Renji Dorje's Chortan. Photo by Gordon Bare.

The First Descent of the Headwaters of the Salween

By River Through a Wounded Land

By Gordon Bare

Reprinted from American Whitewater, July/August 2001, pp. 44 - 50

(Links from this page are at the end of the journal.)

The aged monk tells us that we are the first Westerners to visit his 380 year old monastery. He and his two acolytes are delighted to show us through the partially restored temple and a new prayer hall. Long-hidden scrolls have been returned to their niches and prayer shawls once more drape icons. Newly painted Bodhisattvas peer down from several walls; other walls still show the depredations of the Cultural Revolution now a quarter century past.

We are at the Yudou Monastery, not to be found on any map and dozens of miles from a road, on the headwaters of the Salween River in northeastern Tibet. Our party is undertaking the first descent by kayak and raft of some 154 miles of this great river of Asia. The trip gives us an opportunity to visit an area normally closed to foreigners and to experience rural Tibetan culture under assault from both technological change and Chinese control.

Our group consists of seven Americans and one Englishman, together with a representative of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a Tibetan botanist who serves as our interpreter. We are two rafts and six kayaks, experienced river runners drawn to the lure of a first descent in the most exotic and remote of settings. We've been brought together by Pete Winn, professional geologist and ex Grand Canyon guide, under the auspices of the non-profit Earth Science Expeditions. Pete has been boating the great rivers of Asia and investigating their geology for several years and has major first descents to his credit. Our oarsmen are Mike Connelly, a geologist from Washington State and David Hettig, a Silicon Valley lawyer. Our kayakers are a diverse lot. Pete's son Travis is a nationally ranked junior competitor. The Englishman is Phil Smith, a computer person and ex slalom racer. Phil Kantor is a photographer from Boulder. Lisa Nelowet, an environmental engineer and a serious climber from Colorado, is the only woman. For all of us, Tibet is something of a holy grail of Asian travel and of whitewater exploration.

We assemble in Lhasa for outfitting and take the opportunity to explore Tibet's ancient culture. Tibet had long had loose ties of suzerainty with China or complete independence prior to the Communist victory in 1949. The next year, the Peoples Liberation Army invaded Tibet and Beijing quickly moved to supplant the then youthful Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and temporal leader. Chinese domination became increasingly repressive, and attempts to collectivize Tibet's nomads as part of Mao's Great Leap Forward resulted in widespread famine. In 1959, after a period of increasing tension, it appeared that China was preparing to kidnap the Dalai Lama. Thousands of Tibetans gathered at Lhasa's summer Palace to defend their leader. The Dalai Lama slipped away in a two week overland march to India. A major uprising in Lhasa resulted in pitched battles, with the PLA shelling and bombing the Potala and other landmarks, and the death of thousands of Tibetans in Lhasa alone. Estimates of the death toll throughout Tibet from famine and revolt range upward of half a million. Another 100,000 fled to India.

Beginning in 1966, the Cultural Revolution destroyed many of Tibet's 6000 monasteries in a effort to root out all vestiges of Tibetan culture and religion. Monks were subjected to "re-education" campaigns that continue to this day. The death of Mao and liberalization under Deng Xiaoping beginning in the late 1970's brought gradual easing of collectivization and prohibitions on religion, a pattern that has continued since with intermittent crackdowns and a new threat of immigration by Han Chinese.

Lhasa is now an ethnically mixed city with a majority of Han Chinese, who have been encouraged to move there by tax breaks, subsidized housing, and relief from Beijing's one child per family policy. Beijing has not released population data in a effort to disguise its policy of domination through ethnic inundation. Chinese characters now adorn road signs. The famed Potala, begun in 1645, retains its awesome grandeur dominating the skyline but is something of a mausoleum. Once the winter palace of the Dalai Lama, it now has a museum quality. Chinese tourists vastly outnumber Tibetans who seem to be conducting an informal boycott. It overlooks a large square bulldozed from an old Tibetan quarter. A Mig fighter sits incongruously in the middle, a not-so-subtle reminder of China's military muscle.

