guess was confirmed. The expedition team wasn’t lost. Yao Ge (Fengchun) told me the true situation after he returned to Chengdu.

Rafting starts from Chamdu

The put-in of the rafting started from Chamdo at midday of April 8, 2004. The Chinese leader Liu Li (Chief-secretary of Sichuan Scientific Expedition Associate), Feng Chun (Duputy Chief-secretary of Sichuan Scientific Expedition Associate), Song Yiping (Staff, Yunnan Great River Rafting Expeditions Co.), Mu Zhengpeng (reporter, Shanghai Dragon TV); the American leader, Pete Winn; Japanese leader, Kitamura Masayuki; Australian kayaker, Ralf Buckley.

The equipment used in this trip was the same as in Yalong River rafting trip and it’s advance impressed the Chinese team members. The team members were divided into 3 rafts and 4 kayaks. They paddled for a while before the first big rapid came up. Most team members were well experienced, so they ran through it smoothly.

Ten kilometers later, Fengchun and Mo Zhengpeng went to swim, due to not familiar with the new gear and lack of good cooperation. The temperature of the river was 7C, but since they were wearing the wet suits and helmets; and a kayak rescued them on time, no big trouble happened.

At this point, Fengchun was very impressed about the kayak’s quick rescue. In many previous Chinese rafting trips, if rafters dropped into water, they had to be self-rescue, hardly get a rescued from other rafters. For the consequence, it all depended on the rafters’s skills and fortune.

In the continuous three days from April 9 to 11, the rafting team meet huge rapids; but the advanced equipment and well-trained skills made the trip forward smoothly with no problem. Everyday the team started from 9am and camped around 4pm.

As the team ran toward the Chaya Bridge, far away they saw red things waving above the bridge. Closer, they realized that many local residents were welcoming them with waved national flags. The local Tibetans got information of the rafting trip, some of them were camping here for three days to wait for the team coming.

Two portages

The rafting team did first portage on April 12. According to the international unwritten rafting rules: First, use unmotorized rafts; Second, stay in the river and no other carriers to carry rubber boats in the river; third, the team members keep the same without all change to run over a whole river. Forth, continuity to run a whole river. On the other hand, there is also an unwritten rule that if the team encounters a dangerous situation, the team members can do portage. It is based on the principal of Life is Priority. Nobody supervises the rules, all depend on good judgment and honesty.

Around 12pm on April 11, the team observed the river surface getting more and more wide and the current becoming slow. According to the experience, they knew this was a sign of a large rapid coming. Indeed, they soon heard the huge sound rise, like thousands of cannons firing. Moving closer, a four meters water drop cut the river run. After scouting, the team decided to portage.

The left side of the river was a cliff, no way to pass through; the right side look promising but still had rock slide. So, while the team was portaging a member had to watch the slide and give warning. Though it was only fifty-meters long of portage, it took them more than three hours.

Thunderstorm on April 13. Several Class 3 rapids were passed. The huge raindrops made the team members barely open their eyes. They had to stop for camp. The valley was too steep, hardly find a suitable camp site. After helping their foreign mates settle down, Yao Ge (Fengchun) and Liu Li crouched under a rock for a whole night.

Raining on April 14. Temperature became lower. Went through several rapids, they realized that more huge rapids were still coming. Scouted and then portaged. Besides the large rapids, the big issue was that a huge rock blocked the river and the made it difficult to pass through. Checked the map, this area was Yulong village, Kagong town of Chaya county. The team finally asked for assistance from dozens villagers to carry the equipment from the riverside.

Decision To Give Up

On the morning of April 15, the team asked the villagers to help them move the rafts around the big rock blocking the river and kept moving along. Two kilometers later, there were huge rapids followed one by one. The team felt exhausted, so they had to land for a rest. Some teammates went for a scout. They watched the channel getting more and more narrow; not far, no way to go. The team held a meeting to analyze the situation and tried to find out a strategy. It was not optimistic! When the team left Chengdu for Chamdo through Sichuan-Tibetan road, they had collected the data via GPS at the proposed takeout place—Zhuka Bridge! Compared to 100km away the Zhuka Bridge, the water drop from the present position was 3.7%?;however, from Chamdo to the present position, the distance was 130km, but the water drop was 1.7%?. That means, the next part of the river was twice dangerous than the first part they had run through. The first part of the river already made the team realize how difficult the river was. So, if the trip stop here, the team still had alternative choice; they could hire the local villagers and mules to carry the gear and the equipment out of the river. If continuing rafting, they might not have a retreat choice. Even if they left all their gear behind, they might not be able to escape the canyon.

The rafting team decided to give up this expedition at this point!

