Dragon's Teeth

By Steve Van Beek

Reprinted from The San Francisco Examiner, Travel Section, Page 1, Sunday October 6, 1996.

Dragon's Teeth Rapid on The Mekong River. The wave in the background is about 20 feet high. The rapid was formed by a major landslide that occurred as a result of two M=7+ earthquakes that struck 13 minutes apart in 1988. Photo by Lori Golze.
The Han villagers won't venture near the Lancang. They say a dragon lives deep beneath its roiling surface. We believe them. We now believe that every landform in China--mountains, rivers, plateaus--is inhabited by dragons. Occasionally, they rear their backs and spill houses down mountain sides. Only 150 miles farther north, one did and scores died. Perhaps we were to blame. Perhaps a Subterranean dragon, wanting a closer look at the strangers in its midst raised its head. We'll never know. We were pre-occupied in trying to subdue by our own dragon and his teeth were very sharp.

The Chinese ideograph for "Lancang" translates as "turbulent". Its downstream neighbors know the river as the Mekong. The world's 11th longest river, it rises in Tibet and flows 2,800 miles through six countries before emptying into the South China Sea. It could one day rank among the world's premier boating rivers. If it doesn't eat all the rafters and kayakers first.

Our eight-man Sino-American expedition was to be the first to descend a 110-mile portion of the Lancang that cuts through deep marble and granite gorges in Yunnan, China's southernmost province. All of us were whitewater veterans. Han Chunyu, a Geography professor at Beijing University, represented the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The Earth Science Expeditions team led by Peter Winn included three Bay area men--David Hettig and Fred St. Goar of Menlo Park, and Robert Rabkin of Sausalito. David Daboll divides his time between Colorado and Africa, Ryon Swann hails from Idaho, and I shuttle between San Francisco and Bangkok.

After a two-day drive west from Kunming, Yunnan's capital, we put in just above the Baoshan bridge. It crosses the famed Burma Road, built during World War Two to link Kunming with Allied armies in the Burmese and Indian theaters. We rowed two two-person 16-ft catarafts and a two-person Russian-built paddlecat--two pontoons bound by a metal frame. Fred and I kayaked. Once below the bridge, we left all roads behind and entered a world devoid of mechanical sounds.

The mountains rose straight out of the water to a height of 3,000 feet, the mark of a young valley. Clinging to the hillsides, Han farmers, China's dominant race, stairstep their fields from the ridges to within 40 feet of the river, leaving the riparian trees to halt erosion. The region's principal minorities the Bai and Yi, shy away from large rivers, believing them to be filled with evil spirits. They prefer to live along the smaller tributaries that feed the Lancang.

The Han, too, give the river wide berth. During the monsoon season--Yunnan is sub-tropical, boasting half of China's plant species--the river can rise 40 feet. By late October, the monsoon had abated but the river was still running at 28,700 cubic feet per second (cfs), larger than the Colorado at full flow.

The first two days brought large rapids but nothing of major consequence. The river seemed to be testing us. It was near the end of the second day after we'd beached our boats and climbed half an hour up a steep ravine to Ta Xi Zhai village, that we learned about Dragon's Teeth, or so we would name it, the privilege accorded those making a first descent.

The trail climbed along a violent stream brown with silt. High up both banks, the earth was muddy and the grass had been steamrolled. The stench of dead animals was in the air. Farmers told us a huge flood had ripped through the village three weeks before. Such was its ferocity that it had torn away half of a very substantial stone bridge. The villagers had other surprises to report.

"It has also shifted the avalanche just downriver," they said.

"Avalanche?", we said when Chunyu had translated for us. No landslide appeared on our Chinese, Russian, or American maps.

"There was an earthquake six years ago. A landslide filled part of the river. Now, the floods have shifted it."

"You've seen this?"

"From upriver."

"No closer?"

Their faces creased. "The river is very big," they whispered. "Too big."

We hadn't seen a single boat in two days. Villagers fished from the river's banks and didn't challenge its dominion. "It's too swift. We can't even cross it." Farther downstream, we would find villagers on opposite banks speaking two different dialects.

