Photo by Phil Wegener Kantor

First Descent of the Salween Headwaters in Tibet

August, 2000

Peter S. Winn

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

The Salween is called the Nu by the Chinese and the Nag, or Black River, by the Tibetans. At its headwaters, it drains a large area of red shales and siltstones south, west and northwest of the town Nagqu on the Tibetan Plateau. As it passes into the transition zone on the southwest edge of the Plateau, it cuts through the red sediments into underlying black metamorphic rocks, probably the reason for its name. Photo by Phil Kantor.


Dates: August 9 to August 19, 2000 (10 full river days)
Nearest major airport: Lhasa, Tibet
Round trip driving time: 4 easy days
Put-in: Dagring, near Nagqu, elevation 14,600', flow about 3,000 cfs
Take-out: Biru, elevation 13,100', flow about 15,000 cfs
Total distance: 154 miles (15 miles per day)
Average gradient: 10 feet/mile
Participants: 10 total using two 16' catarafts, five hardshell kayaks and one inflatable kayak
Grade: Class III

Why the Salween?

In 1999, we ran the headwaters of the Mekong River on the Tibetan Plateau in Tibet. It took us five days of driving and four days on horseback to reach the put-in. After reaching the take-out, we still had a three day drive back to the airport in Xining. A total of two days of Class V road plus six of Class III-IV road for an eight day river trip was not something I wanted to repeat, in spite of having a really positive experience. In 2000, I had hoped to run the next section of the Mekong, Zadoi to Qamdo - only six days round trip on Class III-IV roads, but a Japanese team had run this section in 1999. For the 2000 expedition, I considered putting in at Qamdo and running down to the Yunnan border, but had heard the Japanese also had plans to do this and didn't want to race them - I'd already lost in 1999. I found out later they didn't make the run, but planned to in 2001.

I canvassed the folks on the 1999 expedition, and it was unanimous: find an unrun river in Tibet. We had really enjoyed the Tibetan people, the river and the scenery in Qinghai. Tibet should be just as interesting if not more so. Out with the maps, get on the phone - who had run what where. Earth River had just run the Parlung Tsangpo, the southeast tributary to the Po Tsangpo, which is in southeastern Tibet, and it was such a good trip they were going back in 2000. The Yarlong Tsangpo above the Great Bend and the Yangtze had already been run, and the Tsangpo Great Bend is a suicide run.

That left the Salween or a some tributaries to it or the other major rivers in Tibet. I knew Steve Curry had tried to run the headwaters section of the Salween in September, 1995 but had to cancel at the last minute because a new dam had closed it gates, drying up the river. I figured by now the reservoir was full and there should be water, especially in August. Hopefully we could put-in below the dam. Plus, the put-in was only a one day drive from Lhasa and two days return from the take-out, piece of cake compared to the Mekong headwaters expedition.

In late 1999, I emailed Ma Da, my associate at the Center for International Scientific Exchange (CISE) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and asked him to tell me where the dam was, how much water it released in August, if we could put-in below it, and to confirm that there was no road along the river from the dam to the next town with road access, Biru. Ma Da responded that he hoped to attend CCNY in for 2000 academic year and recommended I contact another CISE representative, Fan Ting from their Chengdu branch, who had experience taking foreign scientists on expeditions in Tibet. However, this would be his first river expedition.

Han Chunyu had organized the logistics in China of our expeditions in 1994-1996, and Ma Da had organized the 1997 and 1999 expedition logistics. They had both done a great job and I had a lot of respect for them. It was irritating to have to start over with another representative, but Ma Da assured me he would help Fan Ting move the equipment to Tibet and that Fan Ting had the necessary experience for organizing logistics in Tibet for the Salween expedition.

I contacted Fan Ting via email and he responded promptly: The dam was on a major tributary, not the main stream. I'd heard rumors that Curry had just had some bad luck with low water and the dam was only part of his problem, so I believed Fan Ting. More on this later. Ma Da provided average water flow and precipitation information for August, and confirmed an average gradient of about 10 feet per mile with no road along the river except near the put-in and near Biru. So I arranged for Ma Da and Fan Ting to ship the rafting equipment to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and began planning a first descent of the Salween Headwaters.

The Salween, the Tibetans and the Chinese

A river expedition in China is not just a river expedition - even if it's a first descent. The main attraction is the cultural encounter, and the complicated history of Tibetan-Chinese interaction makes travel to Tibet even more attractive. One of my motives for running river expeditions in China is a strong belief that positive interactions between foreigners and the citizens of China, including Tibetans, will ultimately improve relationships between China and other countries.

There are only two English language books on the exploration of the Salween River, both written by participants in the same expedition in the 1930's. The best is the Black River of Tibet by John Hanbury-Tracy (1940), which describes their travel on foot and horseback from Burma to Biru (our take-out). They were seeking to reach the source northwest of Nagqu (near our put-in), but they never made it past Biru due to a war between two monasteries upstream.

