First Descent of the Nu River in Tibet, August 2000

Text and Photo by Phil Wegener

Reprinted from www.philipwegener.com

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

The first few days Juanjuan and I were in Beijing, which was as humid and muggy as ever. Getting out of the airport building into Hell, with soaked shirts in ten minutes. This was the first time Juanjuan has been back since leaving Oct. '97. I had anticipated that the transition back would be a slight shock for her and I was correct. It was rather humorous to see her jump at things that she grew up with, but has grown apart from. An example would be the drive from the Beijing airport. She had a friend meet us in his delivery van so we could stash my kayak in some office park - a wasted maneuver considering the airport has storage.

China is typical of places where "it's not the job of the drivers to avoid hitting you, it's your job to avoid getting hit." What I mean is that people and every other manner of transportation slip past each other by mere inches in seemingly chaotic manner. Another example would be the next day when we were in a bookstore near her home and we almost stumbled upon a guy squatting in the aisle eating his bowl of noodles. We both acknowledged that she has become Americanized, and this was a slight shock. When I got back to Beijing after the Tibet part of the trip she was out there in perfect stride. Another big impression was that life is hard there. Now she can see it from the Western side too like you and I can.

Well back to the trip. After about 5-6 days we flew to Chengdu in Sichuan province to spend the night, then Lhasa the next day. Lhasa sits at about 12,800' (sorry, I forgot the metric). There we had a few days before the rest of the group arrived and we were all together. Those few days were spent wandering the city and shopping. We would devise a method where if I liked something I would stand back a few feet while she dealt with the vender on the street. As long as they didn't associate us as being together the "Big Nose Surcharge" would be avoided and we could save some money. I would also dicker with people on the street, always willing to walk away. This helped me get a few better prices too, but she's the master.

After a few days the rest of the trip arrived and we consolidated in another hotel and started messing with gear. Everything arrived intact and we loaded the trucks for the drive north to Nagqu (or Nagchu in older maps). The drive was brutal, with both shocks on the Toyota Land Cruiser breaking off, thereby giving us a "springier" ride on the washboard road. The main road was being worked on so we had to take a side road that put us over a 16,000'+ pass, spending part of the time making room for military convoys full of gasoline. The area around Lhasa is a bit dry so it's a bit hard to tell for sure when the tree line starts, but that pass was way over the tree line. Both Toyotas stopped at the top to stretch our legs. There were a couple of monks trying to prop up a line of prayer flags, so it was fun helping them. 16,000' doesn't feel bad when you are just sitting around. All you could see for miles were tundra mountains yaks and yak dung. Even though Tibet is sparsely populated there are almost always people.

We would stop every hour or so, either to whiz or to have the driver remove a shock. Gordon livened up things when he professed his conservative feelings. He is an arms negotiator in Vienna and I think he likes to verbally spar with all his river colleagues. A safe bet that river people would be a bit different than him politically. He's a kayaker from the old school, having coached teams before so he spends a lot of time around people more "liberal" than him.

Our Toyota also had Mike, from Pascoe WA, Phil Smith from England, Lisa and me in addition to the driver. Mike is a spirited conversationalist, so political discourse, verging on argument, helped on the drive. I think my rudimentary Chinese helped the driver find something small to respect in us. Of course I couldn't engage him in deep discussions concerning the Tibetan/Chinese relationships (he was Tibetan, speaking Chinese) but it did allow him to learn a bit about us, thereby making us a bit more human. Juanjuan and I had tried to engage Tibetans on the sticky subject of China in Lhasa.

The reluctance on the Tibetan's part to talk was very interesting. This added to the feeling that it is an occupied country. Another thing that added to that feeling was the large military presence. I understand that Chinese people would say that is because Tibet is on the border with India, but one felt that the army was there because of the locals, who did not show warm feeling the Chinese. One day we managed to see more than one fist fight on the streets.

Back to the drive. We made it to Nagqu by evening and found it to be another dusty Chinese town with poor Tibetans roaming the streets. For all the argument that I hear that the Chinese are helping the Tibetans by being there I will always think about places like Nagqu. From what I saw the people from Sichuan who move up to Tibet are the ones who derive the benefit, the Tibetans look like forgotten rejects roaming the streets. To be fair I must admit that when Tibetans learn Mandarin and play the game, then they stand a better chance.

