By Travis Winn

In some far off corner of the world, well beyond the edge of the map labeled "civilization," lies a river canyon that perhaps is not only turbulent in name and river character, but perhaps also recently turbulent in its human history. So lost to the time scale of humanity is this place that until only recently did the human "overseers" of this area deem it reasonable to invite exploration. And so, some short time ago a colorful medley of river people, of all different backgrounds, departed, to do what they could do and see what they could see. Little did they know that soon they would be reported lost to the world. Upon their return and their report, some would perhaps also think, deep in their head, that this team had failed. Little do these folk realize that in a place too wise for words and too old for time the word "failure" is no more significant than a speck of dust in a sand dune. The following are excerpts from the journal of a wanderlost river rat that attempt to explain the addicting qualities of exploration in western China.

April 18th, 2004

I decide to sit on the other side of the fence this evening, joining the rest of Xilong village to watch this odd assortment of foreigners as they prepare their evening meal. This is well into our second week away from civilization and to my surprise, our slow extraction process has only served to immerse us deeper in the human aspect of this canyon. Still though, as much as sitting on this side of the fence may be fun, it does little to help me become more Tibetan, or Chinese, or something other than the confused and more-than-a-little ignorant American that I seem to be. I look to each side at my wide eyed open-mouthed companions. Smiles dwarf the grit on their faces and the snot beneath their noses. In spite of our differences, I realize that there appear to be some similarities, pondering the scruffy condition of my own face, also adorned with a sizable smile. But until we can have a conversation, well, some things will remain as elusive as the rest of that unfathomable Lancang Jiang gorge, which still tickles away at the back of my cranium.

These villagers have seen us twice now, once as we floated lazily by in loaded fully river worth rafts, and now as return - only slightly less the merrier - except that now our rafts, coolers, and frames, well, our entire medley of gear, is being carried on the backs of their neighbors and kin from the Jindo village, downstream. We stare. I wonder what they think of our overwhelming assortment of stoves, roll away tables, coolers, disassembled frames, life jackets..and satellite phone. They must be mildly surprised that half of our team will voluntarily sleep on the ground, rather than inside someplace warm. One thing is for sure though, these children are just like children anywhere. Tomorrow the boy on my left will carry my camera and my little stone flute for me as we make our final ascent out of the main canyon. One moment we will see who can throw a rock the farthest, the next we'll race ahead to play music for the oncoming porters and then to help "choh" along a mule, driven completely by his mischievous youth powered enthusiasm.

For me the allure of this intoxicating geography lies as much with the local folks and the way they live in this wild place as with the mountains and river that surround us. Water is merely a mode of transport, a mode of experience, that brings us into magical circumstances such as these. So in one sense, I am happy to have turned back. Our reliance on the local population for help has forced us to a level of intimacy that would have been forgone had we continued down the river. There is little that would have made me happier (though little less realistic) than to stay on and plant barley for the spring, perhaps high up in Nari with it's snow crags and barley fields. On the other hand, that mighty current wagging quietly around the corner deep in metamorphic embrace, viewed from the end of the terrestrial trail, is quite the temptress. Some other day. Fortunately the leadership is sound on this expedition and our team joins together to cope as one with our difficulties.

In the meantime, while we are retreating by land, safe, healthy, and well fed, the world beyond ours has come to know of us, but know of us in such a way that they would be inclined to seek us with white sheets, as if we had died, rather than patiently wait for us to return to the civilization we'd been hoping to escape in the first place. The misreported news leaves an unwelcome foul taste in my mouth, and I hope that perhaps someday I will be literate enough in the ways of China to influence these things, or at least understand them. I know the truth about our trip, but it terrifies me to think that Chinese the world over, thanks to our Sina.com headlines, might associate the Lancang Jiang gorge - and by default, rafting - with danger and foreboding. To the contrary, this place where I sit is one of light and laughter, of newly sewn barley fields and long waist high piles of mani stones. The river too, for the most part, has been fun and relaxing. Just better fit for a small team of kayakers, armed with camera, light rations, a scientific mind and a sturdy heart rather than a large team of rafters and associated limitations. Se la vie, this is adventure. As for rafting itself, well, really any form of messing about in boats on rivers is one of the simplest and most beautiful experiences available to mankind. Flowing water seems to demand an intimacy that can be surpassed nowhere.

But all of these worries are far away, insubstantial as the clear blue water flowing in front of the larger than life mani stone that we will see sitting by the creek tomorrow. The dinner bell rings, and my tangents fade with the last of the waning light, pink against a snowy peak on the horizon. After a sound night's sleep beneath an intensely starry sky, we'll wake to the dawn, and by evening have started to step back into that other world.

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