Almost all Tibetans are Buddhists, who don't believe in killing, so it seems odd that they would engage in battle - especially among themselves. Buddhism was first introduced to southeastern Tibet in about 800 years ago, but it took centuries for it to take hold throughout the large area occupied by Tibetans (about the size of Alaska). There are a few Tibetan sects who maintained a warrior heritage in spite of Buddhism, however, and one of them is the Khampas. For the most part, the Khampas occupy Kham, the eastern portion of the historic Tibetan kingdom, and their warrior heritage is undoubtably related to their proximity to China and to a lesser extent Mongolia.

For centuries prior to the introduction of Buddhism and for several centuries subsequent, Tibetans, Mongolians and Chinese occupied much of each others' territory, sometimes peacefully and sometimes through battle. The Tibetans living in eastern Tibet were often the cause or the subject of these changes in political control, and as a result became the first line of offense or defense for the Tibetan Kingdom as it evolved. One of the best books on this subject is "Among Warriors" by Pamela Logan (1996).

Although we had encountered Khampas occasionally on our Mekong Headwaters expedition in 1999, they were a minority. This area was in Amdo, the northern portion of the historic Tibetan kingdom. Khampa men wear red or black wool bands woven into their straight, shiny black hair and carry large sheaved and beautifully decorated knives. They're tall and much more aggressive than their Lhasa brethren, who live in the southern part of the historic Tibetan kingdom. Khampas can be intimidating - a group of them more or less drove us out of one of our last campsites on the Mekong Headwaters expedition by trying to buy everything in sight and helping us pack up before the frost had melted from the boats.

Another excellent reference regarding the Tibetan-Chinese relationship is "The Snow Lion and the Dragon" by Melvin Goldstein (1997). Most books on Tibet are extremely biased against the Chinese, largely because of the Chinese government's invasion subsequent to the Communist takeover in 1949. Goldstein , however, puts this period of history in perspective: even today, the Chinese are afraid of Khampas. The Khampas at one time or another invaded much of what is now western Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan. The Han Chinese live the lower valleys of these areas while Khampas live the high plateaus, high valleys and mountains. The Chinese name for Khampa means "bandit."

The borders of the Chinese and Tibetan kingdoms shifted over the centuries subsequent to the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. In general they respected each others' religious beliefs because a large number of Chinese also practiced Buddhism. It wasn't until the Communist Revolution ended in 1949 that Mao Tse Tung invaded Tibet and began a systematic destruction of all religious heritage. This wasn't limited to Tibet - it occurred throughout China. In 1959, the people of Tibet, in particular the Khampas, revolted against this destruction, resulting in a Chinese government backlash that caused the Dalai Lama, the leader of the largest Tibetan Buddhist Sect, to seek exile in India.

Goldstein summarizes the chances for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet better than anyone I've read so far. The Dalai Lama insists on returning as both the political and religious leader of Tibet. The Chinese will only allow him to return as the religious leader, so he remains in exile, seeking support from sympathetic organizations in the US and Europe. No compromise, no return.

During the period from 1950 to sometime in the 1960's, the Khampas were the primary Tibetan Army. At first, they fought the Chinese army using guerrilla tactics as it progressed westward across the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers. As the much better armed Chinese pushed past them, they retreated into the remote valleys of the river canyons. Eventually a few moved to northeastern Nepal (the Mustang area) and harassed the Chinese army for a few years after they had occupied Lhasa.

The Cultural Revolution began in the mid 1960's, when young people were encouraged to join the Red Guards and destroy anything "old" - so a "new culture" could be established. They renewed their destruction of religious structures throughout China, including Tibet. By the time the Cultural Revolution ended in the early 1970's, nearly 90% of Tibet's monasteries were destroyed. This stage of Tibetan-Chinese relations was among the worst in history because the monasteries were the basis of the Tibetan education system in addition to being the center of their religion and political system. Every family would send its second oldest son to a monastery, where he would learn to read and write. Periodically, he would return home to teach his family. With the destruction of the monasteries, the education system collapsed.

Over the past 20 years, the Chinese have made major strides toward rebuilding their religious heritage, including financing the reconstruction of a great many monasteries in Tibet, primarily as tourist attractions. However, the rehabilitation of the educational system will take another generation or two, and it probably won't be based on the monasteries.

The Expedition Participants

There were ten of us, most of whom had been on previous expeditions in China. Fan Ting's mother was seriously ill, so he decided to return to Chengdu while we were on the river, and sent Liu Li along as our English interpreter. Neither Liu Li nor Fan Ting spoke Tibetan, so Fan Ting sent Da Wa as a Tibetan-Mandarin interpreter. Liu Li and Da Wa rode on the catarafts, rowed by Mike Connelly and David Hettig. I paddled an inflatable kayak carrying personal gear for my son Travis and I. Travis paddled a hard shell kayak along with Gordon Bare, Phil Smith, Phil Kantor, and Lisa Nelowet. Gordon used a kayak provided by ESE, the others brought their own. Phil S., Phil K. and Lisa donated their kayaks to ESE at the end of the expedition. Thanks, folks!