I think Mike will always tease me because when a gaggle of Tibetan boys came up to our Toyota I didn't roll the window up all the way. It wasn't because he was scared of them, he is 6'2" and a big bear of a guy, it's because one of them had snot running down his nose the size of a small stream. I tried to tell him that the window was above the snot line. Besides, I got great footage with the camcorder. I did learn here that the Tibetans are a bit more forward than the Chinese. I had to aggressively hold onto my glasses when the tall one reached in to grab them. I also learned the value of the little TV screen on my camcorder. Letting the locals see themselves on it was battery power well spent in the name of US-Tibetan relations. I'm sure that will remain a large part of the locals' stories when they relate to everyone about those crazy Americans.

We found the only "One Star" hotel, the Hotel Nagqu, with the name even written in English. They said we would have hot water at a certain hour and by golly at that hour we had hot water. So we all enjoyed our last bath and restaurant for the next 11 days. We were in high plateau country at 14,800'. It was a broad valley and there wasn't a cloud in the sky that night. It turned out to be one of our few nights that would be so cloudless.

At breakfast the next morning we learned how close we came to not launching. The truck had just come in at 6 AM. Apparently a bearing went out 30 KM outside of our lunch town. There was cell phone coverage so Fan Ting drove back with one of our drivers. There was a 24-hour truck stop in that town, but it took 3 tries at 30 KM each direction to find the right part. Needless to say they were sleeping it off while we got ready to head out.

The put-in was down the river and we had to find the road that ran along the river. Since our maps were not quite USGS detail it took a few conferences with locals before we found the right way. This was rolling tundra country with mountains off in the distance, a little like Wyoming, only wetter. The big factor at this point was that the weather had definitely changed. As we set up the rafts, a howling wet storm was in full swing. To add interest my digestive system was not quite what you might call "on line". I was trying to keep everything down while pumping and packing the rafts.

Poor Travis was worse than I was. Every few minutes he would calmly walk off with toilet paper into the distance. There were no trees, so one had to walk quite a bit to find any privacy. I have a photo of him lying face down on the inflatable kayak, just hating life. To be fair, he was not the only one, we all suffered from the trots at some point or another, it's just that I photographed him in his misery. We set up lunch in the lee of the truck while the wind howled and we tried to stay warm. Quite the auspicious start to a river trip.

Like I said before, there were no rapids to speak of. The river was moving swiftly though and when we finally launched in the afternoon we made good time. Just a few miles down on river right was a large flat area with mountains rising up a few thousand feet. This area was mountainous, but not much more relief than Colorado. Later the mountains proved to be of Himalayan proportions. Setting up camp in a nasty storm while begging the Gods to rip your innards out to save you from the Hell of the trots is no fun. All I wanted to do at that point was set up my tent and get in, with the occasional foray out to do the "Bronx Cheer". During all this Pete set up the kitchen and most of us did help a bit. I knew we had to eat so I managed to get some food down, but then back in the sleeping bag.

The next morning wasn't too wet and I was in better shape, but still not quite up to snuff. Lisa must have been feeling great because she got up early and climbed the mountain behind camp, which must have been two thousand feet higher, or so. One thing I noticed on this trip was that most mornings and evenings were without the worst weather, which is great because that is when you are the most open to getting wet. But there were still mornings when you would wake up in your bag all warm and comfortable, only to be greeted by the sound of rain pelting your tent. As you wake up you debate, "Do I go out there in my rain jacket, and put it away later all wet along with all my wet gear, or do I put on my dry suit now and eat breakfast with a tight neck gasket choking me while I drink my coffee?". Luckily I only had to have that internal debate a few times.

We had determined that the river was moving so fast that we had no problem making time down it. This allowed us time in camp to socialize with the locals. That first morning camp our visitors were three boys who were tending the animals on this large flat. They had mostly yaks, with a few goats and sheep too. I started my usual pose the kids in kayaks shots in the hopes of selling them later. They had the usual yak wool slings. Our bend in the river had tons of great river rock, so we were given demonstrations on slinging. The middle aged kid, about ten or so, was better than the older one. They were all better than English Phil, who bought a sling, then proceeded to attempt to send a rock across the river, to little success. The ten yuan he paid was probably a windfall to the kid, especially considering he can make another sling in a short amount of time.