Our official Chinese minder is uncomfortable around Tibetans and tells us it is not safe in parts of town. Perhaps for him but we are greeted with smiles wandering the old Tibetan neighborhoods. We are welcomed at the Jokhang, Tibet's holiest temple in the heart of the town's old quarter. An endless stream of Tibetan pilgrims, usually in traditional garb, circumambulate the compound pausing to spin prayer wheels that send their devotions on their way. Others prostrate themselves at the entrance before visiting shrines lit only by hundreds of butter lamps that are continually replenished by the faithful. The manifest destiny of the religiosity far surpasses that usually evident in Judeo-Christian settings. Pole-mounted security cameras keep a watchful eye lest any gathering take on a political character.

We also visit the great monasteries of Drepung and Sera, both located just outside of town. Both suffered during the Cultural Revolution's war on all things traditional and both are experiencing major reconstruction. The population of the monasteries is now several hundred monks each, down from thousands before China's invasion. Self contained worlds in their time, the great monasteries dominated political and economic life as well as providing the locus of education. Literacy among ethnic Tibetans has plummeted as secular education has not adequately replaced the monasteries' role, particularly in rural areas, and Han occupy the relatively few slots in middle and high school equivalent grades. In the late afternoon at Drepung, monks pair off to practice a ritualized debate and take turns expounding points of logic and doctrine to each other. Emphatic hand claps emphasize each point. Though unable to understand the language, the ebb and flow are readily apparent as the mobile expressions, looks of triumph, or occasional rueful surrender to an irrefutable argument cross lingual boundaries.

Our put-in near the Sinified town of Nagqu is a hard day's drive from Lhasa on the main road north to Qinghai Province. Trucks and Chinese military convoys dominate traffic. The drive is a bone jolting and mildly terrifying experience, which makes us look forward to the river. The first couple of hours take us through the relatively populated and fertile Lhasa valley before rising to the first of several passes that towered more than 15,000 feet high. Vegetation save grass disappears and the big sky vistas of the high plateau are interrupted only by herds of yak, cattle, sheep and goats and occasional black yak-hair tent encampments. We pause at the top of a pass to help two monks re-erect sagging ropes of multi-colored prayer flags hung by pilgrims.

At the river we find a smallish stream of swiftly flowing flatwater in a broad glacially carved valley. The altitude is 14,600 feet, which makes rigging rafts and loading gear a slow motion activity as not even the fittest of us have the wind to hustle about. The absolute headwaters are perhaps 50 miles further up in a series of marshes and lakes at close to 16,000 feet. The Mekong and Yangtze also originate within in scant hundred-mile circle and flow to mouths separated by many thousands of miles.

Temperatures hover in the 50s and 60s and showers regularly blow through but rarely last. This is the weather we are to become accustomed to for the next 10 days. The rafts carry the food and gear giving those in kayaks the luxury of paddling empty boats. Pete's research has yielded flow and gradient data from which we can make an educated guess on the difficulty of the whitewater we will face. Averaging drops of 12 feet per mile, the river should be mild in its upper reaches where volume remains small but could become quite challenging when swollen to perhaps ten times this flow further downstream.

A handful of local herders, some on horseback, gather to watch our strange doings as we spin off into the current. At no point on the river are we in unpopulated territory as the search for pasture has created a highly dispersed population. Some quarter of Tibet's two and a half million people are nomads who have returned to herding after the forced collectivization ended. We are in the territory of the Khampas, a traditional warrior tribe in site of their strong Buddhism. The Khampas bore the brunt of collectivization and famine and held out longest against China. Men wear long plaited hair interwoven with red cloth wound around their heads. Both men and women carry long curved knives in their belts. Shy local women are initially reluctant to come close or have their pictures taken. But with some encouragement from Lisa, they soon clamber aboard our rafts and happily pose for the Polaroids we hand out. Some ask discretely for pictures of the Dalai Lama, which are prohibited in Tibet.

Visitors quickly appear at even our most remote-seeming stops. Three youths with perhaps 100 sheep visit us the first morning as we cook oatmeal over a camp stove. They are armed with homemade yak hair slings of a type probably not out of place in a biblical setting. They demonstrate substantial accuracy but our attempts with the devices result in misfires that pose as much risk to those standing behind the shooter as to anyone in front. The shepherds report that there are no longer wolves in the vicinity as there were in their parents day. At another stop a shaved-headed nun greets us with palms pressed together in the Indian but not the Tibetan fashion. She has recently returned from an arduous and illegal trek to Dharmasala, the residence in exile of the Dalai Lama in northern India.