David Hettig had been on our 1995, 1997 and 1999 expeditions; Mike had been on our 1994 and 1996 expeditions; Phil S. and Gordon had been on our 1996 expedition. In 1966 Phil K. had run a first descent of the Salween in Yunnan with another group from the US. It was the first trip in China for Travis and Lisa, the first raft trip for Da Wa and the second one for Liu Li, who had run the upper Yangtze with a group of Chinese students a few years ago. All in all an experienced, compatible group.

The primary reason we ran the trip in August was to make sure we had enough water, since once of the reasons Steve Curry gave for canceling his trip was lack of water in late Sept. This made is possible to include Travis, who is a high school junior taking such a heavy course load (trig, physics, AP chemistry, etc.) that he couldn't take the time out of school. He's a competitive rodeo kayaker, brought his Wavesport XXX, and was a big hit on the river with his pirouettes and cartwheels. He's been around my adult (?) boating friends his entire life, so had no problem relating to them. He made friends with Liu Li before we left Lhasa, and other than problems with aggressive Khampa teenagers in one camp, seemed to get along with the Tibetans just fine. Although Cindy - my wife and Travis' mother - was nervous about his joining us, she was supportive.

Liu Li rode on Mike Connelly's boat. Mike and Li became good friends, and Mike spent a lot of time teaching Li to row. Li didn't know he was going for sure until we reached the put-in and didn't know what gear to bring so he brought too much. I'd brought sleeping bags, pads, tents, dry suits, rain gear and helmets for he and Da Wa, plus they brought their own huge foam pad - took up an entire large river bag. Not heavy, but bulky. Li's a good old boy, just took everything in stride. Near the end of the trip, Mike asked Li if he would prefer to be somewhere else and Li said he was perfectly happy to be on the river with us, wanted to return next year. He got an applause for that answer.

Mike's my partner and a hydrologist in Pasco, WA, an easy going, competent oarsman whose only complaint was the wind that blew us into shore when we first encountered the reservoir behind the Chalong Dam. Well, he also complained about a couple of river bags owned by kayakers that were unusually heavy. Of course, he could get away with this because he's also a kayaker.

Da Wa, a Lhasa Tibetan and botanist, rode on David Hettig's cataraft. They had trouble communicating because neither spoke the other's language, and Da Wa is very quiet. When aggressive Khampa teens would come into camp, he was intimidated. However, he would often spend hours talking with their parents. Next year, if we float another river in Khampa territory, I hope to get a Khampa who speaks English to ride on David's boat. That way we can avoid dealing with two translators, and maybe the Khampa will be able to handle aggressive visitors.

David's an estate attorney in Palo Alto, CA, and is an experienced China traveler with a strong interest in Tibet. One of his cousins married a Tibetan woman living in exile in India. They had been to Lhasa several times visiting relatives and gave him a lot of good advice. For example, when we arrived in Lhasa, Fan Ting put us up in a noisy hotel with no hot water located in the Chinese side of town. After a couple of sleepless nights, David went in search of a better hotel in the Tibetan quarter where most of the foreigners stay. Most hotels were full, but he found one that was just opening and had room for all us, then took Fan Tang there and convinced him to let us move.

Gordon Bare is an old time boater from Washington DC and a former junior national kayak team coach who seemed to know everyone in kayaking circles. He works for the US State Department and knows a lot about politics, history and US foreign policy. He was the only one of the kayakers with a "long boat" - his Dancer was eleven feet, the other boats were eight to nine feet. The younger boaters were really impressed with his ability to surf.

Phil Smith is one of those guys who always looks fit. He was once one of the top slalom kayakers in Britain and it shows in his boating technique. He taught Travis some better paddling techniques and in return Travis traded boats with him and taught him some rodeo moves. On one of our layover days, they spent a good part of the day playing in a couple of holes near camp. Phil is a British citizen who has been living in Germany and France for quite a few years, doing computer programming for airline communications. He currently lives in Paris.

I'd met Phil Kantor, a professional photographer, while putting together a web site on first descents in China. He'd been on the first descent of the Salween in northwest Yunnan and had published some photos in Paddler Magazine (July/August 1998, Face-to-Face with a Leaping Tiger, pp. 54-57). I wanted to use one of his photos on the web site and tracked him down in Boulder, CO. He met his wife, Yu Juanjuan, on the Salween trip. She had completed an incredible loop around China, including Tibet, on a bicycle - took two years! She came to Lhasa with us, then while Phil was on the river, she returned to Beijing to visit her mother.