Even though I have enough Chinese to get myself into trouble there was not a single Chinese speaker on the whole river, until near the end. We had our Chinese to English speaker Liu Li and our Chinese to Tibetan speaker, Da Wa. Whenever Pete had something important to relay I always wondered how much his words were being changed in the three step translation process. With our visitors this was no big problem, but later this proved to be just another factor in a difficult situation. For now we just posed the kids on our rafts and gave them Polaroids, which I'm sure they will treasure.

Leaving camp around 11 or so I paddled along the left bank while the kids and half the village, ran along and sang these Tibetan chants that echoed off of the walls. A very nice memory. Like I said, we made good time and just got used to being on a river well over the highest summits in Colorado. I can say that my highest surf was a little ripple at 14,400'. This was around the time that Travis' "Stupid Kayak Trick" became the talk of the town. Having the smallest most maneuverable boat he was the river clown. He was able to whip off spins and cartwheels in flat water, to the never ending amusement of the Tibetans along the shore.

This was an example of how word travels fast in this part of the world. A week later when I was the second kayaker to come round the bend the locals made vertical circles gestures with their fingers, to get me to do a roll for them. The thing is that Travis was still up stream, so how did they know such a thing was possible? To give you perspective you have to realize that no local ever goes into the river. I saw crude yak skin pod type boats with leather straps for oar locks near Lhasa, but nowhere in this area.

Later that day as the weather started its usual howl and rain a strange thing started to happen. Our progress down river ground to a halt. The storm was like in the Western US, always a head wind, but something else was going on. It didn't take long for us to realize that the dam was on the Nu Jiang, not a side stream. We were entering a reservoir and still water. From whipping along at 3-4 miles per hour to struggling to just make any progress. If you ask Mike to this day, I'm sure that his worst memory will be fighting that head wind. As a kayaker I was one of the scouts looking for a good camp. We found a "bay", or old drowned side canyon, to pull over and camp. Since I was one of the first in camp I paddled across our little bay, about 100 meters. Then I got out and climbed up the bank to get a better look down stream for a dam. I walked down for about half an hour but could only see a canyon down stream. It may seem minor, but this was one of the highlights of the trip for me. I had noticed that at almost any time you would be in site of something man made, either a village, of a old stone wall or just yaks grazing. Now, despite the fact that I was next to a man-made lake all I could see was sky and tundra. You could see brightly colored ground hugging flowers and lichens. They were of the brightest colors, all saturated with rain and the clear light you get in high thin air. I just slowly wandered around until I realized I wouldn't be seeing any dam. As I got back the rest of our crew had floated into camp.

At the head of our side canyon was a village, so after a few minute we noticed the local welcoming committee start to walk down, a group of about 20 people. They were far enough away that we had time to secure all our small personal effects before they showed up. Set up your tent and zip it up, this became our usual ritual on the trip because we almost always had visitors. Perhaps we should remember that we were the visitors. This was one of the better times I had to photograph people. I had to do my usual sneaky shoot because a lot of the women would cover up their faces when I pointed a camera at them. The men would often give me an icy stare when I tried to shoot them. This wouldn't have been too intimidating if it weren't for the fact that they were big guys, sometimes taller than I was, tough as nails with weather-beaten faces and that they carried big ornate knives on their belts. We're talking long, over 8-inch blades. I never really felt threatened, but there were definite moments were I thought I should play it cool.

The women faces showed that they had seen their share of bad winters too. The normal Tibetan dresses are beautiful long robes with detailed embroidered trim. They dress up their belts with long lines of sand dollars, which implies many years of trade with people from coastal regions. But the great compliment they paid us was how they returned in the morning with their finest silk shirts and cleanest robes. The young teenage girls also arrived in camp that morning with large red circles on their cheeks, dressed in the "Sunday" finest. I took this as a compliment, but I also realize that they had our Polaroid camera in mind. These girls would keep a scarf over their faces, occasionally letting it fall to reveal these rouge cheeks and beautiful eyes, a very alluring vision. I managed to get a few portraits off when they were side tracked by all the activity and laughter.

So that night and following morning were spent meeting the locals, trying to pose kids in kayaks and discussing the dam down stream. Liu Li had tried to tell Fan Ting, who as you remember, was not on the river with us, that the dam was on the main river. Fan Ting told Pete that it was on a side creek. Well, guess what? It was on the main stem of the Nagqu. Soon it became all clear as to why when a certain American outfitter tried to run this river a few years ago he found it dry. He had put on below the dam site. The dam had just been completed and as is typical of the Chinese, they just shut the gates to fill up the reservoir. No such thing as preserving fish habitat in this country.

