The Jihong (Rainbow) Bridge over the Mekong River in western Yunnan. The river is called the Lancang Jiang in Chinese, which means "turbulent river." Photo by Lori Golze.

Down the Mighty Mekong

By Lori Golze

Reprinted from the Tri-City Herald, Desert Living Section, Page 1, Sunday, March 2, 1997 (Pasco, WA)

(Links to other pages are at the end of this journal.)

Summary

Dates: October, 1996 (10 full river days)
Nearest major airport: Kunming, Yunnan
Round trip driving time: 3 days
Put-in: Yongbao Bridge, about 100 miles west of Dali, elevation 4500', flow about 30,000 cfs
Take-out: Man Wan Dam, elevation 3400', about 30,000 cfs
Total distance: 100 miles (10 miles per day)
Average gradient: 11 feet/mile
Participants: 7 total using two 16' catarafts and 4 hardshell kayaks
Grade: Class V bigwater (Class 10+ on Grand Canyon scale)

In October, I joined a geological expedition that was rafting the Mekong River in China's southernmost Yunnan province.

As a kayaker, my main interest was the white-water, and I wasn't disappointed. It was a wonderful trip full of exhilarating white-water and intriguing glimpses of Chinese culture. Following are excerpts from my journal:

Thursday, Oct. 17, 1996 Day 1

"Are you going to write about your bath?" asks Phil.

I'm standing waist-deep in this cold river, soaping down, when I see two Chinese farmers coming down the path. What's the proper social etiquette in this situation? I grab my soap and sink down to my neck: Please, please hurry. It's so cold. Nonchalantly soaping my hair, of course.

They probably didn't even notice. The guys at camp did. "You didn't know which way to turn did you?"

Met all six guys now - seems to be a good, fun, diverse group: Gordon Bare from Washington, D.C., Walt Garms from California, Peter Winn (our trip leader) from Colorado, my friend Mike Connelly of Pasco, Phil Smith from Great Britain, and Han Chunyu, the representative from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

We spent Sunday and Monday in Kunming collecting gear and groceries, trying to identify food by the pictures on the labels ... peanut butter and snake wine were pretty easy. Kunming was typical of the large cities we encountered, with busy streets, storefront shops, side alleys with open market foods and street grills. And bicycles - more bicycles than cars.

Wonderful sights on Tuesday's van ride from Kunming to Dali. The countryside featured tiered rice or corn fields on every hillside. Harvested corn was strung like garlic and hanging from doorways and balconies. Piles of red peppers would be drying on a cement doorstep. Any piece of cement was used for drying grain.

The homes were in small villages. The farmers, men and women in wide-brimmed straw hats, attack the small fields with hoes. A few had an oxen to pull a single-blade plow.

Wednesday, after the usual breakfast of rice, noodles, soup, and french fries, we went to the open-air market at Dali. We filled our bags with vegetables and fruits, took lots of pictures and hit the road - a couple of mountain passes on jarring, rough cobblestone the whole way. Due to the road conditions and the mountain passes, it took us 12 hours to drive 300 miles.

Finally, one flat tire and a set of brake pads later, there it was - the Mekong River, far below. Beautiful.

We lowered everything by rope down to a sandy beach and hit the river. Wide, brown and silty. We spied some men working on a boat about the size of a dory. The kayakers pulled over to investigate. They had the boat upended and were chiseling twine into the crevices between the pine boards. We inspected their boat, then they came over and checked out our kayaks.

I waved goodbye and got a shove offshore. As we left the boat workers' shore, Gordon and I looked at each other with big grins on our faces. Gordon says: "White-water, culture..." What a wondrous adventure.

Friday, Oct. 18 Day 2

Short day on the river. We floated a short distance, then pulled into a canyon with a large creek and terraced hillside. We hiked up a steep footpath that ran up the stream, passing a small hydroelectric plant.

The village, Ta-Xi-Chai, was reached by crossing the stream on a narrow wooden bridge with irregular slats of various shapes and lengths, at a slanted sideways angle. It made a strange popping noise when Mike crossed, but the rest of us make it OK.

We hiked up a stone slab alley to a courtyard where the owner waved us inside. More villagers started showing up. The host served us bowls of sunflower seeds and tea. We started taking Polaroids and giving them as gifts. They laughed and passed the pictures around. One old woman moved a chair in next to Walt, stroked and examined the hair on his arms, and talked nonstop. Wonderful woman. When we left, the host gave us a large bag of sunflower seeds.

The end of the day: The rafts pull into camp. The kayakers paddle down to scout Dragon's Teeth, the largest and most challenging of the rapids. Phil says: "No problem." Lori says: "Holy $#&!"

Saturday, Oct. 19 Day 3

Everyone had great runs, though Pete ran a hole that snagged him a bit and sheared an oar in half. (A hole is created by water flowing over an obstruction, the powerful hydraulic force literally digging a hole in the water that can easily flip a boat.)

The main run consists of threading between the left wave train and the holes in the middle to avoid the big rock/hole on left, then cutting far right to avoid a huge surging hole (Pete's Hole) in the middle and then farther right to avoid the series of big holes at the bottom, the far left being a recirculating ledge hole that crosses half the river.

After lunch on a sandy beach, we pulled over to shore where a group of about 20 curious people were gathered. Pete tried to row their ferrying boat with the crossed oar hand position they use - not too gracefully. They did a little better with our raft after Mike positioned their hands and demonstrated.