From April 15 to 17, the team planned to scout the right side on foot, but failed. On April 18, under the help from Yulong Villagers, the team retreated. Travelling was very difficult, they climbed over several snow mountains. On April 21, the team finally reached a road; they arrived at Zuogong county that night.

On April 22, the team arrived at Quzika village, Damangkang county by bus. They divided into two groups, one walked back for scout along the river; the other rafted down Yanjing. After staying at Yanjing to rest, they arrived in Zhongdian, Yunnan Province on April 24 and were back to Kunming on April 26. The foreigner team members left Kunming for home on April 28.

Glory and Dream

From “Yangtze River Rafting” marked by glory to the fantastic dream of today’s rafting; Twenty years from the days of the first Chinese rafting hero Yao Mao-Shu, modern river rafting is merging into everyday Chinese life for recreational activities. Chinese rafting is becoming more mature as proven by this Lancang River rafting with significant sports meaning. Today Chinese Rafting tends to be recreational sports more than idealistic Exploration.

What a difference from the Yangtze River rafting years ago! The Yangtze Rafting was marked by the dignity of the nation. Some people pointed out that river rafting ignited concepts of Chinese contemporary expeditions. Because of too much competition, ten more participants lost their lives. The historical lessons were tremendous. However, the previous heroism is a cherished treasure, it was worth being memorialized and respected forever by their decendants.

Within twenty years, Chinese teams rafted the Yellow River, Yalong River, Pearl River and Han Rivers and river rafting became a hot spot to attract tourists. River Rafting is becoming a common recreational activity in normal life. My personal points: Chinese river rafting is distinguished by the two types. One is to run parts of a river as sports activities, like this Lancang River Rafting; The other is to run a whole river as in past rafting expeditions.

Today, the concept of river rafting is different from the original one. It becomes more rational than idealistic. It is based on the participants’ experience and scientific knowledge. One time fails, try at another time. The decision-making is more related to scientific data and realistic situations. The availability of data was decisive to this Lancang River rafting expedition.

China has the highest plateau on the earth---Tibetan Plateau and many great rivers. However, river rafting in China still is different from the river rafting in the some developed countries, which river rafting is related to sports activity. Rivers in China are still short of comprehensive data. For this point, river rafting becomes direct way to collect information. From Yangtze River start, Chinese rafting members have tried to collect scientific data by this method. It has been kept by successors and it becomes the dream of generations. Perhaps this reason or because the deep memory of the trip in 1980s, the media gave this trip more traditional credits and meanings even it is already combined with international groups with sporting interest.

The foreign rafting experience is worth learning

Talking about this trip, Yao Ge (Feng Chun) was very impressive: sitting beside Japanese mates; they were heavy smokers, but they never randomly threw the cigarette butts. They put the butts into a vial and brought them back. One day, some team members returned to the campsite after a failed river scout, they noticed that the campsite left a lot of trash. The foreign teammates were very upset; even though they were exhausted, they still picked up the trash and carried it back to Yulong Village.

Moreover, this group had advanced rafting gear with well skilled rescue and on-river scouting by swift kayaks who showed the way for rafts. When Yao Ge (Fengchun) went for a swim, his head was just showing out the water, a kayak quickly showed up to help him. This was impossible in the previous Chinese rafting trips. Compared to the advanced equipment, Chinese gear hasn’t been improved for almost 20 years. This is what we should learn from the foreign rafting activities.

Chinese Rafting Expeditions become more mature and diverse

This Lancang River rafting expedition is a partly a commercial run, as the foreigners paid expenses and Chinese managed logistics. This combination is thought of as “International Rule”. In fact, these activities have become more common in China recent years. Peter Winn, the leader of this river rafting, had run Lancang River--Yunnan Part in 1995-97; Salween River in 2000; Brahmaputra River and Lhasa River in 2002 etc. Feng Chun and other Chinese rafters will go to the Colorado River in the US for rafting this year. This time, Chinese paid the expenses and the Americans arranged the trip.

The Chinese learned the skills of river rafting and how to conduct rafting expeditions on the Yangtze River, Yellow River and Yalong River, and this twenty years of river experience tremendously changed Chinese’s attitude to rafting. Rafting of the Yangtze River and Yellow River were marked by patriotism and nationalism emphasizing “The First Descent” without much consideration of individual life, compared to the recreational river rafting paid for by the foreign members. As it makes the transition to recreational river rafting, Chinese river rafting is gradually becoming mature and diverse.

Pete Winn's journal of the 2004 Mekong in Tibet expedition

Travis Winn's reflections on aborting the expedition

Return to Journals of Previous expeditions

More info about rivers in China