Thrills and Danger During First Expedition of the Lancang

By Fred St. Goar

Reprinted from School Year Abroad, Phillips Academy (Andover, MA), Fall/Winter 1996, pp. 4

Photo by Ben Foster.

The Bai peasant woman and her husband expressed their condolences that our adventure on the Mekong River was heading towards an early end. The Bai are one of the many Chinese minority tribes living along the banks of the river as it runs through Yunnan Province parallel to the Burmese (Myanmar) border. The couple described a spot one day's journey downstream where a massive landslide had blocked the river gorge, causing a long, impassible "waterfall."

"How big?" we inquired. They didn't know. There were too intimidated to get near it. Being the first to navigate a remote river is an honor with a mixed blessing. There is the thrill of being first, coupled with the danger of having no idea what lies around the next bend. I was part of the pioneering Sino-American expedition hoping to descent by raft and kayak through the upper gorges of the Mekong, which the Chinese call the Lancang, or "wild and turbulent."

My first exposure to kayaking was in 1974 in Rennes. While I frequently spent weekends "studying" in the Bar de la Poste with the likes of David McKean, Corb Ardrey, Sylvia Wolf, Sam Rudman, Mary Sloane, Ian Wollen, Libby Isaacson, Bill Riordan and Cassy Gardner, fellow SYAer New Logan was touring the rivers of Brittany with the Rennes kayaking club. He would come in Monday mornings with tales of great adventures. I was inspired. I went to Dartmouth in part because of its tradition of peripatetic river runners.

I quickly took to the sport and I've been hooked ever since; and when Peter Winn, a geologist and former Grand Canyon river guide invited me to join the Lancang expedition, I jumped at the opportunity.

The eight members of the trip, all experienced river runners, gathered in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. Peter had been in Kunming in 1989 on a previous, unsuccessful attempt to organize a trip on the Mekong. He was amazed how the city residents now sought eye contact with foreigners and smiled. Women wore makeup and brightly colored clothes - quite a change in six years.

We packed our gear into a truck and spent two epic days bouncing west along the original Burma road to the river. The inhabitants of the countryside and numerous small villages we passed through showed no tendency towards leisure. Every available set of hands labored in the mile-after-mile of fields and rice paddies.

The Lancang River lived up to its name. We descended 110 miles through the 5000 foot deep Yong Bao Gorge into which there was no road access. The volume of water was twice the size of the Grand Canyon and the rapids too numerous to count or name. The lack of correlation between our WWII topo maps and the river left us often questioning the wisdom of our venture.

The poorly accessible banks of the gorge were inhabited primarily by minority tribes living on rice, corn and squash. Han, or mainstream Chinese, influence was limited. It was not uncommon to find families living across the river from each other speaking completely different dialects.

The locals were intrigued by the strange foreigners descending their river. Our interactions with them were the high point of the trip. Most questioned our sanity. Our synthetic rafts and kayaks were a novelty. Their bamboo rafts and dugout canoes were no match for all but a limited portion of the river. But we, too, had our work cut out for us. The rafts flipped on four separate occasions and the two of us kayaking were frequently called upon to pick up the pieces. Luckily, there was no bodily harm, just a few soggy sleeping bags.

We successfully navigated both the "waterfall," (a one mile stretch with house-sized boulders and fifteen foot waves) which we named "Dragon's Teeth," as well as the rest of the river. The "Dragon's Teeth" landslide was just upriver from the remnants of the Jihong Bridge which dates back to 128 BC, and was part of the Southern Silk Road, now only a footpath. Marco Polo had crossed it and described the river below as terrifying.

The nine-day voyage ended on the tranquil Manwan Dam Lake, the first and only dam built on the Lancang. The large hydropower plant associated with the dam was a rude return to civilization and impressed upon our group the vulnerability of this extremely remote area. Six more large dams are planned for the Lancang. Toxic wastes flowing into the river from unregulated paper mills are increasing.

China, the sleeping dragon, is waking. The Chinese are scouting for a new path, and the massive nation needs to be reckoned with. The opportunity to learn from the inside the subtleties of this challenging country is important for developing a stable and harmonious relationship. I congratulate SYA for taking advantage of such an opportunity with its Beijing program.

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