Sunday, Oct. 20 Day 4

Today's river day was fun. The water got busier with a sequence of class 3 rapids (river rating where class 1 is flat water and class 6 is unrunnable) in fairly short succession with the last one ending at our campsite - a long beautiful beach next to the jungle.

I tried to take a jungle hike. Big, nasty, beautiful spiders turned me back twice. Then, a nasty leafy stinging needle-like thing zapped me. As I jumped back I put my hand on a tree trunk for balance - it had spikey tacks all over the bark. Not a friendly jungle.

Monday, Oct. 21 Day 5

Yep, Phil's our hot shot. He did some really impressive surfing on some huge waves. All the boys got some good surfing in, while I, true to form, attempted and missed some, and mostly drifted by. Then in rapid No. 4 of the sequence we named "String of Pearls," a wave held me, then pushed me sideways into the next. I was suddenly sidesurfing the froth of a 15-foot wave and there's Gordon passing by below me as I surf out of the wave and graze the back of his kayak.

After, Gordon says, "Sorry, I shouldn't have followed so close." I said: "Yeah, stay out of my surf wave!" The name of this rapid is now Lori's Surf.

At camp this night, we sent some local teen-agers with money for beer. Bets are out as to whether they'll return... The expected two hours for the beer run came and went. It was 8 o'clock and all of us except Chunyu pretty much figured our 100 yuan had hiked up the hill forever when two figures appeared with baskets of beer. They had to travel to the next village - a four-hour round trip. We gratefully gave them more yuan and food ("Give them the spam!" I yelled).

Tuesday, Oct 22 Day 6

We entered the canyon lands -heavily jungled, with rock beaches.

Busy white-water day. A good day for all - no rafts flipped, no swims, a few kayak rolls. One big set of waves pushed and shoved and dropped me "thump" into canyons of water. Walt said he could periodically see my pink helmet appear and disappear in strangely unpredictable locations. A couple more good wave trains, lots of boils and swirly water, then seven tired boaters ran the last wave train into camp. Eleven miles yesterday, 13 today.

Wednesday, Oct. 23 Day 7

Last night, Chunyu treated us to a traditional Yunnan meal:

Main dish: Heat one cup oil in wok. Pour beaten eggs in and fold. As eggs foam, remove. In remainder of oil, pour in chopped tomatoes and stir fry. Add tomatoes to eggs. Add sugar and salt.

Add sliced garlic. Salad: Grate turnip/radish. Add vinegar and sugar. Fried Crickets: Fry in oil, add salt.

Walt spent an hour plowing a farmer's field today. They thought his work was worth three potatoes.

Thursday, Oct. 24 Day 8

All of us went on a hike upstream to an old stone bridge that was part of the farm-to-market road. Chain and cables across the river supported the cross slats of wood. Beautiful bridge. The "road" it connected was a dirt hiking trail.

On the way back, Walt and I took the high road, a hot dusty hike of about seven miles with three major hill climbs and stream crossings. A small group of people gathered in a barnyard offered us "cha" (tea). With no common language, we mostly smiled and nodded at each other.

Some things didn't need translating. Gestures and laughter told us they thought our shorts were strange things and my bulky hiking boots rather extreme - they wore cloth shoes or plastic beach sandals. The apparent homeowner even used the American trick of repeating himself slooooweer and LOUDER - we still didn't understand his Chinese.

We continued on our hike past two small villages of clay homes with slate roofs. At the last village, people started gathering to see us, laughing and chatting and yelling to their friends in the fields, who all stopped to look at us as we passed. We called this village "Happy Village."

Foot weary, we hit camp just before dark with dinner and cold pijiu (beer) ready.

Friday, Oct. 25 Day 9

The river ended quickly today at the confluence of the Yang Bi and the long lake created by a downstream damn. We threw the kayaks in the rafts and took turns rowing - the alternate position being sunbathing. We finally spotted a motor boat on shore. The boatman and his son towed us down the lake.

At dusk we pulled into the fishermen's camp and quickly set up our tents in a rice paddy. Then to town. It had a boom town/shanty town atmosphere. A rutted dirt road with narrow storefront rows of homes and shops. The children of the town were enthralled with us. Walt and Pete chased them and got them so worked up that the sight of the Polaroid sent them screaming into the dark. After the first shot though, there were no end to requests, with the kids grabbing the pictures out of the Polaroid as they were being spit out.

Dinner was in a small room with irregular wooden walls and ceiling, a large wooden stove with two huge inset woks, two small tables against the wall, and a dozen little wooden stools. The cook slaughtered two chickens in the front street, dipped them in hot water to loosen the feathers, chopped them up, bones and all, and woked it. It was good though had to be eaten carefully to pick out the bones with each bite. The feet were pretty much left untasted, though Chunyu munched on one of the heads.

Saturday, Oct. 26 Day 10

Today, we awoke to clouds and an occasional misty rain - our first no-sunshine day. Appropriate, maybe, for the day we take off the river. We started derigging the rafts to load into the motor boat. The boat backed up to get into position. A smaller boat, curious, putted up. At the last minute before collision, they noticed each other, made insufficient adjustments and rammed into each other with one of the boatmen falling into the water.

I was afraid to laugh at first but everyone else was laughing, even the boatman trying to scramble out of the water. It was such a socially joining moment that another group of onlookers laughed with us, smiled and offered us cigarettes.

White-water, culture... What a wondrous adventure!

Return to journals of previous expeditions in Tibet and China.

Map of Mekong First Descents

Geology and Geography of Rivers in Tibet and Western China

More info about rivers in China