Juanjuan has the traditional Chinese opinion of Tibetans: prior to the Chinese occupation, it was a feudal society in which the poor herdsmen supported the rich upper class and the unproductive monks. This is true, but those monks are the sons of the poor herdsmen, and none of them are happy with destruction of their monasteries. One the other hand, in the cities and towns the Chinese have built hospitals and brought electricity and running water to homes and businesses and have established an educational system more suited to adjusting to the modern world. Of course, most Tibetans don't live in cities and haven't benefited from Chinese investment in Tibet. Not yet, says Juanjuan, but they will eventually. Be patient.

When Mike and I first began negotiations to run a river in China, the advice was three fold: Be Patient, Be Patient, Be Patient. The Chinese society is ten times older than ours, with relative differences in time perpective. We'd already learned that when it took nine years to get our first permit. It was fun to listen to Phil and Juanjuan argue from their different perspectives.

Lisa and Phil K. have been boating partners for several years, and she joined the expedition on Phil's recommendation. She works for a major consulting firm in Golden, CO on greenhouse gas emission reduction projects. She's is an experienced world traveler, mountain climber and boater, and was a great addition to the group. Before the expedition, in spite of her high altitude experience, I urged her to take Diamox to minimize the risk of high altitude sickness. She reluctantly agreed (though I'm not sure she ever took it). At the put-in, about 14, 600', we discovered the electric blower we used to blow up the boats was missing, and we had to pump the boats up by hand. Lisa easily did more than her share. On one of our layover days, she took both Phils on a hike from camp at 13,800' to a nearby peak measuring 16,300' - higher than any of us had been so far on the expedition. Then, after we returned to Lhasa, she managed to get a permit to go on a four day trek over a 17,000' pass to visit a remote monastery. As she put it, she hits her stride above 12,000'.


Planning a first descent is a complicated process and requires a high degree of trust among the Chinese, ESE and the participants. Since Ma Da had decided to spend the 2000-2001 academic year in the US, I had to begin working with a new CAS/CISE representative, trusting Ma Da to recommended someone who could get the equipment from Yunnan to Tibet, get permits to access a closed area by river, and make hotel, meal and transportation arrangements for eight foreigners and their gear. The participants had to trust that ESE, with the assistance of the new representative, could complete these arrangements and plan the proper number of travel and river days such that they could get to the river, down it and back safely and in the planned time frame.

We had one major concern regarding the equipment. It had been stored in Kunming, Yunnan (south central China) since May, 1997 in a warehouse that was only inspected once or twice a year. In 1995, there had been minor damage to a tarp by rats, so the Chinese applied rat poison periodically. In May, Ma Da and the new CAS/CISE representative, Fan Ting, disassembled the raft frames and packed everything in 70 lb packages for air shipment to Lhasa - 19 packages total. Fortunately, everything arrived safely and on time. The cost seemed high, but was significantly less than transportation by road.

When we opened up the packages from Kunming, we found the only rat damage was to two life jackets which were ill fitting extras anyway. The cataraft tubes had been stored in sealed food boxes and were in good shape, and after some head scratching we managed to reassemble the raft frames. What a relief!

Given the high elevation of Lhasa (over 12,000'), I assumed it would be difficult to buy fresh vegetables, eggs, etc. for the expedition, so Travis and I bought dry and canned food in the US for the expedition and shipped it as personal baggage, along with his kayak. Phil K, Lisa and Phil S. also brought their kayaks as personal baggage. Fortunately, everything arrived in Lhasa safely, on time and at a reasonable cost.

We bought some fresh vegies in Chengdu on our way to Lhasa and carried them as personal baggage. When we arrived in Lhasa, much to our surprise we found huge markets carrying almost everything you could get in any city in China. So we spent an afternoon buying fresh vegies, fruit and eggs, not realizing the main road from Lhasa to Nagqu, near our put-in, was closed due to construction and the alternate route would turn our new purchases to mush.

Lhasa is the capital of Tibet and the site of the Potala, formerly the headquarters of the Dalai Lama, the primary leader of Tibetan Buddhists. The 14th Dalai Lama now lives in exile in India, and the Potala is a museum crammed with tourists. When Travis and I visited, it was so crowded, mostly with Chinese tourists, that it was oppressive - almost hard to breathe, and not because of the elevation. The Potala is a very imposing building - 13 stories high, perched on a steep 500' high hill overlooking the town. However, the Chinese have built an amusement park with a ferris wheel behind it. I'm sure the previous Dalai Lamas, many of whom are interred in the Potala, are rolling over in their crypts.

Lhasa's population is about 100,000, more than half Chinese. The Tibetan quarter is also a tourist trap. This is where one of the most sacred monasteries in Tibet, the Jokhang, is located. The famous circumambulation path around the Barkhor, the business district which surrounds the Jokhang, is a congested ring of stalls selling everything from tourist items to hard ware to food stuffs. Fun to browse, but seems out of place - no sense of religious peace and quiet here. We finally found some on the roof of the Jokhang - probably because we had to pay extra to go up. The Barkhor is full of aggressive beggars, many of whom were monks. There were times when I really wished I'd brought some monopoly money.