That morning there was no wind and we floated down the lake, wondering where the dam was. We floated around the corner to a point where the yak scouts could see it, so we pulled over. Peeking over the bend in the bank made us feel like spies. Pete even forbade me from shooting it from behind a rock. We pulled the rafts over to a ramp and Liu Li and Da Wa went off with our permit, in search of officials. It was quite eerie because here we were at the top of a 90-foot dam and there was not a person in site. While waiting we brought out lunch and set up the tables. After a few minutes we were overrun with people, mostly in uniforms. At least they didn't have guns or mean faces. We were worried they might give us a ration of shit, instead they were fascinated by us and very helpful. We gave them lunch and they loaded up our bags on jeeps and trucks. They were mostly Tibetans, but they almost all spoke Chinese, which gave me a chance to yak it up with a few of them. It even got to the point where one guy teased me and a woman for flirting. Luckily I had my wedding ring on and a snapshot of Juanjuan to show that I was off the market. A good thing too because she had a few kilos on me and could have probably pinned me to the ground. Actually, we felt no animosity here, as opposed to in certain villages.

Travis studied the spillway but it was obvious that you couldn't run it - a 90-foot drop with obstructions at the bottom that created rooster tails that shot 20 feet into the air. So we carried the rafts down until they came up with the truck. One thing that helped was that the dam supervisor was from the same village as Lui Li in Sichuan province. When our Chinese ambassadors came into his office he was playing video games. We almost thought we had a chance to check E-mail, but there were no telephones. One thing Lui Li and Da Wa did score was Chinese food! These poor guys had to endure mashed potato flakes and dried noodles, American style. They were in misery over our food. They bought lots of Chinese noodles, bowls and chopsticks. They were in hog heaven. Li even tried to get Pete to stay for dinner, but we had to make time. The portage had taken all day and we didn't know what kind of rapids lay ahead.

That night, our third, we camped river right on a wide shoulder up against a mountain, a typical camp. The villagers on the other side were shouting at us to come over so Lisa and I paddled over to play ambassador. It was the usual interaction (for us, not for them) where they look at our kayaks and us while we try to get them to sit in our boats. I'm not sure who stank more, they in their yak-dung-smoke clothing or us in our wet polyester-nylon paddle gear. It was a trip for all of us. I took a few shots of Lisa on the back of her boat with a young guy sitting in the cockpit. The contrasts between Lisa's bright synthetic suit and the guy's earth-toned overcoat were quite striking. We felt we had done our part to maintain peace by going over there. Later in the trip when we didn't go over we paid the price. More on that later. That night was relatively uneventful. No village nearby meant we only had few visitors. It didn't even rain too much.

Day four we floated down to a large monastery river left. The monks came down to greet us and give us the grand tour. We learned that we were the first foreigners to visit in at least their lifetime. We also learned that it was 300 plus years old and it had been sacked during the Cultural Revolution in '66. They still were not finished fixing the shrine rooms, but they were very beautiful anyway.

These young guys who were the monks here were missing that hard weather-beaten look I told you about in the villagers. Pete told us that they were often the second or third son, sent off to learn. Missing from their faces was that hard creased look. Once again, no one spoke Chinese so we had to do the usual gesture style communication. I got the deluxe tour, including up onto the roof of the main monastery. As we left there were the usual Polaroids on the rafts. I wonder what the next people will think who come down the river and see these soon to be weather-beaten photos tacked up onto some wall in a room?

Since we didn't know what was down stream we had to part company and get going. Pete had researched topo maps all winter, including Russian maps in Cyrillic. He had determined that the gradient was comparable to the Grand Canyon, which is mostly flat, punctuated with large rapids. 90% boredom and 10% Hell. Actually the Grand Canyon is never boring and neither was this river. But we were discovering that the Nu Jiang/Nagqu was devoid of rapids. None-the-less Pete had planned at least one portage around a possible class V rapid. We had already made a portage, around the dam, and still had 6 days of river, so we had to make time each day.

Camp four was in a canyon without any village near by. This meant we had relative privacy, only a few visitors on horse back. We squeezed onto a small side canyon mouth with a running creek. This was a nice evening so we were able to spread out our constantly wet gear and relax a bit in camp. This part of the river felt a bit like a Utah canyon, small juniper type bushes and steep walls. There was none of the usual stresses that night. No prying eyes and hands in your tent and no bad weather to struggle through. The Chinese guys did their laundry and most of us ventured up the side creek to indulge in a cold creek bath, which we were all in desperate need of. It was one of the most social nights with everyone in a great mood.