On the water the second afternoon, the river broadens and slows. We initially suspect that we are in the pool created by some natural obstruction and that a major rapid lies ahead. But the river widens still further and the current ceases completely. We realize to our chagrin and annoyance that we can only be on the lake created by a dam - one which the Chinese Academy of Science had assured us was located on a tributary and not on the stretch we would run. The 100 foot tall Chalong Dam may well be the highest major dam on the planet. We are somewhat concerned since Chinese authorities tend to view dams as militarily sensitive installations. Our permit, of course, says nothing about transiting a dam. We wonder if gun-toting soldiers will order us off the river. In the event, a cheerful crew of Chinese workers helps us with the laborious task of portaging our boats and gear to the tailrace.

China is busily engaged in dam construction on many of its major rivers and is pursuing an extensive range of economic development projects in Tibet. There is also planning underway for a headwaters nature preserve, a cautious first step toward alleviating some of the serious damage to this fragile tundra and pasture environment. Whether this protection will affect further dam construction and the degree to which development will benefit the nomad population are open questions. Most evidence suggests that economic development is principally benefiting the Han-dominated urban areas.

The next day we stop at a stupa or chorten, a dome shaped structure capped by a tower on which is painted the all-seeing eye of Buddhist theology. It was built only last year on the site of a 300 year old monastery named after a famous holy man. Renji Dorje, the monk attending the chorten, invites us to his home for tea. He dons his brilliant red and yellow vestments and conducts a prayer ceremony for our benefit, chanting from ancient texts to the accompaniment of cymbals and incense.

The river continues at a good clip. We drop into intermittent stretches of canyon - Pete identifies the rock as schist, or metamorphosed sediments - where the river necks and the whitewater action picks up to a Class III level. The kayaks enjoy playing at surfing waves and eddylines. The rafts need only row enough to stay in the main current. We make speedy progress and cover 20 miles or more in four or five hours with little effort. We had allowed time for scouting and, if necessary, portaging dangerous drops but the rapids are wide open and bouncy without being threatening. We are able to take layover days and explore side canyons.

As we drop in altitude, planted fields of barley appear. What has been scattered tents of summer herders gives way to small villages of adobe-like construction and larger crowds line the bank and gather whenever we pull over. A road appears along the river, and as we approach the administrative center of Biru we begin to look for our pickup vehicles. But the river is not quite through with us and the gradient picks up as we once more enter a mini canyon. By now the volume is that of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon and moving a a breathtaking pace. Waves, six to eight feet high, slap us around and boils appear under our kayaks to throw us off line. But no really serious rapids lurk behind horizon lines and we are able to read and run on the fly. Several miles of this continuous big bouncy water make an exciting end for the river. Another year we may return and continue on the next stretch down to Yunnan Province near the Burma border.

River exploration provides perhaps a unique insight into a land and people. One travels through backyards, as it were. I think back to our stop at the Yudou Monastery. In spite of the gracious welcome and the obvious dedication of its three guardians, there is an incompleteness, a certain emptiness, to the place that once boasted dozens of monks and a functioning school. Our visit was both a cultural highlight and a sad reminder of the uncertainty hanging over this traditional society and its harsh interaction with modernity and authoritarian power. I come to the depressing conclusion that there is little hope for the people of Tibet to chart their own path. China's regime is too insecure, its people too numerous, and the outside world too disengaged. This conclusion is strengthened two days after returning home. A two inch Associated Press story reports a crackdown in Lhasa and the arrest of monks at the Drepung monastery, where we had been welcomed and where we had watched the debate practice.

Perhaps a democratic China will one day have the self-confidence to grant Tibet real autonomy, but present trends in Beijing's policies are not at all encouraging. The Tibetan people have shown remarkable courage and resilience and in the Dalai Lama they have a leader with the stature of a Mandela or a John Paul II. But the tidal wave of Han immigration may render those factors mute, even if Beijing moves toward democracy, itself a highly uncertain prospect. The renewed worship, education, and renewal of traditional village and pastoral life gives ground for a certain hope that the culture can survive if only as a minority in its own land. We found ourselves fortunate to have traveled through a country restored to even a pale resemblance of its past.

Map of Salween First Descents

More info about rivers in China