The big surprise on arrival in Lhasa was the sheer number of tourists - nearly a thousand a day arrive in the summer, 90% of whom are Chinese. Of the "big noses" or "round eyes," 80% were Dutch! Apparently the number of tourists drops to near zero in the winter. This would actually be a good time to visit, because the Tibetans come in from the high valleys for religious celebrations, to party and to trade yak and sheep products for hard goods.

We left for the river after three nights in Lhasa, relieved to get out of the noise and congestion. Knowing how bad roads in China can be, we carefully loaded the food boxes and securely tied all of the gear into the truck for the one day drive to Nagqu. As we left Lhasa, we turned east, up the Lhasa River, rather than west, where the map showed the main road went. Eventually I confronted Fan Ting, thinking we had a major misunderstanding as to which river we were going to run. Fan Ting explained that the main road was closed and we had to make a detour. Turned out to be a 100 mile detour over an incredibly bad washboard road. Within the first few hours one of the Toyota Land Cruisers had broken both rear shock mounts, and later in the day a front wheel bearing on the truck burned out. Somehow, though, we made it over a couple of 15,000'+ passes to Nagqu for a late dinner, and the truck arrived at 6 am the next morning (with exhausted drivers).

After badgering Fan Ting for a hot shower, we stayed in the best hotel in Nagqu, which proudly announced it was a one star hotel. We had to wait about ten minutes for the hot water to reach the room and some of the taller guys had to tape the shower head to the ceiling to use it (another use for duct tape), but we slept well. Amazingly, the hotel had a phone that we used to call home in the US, and even more amazing was that Phil Smith could use his cell phone to call Paris!

The River

By 10 am we were on our way to the put-in, about 30 miles downstream from the first bridge. After some confusion about which road to take because they had moved the road since the map was printed, we reached the put-in about noon, just in time for lunch in a rain storm. The Salween headwaters is a series of shallow lakes and marshes to the southwest, west and northwest of Nagqu, at an elevation of about 16,000' . Although we had seen 23,000' peaks with glaciers, water from the icy creeks warmed up in the lakes before consolidating into the main branch, so the river water was about 60 F, not bad for a put-in at 14,600'! On the 1999 Mekong headwaters expedition, the water was about 50 F at the put-in.

We knew from Russian 1:200,000 and Chinese 1:100,000 scale maps that for fifty to sixty miles the river braided through shallow valleys typical of the headwaters of many streams on the Tibetan Plateau. During the last ice age, the region had been glaciated, leaving rounded hills and broad valleys choked with gravel that the rivers were still trying to carry away. Further downstream, the river enters a series of canyons and the gradient increases. We were putting in at the end of the uppermost road along the river, and thought we had no choice but to float the flat valley stretch above the canyon section.

From the Russian maps, the average gradient was less than 10' per mile in the valley section and about 12' per mile in the canyon section, ending about 15' per mile. The Chinese maps indicated about the same average gradient - overall average about 10' per mile, slightly higher than the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. We'd brought along a GPS and Lisa had an altimeter, so we had a way to check the accuracy of the maps. They all matched pretty well.

Ma Da had sent me info on the average August flow based on the only gauge he could find, about 350 miles downstream from Nagqu, near Bangda. Using this flow and a ratio of drainage area above the put-in to drainage area above the gauge, I figured our put-in flow should be 2,500 to 5,000 cfs in August. When we arrived, it looked like it was in the lower part of this range. Using this same process, I figured the take-out flow to be 10,000 to 15,000 cfs - a dramatic increase, with the potential for Main Salmon to Grand Canyon scale rapids towards the end of the canyon section. Some big tributaries join the river in the canyon section. We estimated the flow peaked about 20,000 cfs two days before we reached the take-out due to a passing storm, then dropped back to about 15,000 cfs at the take-out, maybe a little higher.

Ma Da had also sent me info on the average August air temp and precipitation. From this it appeared we should expect afternoon thundershowers about three to four times per week, with night time temps above freezing and day time temps from 60-70 F. The rainy season peaks in July and both rain and river flows drop by fifty percent in August. This year was not an average year, however - are there every any? It rained lightly nearly every night - only two nights were perfectly clear, one with the full moon so bright it was hard to sleep, the other with stars so close you wanted to reach out and touch them. We had a few scattered showers in the afternoon, and only one day time storm with lots of wind (of course, this had to happen on the Chalong Reservoir).

Based on the geology, flow and gradient, I expected the valley section to be fast Class II braided stream riffles, increasing to Class III in the canyon section, with the possibility of a portage in a short granite canyon in the canyon section. It's usually possible to float an average of 15 miles per day on most Class II-III rivers. The shortest distance we could float was about 130 to 140 miles, so I figured nine river days plus a put-in day and a day for portaging, or if there was no need to portage, we'd have a layover day near the end of the canyon section.