I pitched my tent close to the creek and when the night rains started up, after most of us went to bed, I couldn't get to sleep. All I could think about was Mike Connally's warning that I was too close to the side creek and that I would probably get flash flooded. So, I jumped out of my warm bag and pulled my whole camp up a few feet away from the creek. It turned out to not be necessary, but it did allow me to get to sleep.

Day five was the same as the others, in the fact that there were no rapids and just beautiful mountains everywhere. The highlight of this day was the stupa river right. It was more than a stupa. It was a whole place of worship, but not quite a monastery. There were several buildings along with the stupa and about 20-30 people living there. As we walked up two people were supplicating as they went around the stupa. Every few steps or so they would drop to a prone position and chant, then get up and continue the process. The stupa was at least 30 feet high and very weather-beaten. You could hear their pilgrims' chants echo off of the walls as they slowly went around and around. Just like the previous day, we were the first "big noses" they had ever seen, so the dorje, or leader of the place invited us up for tea. We were all glad we had time for this, because the room we were lead into was covered with thankas and detailed to an incredible degree. We managed to get tea without all that Tibetan dree ("yak" is a misnomer) butter and salt. After a few niceties the dorje did a five-minute chant for us while the other people tended to our needs, keeping us in tea.

Once he realized how nice it is to get a Polaroid he got out his best red hat. It was a tall wide fan like affair, not the forward horn type you sometimes see in Tibet. One of the greatest shots I got the whole trip was when he got on the raft in all his auspicious regalia. That was one surreal scene. He was a local bigshot and probably has no idea how funny, or unusual, it looked to us Westerners. Very much one of the highlights.

That night things became interesting. Camp five was river left across from a bluff that had stupas and a large grouping of buildings. It was interesting that there was a line of flags running up from the river on river right. We chose this point because this was the head of the dreaded Granite Canyon! Emphasis added by me because this was where we would have the best chance of finding rapids. It was getting late and we didn't want to be trapped in the gorge with no place to camp. I had a bad feeling when we didn't go over to the other side of the river where all the buildings and people were. Remember, Lisa and I played ambassador on the evening camp 3. Well we made camp and Travis, Lisa and I headed down stream to see if we could find rapids. On a trip like this you can't trust the locals when it comes to things like rapids. They don't understand the concept of class I-V. If fact, they don't even know how to swim. The river is not a playground to them. As we went down there were a couple of settlements, so we had to play it cool, walking through people's front yards. Especially when one house had a mean mastiff barking at us and one woman, who had obviously never seen big noses before, picked up a rock when she saw us. She was alone with her child so we just gave her wide berth. All her men were at our camp involved in a dispute, which you'll hear about in a few minutes.

The three of us made it about 2 miles down and when the trail pooped out there were no signs of rapids of note. We did see vultures in a feeding frenzy in an eddy on the other side of the river. I got a video shot, but couldn't be sure if it was a human body or not. As some of you may be aware, that is how poor people's bodies are disposed of in Tibet. As we came back though the settlement the mastiff was luckily tied up, but we still made haste.

Upon our return one of the controversies was in full swing. It seems that the line of flags on the other side was the county line. We were in one county, with the denizens of that county yelling at the other side that we were on their land. The other side yelled back that we had to go over to show them our permit. So Pete ferried Li and Da Wa across with our one copy of our permit, which was in Chinese. They snatched it out of Da Wa's hands and hovered over him. Da Wa is from Lhasa, about 5'7" and very soft-spoken. These guys were tough backcountry Tibetans who saw a chance to lord over the city boys. There was a large crowd on the beach surrounding our two Chinese/Tibetan boys while someone tried to find the one person in the county who could read Chinese to verify our trip. Then I learned that Liu Li had the runs in an extreme way. That's when I remembered him dunking him an apple in the river to clean it. Most of our bouts with the trots were long gone because we were treating the river water. All we could see was those two guys on the beach, waiting and hunched over.

Meanwhile in camp on our side we had our own little fun. Two teenage boys, who we dubbed Tau Chi 1 and 2 were doing everything in their power to make trouble. Tau Chi means naughty in Chinese. They were snooping in all the tents, tripping over tent ropes and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They also said that they were concerned that Travis, who was camped on the beach, was trying to take some sort of spirit from the river. What kind of spirit, we couldn't determine.