We were just above the old Jihong Bridge dating from 105 B.C. and linking two portions of the Southern Silk Road. On crossing it, Marco Polo described the Lancang as "terrifying". In 1475, the bridge had been reinforced with 18 iron chains spanning the 280-foot-wide chasm. It remained China's oldest bridge until a 1986 earthquake destroyed it. It hadn't been re-built. In 1988, a shrug of dragon shoulders had made the river even more turbulent.

The river dragon, we felt, would be more accommodating. After all, we were using high-tech equipment made of space-age plastic and hypalon. For us, it would be no problem to slip quietly across its back.

Our hubris lasted about 20 minutes. Back on the river, we could see that the entire northern face of the 2,000-foot mountain was gone. There was only one place for it to go. We were more than a mile away when we heard the roar. All talk ceased. Soon we could see a flat horizon line broken by a hump over which tons of water were pouring. No doubt the hump was a large boulder, perhaps it was our dragon. Behind it would be a large hole. Far beyond the sight line was a mid-river boulder the size of a three-story house. It would be dangerous to plummet into an abyss without a thorough scout of the terrain. Mooring on the right bank, we walked to its edge.

Reasonably flat up to this point, the Lancang accelerated sharply, 30,000 cfs of water funneling into a channel reduced to half width and running 5-6 miles an hour, very fast for a large river. The gradient had sharpened, dropping 18 feet in half a mile. The channel ran for 1,800 feet, its boiling surface white with foam.

A rock wall hemmed the left; a rock garden, the right. In the middle, below the elephantine boulder were two holes, three feet deep and 12 feet across. Holes are created when a river pours over an obstruction and its force literally digs a hole in the water. If it folds back on itself, it becomes a "keeper"; get in it and you don't get out. Fortunately, the water was moving out of the lower end so anyone caught in it would be tumbled and thrashed but would eventually be ejected.

Beyond it was a second set of problems. One third in from the right bank was the house-sized boulder and beyond it, another huge hole. We clambered along the cliff face until we were even with it but there were no footholds to allow us to move farther downriver. We would have work out the final route blindly. As we were looking cross-river, someone said "uh oh".

Perhaps 200 feet downriver from the hole, a thin line ran about three-fifths of the way across the river from the opposite bank. A ledge, six feet high.

We watched it in silence, hoping it wasn't what we suspected it to be. Finally someone said it: "The water is re-circulating," i.e. a keeper. If one missed the upper eddy, he had to slip left around the huge boulder and hope he would be kicked to the right of the hole. With a hole, a miss is as good as a mile; one needs only an inch between it and himself to skirt it. Without the essential inch, he would be eaten by the hole. His boat out of control, he would be pulled over the ledge. Dragon's Teeth held every nightmare a river has ever dreamed up for a kayaker or rafter.

We weighed our options. And then rejected them one by one: the walls were too high to scale, there was no purchase for a portage, and no roads out. That left us one choice.

The sun dipped towards the canyon rim.

"Let's leave it for today," said Peter, breaking the silence. "If we have a flip, we'll have a hell of a time trying to sort ourselves out in the dark. Let's try it in the morning."

Camping on a small upstream beach we talked of new theories of evolution and the movements of mountains. We watched millions of brilliant stars in a black sky, and tried to ignore the roar that would fill our ears all night long, drowning out even the crickets.

After breakfast, we set off on another scout. The river had changed overnight, dropping slightly and revealing more rocks. We would have to re-plot our course.

Most rivers of the world come with maps sketched by previous rafters. A first decent means that one has to draw his maps as he goes. So we scouted, again, and each boat chose its route.

Fred, the group's best kayaker, decided to challenge the toughest part of the river, the laterals on the left. We watched with bated breath as he made a spectacular run, disappearing beneath the waves, being swallowed so we saw only the bottom of his kayak, making a miraculous recovery and slicing cleanly to the bottom of the wave train. The paddlecat ran far right and slipped between the rocks and the hole, pulling into the eddy before edging right around the boulder.