I mentioned earlier that Steve Currey had canceled a first descent on the Salween Headwaters in 1995 because a dam had closed its gates and there wasn't enough water. I'd also heard from Fan Ting that this dam was on a major side stream, so Steve had just had bad luck with low water in late September. This was one of the reasons for planning an August trip, when the water should be twice as high. Well, we only had one portage: the 100' high Chalong Dam, on our third day, just as we entered the first canyon stretch.

Fortunately, the reservoir behind the dam was only eight miles long. It was much longer in the wind, however - it took us three hours to go the first three miles to the first camp we could find. Some locals told us it was only eight kilometers (five miles) to the dam from camp, so we got going early the next morning to avoid the wind, reached the dam by noon and had lunch while Liu Li went to find the chief engineer to ask for help with the portage. Needless to say, by now Fan Ting was at the top of our shit list. We checked the spillway to see if it could be run (no) and to make sure we had enough water to float below the dam (yes), and Travis did flatwater cartwheels to entertain the workers who came to watch us eat lunch.

Liu Li returned with a jeep to carry bags and coolers, so it went fast. We were even able to leave the boats rigged with their frames and slide them and the kayaks down the back side of the dam to a waiting truck, which hauled them to an eddy a half mile downstream. We only had one moment of panic, when Trav, who was sliding down the back side of the dam with Gordon's kayak, almost went for a bone breaking cartwheel because Gordon's boat was surprisingly heavier than his.

The chief engineer had designed and built the dam, which was completed in summer of 1995 and closed its gates just before Steve Curry got there that September. We reloaded the boats and gave the chief engineer and some of his employees Polaroids of themselves sitting on the boats as a thank you. In the wind the previous afternoon, we had been cursing Fan Ting, but in retrospect the reservoir and portage were fairly painless and eventually became just another part of the adventure.

I thought the dam had cost us a day, and tried to push the group to make up the time in case we had to portage in the granite canyon. It wasn't easy - we really couldn't get going until 10:30 to 11 am because it didn't stop raining until 8 am and everything was wet. Then for the next two days, we encountered cultural sites we really couldn't pass up - they were one of main reasons we were running a river in Tibet. In spite of these stops, after the dam we floated 46 miles in two days. The flow and gradient were increasing, and although the rapids were still easy, there were lots of places for the kayakers to play. Plus, I later determined that we had averaged 15 miles per day on the two days we spent dealing with the reservoir and dam, just what we should have. So when we reached the granite gorge, we were a day ahead of schedule. Well, the fabled granite gorge was a whitewater disappointment, but the geology and scenery were spectacular. Lack of a need to portage also gave us the opportunity for two layover days.

Part of the deal ESE had with CAS/CISE was to field check Chinese geologic maps in roadless and trailless areas of the river canyons we floated. The Salween Headwaters drain a region underlain by red sandstone and siltstone which are expressed topographically as rolling hills in broad valleys. As the canyon deepens, black metamorphic rocks (schist and phyllite) are exposed along the banks - probably giving the river its name, the Black River. The Chinese geological maps indicated the red sedimentary rocks were older than the black metamorphic rocks. This is only possible if the rocks are in fault contact because the older red sedimentary rocks should also be black metamorphic rocks if they were originally deposited below (ie older than) the black metamorphic rocks. The metamorphic rocks were originally iron bearing sediments which had been deeply buried and heated, causing new minerals to form.

As we floated deeper into the canyons, it was apparent that the red sediments were not in fault contact with the black metamorphic rocks - they had been deposited above them, and thus had to be younger. When we reached the granite gorge, it was also evident the granite had intruded the black metamorphic rocks but the red rocks were not intruded by the granite and thus must also younger than the granite. The Chinese need to recheck the age of the red rocks. Just below the gorge, the red rocks were faulted down along the yellow granite, making for a beautiful contrast to the black rock canyon before the granite gorge.

As we progressed down river, we passed through stretches of surprisingly high population density. In these areas, yak and sheep dotted the grassy hillsides and it was apparent that the Tibetans needed some education about overgrazing. We saw numerous small landslides, and a few areas where huge sheets of over grazed tundra were sliding down the hills. In relatively unpopulated canyons, yak and sheep were not common, grasses were deep, and we saw numerous eagles hunting abundant picas. Just before the expedition, David had sent me a news article about the formation of a nature preserve near the headwaters of the Mekong and Yangtze, just north of the Salween headwaters. They were going to move out all yaks and sheep from 100 square miles, maintain zero population growth in 10,000 square miles and monitor the health of the tundra over 100,000 square miles to see if they should expand the restricted areas in the future. Hard on the Tibetans who lived there, but perhaps necessary if they're going to avoid large scale desertification like we have in the western US.

Large vultures were also common, usually soaring in groups high along the ridge tops much like they do in the western US. Just below the granite gorge we saw a dozen or more resting on a grassy bank above the river, not far from a village. Maybe they had just eaten and were too full to fly. Many Tibetans practice sky funerals in which the deceased are cut up and laid out for the vultures to eat. I'm not sure, but I think we're fortunate we weren't invited to one of these.