So on river right was our permit and two of our crew, wondering if we could continue or not. On our side two little shits out to get us. It was a bit tense, so I just held my cameras and passport close to myself in my fanny pack, and we went about making dinner. At least it was one of the few rainless nights, so we were physically comfortable. Pete brought Li and Da Wa back at dusk, but the other side still had our permit. Lesson learned, have several copies of your permit and in the local language. As to the lil' shits, Pete negotiated with the father of one of them have an old man of their village sleep with our gear. Pete also slept out, thanks to no rain.

Nothing walked off in the night and that morning we packed up and cross-ferried over to see if they would give us our permit. Directly under the building was a nice surf wave, but I just wanted to get out of there, so we didn't spend too much time on it. As I got up there I learned they had given us back the permit. It seems that most of the time in China things tend to work out if you just wait a bit. Here was a good example. These people had been waiting since yesterday to see us so their curiosity was overflowing. I wanted to check things out, but found myself the last "Big Nose" there and surrounded by 50 to 100 Tibetan men, closing in on me and tugging at everything I had, clothing and camera gear. This made me nervous enough to high tail it out of there for the safety of the river. More than once on the trip we found refuge by being on the water.

The rest of the day was not too eventful, compared to what we had just been through. We had lunch on a gravel bar island with the usual hundreds of locals yelling at us to come over. There were no trees so Lisa's trip to the loo was a show for people with good eyesight.

According to Pete's plan we were allowed to layover for two nights. We pulled over on river right with the usual beautiful mountains everywhere. There was a side canyon where I discovered a small village in during my side hike. The next day I reached my physical high point, on a day hike with Lisa and Phil Smith. Smith had been on previous trips with Pete on the lower Mekong in Yunnan province. That was near my first Nu Jiang trip in '96 in a high sub-tropical climate. He had also regaled us with stories of his time on the Zambezi in Africa where he had lived and guided. The dominant thought here was warm and comfortable. He was definitely not enjoying the cold and rain, not that any of us loved it. He had not planned for it though, so he was doing his hike in sneakers. It was well above freezing, but the tundra was wet and boggy everywhere. We heard that he was not comfortable but he kept his bitching to a minimum, as the English are good at. I certainly appreciated that. Our camp was at about 13,500 feet and the summit we reached was 16,200'. It didn't feel too much worse than a similar vertical climb in Colorado, even though in CO you would have started at 10,000' and gone to 14,000'. Even at these heights there was yak dung everywhere. The top had a simple cairn with a stick sticking up. We were still below the snow line but we could see a taller mountain off in the distance. There was a large glacier running out of it and the top was lost in the clouds.

Our return was down the side canyon and past the small village. Once again, the men were in our camp so the women at home were nervous when they saw us. Once again there was a big mean sounding dog threatening us. Upon our return the scene was much nicer than the previous night. Our visitors were cool and curious about us. This one guy kept on showing up with different women by his side. I don't know the Buddhist thinking on polygamy, but he was very friendly, so none cared who he brought into camp. He expressed a high interest in our nylon line and plastic water bottles, so Pete gave him some line and a bottle. One ritual of camp he had was to burn trash, plastics, and all. Can you imagine trying to do that in the States? The local governing agency would fine you big time for this. Here it was just part of life. Whenever you would be finished with a bottle or anything else useful you would hand it to the first Tibetan you would see. After a while you begin to see them as having a sustainable lifestyle and getting by with what they have. Then you get small reminders as to how lucky we are. Before Pete would dunk the trash with gas they would jump all over it to pore over every bit. I admit to being taken a bit back by the urgency in which they dove in.

None the less, these people seemed pretty happy. The patriarch dude came down with a pony that we posed Lisa on top of. I suggested that she could become wife number 3 or 4, but she didn't find this appealing. Breaking camp after two nights was once again, non-eventful, but still great to be there. The people had gotten to know us over the past two days, so we had lots of helpers. Pete had planned two layover days because of the possibility of class V rapids that required long portages. Except for the dam these portages didn't materialize, so that night, camp 7 and night 8, was another layover. At our first layover camp there had been a road on the other side. We were getting closer to Biru now and the river was also changing character, faster, big water. This was starting to get interesting, and getting near the end. We were once again in a tight canyon with the river booking through at a high rate. Not defined rapids as much as just constant class II+. We camped at the head of a small side creek. We had to be creative as to where we each pitched our tents. I piled a couple of rocks in a small swale to create a snug little bed for my tent, perched over a ten-foot cliff over the river. I had my own bluff with riverside a view.