Then came time for the first raft. David Hettig and Han Chunyu lined up to run right but were pushed by the waves into the upper hole. The force of the water tore away an oar and spun the boat so it headed towards the huge boulder backwards. David reacted with lightning speed, pulling out his knife to cut loose a spare oar lashed to the pontoon. He regained control and pointed downstream moments before he would have hit the boulder. But again the river played with him, sucking him into the lower hole. Fortunately, the raft was large enough to plow through it. It then headed to the right and into a chute that slide him past the ledges. We never found the oar.

Peter had positioned my kayak in the lower eddy as a safety boat, so I rafted with Robert, veteran of major North and South American rivers. We fell off the lip and into the green tongue without a problem. But then something went wrong. Bounced off a rock, the rear of the left pontoon was sucked into the hole. Seeing the right pontoon rising into the air, I threw myself towards it, but too late. It shot upwards and I felt myself falling backwards into the water.

The raft came down on top of me upside down. With the churning water confounding my mental compass, instinct took over. I swam out of the blackness and scrambled to the top of the upturned boat.

Robert had disappeared. After long moments, he re-surfaced near the boat and I grabbed his wrist and he mine. Adrenaline is a powerful motivator but it can also exhaust one far quicker than ordinary exertion. Robert looked up at me and said "I've smashed my knee. I don't have the energy to get aboard."

I tried to pull him up but the pontoon was too big and he was too heavy. We were now out of control, upside down, and oarless. The eddy was beyond reach. The raging river now had us firmly in its thrall.

The boulder grew enormous and we slammed into it with an audible crunch. I felt Robert release his grip and slip beneath the waves. "Oh god," I thought, "where is he?"

The raft was pinned to the upstream face of the boulder but almost immediately began rolling across it to the left, headed for the hole and the ledges beyond. From my perch, I looked down into an enormous void, a black abyss in a raging white river, the dragon's mouth. What happened next I don't know but I felt the raft kick to the right and into calmer water. The dragon had spit me out.

But where was Robert? He could only have entered the maw. If he was still there, he'd be dead. Seven pairs of panicked eyes scanned up and down the river but there was no sign of him. Five seconds passed, then ten seconds, and beyond. Amazing quantities of thought can pass through the mind in a dozen seconds.

At last, his head broke the surface to the left of the raft. His eyes were rolling and it was obvious he had little strength. He was being swept towards the ledges when Fred kayaked in and gave him a solid purchase. With me grabbing his lifevest, and Fred pushing, we got him onto the upturned raft. To our relief, the raft slowly drifted towards the right bank, missing the ledges and taking a wild ride through the chute and into smooth water. Once in calm water, Robert recovered quickly.

After a long struggle, we muscled the boat into an eddy and righted it. The dry bags had leaked and several of us would spend the night in soggy sleeping bags. Because it was already mid-afternoon, we decided to find a beach and dry out. From upstream, Dragon's Teeth seemed to purr. We had made one mile the entire day.

The remainder of the journey would be a series of sleigh rides through one huge rapid after another, six Class 10s on a portion one-third that of the Colorado which holds three of America's ten Class 10 rapids. We flipped rafts, kayaks and the paddle cat and only Fred completed the run unscathed.

It ended at the controversial Manwan Dam, the first of eight the Chinese plan to build on the Lancang. As we surveyed the mass of concrete blocking the river, we mused on what the dragons were thinking.

Five days into our journey, we had experienced the dragon's power. A solar eclipse that darkened Cambodia's Angkor Wat disturbed a Chinese dragon and the resultant earthquake killed 50 people in Wuding just to the north. In this fragile earth where the slightest shift could level mountains, the dam seemed an act of supreme hubris. Perhaps it would withstand the dragon's shrug. And then we remembered our own hubris on approaching Dragon's Teeth and wondered.

See First Descent by Pete Winn for more information.

Map of Mekong First Descents

Geology and Geography of Rivers in Tibet and Western China

Return to journals of previous expeditions in Tibet and China.

More info about rivers in China