The Khampas

We quickly learned not to camp near highly populated areas, and once we even stopped on an island for lunch to avoid being overwhelmed by curious Tibetans. Most Tibetans are polite, even shy, but Khampas are quite assertive and have a much different sense of personal space than we are accustomed to. They frequently crowded around our boats, tents and tables, and the lack of personal space was difficult to adjust to. However, with few exceptions, we enjoyed our interactions with them.

The main exception was teenage Khampa boys. As we floated by groups of boys in a couple of spots, they threw rocks at us, hitting Lisa once - fortunately she wasn't injured. They made inappropriate sexual gestures around her a few times, and in one camp harassed our "big nose" teenage boy, Travis. He had set up his tent on some sand near the river, and a group of three boys who had been throwing rocks at Liu Li's tent earlier wouldn't leave Travis or his tent alone. We finally got Da Wa to convince the boy's father to send them away from camp. The father told Da Wa they thought Travis was trying to take something out of the river (but not fish), or maybe to put something into the river (but not rocks) - something spiritual, and the Khampa boys wanted him to move his tent away from the river. We never did get a straight story, but it is clear that they had a serious respect for the river and were possessive of it. Of couse, teenage boys in any culture might cause problems (how about ours?).

We had a problem with our permit in our camp above the granite gorge. There was a small monastery with chortans on a low bluff looking across the river, making for a spectacular skyline. After eating a late lunch and setting up camp, most of the group hiked down the river to scout the granite gorge. As they were leaving, a group of Khampas walked into camp and another, much larger group assembled on the far shore. The two groups began yelling back and forth across the river, which at this point was 200 feet wide and running a fast 10,000 cfs. The leader of the group in our camp insisted on seeing our permit, which Liu Li provided but wouldn't give him. The permit was in Chinese, and the Khampas couldn't read it.

After much yelling back and forth across the river, the leader of the group in our camp insisted we take the permit to the other side. We explained that we planned to stop there in the morning before entering the gorge, and would show them the permit then. Again more yelling, then threats. Li finally asked me to take Da Wa across the river with the permit. There was no way to row across the river and back without having a cataraft end up a half mile downstream, so I carried my empty inflatable kayak a quarter mile upstream and took Da Wa across with the permit. Once on shore, we were completely surrounded by two dozen Khampas and a few monks. When Da Wa showed them the permit, they promptly grabbed it and wouldn't give it back. Da Wa was clearly intimidated by these guys who carried foot long knives and were a foot taller than he was. I quickly decided to go back across the river and get Li, thinking he could resolve the situation.

Eventually we learned that we had camped on a county line and after an argument about jurisdiction the guys across the river had prevailed. We also found out that none of them could read Chinese (so much for the new education system) and couldn't tell if we really had a permit or were just faking it. Apparently, they sent a messenger to find the governor of Datung County (where we were camped). He supposedly could read Chinese, but wouldn't arrive until the next morning. So, they decided to keep our only copy of the permit overnight. I took Li and Da Wa back to our camp just before dark, only to find teenage Khampa boys closely examining our bow lines. After getting the boys out of camp, I decided to sleep in my inflatable kayak on top of the ropes. The only intruder was the full moon, which kept me awake most of the night.

The next morning, the governor of the Caqu county (downstream from our camp) visited and told us to check in at his headquarters about six miles downstream, below the granite gorge. Da Wa had told him our permit said we could float from Nagqu to Biru counties but didn't mention his county specifically. We were supposed to call Lhasa on a radio phone to resolve this problem. We crossed the river, intending to visit the monastery and get our permit, only to find that the Datung governor who could read Chinese hadn't shown up, so they couldn't give us permission to visit. They gave us our permit and told us we had to leave. Go figure. We later decided that if we had stopped to visit the monastery before crossing the river to camp, they would have welcomed us with open arms, showed us around and given us yak butter tea. Plus, we should have brought along several copies of the permit in Tibetan, so we could give them a copy (as a souvenir?). Live and learn.

Enough of the problems. We had a lot of really good encounters with the Khampas. Most are herdsmen and haven't been warriors for decades. For instance, when we stopped at the Caqu County headquarters, they couldn't care less if we called Lhasa. A dozen or more jumped on the boats, nearly sinking them. David and Mike couldn't do anything but sit there and grin. We camped across from a village one night, and Phil K. and Lisa paddled over to visit the folks sitting on the bank waving to us. Before long kids were screaming with delight while Lisa and Phil towed them around in their kayaks in shallow water. It was a relief when they returned - we got some peace and quiet. In another camp, a Khampa horseman let Lisa, Travis and Li ride around on his horse. We took pictures of him and his wife and kids, only to find out the next morning when he showed up with two other women that it wasn't his wife and kids. Either that or he had three wives, though polyandry is more common.

Photo by Phil Kantor.