Later that evening the usual welcoming committee came into camp. We had become accustomed at this point to people coming into our camp, but this time we had an unusual visitor. Her name is U Tu Lamo (forgive the terrible spelling). It became obvious that she was the Tibetan version of my wife Juanjuan. She apparently hadn't heard that Tibetan women were supposed to be quiet and demure. She strode into camp bearing gifts of food, obviously in charge. Since Lisa was the only woman on our trip U Tu immediately adopted Lisa as her long lost friend. After a while Lisa felt a bit overwhelmed, but for most of the evening they hung out, sometimes in secret, looking at photos of Lhasa and going through Lisa's stuff, learning as much as she could. She even came back with fresh vegetables, Tibetan style, which at 13,000+ feet consist of mostly wild onions. We did the usual posing them for Polaroids and regular cameras, while she did the usual trick of returning the next morning in her finest silk outfit. U Tu had her village-mates with her, but never backed down when the men exerted dominance. It was unusual and refreshing to see this after all the times we watched women back down and play the subservient role. On the third day when we broke camp and started to surf a wave just below camp the locals sat on the rock overhead to see the crazy big-noses perform for them. U Tu sat back and was very quiet and noticeably sad to see Lisa leaving.

The second day, which was our last layover, I headed up the side canyon alone. The creek was interesting to possibly paddle, but my main goal was simply to see how far I could get up in a couple of hours. By now none of us were feeling the thin air. In fact we all felt great, the sun was out and it was a bit warm. Shorts weather in the sun, it felt like summer. The side creek was like many I had been on, if you could forget that you were in Tibet and above the tree line. Things changed in that respect when I got to a confluence of two creeks and saw a family grazing their sheep. As I approached the old man I made a sound so as to announce my arrival. I assumed they had never seen a white person before, and they certainly acted that way. I sat down next to Grandpa, then a younger man, probably the father, and young girl sat down near me too. I offered an apple and one of my granola bars, which they took, but certainly with trepidation. They kept an eagle eye on me, full of mistrust. When I finally gestured that I was going to leave the father hurried me off with the back of his hand. I had never been treated with such apprehensions in my life. I don't blame them for such mistrust, so I just made my way down. Half way down I ran into one the locals who had been in our camp. He was a happy guy who I noticed was having a good time in camp. I can only hope he gave the family a good report as to us and our strange ways.

We broke camp and headed down for our last day on the river. The usual rain started and by now I was getting nervous about my cameras. Eleven days with rain every day. Equipment just has to suffer. We started to approach civilization in the form of more towns along the river. In an experience similar to my '96 trip lower on this same river, we pulled into a small eddy to see if we could unload. We were surrounded by hundreds of people within a minute. There was no way we were going to unload here and subject our gear to a million prying eyes and hands. We did pick up a local official and gave him a ride down a few miles. This gave him local notoriety because he is now the first person from around here to have even been on their river. This was small consolation to Mike though. Here he was taking down a local official, who of course, can't swim. We are now getting into the largest rapids of the entire trip and this guy has on a business suit and a life jacket. All Mike could think about was not dumping this guy in the river. Well everything turned out OK and we let him off in Biru.

By now we had found Fan Ting, who was a nervous Nelly running all up and down the river looking for us. I'll always remember coming down to an eddy where all the rafts and yakkers are pulled off. Fan Ting yells over to me to tell me that this was the place to get out, as if I couldn't see that for myself. The pull out place was perfect because there was no town, just a wide spot in the road. We loaded up and headed to the local boarding house and the first dinner under a roof we had had in more than a week. I have to admit civilization has its benefits when you have been living in the rain for a while.

The local governor was very pleased to meet us. It seems that there are only 30 or less foreigners per year in his district. He presented us each with long silk prayer scarves in an elaborate impromptu ceremony in the hall of the boarding house.

The next day was the start of a back breaking two day journey back to Lhasa and the Real World, whatever that is. Considering the state of those soaked roads we didn't check out the lower stretch of river. There is a dam downstream of Biru and Pete has plans to explore the next stretch some day. For now we just have to dream of that stretch and enjoy the memories of the past 12 extraodinary days.

Map of Salween First Descents

More info about rivers in China