On one layover day we camped near a large Class IV stream. Gordon, David and I helped Travis drag his kayak about a mile up the stream so he could boat it. One the way up, some young Khampa horsemen yelled "Hello" and "OK" in English, then stopped to visit..In another camp, Lisa and Li made friends with an unusually outgoing Tibetan woman. She brought fresh vegies and yak butter which Li used to make a great noodle dish for us. A young Khampa in this camp could read the Tibetan phrases in Lisa's Lonely Planet guidebook, and wanted to hear how the English translation sounded - pretty impressive.

The two highlights of our encounters with Tibetan were visits to a small monastery, Yodou, and a large chortan with a head monk named Renji Dorje. We were the first foreigners to visit either site. Yudou was built 380 years ago and then partially destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Over the past few years it has been largely rebuilt. The monks were very friendly and opened up the monastery for us. The prayer hall was spectacular, and a new prayer hall was under construction (under the supervision of several eagles and vultures). The chortan had been built a year ago on the site of a 300 year old monastery named after a famous monk, Dalai Gunba. Based on their remoteness, I don't think these sites were rebuilt for tourism. Renji Dorje invited us into his house and gave us tea. He then dressed in formal attire and chanted and played cymbals for us. Phil K got some great video footage. We were really fortunate to have met such an amazing monk.

We also stopped at a couple of monasteries near the end of the road coming up from the take-out at Biru. They were closed to visitation due to an annual training program for new monks - we saw at least two dozen young men in red robes going into the main prayer room. Liu Li made friends with the head monk, and managed to get himself invited to the "skull room." When a Tibetan monk dies, his body is fed to the vultures (a sky burial), then his skull is retrieved and stored. Elliott Pattison's book "Skull Mantra" combines Chinese-Tibetan political intrigue with Tibetan Buddhism and foreign investment, a great read if you're into murder mysteries. The skull room of large, older monasteries like the one we visited can contain hundreds of skulls. They let Li take some pictures, such as this one:

We had our second layover in a canyon with few Tibetans, a day's float from the take-out and out of sight of the road coming up from Biru. While hanging out that afternoon, a man hiked up the river to a point across from us and started yelling. At first we ignored him, but eventually Da Wa told Li to tell me the guy had a message from the governor of Biru County. The river was too fast for us to cross over to get the message, and after our previous permit problem we didn't want it. We had Da Wa yell back that we'd get the message in the morning on our way down river.

Several miles downstream from camp we stopped to get the message - it was from Fan Ting, who was in Biru and was worried when he heard we had not emerged from the canyon. A few miles down river, just as the road from Nagqu reached the river, the gradient increased enough to create a series of Class III rapids with 6-8' waves - a real rush. It wasn't even lunch time yet, so we kept going. Apparently Fan Ting, who was driving up the road from Biru, missed us in a stretch where the river drops into a shallow canyon several hundred feet below the road, so we kept going - the rapids were too fun to pass up. Eventually we stopped, where we were promptly inundated with dozens of visitors who drove us back on the river after a quick lunch. We stopped again after another few miles to look for Fan Ting, who showed up just as we were about to shove off because of crowding. He had made friends with the Governor, who knew a good spot to take-out another several miles downstream. Da Wa got off David's' boat and the Governor's assistant, dressed in a business suit and lifejacket, got on Mike's boat with Li, and we had a roller coaster ride to the take-out. We gave the Governor a tent for his help. Great way to end the trip - happy boaters and a happy Governor.

After our return to Lhasa, things got weird. Fan Ting informed Lisa, who had planned a week long trek after the river expedition, that he couldn't get a permit for her trek and she had to leave with the rest of us. Well, Lisa got a permit on her own and disappeared at 5 am the day we left. As a result, Fan Ting told me it may be very difficult for me to get another rafting permit in Tibet. I really don't believe him, but time will tell. Meantime, the river equipment, including five kayaks, is stored in Lhasa.

On my return I heard from Gordon that the US Ambassador to China had visited Lhasa while Lisa was on her trek - maybe one reason Fan Ting didn't try to get her a permit. Also after returning I heard from David that while Lisa was on her trek the Chinese government had fired about 40 Tibetan trekking guides from Shigatze, a large town west of Lhasa on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Bramaputra headwaters), and replaced them with Chinese guides. Fortunately, none of this affected Lisa. She was far from civilization, trekking over a 17,000' pass, just hitting her stride.

Finally, while writing this description of our 2000 Salween Headwaters Expedition, I read in our local newspaper that Kevin Gover, a Pawnee Indian and the head of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), officially apologized to the American Indians for the BIA's "legacy of racism and inhumanity" that included massacres, forced relocations of tribes and attempts to wipe out Indian languages and cultures. This apology comes after over two centuries of mistreatment by the US government. We live in a glass house and shouldn't throw stones at the Chinese. Hopefully positive cultural interactions will eventually produce positive results.

Map of Salween First Descents

More info about rivers in China